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?


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?