What is YA?

I’m going to start this post with a question:

What makes a work of fiction a work of Young Adult fiction?

Does it have to focus on characters between the ages of, say, 14 and 19?

Does it have to concern itself with issues, problems, and questions that the average young adult (or what the general public assumes the average young adult) encounters?

Does it have to conclude with some sort of lesson, a nice and tidy moral for the reader to walk away with?

All of these questions come with their opposites, too:

Is a work of fiction not YA if it explores the hearts and minds of characters who are older than 19? What if it tackles issues and ideas beyond the scope of what the average teen (or what the general public assumes the average teen) deals with? And what if it ends unhappily, ambiguously, and without the promise of a sequel?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’m naturally wary of labels of all kind, and the YA label – or its absence, in certain cases – often leaves me seriously confused.

My favorite books are usually those that are most difficult to describe, that have you stammering when giving a recommendation to a friend: “It’s a mystery – well, no, there is a mystery, but it’s not, like, a mystery mystery. It’s got a love story, too. But it’s not sappy. Though there is this one sappy part. But good sappy. Though don’t get me wrong – oh, just READ IT ALREADY.” That sort of thing, you know?

I often find myself recommending YA books to adults, or reading a non-YA book (though it’s always labeled somehow, as “literary fiction” or “thriller,” “mystery” or “romance” or “horror”) and thinking that all people, young adults included, should read it.

So again the question: what makes some books YA, and others not?

Take two books, one which was marketed, sold, and discussed as a work of YA fiction, and another which most certainly wasn’t: Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, and Stephen King’s Carrie. If you’re at all familiar with these books, there’s probably no need to go over which is considered YA and which isn’t. Weirdly, though, both books could be described (only generally, of course) in the same language.

Here are some of the words and phrases used to describe the books, thrown together at random:

“ . . . the action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful . . . ”

“This novel [is] unique in its uncompromising portrait of human cruelty and conformity.”

“ . . . a shy, diffident teenager who is the butt of practical jokes at [a] small-town high school.”

“Vicious and violent mob cruelty . . . ”

Which quotes are for the book about the boy who asks himself, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” and in refusing to be bullied, becomes (at least briefly) a school hero, and which are for the one about the girl who enacts horrific revenge on her fanatical mother and an unsympathetic town? Which for the one about playing football and selling chocolate bars, and which for the one about a prom soaked in pig’s blood and an apocalyptic fire that leaves more than four-hundred people dead?

Granted, I’m going out of my way here to show just how different these books are in their specifics. Because the books truly do have a lot in common. Which only makes our question all the more confusing: why is one YA, while the other is not?

In my opinion, both books are wonderful works of fiction, and both should be read by all readers, no matter what their age. Both books challenge the labels printed in the top corner of their back covers. The Chocolate War is just as un-YA as Carrie, and King’s book has just as many YA-qualities as Cormier’s.

Both books depict the cruelty and mob mentality inherent in all high schools (very YA). Both books have omniscient narrators who wander about, spending time in the heads of various adolescents and, also, a number of adults (not so YA). Both books feature parents who are totally out of touch with their children (very YA). Both books end in extraordinarily dark and ambiguous places (not so YA). One book has a sequel, while the other ends by strongly hinting that there could be a sequel (very YA). Both books explore the more shadowy aspects of religion, of orders and hierarchies and fanaticism (not so YA).

The list continues, each item only making that original question even more confusing: why is one YA, while the other isn’t? Why was one of these books assigned to me in high school, while the other one probably would’ve been confiscated had I been seen reading it in study hall?

Like I said before: I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know, though:

There’s no reason why YA novels shouldn’t include the perspectives of adult characters. After all, why wouldn’t a younger reader want insight into the ways in which certain adults see them, or the reasons behind why they treat them as they sometimes do? And there’s no reason why a YA book shouldn’t take on big, messy, and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions. Young adults wrestle with such stuff, too.

