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Archive for the ‘YA’ Category

Back in my relative youth when I was learning to write screenplays I came across a fascinating tidbit. What it came down to was that on a deep thematic level, everything a writer writes is about what is currently gnawing away at them in the moment. It didn’t matter what the plot or the story was about, deep down all the character issues and concerns were the manifestation of the bubbling subconscious fears and anxieties of the moment.

If that were true, a story written five or ten or twenty years ago would have characters behaving one way, while if that story were being written today they would behave differently. And it wouldn’t be that one version of those characters was more “true” than the other, or that I had learned more about them, but that the things that concerned twenty-something me were different than fifty-something me. The characters — if this line of thinking is to be believed — were mere reflections of my state of mind.

But then, what of these stories? Do their themes not change with the desires of the characters? Aren’t those old plots with current characters like an old man trying to put on the clothes of his youth?

Earlier this week I had a little down time and no access to my current larger WIP so I doodled around with a short story idea. Three pages into the idea I found myself writing a variation of a scene from a project I started working on over 20 years ago. The characters were different, their motivation and reasons totally unlike the older piece, and the eventual outcome would be… similar?

Both stories are about a group of boys who create a club on campus, both clubs are mere shells designed to allow the boys to act outrageous with some semblance of school authority, both ending in a sort of disaster that would raw national scrutiny. The moment I realized the new story was on the same path I stopped and took stock. Who the heck were these two boys, and more importantly, what did their appearance say about where my head is currently at?

Originally, 22 years ago, I had finally come up with a story I thought was a perfect encapsulation of high school. I was planned as an epic tale, with so many subplot and character arcs, that I jokingly referred to it as The Great American Young Adult Novel. In truth, that original story contained over a dozen plots worthy of their own books, some I’ve attempted, some I realized were a bit goofy. At the heart of them all was a story about a club of mostly boys who ventured out through three years of adventures that eventually lead to a cataclysmic ending that garnered national attention.

And my main character was some kid trapped in the now yearning for the future away from the madness.

All those years ago I didn’t know what I was doing, what I wanted, what I’d hoped to achieve. Today I do, and the fact that those old feelings are manifesting themselves again in stories is an equal combination of alarming, reassuring, and frustrating. It’s not the same story, it’s a better story, this time with a character who knows where he stands and is clear about what comes next.

So I’m really writing two stories now, one on the page and one in my life. I have a good feeling about both of them.

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Looking back, the one thing everyone could agree on was how normal a day it had been.

In same way that people don’t notice their health until the get sick, no one could remember what it was like when there were shelves of Young Adult novels in the libraries and bookstores. Everyone could clearly visualize the sections as they once were – thick spines of glossy covers, tantalizing one-word titles with the promise of romance or dystopia or both! – outgrowing their allotted shelves and threatening to take over neighboring shelves. The Young Adult books even began to subdivide beneath genre headings never before seen in the world of “adult” fiction. And as they began to take over slots on the various Bestseller’s Lists, forcing the New York Times to consider a separate Book Review section devoted strictly to Young Adults books, something strange happened.

Quietly, the way the light changes when a thin cloud passes briefly, the way you suddenly notice the gradual aging in a loved one’s face, the Rapture came to Young Adult books and they simply disappeared.

Though not entirely.

As with any great societal change, the writers and artists saw it coming and prepared. Those with the most vested in the genre, the writer’s themselves, stopped identifying themselves and their writing as anything other than “fiction.” When called on the change, some even being accused of abandoning the category or of trying to distance themselves from “genre writers” in general, stood their ground with the oldest explanation in the book: they wrote what they wrote, it was up to marketing departments to determine where their books belonged. But in secret they eyed the territories of Middle Grade and Literary Fiction and pivoted their attentions.

Artists, in particular the photographers who filled countless stock photo sites with typical Young Adult images suitable for multiple use on covers, began replacing their old work with new. Topless torsos were supplanted with silhouettes free of distinct racial identifiers, or iconic images of places and things evocative of various moods, replacing figurative images altogether. Designers began cultivating styles reminiscent of eras before they were born, creating books covers with modern versions of retro graphics that lent an air of literary respectability to otherwise cringe-worthy titles. It became difficult to tell whether a book was newly published or a reprint of a contemporary of classic 20th century authors. The resulting confusion deliberately set the stage for the disappearance of Young Adult books as those that were published were confused for adult titles and “mis-shelved” accordingly.

