Why Write Dark Stories for Kids?

I write almost exclusively for kids, specifically young people in the age range of around 12 to around 19. Stuff you’d find shelved in the ‘young adult’ section. There are several reasons for this, one of them being that it was during this time of my life that it was most difficult to find books ‘for me’ that I actually wanted to read. I spent most of my tween and teen years making up stories rather than reading them and still want to write books for my 12 year old self.

One criticism I’ve seen lobbed against young adult fiction is that some of it is just too creepy, or too dark, or too intense for people too young to drink. Do a Google search for any reasonably popular kids’ book and you’ll likely find several results criticizing the book’s age-inappropriate content on the grounds of it being some ill-defined sort of unsettling. These complaints are, of course, made by adults. There’s the problem.

Pictured: Every single road you ever walked down at dusk as a kid.

As we grow older, I think we gradually allow ourselves to forget just how upsetting and, yes, creepy childhood actually is. Our imaginations shape our expectations far more than our limited experiences, and we often imagine the worst because our developing brains see that as the best way to be prepared. You’re small and weak in a huge, unfamiliar place full of malice, and confusion, and all the lurking dangers your parents and teachers make absolutely sure to tell you about. On top of that no one with any power in the world takes you seriously. That weird neighbor you’re entirely certain is a serial killer? Nobody’s going to listen to you. Absolutely nobody. In retrospect, as a rational adult, it seems absurd. Not so much when you’re eleven years old.

Dovetailing nicely into this is the fact that people tend to like having their fears, rational or not, validated by the fiction they consume. It’s nice to be told that we were right all along even when it’s a work of fiction vindicating us. Think of all the airport fiction with plots hinging on diabolical terrorist schemes that are, big bonus here, taken out by characters oddly similar to the target audience’s ideal selves. These desires aren’t limited to 50 year old guys on cross-country flights, or even to adults in general. They’re basic human wants. We want to be told, “Yes, you’re right, the world is scary. But someone like you can set it right, and getting there can be really exciting.”

Get Me Out of Here

As a kid, my reading was almost entirely fantastical. If the setting wasn’t some far-away invented place, it was another time or another planet or some supernaturally-tinted vision of our own world. I didn’t like to read Beverly Cleary and other writers who primarily worked in the mundane world. I remember holing up in my treehouse like a brown recluse spider, reading through The Lord of the Rings and being quietly blown away by Eowyn’s big I’ll Cut You spiel to the Witch King.

But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.

The same feeling, the same nameless Something came over me many times while reading many stories, but I couldn’t identify or articulate it for years and years. It dangled just out of reach in the heat haze. I came to realize as I grew older that this was the feeling of new and unexpected experiences, however vicarious, making their impression on my developing brain. It was the distant tingling of seeing things and people and acts I had never imagined could exist, things that I had no access to in my backward hometown. To have a forceful and charismatic personality was a distant ideal, and I had up to that point seen no broad swath of country that did not closely match the pattern of pine tree-pine tree-WalMart-pine tree-factory farm-pine tree-church-pine tree-pine tree-cemetery.

Reading what I read could take me at any time to a place that wasn’t where I was, and show me people entirely unlike the people I knew. It opened me up to the possibility that amazing experiences and places and people did exist, and that not everyone had to be crazy or boring. It was an incredibly freeing revelation each and every time, even though I wasn’t aware that I was having it.

I am a huge supporter of escapist fiction. For kids, for adults, for whoever. We are all trapped within one circumstance or another that we wish to escape at some point, and often we are given no opportunity to escape it in any sufficiently quick way. We may never fully escape some situations and circumstances. If we allow our minds to drift to somewhere better, to see better people, maybe we can take away more than comfort and a few hours killed. And even if that’s all we get, I still can’t find disagreement with Tolkien on the subject.

Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!

For Banned Book Week, I’m Giving Harry Potter Another Chance

When the first Harry Potter book was released stateside, I was twelve years old. Now, for the sake of having some social context for those of you who were born into a world with a different New York City skyline than I was, Harry Potter caused some ugliness in several parts of America back in the day. I grew up in the ass-end of Mississippi and Harry goddamn Potter was some kind of bombshell to the isolated Southern Baptist world in which I lived. Reading for pleasure, especially reading fantastic fiction for pleasure, wasn’t exactly in vogue among young people. I know book people like to puff up how much more kids read during their time in the halls of their middle school, but for me being an avid reader was a social wasteland. You just didn’t do it, partly due to isolation from sources of new material and partly due to the artificial isolation from the outside world that comes with building a community on religious fundamentalism. Phillip K. Dick, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, they all had no foothold in that world outside the black trunk in my treehouse. Their pop culture saturation wasn’t great enough in the early 90s to seep through the many layers of parental screening and ingrained fear of change that lay heavy over the rural communities of southwestern Mississippi.