Basically, what I’m saying is that it’s okay for there to be a bit more emphasis on the adult in Young Adult fiction. There are a lot of YA books out there that treat their young-adult characters as one-dimensional, totally predictable stereotypes – they only care about who’s dating who, their parents can’t be anything but buzzkills, and school always sucks. (I should say that there are a lot of books out there that don’t do this – the best ones.) And yeah, school does sometimes suck, parents can be buzzkills, and at certain moments it definitely feels as though the only thing that matters is that so-and-so asked you-know-who out. But it’s just ridiculous and rude to assume that young adults aren’t also, say, interested in politics, that they don’t have complicated relationships with their parents, that they aren’t sometimes thinking about Big Things like religion or the environment or social justice, Values and Principles, Love and Hate, Honor and Beauty and Truth, or that – and maybe most offensive of all – they can’t handle anything “heavy,” “scary,” “messy,” or “dark.”

The best YA books are the ones that understand this, that mix the right amount of young with the right amount of adult. Really, I could’ve said the “best books” back there, and taken out the “YA” – because, come on, a lot of those works of “literary fiction” take themselves way too seriously, and could benefit from a good dose of young-ness. The problem is, a lot of these books are labeled wrong. You can’t find some of the best YA books on the shelves of the YA section, and some of the very best YA books really ought to be made required reading for adults.

That’s why when I’m doing my recommending, I try to break the rules. I tell adults to read authors like John Green and Carolyn Mackler, Nancy Werlin and Sara Zarr, and let younger readers know that they should check out Mary Gaitskill and Stephen King, J. D. Salinger and Charles Dickens.

A good book is a good book is a good book, no matter what shelf it lives on in the bookstore or library.

Happy reading.

Books I Love: Valentine’s Day Edition

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m doing a post about some of the books I’ve loved most this past year. If you’re one of those people who treats yourself to something lovely every February 14th, then go buy these books and put them at the top of your to-read pile. You won’t regret it.

So, here we go, not ranked but more or less in the order I read them . . .

Story of a Girl – Sara Zarr

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This was my third (or was it my fourth?) time reading this magnificent book. Ostensibly about a girl who’s unfairly pegged with a crappy reputation, it’s really about tons (and tons) more. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a book that more eloquently captures the roller coaster ride of human relationships – love and sex, resentment and rage, hope and pain, forgiveness, redemption, etc. etc. etc. Just writing about is making me want to go and read it again. I probably will. You should, too.

The Mist and Dolores Claiborne – Stephen King

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The Mist is Stephen King at his best. Compact, pitch-perfect, and terrifying, it’s also an incisive exploration of human behavior in the grips of fear. I still haven’t seen the movie. I don’t think any special effects could ever be as scary as the stuff King’s language gets your imagination cooking up.

And Dolores Claiborne – a long-spun yarn, a first-person narrative that never drags, a page-turner that nonetheless digs deep and thrills even when relating some downright disgusting stuff.

Vegan, Virgin, Valentine and Tangled – Carolyn Mackler

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Carolyn Mackler became one of my favorite authors this past year. She’s funny, deep, and enviably versatile. Mara, the narrator of Vegan, Virgin, Valentine, is a brilliant young woman, and you know a YA novel is off to a good start when the author doesn’t belittle their characters. That being said, Mackler doesn’t hesitate to toss Mara into situations that all the brainpower in the world couldn’t make any easier to deal with.

Tangled is on here, in part, because of its bold structure. The story plays out over four months, and each month is narrated by a different character. It takes skill to make something like that work, and Mackler makes it work wonderfully. Also, the book’s packed full of sentences as good as this: “As I closed my door, I wondered how it’s possible that one person’s entire world can change while the other person is still making watermelon soup.”

Hate List – Jennifer Brown

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Brown uses a complicated structure to tell a complicated story – Valerie’s story, the girl who was dating Nick Levil when he brought a gun to school and opened fire in the Commons, killing six students, one teacher, and wounding many others, Valerie included. Through Valerie’s story, we see just how deep such wounds can be – ones caused by horrific acts of violence and those, too, caused by a mean remark, a distant parent, or one’s own feelings of guilt and shame.

No one should read the blurb on this book’s back cover and assume that Brown simply picked a “hot topic” to write a novel around, that she wrote about a school shooting just to try and drum up more interest. The shooting is the story’s launching point, yes, but any reader will quickly see that this book offers well-written insight into much, much more.

