There’ve been some great summaries of sessions at the 2010 YA Lit Symposium here, and I’ve written in detail about all of the sessions I attended on my own blog, but now that I’ve had some time to process everything I heard and talked about over the weekend and what I’ve read about the symposium since then, I thought I’d share some of my overall impressions from the entire conference here to continue the discussion.
One of of the themes I saw come up across multiple sessions was that reading allows us to vicariously experience things that are not part of our own lived experience, so reading books about people who are different from us helps educate us, allows us to test our values, and de-Others people like the character. In “Beyond Good Intentions and Chicken Soup: YA Lit and Disability Diversity: How Far Have We Come?” the presenters mentioned that for a lot of teens, reading a book about a person with disabilities may be their first experience with disability. Making sure that portrayal is balanced rather than stereotypical and that the character’s disability isn’t the primary problem in the story gives teens a more accurate portrayal of what people with disabilities can be like–that is, that people with disabilities are people, too.
One of the other messages I heard in nearly every session was that readers in all minority groups want books about characters that are like them–but that whatever puts them in a minority group shouldn’t be the focus of the book. While the rest of YA lit has largely moved on from the problem novel of the ’70s, books about LGBTQIA characters or disabled characters especially still tend to focus on what makes those characters different rather than on the rest of their lives an adventures. As Alexandra Diaz put it in “The New Gay Teen: Moving Beyond the ‘Issue’ Novel,” “If [a character's sexual identity] keeps being the issue, it will continue to be an issue.” And in “Beyond Good Intentions and Chicken Soup: Young Adult Literature and Disability Diversity: How Far Have We Come?” especially, when Dr. Schneider told us what was and wasn’t available in fiction and nonfiction dealing with disability, “and” books (books that deal with disability and race or disability and teen pregnancy or disability andbeing queer) were one of the things she said were most sorely needed.
I also noticed in a couple of sessions that authors and librarians alike were disappointed with book covers that don’t match a book’s content. I didn’t attend “Commercial Success and Diversity: Are Both Possible, or Are They a Contradiction in Terms?” but I saw a lot of tweets with infuriating snippets where publishers insisted that a book needed to be “more Asian,” that models could just be photoshopped to look more or less “ethnic,” and that covers without white people on them just don’t sell. In “Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance in Contemporary Young Adult Fiction,” Megan Frazer said she cried when she saw the cover of her book and that the only thing the people in charge of the cover did to make the girl on the front look fat like the character she was supposed to represent was to make her wrist “a little bit bigger.” Having models on the cover that accurately represent the characters within the story is so important because it tells teen readers who look like those characters that they matter, that their stories are worth telling.
I had a really fantastic time at the conference. I learned a lot, I felt exhilarated being able to talk to other YA librarians all weekend long about YA lit, and I met (both for the first time and for the first time in person) a lot of really neat people. If there were just two things I would have liked to see, they would have been more on technology, especially on the Digital Divide and how it affects teens and their access to literature and how we serve them, and more than just book lists. While Angie Manfredi said that for her, it’s worth sitting through booktalks of ten titles you’ve already read for that eleventh you haven’t, I feel like we can recommend books to each other pretty easily via listservs and Twitter and other online channels; when I come to a conference, I want to talk and hear about what trends people are seeing now and coming up, how to find the kinds of books being promoted on our own in the months to come, and identification of problems in YA lit and YA publishing and ways to help fix them. I want to go beyond booklists!
I know, though, that with a conference that attracts seasoned veterans and new librarians and non-degreed librarians and MLS students and people who aren’t even working in libraries but are working with teens and literature that it can be hard to make everyone happy. And really, those two things were very small things that hardly got in the way of this symposium being immensely useful–and fun!–for me. So thank you to the other 450ish attendees and to all of the presenters and YALSA organizers for your hard work. I have a lot to think about, talk about, read about, and act on in the coming months!