I had a great conversation with friends recently, wallowing in memories of the books we had loved as children. Life was simpler then, of course, and we were called “kids” until somewhere in our mid-thirties. The designation “young adult” happened when I wasn’t looking, and I’m still confused about where the lines are drawn. It’s an issue for me because publishing houses and agents aren’t interested in the sort of meandering, self-indulgent froth that I write with such ease; apparently, they want a some sort of plot aimed at a young adult market, which I would be happy to provide had I the sense of what sort of audience I write for.
I thought I had a handle on it as a parent when my kids moved from the Berenstain Bears, to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Matilda, took a deep breath and dove into Harry Potter; I watched them happily spin off into other worlds of class-room romance and wizardry, but then the Twilight thing happened, and Looking for Alaska, and all bets were off.
It doesn’t help that John Green is a one-man young adult machine, churning out compelling teen dramas with the regularity of a Nora Roberts or Steven King. Four of his books are currently on the NY Times Best Seller list; both Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars have hogged a place for 141 weeks, an achievement made more impressive as his first novel, Looking for Alaska appeared in 2005 and broke into the best seller list in 2012, from which perch it has not been knocked. Alaska is not a place but a character, larger than life, a free spirit, a significant influence on the coming of age of the central character. I love stories set in boarding schools, but things get steamy in this novel, at first when our hero hooks up with a girl who offers oral sex and later when he and Alaska connect.
“Our tongues dancing back and forth in each other’s mouth until there was no her mouth and my mouth but only our mouths intertwined. She tasted like cigarettes and Mountain Dew and wine and Chap Stick. Her hand came to my face and I felt her soft fingers tracing the line of my jaw.”
It happened that as a member of the admissions committee at the schools at which I’ve taught, the question of favorite books came up in almost every interview. When Looking for Alaska began to emerge as a fairly commonly read book, I thought I’d better grab a copy, and quickly learned to move the conversation along by attending to the impact Alaska’s death (spoiler alert) has on the main character rather than celebrating the many pranks inflicted in a school setting or the various physical relationships.
Over the years, conversations about books taught me about the fictive world in which students I would teach spent their time. In about 1985, Enders Game by Orson Scott Card began to appear in interviews with boys, Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars with girls. A few years later, Lowry’s The Giver took top honors for both. Meanwhile, 7th and 8th grade kids continued to read novels that were not considered YA at the time, but might be today: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies. And from the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (U.K.) in 1997, any interview had to include some conversation about Hogwarts and owls.
So far, pretty much so good; at the very least, I had enough wit or memory to sort out the attraction of each. The Princess Diaries, published in 2000, for example, seemed very much in keeping with the sorts of pleasantly unrealistic wish-fulfilling novels that had comforted generations of readers. Discomfort with a world careening out of control brought the various dystopian series, Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner.
Twilight, however, unleashed vampire fantasy in 2005, followed by werewolf fantasy and fantasies carrying readers to various academies and schools where vampires, werewolves, and other dark creatures studied and played sports, occasionally dating, when not engaged in rending flesh, draining the unwary, and fighting against their own most carnal (in the “meat” sense of the word) desires.
Ok, back to business.
My favorite books were about sports. I loved all sorts of sport books, fictive and encyclopedic, but had a particular fondness for stories about kids (like me, in my dreams) who overcame daunting obstacles and became the greatest baseball players ever. I read the John R. Tunis books over and over, relishing Rookie of the Year, The Kid From Tompkinsville, The Keystone Kids, The Kid Comes Back, Highpockets, Young Razzle, books that may have slipped from the pantheon of literature for young readers.
So, writing about what I loved to read, I set out to write a book about a kid who has to work his way on to the baseball team upon moving to a new town. The only “wrinkle” I had built in was the difficulty this kid had dealing with a grandfather who had played in the major leagues and who held him to a pretty tough standard to meet.
So, I did what any resourceful father would do … I asked my daughter what elements had to be in place in any self-respecting YA novel. In a matter of moments, she had given me more, much more, drama than I could possibly have imagined, and not just drama but twisty drama capable of darkening any narrative landscape . I sat taking notes, grateful, but finally had to ask where she had found the touchstones she had given me.
I won’t go into the entire Teen Wolf universe, but it has a tangential plot line having to do with lacrosse, so is close enough for my project. I will pass on the tropes that work across genres so that any readers wishing to take a shot at the YA world might have a head start.
What is absolutely necessary?
A Teen Crush – one of the pair is out of the league of the other, or mismatched in some significant way … until true beauty/character is revealed and romance ensues. In a novel of some length, misunderstanding can bring a rift, finally healed as truth somehow wiggles through, or not.
An Outsider – could be the central character, or the central character’s best friend, or the central character’s romantic interest, or the central character’s mentor/parent. This is rich soil as the alienation can derive from virtually any circumstance, from poverty to ethnic origin. Religion can intrude in some circumstances as can strongly held political beliefs (Dad is a skinhead, Mom joins a cult?)