Finally, with the price break in tablet computers making them as affordable as a cell phone, digital book sales by teen readers soared and, while reviving the few remaining old guard publishers, gutted the need for Young Adult print books altogether.

Then one day – an everyday normal day, on that everyone agrees – everyone was suddenly struck with the realization that Young Adult books had vanished overnight. They had a sudden curiosity to scan the shelves and see if there was perhaps something new to discover, only to find empty shelves and reapportioned sections where Young Adult books had been. Even the “classics” in the genre had vacated their roosts. Some were later discovered among the fiction and literature, others had gained new covers and were among those books aimed at the Middle Grade reader, and some (thankfully in far too many cases) apparently disappeared as if they had never been. Rumors that some titles were found hiding in other genres could not be verified, and in the end it was agreed, the Rapture had come to Young Adult fiction.

And the world continued on without incident. Some even said it was a better world than before.

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If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

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Yeah, that’s right, get ready for it. Spandex and roller boogie and perhaps even leg warmers and headbands!

Okay, maybe not, but it’s just as plausible as most dystopic fiction out there. And for proof, I now draw your attention to one of my favorite topics in the history of late 20th century American cinema, science fiction films of the 1970s.

What the heck was in the water back then?

There were movies about killer robots (Westword, Futureworld), movies about population control (Logan’s Run), movies about what was called “the greenhouse effect” back then (Soylent Green, which was also about population control), and of course, the reign of Charlton Heston as king of all things dystopian-to-come (Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, uh, Earthquake). In a decade that started with A Clockwork Orange (Cold War dystopia!) and The Andromeda Strain (killer viruses!) then ended with a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (virus from space!) and Mad Max (Cold War dystopia!) there had to be something that would pull us out of the doldrums.

And then along came disco.

Okay, so disco was a simultaneous response to the world, a response that also begat punk rock, but there was huge crossover. So much of the idealistic imagery of the future in 70s sci-fi movies looked like disco outfits — lots of white polyester and feathered hair — while the darker stuff looked like a fashion template for crusty punk squatters. But in the end, wherever there was a dark movie about sanctioned cannibalism there was a new Donna Summer dance tune or a Bee Gees hit!

If YA had been around back in the 70s — and I mean, as huge a market as it is today — I have no doubts teens would have gobbled up books like much of the dystopic sci-fi movies out there. I know, because I was there, and we were hungry for it. I also have no doubt those imaginary books would have been made into movies not unlike the ones that were made that all the teens saw anyway.

So to those adults wringing their hands about how “dark” YA has become, or worried about the boom in dystopic fiction I say fear not. This too shall pass, and in its wake we can expect there to be a rise in mindless pop confections to counter-balance all the darkness. Pastels and fern bars and a return to campy decor is just around the corner. Heck, for good measure, let’s have Woody Allen team up with Dianne Keaton one last time for Annie Hall 2: Electric Boogaloo where the two senior citizens kvetch about New York like nothing has changed in the last 35 years. Maybe Jeff Lynne can collaborate with Olivia Neutron Bomb* for a return trip to Xanadu.** Perhaps the old guard major networks can revive the oldest reality shows they ever created, Battle of the Network Stars, just in time for the Olympics.

Because maybe nothing has changed.

Mostly.

.

.

edited:

* This was a nickname that combined two of the greatest threats to our well-being in the late 70s, the omnipresence of Olivia Newton John and the threat of a neutron bomb which we were told would destroy populations by leave the buildings in tact – as if that were a reassurance!

** Shortly after I wrote this post, but before I updated it to the interwebs, Donna Summer died. The original line here was “Giorgio Morodor and Donna Summer need to get back into the studio STAT and show these girls what it means to work hard for the money.” As much as I mocked Donna Summer as a teen she did, indeed, work harder for the money than many singers these days. 

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A Hippie and an Anarchist walk into a Starbucks and ask the Barista…

Can you picture it? Birkenstocks and tie-dye, piercings and tattoos, a bored look and a smart phone. Counter-culture meets coffee-counter culture. The attitude and the edge, the anger and the disaffection. The sheer conflict of images.

Writers think about stereotypes more than any other people I know. In an effort to communicate with words it becomes necessary to show a reader who, what, and where these people are, and these descriptions require a writer to consider how many strokes of the brush it will take to render the image.

