Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Problem With Forever Love (ROYA #28)

There’s something special about teenage romance. The butterflies, blushing, jangled nerves whenever that special person is close enough to touch. It’s intense, all-consuming, and when it’s good, it’s great. Holiday romances, one week flings with a classmate, stolen kisses with a friend in a moment of confusion, or unrequited infatuation, they all have one thing in common. Teen romances – usually – end. And that’s a good thing. It’s hard to acknowledge that at the time, but it’s nevertheless true. Teen romances are rites of passage that bring us one step closer to self-definition, something we strive towards throughout our teens and early twenties.  So why do so many contemporary YA books portray teen romances as lasting a lifetime?

Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. “YA fiction doesn’t have to be realistic!” and “I don’t want the reality, I want the fantasy/ love the happily ever after.” Sure, I understand the appeal. But hear me out. As adults, we can suspend our disbelief and decipher fact from fiction. However, the trend for Forever Love in YA movies, TV, and books is having an impact on how teens perceive romantic relationships. As literature teacher Cheryl L. Dickson points out in The ALAN Review:

“Each adolescent is certain that his/her love is true and will result in a lifelong commitment. Each one dreaming of the emotional fireworks, picnics on the beach, a honeymoon in Paris, and the names of his/her first-born… I then realize how disappointing it can be when their dreams of romance and love are crushed.”

Adolescent and adult relationships are different.  The motivation behind most teenage romance is not emotional intimacy, but convenience, status, and appeasing their egos. Admittedly, that sounds negative, but it’s all part of growing up. Teens are hardwired to seek relationships that benefit themselves and aren’t normally willing to put another’s feelings before their own. It’s well established that teenagers are more susceptible to media influence.  Consistently offering unrealistic representations of teen romance in mainstream books, TV, and movies isn’t just irresponsible, it’s harmful.

It all comes down to expectations. If there were enough depictions of realistic teen romance in popular entertainment, then adolescents would have a better understanding of what to expect from a relationship. Instead of adopting a wait-and-see approach, many teens enter their first romance assuming it’s the love of their life. As a result, they’re more likely to forgive mistreatment and abuse for the sake of maintaining their relationship. Especially when male love interests in YA are portrayed as controlling liars who’re excused for their behaviour because they’re super hot (I’m looking at you, Twilight). I could list a plethora of YA books which conform to this type, but I want to avoid giving away any spoilers. Because of this unattainable aspiration for Forever Love, teenagers will go to lengths to hold the interest of their girl/boyfriend, compromising their appearance, character, and sense of self-worth. Of course, when the relationship inevitably turns bad or fizzles out, the impact can seem life-altering. As adults, we know this isn’t the case, but as teens, almost everything seems like it will change your life forever.  Their feelings are valid and should be respected when representing teen romance in fiction and entertainment that's specifically aimed at them. They shouldn’t be made to feel as though they’re incapable or not deserving of a relationship when in actuality the relationship is an ideal which doesn’t exist.

You might be wondering if YA and teen fiction have always been this way. Simply put, no. The concept of Forever Love rose in popularity around the start of the noughties and is yet to see a decline.  As a 90’s teen with a voracious appetite for fiction, I can confirm none of the contemporary books aimed at my demographic had lifelong romances. At least, not the ones I read, and I read a lot. Of course, the market for teen/YA fiction is relatively new, and the general acceptance of teens as a demographic originated as recently as the 1950s.  Social standards were different  then, of course, and the legal marrying age drops the further back in history you look. Yet, celebrated books considered suitable for adolescents such as Little Women (1868) the Little House [on the Prairie]  series (1938), rarely portray protagonists in long-term relationships before their twenties. In Anne of Green Gables  (1908) it takes five books before Anne’s married, and by then she’s twenty-five. 

