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How Much Reality Can I Take?

Note: Some of this post is adapted from “How Much Reality Can I Take,” posted originally on April 16, 2011.

“Time for another sweeping generalization: YA novels will end with more connections (new ones or healed ones) than disconnections. And most certainly, the book’s major relationships will not be left disconnected.….that teen reader is delivered to an emotionally safe landing place. The assurance that there will be such a landing place represents the line between YA and adult literary fiction.”

– Marsha Qualey, “Real or Imagined: The Line between Young Adult, Crossover, and Adult Fiction”

By page 24 of the YA novel Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters, we learn that the protagonist, Johanna, has lost her mother, has been abandoned by her sister, has been assaulted by a mentally disabled boy at school, and has a crush on a decidedly violent girl named Reeve. Oh, and did I mention that Johanna works for hospice?

On page 24, I had to put the book down. And ask myself: In my fiction, how much reality can I take?HWRDSTDAON 300x200

When I pick up novels, I need a coherent story woven to produce meaning. I don’t turn to narrative for a “here’s what’s happening” reflection of reality, the fact that life is terrible sometimes or all the time. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, abandonment, and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. She also shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on either fear and lust.

This doesn’t mean Johanna won’t find parts of her best self beyond page 24. I just wasn’t willing to wait around for a sign.

By page 24 of my YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, we’ve seen Wendy at age 15 ripped from her home to a new state, furious with her narcissistic mother, and bullied by a Mean Girl. Enough bad things happen that a writing partner told me at one point during the drafting process, “I just want to see Wendy happy.”

I understood what she meant. I answered this concern by showing Wendy passionate about something, which led to new chapter where Wendy struts down a school hallway with her life soundtrack blaring, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Wendy’s not doing cartwheels of delight, but she’s empowered and she’s inspired, enough to take on the Mean Girl.  I also revised to introduce two other teens, Tanay and Andrew, who reach out to Wendy and show an interest. It’s not happy-happy-joy-joy portrayal of life, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.

Is that enough light to balance the darkness? I like to think so.

I’m a huge fan of The Wire, The Killing, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and House of Cards. I willingly follow gruesome mafia killings, sociopathic politicians, and desperate drug deals. I do avert my eyes, I do gasp in horror, and I do think about these situations long after the credits roll. Why? In each of these stories, someone has hope, faith, or ambition to change something. The characters grow, they face consequences of their actions, and they struggle to find meaning. Even the sociopaths get their due; no one escapes unscathed. 

Officer McNulty of The Wire strives to be “natural police,” and Bunk and other cops rise to the occasion alongside him. In Episode 4 of Season 1, McNulty and Bunk return to an old murder scene, and while cussing colorfully with gruesome images of the murder victim splayed out on kitchen linoleum, garner enough evidence that sloppy police work didn’t recover before. They go back to do a job right, and amidst the graphic horror of things, there is renewal and hope.

Weeds, on the other hand, I had to stop watching. Tell me if you love it and found a moment of redemption; I couldn’t stick around with the careless, flippant, and nihilist lifestyles.

I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. There are sociopaths, and there are pedophiles. But as I present shades of various hells on earth, I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess. I need my Wendys to find a reason to keep dancing. 

Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no journey towards Good or Right, just photographic rendering of actions, habits, and tendencies, then those readers like me who believe there’s a purpose to our lives may not stay for the rest of the show.

At the end of the movie Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven races away from home in the middle of the night, having been beaten horribly by his father–so badly, he will one day lose his hearing. The movie imagines young Ludwig diving into a pond and floating, a smile lighting his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, often called “Ode to Joy.” In the midst of great sorrow is respite and healing peace. While his ears ring with pain, the boy still hears the strains of a melody in his head, beauty he will one day create.

We all seek joy, that “bright spark of divinity” Schiller wrote of in his poem “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven set to music. Literature can give us that safe landing space where happiness thrives. Stories can let us trust for at least a moment, perhaps only in our heads, that all is well. 