Factually, a reporter has no reason to point out details that have no bearing on a story — we may be told a fire victim’s age but not their weight or race, because these details tell us nothing about the scene. In news reporting we aren’t given extraneous details partially because we can see details that aren’t described and partially because the story itself must be believed because it is simply true, it actually happened. So if we are told a famous and wealthy business tycoon was found dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter we believe it, and begin to fill in unspoken details and questions that allow us to create a narrative in our mind about what we thought happened.

We do this because we have deeply embedded stereotypes that inform our ability to construct an image that is true to us.

That tycoon in the alley, he doesn’t belong there, because that’s not where tycoons should be found. We picture him in a suit, crumpled near a dumpster, face down maybe, pockets turned out where he has been robbed, shoes missing. The location, behind a homeless shelter, sets us thinking who might have done this to him.

Him? When did I decide our tycoon was male? Is male my stereotype default for a tycoon? Are my assumptions based on stereotypes or the preponderance of examples? Does placing a tycoon dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter automatically trip the default that assumes foul play is involved? These images that we construct are a function of our individual experience, but I doubt that from the short description above that a reader would draw the same conclusion further details would provide.

Sally Hemmings, noted real estate tycoon, was found in the alley behind the homeless shelter she founded, dead from a ruptured appendix.

Details, in this case, help us not only see the scene more clearly but also counter any stereotypes we otherwise would have affixed to the story without them. In short, in the absence of the concrete, our thinking would tend toward the stereotype.

In fiction the writer treads delicately between being “true” and giving the reader a chance to properly visualize the characters and settings. News images from South Central LA during the Rodney King Riots would have us imagine a rundown neighborhood full of poverty and crime, and yet one of the wealthiest universities, USC, was mere blocks away to the north. This contradiction in expectations actually provides an opportunity for context and comparison, just as it can with character stereotypes. The problem, in fact and fiction, is that we rely on the stereotypes to become rather than inform the reality.

Far too often in fiction for middle grade and young adults I find that stereotypes, or behavior that has become stereotypical, is nothing more than a cynical way to either deliver on a reader’s expectations or a guarantee to fulfill a marketing category. A middle grade mystery, with a well-intentioned boy detective and a hiding-her-light-under-a-bushel girl sidekick, always reads flat to me. It trades on the stereotypes of a boy with grandiose ideas and the smart girl who helps the boy achieve those goals with a wink to the reader that the boy would be nowhere without her aid. One could argue this being the flip side to the helpless girl who requires a boy savior but neither is revolutionary. Is it possible to have the boy and girl be equal partners? And without an undertone of romance? And for them both to be true to their nature, a boyish boy and a girly girl?

No.

Because our expectations about the characters requires that they correspond to something we recognize in real life, or at the very least within our experiences. And beyond that, the characters themselves must have stereotypical expectations in order for there to be resonance. There is nothing more unrealistic in American fiction (with few exceptions) than a story with 100% caucasian characters, just as there is nothing realistic about a collection of mixed race characters where those differences aren’t noted by the characters themselves. Kids especially are keen on making these distinctions as they are still forming their own thoughts about what behaviors are of a particular character and which are stereotypical.

Every writer who doesn’t feel that writing for children and teens should include a political or social agenda is missing the truth: all writing includes the writer’s agenda. They either rely on and perpetrate stereotypes, for better or worse, or they fight stereotypes in an attempt to get readers to think beyond their own prejudices and expectations. Every detail about character and setting becomes a deliberate choice to either expose or support a stereotype.

What, exactly, is a stereotype is a question for another time.

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Actually, this is more of a question, a call to the universe if you will. What truly are the clichés that are specific to young adult fiction, and not those taken from other sources?

1. trite: stereotyped expression, sentence or phrase, usually expressing popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse; sadder but wiser, strong as an ox

2. trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.

3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.

I think there are many clichés that appear all over the literary landscape, that the use of color or a musical reference isn’t purely a young adult thing, but I’m hard pressed to come up with anything truly YA.

Rebellion against authority?

Bully Boys and Queen Bees?

The nerdy kid who saves the day/wins the prize/is accepted by the crowd?

I know that for middle grade novels I have grown weary of the boy-girl friendship where the girl is a sidekick who is smarter than the boy but lets him think he’s figured things out for himself. This is generally coupled with the equally annoying mystery story where some plucky kids manage to solve some mystery no adult could.

