Friday, January 13, 2012

Watch where you step

I'm much better this week and attended one of my critique groups yesterday. A discussion arose that I'd like to continue here.

My illustration is a stingray I found on the beach. Even out of the water, these poisonous creatures blend in to the background. Stingrays don't go out of their way to strike people with those venomous glands on their barbed tails. But if you step on one, you'll likely get stung.

This discussion has nothing to do with sea creatures. It's about stepping into trouble as a writer, especially if we write for middle grade through YA. We need to be alert, as we wade into our stories, about a lot more than plot, character development, pacing and grammar.

Because behind every story is a message, even if it's as basic as find-your-inner-strength-and- survive. The thing is, when you write for kids, any message may have a huge impact, even more than it does on an adult reader.

I want to be clear that I'm not saying we should be turning novels into platforms for a message, but there is no way to write an engaging story, with any depth, that doesn't have life experiences that lead to character growth, and, therefore, to a message of sorts.

This discussion is about abuse--whether it's parental alcoholism or drug use, a pedophile or a date-rapist--and how a writer deals with it in story. I'm not opposed to these topics. In fact, I was livid when there was a move to ban Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK, which is a tastefully written, harrowing tale about the fallout to a teen-age girl who is raped.

Kids need these kind of stories available to them, especially if it helps them deal with a situation already happening, let's them know they are not alone and that they aren't a bad person because something bad has happened to them.

They know a whole lot more about bad stuff than parents realize. What they need is guidance in processing that information. This can come through parents who have good communication with their children, through other trusted adults, or through books that don't hide the bad but show how to survive it.

That leads to the next part of the discussion. Dealing with it doesn't mean the author has to kill off the bad guys. We all know that lots of times in real life they get away and justice is not achieved. This is particularly true in historical fiction where the judicial system may have been weighted against the victim.

So what to do? I believe the answer lies in the personal growth of the protagonist, that somehow even if justice is thwarted, the protagonist learns an important thing and is now stronger and more able to avoid or survive bad things when they come.

Without that the story is too bleak, hopeless, and no kid needs that. In fact, I think the reason YA and middle grade stories have become so popular with adult readers is that there is usually that sense of hope.

This was a bit of a ramble. I'd like to know if you've given this topic consideration and what you think. Any books you think work particularly well?


P.S. I'm afraid my desire for discussion is on hold. My mother had to go in the hospital and I'm on the way there. Not sure how long I'll be gone. I'd still appreciate comments, but I may not respond right away. Thank you for reading, anyway.


Golden Eagle said...

I hope your mother is okay!

I was just thinking about this. I finished a book yesterday where the main character had anorexia and cut herself, but even though the end of the book included her turnaround, I felt that she had not grown much at all; she was a self-centered as she was at the beginning and it didn't even seem certain she wouldn't slide back into eating disorder. Contrast that to another book on anorexia that I read where the character did grow and change--and which I enjoyed a lot more.

Erin Kane Spock said...

Every genre has a character arc, some personal growth involved. YA deal with serious issues in their lives and need support getting through them. Will they get them from relating to a book? Maybe. Who knows?
As a parent I hope to preview what my daughters read just because I may feel they're not mature enough to deal with some content. But that's me and my parenting philosophy. I would never say my ideas are the RIGHT WAY for EVERYONE. I do not support book censorship - I do support parental involvement.

Jemi Fraser said...

Sending my best wishes for your mom your way! *hugs*

I have given this a fair amount of thought as a teacher of MG aged kids and a mom. I want the books they read to convey the message that kids have power, are NOT helpless, and that they can solve/survive situations. I also want the message to convey that while good may not always win, good is far better than evil and is always the best choice.

dolorah said...

I've tried to get my kids to read YA/MG books, but I'm not a strong advocate. Maybe because of some of the reasons you mentioned here; I don't like outcomes that show the kids always receive justice and and a happily every after.

I'm a social services worker and know full well that is rarely possible.

I like MG stories that show kids achieve growth, but not in the super-hero way. Maybe I'm just too cynical. I'm sure Karma has a special outcome for me somewhere down the line :)


erica and christy said...

I think it's important for a charater to show growth and improve themselves in some way, to show strength and empowerment and morality...I guess I also tend to tie things up in a bow at the end of my stories (so far) but I like endings that don't necessarily leave everything right in the world. I hope everything is okay with your mom. I'll keep you both in my prayers. Christy

Wen Baragrey said...

I hope your mom is okay, Tricia. You're both in my thoughts. *hugs*

Donna said...

Glad you're back, Tricia. I like the jellyfish metaphor.

Yes, I want a protagonist to learn and grow whether I'm reading MG, YA or adult fiction.

I'm thinking Lyra (His Dark Materials), Harry Potter, but not Bella.

Faith Pray said...

I'm sorry to hear about your mother. I hope she is doing okay.

I loved this post! When I was ten, I happened upon a couple books above my age-level, or rather, my maturity level. They dealt with teen topics, but didn't end well, and I was devastated. I hadn't experienced books that weren't sewn up justly before. It still feels like a betrayal to me when I think of those authors, so there you go, a view from the ten-year-old me. Mind you, my school librarian might have noticed and steered me to younger books, too. I do think kids need these books to help them deal with issues, and because of that, I like it when there is some degree of justice - not overt morals, just a nice dish of here-you-go to the villain.

Bish Denham said...

Oh I hope your mom's okay.

No matter how dark the subject matter, I need a book with a ray of sunshine at the end.

Sarah Laurence said...

It’s good to hear you are better too! Marvelous sting ray photo. I like that bit about showing the bad situation and how to survive it, giving hope. One book with growth and a message (which isn’t preachy) was Looking For Alaska by John Green. Another favorite along those lines would be Tangerine by Edward Bloor. I like how he shows the consequences of risky behavior. Healing thoughts to your mother.

Unknown said...

Oh no! I'm so sorry about your mom. Sending thoughts and prayers your way.

Love the stingray photo. I went swimming with giant ones in Grand Cayman. One gave my hand a hickey. They are amazing creatures.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

First--thank you all so much for leaving comments and good wishes. It's so appreciated:

Eagle: That's a very interesting insight about the two books. I think some authors try to be so realistic that they go for a bleak ending, because life is like that sometimes. But, to me, if I want that kind of reality I can just watch the news. I like a book to offer some growth and hope.

Erin: Ideally, every kid would have positive parental input, but, sadly, some do not. That's why books that show a character deal with a serious problem can be so important.

Jemi: What you say about books that show kids they are not helpless is about the most important thing a book could ever do.

Donna: You're absolutely right. Happily-ever-after is not reality, so the most we can impart is hope through awareness.

Christy: Empowerment and ethics are words we should all put above our computers as reminders that our stories impact young readers, and we want the impact to help them grow.

Wen: Thanks, my friend. :)

Donna: I like those examples, thank you!

Faith: Wow, that's quite a personal story to illustrate how much impact books have on kids. When I was young I picked up some of my father's adult novels that he'd been reading and was horrified at the evil in the world as portrayed in those books. A lot of parents worry about the sex scenes, but it wasn't those that disturbed me, it was learning just how terribly human beings could treat one another.
Anyway, kids will pick up all sorts of books, but when we write for them, I think we need to keep the audience firmly in mind.

Bish: The world can be dark enough all ready, right? Oh, let some sun shine in at the end.

Sarah: Thanks for those suggestions. I adore Looking for Alaska, and think John Green is a brilliant YA author. I haven't read Tangerine but will now.

Karen: A hickey!!! did it kiss you like the sea turtle? I think sea creatures love you. :)