 How much reality is too much reality in a young adult novel? Let me know your thoughts. 

  • Do you recall reading a book or seeing a film at a young age that marked you for life? (For me it was the amputations in Gone With the Wind; at age seven I was haunted for days by the scene of a solider screaming, “Don’t cut! Don’t cut!”)
  • If you read my Wendy novel, is it “young adult” or better described as “young adult for adults”? At what age would you introduce it to someone, and why? 
  • What young adult books have you read that ride or cross the line? Which ones are “just right”?

Writing Prompts:

Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel:

  • Is there realism?
  • Do characters act “in character” and follow a code of consistency?
  • Is there an arc, or journey, that transforms a character?
  • Do things “fit” together? Is there coherence among plot, character, setting, image, etc?
  • Is there emotional connection between characters?
  • Is there redemption and hope?
  • Does the story accurately portray young adulthood while allowing an “emotionally safe landing space”?
  • Is there enough resolution balanced with realistic limbo and possibility?

 

How Much Reality Can I Take?

“Time for another sweeping generalization: YA novels will end with more connections (new ones or healed ones) than disconnections. And most certainly, the book’s major relationships will not be left disconnected.….that teen reader is delivered to an emotionally safe landing place. The assurance that there will be such a landing place represents the line between YA and adult literary fiction.”

— Marsha Qualey, “Real or Imagined: The Line between Young Adult, Crossover, and Adult Fiction”

Photo by Nathan Cook

By page 24 of Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters, we learn that the protagonist, Johanna, has lost her mother, has been abandoned by her sister, has been assaulted by a mentally disabled boy at school, and has a crush on a decidedly violent girl named Reeve. Oh, and did I mention that Johanna works for hospice?

By page 24 I had to put the book down. And ask myself: How much reality can I take?

What we like to read is all about taste–whether you like chocolate with your peanut butter in an orange wrapper or chocolate so dark and pure from a Belgian clime that it tastes like butter…I know people who would gobble either. I’m not much of a memoir or nonfiction reader, so it’s no surprise that when I pick up novels, I need a coherent story woven to produce meaning. I don’t turn to narrative for a “here’s what’s happening” reflection of reality. I can turn to truTV (supposedly “actuality”) for that. I also don’t need darkly realistic fiction with no sign or hint of redemption (see my guide for signs of redemption in a work).

I know life is terrible sometimes or all the time, depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, and I don’t avert my eyes from the news. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, or abandonment and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. And she shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on fear and lust.

I know this is how humans behave, and some people run on these two gears only most of their lives. I wouldn’t want to be friends with them, though. I consider my reading much like my taste in chocolate–something I want to keep around and maybe try again sometime.

M or F? by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts I did keep reading. Some would say it is unrealistic because there’s a Gay/Straight Alliance at school with kids who are definitely out and there are devoted environmentalist teens. Having taught at schools where this is possible, I question those who say it can’t happen, but all the same, I don’t feel a novel must represent the majority or the average rather than the exception. But let’s get beyond details of scenery and character type: let’s get to meaning, because this book has plenty of it. M or F? follows the relationship of Frannie and Marcus, two devoted friends who share a brain. They think alike and care deeply for one another. Marcus has been out to Frannie since he moved to the school, and they accept one another, foibles and all, with open hearts. When Frannie falls for the environmentalist who also strikes Marcus’ fantasy, things get interesting. Their struggle with romance and friendship ignites a series of IM high jinks worth following.

Bleah! Sounds like a romp, you say. The feel-good movie of the year! Give me stark reality. I want blood, guts, murder, real–with a healthy dose or redemption.

I can hang with that, too. I just started watching two series–The Wire and The Killing–and love both. I loved The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Why do I stick with gruesome mafia killings, violent deaths of teen girls, and desperate drug situations in low-rise projects? Because in each of these I’ve mentioned, someone has hope, faith, drive, or ambition. McNulty of The Wire strives to be “natural police” and Bunk and other cops rise to the occasion alongside him. In Episode 4 of Season 1, McNulty and Bunk return to an old murder scene, and while cussing colorfully with gruesome images of the murder victim splayed out on kitchen linoleum, garner enough evidence that sloppy police work didn’t recover before. Somebody went back and did a job right, and amidst the graphic horror of things, there is renewal and hope.

