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A Chat with Emma D. Dryden

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The world of Young Adult publishing is as complex and ever-changing as the audience for whom the books are intended. As Little Pickle Press moves into this world with a new imprint, Relish Media, we’re taking some time to consult with Emma D. Dryden, a leading editor and publisher, about the “once and future” state of YA.

Why is the Young Adult genre so important?

[EDD] Young adult literature—YA—has, over the years, come to be categorized by publishers and booksellers as works for readers between the ages of twelve and eighteen, often simply labeled as “12 + Up,” in which protagonists are generally between the ages of fifteen and seventeen.

Teens between the ages of twelve and eighteen are going through some of the most complex growth of any other age. They are children transitioning to adults; they are moving from dependence towards autonomy; they are experiencing a myriad of emotional, physical, and psychological changes and developments; they are moving from concrete to abstract thinking. According to scientific study, teens are constantly confronting challenges, pressures, stresses, temptations, and asks in brains that are not yet fully developed. It’s not just that teens haven’t had the time and experience to acquire a wide sense of the world; quite simply, their brains haven’t physically matured yet. So, given all of this, it makes sense to me that the YA genre has flourished and is so important because teens are utterly fascinating. Not only are teens fascinating for writers to explore and dramatize, but they’re fascinating for teens to read about. Young adults often see themselves in YA books in ways they don’t feel seen by society, adults, their parents, or even their peers. Young adults often find inspiration to figure out ways to make decisions and choices and to sort out challenges and pressures in YA books that they can’t otherwise find or figure out on their own or by talking with adults or peers.

Teens become adults and define their paths in part by the choices and decisions they make under pressure. And let’s face it: Don’t all of us define ourselves and our paths in most part by the choices and decisions we make under pressure? It’s no accident that protagonists in stories are defined by the choices and decisions they make under pressure—and the greater the pressures, the more significant the choices and decisions a protagonist must make and the more we will relate to them at a deep emotional level. Teens are starting to figure out what “choice” and “decision” really mean to them and their lives; teens are starting to experience the (good and bad) repercussions of their choices and decisions; teens are confused at some level by what becoming an adult really means to them. YA books can and do offer up reflective pools to readers in which they can see someone like themselves following through on all sorts of choices and decisions, right and wrong, good and bad. YA books can and do offer up possible answers to the “What if?” questions with which teens are constantly grappling: What would happen if I did this? What would happen if I didn’t do that? And by so doing, a YA book at its very best provides a teenager with roadmaps he or she can use to assist in setting their course for adulthood. The importance of the YA genre becomes even more meaningful if we recognize how valuable these books can be to assist in the development and evolution of teens into thoughtful adults. It’s no surprise, either, that so many adults are gravitating towards YA books since very often YA books can be more complex and perceptive than books meant for adults.

How have you seen YA change over the years and what trends are you seeing emerge now?

[EDD] I don’t like to talk about trends; the moment a trend is happening, it’s over and we’re on to the next thing.

I think the topics being explored in YA know no bounds. There is nothing off limit in YA these days that I can think of. This wasn’t the case many years ago—when there wasn’t such a defined YA genre at all, actually, and when the lines between middle grade and young adult often blurred. It’s not that books for young readers being published in the 70s, 80s, and 90s didn’t feature characters making choices and decisions pertaining to sexuality, romance, alcoholism or drug addition, abuse, danger, violence, and what are considered “darker” subjects—they certainly did. But in my estimation, the ways in which these subjects and characters are being explored and put onto the page have become deeper, more graphic, more psychologically and emotionally complex—more real, if you will.

I have to pause for just for a moment here to wonder, why are real subjects—the subjects of life as it really is—called “dark” with a specifically negative connotation? Life is not all or always pretty or good or happy or easy; much of life is, in fact, gritty, ugly, confusing, complicated, and hard—and I think YA writers perhaps know better than most that these aspects of life—the very aspects that make us appreciate all that is pretty or good or happy or easy—are real and are particularly real to teens who are experiencing the complexities of life as it really is for the first time. This is not a matter of light and dark, it’s a matter of recognizing and contending with the grays and the textures in between. So what other obligation of the YA author is there than to offer a picture of life as it really is?

I’ve heard people claim the endings of YA books are too negative, too hopeless, not happy enough. I would argue that many YA books in the past did not have happy-ever-after endings by any means. Life isn’t wrapped up neatly with a bow; our books shouldn’t end this way either. But when it comes to teens, who, as noted above, are still figuring out how to be in this world and whose brains are not fully developed, I think we absolutely have an obligation in any books we offer them to get teens feeling safe and confident enough to keep going on into adulthood, and therefore the endings of YA books (and I’d say all books, really) ought to be hopeful—not in a saccharin “Don’t worry about anything!” way, but in more thoughtful and meaningful ways that encourage and inspire teens to think and wonder, to look ahead to their possibilities. I’m happy to say I am seeing these sorts of endings in most YA right now, where I may not have several decades ago.

Who are some YA authors you think everyone should know about?