Franny and Zooey – J. D. Salinger

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Franny and Zooey sat on my shelf for years and years. Along with my copy of Nine Stories, I moved the book with me to every one of my dorm rooms and apartments. For no good reason, I just never read it. I always picked up Salinger’s shorter stories instead. I wish I hadn’t waited.

Franny and Zooey are the youngest members of one of the most eccentric and well-known families in American literature: the Glass’s. Salinger tosses some weighty stuff into these kids laps (or heads, I suppose), and watching them struggle with it is an incredible experience. For months after I finished it, I still had certain lines floating around in my head.

Everyone should read this book, but young adults especially, plenty of whom have no doubt felt like Franny, teetering on the edge of an adult-sized nervous breakdown. This great book would remind them, importantly, that they are not alone.

Nickel Plated – Aric Davis

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If I had to pick just one, I’d say Nickel Plated was the best book I’ve read in the past year. It’s a modern-day noir with a big, beating heart, and Davis doesn’t flinch away from dark, upsetting things.

I think there are a lot of YA books out there that have unnecessary sequels, that get artificially stretched out into prettily-packaged trilogies (don’t get me wrong, though – there are plenty of trilogies I enjoy). This, however, is one book that I desperately wish would have a sequel.

Or two.

Or three.

Nickel, the narrator, is such a unique, electrifying presence, that if Davis put out a hundred more books packed with his adventures, I’d read every one of them.

There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom – Louis Sachar

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This was one of my favorite books growing up. I found it online sometime last year, and – nerd alert! – hunted down a version that had the same cover art as the copy I had (and read and read and read) back in the third or fourth grade. Reading it again almost two decades later, I loved it just as much. Watching Bradley Chalkers soften up and learn about honesty, love, and friendship through his interactions with Jeff, the new kid, and Carla, his guidance counselor, is fun, funny, and instructive.

The Chocolate War – Robert Cormier

cormier

Another reread. Cormier was far and away my favorite author as a teenager. I read him incessantly in middle school and the first couple years of high school, but then stopped, and never came back to him. A few months ago, though, I dug his books out of my old room and did some re-reading, wanting to see just what it was that had me so hooked on him.

The answer? Everything. The man was simply a wonderful storyteller.

What I might’ve loved most, though, was the bravery with which he plunged down into the darkness inherent in humanity and – as opposed to so many YA books out there now – didn’t feel obligated to climb back out into the light and tie everything up nice and neat. Sometimes a story demands a sad, frustrating, painful ending. Cormier wasn’t afraid to write them.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and You Are Here – Jennifer E. Smith

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I just discovered Jennifer E. Smith last month – and once I did, I promptly read all of her books (and can’t wait to read her new one, coming out this April). She’s the kind of writer who you read slowly, lingering over every sentence because each one is just so damn perfect. A couple weeks ago I tweeted something about how I’m convinced that she’s incapable of writing a bad sentence (though of course I know that in addition to having a natural gift, Smith puts a lot of hard work into each one of those sentences) – and, well, I still am.

I could go on and on about how real her characters are and how exciting and moving their stories can be, but seriously, just read her. Like, now. You’ll be glad you did.

The Last Policeman – Ben H. Winters

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An asteroid is hurtling toward the planet earth, and Detective Hank Palace is still trying to solve murders. That right there should be enough to get you to go out and get this book. But it’s not just a gimmicky premise. Winters delivers.

Like Nickel Plated, The Last Policeman is a noir with heart, and every sentence – every single one, I promise – is an absolute gem. And while Aric Davis may never sit down to write a sequel to Nickel Plated, the follow-up to The Last Policeman – titled Disasterland – is slated to come out on July 30, 2013.

. . .

I could add more. It turns out I’ve done a lot of great reading since last Valentine’s Day. I sincerely hope this post inspires you to read some of the books listed above – in their own way, each one is just wonderful.

Also, feel free to send over some suggestions – what books have you loved most this past year?

A Word of Encouragement and Advice for Perfectionists (Writers and Non-Writers Alike)

I recently read a post about perfectionism on the wonderful Laini Taylor’s blog (it’s great, and you should read it: here!), and it got me thinking about my own brand of perfectionism. Because yeah, I’ve got it. I’ve got it bad . . .