Physical Issue – this issue or sets of issues can range from the relatively minor (acne, voice changing, hair color) to any disorder an author can imagine. Issues concerning weight issues and body image abound (not so much in Teen Wolf or my book), and obsessive compulsive disorders ( Kissing Doorknobs) seem to be popping up more frequently in the most recent cycle. I might have anticipated the narrative pull of some problems, but had not considered red hair, freckles, or braces as impediments to well-being.
Serious Family Issue – again, the opportunities are endless. Parents alienated from children, children alienated from parents, alcoholic parent/guardian/relative, missing parent/guardian, disturbed sibling (anything from drug addiction to arson), missing sibling, and the most common of all …
Death, Impending Death, Illness – This is prime John Green territory, so an author has to tread carefully in order not to seem gratuitously tossing lives around in order to pander to pathos seekers. I am told that the story works more satisfactorily if the designated patient/corpse is brave, cheerful, and spiritually sound. It also apparently helps if the dear or near departed has a message that allows the central character to come of age a bit more gracefully.
Finally, and this seem fairly obvious … The Secret.
In Teen Wolf the secret, clearly, is that the kid is a wolf. Not much of a secret, really, given the title of the show, but season after season, most of the people with whom this kid contends think his behavior is odd at times, but do not question the matted fur and blood on his pajamas. How many secrets, you ask, can possibly appear in any single life? According to my sources (source), the possibilities are infinite.
Alcohol, drugs, incest, fabricated family, adoption, desertion, disease, allergy, psychopathology, any number of terrible acts seemingly buried in the past, from infants left in public bathrooms to bank robberies and murder. Twins are separated, a twin is absorbed in utero, twins change places, one twin needs the lung of the other twin, both twins like the same boy/girl. Against all expectation, some notably difficult situations have been effectively explored in YA novels in which the central character is gay, bisexual, lesbian, or transgender.
My guy wants to play baseball. His grandfather can be a jerk, but believes in his ability and offers some sage advice when he remembers that times may have changed since his own young days as a player. That’s about all I’ve got so far, but I do like writing about sports.
Here’s how the book opens – I haven’t shown this to my daughter because it seems creaky, almost right out of The Kid Comes Back. Looking at it now, I think I need to cue up another episode of Teen Wolf.
The first pitch was inside, a curve that moved in on the hands of the batter, forcing him to duck out of the box. The third baseman relaxed, straightened up, shook his arms, then dropped back into a crouch, weight on his toes, arms extended, glove hand slightly ahead of his left. As the next pitch left the pitcher’s hand, the batter shifted his weight, lifted his left leg and took a hard cut at the ball.
As he connected, the third baseman had already begun to move to his right, edging toward the bag and moving in toward the batter. He had guessed correctly; with a full swing, the batter laced a hard hit drive down the third base line. Taking the ball on the first hop, the third baseman pivoted as the ball struck the middle of his glove, turning toward first base even as he pulled the ball loose with his throwing hand and rifled a throw to the tall first baseman stretching toward third base.
The ball slapped into the first baseman’s mitt a split second before the batter reached the bag. The umpire threw his arm in the air, “Yer out!” as the runner took the turn and walked back to his team’s bench.
Everyone knows the best players play down the middle of the field: catcher, pitcher, shortstop, centerfield. That’s where the action is, and every real ballplayer wants to field the ball. Outfielders see some action against a team that hits well; second basemen can turn a double play.
Third base is the toughest position in the game, Clint thought. Fewer balls came his way, and it took effort to stay focused on every pitch, but when they came, they came hard. He had wanted to play shortstop, of course, but he was the new kid in school and the new guy on the team, only a freshman, and senior Harry Lee had played shortstop on the Sinclair High School team that had gone to district competition the year before.
Clint glanced over at Harry, taking his eye off the pitcher for a second. Harry was rocking back on his heels, slapping his glove and shouting. “You got him, Brace. You got him. No hitter. No hitter.”
Clint’s grandfather called that kind of noise, “chatter”, intended to get under the skin of a player with “rabbit ears”. It annoyed Clint, who liked to focus, in the field or at bat, but he never took it personally and rarely let it affect him. If he was being honest. Clint thought, Harry’s yammering probably seemed stupid because Clint wanted to play shortstop and wanted to be the go-to guy on the team.
Fat chance, he thought. New kids never got a break, especially when everybody else had been in the same classroom since birth, it seemed. They all had nicknames for each other, and they all hung out at each others’ houses. Nobody had asked him to join in or where he lived, which was probably a good thing, since they’d find out that his mom seemed to have lost her sense of humor somewhere around Kalamazoo, and that his grandfather used to be a ballplayer.
Things were tough enough without that.