Weeds, on the other hand, I had to stop watching. Tell me if you love it and found a moment of redemption; I couldn’t stick around with the careless, flippant, and nihilist lifestyles.

M or F? deals honestly with sexual orientation and young love. It also explores loyalty between friends and how we can betray one another while pursuing our own desires. This important exploration makes the book worthy of a classroom read, and co-author Lisa Papademetriou also provides a teacher’s guide for this purpose. There’s lust, but it’s not reveled in with graphic sidetrails the way Rage quickly descends. I believe in describing teen lusts and teen dreams, but like the judge, I know when things wax a bit too pornographic and don’t care to quote it for you. Or, let’s put it this way: before you show me your panties, show me your brain. I want to know why I should like you as a person before you undress.

In Rage, I know that Johanna means well, trying to tutor the violent boy and serve at hospice, but she goes through the motions of serving, either spacing out while someone dies to fantasize about her love interest, Reeve, or trying to escape when forced to tutor the violent boy. She is powered by loneliness and lust. Her best friend asks her to leave the house so she can sleep with her boyfriend.

Now this portrayal is authentic and no doubt strikes a chord with teens wracked by these struggles. We are selfish creatures in high school and act out of our worst desires. A teen or adult reader may appreciate this honest mirror and want to immerse herself deep in the ugly of the moment. Johanna is a lost protagonist, headed into a downward spiral after a dangerous girl. The blurb promises this: “In the precarious place where attraction and need collide, a teenager experiences the dark side of a first love and struggles to find her way into a new light.”

I don’t think I can wait around for the “new light.” It’s not that I can’t hang with trouble. It’s just that I need to know that Johanna has something to cling to–a decent friend, a concerned adult–and not a careless teacher who leaves her alone with a violent boy or a self-centered older sister or best friend. I haven’t met a redeeming soul yet by page 24. There is a hint of Johanna’s mom being a good force, but that’s not fleshed out yet.

I think about “how much realism” issue all the time because I’ve had an least one writing partner say of my WIP, ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US: HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT: “I just want to see Wendy happy.” I understood the comment, and how I answered it is was by showing Wendy passionate about something. I wrote a new chapter where she struts down a school hallway with her life soundtrack blaring, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Wendy’s not doing cartwheels of delight, but she’s empowered, she’s inspired, she’s angry, she’s righteous. After this scene she takes bold action of revenge. Within the next 15 pages, there are three “interventions” by individuals striving to connect with this alienated, freakish girl: two teens and a teacher. I can’t say there’s much happy-happy-joy-joy swirling and very few warm fuzzies, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.

In the first 24 pages, I can’t find a single soul who Johanna would want to trust. That scares me a bit. Realistic? Sure. Readable? Not so much.

I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. Sociopaths. Pedophiles. Life is ugly and that’s a truth key to my tale. I present shades of various hells on earth. But call me Pollyanna or Fairy Tale Fanny, but I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess.

Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no Good, no Right, just habits, traditions, and other human endeavors of an anthropological bent, then those readers who believe there’s a purpose to our lives may not stay for the rest of the show.

At the end of the movie Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven races away from home in the middle of the night, having been beaten horribly by his father–so badly, he will one day lose his hearing. The movie imagines young Ludwig diving into a pond and floating, a smile crossing his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with “Ode to Joy.” Here in the midst of great sorrow is sudden respite and healing peace. The boy still finds beauty in the strains of a melody he will someday create while his ears ring with pain.

Maybe Johanna will find love and light somewhere within the pages of Rage. I hope so. Maybe someone else who likes a certain kind of read will stick around to see.

Redemption versus nihilism. Guess which wins for me, every time?