There are contemporary YA books out there with more accurate depictions of teen romance, and they need to be championed.  I just have to find them first. If you have any suggestions of great YA with a believable romance, please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

When Adult Books Have Teen Protagonists (ROYA #27)

The first “adult” book I read featuring a teenage main character was Alice Walker's The Color Purple. It was recommended in one of the many teen mags I bought regularly - it’s a ‘90’s thing - as the perfect antidote to a bad break-up. In truth, reading in general can be an antidote to almost any heartache, so long as you pick the right book. At the tender age of sixteen, devastated after being dumped by a guy I’d only just forgiven for cheating on me, I needed a point in the right direction. It worked. In around three chapters my mind was open to the bigger picture. Those of you who’ve read The Color Purple will know it’s not what's considered a suitable book for children. But for teenage me, it was pivotal in my understanding of oppression as both a concept and the reality for many. I gained a valuable lesson on heartache and strength beyond the confines of romance.

When it comes to YA, the general rule of thumb is that the protagonist must be a teen. I completely agree with this and struggle to imagine a successful example of breaking this rule.* However, I’ve lost count of the supposedly “adult” books which have relatively young teenagers as main characters. Examples of these are Sue Monk Kid’s The Secret Life of Bees, Jane Harris’ The Observations, Sarah Water’s Fingersmith, and Jenny Fagan’s The PanopticonHere’s the thing, if stories like these are about what can happen to adolescents, shouldn’t teens be made aware of their existence and have easy access to them? Just because they don’t end neatly, have adult themes, and harsh lessons doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile reads for teens struggling to deal with their emotions.

Of course, like I said last week, I am a YA impostor. I read books specifically targeted at teens, for numerous reasons.  But I remain convinced that, just as adults enjoy books aimed at teens, so too should teenagers know they’re not restricted from reading adult fiction. We  can all enjoy both. When I needed a copy of The Color Purple, I was lucky enough to find one in my High School Library (thank you, Mr Clarkson!). Should it be left to librarians alone to bridge this gap? Or do we, as a society, have a duty to step-up and encourage reading which breaks the rules of a perceived demographic? Obviously, I favour the latter. I’m not saying we should start handing out copies of War and Peace to all thirteen-year-olds. I’m merely suggesting some as young as that have the capacity to comprehend and connect to Tolstoy’s epic through the journey of the many young characters.

A quick check of contemporary online magazines, especially those targeted at teens, will show a tendency to remain within the parameters of age-specific recommending reading.  Perhaps it’s always been this way, and my happening on an article which broke that rule all those years ago was pure chance. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is we have an opportunity as a society to provide perspective through all forms of literature, and teens have as much right to that information as adults.

*If you have an example, please leave a comment with details.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

YA Impostor (ROYA #26)

It’s true. Despite being a thirty-something mother with greying hair, a passion for early mornings and elasticated waistbands, I read books aimed at teenagers. Why? The simple answer: for research, because YA is primarily what I write. There’s so much about it I want to challenge as a writer. Yet, when it comes to reading for fun, I confess to being frequently drawn to YA stories. And I’m not alone. 

Although some people still hold the notion that adults should be embarrassed reading YA, the fact is over 55% of YA readers are adults. [But really, who cares what someone else is reading, unless it’s 1) Amazing, 2) Spectacularly awful, or 3) Meh?] Of course, like many readers of YA, I enjoy adult fiction too. From a young age, I’ve read books unsuitable for kids. Liking one is not a rejection of the other. Reading The Fault in Our Stars as an adult left me contemplating the value of life, even if teenagers don’t actually talk the way John Green writes them. Then again, at thirteen I read The Exorcist and hold the same opinion of it now as I did then: William Peter Blatty waffles. What a person chooses to read, when they happen to read it, and how much enjoyment they get from it isn’t cut and dry. It’s simply not down to age.

Don’t be angry at those who’ve never tried it. When you’ve not read much YA, it’s tempting to assume the majority are childish, predictable, or lacking complexity. Of course, some are, but there’s equally superficial adult fiction. Choosing to give YA or even children’s fiction a miss on these grounds isn’t just inaccurate, it’s a crying shame.  I say this because I’ve been there.  In 2002, I distinctly recall scoffing at the notion of reading Harry Potter because it was a children’s book and lived to eat my words.  If you know someone reluctant to try YA because it’s not “proper reading” then recommend Markus Zusak's The Book Thief or Are You Experienced?  by William Sutcliffe. Alternatively, remind them The Catcher in the Rye and Sunset Song are both coming-of-age novels, the YA of the time.

