Writing for the Younger Set – Notes from Beth Kanell
In the 1800s, “Books for Young Persons” included The Swiss Family Robinson, Waverly (Walter Scott), Oliver Twist (Dickens), The Count of Monte Cristo (Dumas), Great Expectations, Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Kidnapped (Stevenson), and Kipling’s The Jungle Book. According to a Wikipedia author, these were books that “appealed to young readers, though not necessarily written for them.”
In the 1960s, the market for “adolescents” blossomed – and in 1973 Deathwatch by Robb White won the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery. I’ve heard it said often that the true impetus of the “young adult” genre came from librarians, who saw a need for good books that wouldn’t push young readers into areas that were too mature for them.
But in the 1980s, that taboo was broken by books that dealt with rape, suicide, parental death, and murder – perhaps more at the YA (young adult) level than for middle grades (MG). With this trend came the teen romance novel, wrapped in adventure and with a more frank sexuality, even if the characters “resisted.” Contrast this with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, long a favorite among teens but containing no sexuality at all!
The Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games trilogy broke the barriers down further, making it clear that the important cultural questions, when addressed in fiction, could command a mixed audience of middle graders, young adults/teens, and adults. A book positioned deliberately for such a mix is now called a crossover – especially prominent today are “YA crossover” books, intended for adults as much as for teens.
Some aspects of writing “YA crossover” that intrigue me within the history-hinged mystery area are:
* The protagonist is a teen and thus by definition not very experienced – which leads to an “unreliable narrator” in a good way.
* The emotional value of the book comes with the teen’s confrontation with the world in some form, leading to “coming of age” – maybe not all at once.
* Issues that adults think are obvious or settled become open to new experience for teens: racial injustice, gender walls, technological windows, even illness and death.
I also spend a lot of thought and energy on issues around “who speaks for whom” and the amounts of violence and explicit physical awareness (which includes sexuality) when I write.
Most deeply, I believe the writer for young adults owes the audience three things: integrity, a chance to reach different conclusions than the writer’s, and a sense of hope for the future of each individual.
Beth Kanell lives in northeastern Vermont, with a mountain at her back and a river at her feet. She writes poems, hikes the back roads and mountains, and digs into Vermont history to frame her “history-hinged” mystery novels: The Long Shadow, The Darkness Under the Water, The Secret Room, and Cold Midnight. Her poems scatter among regional publications and online. She shares her research and writing process at BethKanell.blogspot.com.
(for November 10, 2018)