Monday, January 31, 2011

Confrontational YA Fiction

Taking a break for a moment from our discussion of writing techniques and rules....

Recently, my family and I have had to find a new church (long story...). It was a heartbreaking move, but starting at a new church closer to home has also provided me with the opportunity to get involved with the youth ministry. Yesterday, even though I'm a newcomer, the youth pastor allowed me to sit with a group of teens and facilitate their discussion revolving around a question: Have you made choices recently that glorified God? The kids were a little reluctant to open up, and made jokes like, "I didn't kill my little brother today." But then one quiet little girl finally spoke and talked about seeing some friends smoking weed behind the classroom trailer at her middle school. (Shock number one for me... although I nodded and tried not to show how my mother's-heart was skipping a beat.) She went in and told the teacher, even though she feared retribution. The teacher promised to keep her name out of it. (Thank you, teacher.) I commended the girl for doing the right thing and making a tough choice, and was about to say that her action might have prevented some other child from getting more heavily involved with drugs, when this petite little girl dropped a bombshell. She told us that both of her parents are in jail for drugs.

Kaboom. My mother's-heart stopped cold. Somehow I managed to keep going, keep smiling... not freak out.

And I know this is just the beginning of the journey the Lord has set before me.

Folks, THIS is the world our teenagers live in. Even Christian teens can't escape it. And I am so driven to confront it with my writing. Five and a half years ago, after watching some disturbing report about teens on television, I prayed and asked God how I might protect and guide my (then) eleven-year-old daughter as she enters a world that seems so different from the one I grew up in. (Not really so different... just more things were hidden then, so naive kids like me didn't see them.) The Lord answered that prayer with a bigger mission... and I started writing for Christian teens.

I am convinced that we cannot confront the enemy that wants to devour our teenagers if we write stories with perfect characters, thinking they'll be "role models" for the readers. Our kids don't know kids like that. They won't relate to them. And those perfect characters--oh, maybe they've got little faults like they lie once in a while or they have pride issues--don't provide role models as much as they are seen as a form of adult lecturing. To reach our teens, we as writers have to get gritty with our characters. We have to paint the world as it really is. And yes, we'll have to create imperfect teenage characters... because Jesus didn't come to save the righteous but to save the sinners, the unworthy ones, the ones whose sins would make a mother's heart stop. These aren't merely the shadowy figures lurking in alleyways... they're the students sitting in the classrooms with our children. They're the girl who hides her cutting from her parents, the boy who does drugs in his friend's basement, the girl who lives with the shameful secret that her father abuses her sexually, the pastor's son who mocks the awkward kid at school, who then goes home and slashes her wrists, and yes, the angst-ridden kid who brings a gun to school and kills someone.

Teens do read fiction for escapism. They do want stories filled with hope. But they also want stories that speak to them in the world they live. Although they might not say it, they crave guidance from us... not judgmentalism and lectures in the form of fiction on what we think their lives are supposed to look like. And we can talk about what words are appropriate, how far is too far in our writing, but I feel very strongly that if we don't confront the world our children live in--even if that makes our stories "edgy" (people, what we CBA writers call "edgy" is so utterly tame compared to what I've read in general fiction for teens!)--if we don't confront that world, we are doing a disservice to our teenagers.

When I hear a mother say, "I won't let my daughter read a book that has (fill in the blank) in it," I want to say... that's your call. She's your child. But that doesn't mean that someone shouldn't write the book. Because maybe that book will speak to many other children who are living in similar situations and need to know that there's a way out.



  1. I couldn't agree more! What makes controversial books with imperfect characters is that not only do teens relate to them saying, "That's me!," they're able to see those characters overcome obstacles and come out better (though still flawed) people on the other side. What teens in this screwy society desire is hope! And what an awesome thing it is that we can point them to the hope that is found in Jesus!

  2. This was just like my heart was speaking to me! This is a matter very close to me. I also feel like this is something that God is calling me to do. All of my writing deal with issues such as these. Although some of my stories are fantasy they still address issues. Lately God has been working with my art to show me how to use it for others.

  3. This is why there are so many writers-- because there are so many needs.

    There are fill-in-the-blank situations that I will stop reading a book for (certain relational tensions: not sexual, more miscommunication-as-a-plot-device, as another group member described it), and my writing partner pointed out this week that she saw it in Lindorm.

    Naturally I didn't believe her, and then I saw how I had twisted the device not to break my heart, so I could use it.

    Everyone has different tolerances, different strengths and weaknesses. And because of this I think we should expect that our writing is going to provoke a spectrum of reactions.

    I like to say that the best friends are those enough like us to understand our motivations, and different enough not to get bogged down by what catches us.

    I believe this is the same for reading. I really believe in that magic place where we feel "safe" enough in a story that we can be surprised or stretched a bit beyond ourselves.

    And that perfect place takes an equally skillful match between writer and reader.

  4. I'm so grateful for this post, Diana! I am in the midst of crafting a YA series with the unsaved youth in mind, allowing them to walk a discovery of faith with my characters--all of which begin the series unsaved and act like it. So, your thoughts reminded me I'm not alone and am on to something. Thanks!

  5. Love your post here! I do agree fully, today's topic's in the "teen" world must be addressed not hidden away even in teen Christian fiction. My new novel Faith Hope and Love (just released) deals with teen pregnancy and tough choices girls face with peer pressure. If we help them to see or read story's about "real" situations and how God can help them through and guide them, we as authors will be doing a wonderful thing! Thanks.

  6. This is full of truth. You describe my challenge and call as a writer also.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. I disagree with the post and many comments here. By continuing to give 'edgy' fiction and feeding the kids so-called real world situations, what happens to those who can't handle it? And there are many who can't.

    My daughter is 23 and out of college, but in public high school she asked me to write her a story that DIDN'T glorify these issues. When her friends - most not Christians - became interested, I learned they are tried of being forced to read these type of stories and wanted something with hope! Yes, confront issues with absolute answers, but it doesn't have to be edgy to do so.

    I took her request and the issues these high school teens wanted and crafted the Allon YA fantasy series - much like Tolkien and Lewis.

    Since being published in 2010, I've encountered many Christian teens and parents who are tried of edgy. There needs to be a middle ground also and not neglect most for the need of a few.

  8. Great post, my fellow biker. :o)
    I received an email from a teacher who teaches remedial English at a jr college in a poor area in California, and she told me of some things her students come to her with. Horrifying, what they face. So yes, I do think youth need books that are real . . . but I also agree with Shawn that they need to be filled with hope. I think you can write books that deal with the real, hard issues without being overly graphic, without glorifying or romanticizing those things, where the hope comes from them watching your protagonists find a way to rise above what life (or circumstances) has handed to them. We read to escape, as do youth, so happy endings may not always happen in real life, but what's wrong with books always ending happily?