David Levithan: "Teen Literature Kicks Ass"


If you have teens, write for teens, or if you feel that you still are, deep down, a 16-year-old yourself, you’re probably scoping the new releases in the young adult market. Everything from Sarah Dessen (love and life for girls) to Stephanie Meyer (one part vampires, two parts high school angst) has a place on Amazon’s virtual shelf. But should they? What about the section for “Teen Chick Lit”? Young Adult writer and editor David Levithan argues that today's teen literature has earned its space. David made his mark writing books like Boy Meets Boy and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and working at Scholastic for 14 years. With eight books under his belt and the new title of "editorial director," he’s pretty much the Jewish go-to in the YA sector. His characters deal with their Jewish identities, sexuality, activism, and all the new hurdles facing adolescence in the 21st century. As editor of JVibe, the partner for this teen-themed issue, I’m always scanning the shelves for the best new teen books, so I had a few questions to run by David.

You not only write YA novels, but you’re the editorial director for Scholastic. It’s safe to say you have a pretty good pulse on what’s out there. What would you say to the notion that much of what’s being written for teens these days is senseless and below their reading level?

That’s patently ridiculous. Only someone with the narrowest of readings of teen literature could say that—it would be like using James Patterson as the sole indicator of American literature between 2003 and the present. Even something as derided as Gossip Girl actually contains some acute social satire (as was recently noted in The New Yorker, of all places). But really, the best of teen literature right now more than stands up to its adult counterpart. If you doubt this, go read M.T. Anderson’s Feed, or Virginia Euwer Wolff’s True Believer, or Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief or Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian.

What is young adult publishing today lacking? What do you see too much of?

As is true with any area of publishing, success begats copycats. So after Harry Potter, you see a glut of fantasy. Now, because Stephenie Meyer is ascendant, it’s a glut of vampire novels and supernatural romance. The really cool thing about YA, though, is that the imitators never catch on for longer than a moment. And the next big thing is always something completely different, and takes us all by surprise. 

As for what’s lacking, there is still less cultural diversity than we’d like—but we’re very ambitious about that, wanting all of the voices to be heard.

What should parents be recommending their teens read?

Besides the books mentioned above, check out Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Dana Reinhardt’s How to Build a House, Lisa Ann Sandel’s The Weight of the Sky (a beautiful book about an American girl’s time in Israel)… I could go on and on.

Why do some of your books have Jewish content/characters? Is that something that happens organically, or is it important and premeditated that Judaism be a part of your writing?

It just happens organically, for the most part. The big exception being Wide Awake, which was very Jewish by design. But the other characters just grow into their personalities, and sometimes I realize their Jewishness is a part of it as I'm writing. In Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, it was my co-author, Rachel, who made Norah Jewish.  But that allowed me to explain the whole story in terms of tikkun olam, which is my favorite moment in the book. And with Are We There Yet?, the brothers' tour of Italy was mirroring a tour my family had taken. So it made sense for them to visit the synagogues. Because we always visit the synagogues.

Same goes for representing homosexual relationships. Do you write what comes to you, or were youtrying to give this subject representation and battle stereotypes?

At first, it was very consciousBoy Meets Boy was written, in part, to upend decades of portrayals of gay kids as miserable in teen literature. Now, it has to fit the story. For example, some people asked why Are We There Yet? was about two straight brothers. I had to explain that the whole point is that they don't feel they have anything in common; if they were both gay, they'd have that in common.

People are saying that the YA market can be less competitive and just as challenging as writing for adults. Any advice for writers who want to make the switch?

It's only less competitive in terms of us not really being competitive with each other. It's still very competitive to get published. The only advice I'd have is to just write the story you want to write; the worst thing you can do is try to harness a story into being at a "teen level." There's really no difference between writing for teens and writing for adultsit's just telling a story. It all depends on the story you're telling. If it's about a 60-year-old couple looking back in their lives and lovesprobably not a teen novel. But if you have a teen protagonist and you're not writing from a retroactively wise point of viewit can work as either a teen novel or a novel published for adults. And it'll find readers.

What are some of the important things to keep in mind when writing for teens?

To simply write the story, and not to worry about the rest. Don’t think about your audience. Just write the book you want to read. The worst attempts I see at writing for teens come when the author tries to pander in some way to the reader. Teens want honesty. So you have to give it to them.

Why do you write for teens?

Because teen literature kicks ass. It has the best readers, and can be the most meaningful to its readers. And teen literature, right now, allows me to write whatever I want.