Writing Prompts:

Ask these questions of your YA manuscript:

Literary Goals:

• Is there realism?
• Do characters act “in character” and follow a code of consistency?
• Do things “fit” together? Is there coherence among plot, character, setting, image, etc?

YA Goals:

• Is there emotional connection between characters?
• Is there redemption and hope?
• Is there enough clarity in the resolution for YA (ages 16-18), balanced with some realistic limbo and possibility? Does the story accurately portray the liminal stage of young adulthood while allowing an “emotionally safe landing space”?

15 Going on 40

“The ’50s was a stupid time.” — my mom

Someone once told me the 1950s was a Golden Age and how she wished life now could go back to what it was then. To which I replied, “Sure, as long as you weren’t black, brown, a woman, gay…”

So when I reminisced with a friend the other day about Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen and found it at the library–a book I’d read and reread growing up in the early eighties–I checked the copyright date. 1956. No wonder this book about a teen’s love life was fine for me to read in fifth grade.

Modern teens ought to read it, even if only to make them incredulous that high schoolers could ever be this innocent and nice. In contrast, the 16 year-old protagonist of my novel sees life through a lens of adult skepticism, dismissing trust and eschewing kindness because she’s seen way too much. First, there’s a personal trauma she’s survived, and then there’s what she sees every day on TV. Sex and the City. Marilyn Manson. Hugh Hefner and his revolving door of “Girls Next Door” (in the 21st century this phrase means live-in Bunnies), where teen Kendra is taken in as concubine, claiming,”Hef saved me.” Anna Nicole Smith lolling on the floor squealing for Howard K. Stern to fish her lipstick out of the toilet. The Kardashians. Never mind cholera in Haiti, dictators spewing hate; and TV news and talk radio spewing polarized discourse if not violent, racist vitriol. The world is vast, complex, tasteless, and dangerous–and right at her cable-surfing fingertips.

In Fifteen, white and suburban Jane Purdy listens to radio. Her family doesn’t own a TV. She spends her Saturdays baby sitting and knitting argyle socks for her love interest. She is a Plain Jane like no nerd today. I would pit the worldly wisdom of any quiet, unassuming nerd today against the savvy Jane Purdy has.

Quoth Jane, “I would adore a plain old American hamburger.” This is after Jane is repelled and flummoxed by her first taste of Chinese food (and she lives just outside of San Francisco!). Her date saves her with a hamburger. Many American kids today have run across sushi at the supermarket, have had Mexican food somewhere besides Taco Bell, and are conversant with curry as much as Coke. If they can’t get to these foods themselves, many of them get access to TV and Internet showcasing the miraculous dishes of the Food Network.

Jane on her future: “She did not want to be a brilliant student. She didn’t want to be intellectually curious. She wanted to be Stan’s girl, dancing with him in the gymnasium of Woodmont High.”

It’s hard to imagine goals of today’s girls this simple. Even girls without resources get their heads filled with dreams and drama via TV, movies, and the Web. Some good, like Mia Hamm scoring a goal or Tiffany Hayes of UConn sinking a three–or Coach Tara VanDerveer who led her Stanford girls to the first UConn upset in a looooong while (GO CARDINAL!). American Idol dreams, Apprentice dreams, Discovery Channel dreams. These our girls juggle alongside dreams of home and family. In fact, apparently they can also go shopping for them if you believe the creepy Beyaz commercial.

It’s hard not to learn of all these dreams and options with the amount of print and e-information available. Jane knew what her teachers and librarians handed her or her parents told her.

Some dreams, though, remain not so good. All you have to do is watch the bachelorette-fashion-bridal reality TV and wonder if in our age of Bridalplasty and Bad Girls Club, whether the corsets of beauty have truly been loosened.

Quoth Jane’s friend, Julie, describing a girl, Bitsy, from the enemy camp: “She had to wear real high heels, because she is so little…She made me feel…a yard wide as if I should be running around with a hockey stick instead of dancing.”

