Monday, April 30, 2012


            Now.  Living in the present moment.  For better or for worse, it’s where young adults live.  For adults, this can be frustrating.  We have a keen sense of the past’s influence and perhaps a keener sense of what needs to be planned and prepared for the future.  We want teenagers to understand the history of their grandparents, their country, their world.  We want them to plan how they will accomplish all their schoolwork, involve themselves in activities that will become bridges to their futures, and we want them to work hard enough to keep open the doors to colleges, internships, and travel.  How often have we heard the complaint tossed around about what’s being read in class?  You know it.  It’s so old!  It has no relevance to me, today, now.  How often have we felt the tension as young adults strive to seize the day?  We all did it.  Cut class on the first warm day of spring, left a class assignment undone to buy a prom dress, or got lost in a song played over and over again.  Perhaps the intensity of Now in young adults’ lives is what drives so many YA authors to write in first person, present tense, focusing so often on short periods of time exploded out with all their nuances into whole stories.
            The present moment, the now, is a gift.  Teenagers are acutely aware of it, perhaps because they live in a land between fading childhood and endless adulthood.  As an adult, my anxieties about the past and my plans for the future constantly distract me from the present moment.  I covet young people’s ability to be present, but much as I strive to be present, to just be here now, it might be my greatest challenge.  World-famous philosopher, Eckhart Tolle, urges us, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.”  How true.  How true.
            Teens today live in a unique brand of now.  When I went off to college, I left my friends.  We spread across the nation, lost to each other, save for the rare letter writer.  But when my brother left for college ten years later, he took his friends with him.  Through e-mail, then Facebook, and texting, he had constant access to the countless Nows of his friends and they to his.  Technology is so often disparaged, especially as it relates to teens, but how spiritual, almost, to be able to tap into any one of your friends at any given moment, your now connecting to his.
            Not that the power of Now, particularly as it relates to technology doesn’t come with its dangers.  There is the obvious –plugged into the web, it is easy to disconnect from the now as it is forged to our location in space.  Unplug, and you are not only present, but present here.  At this crosshair of time and place, now becomes more challenging.
            Living as part of technology’s social network also exposes young people to all kinds of media.  I wonder sometimes if the ability to access information too quickly supersedes opportunities for personal, original thought.  For instance, I’ve watched young student teachers create lesson plans by going straight to the Internet instead of considering their students’ needs and their own abilities.
            It cannot go without mention that living in the social network presents young people with challenging dilemmas about materialism.  They are targets for advertising, each keystroke personalizing the ads appearing on their screens.  And how easy a trap to fall into.  How easy to want that now, and with a click it is yours, arriving on your doorstep almost immediately.  M.T. Anderson’s Feed is coming true.
            But beware the other greater dangers of Now.   Dangers that affect YA authors in particular.  Now can be so powerful for teens it may blot out possible futures.  I am thinking of Whaley’s Cullen and Zarr’s Jill whose college plans become stymied by their present circumstances.  Clay and Hannah in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why exist so in the present moment the tension in this novel blows through the roof!  This novel gave me the only delicious migraine I ever had as I read on into the wee hours of the morning, unable, myself to leave the present moment for a rested tomorrow.  In Thirteen Reasons Why, Clay receives a box of tapes from Hannah, who has recently committed suicide; on these tapes Hannah explains to thirteen people, including Clay, how they played a role in her death.  Her two rules: You listen.  And: You pass it on.  [To the next person on the list.]
            The tapes are so compelling they become all-consuming for Clay.  All through the night, he keeps listening until, finally, after mailing the tapes on, [SPOILER AHEAD!] he encounters another student fading ghostlike from the social scene, and he must decide whether to acknowledge her.  This final scene is haunting to read because Asher has built to it in a way that the very atoms in the air of that present moment are singing.  Clay is a character who uses the power of now to grow.  Hannah, on the other hand, so absorbed in the angst of her situation, cannot see beyond it.  Hence the challenge to YA authors.  To write in the present moment, but aim just high of its horizon so young adult readers might glimpse their way to the future.  Jay Asher does this and more.  Though Hannah is lost to the Now, Clay gives readers a glimpse of Now’s power to grow the next moment.  And Asher’s vehicle of Hannah’s cassette tapes does an amazing job of bringing the past to bear on the present as well.
            In Invitations to the World, Richard Peck describes YA Lit. as being “on a collision course with our readers’ most deeply held beliefs”, as testing the boundaries of those beliefs.  If young adults believe in the Now, YA Lit. explores that territory, but also acknowledges what lies beyond that. It challenges Present Moment Beliefs like: Young people don’t die and Rules don’t apply to us, so that in the long run the young adult reader sees we are all, Hannah and Clay both, held responsible for the consequences of our actions.

