When I heard the topic “Independence,” the book that came immediately to mind was Jumpstart the World. In which my 16-year-old protagonist, Elle, gets moved into her own apartment by her mom, because Mom’s new boyfriend doesn’t like living with a teenager. It feels like exile to her, especially at first. But she grows up fast. And when Mom gets dumped by the new boyfriend, and wants Elle to come home, Elle makes the observation that independence only goes one direction. “Independence has no reverse gear.”
Then, as I thought about it more, I realized that most of my YA books have independence as their theme. Sometimes forced, sometimes sought after.
We’ve talked a lot on this blog about YA books that are more or less parent-free. Because just about everybody has made the comment that an awful lot of YA books don’t have parents who factor into the plot in a big way. I think I’ve even addressed it before in my posts. My point at the time was probably that loving, involved parents make better life than they do fiction. No conflict, no story.
Now I realize there’s more to it than that. Independent characters make great stories. If I’m going to follow the story of a highly dependent character (the example that springs to mind is Maria in my YA-crossover Chasing Windmills) it’s to watch them finally break free. Strong is richer and more satisfying to read about, for my book dollars. And independent feels better than dependent.
So in The Day I Killed James, Teresa’s mother has long ago taken off, and her father is emotionally non-existent. Not to make a point about parents, but to give her a chance to stand on her own two feet and decide who to be. In Becoming Chloe, Chloe and Jordy are two street teens who form a bond because there’s no one else around to bond with them. And in The Year of my Miraculous Reappearance, Cynnie’s mom is so drunk so much of the time that Cynnie becomes a parent not only to her three-year-old Down’s Syndrome brother, Bill, but to her mom as well.
It’s a lousy situation in real life, and I wish no kid ever had to go through it. But it’s inspiring, at least to me, to read about a young person who steps up and takes the reins. Kids and teens are doing it, every day, all over the world. We do what we need to do.
Interestingly, the last two novels I’ve written carry through on this theme. They are not YA. They are coming of age novels intended for adults. In Walk Me Home, which will come out next year, a recently orphaned 16-year-old and her 12-year-old sister try to make their way back to a stepfather they think will take them in. But they end up on a Native American reservation, learning a different way to live. And 16-year-old Carly has to learn the tough truth that her younger sister is stronger, braver, and more independent than she is. But Carly steps up eventually. In the novel I just finished this month, 14-year-old (when the story begins) Angie has a mother. But, unfortunately, she wins every maturity contest, hands-down. And when they are thrown out of living space after living space because of her autistic sister, they land on their feet due to Angie’s efforts. Angie practices diligence while her mom practices falling apart. So…now…aren’t you happier to have the story told through Angie’s point of view? Who wants to be in the head of a character who’s always falling apart?
So the conclusion I come to is that I value independence. More than I realized. I had emotional honesty on the very top of my list of admirable traits, but maybe independence should bump it down to number two. Or maybe they should just sit up there side by side, reminding me what my characters might aspire to, whether they currently grasp it or not.
People are beginning to ask me if I have abandonment issues, because of the topics in my books. Not at all. I do very well on my own. Maybe too well. I write about characters who have been abandoned because I love to watch them spread their wings and become the person they were always meant to be.