Harry Potter, though, was different. It was nowhere, and then seemingly everywhere. Immediately. All over the bookstores and libraries stationed, in any direction, upwards of eighteen miles away. Displayed proudly at all three Wal-Marts within an hour’s drive. All over the news our parents watched every night. Most importantly, it was discussed with great excitement in every middle school classroom full of kids bused in from towns with bookstores and libraries and more than one church. The simple saturation of it, the incredible presence it had, helped it to infiltrate the community. It had reached the same level of saturation as the harmless Hansen kids, something possibly deviant but so widely spread and accepted that policing it was difficult for any parent who didn’t straight up keep their kids chained to a lawnmower in the shed.

Once the book broke through the surface of my community, every kid I knew was in love with it, and dear God did adults hate it. My parents didn’t exactly care, but the parents of my friends readily fell into the furor surrounding the book’s supposed ability to summon Yog Sosoth. Or something.

I, much to my own surprise, didn’t care for the book. I didn’t dislike it or think it was bad, it just didn’t speak to me in the same way it did to every other kid. To this day, I can’t adequately explain why I could read the pages and recognize that the prose was good and the story was simple but effective and still not care.

As a result, I totally missed growing up alongside Harry and the gang, something many of my age peers look back on with a nerdy fondness. Now, at the beginning of Banned Books Week, I find myself recalling the kid/adult schism that the books created in my hometown as I sat in total indifference to them.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that on Monday a grown-ass man will walk out of my local library with a copy of the first book and walk briskly home to try to discover what he missed when he was twelve.

YA Fiction Needs More Blending of Gender Traits

When I was still in the young adult reading demographic, I read a small smattering of books about girls. I read A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and a few others that have slipped through the cracks of my memory. I don’t consider this especially progressive. I didn’t mind reading stories about girls and girly things, but I did my best to hide or excuse the fact that I read them. I didn’t do this because I felt personally ashamed, but because I knew that I would be made to feel ashamed if people knew that I enjoyed them. Despite what some people may believe, there are boys willing to read about girls and girlish things. They are few and far between, I believe, because society in general devalues things it deems to be feminine. Characters with feminine traits are judged more harshly than those who act in a way we consider masculine. 

Take the case of Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games series. She may be a female character who’s found her way into the accepting hearts of millions, but she’s also an honorary boy. She doesn’t understand (and even fears) your paltry hyoo-man emotions, she would rather kill something than love it, and violence is her go-to solution for everything. This may not be how all men act, but it is an exaggeration of the most widespread stereotypes of male behavior. Men are emotionally oblivious, men are logical as opposed to emotional, men are virile killing machines.

I don’t think that a male character would be so appealing to publishers if he were written this way. A YA novel with a hero who acknowledges his feelings, appreciates beautiful things, and doesn’t immediately resort to decapitating people would be considered an insult to characterization, and abomination, unrealistic and unlikable. Even if he were secretive about his interests and perhaps even prone to violent outbursts, I don’t think publishers would jump to support a book headed by a ‘girly boy.’

A girl who acts like a boy is considered an upgrade, an improvement. For a boy or a girl to act especially girlish is considered a failing of character, a fundamental weakness. In this respect, I don’t see characters like Katniss as especially affirmative.

I want to see more characters, male and female, who are more comfortably blended between gender stereotypes. I want to see more tomboys who aren’t ashamed to wear skirts, and more emotional boys who aren’t treated as comic relief. I want characters who can be strong as well as emotionally vulnerable. I want more people.

I don’t want any children I may raise, teach, or know in the future to be ashamed of reading about girls, or about emotions or beautiful things. It’s a crappy feeling.

In 2011, You May Still Be Asked to Make Gay Characters Straight

Anyone who follows the Writing tag closely enough, visits io9, or reads Genreville has already heard about the agent who agreed to accept Rachel Brown and Sherwood Smith’s manuscript on one condition – that they eliminate either a gay main character or his gayness. That this happens is not news to me, as a friend of mine received advice from an agent that she alter a lesbian character’s relationships to make the story more ‘palatable’ not even a year ago.  It is a sad fact that, while the real world continues to make strides toward the acceptance and integration of queer people, our entertainment remains as white and straight as it can get away with. And we let it get away with a lot.

I view this particular instance as important, as different, simply because I’ve tripped over it several times during unrelated browsing. The internet is a powerful engine of exposure, and exposure is a fine weapon against injustice. There exists a blog with the motto “You fuck up, you get put on display,” and I think that’s accurate to how the wildfire spread of social injustice news on the web works.

True, no names were named, but that isn’t important. Agents who would advise these changes or reject a manuscript based on a character’s LGBTQ status are a symptom of a pop cultural disease, and identifying them individually won’t help. What will help is exposing the problems inherent in an industry that very often operates on mindsets outdated by forty years.