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.