Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Joys of Young Adult Fiction

This is a "genre" usually overlooked or outright dismissed by most pervayers of "mainstream fiction." That's too bad, because like all the genre ghettoes, it contains some great writing by some great writers.

I'm not talking about fiction written by adults this is about young adults—most of J.D. Salinger's books, or William Golding's Lord of the Flies—some of which only serve to reinforce adults' misconceptions about childhood. (Although how adults can seem to forget being children is something I've never fully comprehended.) I'm talking about fiction written for young adults, with young adult readers in mind.

In fact, this is a vast publishing genre, covering a lot of ground, ranging from the Harry Potter novels to books about teenagers discovering their own sexualities, such as M.E. Kerr's Hello, I Lied. There is, by the way, a strong and growing sub-genre of young adult novels for LGBT teens. A lot of YA fiction gets published every year, and it crosses genres from humor to science fiction to mystery-thriller to romantic-angst: the same topics as purely mainstream adult fiction. It's just that the viewpoint characters are often themselves teenagers.

My last job in Madison, WI, before I left to move to the Twin Cities, and eventually to become a semi-nomad out West, was for a company that took paperback books and rebound them in indestructible hardcovers, to resell them to educational institutions such as school libraries, prison libraries, and the like. The most fun part of the job for me was my re-encounter with many novels and illustrated picture books from my youth. I rediscovered many classics I had read long ago, and loved, and not read since. And I discovered even more new works of great merit.

Young adult fiction at its best discusses those issues of concern to growing young adults, to be sure: Who am I? What do I believe? How do I want to spend my life? But it also gives more than that. A sermon can give you rules for living, if that's all you want. What fiction can give you, rather, is rehearsals and trial-runs for a fully-lived life.

I rediscovered Roald Dahl, for example, and Susan Cooper's modern-dary Arthurian series (which was listed for more than one Newbery Medal), and Will Hobbs, Michael Dorris, Patricia Maclachlan, Scott O'Dell, and numerous others. (The children's book authors are worth a whole other list, and essay. Don't get me going about Maurice Sendak, for one.)

One writer I particularly enjoyed reading more of was Gary Paulsen, who along with Jim Harrison (poet, novelist, essayist, one of my favorite writers of all time) is arguably the legitimate heir of Hemingway. Not in terms of style or subject matter, necessarily. What all three writers share in common is that they are northern Midwesterners. There is a pragmatic sensibility, a willingness to wade in to do what needs to be done, that Hemingway, before his decline into self-parody, exemplified. Paulsen spent many years in Minnesota, up by the border, and ran the Iditarod twice. Harrison, like Hemingway, is from northern Michigan. I'm from Michigan, too. I can spot "Michigan writers." When I encounter a Michigan writer, I can usually tell; the same for most Midwestern writers. It's something you can tell when you look at the basics assumptions the writers make about the shape of the world, the nature of living, and the meaning of death.

This isn't about that spectre of dismissal many writers from either coast use to turn up their noses, so-called "regionalism." (As Jim Harrison once opined, "Certain critics can't cross the Mississippi.") It's about, rather, a shared attitude towards the life, a toughened endurance, a refusal to disengage when things get frightening or challenging. It seems to me that Midwestern writers share those same attitudes of bringing the circle of life into their writing by practicing what they preach, not just writing about it, but actually doing it. Dakota prairie poet Linda Hasselstrom is another of these.

And like many of these Midwestern writers, I too have moved West.

Gary Paulsen has written in some of his novels about places I know, and have been to, and lived nearby. He also writes about one thing many young adult readers are hungrier for than most parents realize: a personal spiritual adventure into self-discovery, which can be undertaken through physical hardship, but also through determination. Many of his most popular YA novels fall into this realm, including the perennial favorite Hatchet, possibly his best-known novel. My personal favorite, though, is Dogsong, about a young Inuit boy who sets out on a journey across the Alaskan interior with only his sled dogs. On the way, his journey becomes mythic, even shamanic, as ancient time folds into present time, and the boy discovers who he really is. The Island is one of Paulsen's most successful novels, because it brings together the nameless spirituality developed by the direct confrontation with the struggle to survive found in Canyons and Hatchet with fully-rounded, well-developed characterizations. The people in The Island are not predictable types; they surprise you with both their actions and their insights.

This is a kind of writing that is not as present in YA fiction as it might be: the journey within, to discover the self. At its best, perhaps all great YZ fiction is bildungsroman, wherein the characters find out more about themselves than they ever imagined they could.

Another writer I discovered who I really appreciated discovering was Graham Salisbury, whose novels of childhood set in mid-century Hawai'i are luminous, dramatic, and stand out from the pack. Blue Skin of the Sea, actually a collection of inter-connected short stories, is a great place to dip in.

If you want to write YA fiction, I'll give you a clue: Don't write down to teenagers. They have very finely-tuned bullshit detectors, and are very good at picking up even the faintest hint of a patronizing attitude. Instead, focus on the second word of "young adult" and treat them as adults; maybe inexperienced because young, but not stupid, and not incapable of imagination. Maybe you'll write using plain words instead of fancy words, but don't write stupid, and don't be condescending.

Here's another clue: Kids and teens who read, who like to read, to love to read, tend to read at higher levels than their nominal grade levels. When I was still a teenager, I read Ulysses for the first time. I never read at my grade level's expectations, I always at a much higher grade level. I have found, through experience, that kids who love to read almost always read at a higher level than adults think they do. They might even conceal it, in an attempt to fit in, and be unnoticed. (Once they trust you, and discover that you share their love of reading, though, all bets are off.) These are the kids you need to write for: this is your audience.

The third clue I have to give relates back to what I mentioned above in Gary Paulsen's novels: There is room in this genre of writing for the story of self-discovery. Indeed, it's a major trope within YA fiction in general. It may seem obvious, but it's worth repeating: your audience is just beginning to discover themselves, who they are, their values, their limits, their endurance. As a writer, you can help them out. You can set out tales that maybe none of your readers will actually physically experience (how many city-born actually could survive in the wild?), but they will still learn from, and re-read, and re-experience.

Vivid writing brings you inside itself, so that what you read becomes like a cinema in your mind, and you feel it in your own body, no matter what the topic, no matter who your audience is. There are so many ways that YA fiction tends to be vivid and visceral, that mainstream "adult" fiction could learn from, to refresh and renew itself, and break out of the stale self-reflexive navel-gazing that most "literary" fiction seems to have fallen into, in the past generation. "Literary" fiction has a great deal to learn from all genres of "genre" fiction, not least of which is the best of young adult fiction.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the tips on writing YA novel, especially the reading up one level part. :D
I have always wanted to write YA novels but not sure how I have some ideas :D

5:42 AM  
Anonymous Jo Richards Penney said...

These are good observations. I was a kid who read ahead of the pack, and now my 11 year old is doing the same - thankfully we know so it's just a matter of keeping the books up to her.
YA is one of the most enjoyable genre's to read IMO,I like realist novels. Can I suggest Melina Marchetta or Maureen McDonald: two of my favorites.

4:00 AM  
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