Abuse, Suicide, and Warm Fuzzies

Sorry I missed last week. On planned blog day I found myself in a place with s-l-o-w Internet, and I didn’t have the patience for it. Thanks for YOUR patience.

Here’s something I’ve been wondering lately that I’d love comments on: Even though kids love to read about disaster, distress, and dystopia (read this from the Huffington Post—it’s great), is it possible to write about average, sheltered, and *gasp* happy teens and make it interesting?

I’m wondering because I was blessed to be a fairly even-keeled teen, involved in service organizations and academic clubs and those sorts of things. I never spent a minute smoking in the back parking lot, nor am I aware of any friends who did. I continue to know a lot of the same kind of young adults today. I’m not saying this to be pious. It was just my reality.

After reading Mary Kole’s post on high school cliques, I was reminded why my young adult experience may not be typical. Everyone at my school got along. In the four years I attended Wasatch High, I don’t remember witnessing any gathering crowds shouting, “Fight, fight, fight!” Unless I was cloistered in a classroom after school, unaware.

The first day I attended my then-rural high school after moving from a higher-class cliquish middle school in the city, I was shocked to watch someone I deemed as a skater walking down the hall flirting with the straight-A, straight-laced Mormon girl. And the cowboy eating lunch with the jock. And the pretty girls best friends with the frumpy ones. And so on.

The roof was leaking on my first day of school, and garbage cans were lined down the middle of the hall. At the end of the day, every can was still standing—having budged only a few inches at most. Filled with water. At my middle school, they would’ve been trampled or purposely kicked halfway down the hall before first bell. Maybe that’s the difference between a middle school and a high school, but to me, those garbage cans were a symbol, a clear picture of the different crowd I was dealing with in ruraltown, Utah.

That’s where I lived out my YA experience. Any time I read a book about mean girls, or “popular” crowds, I have to suspend my disbelief. I never saw it for myself. (Not saying it never happened at my school—it could be that I was as oblivious then as I am now.)

For this reason, I am well aware of the benefits of writing what you don’t know, like Brodi so eloquently blogged about today. Who would relate to what I do know if I were to write it? And yet I daydream about finding that audience someday.

Author Wallace Stegner once addressed the question, Is it boring to be good? He wrote Crossing to Safety especially to highlight the normal and beautiful in life. He said:

There was nothing very dramatic in those lives [of my characters] . . . so that I was taking risks, I was quite aware. The contemporary novel deals commonly in sensation, but there was not much sensation in this story to deal with. .  . . And also, I suppose, I had the muleheaded notion that it ought to be possible to make books out of something less than loud sensation.

Is it possible in YA?

I wouldn’t write about abuse and suicide if I thought they were mere sensation. I see them as truths that need to be told, especially for the teen readers who know all too much about that kind of reality. But what about the teens who grew up like me? They may be in the minority, but they exist. Are their reading experiences destined to be all window and no mirror?

One day I’m going to find a way to write about characters doing things just like this. And this, except without the religious motivation. I believe atheists and teens who espouse a faith could both be motivated by all things beautiful and good. I don’t want to have to turn to Christian publishing houses exclusively to find these stories in fiction. I believe teens like the ones I know need mirrors in mainstream fiction as readily as any other reader.

The trick is . . . how to make it interesting? To both YA readers and savvy New York editors who may not believe a high school like mine still exists in this century?

Have you read any contemporary YA books that rang true to you and didn’t involve much darkness? Are they out there and I’m not informed enough to find them? Are they compelling? Or does the real, average, straight-laced-type of teenager’s life come across as too slight in fiction?

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Abuse, Suicide, and Warm Fuzzies

  1. This took me back to Wasatch High. Weird. Nobody ever really did fight much, did they?

  2. You never saw a fight? It seemed like they were always happening in the far north hallway. The boys took it outside, the girls fought inside (or at the dances.) I think the high school experience depends so much on your friends. It is harder to be aware of what goes on outside the group. I had a similar experience to yours, but have since discussed wasatch high school life with others who had such a different experience that I can’t believe we went to the same school.

    But, I definitely agree that the “groups” often intermingled. I never thought about it before. Is that a small town thing?

  3. Jennie

    Can nice, normal kids have interesting adventures? Yes, I think they have the best! These adventures are just not about human psychology and dysfunction, they’re about going places, building things, and being creative. I think Ender was a nice but smart kid, and Harry was pretty normal too .

    • Kim Reid

      I’ve never read any of Orson Scott Card’s books. I think I should. I guess I see a lot of great heroes in sci-fi and fantasy, and I often find them in middle-grade literature. But any time I read a realistic, contemporary YA lately, I can’t relate to the characters as well. We need more Harrys and Enders in realistic contemporary too!

  4. Mak

    I agree with Jennie- Ender and Harry, Ron and Hermione are pretty “normal” kids. I think you have a point that sucessful YA seems to lean towards abuse, suicide or struggle to be a “good kid” as the conflict, but I think you can write a compelling book about a good kid that has interesting stuff happen to him/her.

    BTW- I think maybe there might have been a difference between Cyndi’s class and ours at WHS- I don’t remember a single fight either, and I wasn’t aware of any cliquish stuff (although that could be just us being oblivious rather than it not existing?). But c’mon. Sneaking around to go to the hot pots and getting kicked out by the police counts as rebellious teen behavior- right? right?!? That’s all I’ve got for rebellious behavior for my whole life unless you count a diet coke addiction!

    • Kim Reid

      I just remembered a little bit of mean girlness toward the end of senior year. You know what I’m talking about. 😉

  5. Janette Rallison’s books are about normal teens. http://janette-rallison.blogspot.com/–especially read Just One Wish. Lately she’s been tossing in a bit of fantasy, but I think she proves that what you want to write is absolutely marketable.

    • Kim Reid

      Thanks, Robin! I forgot about Janette. I have read JUST ONE WISH, but haven’t gotten to the others yet.

  6. deborahhmoore

    Every time I read YA about a smart girl with a family that’s functional (quirky-yes, annoying at times-sure, but also quiet normal) it rings true for me. I didn’t go to a small school, and we had our fair share of fights, but most of them were in Jr. High, not High School.

    As far as the cliques, even when i was in school I remember getting tired of people talking about them as if we all clustered together into little packs and refused to converse with other kids. It was ludicrous. Yes I had my core group of friends, but it wasn’t any different then having a group of friends in the office or where ever.

    I think thrillers and stories with sensational events can be incredibly enjoyable and fun, but it’s never enough to drive a great story. That being said, I agree wholeheartedly that it’s a risk to write a story where none of the characters are involved in a life changing event. A wonderful story where no one dies, saves the world, gets super powers, or solves a murder.

    Sorry for the length of my comment, but there were so many fine points to comment on.

    • I love books with that tone, but I agree… they aren’t the majority. I have a hard time thinking in the contemporary genre. Every time I do, I end up adding in minor changes… like aliens or the end of the world. Which somehow takes it a few steps away from reality. 😉