Monday, April 23, 2012

End-of-the-World Love

            To teens, love feels real, complex, and unbelievably urgent.  I think Lev Grossman puts it best in a March 2012 Time Magazine article entitled Love Among the Ruins:

There’s an unshakeable conviction within every adolescent –including the adolescent who lurks inside every adult – that love, your particular love, is more important than anything else.  Grown-ups, tired and jaded and mind-controlled beings that they are, will try to tell you otherwise, that it’s not the end of the world, but don’t trust them.  They’re just jealous.  They only wish they could still remember what the end of the world felt like.

Hormones, though often referred to by adults in a patronizing way, put teenagers in touch with a heightened physical experience many adults covet.
So how are these YA authors doing it?  In The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass suggests some approaches to writing sex, which certainly apply to YA, but I think his suggestions can be applied as easily to unconsummated love and attraction.  Maass says authors should avoid the obvious emotions of longing, desire, and lust.  Instead, he suggests looking for oblique details and secondary emotions that can make attraction, and even sex, refreshing and new on the page.  And doesn’t it make sense that this is how such scenes should read for young adults experiencing these feelings for the first time?
By these standards, Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, at bare minimum, crosses into the realm of YA.  For Oscar, love becomes an issue of life and death on many levels.  (Spoiler ahead!)  Diaz gives us a quintessential example of focus on oblique details and secondary emotions:

…but what really got him was not the bam-bam-bam of sex –it was the little intimacies that he’d never in his whole life anticipated, like combing her hair or getting her underwear off a line or watching her walk naked to the bathroom or the way she would suddenly sit on his lap and put her face into his neck.

But I think Maass’ advice works just as well for hand-holding, as in L’Engle’s Camilla:

Now I was terribly conscious in each finger, in my palm, in every bit of the skin of my hand, of the contact between us.  I could feel it somehow not just in my hand but all over me.  It was such a big feeling, such a strange one, that we walked for quite a while and I hardly heard anything that Frank was saying because the feel of his hand seemed to fill my ears too.

So end-of-the-world love ranks high on my list of YA descriptors.  Some of my favorite young adult love stories include:

If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman
Camilla by Madeleine L’Engle
The Last Summer (of You and Me) by Ann Brashares
Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor

What are some of your favorite YA love stories?  How do the authors create the intensity of first love on the page?

Monday, April 16, 2012


Warning: Chock full of spoilers!

            Last week I announced, I’d be gradually sharing a list of what makes YA YA.  The first, and so far to me, most important item on my list is this:

Young adult stories marinate in angst.  Not the laughable, melodramatic angst often associated with black-clad, love- lorn teenagers.  Angst that comes from feeling things first before understanding them. 

Maybe I gravitate toward YA because I tend to be consumed by a feeling and then write to figure it out.  Maybe one reason YA as a genre is on fire is because feeling before understanding is a great vehicle for a story.
            My favorite characters in my favorite YA books feel first, and understand later.  Speak’s Melinda (Laurie Halse Anderson) spirals into depression after she’s raped until she comes to terms with her powerlessness and her voice through painting a tree.  Story of a Girl’s Deanna (Sara Zarr) feels the crush of being defined by one mistake until she understands she can confront the person at the heart of the rumors and write her own story.  Paper Towns' Quentin (John Green), driven to uncover the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a girl he thinks he loves, discovers in the end how much he didn’t know about her.  Catcher in the Rye’s Holden (J.D. Salinger) wanders New York City in a fog of depression until a late night confession to his younger sister finally brings him some clarity.  And quintessentially, The Chocolate War’s Jerry (Robert Cormier) loses his boxing match because he is overcome by a rage he only understands once the crowds go home –he's become just as much an animal as the bad guys.
            Recently a friend of mine and I discussed John Corey Whaley’s recent Printz award-winner, Where Things Come Back.  Cullen is practically drowning in angst.  He’s stuck in a painfully dull, small town.  He recently had to identify his overdosed cousin at the morgue.  The attention of the girl he loves turns out to be at most misguided sympathy, at least a distraction from her own troubles.  He’s lost the person he loves most in the world when his brother disappears.  And he watches circumstance crumble the adults in his life one by one.  All the while, he is supposed to be deciding what to do with his life.  Cullen feels first.
            Then Cullen understands.  In the final chapter of Where Things Come Back, Cullen tells us straight up what he’s made of all this:

