Guest Post: Kelly Jensen Discusses How Much-Needed Anthologies Fill Gaps in Youth Literature

By Kelly Jensen

It was mid-2014 when I got a rush of frantic messages on Twitter from a number of authors telling me to be in touch with Elise Howard at Algonquin Young Readers (AYR). She really wanted to talk with me.

One talk quickly led to a group call with Krestyna Lypen, editor at AYR, and in January 2015, I sold my first in a trio of nonfiction anthologies to Krestyna and Elise. That book, Here We Are: Feminism For The Real World (2017) came to me through seeing and reading so much incredible feminist discourse on social media and desperately wanting to develop a collection of thoughtful pieces for teens to discover on shelves at libraries, bookstores, and in their classrooms.

Following on that book’s success, I edited (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health (2018), which earned a Schneider Family Book Award Honor in 2019, followed by my most recent collection, Body Talk: 37 Voices Explore Our Radical Anatomy (2020).

While in no way was I a first in creating anthologies for young readers — in my years as a teen librarian, I helped curate classroom reading sets of anthologies for projects — I know my collections are among the few nonfiction offerings for teen readers. Years in libraries taught me that nonfiction was often an afterthought for teen readers, and without doubt, the last decade has seen tremendous growth in this area. Being a part of that matters to me as a writer and an advocate for teens themselves.

Whether nonfiction or fiction, anthologies present such an opportunity for writers, editors, and especially for readers. Writers can go deep on a singular topic with a finite word count; editors can curate and shape the collection’s narrative and context; and readers can dip their toes into new works by favorite authors, discover new-to-them writers, and find topics about which they’re passionate, whether or not they knew it beforehand.

Recent YA anthologies have been attuned to social justice, as well as an answer to gaping holes in representation. There are anthologies about the Jewish experience, about Black girl magic in fantasy and science fiction, about queer lives through history. There are collections which remix classic stories and bring them into the 21st century — the kinds of stories which allow perfect inclusion in classrooms alongside original works for discussion. And then there are anthologies bred from a pure joy of a topic, like witches, vampires, love triangles, and meet-cute romances.

Kelly speaking to a group at the Chippewa Valley Book Festival.

These taste tests of writing and stories are approachable and usable in so many ways, and as I’ve always said during events with teens and gatekeepers, I love that some pieces in a collection become a reader’s favorite while others don’t connect with them. That, to me, is the entire point. A compelling and successful anthology plays and dares enough to have something for everyone, but doesn’t worry about making every piece work for every reader. It entices thought while encouraging an understanding of preference. When reading can become too much of a chore in light of mounting homework and other responsibilities for teens, getting the opportunity to like or not like something and leave it at that makes the activity worthwhile in its own right.

Not to mention that anthologies are perfectly suited for reading over a long period of time or a short one. While some are constructed in such a manner that it’s necessary to read through the entire book, the bulk of anthologies invite readers to dip in and out, skip around, and skim.

My role as an editor has shifted since dreaming up that first collection. What initially seemed to me a job of being as removed from the book as possible to allow other voices to shine has instead evolved to understanding that my insight matters and guides the bigger messages and takeaways of a collection. Each writer and artist brings their work, and it’s my responsibility to find common threads, as well as identify the holes. I weave those threads together in introductory materials, as well as in backmatter, while thinking about how those holes are best filled. I’ve been surprised to see I had something vital to add essay-wise in each of my own collections, despite the fact I didn’t intend to include an essay in any of them. I’ve been lucky, too, to know the perfect person to reach out to in instances where my expertise isn’t going to bring everything together.

Kelly at an event in Port Washington.

One of my favorite aspects of editing anthologies is the philosophy that a good story is all that it takes to become a strong writer. That’s not to say writing isn’t work or craft in and of itself to be practiced and honed; rather, the short form of anthologies gives space for experimentation and gives time for me to spend longer with those who need it and less time for those who don’t. I love to include new voices in each collection, particularly from thinkers who may otherwise have no career ambitions as writers.

While sometimes they’re hesitant or nervous, reiterating that a strong point of view is why I think they’d make a good fit for a collection really empowers them to tell their stories in authentic, meaningful ways. I’m there as a teammate to help them get the paragraphs smoothed out and ensure the takeaways are what they intend but I could never tell their story — it belongs to them. It’s a delight to see them beam with pride at having their work published in a book and published alongside well-known and beloved authors and celebrities.

It’s important to read anthologies in order to edit them. During a ripe time for collections, it’s clear when an editor has spent time thinking about the work that goes into them and figured out how to bring their perspective to a topic in a way that’s fresh and exciting. The perception sometimes is that creating anthologies is easy, as you’re not writing a whole book on your own. But the fact is, in many ways, anthologies are more challenging.

Your topic has to make sense, have some kind of throughline that is compelling, and stand out on a shelf. Not to mention how much paperwork there is to juggle, how many voices you’ll be working with, and how to manage a monumental project before it’s even gone to print.

This is, after all, how you sell your collection to a publisher and an editor. My experience with AYR has been outstanding, as my editor and publisher absolutely understand my vision and support me from start to finish.

From that first call in 2014 until today, we’ve built a solid partnership, and I know when I can use their editorial feedback to make the collection stronger, as well as know when to go to bat for a writer when they don’t want to make an edit.

So how do you start if anthologies seem like an area you’d like to dip your toes into? Thanks to this being such a common question I get asked, I’ve pulled together a wealth of resources for writers and readers. I’m lucky to have had a couple of anthologists provide insight to me when I was just starting, as there’s so little out there about how to make it work. I consider it my duty to pay it forward.

For more insight into anthologies for young adults specifically, dig into this look at YA anthologies through time, this exploration of why anthologies are having such a moment, as well as tips and tricks for writers interested in curating their own collections.

Cynsational Notes

Kelly Jensen is a former librarian and current editor at Book Riot and her own popular book blog, Stacked. She’s the editor of two highly-acclaimed YA anthologies, Here We Are: Feminism For The Real World and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start The Conversation About Mental Health in addition to Body Talk: 37 Voices Explore Our Radical Anatomy, which released in summer 2020.

Her writing has been featured in Bust Magazine, Fortune, Bustle, Shape, Apartment Therapy, and more. When not working with words, she teaches yoga, hangs out with a motley crew of pets, and enjoys all of the black licorice no one else wants. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen and her website