Commentary: Katherine Morris on AML Conference 2006 — Youth Literature

My sister Katherine was kind enough to write up her notes and impressions on the “Youth Literature” panel at the 2006 annual meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters:

The panel included Chris Crowe, John Bennion, Shanna Butler, Dean Hughes, and AnnDee Ellis, with Laura Card moderating.

Laura Card began the discussion by asking the question, “How have you seen LDS young adult literature evolve?” The panelists immediately deferred to Dean Hughes, who started out by mentioning how just thirty years ago Deseret Book didn’t publish fiction. It wasn’t until 1979 that Deseret Book finally published a work of fiction, which was Dean’s book Under the Same Stars, a young adult novel. “It’s significant,” Dean said, “that the first breakthrough in LDS fiction was in youth literature.”

Since Dean published Under the Same Stars, several other authors have successfully broken into the market (Jack Weyland and Chris Heimerdinger, notably). However, Dean noted, no one has made a living publishing children’s books in an exclusively LDS market. One reason the LDS market can’t sustain authors who write for children is that, although adults in the Church tend to be wary of adult best sellers, they don’t show the same hesitancy toward best-selling children’s books. This being the case, Latter-day Saint authors who write for children have to compete with the national market and so usually end up writing for the national market.

Moving on to recent trends in LDS youth literature, Dean said, “Things are picking up. Every few years now, there’s a new sensation” (this said with an accompanying nod to fellow panelist AnnDee Ellis). Latter-day Saint writers are becoming increasingly recognized in the national youth market, and Mormon themes are becoming more acceptable. Just in the last several years, Dean said, he’s not only been allowed to write about LDS themes, but he’s been invited to do so. While this indicates that publishers see the potential for new voices and perspectives in LDS authors, part of the reason publishers are interested in Mormon-themed books is because it’s becoming clear there’s an LDS market. President Hinckley’s books are always on the best seller list. Latter-day Saints might be the only ones buying them, but they certainly are buying them.

Chris Crowe talked mainly about why he believes youth literature appeals to Latter-day Saints. After briefly mentioning that LDS culture is generally quite child-friendly (meaning that we like children and we have a lot of them), Chris waxed theoretical. He said some people have observed that American culture is in its adolescence, and so it’s rather fitting that Americans would be interested in children’s books. He believes there’s a similar sort of phenomenon with LDS culture. We’re coming of age as a people, and so we like coming-of-age stories.

John Bennion said he believes that some of the best LDS literary fiction is youth fiction. He mentioned the Delacorte Press Prize–how several LDS writers have won it or achieved an honorable mention. John said he believes Louise Plummer is the best LDS youth writer.

Shanna Butler is an editor for the New Era, which stopped publishing fiction about five years ago. Dispensing with fiction apparently didn’t increase readership, so recently the New Era has made the decision to reintroduce fiction with a short story by Jack Weyland on pornography. The magazine is currently accepting submissions, but they don’t have many specific guidelines to help authors out. Though now open to publishing fiction, the New Era doesn’t necessarily have any set plans to, so submissions will be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Stories must be on a specific gospel topic and no longer than 2,500 words. Since the stories have to go through several levels of approval, anything sent in now wouldn’t be published for about a year. Shanna says the New Era is the only magazine, as far as she knows, that tries to hit such a large demographic (twelve- to eighteen-year-olds). She said that online magazines created by LDS teens for other LDS teens are filling in places the New Era leaves gaps. You’ll see things about makeup and dressing modestly that you won’t see in the New Era.

AnnDee Ellis is an up-and-coming LDS author who writes for youth. She got a publishing deal by showing her manuscript to an editor while she was volunteering at a “Writers for Young Readers” conference. The book she is currently working on is about a young LDS boy who is trying to make his way through Scouts and jr. high. The book is Mormon-themed but is written for a wider audience than LDS youth. Having overheard AnnDee telling someone the first line of her novel, I would have to say it sounds like her book will be an original addition to the corpus of LDS youth literature.

6 thoughts on “Commentary: Katherine Morris on AML Conference 2006 — Youth Literature”

  1. I attended this session at the AML conference and I believe it was one of the better sessions held this year. Very informative and very interesting. I hope to soon follow AnnDee Ellis with my own young adult novel–although if I even get a quarter of her current success, I’ll be ecstatic. Can’t wait to read her books.

    Thanks for posting this overview.

    Darvell Hunt

    Posted by Darvell Hunt

  2. Thanks, Katherine. One thing that I am curious about the market is the seemingly new trend to promote non-LDS specific literature such as the recent Leven Thumps  and Of Mice and Magic. I suppose it’s part of the this movement towards appealing to a national audience.

    The “several levels of approval” needed to publish a 2,500 word story made me laugh. I realize the extra degree of sensitivity required when publishing a piece for Mormon youth, but still.

    Posted by Eric Russell

  3. Thanks for this write-up, Katherine! The “several levels of approval” is sooo funny. How funny is it? Many years ago, the Ensign  accepted one of my poems, “Judah.” I received an enthusiastic letter of acceptance, with the editor saying he planned a two-page spread with illustrations. I was pleased, but two weeks later I received another letter: My poem had been unaccepted. The editor was very apologetic and seemed quite frustrated about it all, but apparently one of those “levels of approval” had rejected the poem. The reason given? Readers “might confuse it with scripture.” Hmm. 

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  4. This stood out to me, particularly in the context of the statements regarding adult Mormon aversion to national best-sellers and a possible emerging Mormon publishing market:

    “He said some people have observed that American culture is in its adolescence, and so it’s rather fitting that Americans would be interested in children’s books. He believes there’s a similar sort of phenomenon with LDS culture. We’re coming of age as a people, and so we like coming-of-age stories.”

    A possible alternative explanation is simply that most juvenile fiction seeks to be appropriate for children either by avoiding certain material entirely or raising difficult subjects in one-dimensional ways for the purpose of moralizing about them. Thus, juveline fiction happens in relatively simple and safe moral universe.*

    Does this explain the Mormon affinity for juvenile fiction? I certainly understand the desire for books that are both clean/edifying AND good art.

    On the other hand, does this tell us something about the alleged Mormon indifference to bestsellers,** and the general Mormon ignorance or indifference (my perception) to excellent Mormon-themed adult fiction? If so, shame on us! Certainly Mormonism–the Atonement, Joseph Smith’s relevations on our identities before and after this life, various themes in Mormon history–have a lot to say beyond the simple and safe moral world of juvenile fiction.

    *Incidentally, I know that not all juvenile fiction is clean/safe. I recently read a review in the New York Times about appalling new books  marketed to teen girls that are apparently full of sex and empty elitism.

    **I know loads of Mormons who read Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and their ilk–and just about anything Oprah tells them to read. So the bestsellers claim doesn’t ring true to me. 

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  5. Regarding the “several layers of approval” thing: you have to wonder about the chances of great (or even good) literature surviving the many hands of an undoubtedly risk-averse committee/ bureaucracy. Not exactly the kind of place I want to send my babies.

    My Ensign story: an acquaitance had a peronal essay accepted on the condition that he/she change a significant detail: what he/she ultimately concluded or felt about the experience related. The author refused to make the change and offered to withdraw the essay. Why, the editor asked. Because, he/she replied, it would be a lie–not only do I not feel like that, but it misses the point entirely (one side wanted an extremely upbeat ending, while the other emphasized the suffering of the situation tempered by the hope of eventual relief through the Atonement). Anyway, having left things at an impasse, the editor contacted the author several  years later and offered to publish the essay as written.  

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

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