Book review: Is NDYA trending now?

» by Letitia L. Moffitt «

Two buzzy topics in the literary world right now—independent publishing (the “ND” in NDYA) and young adult literature—wouldn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with each other. YA talk tends to focus on mega-bestsellers from the big presses, while indie buzz is likely born of the ridiculous odds against a writer trying to get published by one of the biggies, particularly if that writer’s book doesn’t reflect the trend du jour.

That said, one of the very things many publishers claim to seek in YA lit—stories with crossover appeal to the widest possible audience—can be found readily among books published through small independent presses. I review three such books here:

  • Lania Knight’s novella Three Cubic Feet was published by Mint Hill Books/Main Street Rag, a small but well regarded publisher of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction;
  • Talion, a novel by Mary Maddox, came from Cantraip Press, which has just released its first two titles;
  • and finally, Jeff Kohmstedt’s novel The Fifth Kraut was published through CreateSpace,’s self-publishing imprint.

All three authors did not see independent publishing as a last resort but rather a deliberate choice. “I spent four years revising and editing this book,” Kohmstedt says. “I wanted to be in control of saying when the process was complete and how the story would end…and I didn’t want to worry about what an editor or publisher might say about it.” He adds, “Another reason to self-publish concerned the YA market. I think The Fifth Kraut wouldn’t have a real niche there. The characters are young adults, but they’re also dealing with issues of sex, relationships, drugs, abuse, racism, and growing up that might not fit in the current market of vampire/dystopia/supernatural fantasy stories.” Knight similarly notes, “My book falls outside the norms for length and for choice of character, so it’s better served by a publisher willing to take a risk with a story in a less than popular form (novella) told by a character who belongs to a minority (LGBTQ).”

Maddox tells a bit of a writer’s horror story when it comes to getting Talion published. “One of my old teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop introduced me to his agent,” Maddox says. “I doubt [the agent] ever read my novel. He did shop the manuscript aggressively but found editors weren’t interested—at least not with the large advance he wanted.” An editor from Harper Collins took Maddox and her agent to lunch and told them the book wasn’t selling because “it lacked an adult, middle-class protagonist readers could identify with”—or at least those readers who could afford $25 for hardbacks. She also told Maddox that her writing was “about fifty percent literary and fifty percent commercial, not a viable mix in the present market.” Both the agent and the editor suggested Maddox rewrite the entire novel, which she did—twice. Eventually Maddox’s agent dropped her in a letter reminiscent of a “Dear John” rejection. By this point Maddox, unwilling to go through yet another rewrite, chose not to look for another agent; she formed a press and published her novel.

In short, all three authors seem to be writing outside the traditional publishers’ comfort zone. All three of these books feature teenage protagonists, but their complex characters, sophisticated storylines, and avoidance of moral didacticism make them appropriate—and engaging—for adult readers.

Three Cubic Feet  by Lania Knight
Mint Hill Books/Main Street Rag

In much young adult literature, there is an easily identifiable enemy. Author Lania Knight understands that in adolescence, frequently the “enemy” consists of those closest to you who believe they are acting in your best interests. That makes them difficult to fight—and possibly even more damaging. The protagonist of Three Cubic Feet, Theo Williamson, is a gay teenager in a small, oppressive town in Missouri. The adults in his life range from a former teacher who is refreshingly open-minded about sexuality, to his step-mother Della who thinks she’s doing the right thing for Theo by refusing to leave him alone, to the closeted older man Theo once seduced who now wants nothing to do with him, to the terrifyingly abusive father of his best friend Jonathan. Theo happens to be in love with Jonathan, also gay, and their relationship would be a wonderful solace from the hostility of the world around them—except that Jonathan (here it comes) just wants to be friends.

Knight captures the frustrating, sometimes frightening world of adolescence in a way that feels authentic, yet she respects her characters and her story such that nothing is simplistic or sentimentalized. She also deftly avoids clichés, which many writers of teen characters as well as gay characters are unable to accomplish, and the dialogue between Theo and Jonathan is so believable, lively, and moving, I could listen to them talk all day. That’s an achievement—how often would an adult ever say that about teenage conversation?

