Young Adult Readers: They really do get it (Guest post by Lou Hoffmann)

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Hi! It’s me again, Lou Hoffmann, in for my second monthly post here on Drops of Ink, courtesy of Anne Barwell. (Thank you, Anne!)

Recently I’ve been working with my publisher, Harmony Ink, on getting Wraith Queen’s Veil ready for release early this fall—polishing up the manuscript and working with the cover artist, things like that. This is an exciting time for an author, though also a little frustrating and sometimes unnerving. For the most part, it’s been going well, and I’m excited about the release. What’s on my mind today, though, is a result of a kind of reassessment I (and I’ll bet most authors) do when I’m preparing to write the next book in a series.

They have complete hearts. They have good minds. They really do get it.

They have complete hearts and good minds. They really do get it.

In the Sun Child Chronicles series, the next book is Ciarrah’s Light, and one of the things that I’m having to think about is the changing relationship between the young people (especially Lucky, the MC) and the older generations. And that, in turn got me thinking about the more general topic of adult characters in YA books. I decided to research what other people thought about the subject, and was surprised to learn that there’s not a lot of relevant material readily at my googling fingertips.

Most of what I did find focused on parents, and there seems to be both a dispute about what parent characters do, don’t, should, and shouldn’t do in YA, and an evolving—or perhaps revolving—set of roles they typically play in YA literature in general.

There does seem to be consensus among people that make it their business to talk about these things (or at least those few I found) that in the past, when “YA” first became a thing, so to speak, parents were either bad or absent, or bad and absent. Meredith Goldstein, staff writer for the Boston Globe, wrote an article (“Grown-Ups Make a Comeback in Young Adult Books”) in May, 2014, and referred to The Outsiders, a true classic and wonderful book by S.E. Hinton published way back in 1967, in which parents are drug-addicted or gone, mostly, as an example

Julie Just, Children’s Book Editor at the New York Times, in her April 1, 2010 essay, “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit”,
refers also to Hinton’s Rumble Fish, and other books of that era as examples of the kind of parent characters that have done their damage and now have little to do with the young person’s problems—or, especially, solutions.

One of my “favorite ever” books, Suki Fleet’s This Is Not a Love Story, perhaps harkens back to that earlier trend, though it was published in 2014. The story is a tragedy (in the literary sense), though it breaks out of that type with an idyllic ending. It is a contemporary story about two boys who have come to love and depend on each other living rough and spare on city streets. Antagonists abound of every age—and in fact the non-human antagonists, the weather and hunger, are the heaviest. There are some supportive adults, but even those have problems, and not a single one is adequately strong through it all.

Just’s point, however, is that more recently (remember, though, this was written in 2010), parents in YA are simply not doing a very bang-up job—they’re absent or distracted because of work, they’re self-involved, they have agendas that either put their teens in roles they don’t want to be in or relegate their teens to the sidelines. “You have to wonder how the distracted, failing parent became such a ubiquitous image in pop culture,” she says, and talks about Coraline Neil Gaiman’s very successful book from 2002, and the even more successful movie version in 2009, in which the teen protagonist faces horrors because her parents are too busy to bother.

“Near-fatal adventures ensue with terrifying “other parents” in the alternate world behind the door — who begin by offering Coraline delicious meals and toys, but actually want to turn her into a kind of soulless rag doll with button eyes — because the real parents are on deadline writing a gardening catalog. In the metaphoric language of fantasy, Gaiman’s ultimate message is that parental perfection is an illusion. Real parents may ignore you and serve bad food, but at least they won’t rip out your eyes and leave you to rot behind a wall.”

Personally, I’m not sure that Gaiman would agree with that statement, but I do know from experience that a writers works can carry all sorts of messages they didn’t intend. After expounding on “the parent problem” for most of the essay, Just does give an example of a book she thinks has overall more “pleasing proportions.” In a 2009 novel by Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me, the teen protagonist, Miranda, “doesn’t always feel brave, but she does take care of herself, and her single mother has dreams and ambitions.”