For instance, it took me years and years of writing like mad before I ever shared a word of it with anybody. I never even really told anyone just how in love I was with writing. Then one day a friend caught me in the act. Somehow, she managed to convince me to fork my notebook over. She read what I’d been working on (a poem, I’m pretty sure), and said, “Why didn’t you ever tell me you wrote? This is great!”

I didn’t believe her. But when she flipped back a few pages, read something else, and, with her nose all wrinkled up, said, “This? Not so great . . . ” – well, then I was a little more inclined to believe that she wasn’t just trying to be a good, supportive friend, and that she really thought some of my secret scribblings were half-decent.

This friend continued to encourage me to share my writing with her, and went on to urge me to join workshops and submit to journals – to go public, so to speak, with the fact that I was a writer.

And I can’t even begin to explain how grateful I am that she did.

My stomach sinks when I think about what might’ve happened had she not happened upon me writing poetry that day. I’m sure I would’ve gone on scribbling happily enough, and who knows what would’ve happened down the line – maybe I would’ve begun to share my work of my own accord, maybe I could’ve eventually cleared that hurdle without any outside assistance.

Maybe, but maybe not . . .

And that’s where the sinking stomach comes in. Because all the while I was covertly composing couplets, I was also thinking, How amazing would it be if I could just DO THIS all the time? In other words, I wanted to be a writer. I felt, in fact – and feel still – that I didn’t have a choice. No matter what I ended up doing with my life, I knew I’d be scribbling in a notebook (or typing on a keyboard) for the duration of the journey.

The problem being that I didn’t believe I could ever be, you know, a real writer (by the way: this idea that some writers are real and others are not real is ridiculous and dangerous and, sadly, very prevalent). I’d look at one of my poems or short stories and say, Well, this isn’t good enough. It’s not done. It’s not PERFECT.

And here – I promise! – here comes the sinking stomach, and all the emotions bundled into that sickening, anxious feeling. Because I can’t help but wonder (super-unproductively, I know) how many valuable experiences (and how much helpful feedback) I missed out on because I sat there scratching out and rewriting my sentences over and over and over again, feeling like I just wasn’t, and therefore couldn’t ever be, good enough. The scratching out and rewriting is a very necessary part of the writing process (and it can be a very rewarding one, too), but the feeling that came attached to it? Well, that I could’ve done without.

And yeah, it’s scary putting yourself out there. It’s terrifying. Whether you’re sharing a poem with a friend, reading a short story in a workshop, or sending a manuscript out to agencies. That’s because it’s risky. It’s risky just like walking up to someone and asking them out on a date is risky – you might get some bad feedback, a rejection, a straight-up NO.

But nothing’s perfect. Nobody’s perfect. It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t mean people believe it. I don’t think it’s possible to believe it all of the time, and I’m willing to bet there are only a few, incredibly positive individuals who believe it most of the time. And I think that the only way to get there, to actually believing in this age-old snippet of wisdom, is to not only admit that you aren’t (or your novel isn’t) perfect – because come on, anyone can do that – but to also accept it. You need to look at your imperfections head-on and say, That’s okay. I’m okay. You need to say, This manuscript is the most-perfect I can make it, and then send it to your friend or out to an editor and, with their help, make it even more perfect.

But not ever perfect perfect. Because perfect perfect is fake, impossible, delusional, unreal – in other words, it’s ugly. (Laini has another way of saying this: PURITY SUCKS. Go ahead and add PERFECT IS UGLY next to that.)

Despite all of this, I’m still guilty of thinking certain of my favorite books are perfect. But they are perfect – if this isn’t too confusing to say – because of their imperfections. In the best books, those imperfections are just symptoms of an author’s particular vulnerabilities.

Take Dickens, for instance.

This guy.

This guy.