Girls are allowed to be more sizes than ever today, at least lengthwise. While there’s still enormous pressure to be skeletal, a 6’2″ girl isn’t considered an Amazon, and an athletic girl isn’t considered freakish or unattractive.

Cleary does a nice job of wrapping us in cotton wool and soothing us into a dreamworld of contentment (that is, if you can believe this world exists for some. It did. It still does for some privileged and sheltered children. I know because I was one.) However, she’s no Alice Munro, who can make a Pallid Polly teen leap off the page with era-appropriate yet timeless angst. I say YA novels need to address lust and yearning in honest yet palatable ways and face the varying shades of darkness out there. Redemptively.

There’s a reason YA is so hot among adults today. Our youth bear carry more than their share of cynicism and jadedness–and not just for those over 30. When I pitch my YA novel to agents, I mention its crossover potential to the adult market, describing the protagonist this way:

Wendy is a YA character who can speak to modern teens as well as Gen X, Gen Y, and Boomers, whether she’s quoting “Billie Jean,” questioning social barriers, or overcoming the ironic loneliness of a hyper-connected age.

Jane Purdy of 1956 could not imagine a black man wowing the white world with miraculous dancing to a song about a seductress and her love child. Jane did not question her future role as homemaker or feel lonely in a small bedroom community where everyone knew her business.

Right now I’m reading two modern YA novels — Lush by Natasha Friend (2007) and Hate List by Jennifer Brown (2009). In the first, an eighth-grade girl confronts her father’s alcoholism. In the second, a high-school girl faces her community after her boyfriend kills several students Columbine-style, all of whom are on a hate list she helped him create. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that YA stories have changed so much in fifty years. You would think that in this half-century in which we’ve seen advancements such as Title IX and workplace equity through the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, that the concerns of the girls today would be brighter and bolder. But these teen girls slog through trauma and darkness in the same way girls have for centuries before–yet perhaps with more honesty, openness, and truth-telling than our society has ever known before.

How are we helping our youth process all this stimuli and information? What is our responsibility in navigating these stories? Fifteen needs no adult discussion. These other books do. As much as teens want to raise themselves, they can’t go it alone.

Writing Prompts for Students:

— Describe a story you’ve read that deals with a real-world issue, one you can relate to. What was realistic about this story? What did you gain from reading this story?
— Make a list of the topics you think today’s YA novels should address. Star your top three. Then write further about at least one of the subjects, mentioning information, feelings, or any other details you think these stories shouldn’t forget.
— Describe what you know of “old-school” teen life. Name an era that your parents, grandparents, or other adults you know grew up in, and describe what you know of their lives back then. What intrigues you, amuses you, or disgusts you about the prior era?
— Do you ever wish you had grown up in a different time? Why or why not?

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

— Imagine that you can design a literature course of only YA novels. Which YA novels address important stories for today’s teens to encounter? These could be novels from a range of eras. Create your “top ten” list and name the topics each addresses.
— What topics should teen novels today address? Not address? Why?
— Compare your teen years and aspects of the era you lived in to the experiences of today’s teens. What is similar and what is different? Are you nostalgic or wistful for your bygone era? Why or why not?
— Do you ever wish you had grown up in a different time? Why or why not?
— If a YA story is going to deal with difficult subjects, what should happen in your classroom or home when this novel is read? What points would you raise to the teen? What questions would you ask? What activities would you lead?

Why Harry Potter Should Help Raise Your Kids

I’ll admit coming late to the whole Harry Potter thing. As in, really late: a few weeks ago I just embarked on book three. I don’t think there’s much better than a day off work, chocolate plus Fritos, and a great book like a warm blanket.

This is only to be topped by making your own story magic. Clearly I had this figured out at nine: that my little cahier could hold a hundred stories. This was my version of wizardry and casting spells.

If Harry Potter tales make you feel safe yet make your heart beat fast, and if they make you forget yourself, then we already have three good reasons for our kids, preteens, and even older teens to read them. We all want escape–the healthy kind that lets our mind rest, our spirits calm, and our hope soar.

