Mental Health, Feminism and the Future of YA Fiction with Kelly Jensen

Kelly Jensen’s background as a teen librarian influences her own writing (she is a popular essayist, and author of It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader) as well as her editorial career, in which she now covers YA fiction for Book Riot. Her 2017 YA anthology, “Here We Are: 44 Voices Write, Draw and Speak About Feminism for the Real World,” features insights from such household names as Mindy Kaling, Laurie Halse Anderson and Roxane Gay. Teen Vogue raved, “‘Here We Are’ enot only presents an inclusiv and hopeful vision for the future of feminism, it also boldly and proudly passes the torch to the next generation of leaders.” Jensen’s Fall 2018 anthology, “(Don’t) Call Me Crazy,” aims to launch a conversation about mental health, and is forthcoming in the fall. Find her online at kellybjensen.com and stackedbooks.org. 

There’s still debate in some circles about the meaning of “feminism,” and what it means to be “a feminist.” In putting together Here We Are, what did you learn about how teen readers perceive those terms?

One of the best experiences I had was talking to high school classes with contributor Mikki Kendall. These teens were itching to talk about issues relating to consent, what feminism means on the micro and macro levels, about gender and gender dynamics.

What the teens did that few adults do is ask questions. They talked. They debated … rather than coming forth with an agenda that couldn’t be budged. They were not afraid to be put in a position to really think about the things they were asking and saying. Seeing those light bulbs go off was a reminder of how open they are to learn—and how much adults could learn from seeing these sorts of discussions. Also interesting in that visit was seeing how much the girls in those classrooms knew things because they grew up with the reality of being a girl in today’s world, whereas their male counterparts were having revelations. The girls nodded their heads, knowing their experiences were being validated, while the boys worked hard to really understand what it was they weren’t getting. Maybe we didn’t change every person in that room, but I’m certain more than a few of the kids walked away feeling not just valid and seen, but empowered.

In the broader sense, today’s teens just get it. They’ve grown up in a diverse, intersectional world, and they’ve been exposed to these conversations in ways that many of us as adults haven’t. These teens have grown up with inclusivity as a key part of their experience, whereas today’s adults can still be struggling with the idea of equality, period.

Here We Are has been so well received. What are some moments—either in compiling the book, since its publication, or both—that have meant the most to you as its editor?

I had the fortune of doing a number of panels and events with contributors. I’ve known most of them only through the communication we had as editor-writer. But meeting them in person, talking with them in person, and hearing their thoughts on issues beyond the essays they wrote only broadened my own understanding of feminism. It’s one thing to call yourself a feminist—to call yourself an intersectional feminist, even—and it’s another thing to hear people from backgrounds wildly different from your own and to have them remind you that you, too, have work to do. That you, too, can and should always strive to do better.

This book was an incredible experience start to finish. I met my editors through my tweeting about this dream idea I had on Twitter. Then I met my agent by reaching out to her about other projects I’d had in mind (having loved so many of her clients). Then I got to work with some incredible people in the collection. Then I got a great cover, an incredible design and a team behind publicity and marketing which really worked to get the book out there for all kinds of readers.

I started my career as a teen librarian, and this book really helped bring me back to two things I adore: working with teenagers and with books that are meant to inspire, enlighten, challenge and entertain them.

What do you feel most hopeful about, looking at the YA fiction landscape today?

Back in 2013 I did an in-depth study of The New York Times YA bestseller list, and it was bleak. White men were running that chart. Certainly, shaking up how the chart works has changed this, but more, it’s well past time that what we’re seeing now—women of color landing there, staying there and having their books and voices heard—is more and more normal.

It’s not enough, but it gives me hope that we’ll continue to see fresh voices from a variety of writers outside the cis-het white norm.

Would you give us a preview of (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: What inspired its creation, and what your hopes are in filling a real need to broach this topic with young readers?

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy is an anthology with over 30 contributors ranging from poets to artists and writers, exploring all of the myriad ways that “crazy” exists. It digs into what it means to be “crazy,” whether or not we need to be careful when talking about what “crazy” might be, and how it is one can be “crazy” and thrive in a world that doesn’t acknowledge that mental health is an essential part of one’s livelihood. Topics range from addiction to compulsive disorders, from the wide and varied forms one might experience post-traumatic stress disorder to what it’s like to survive a school shooting, and more.

This book is, I hope, a tool of starting conversation. The contributors have offered so much vulnerability and so much rawness by sharing their personal experiences. It’s not necessarily the easiest or happiest reading, but the book’s closing section brings that all to a head and wraps up what it is that I hope younger readers take away from the book: being “OK” is OK. “OK” is surviving.

It was not an easy book to edit. But I think it’s the kind of book that many will find to be essential in better understanding themselves, their friends and family, as well as the bigger world around them. And I hope it gives people a place to begin to talk more openly.

Who are some of your favorite YA authors who you wish were more widely read?

Brandy Colbert. Her debut Pointe is out of this world, and her sophomore effort, Little & Lion, which came out in August 2017, explores mental health in a really powerful, rich way. Colbert writes stories about black girls, and they’re stories that more readers need to pick up. Colbert’s essay in Here We Are digs into what black girl sisterhood and friendships looked and felt like to her growing up and it’s one that, whenever I think about it, my heart beats a little harder.

Samantha Mabry is writing some of the best magical realism in YA. Where magical realism has been a trendy phrase to throw around in the YA world, she’s actually seeping her books into the genre authentically. A Fierce and Subtle Poison and All the Wind in the World deserve more readers.

Stephanie Kuehn and Shaun David Hutchinson, too, both deserve bigger readerships, especially as they’ve become more and more prolific. Kuehn writes dark, twisty realistic thrillers, and Hutchinson offers up a little bit of science fiction, a little bit of realism, and books which kind of flirt the line of reality and speculative. Both have contributed to (Don’t) Call Me Crazy and I couldn’t be more humbled to have them, as two of my favorite YA writers, a part of this collection.


ROAR: Writer’s Digest Turns Up the Volume on Underrepresented Voices in the Writing World

Read more from this extended series, entitled “ROAR,” which appears in the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. Feel the thunderous reverberations of authors and industry pros working to broaden our perspectives—as writers and readers alike. Plus, learn how underrepresented voices are rising in the writing world, all in these articles:


You might also like:

COMMENT

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.