[EDD] This is a hard question to answer, as there are so very many YA authors creating extraordinary and important works. I hope anyone interested in writing for teens will read every YA author they can find, and I hope teens will do the same. I’ll list just a few authors in alphabetical order by last name, as I feel the works of these authors together represent a brilliant array of formats, writing styles, topics, emotional complexities, richly-realized protagonists and richly-explored degrees of humanity:

Sherman Alexie
David Almond
Laurie Halse Anderson
Judy Blume
E. E. Charlton-Trujillo
Sarah Dessen
Nancy Farmer
Neil Gaiman
Ellen Hopkins
Jandy Nelson
Meg Rosoff
Ruta Sepetys
Elizabeth Wein
John Corey Whaley
Ellen Wittlinger

You began your career in publishing and editing, but you recently co-authored a book. How does the former enhance or impede your creative writing?

[EDD] I’ve recently co-authored a picture book with Rana DiOrio that’s neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a wonderful hybrid—WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AN ENTREPRENEUR? In working on that book as an author, it took all I had not to self-edit and second guess myself too much as I was writing.

At the same time, I found my experiences as a publisher and editor to be quite valuable because I felt totally confident when it came to knowing how children respond to language and concepts, how the book would be experienced being read aloud, what I could leave out for the illustrator to handle in the artwork, and more.

I will say it was wonderful having an author collaborator with whom to bounce ideas around and with whom to come to mutual agreement or comfortable compromise. We were able to support and encourage each other as we each contributed something new to the final text, and that’s a luxury most writers don’t actually have when they’re on their own with their text. Additionally, we weren’t working on a manuscript that necessitated significant character building or world building, so it was a much easier writing process overall than another sort of book would have been.

Writing is an exercise I have always loved, though a discipline I’ve never been confident about. Writing is hard! I know that as an editor and publisher; I experienced that as a writer.

Knowing my name is going on a published book is a thrilling experience and one that feels quite different from knowing I’ve had a hand in the publishing of a book from the background as editor and/or publisher. Reading reviews and wondering/worrying about sales of the book? That will be nerve-wracking indeed—much more personal on many levels than what I’ve experienced as an editor or publisher.

What makes (your latest YA project) Breath to Breath so compelling?

[EDD] BREATH TO BREATH is a special project that came about in an unusual way, with a publisher meeting a man whose life she felt could inspire an important story for young adults. The man’s not himself a writer, so the publisher was in a position to bring together an author and an editor whom she trusted to figure out how to let this man’s life inspire a fictionalized YA story that would resonate with readers. It’s been exciting to be part of a hand-picked team of this nature—and it’s been a great responsibility and rewarding challenge to work on a manuscript that not only needs to resonate as a fiction with a deeply-realized protagonist, supporting characters, plotline, and subplots, but that also needs to honor the man whose experiences inspired the work to begin with.

There’s no question BREATH TO BREATH is a tough story. It’s a story about abuse, about survival, and about recovery. It’s a story about the choices we sometimes need to make when our very life is at stake. It’s a story that explores wrong choices and, ultimately, it’s a story about embracing the right choices. It’s to my mind a quintessential YA that explores a memorable sixteen-year-old protagonist as he finds himself on paths he never expected, as he discovers things about himself that are confusing and confused, as he determines right from wrong, and as he recognizes what he needs inside himself that will allow him to take the next breath towards his own future.

I’ve been lucky to know the author, Craig Lew, for a while and I think he’s a remarkably sensitive, creative soul. It’s exciting to be working on this project with him—his first full-length novel and his first foray into writing in verse. I love novels in verse, have edited and published a lot of them, and think this format is beautiful and significant for a story like BREATH TO BREATH, not only because the protagonist is a highly sensitive artist, but because tough stories can be tough on readers. In what some may find to be an emotionally overwhelming story, poetry’s spare language, line lengths, and rhythms afford opportunities and strategically thoughtful moments for readers to reflect, breathe, regroup, and pause as they need to so they can ultimately experience the character and the story fully.

This is a book that’s not only a rewarding, emotional read, but a book that absolutely offers hope to anyone who thinks they’re in a hopeless situation and a reminder that support is available not only from others, but from within—if you only let yourself find and trust it. This book is not about the one right way to recover from abuse; this book is about one kid who figures out what he needs to start on a path to recovery—and in meeting this kid, readers may see themselves or they may see someone they know, or they may just gain some insights into life and how living life works. And what’s a better way to instill empathy than that?

About the Author

Emma D. Dryden is the founder of drydenbks, a premier children’s editorial and publishing consultancy firm which she established after twenty-five years as a highly regarded children’s book editor and publisher. She consults and/or collaborates with authors, illustrators, agents, domestic and foreign publishers, students, and with app & eBook developers.

During the course of her career, Emma has edited hundreds of books for children and young readers and during her tenure with Atheneum and McElderry Books, many of her titles hit bestseller lists in USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and other national publications. Books published under Emma’s guidance have received numerous awards and medals, including but not limited to the Newbery Medal, Newbery Honor, and Caldecott Honor.

Emma speaks regularly on craft, the digital landscape, and reinvention, and her blog “Our Stories, Ourselves” explores the intertwined themes of life and writing. She is on the Board of Advisors of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and can be followed online at Twitter (@drydenbks), Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.

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