You can enjoy the twisty turns of the hairpin plot for sheer, diamond-slope action and breathless momentum, and you can also read deeply for gems in the subtext–the values. I’ll dare say “family values” said here without praise or scorn, but what I think family values ought to be. What Harry finds at Hogwarts–his real family–teaches him to be a wise, kind human being.

Some Adults Do Know Best. Professor Dumbledore has Harry’s back and he knows exactly what tools Harry will need when. Plus, everything’s better when he’s around.

Phonies: Not Just Made for Muggles. Check out Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. WIth him Rowling mirrors our society’s PR hounds and paparazzi, showing us how easily we’re sold by a stunning smile and a flashy tale. He’s also a bad a fake as the Dursleys who lie their way through life, a standout moment being when they pretend Harry doesn’t exist in order to impress a potential customer, Mr. Mason.

And a corollary of that: The Truth Will Always Out. Whether in the form of a house elf Dobby or Hagrid’s baby dragon, you can’t hide things for long. These symbolic outings won’t be lost on the likes of Bernie Madoff or any Hollywood star who’s tried to conceal adultery.

People Choose Evil. We May Want Slytherin Down Deep in Our Hearts, But We Don’t Have to Go There.

Heroism is Handed to the Unlikely. The Messy-Haired, the Orphaned, the Quiet. Initially, Harry is unimpressive. He’s a victim, he’s a dodger of bullies, and he’s a skinny survivor who barely escapes high jinks hardly of his own making. We’re not ready to hold any parades, and he’s not even as well-defined as the academic, obsessive Hermione or the goofy, hot-headed Ron. Yet he emerges strong, wise, and dependable at all the right moments. We also like to believe that our ordinary selves might be worthy of note someday for great deeds.

Even When You’re a Hero, People Will Hate You. Every time Harry and his cohorts accidentally lose points for Gryffindor, the rest of his house and sometimes the whole of Hogwarts turn on him. At least with the first two books, Harry’s fans are quite fickle.

Your True Friends Stay With You When It Gets Ugly. Like Forbidden Forest ugly. They will face basilisks and white queens and boggarts and trolls for your sake. I don’t think quirky friends come more loveable than Hermione and Ron, and the secondary characters like Neville Longbottom also have their heroic scenes.

More Expensive Sports Gear Doesn’t Mean You’ll Win. No matter what Malfoy’s dad just bought him yesterday, sometimes you’ll get the snitch with the 2000 model, and that’s all that matters.

These are just my first musings of why Harry’s captured hearts. I’ve hit on themes because I’m thinking a lot these days about YA books being redemptive. Check out how blogger and author Nathan Bransford identifies Rowling’s other skills–allowance for character flaws to management of an artful, intricate plot to deft usage point of view.

Back to Book Three. Sirius Black’s on the loose in Hogwarts. Why I stopped there, at one of the scarier moments, I’ll never know. Wait: yes, I do. Another tenet for the list of Family Values: Sometimes You Have to Put the Book Down, Because When You’re Big, There are Consequences the Next Day.

Which is why I miss being nine and staying up late under the covers. I wasn’t the one who had to get me up for school in the morning. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

Writing Prompts for Students:

— Which Harry Potter character are you? Why?
— Which Harry Potter book is your favorite? Why? What do you remember most?
— If you could make a bumper sticker that sums up what a Harry Potter book or the whole series means to you, what would you choose?
— Write four status updates or tweets for Harry or another favorite character.
— Do you believe in magic? Why or why not?
— How do you define magic? Is the magic in the Harry Potter series true magic, in your opinion?
— Write a story where a character suddenly discovers s/he has a certain power unknown before this moment.

