Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Teens + Parents = Conflict

I confess that the characters in my YA novels tend to have lousy experiences with their parents. And I know it’s a common criticism of YA. But I don’t think it’s an entirely fair one. Yes, more parents are “missing” in YA literature than in life. Then again, fiction has higher instances of huge blessings and crushing problems across the board, and for good reason.
There’s a danger inherent in making stories too much like real life.
Case in point, vacations. Everyone wants to go on a happy vacation, where everything works out perfectly. Nobody wants to read about one. Perfection is a joy in real life, a snooze in fiction.
No conflict, no story.
So…starting with Pay It Forward, which was my first YA crossover. Dad’s a lout, and is gone. Mom’s an alcoholic who climbs on the wagon and then falls off again. But she loves the kid like crazy. I made her an alcoholic for a reason. Because that makes Trevor one of those kids who has to more or less raise his own parent. Which, in my experience, leads to unusual incidences of maturity.
A curse in real life, an opportunity in fiction.
In Becoming Chloe, Jordy and Chloe live on the street. Their parents are out of the picture. We meet Jordy’s parents, though. Later. They’re a real horror show. Dad has major issues that make him a danger to his own son. Mom has her head up her butt too far to protect him.
So maybe that’s why Jordy protects Chloe. Maybe that’s why he takes care of her the way he does. Because he knows how it feels when no one has your back.
The Year of my Miraculous Reappearance: alcoholic single mom again. Yeah, that does keep coming up. Then again, I’m a recovering alcoholic, sober 23 years, and they do say to write what you know.
In this case it was the perfect opportunity for Cynnie to deny away her own budding alcoholism. Because Mom is worse. And when she finally does get a handle on it, and Mom doesn’t, it felt like the perfect way to make my point that we really can change…but only ourselves. We can’t so much change the people around us.
In The Day I Killed James, Theresa tries to get help from her single dad, but the best he’ll do is hire her a shrink. And her mom ran off years ago. Which leaves her alone with her guilt issues. Because guilt is a whole different ball game when there’s no one around to offset the voices in your head. There are people in the vicinity, but she has to be willing to let them in. And we can see how she’s a bit like her dad in that regard.
We learn an awful lot from our parents. And that’s not always the good news. They can only teach us what they know. They can only teach us what somebody taught them.
In Jumpstart the World, Mom is a total disaster. But she needs to be, for the sake of the story. Because it’s a tale of independence. And in this case, necessity is the mother of it.
In Diary of a Witness, Ernie has a single mom who adores him. But she’s a little on the hysterical side. But, you know what? That matters a lot less than the fact that she adores him. Ernie and his best friend Will are being bullied at the same time, and by the same people, at school. But it breaks Will. And it doesn’t break Ernie. Granted, no two people have the same resistance. But that was less my point. My point was more that it doesn’t matter so much if your mom is a bit hysterical. Or if she doesn’t manage to quit drinking the first time out of the gate. Or ever. Parents can be deeply flawed and still give their kids what they need. Because what kids need is love.
They may want many things, but what they need is love.
So sometimes as authors we can give them what they need. Like parents who are deeply flawed but ultimately loving. Other times we have to withhold what they need so they can go out and fight and claw to find it for themselves.
Nothing is so rich, in my opinion, as watching a character make his or her own way through the world. Which may go a long way in explaining why, in YA fiction, parents so often stand back out of their way.
That’s conflict. And conflict is story.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

My mother, uh... What is the phrase? She isn't quite herself today.

Please excuse this post. I'm very far out of town at the moment and slightly drunk. But I would like to take this time to thank the two people who have influenced my writing more than any other: Mom and Dad.

I wanted to include a picture of my mother as a young woman here, but was unable. This photo, at least, captures her hair.

Mom was always a firm believer in reading, and always took the time to take my sister and I to the library. And no matter how busy she was, she always had time to read us a story. It was on my mother's lap that I first discovered how a book can transport you to places well outside the world we inhabit. One of my earliest memories is the story of one bear's struggle to find the perfect hat (spoiler alert: he ends up with the very hat he came in with). It's this lifelong love of reading that has greatly contributed to my success as an author. Mom, thanks for taking the time. Too many parents don't. 