When it comes to depth, there’s plenty in YA to offer satisfying reflection from an adult perspective.  No matter what I read, save for the likes of Peepo and Goodnight Moon, I form a critical opinion. That’s who I am. I don’t forgive YA for poor writing, lack of profundity, or thin characterization, and I don’t tolerate them in adult fiction either.  Personally, I can’t be bothered with obligatory graphic sex scenes and blatant titillation in fiction, which are all too common in adult books.  Seriously, fiction is not my go-to for those things! Often, it seems the only reason they’re put there is to ensure a book will appeal exclusively to “grown-ups”. As established by my reading The Exorcist at thirteen, that’s not how it works.  

Fine, reading YA isn’t particularly ambitious, but I get annoyed if I have to get my head round every book I read. I shouldn’t have to toil over a book in order to appreciate its significance. Besides, sometimes it’s good to stay comfortable and get carried away by a story. It’s not about clinging to the same things I loved at thirteen. What I value is connecting with the part of me that’s still young, recalling a time when everything was urgent and vital, but from the position of an experienced adult.

Simply put, I can’t see how I’d benefit from limiting myself from YA except for research purposes. So I’ll remain a YA impostor until the day I no longer enjoy reading YA books.  Which doesn’t look to be any time soon. 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Reading or Writing YA Historical Fiction (ROYA #25)

Greetings, Readers of Young Adult! 

Having recently devoured several historical genre novels, I thought I’d share my selection process for finding relevant, purposeful YA historical fiction. As it happens, it’s also how I sense-check any new writing projects I’m tempted to set in the past. So, for readers and writers alike, here’s my Sense-Check-List questions for getting the most from stories set in a historical context. 

1) Is the period crucial to the plot?

Or, simply, could the same story be set now? If yes, there’d better be a darn good reason why it’s not. When it comes to overall satisfaction, that well-deserved four or five star rating, stories which depend on perceived romanticism of bygone eras have a tendency to disappoint. Not in a hurl-it-at-the-wall-after-three-pages sort of way, but they often lack poignancy, something real history offers in abundance. I can sniff out a yarn that relies on corsets and fluttering hearts instead of an exciting plot. Usually from the cat-and-mouse romance slapped all over the blurb and the unmistakable whiff of misogyny from the male love interest. There’s nothing wrong with portraying rampant sexism and other uncomfortable realities of history. In fact, I’m all for it. But unless there’s something important the story aims to convey about the chosen era, there’s nothing to gain from a historical setting. Except, of course, the story contains an important message we might benefit from now or in the future. 

2) Is the historical setting significant now?

Sometimes, a story is set in the past for the purpose of drawing parallels to present major happenings. These stories are important. All too often we humans fail to learn from our own history. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, there are subjects a contemporay audiene is reluctant to consider, but which provoke engagement when presented in a historical context, like Yongla by Guy Lane. There are also situations where readers and writers are restricted from tackling certain subjects and must settle with symbolic representations of current events. Anyone familiar with Arthur Miller’s only historical play, The Crucible knows what an allegory is. When Miller wrote The Crucible, Senator Joseph McCarthy lead a witch-hunt for communists hiding in the government, education, and the arts. To avoid risking persecution – which he didn’t – Miller fictionalised the Salem witch trials to exemplify the absurdity of convicting people without concrete evidence. However, these days writers can create with impunity, and readers can enjoy pretty much anything without fear of imprisonment. Without a valid reason to use a historical context to highlight a contemporary issue, what reason is there to set a story in the past? Why not just read or write about what’s actually happening now? Unless, of course, your reason for choosing historical fiction is personal.

3) Are you avoiding technology?