When I asked him the meaning of life, Dr. Webb got very quiet and then told me that life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life.  I’ll tell you now that I still don’t know the meaning of mine.  And Lucas Cader, with all his brains and talent doesn’t know the meaning of his either.  But I’ll tell you the meaning of all this.  The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it.  The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead.  To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption.  To warn you of physics and zombies and ghosts of your lost brother.  To warn you of Ada Taylor and her sympathy and mothers who wake you up with vacuums.  To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help, but they never do.

So the meaning in his life, despite all his problems, won’t come from a zealous religious mission like the one that caused his brother’s disappearance or from the reappearance of a thought-to-be-extinct bird like the one that’s got his small town crazed.  For Cullen, meaning is more likely to come from Lucas Cader crashing on his floor.
            On some level, I think John Corey Whaley’s comments on the writing of this book address feeling first and understanding later.  He says:

I had an unspoken motto as I wrote the novel: How does one grow up in an impossible world?...With this novel, I set out to not only write a story about the possibility of second chance, but also about the people who crave them the most.

You are going to feel the impossibility of the world first.  With a second chance, you can begin to understand.
            I think Richard Peck says it best in Invitations to the World:

A novel must entertain on every page, but a young-adult novel needs to annoy on three…. the fact that our main characters act upon an epiphany of a new awareness sends them in directions that often unnerve readers….A young adult novel is a shot fired just over the heads of the readers….The novel must reach readers where they are, but it never dares to…leave them where it finds them.

The young adult novel reaches its readers where they feel, in their hearts, in their guts.  Then it takes them one step further to a place of understanding on which they can act.
            Once in a while a sixteen-year-old S.E. Hinton will nail that.  Maybe because writers, even young ones, are all outsiders they possess the perspective to take readers from feeling to understanding.  More often, I think, it takes an adult to write a young adult novel.  At some point, we older ones have all belonged to the young adult set, it’s our extra years that give us the perspective to widen teen readers’ vision just a little, just enough that they can take their next step.

            I’m still hoping you’ll not only comment on this post, but also continue to suggest what else you think make YA what it is.  I’d love to include your opinions!

Monday, April 9, 2012

What is Young Adult?

Amid the increasing popularity of YA Lit with adult readers, the recent release of The Hunger Games has many asking what makes young adult literature young adult?  Meanwhile, I’ve been quietly keeping notes in my writing journal about the same thing. 
I know the argument that labeling books as one thing or another is strictly marketing, and a book is a book is a book no matter who likes it.  However, from a craft perspective, I’m keenly aware that I don’t want my protagonist to sound like a forty-year-old woman masquerading in a concert T-shirt and low-slung jeans.  It’s got to be real.  The characters have to speak for the young readers, not philosophize or reminisce about being a teenager from an adult perspective.
And here’s an extension of the idea that YA has a necessary specificity.  Authors are often asked to consider their settings: why can your story only take place exactly here and nowhere else?  I think the same question can be asked of our young adult audience: why does your story need to be heard by someone who is in this very specific time of his or her life?  I think Richard Peck nailed it when, in Invitations to the World, he said:

In hindsight it seems inevitable, an American inevitability, that any group of people this vulnerable would merit and elicit a literature of their own.

I’m also really leery of lists that try to define young adult, mostly because some of these lists are kind of patronizing.  I don’t write YA to dumb down books or make books exciting enough to tear teens away from social networking for the sake of literature.  I don’t think young people need a vampire or a pink, boy-crazy cover.  I don’t think teenagers are entirely self-consumed and uninterested in the rest of the world.
I believe in young people.  I think they are smart, savvy, and socially concerned, busy figuring out who they are in a challenging world.  (Why so many adults seem to have abandoned their journeys of self-definition, I’m not sure.)
So when I work on characters and voice or toy with story ideas, I am primarily concerned if I am speaking from inside the young adult perspective.  So my next several posts will be an attempt to build a list of what makes YA.  As I get started, I would love to hear what’s on your list.  Maybe you can convince me to add it to mine!