This year marked the fifth year of FlameCon. As always, it attracted huge crowds, great guests, and ran great panels. The first panel I attended on day one, August 17, was “The Great YA Debate” which had author Mariko Tamaki (Skim), artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me) and author/artist Dana Simpson (Phoebe and Her Unicorn) on young adult (YA) fiction’s worth.

The impetus for this panel was a Slate article entitled “Against YA: Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read YA Books.” Obviously, many adults do read YA and have strong feelings about it–and these three creators, being creators of YA works, obviously also had their own feelings on this train of thought.

After this brief explanation for the panel’s existence, the host (whose name was not listed in the program, unfortunately) asked the creators to start with introductions and reactions to the article’s premise. Simpson began, explaining Phoebe and Her Unicorn a little, then added that she writes what she would want to read/write.

Host, Dana Simpson, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, and Mariko Tamaki

After this, the host decided to dial back and start even earlier with all three creators, asking them what they were like at “YA age.” Simpson began again, saying she was pretty much the same as she is now, with the same interests, such as comics. She added that even though YA gets a bad rep as fiction because of the perception that it has to be dumbed-down for kids, “kids aren’t dumber than adults, they have fewer reference points.” Valero-O’Connell agreed with Simpson’s sentiments. She had pretty much the same interests, though her scope of the world and the language for her ideas and that scope was “a little bit restricted.”

Tamaki joked that she mostly just read “garbage” as a teenager, citing Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. She then added that she never even thought of her first book as a YA book, though it did end up getting sold to a YA publisher. Simpson agreed, saying she had never thought about that classification until it came time for her to have the conversation about marketing.

The host then asked the panelists if they had any “revelatory YA” experiences, and what it or they were in regard to. Valero-O’Connell actually cited Tamaki’s Skim, because it felt like it was true, thanks to its “honest, and empathetic, compassionate” voice. Like the author had been at that point discussed in Skim in her own life.

Tamaki cited The Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, a “grim” Canadian book, while Simpson said she didn’t really have an answer because the YA genre didn’t really exist when she was the target age for it. Rather, she writes now what she would have liked to read at ten or twelve–those prime YA years!

Projected pages from Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell’s ‘Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me.’

Next, the creators discussed some aspects of the creation process. Simpson discussed the different beginnings she attempted with Phoebe and Her Unicorn, and how the strip developed over its first year or so. She also talked about how Phoebe’s parents in her strips are nerds, based on her friends that are parents, “doing adulthood à la carte,” rather than her own. Tamaki picked up on this topic as well: she said she doesn’t put her own parents in things, as it “makes Thanksgiving dinner a little easier,” but does try to have parents in work, at least enough so things seem balanced.

The next topic was on Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me: it was described as a book that feels like it was written about teenagers but was not necessarily for them. Tamaki said she dug into her “tortured past” and wrote just to see how things with this story would turn out. As for the art, Valero-O’Connell said she populated the book with her friends, and chose the rather pink color palette because she likes the color pink (though she said the “deep” answer could be a reference to viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses). She also discussed the one scene in the book where the pink palette is abandoned: Valero-O’Connell wanted the scene to feel different on purpose, like a piece of punctuation in the story.

The panelists were also asked about that old thorn, editors suggesting changes to their work to better appeal to a kid or teen audience. Simpson said that other than changes to references her editors thought kids wouldn’t get (like to the infamous “horse head” scene in The Godfather), “they kind of just let me do what I want.”

Tamaki said editor changes don’t affect her personal work as much, but when she’s working on comics for Marvel and DC, it can happen. Valero-O’Connell said that the parts of the work that she does that get the most pushback are the most important parts, and we should make sure we talk about them.

When asked if there are gaps in the YA industry they would like to see filled, Tamaki said she’s like to see more diversity in terms of mental illness, economic levels, POC protagonists, and more. Going further with POC protagonists, she said that their race doesn’t have to be the focus of the book, as that can be “kind of reductive.” Simpson agreed, saying that she’d like to see more books with trans characters that aren’t all about being trans. After this, the panel was opened up to the audience, some of whom had suggestions, such as Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin.

After this, the panelists stuck around a little bit to talk to fans and panel attendees, and eventually made their way back to their booths on the showroom floor, where they also met with fans and had book and merchandise signings. All in all, it was a great panel discussion, and they really made the most of the time they had to talk to each other and fans.

FlameCon 2019 was held on August 17 and 18 in the Sheraton Hotel of Times Square in New York City. For more coverage on the convention, please keep on checking N3rdabl3 throughout the week!

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