This whole idea has been rolling around in my head since I saw the interview with Maurice Sendak by Stephen Colbert where the faux conservative attempted to reduce the basic idea behind picture books to a simple formula:

Sendak: You know the formula
Colbert: You just need an animal… and something they’ve lost
Sendak: Well, yes, most books for children are very bad
Colbert: A squirrel lost their mittens.
Sendak: There you go.
Colbert: The buffalo lost its gun
Sendak: You’ve just written two children’s books

Kidding aside, is the lost-and-found story in picture books fits the “trite or commonplace through overuse” definition of cliché, yet it seems to elemental at the same time. So, with YA, in the end when the boy gets the girl (or girl gets the boy, or boy-boy, girl-girl, &c.) are we looking at a cliché? When our heroic main character saves the day or conquers their fear or achieves their goal, cliché?

Is writing for children simply a question of cliché management?

No, really, I’m asking. What sort of clichés do you see? What are the things a YA story can’t seem to be successful without these days? All comments and answers appreciated.

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Okay, so, this might have been a rising trend, what, ten years ago? This might have been newsworthy a couple of times maybe five years ago? Now it seem like every five or six weeks (around the same sales cycles that Barnes & Nobles shuffles its stock) some newspaper runs a feature about this “crazy” new trend where adults are reading YA books. Wacky, right?

Today’s article of note comes from the Boston Globe, and the hook this time is that the poor adults can’t find Twilight at the local book store because it’s not with regular fiction but “in the back” with the YA novels. Which is cute, and quaint, and a little ridiculous. Ridiculous because literally ten years ago I was filing Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books in both YA and Sci-fi/Fantasy. Ender’s Game as well. And we had The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in fiction and YA. Maguire’s Wicked took it’s time leaving the adult fiction shelves but eventually was also shelved in YA.

The point, and the reason this is not news, is that savvy booksellers and retail merchandisers put books where people expect to find them. If you have a crossover book that straddles a couple of sections – Stephen King has been doing this for years – you put copies of the book in multiple places for the simple reason that for every person who asks for help finding a title there are three who don’t find it and assume it’s out of stock. You don’t give your retail customers a chance to walk away empty-handed, you figure out that there might be some customers who would expect a book to be in one place and don’t necessarily want to feel insulted that they didn’t realize there were strict marketing rules involved. Seriously, do retail booksellers want to drive people to Amazon, where they aren’t forced to guess a genre in order to find what they’re looking for?

Naturally, that’s not the whole story here, because once you start talking about YA book trends you simply must mention the most recent movie based on a YA series coming out, and perhaps ride the coattails of a couple other titles people have already heard of, and then interview a few local writers for their perspective, and call it a day.

I really shouldn’t complain that any books are getting media attention and perhaps boosting sales, but could we maybe stop with the blatant attempt to tell this same story as a means of selling news? YA, hot topic, braced by a very vocal, buzz-generating community, I get it. But how about instead of talking about the same books, or giving more publicity to established adult authors who have made the leap into the money pit of YA, why not do something radical: create a YA beat. Give some column space to talk about books and trends that haven’t been reported to death. Maybe an old-fashioned three-dot column with smaller news snippets, brief reviews, and the occasional interview.

Damn it, I want that job.

Dear Boston Globe,

It has come to my attention that you like publishing features about the books and trends in children’s publishing, but you tend to write only the most obvious stories. You may have had critics who would occasionally review a few titles here and there, but in an industry that is losing sales in every other area, children’s books is the one place where sales have steadily increased during the current we’re-not-calling-it-a-depression recession. And once full-function tablets and e-readers become cheaper than cell phones, it will be a youth-driven market that will fully define the future of publishing. Will you be positioned to break that news as it happens, or will you ride in the way-back of the family station wagon and give updates on the industry’s exhaust?

What you need is a children’s and young adult beat. Regular installments – weekly at least, not monthly or whenever someone decides to pitch a story – where people can go to find news and reviews of the literature that is shaping and entertaining the minds of the rising generations. You need someone who reads these books regularly, constantly, and talks about them openly via social media. You could become a valuable community asset that would lead the way in providing a resource for parents and young adults (they read the news too, you know, and they smirk at your current attempts to speak to them) to discover what is out there in the world of books. Think of the children!

Should this idea interest you, I am available to discuss it further. I have a varied background that I feel makes me uniquely qualified, and more importantly I possess the desire to see a real change in how books for children and young adults are discussed in the media.

What do you say?

I’m sure there are better, less back-handed ways to do this, but what can I say.

 

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