For many, reading YA is an escape from reality, especially those who dislike the societal effects of continued technological advancement. It goes without saying that smartphones have dramatically altered the way we communicate. Some adults find comfort in reading about a time before mobile phones and the internet. And that’s okay. For those too young to remember, it can provide insight into a world unknown. However, it’s a thin premise on which to build a story and would likely prove a dull book. As a writer, I’ve learned to embrace tackling technology in fictionbut it can be daunting for those of us who were born before the 90’s. Nevertheless, a story has a better chance of being understood by a wider audience if it’s told in a context relevant to when it’s released. Declaring yourself a Luddite is no excuse. There has to be a stronger reason for a story to be set in the past, something the reader can emotionally invest in.

4a) Dear writer, is it the era you grew up in?

If so, here's something to consider. Like many writers, this July I was hooked on P.S. Literary agent Maria Vicente’s #100Queries on Twitter. Ms. Vicente tweeted her responses to the queries in her inbox, providing insight into how agents view submissions. One particular tweet caught my attention.

Maria Vicente: “YA Contemporary. Unnecessarily (it seems) set in the recent past. Write for teens today, not for teenage you. #100Queries”

Last year I finally got around to reading Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. I’ll admit to having mixed feelings. Although I loved the book, I couldn’t help wonder why it was set in the 80’s and assumed it was based on the author’s life. I mean, the comics are still in print, playlists are the new mix tapes, and as far as I’m aware, school buses still run in the states. There’s even a solution to why one of them wouldn’t have a phone or access to the internet. So I kept wondering - Who’s the story for? It’s the same question I ask myself when it comes to my own work. Rainbow Rowell is able to break the rules because, well, she’s Rainbow Rowell. As for the rest of us, we need to remember who we are writing for, because if it’s for yourself, I’ve got news for you. It’s unlikely it’ll get picked up by an agent unless you can argue the case for how the reader will benefit. And if you self-publish, you may find your readership struggles to connect with your story. Then again, some readers will identify because it’s set during the period in which they grew up. .

4b) Dear reader, is it the era you grew up in?

If it is, that’s hunky-dory – we all like to reminisce. But you still want to read a compeling story, right?  Sure, it’s great to remember giving out phone numbers on the backs of bottle labels that can easily be lost - plot twist! Date hairstyles, clothes, general use of cigarettes and casual sexism – I get it. BUT, it’s not enough. Trust me. Even the shallowest reader needs that payoff at the end, and it’s never going to happen if the story holds nothing stronger than a hairdo set with Brillcream. Often, a visit to Goodreads for a scan of the reviews will give you an idea of whether or not the book you’re interested in has substance. Because, even if you’re in it for the nostalgia, you might want to ask yourself…

5) Is it purely for cosmetics?

Yep. Some stories rely on cosmetic novelty. If you’re familiar with the Indie Publishing scene, you’re probably no stranger to this concept. We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but if I see a picture of a fashionably beautiful girl with HD brows and a tan wearing Tudor garb, I’m out.  Just because a story is set in Ancient Rome, the Inca Empire, or the Tang Dynasty, the plot doesn’t suddenly become interesting. Sure, I can imagine the attractive people, picturesque landscape, and glorious weaponry. I don’t want to read about the same visuals repeatedly, though, like being reminded of a character’s eye colour on every other page. It happens. In these instances, it’s perfectly acceptable to hurl the book at the wall after three pages and start another story. When I pick up a book promising historical tales, I want the author’s research to seep into my mind through the gaps between the words from the first page.  If I find I’m reading description after description instead of gaining a sense of time an place from the language, narration, and characters, I grow tired and move on. Good historical fiction doesn’t rely on long descriptions, gimmicks, or fancy costumes.

Sadly, a lot of guff gets punted about because it’s titillating, and titillation sells. If you’re happy reading or writing that, then good on you, there’s no shame in liking what you like. However, if you appreciate, or are interested in finding captivating, historical fiction, YA or otherwise, then the above check-list should steer you on the right path. As for you writers, I hope what I’ve shared makes sense. If you have any further thoughts or questions, please comment below.