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?

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