My father, however, was not a reader. He was a storyteller

IMAGE NOT AVAILABLE. This hotel has lousy internet service.

I remember the exciting yarns he used to spin, like 'Uncle Scrooge vs. the People Made of Ice Cream' or 'The Weird Planet Where People Ate Candy for Dinner and Carrots for Dessert.' It was not until I was older that he was able to tell me stories from his own disturbing life. Some vignettes from his youth:

"And then my friend's mother, who was deaf, chased me out of the house with a hammer."
"He told me it was nothing personal, but he was going to have to beat me up."
"And then my dad said 'of course it's not loaded,' just before he shot a hole in the ceiling."
"Then the sheriff, who was wearing bib overalls, told me he'd like to blow my Yankee brains out."

Dad later went on to be a respected school superintendent. It's my goal in life to get that guy to write his autobiography. But his voice comes through in my books. 

Mom, Dad, thanks for everything.

Monday, May 28, 2012

My favorite mom

I just got back from Memorial Day weekend at Lake Martin in Alabama, where I grew up. The setting for my book Endless Summer is based on this lake, and the action starts Memorial Day weekend, too. So this book holds a special place in my heart--especially at this time of year.
But among my books, Endless Summer is unusual for another reason. The parents are characters.
I read an article once on the TV sitcom Friends as a family comedy. The argument went that most sitcoms are about a family unit. It’s just that in some examples, the main characters are surrounded by a surrogate family--friends or co-workers--that fulfills the function of a family. I think that’s the way I write a lot of my YA books. When you’re a teen, your friends aren’t more important than your family, but that’s often what it feels like, and you’re almost certainly spending more time with your friends than with your family. If friends are so important in a novel, parents fade into the background because there’s not enough room for them. If absolutely everyone is an important character, “important” doesn’t mean anything anymore.
Endless Summer was different. It’s actually two books in one volume--The Boys Next Door and the sequel, Endless Summer--so I had more room and more plot to play with. In the books, Lori and her brother have lived next door to brothers Adam, Sean, and Cameron for as long as they can remember. Lori has a crush on Sean. Adam has a crush on Lori. As the love triangle turns ugly, the other brothers get involved. And then the parents get involved, because that’s what would happen if you’d lived next door to each other for that long.
Even though I’ve written a lot of novels that focused on teens as characters with parents in the background, I found it easy to write fully formed parent characters for once--and the reason, I think, is that I am a parent now. I remember what it was like to be a teenager, and I empathize with everything Lori and the other teens do. But I also empathize with Lori's dad and Adam’s mom, and though I might not parent this way myself, I understand the draconian-seeming punishments they hand down to keep their children out of (more) trouble.
Ironically, of the four parents in this story, my favorite is the mother figure who isn’t a mother at all: Frances, Lori’s ex-nanny. She is inspired in part by my ultra-calm mother. In fact, I take a couple of pot-shots at my mom in the book that only she would understand. (When I was growing up she would never let me have any Double-Stuf Oreos. Lori doesn't get any, either, and she is resentful.). I guess the pot-shots were not too serious, because it’s her favorite of all my books, and she loves Frances as much as I do. She never read Mother Earth magazine like Frances and she didn't make us drink soy milk, but when I was screaming in terror about imagined beasties in the lake, she was calmly watching from the dock, just like Frances. Her constant presence is as much a part of my memories of the lake as any sunny day or flirtation with a gorgeous boy, so it's no wonder she worked her way into the book when I wasn't looking.

My lake this weekend!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Taking off the parent hat

Most YA literature is written by adults for teens. There are exceptions: teen authors, adult readers. But YA literature is generally rooted in a teen perspective. That’s what makes it YA.

Which means that parents are usually secondary characters. Sometimes they’re even the bad guys. (I understand Barry Lyga has a new book out about the son of a serial killer, if you want a really extreme example!)

But even when the parental characters in a book are loving and understanding and responsible and present, the story isn’t all about them.

And writers can’t parent their YA characters. We can’t protect them from their own mistakes. Sometimes we have to let characters do things we would never want our own children to do. Characters have to make mistakes and experience conflict because that is the essence of fiction. A character who never gets in trouble and does everything s/he is supposed to is a boring character with no room for change or growth.

