Why does young adult literature hit so hard? Authors A.S. King and Mariama Lockington weigh in

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 6:49pm

Young adult literature has two lives: The first is during adolescence, when the stories being told connect directly with their target audience. YA helps people through their teenage years, offering relatable characters and exciting adventures, teaching empathy and resilience. Its second life comes when the stories worm their way under the skin of the readers and become roots, firmly planted as a part of the reader’s DNA. I’ve been on a mission of sorts, lately, to find out why nothing else ever feels as poignant or as nakedly emotional as the media I consumed as a teenager.

Earlier this summer, I talked to authors A.S. King and Mariama Lockington about how they cultivate that singularly emotional reading experience. King has published 14 YA novels since 2009, and has won some of the most prestigious prizes in the business, including the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Andre Norton Award and the Michael L. Printz Honor. Lockington is a nonprofit educator, Bread Loaf Scholar, Voices of Our Nation Arts Alumni and Literary Death Match Champion, and she recently released her debut middle grade novel in July 2019.

Accolades aside, King and Lockington write the kind of books that seem intentionally designed to stoke strong reactions out of their readers. Not with any kind of bluster or goal of provocation for its own sake, but with the gentle prodding that comes when really brilliant writers talk about, to put it bluntly, real shit. Lockington’s debut, “For Black Girls Like Me,” is the story of an 11-year-old black girl adopted by a white family who struggles with her identity and place in the world as her life changes around her. The novel’s Goodreads page is filled with reviews that evoke a widespread sense of longing and catharsis among her readers. “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” one review reads. “This book feels so honest and real,” says another. 

King’s books similarly address weighty topics, ranging from sexuality to death to mental health to violence. She says that her frank style is a matter of principle. “I just have to be honest, real, straight up … and add humor, too. Because it’s funny! The crappiest things you have to deal with are the funniest things you have to deal with,” she says to me. To King, her responsibility to her audience is conveying a measure of truth. Fittingly, she puts it concisely: “Why would I want to bullshit readers?” 

Likewise, Lockington seeks to be a source of honesty in a reader’s life. “For Black Girls Like Me,” rooted partially in Lockington’s personal experiences having been adopted by parents of a different race, is, in her words, “the book I needed growing up.” Oscillating with ease between prose and poetry, the novel is a lyrical, sharp and beautifully rendered piece of realistic fiction. She hopes it resonates with people wrestling between different aspects of their identities, whether that’s the target audience of middle grade readers, or adults. To that end, Lockington tells many adults have approached her and told her they felt validated by her book. “I’m interested in the ways the book might start conversations among mixed families … among friends and sisters.”

Both these authors take adolescence seriously, not only as a subject for their work, but as a time of life that needs to be respected. “It’s such an urgent time when you’re younger … I remember everything feeling really urgent and big and exciting and scary and lonely and messy all the time,” Lockington says.

King is almost reverent of the teenagers she writes for. “They’re smarter than us,” she says. “They have yet to hit that moment in their lives where they realize they don’t know everything and decide to be cool.” King’s work reflects that sense of respect. Her characters are so delicately rendered, their feelings precisely and carefully modulated to make them as real as possible. From the surreal dystopia of “Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future” to the grounded story of love and sexuality in “Ask the Passengers,” no two A.S. King books are anything alike. But her protagonists are always smart, tightly coiled people with a dark sense of humor and a wellspring of internal conflict and emotions, threatening to bubble over and explode at any moment.

King identifies the characters themselves as the reason YA has such a unique power to get under a reader’s skin. “It’s that young adult protagonist … It connects with people of all ages in an important and deep way because it is such an important part of life.” To King, there’s no getting away from adolescence. “I’m 49 years of age. I can tell you, there’s things that happened to me as a teenager that cut me. And there’s worse things that happened to me as an adult that don’t cut me as hard.”

Writing about the teenage years for both Lockington and King isn’t a matter of nostalgia. To them, those years are a crucial inflection point of life. King describes it as the point “when you decide what you’re going to be stubborn about.” Lockington says, “It’s when you’re hungry to see something you haven’t seen before.”

YA’s power, then, comes from taking a snapshot of an essential moment of becoming and distilling it into a form that can be a mirror for teenagers. “I think when you as a young person find a book that validates you somehow, or you see a reflection of yourself in the story or your values, it kind of is a book you’ll return to again and again. It sticks with you in that way,” Lockington says.

King has had many experiences interfacing directly with her readers, between book tours and school visits. She describes these as some of her favorite parts of her job. Due to the candid nature of her books and her frank, casual way of speaking, King often finds herself on the receiving end of teenagers confessing their secret hopes and fears to her at these events. She keeps in touch with readers she’s met over the years, some of whom are now grown up and helping teenagers in their own way, becoming guidance counselors and psychologists. “You build relationships,” she says. “All the conversations are good, even if they’re quick. Sometimes they’ll be getting something off their chest. Secrets.” King becomes something of a confidante for a lot of kids. “Sometimes it’s just someone walking up to me and saying, ‘This happened to me, and you’re the first person I’m telling.’”

It’s completely unsurprising to me that King has had so many young people confide in her. I first encountered King at a reading and talk at a local bookstore in my hometown when I was 14. I was too shy to say anything to her at the time, but I remember how immediately I sensed that I could trust her. She talked in a low, deadpan voice about tests and death and sex and parents and all the other things teenagers go through in stark, funny, honest terms. She seemed like an adult who would never lie to me. 

Lockington is a newer author, just beginning to grow her audience and meet her readers, but she’s seeking to bring a similar honesty and warmth to that experience that King does. This often means writing about perspectives that are typically underrepresented in books for young readers, to connect with kids in the margins looking for ways they can be understood. Lockington describes growing up with a limited market for young readers. She says, “I was constantly looking for more books when I was younger that actually featured black girls, brown girls, people of color on the front.” She hopes “For Black Girls Like Me” can bring a new perspective and new way young people can relate to books. “I hope it’s a safe place,” she says. “I hope it’s a book that’s read by someone who needs it.”

For these writers — and honestly, for me as a reader — the goal of YA is empathy. Lockington is right: YA is a safe place young people can go to feel less alone, where compassionate writers can tap a younger version of themselves on the shoulder and say, “Hey. It’s okay.” I’m so grateful to YA for guiding me through my adolescence. I really don’t know who I’d be without it. As for adult readers, these books are time machines, tethering us to a point at which we can access again some of the strongest emotions we’ve ever felt.  

YA is that tug in your gut that punctuates the feeling you get driving down the streets of your hometown at golden hour. It’s the shock of when the song you used to cry to at 16 suddenly comes up on your shuffle, or seeing somebody you knew as a kid when you didn’t expect to ever see them again. It’s not nostalgia, and there’s nothing gentle about it. It’s brutal and present and violent. It’s literature that documents the crux of a life, the point at which a person’s insecurities and potential settle in and make themselves comfortable.

“Almost immediately in our twenties, we look down on our teenagers. Look down on them, roll our eyes, and that’s not fair.” King says. “I think we all harbor memories from that time.” 

Don’t underestimate teenagers. They’re smarter than us.