Sometimes he’ll linger, stick around in a scene longer that he needs to, letting things get sentimental and saccharine (like an apple left out too long, how those brown spots carry an almost-alcoholic tang). But that’s because Dickens was a sentimental guy (at least when it came to his characters – word is that that softness didn’t always extend to his wife). And those lingering moments, often too sweet for my taste, are nonetheless some of my favorites. Because it’s at those moments when you’re closest to the author and his creation, when you can really feel the heart beating behind the page, the pulse in the prose. Another way to say this: it’s those vulnerable moments that make a book human. And it’s those most-human books that you carry around with you for your whole life, that you treat like a good friend, coming back to over and over and continuously learning new things from.

Listen: you’re not perfect. But that’s a good thing. I’m not perfect, and neither is the novel I’m currently working on. But you can be sure that I’m going to bust my ass to try and make it as close to perfect as I possibly can. The trick is to recognize that moment when you finally get there, and then figure out how to keep your perfectionist tendencies in check. Because you can’t do your best and then sit around beating yourself up about the fact that whatever you’ve done isn’t better – that isn’t going to do anybody any good. Instead you need to share your book (or yourself) with the world. Then you have to hope that you get some good feedback, the kind that can help you make your book (or yourself) just a little bit closer to perfect.

This blog has been a great way for me to practice this. I first approached it with all of my perfectionist tendencies very much intact. I sat there tweaking that first post, and then tweaking it some more. And honestly, I could’ve kept on going. It’s possible I still wouldn’t have pressed that PUBLISH button. But then I had a bit of a breakthrough – I decided that I needed to think of this blog as more journal-like, and less book-like, that it was okay to post something that I hadn’t sat there laboring over (i.e., perfecting) for days and days.

This post is not by any means a perfect piece of writing (there’s that “very much” in the second sentence of the previous paragraph, for example, which I’m dying to go back and delete). But I’m going to go ahead and press PUBLISH anyway, because I’m hoping to get some helpful feedback (like maybe Mark Twain will climb out of his grave and hop onto the Internet to tell me: “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”). Plus, like I said, it’s good practice. The putting myself out there, taking a risk. And you know what they say, practice makes perf – errr, I mean better. Practice makes better. Better and better and better.

I’ll leave you with a quick anecdote . . .

I’ve been known to remove items from the fridge, use said items, and then return them to the fridge – but, importantly, not to the spots I originally found them in. My girlfriend gave me some feedback about this (and yeah, I’ll admit, I often go in for the milk and leave the thing looking like it got ransacked by a gang of hungry raccoons). So now I’m trying to revise my behavior, to be a bit better about this habit of mine. And, I mean, it makes sense. Keeping the fridge clean, sure, but also applying the whole feedback-revision process to your life. Because we’re all just works in progress, right?

Finding Nemo

This might piss some people off, including the me of the future if/when I’m digging through twelve-foot snowdrifts, but a part of me is really very excited about this storm.

I just can’t help feeling like a kid again . . . Refusing to get dressed until the last possible second, sitting with your face inches from the TV screen, watching and waiting until YOUR SCHOOL scrolls slowly across the bottom of the screen. You run and grab your mom so she can see, so she can stop nagging you to get out of your pajamas and pack up your stuff. You do a little victory dance. You go nuts.

Seriously, is there anything better?

Let me think . . .

Nope. Nothing better. Nothing in all of human experience quite like it.

And that’s coming from me, someone who didn’t even mind school that much. You could even say that I liked school (at least more often than not). But there’s just something undeniably awesome about an unexpected day off. And when it’s full of snow, too. Beautiful, beautiful snow.

(If you don’t have the day off of school or work . . . well, that’s crazy. And I’m sorry. But later tonight you can do your victory dancing and feel like a kid again.)

Anyway, I sincerely hope no one gets stranded or hurt, goes hungry, or encounters any other weather-related troubles. But if you’re ready for it, if you’ve stocked up on the essential supplies, getting snowed-in can be kind of wonderful. I for one am thrilled at the prospect of spending the weekend stuck inside with my lovely girlfriend, our pets, a stack of books, and, let’s face it, a subscription to Netflix and a fully-charged laptop.

To all the East-coasters: stay safe, stay warm. I hope you’ve got a nice cozy place to go to once the heavy snows and high winds arrive.

Flo, keeping cozy.

Flo, keeping cozy.

On Breaking out of Boxes with an iPhone

I’m doing an experiment . . .