Just five days after Just’s article was published, novelist Sarah Ockler (Twenty Boy Summer, Bittersweet) took to her blog platform to voice her disagreement in a post entitled, “The REAL Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit.” She makes these points, in summary:

  • Parents in YA books may be ineffective but it’s because they’re dealing with life, too.
  • Parents in YA books are bad because that “resonates most authentically with the intended reader.” (It’s about how kids perceive their own parents.)
  • Authors aren’t trying to teach young people ethics or morals through their books.
  • Fiction is about problems.
  • There’s no useful point in comparing books of a past era to current publishing trends.

(Good point, that last.) Ockler’s conclusion, though, which refers directly to the post title, seems to have little to do with the parents in the books at all, as she merely points out (paraphrasing) that if parents didn’t diss YA lit, things would be golden.

A story that springs to mind as pretty much fitting the mold fashioned by Just and Ockler is Brett Hartinger’s 2006 book, Grand and Humble. Early on, MC Harlan is sure his mother and her husband, “the Senator,” want is “to use their son in the latest of an endless series of photo ops,” and to get his cooperation his mom uses her typical “precise combination of “obligation and guilt.” Of course the story has a lot more going on, and Harlan has bigger problems than his parents. Another dad in the story is one of those disappeared/did-bad-things/came back types. (It’s a good book by the way, with a compelling narrative and an unusual twist, not “genre.”.)

Of course there are so many examples of well-known books that, in my opinion, shatter these arguments if one tries to generalize them, especially if one includes stories from various genres. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are indeed a most obvious example—so obvious it’s almost cliché. Sorry. But those books are chock full of adults that make a difference—supporters and heroes and caring parents. But they’re also rife with grown up villains, which is the other primary role of the adult in YA lit.

Michael Bowler’s Spinner (another great read, this one for those who enjoy paranormal contemporary fantasy) is full of evil adults. Yes, there are some parents and teachers that pay little attention to the young people, but others that are almost demonic. Some of the adults are supportive, and though they are generally in the background or an influence from the past, when stuff hits the fan, a couple of adults definitely step up. Do they solve everybody’s problems for them? No—but this is a book about teens, and the truest heroes are found among them.

Goldstein holds out hope for parents in teen books, too, as a more recent trend. As examples, she talks about John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars; the novel he co-wrote with David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson; Meg Rosen’s Picture Me Gone. Noting the diversity and depth of adult characters in these books and others, she says, “These days there’s a new type of parent in YA books — the kind who listens, shares, accepts, and is integral to the plot.”
I think that’s good news, Meredith Goldstein!

Will Parkinson’s book Pitch seems to be populated along those lines. It has some supportive adults in the cast—the science teacher, Mr. Dean, notably so, and the MC Taylor has parents that care and make judicious decisions, though they aren’t perfect. In that book, it’s other teens who are the antagonists. I recommend this book especially for people who like coming of age stories built around well-realized characters and like a little romance in their YA.

Author Chuck Wendig’s declaration in an article on his blog, Terrible Minds, in June 2014 reflects a different view of the role of adults (not just parents) in YA stories.

Adults are rarely the main characters of a young adult book. Why would they be? They don’t have teen problems. They’re witnesses, at best. That said, adults can be the supporting characters (though usually still peripheral to the teen world — teachers, parents, older siblings) and they can certainly be the villains (which is true to the teen mold because sometimes, when you’re a teenager, the adults in your life can be giant, cankerous assholes). What I mean to say is, TEENS RULE, ADULTS DROOL *flushes Dad’s toupee down the toilet and sets fire to the house*

And that’s pretty much the case with The Sun Child Chronicles. (It seems to have it all.)

MC Lucky’s biggest problem (or at least the biggest one he knows about) at the start of the series is that he keeps finding himself without adult support. His most recent guardian died a year before the story opens, and due to his odd circumstances there’s even the usual remote chance social services will solve his problems. He’s on the street. Then, when he finds a pair of adults that could be a surrogate family, he also finds himself threatened by the mysterious and by the purely evil—both in adult form. In Wraith Queen’s Veil, he very much has a case of believing (not without some reason) that all the adults he thought he could count on have become some of Wendig’s “giant, cantankarous assholes.” Though he does end up with adult support, in big, important, and even dependable ways—but it’s a two way street. Not only does he also have dependable, smart, capable friends his own age, he himself is all those things and ends up saving others at least as much as others save him.