In Sarah Darer Littman’s newest novel, Want to Go Private? a young girl gets involved with a man she meets online. I heard Ms. Littman talk about this book, and how protective she felt of her character, and how difficult it was to have her character make very bad choices—but it was necessary to the story she was telling.

When we write, rather than parent, our characters, we show how their stories play out as honestly as we can. We show the side of characters that their parents may not even know. We do this so real teens (often with the help of their real parents) can see the consequences of actions, without some interfering author jumping in to save the day.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Art is Magic - Alisa M. Libby

My father was an artist. When I was a child, he carved a cat's head from a block of stone. A herd of horses from a block of wood. A miniature violin so tiny that it required a magnifying glass and tweezers to string. He worked in the den, filled with wood chips and tubes of paint and Mozart on the stereo, and he would create magic. I often watched him. He would look up, startled, and find me standing there. He said I needed to wear louder shoes.

Dad and I talked a lot about art, inspiration, the elusive muse. He said it was the process of creation that we should get excited about, not just the finished product. I have to remind myself of this often, when I just want this book to be DONE, when I'm tired and frustrated and I feel like nothing is working. I need to find joy in the creative process - not just race toward some imaginary finish line. I think I knew this intuitively as a kid. I didn't just want to see what Dad had come up with - I wanted to be there when it happened.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why kill the parents?

The trope of the dead, or dying, or absent parent hardly started with young adult fiction. It goes back to fairy tales. On its most literal level, the death of a parent--usually at the very beginning of the story--serves to reassure children that there is a story afterwards. That is, even if your worst fear takes place and you are left orphaned and desolate, you will survive, your story will keep unfolding, and you will ultimately triumph. The anxiety around loss and abandonment cuts so deep that this is a story which simply can't be told too many times. And often some form of an internalized parent will go with you: perhaps your dying mother will give you a tiny doll, along with very specific and slightly creepy instructions for its care, and that doll will save you when your long-gone mother cannot. You won't be entirely alone.

But dispensing with the literal parent serves another, darker function. It allows the protagonist's (and the reader's) ambivalence to come out as multiple parental figures: most simply, a good witch and a bad witch, or a fairy godmother and an evil stepmother. Bruno Bettleheim thought that one of the most important things fairy tales could do for children was to allow them to hate their parents safely. The story says, Here are your darkest feelings, the ones you cannot look at directly, the ones you feel will destroy you with corrosive vileness if you fail to suppress them for a single moment: the desire to watch your mother melt away, to see your father topple from the heights of the beanstalk. Wait, you can entertain these desires in the form of a story; that is not really your mother turned into a puddle, just a witch. The story provides a sanctuary for the rage that is intrinsic to all of us. You can have moments of hatred and fury, live through them--and still turn out to be a good person, even a hero.

So, yes, most teenagers have to deal with literal parents and all the issues that come with those parents. They have to negotiate independence and do their homework and cope with the moments when those parents won't act like parents at all. But they also have their non-literal parents, the ones spun of fantasy and darkness and longing: the parents who have always been dead, who are always dying, and who will always live forever; the ones who seem to fragment into multiple figures, some disgusting and some adored; the witches and angels and ghouls. A literal parent is no more the complete reality than a fantastic one; we are all of us, always, at least half dream.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Super Dad by Lauren Bjorkman

My dad doesn’t read much non-fiction. Though novels are not his thing, he’s always been proud of my creative writing. When I finished my first story—a middle grade for girls about friendship—he read the manuscript right away. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation afterwards.

Him: Am I really like that?

Me: Huh?

Him: Am I really like the dad in the story. You know, depressed?

Me: Nooooooo!!!!

In fact, I’d created a dad opposite of him in every way—the anti-dad. I did this precisely to avoid the above conversation. And out of respect.

My dad raised me. My mom died a few weeks after my fifth birthday. From that day on, despite the many challenges, my dad took care of my sister and me. He had a few girlfriends along the way, but he was always the parent—mom and dad rolled into one.

