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?


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.