Typically, I only work on one piece of fiction at a time. I eat, breath, and sleep it, taking my characters around with me throughout the day and wondering what they’d do if they were in my shoes, even if my shoes are busy doing utterly mundane things – washing clothes, buying groceries, walking out to get the mail. I begin to develop a sort of soundtrack for the project, too, and end up listening to nothing but that album, artist, or playlist for weeks or months at a time (often, I’m sure, annoying the hell out of houseguests and passengers in my car). I live it, basically. I dive headfirst into the world I’m trying to create.

I stick to one project, in part, to avoid losing the thread of things. I always carry a great deal of a story around in my head, constantly adding, editing, and tweaking, and worry that if I go and get myself carried away with other characters and other situations, I’ll come back to that original story and find a whole bunch of it missing.

But sometimes, midway through a story or a novel, I get an idea. A good one. One I’m almost certain (you can never be plain old certain) has legs. Nice long ones that will take me all the way to that faraway finish line: THE END.

My former practice was to jot these ideas down in a notebook. I’d scribble out a quick synopsis and promise myself to come back to it later. And sometimes I would come back to it – and sometimes just as soon as I finished the draft or revision of that first piece. Other times I’d forget about that particular scribble, only coming across it months or even years later (or, I fear, never).

The other day, though, one of those ideas struck, and there wasn’t a scrap of paper or a writing implement in sight. (All right, fine: I was in bed, being super-lazy.) So I reached for my phone and wrote myself one of those little notes. And then kept on writing . . . and writing . . . until I’d finished what just might be a first chapter.

Here’s a random snippet:

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Later on, when I sat down at my desk (i.e., the dining room table) and opened up my laptop, I easily settled into work on the other project, the one I’ve been working on for weeks now. There was none of that interference. The characters of one story didn’t pop up in another. They didn’t start thinking, talking, or acting like each other. If anything, I came back to that original project feeling even more thoroughly, and productively, involved.

Why? I think it’s got a lot to do with just how different it felt to write in bed on a cell phone.

Writers can be pretty superstitious about their process. I know I am. I almost always sit in the same spot, drink from the same coffee cup, and, as I mentioned above, listen to the same music (don’t even get me started on fonts and margins – I’m a total nutcase). But breaking out of that box has allowed me to try something new, and has, I think, injected some new life into my work.

So I’ve kept it going. I’ve established some rules, though:

1. I can only work on this new project on my phone, no matter how badly I’m itching to e-mail it to myself, to cut-and-paste it into a Word document and just start typing away (with all ten fingers, too, instead of just my clumsy thumbs).

2. I can only work on this new project in unusual (for me) places – lying in bed, for instance, or waiting for a pot of water to boil, or standing on an epically long line, or sitting on hold listening to crappy Muzak.

It’s been fun.

Refreshing.

Full of new challenges.

Like I’ll be thumbing out a sentence when I hear a sizzle and, looking up, find that the pot of water isn’t just boiling, but boiling over, hot bubbles pouring out onto the stove and then cascading over the edge and onto the floor. Which gets the dog barking. Which, in turn, gets the cat mewling. Not to mention the fact that dinner’s now in jeopardy…

Of course, I’m not always on my phone. Plenty of the time, I keep my phone tucked in my pocket. Instead of tapping away at that next chapter, I look around and listen. That’s how I get a lot of my ideas, after all.

I’ll let you know, anyway, how the phone-composing goes. So far, I’m enjoying what my thumbs are coming up with. There’s been a fender-bender, a few lies told, some secrets kept, and – you guessed it – a lot of tacos. That’s all I can say.

Now go upset your own routine, too. Kick down the sides of whatever boxes you’ve built around yourself.

Don’t destroy the thing, though – you’re probably going to have to get back into it to get some work done.

Thanks for reading! Come back soon.

Welcome!

Hi there, and welcome to my website.

If you’re reading this, you can probably tell that I just launched this thing — like, a couple hours ago. However, I plan to post news, musings (worthwhile ones, I hope), and fiction.

Come back soon and see for yourself!

(My cat, Flo, who’s currently crawling across my keyboard, has this important tidbit to add: juitgrz7u.)