Talion  by Mary Maddox
Cantraip Press

Affixing “traditional” genre labels to this novel is near impossible without a lot of hyphens; the closest I get is supernatural-fantasy-horror-suspense-serial-killer-thriller-with-YA-protagonist. Perhaps the best category for it is simply “a really good read from a very talented author” (a graduate of the Iowa MFA Program in fiction). Serial killer Conrad (Rad) Sanders has chosen a pretty, popular fifteen-year-old, Lisa Duncan, as his next victim. Lisa, whose family members own an isolated resort in Utah, begins an unlikely friendship with another teen, Lu Jakes, who is Lisa’s opposite in nearly every way. Outcast and introverted, Lu lives in a trailer with her abusive stepmother. When Rad sees the two girls together, his sick fantasies begin to include them both, and he dreams of manipulating the seemingly spineless Lu to do his bidding. What Rad, and everyone else for that matter, doesn’t realize is that Lu has powerful friends to guide her: Delatar, Black Claw, and most of all her beloved Talion. The question is: are they supernatural entities or figments of Lu’s troubled mind? An even more important question: can they, or anyone, help Lu defeat Rad?

Lu is an unlikely YA protagonist. Her classmates find her weird, and until Lisa comes around, she has no friends aside from her possibly imaginary ones. Lu’s world is every bit as harrowing as that of, say, The Hunger Games (and fair warning, Maddox does not suppress descriptions of violence), but it is our world, and I found Lu far more compelling, believable, and most of all identifiable than, say, crossbow-wielding, stunningly beautiful Katniss Everdeen, who has not one but two terrific guys in love with her (and call me crazy, but I don’t imagine the majority of teens or adults can relate to that). Whether or not readers relate to Lu, they will likely find Maddox’s wild ride of a novel impossible to quit reading.

The Fifth Kraut  by Jeff Kohmstedt

A novel focused on young-adult characters need not automatically be branded YA; likewise a novel that takes place a couple decades in the past need not necessarily limit its readership to nostalgia-seeking adults. Jeff Kohmstedt’s gritty novel The Fifth Kraut (awarded Honorable Mention in the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival, New York Book Festival, and Southern California Book Festival) is set in a Chicago suburb in 1990, and while he beautifully captures this particular time and place, he also crafts teenage characters that are realistic almost (but not quite) to the point of being unlikable—and that’s on purpose, because these are teenage boys, after all, with lives that are messy, intense, and sometimes bleak.

Kohmstedt’s narrator, Ike, has entered his senior year in high school along with his best friends KC, Jack, and Tom, together calling themselves the four “Krauts” based on their German-American backgrounds (and their irreverent sense of humor). Initially the guys expect the new school year to be a continuation of the good times they’ve enjoyed so far, free of consequences or concerns about the future, but that changes rapidly, beginning when a new boy, Wally Black, attempts to join them as the “fifth Kraut.” Wally is unstable and deeply disturbed, and he begins to cause a rift between the Krauts that the guys end up paying for in devastating ways. Yes, there’s profanity, violence, and sex, as well as what I suppose an R-rating for a movie would call “adult themes.” There are also references to ’90s music and use of that era’s slang. None of this is gratuitous; all of is held seamlessly together by Kohmstedt’s well-crafted prose. There’s a lot to enjoy here, even if you don’t remember Yo! MTV Raps.

“But how will we know it’s good if nobody else is reading it?” A 2007 study at Stanford University determined that if you wrap a homemade hamburger in paper with the McDonald’s logo, kids think it tastes better. Similarly, publishing a book by a big-name press and selling a million copies is a good strategy to ensure you sell a million more, regardless of the content between the covers. While these three books and other “NDYA” most certainly are not the literary equivalent of a fast-food burger, the content between their covers is worth a look.

All rights reserved to Letitia L. Moffitt.

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