Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Keeping the REAL in Realistic Contemporary YA Fiction

Some people lament about what they call "dark" topics in young adult fiction. They're squeamish about the idea of their kids reading (knowing) about drug use or homosexuality or rape or suicide. "Why can't there be more books about plucky girl sleuths and sunnybrook farms?" is what they're thinking. Yeah, I get it. I'm a parent too, and it's tempting to want to protect our kids, keep them innocent and safely bubbled up beneath our helicopter-y arms. But, uh, good luck with that. Even the plucky sleuths of yore had to fight evil--in the shape of smarmy villains. And wasn't the sunnybrook farm chick an orphan?

I've shared my stance on this before, so I won't rehash, but it's something that's been bugging me--not the fact that YA writers write about this "dark" stuff but how they treat the material.

I don't want to go off on another bad books tangent (also went there before) and I know it's a subjective thing--what works and what doesn't/what's a page turner/what has heart, etc., but I've read a few books lately that I'd hate for my fifteen year old daughter to read. Soap-opera-y junk that highlights a sensational topic the way trashy magazines do, basically just a YA version of peer pressure--portraying drug use or sexting or mean-girl bullying as whatever because everyone is doing it anyway.

Then I had the great good luck to read three books in a row that deal with difficult subjects while never crossing over the line into lurid. The keys to getting this right, I think, have to do with character (as in never putting plot before one) and complexity (sorry, this isn't a black and white world) and heart (when the characters are so real you care about what happens to them).

A few weeks ago I read Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie (a debut novel from Candlewick due out in September) and still can't get the voice of the main character, Matt Foster, out of my mind. The first time we meet him he's one minute away from beating the crap out of a classmate. Not the type of action that typically makes a reader sympathetic. But we soon learn that Matt's buckling under the weight of anger and grief--at the death of his idealized older brother in the Iraq War and at his authoritarian, abusive father. Nevermind his other "smaller" conflicts: dismal grades and a crush on a girl who will likely never see him as more than a friend. When Matt has a chance to see his brother's personal effects, he defies his father and sets out on a quest to figure out who his brother really was.

This book could so easily have veered into stereotype (I don't want to give away the brother's secret) but it never did. Also it's a rare YA novel that deals with war or the armed services. Mark this one as Coming of Age with an unexpected, complex twist.

Buried by Robin MacCready came out in 2006 and for some reason never crossed my path. It only did now because I'm on my own personal quest to read every YA novel edited by the brilliant Julie Strauss Gabel (Why? Because she's my dream editor. Why? Because she edits John Green and Nova Ren Suma and Stephanie Perkins and Ally Condie, just to name a few.)  Anyway, the main character in Buried, Claudine, has got big problems too. Her mother's an alcoholic who's just gone on a binge and taken off and now Claudine's stuck cleaning up the literal and figurative mess.

(Brief digression about parents in YA books. Let's just say that many parents in YA books would not win a Parent of the Year Award. Maybe this is unfair. But the truth is ALL teenagers are struggling one way or another to grow up--to assert themselves--to figure out who they are, apart from their parents. Sometimes this is easy. (Okay. Really. Is this ever easy?) Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes kids are making this human journey toward adulthood under the tutelage of neglectful or abusive or just plain a-hole-ish people. Enter YA literature to present the variety of ways that parents can blow it and that kids can escape and thrive.)

But back to Claudine. She's a model kid, considering her pathetic mom. Gets straight A's. Keeps the trailer clean. Takes care of herself and others. Dutifully attends an Alateen-like group meeting. With messed-up Mom gone, it's even easier to be responsible. Claudine's got a great system for organizing her many tasks, and so what if she bends the truth about her mother's latest disappearance, telling the kids at the meeting that her mom's in rehab? Oh, this book may make you a nervous wreck. Because you'll quickly care about Claudine and her increasingly over the top enabling ways. There's a twist at the end of this one too--that's pretty horrifying but thankfully on the realistic side of the line.

Last but in no way least is Colleen Clayton's soon-to-be-released novel What Happens Next. (I keep hearing at conferences editors saying they're looking for the next Sarah Dessen. Sarah Dessen, if you don't know, is the queen of realistic/contemporary/stand-alone YA fiction.) Okay, editors. So stop looking, because I'm presenting to you: Colleen Clayton.

The topic of this novel is such a potential mine field: date rape. Most writers would slip over the lurid line in a second. But Clayton deftly avoids that. Example one: the voice of sixteen year old Cassidy (Sid) Murphy is honest and wise-cracking and self deprecating. Ordinary world for Sid is joking around with friends and being irritated about her appearance--red hair, big boobs. Example two: the incident itself is handled carefully and the after-effects are realistically complex. Case in point--Sid struggles to tell her mom what happened (and here is a mom who is not awful, by the way) deciding that she can deal with her mom's anger but not her mom's horror and grief. I could not put this book down, marveling the whole time I was reading it that I had no idea what was going to happen.

This is what real is, I suppose. To be thrown into a horrible situation or be faced with a complex problem and NOT know what to do. To have to muddle through and figure things out as you go, probably messing up along the way, maybe even making stuff worse for a while, before you emerge (safe! better? grown up?) on the other side.

Thank goodness our teens have got a few good books to read along the way.


  1. Jody, I'm most of the way through _Wired for Story_ by Lisa Cron (neuroscience meets writing)--she argues very well, from a scientific standpoint, that we read so that we don't have to experience everything. Kind of the opposite POV from those who say that reading about drugs, sex, etc. will steer kids toward doing what they read about. Highly recommended.

  2. Thanks, Tracy. I'll have to look that book up. It makes sense--kind of like the Greek dramatists' version of catharsis--where the audience experiences the emotions without actually having to go through the problem, right?

  3. Thanks for the comment, Deirdre. It is a very fine line for YA writers. If you haven't already, check out Laurie Halse Anderson's website.
    She writes about this topic a lot. Her novel SPEAK is often censored because people (who likely haven't read the book) are uncomfortable with the topic.

  4. Personal effects is one of my favorite books. I still read some of the pages when ever i feel i am down. This just motivates my that my life is perfectly normal...