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

— Have you read the Harry Potter series? Why or why not? Which YA or middle grade or children’s books do you prefer?
— Are the messages that the series sends the kind of messages you feel are wholesome, redemptive, and wise? Why or why not?
— If you could craft a series for children, preteens, or YA, what messages would you like the work to subtly or not so subtly send?
— Some agents tell those who write middle grade or YA works to take care that their works don’t come off as “preachy.” Have you read any works that seem that way? What do you think? Should authors take care to be more subtle, symbolic, and clever with sending messages through their works?
— Should authors even bother to send messages or should they just tell the story?
— Make a list of books you must teach and books you would like to teach. Which books are a risk? Why? How might you explain and teach them in a way that others see these works have merit?

Seeking Redemption

Okay, what’s the best Christmas present ever? Having a boy who happens to be your stepson tell you that a book you gave him is pretty cool.

“I read like 40 pages last night,” he said. Then a day later, “I finished.”

I bought Heavy Metal and You by Chris Krovatin off Amazon after reading some reviews, then read it myself before I wrapped it (or sent it back). Each time the F word appeared, each time drinking occurred, each time the possibility of sex was mentioned, I made a mental note. Where is this going? How will the character’s choice be handled? The jury was still out.

I finished it and deemed it worthy of boy consumption, especially by one whose first choice of music is thrash metal. This story of a heavy metal-obsessed youth was now authorized for his access. Why, despite all the aforementioned flaws? Because the tale was redemptive.

With teens in that strange, limbo stage of kid one day and young adult the next, you can tear your hair out wondering if that R movie or that less-than-savory language in a classic piece of literature is doing unspeakable damage to heart, mind, and soul. English teachers wrestle with this before they crack open a book with a class; how will we get through this hypersexual language in the repartee between Mercutio and Romeo? Do we explicate it, or do we ignore it? How about the mention of rape and incest in To Kill a Mockingbird, never mind the “n” word in that or Twain a dozen other canonical works on the yearly American Lit lists?

Here’s my checklist of how difficult words, difficult themes, and difficult character behaviors redeem themselves:

1. Does the character struggle with issues of conscience? Does he act wrongly but reflect at some point about mistaken actions? Is there internal as well as external conflict?
2. To what degree are wrong actions glorified–such as taking drugs, cussing, etc.?
3. Does this character or a foil evolve in any way? How static and trapped are the characters in a one-note stance or attitude?
4. Does the plot and its resolution challenge the darkness–and by darkness I mean hatred, hedonism, narcissism, racism, sexism–or is it merely stated, as in, “People make terrible choices, terrible things happen, and well, there it is.” Is the plot merely a mirror of human misery or is it a discussion of human misery? By discussion, I mean, is there interesting action that explores our journey through misery, with sparks of light somewhere, giving some kind of hope?

When we talk about the book, I raise these issues. I also treat the plot seriously–those choices by the characters, analyzing them without immediate judgment, trying to get to the root of the evil all humans seek. How else do we train youth to listen to the angels on their shoulders?

There is always the risk that exposing youth to the existence of bad choices can preach an unintended message of, “Well, he did it, so why not me? He survived it, so why not me?” True.

I feel safer knowing as a stepmom that I am in charge of the discussion that occurs before and after. This is not a simple pitch in the dark, hoping the ball will hit some target; it’s a throw within your control. He knows I already read it, and he knows what I think of cussing and underage drinking.

As a stepparent, I’ll take different risks than I would as a teacher pitching to 100-some students; the audience is much more diverse, and thus your argument has to be sure and solid–often erring on the side of canon rather than contemporary–in order to justify a choice. You want to talk with colleagues who’ve taught the work before, besides having read several critical reviews. And if you’re pioneering a choice, listen carefully to all the feedback you get. Risks I’ve taken in the past include Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, and Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen. I still stand by these works as worthy and redemptive.

As you build your reading list for children or students, do the works meet the four-question test? Can you add some questions to the quiz?

If you feel you can argue the case for this book in front of one of your parents or grandparents, your favorite English teacher, and/or your partner, chances are the work is redemptive. Then you can head off to the child with work in hand, and gamble that he, too, will see all the light shimmering through the darkness.