Over the past few weeks, I got to spend time with a diverse group of teenagers from the Leave Out Violence organization and Writopia Lab, and in doing so I realized how little I interact with teenagers on a regular basis. Yet, my job and career revolve around making books for them. How can I possibly be making the best books for today’s teenagers when I don’t even know them?
Well, this was my chance to get to know them and find out what they loved, hated, made them passionate, and totally turned them off about books. And what I learned really surprised me and made me re-think the way I imagine the readers for my books and YA novels in general.
With both groups, I spread out a whole bunch of YA galleys to get their takes on covers. The galleys ranged from fantasy to historical to contemporary, from photographic to iconic to illustrated, from type driven to image driven. Almost unanimously, no one liked photographic faces on the cover – they all wanted to picture the characters in their own ways and didn’t want to be told right from the start what someone looked like. Fantasy fans told me our fantasy covers looked too much like everything else out there and didn’t tell them anything about what the story was actually about. Romance readers were put off by images of single girls in pretty dresses – again, this was something they’d seen too much already. They were put off by the New York Times bestseller headline because every book they see has that. If a book was trying too hard to appeal to a teen girl, they wanted nothing to do with it.
So what did they like? Bright colors drew them in. If a title font was in beautiful script, it let them know the story would be beautiful and probably romantic. They liked when they could guess what the story might be about from the image, and they liked when a title and image worked together to do this. They liked medals (it didn’t really matter which kind – Printz, Newbery, CSK) because those signified a special book. They liked the cover that looked different from every other one on the table.
We also talked about favorite books and again, those ranged across all genres. Every reader was different and liked different things, but in the end, it seemed that excellent writing trumped everything else. In this case, the excellent writing comes in the form of John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars.
I had it in my head that John Green’s fans were all like me:
I learned from my meetings this month that these are his fans too:
In both groups I spoke with, The Fault In Our Stars came up as the BEST! MOST AWESOME! MOST RIP-YOUR-HEART-OUT! I LOVE IT SO MUCH! book.
“Why do you love this book so much?” I asked.
“Because John Green understands the teenager’s mind.”
“It is clever and funny and so intelligent.”
“I feel like Hazel and Gus are real people.”
“It made me laugh and cry and never talked down to me.”
This did come mostly from girls, but these girls were not just white middle class suburban kids, as I had previously believed. I feel ashamed that my view was so narrow, and I am extremely grateful for this eye-opening experience. Meeting and getting to know these teenagers, and hearing their feedback will affect the way I consider and sign up novels from now on.