Moving onward into writing Ciarrah’s light, I’m reviewing my plans for the story, and realizing Lucky’s going to have to expand his repertoire once again. Not only will he have to help the adults as much as they help him, he’s going to have to be adult, at least some of the time.

And he can meet that requirement, at least in part because he has had adults model the role. That’s pretty much just like in real life, right? People need role models. And since the role young people are working toward is that of an adult, they need adult role models. I think the best YA fiction includes adults who model both what teens (hopefully) don’t want to be (villains, poor parents, selfish, etc) and what they do want to be—the warrior Han, the wizard Thurlock, Mrs, McGonagle, Mrs.Weasley.

And as far as that spiel about teens only wanting to read about teens, I don’t think so! I’ve had feedback from young readers about different things they liked or didn’t like, but I didn’t have a single one say they didn’t like Key of Behliseth because there are too many adults.

Maybe the adult opinions circulating about YA books are missing the whole point. Maybe they sell teens short. Just maybe young people like reading about other people—all kinds of people. Because, you know what? They have complete hearts and good minds. They really do get it.

Excerpt from Wraith Queen’s Veil

Lucky made it a point to avoid Thurlock for the rest of the evening. At dinner he pleaded a sick stomach.

His mother put a hand on his forehead, but then turned around and walked away without a word. It was Shehrice who showed real concern. “Oh,” she fussed. “You go to your room, and I’ll bring you some nice chicken broth and wingberry tea.”

He looked out his bedroom window as winter twilight let the night in, then closed the shutters against the cold. He left the candles unlit, and though Brando, Shehrice’s husband, had laid a fire in the room’s small hearth, Lucky didn’t take the flint to the tinder to light it.

He drank a bit of the chicken broth, then poured the rest of it and all the tea out the window. Wingberry tea could heal a person on death’s door, or so the locals who brewed it said. Lucky personally thought that if those on death’s door decided to hang around, it would only be for the chance to spit it out. He chewed on some of the hard biscuits he’d harvested earlier from the pantry, but truth be told, he didn’t have much appetite.

He knew skipping dinner meant he’d miss probably his last chance to see both the wizard and his mother for some, probably, long amount of time. He could go in and say the tea restored him, but he didn’t. He continued his stubborn boycott, but he knew the person he was hurting most was himself. And, in a very quiet voice in his mind, he admitted that when people left on such serious business, bad things could happen.

They might not return.

*

Lucky’s mother came to his room in the morning, in the dark hours before breakfast—even as early as that meal was served at the Sisterhold. “Luccan.”

Lucky did not turn away from the wall, did not move, struggled to keep his breathing even and deep, so he would appear to be asleep.

Her voice rose a notch. “Luccan, son.”
Lucky clenched his fists under the blankets.

“Son, I have to leave now. The horses are saddled and the Rangers are waiting for me. I didn’t want to leave without—”

Lucky spun around and caught her expression before she could change it. He knew that look—it was exactly like the one she wore when he saw her looking at a picture of his father, Lohen Chiell. With disgust. With loathing. Something equally ugly changed his own voice—something Lucky didn’t recognize. “Go then,” he said. “Go, already!”
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But before he’d even spoken, she reeled back as if she’d been slapped. She clasped her hand over her mouth and hurried out of the room.

All Lucky’s anger drained away. He shouldn’t have spoken to her that way. He’d hurt her, and from what Thurlock had told him, she’d already been hurt plenty. He admitted he was sorry, but that sorrow didn’t hold a candle to his horrified disbelief. He got out of the bed and, curling his toes against the cold hardwood floor, he went to the mirror hanging over the washstand. After his eyes adjusted, the moon provided plenty of light for him to see his face.

He stood unmoving for a while, searching the image, then shook his head.
What is so horrible about this face that my own mother can’t stand to see it?

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2 Responses to Young Adult Readers: They really do get it (Guest post by Lou Hoffmann)

  1. Aw, thank you! Great post.

    Like

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