Guest Post: The Contemporary Comeback

Erin here! Today I have Kelly Fiore here with a guest post about how contemporary YA is making a “comeback”. Enjoy!

Don’t call it a comeback!

Okay, fine. You can.

However, I’m a little inspired by my main man, Prince, who, when Justin Timberlake busted out “Sexy Back,” just shook his head and said, “Sexy never left.”

Contemporary never really left, either. Some of the greatest contemporary YA books I’ve ever read were written right at the height of the Paranormal/Dystopian boom. Stephanie Perkins’ first two books, Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door came out around the same time as Mockingjay and Divergent, respectively. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles, and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson all found success in the wake of Twilight. So, contemporary never really left. I think it’s just speaking a little louder these days.

In dystopian, and particularly post-apocalyptic, storylines, I think there is a considerable draw to a world that has collapsed in on itself and has to start all over again. The idea that a person or group of people need to rise up and become a force to be reckoned with. As readers, we like underdogs – of course we do. Essentially, there is nothing better than a comeuppance.

But, sometimes, the end of the world is all about perspective. What we feel is a crisis might not look that way from the outside – a good contemporary novel can delve into that idea and can explore that inner implosion. In dystopian or paranormal genres, you often watch the world literally fall apart. In many contemporary novels, the world can fall apart and no one ever sees a thing. From the outside, a character will look “perfect.” That’s the way we, as humans, can disguise our truth.

Amy Reed does a wonderful job of this sort of inner implosion in her novel, Clean, which uses an alternating narrative of five different characters in a rehabilitation facility. By studying the inner monologues of these characters, we’re able to see the trials and missteps that brought them to where they are and that made them who they are. There is less world building, less focus on setting. But there is a heavy reliance on narration that enlightens the reader, that sparks empathy and sometimes frustration.

So, when the call to arms is internal—and the only war is against one’s self—a writer has no choice but to explore the insides more than the outsides. There isn’t a world war, but there are battles to be waged. They’re just a little quieter and often have more room for emotional baggage.

I think this is part of the reason why The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has become such a phenomenon; it slips right into the space vacated by explosions and good vs. evil and creatures that are created to destroy our race. Cancer, while treatable in many cases, is a far more poignant and unavoidable reality in our world than werewolves or cyborgs. Looking at the struggle of Hazel and Gus, watching love bloom in a place where, admittedly, there isn’t going to be a happily ever after, is gut-wrenching. But, isn’t that, too, an illustration of the aspects we love in YA literature? The idea of people banding together and rising up against a force that is bearing down on us. How is Hazel and Gus fighting against their disease different than Katniss and Peeta fighting against the Capitol?

So, is contemporary having a comeback? Maybe. Maybe we’re all just opening ourselves up a little to the vulnerabilities of what’s immediate or true. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are beautifully written dystopian or paranormal novels, books that are eye opening and life changing and can completely wreck you. Moreover, there are dozens of books with touches of otherworldliness that are contemporary in most ways, but add just a dash of something else – something that seems a bit more magical. Sometimes, that’s the way we add hope.

Here are a few of my favorite novels that I feel are contemporary, but also include subtle and successful touches of paranormal, magic, or dystopian themes.1

  • Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  • Going Bovine by Libba Bray
  • Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
  • The Freedom Maze by Rebecca Sherman
Kelly Fiore, author of x

Kelly Fiore, author of Taste Test and Just Like the Movies

KELLY FIORE has a BA in English from Salisbury University and an MFA in Poetry from West Virginia University. Her first young adult novel, Taste Test, was released in August 2013 from Bloomsbury USA. Her second book, Just Like the Movies, launches July 22nd college composition in Maryland, where she lives with her husband and son. Kelly teaches college composition in Maryland, where she lives with her husband and son.

  1. Just to clarify, it is purely my opinion that these novels have undercurrents of something more than a mere contemporary label.

4 Responses to Guest Post: The Contemporary Comeback

  1. Robert Polk Jul 16 2014 at 9:00 am #

    I nodded and smiled the whole way through your post, starting with your JT/Prince mention all the way to some fantastic book recs. Thanks. If dystopian is the flashy rockstar, contemporary is the blue collar worker.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Jul 16 2014 at 9:02 am #

    In this vein I would also recommend Snowstorm, by Connie Hullander. Purely contemporary, no magic or futuristic elements. Here’s the blurb, although I’m not sure it does the story justice:

    Being sixteen is cool, unless you’re in a psych ward. When sixteen-year-old Carly Blackstone wakes up behind bars with a massive headache, she thinks her life can’t get any worse. Unfortunately, it does. Standing before the same juvenile court judge for the fourth time, she is stunned to hear him commit her to a psychiatric hospital. Once there, she is not only a charity case among a unit full of rich kids, she is battling the doctors and nurses to keep them out of her head. Her psychologist is really good at his job, however, and gradually chips away at her defenses, forcing her to see herself the way others do. Her roommate’s disastrous decision pushes Carly to consider her own future and make choices that will change her life.

  3. Cassie G Jul 16 2014 at 10:33 am #

    I was never a reader who got into the paranormal craze, and it seemed like I was one of the only ones looking for contemporary 4 years ago. I’m so happy it’s getting more attention, and now I feel like a pro when people ask for recommendations and I can go to fall back reads that I’ve loved for a while (A.S. King and Libba Bray are my first recs). 🙂 Long live the contemporary!

  4. Leandra Wallace Jul 17 2014 at 8:41 am #

    Love this!- ‘The idea of people banding together and rising up against a force that is bearing down on us. How is Hazel and Gus fighting against their disease different than Katniss and Peeta fighting against the Capital?’ So true. And I really need to read Stephanie Perkin’s books, I’ve heard nothing but good about them. Anyhoo, great post!

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