In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I am working on book #3 in the Winds of Freedom series, a teen adventure series set in the 1850s in North Danville, Vermont. My 1852 Vermont adventure THIS ARDENT FLAME is scheduled for June 2021 publication with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you updates and early order information as soon as I know! I'm also writing a memoir; revising a mystery; in the midst of a novel about a grandmother and her granddaughter; and always writing poems. Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Returning to Philip Pullman's THE BOOK OF DUST, Thinking about "Young Adult"

My newest Vermont historical adventure reaches the marketplace on June 23: THIS ARDENT FLAME. Set in a real village not far from where I research and write, in 1852, it probes the very real controversies around ending enslavement in America, from a Vermont point of view.

But for me—and I think for many other authors—a novel takes on legs and spirit of its own, and within a few pages of the start, I knew the teens in this book had complicated lives in which they felt the pain of being "other than" what's expected. They knew romance and dreams. They threw themselves into battles for justice, without full consideration of what it could cost them.

And that, for me, is the point of writing "YA." Teen protagonists aren't just unseasoned; they are passionate. When they recognize the next right thing to do, they can be more likely than careful, thoughtful adults to offer themselves and their abilities. Of course they get hurt this way. But they also grow in leaps that are exhilarating to experience, even as the writer rediscovering them. 

THIS ARDENT FLAME recaps what it meant to be deaf in Vermont before the Civil War. It exposes the pain of families already beginning to split on moral grounds. I hope that in the best of ways, it foreshadows the coming darkness of the war that tore America apart, so fiercely that the wounds have still not healed, 160 years since they began to bleed.

My kind of writing depends on constantly learning. A lot of that is from the scholarship and research of others, especially social historians. But I'm also always working at becoming a better wordsmith, scene setter, tension exposer, painter of love and loyalty. Part of my "training" comes from reading powerful stories told by others. I grew up on Madeleine L'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkein, Frances Hodson Burdett, Arthur Ransome, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott, and yes, second-tier novelists who brought us important visions, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who strolled right into THIS ARDENT FLAME and surprised me deeply.

In my non-writing life, I'm doing some hard things right now, involving selling the home where my husband and I lived and loved, and where I tended him in his final illness. I'm learning to talk with (and learn from!) contractors in preparing a new home for myself. I'm packing LOTS of books.

So I'm re-reading YA novels this month. That took me, this week, to Philip Pullman's newest series, "The Book of Dust," which has two published books so far, with the third and final yet to come. As I worked through the first one again, La Belle Sauvage (named for the canoe owned by Malcolm, one of the protagonists), I looked at how Pullman summoned power through his words, and deepened the ideas and passions behind them. 

Around halfway through the book, Malcolm's school gets taken over by a religious crusade that deliberately turns children into spies on the morals of their families and friends. Malcolm observes the effect: "Few pupils were openly naughty anymore—there were few fights in the playground, for instance—but everyone seemed guiltier."

The phrasing made me think of Orwell's Animal Farm. Political manipulation and power depend on making one group feel potent, and another feel guilty and "less than." It's a shocking book, and one that is now embedded as firmly in our culture and thinking as Orwell's other noted dystopian, 1984. 

Is Animal Farm meant for teens to read? I certainly read it first when I was a teen, for school. Recently my 12-year-old grandson read it for school, too. I tried to let him know, without being pushy about it, that I felt the book was dark, even scary. I bet he felt the same way. I hope his classroom reinforced taking a stand against the machinations exposed in the story—and supported the kids who found it painful to read. Lots of people experience the use of power against them, even before they grow up.

I'm torn about whether Pullman's books are "good for young readers." Even today, I find they hurt me, darken my views, open me to more despair. 

If you have an opinion on all this—I'd like to hear yours. Let's talk.

[Hope you'll make time to browse more of my tales here of historical research, writing, and life! Tap the link to reach the rest of the material:]


Carl and Abby said...

I read this book about a year ago now, and it was a very good read for me. It was one of the most mature novels I have read thus far in my 12 years of life, but the plotline, author's devices and exceptional storytelling skills like the inclusion of random but essential characters all combined to make this an incredible book. I very much enjoyed how the main character wonders how two branches of the same tree- the priory across the river from his house and the Consistorial Court of Discipline- can be so similar and yet support vastly different perspectives. As a sort of prequel to His Dark Materials, La Belle Sauvage did not exactly fill in gaps- the original series did not leave many, if any- but it did a very good job of explaining more about the background of one of the characters who is the source of the main conflict in La Belle Sauvage.
Anyway, this book did have more mature moments and was darker than many of the other books I have read, ever, but it was also a real delight. When I read it, and when I think about times in history and the present when groups have been oppressed in favor of the "right" people, I think mainly about how it is important to be brave and to stand up for what you believe in, openly or secretly. Of course, I do not think that people as young as Malcolm should put themselves in the situations Malcolm finds himself in- and Malcolm finds himself in some conflicts that would leave anyone scarred for life- but I think it is important to realize that any resistance against an out of order majority is quite possibly the only way to achieve change. It has happened time and time again throughout history. In addition, I think that as young people it is important to read about these topics- not so that we can put ourselves in the shoes of the character, but to remind ourselves both that the majority is not always correct and that we must stand up for what we believe, SAFELY.
Thanks for reading this,
Donley Johnson, age 12 (Not Abby or Carl Johnson).

Beth Kanell said...

Donley, reading your thoughts in this comment means a lot to me. The only way writers can tell whether they are really providing what readers want is when readers tell them -- and you are telling me, and Philip Pullman, to keep going and set those examples, fictional and real, of standing up for what we believe. I wish you good allies on your journey forward. -- Beth