I know my dad very well. He’s sensitive. I told myself that if I were to write a story dad that shared traits with my real dad, he would read too much into the fictional elements.

Here are the strategies I’ve employed to avoid the problem:

1. Write the anti-dad (see above)

2. Create a dad that plays a minor role (My Invented Life)

3. Write a story with three single moms (Miss Fortune Cookie)

I’ve run out of ideas. So now what? (Just kidding.)

Actually my attitude has changed. I'm feeling braver. In fact, my current project has not one but TWO dads, a step-dad and a biological dad. And BOTH of them share traits with my real dad, though they are as different as they could be. Neither one is perfect, but each is wonderful in his own way.

My dad hasn’t read it yet. When he does, I hope it makes him feel like Super Dad. Because he is.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Mother earth. Mother lode. Motherland. At mother’s knee.

Mother: it’s the mother of all metaphors. Yet mothers are absent in a lot of YA literature. As are fathers often, too.

I get it. The teen psych grapples with coming of age: becoming independent, testing boundaries, defying authority, exploring sexuality, setting their own future course.

And those struggles are a lot more dramatic when tackled alone and/or when facing some major disruptive circumstance. Death of a parent. Runaway. Neglect due to poverty (or excess wealth). Boarding school for paranormal ability. To-the-death futuristic cage fight.

All good. Some great, even. Nonetheless, as a writer, I deliberately chose to give my protagonist, Katla, two supportive—albeit recently divorced—parents. I feel this cocooned the reader in a could-be-me surrounding. When her magical ability kicked in—bringing with it a complication, or two—she was still at home and dealing with other, more relatable, high-school issues: new kid, first love, Homecoming dress, etc. Moreover, I assigned her a strong female mentor within her council of Storks, a coven of white witches who match hovering souls with the right birth mother. This wise woman, Hulda, guides and prompts Katla but doesn’t directly command her young charge.

As a mother of two teen boys and a writer, it’s not always easy to practice this kind of subtle guidance. (Is that the tak-tak-tak of a helicopter I hear?) And, for me, there is a parental instinct that kicks in even as a woman writing YA fiction. Authors want to protect their characters. This urge is heightened if and when the character is a child or teen. We resist this protective instinct and heap all manner of obstacles in our protagonists paths, but we don’t necessarily enjoy it.

(And, yes, there is A LOT of me in Katla’s mother, Lilja. All those Kashi jokes—it making a good mulch, for instance—come to me at breakfast.)

Parental figures have a place in YA fiction. If they’re not a familial entity, mother or father, they can be a guide or mentor. While a main character may benefit from such counsel, there will—should be anyway—a point at which they act independently, incorporating values and lessons learned.

Happy belated Mother’s Day to those who qualify. And to my own dear, sweet mom, my greatest champion.

My mother is a poem
I’ll never be able to write,
Though everything I write
Is a poem to my mother
—Sharon Doubiago

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Big Kids with More Hair

It never occurred to me as a child that my parents were human beings.  They seemed to be very smart and to know what they were doing.  Sometimes they’d get angry and I assumed it was my fault.  It never occurred to me that perhaps they’d eaten something that disagreed with them or maybe someone at work had looked at them the wrong way or that maybe another driver on the road had given them the finger when they forgot to go when the light turned green because they were worried about some bill they’d forgotten to pay. 

Parents just seem to know what’s up.  They manage to keep us from dying (most of us).  They don’t know everything (I’m a parent – I don’t know much).  The strangest part of growing up for me was realizing that parents are simply kids who have gotten bigger and have more hair (or less, later in life).

My dad actually told me one time in his sixties that he still felt like a child.  He told me he had no idea what was right, except for music, which he knew absolutely was right (he knew this as a child, too). 

Weird, but also fascinating.

For me, one of the great joys of writing YA has been to explore those moments when kids are figuring out the fallibility of adults.  They are such powerful moments.

In the book I’m writing now, Felton, my lead fellow, is in the process of being enraged by his mother’s behavior, terrified by her lack of concern for he and his brother’s future prosperity, filled with a sense of empathy for her struggles, and filled with a certain kind of power at slowly understanding the difference between kid and adult is a fine line and that he, with a modicum of reasonable behavior, might be a better adult than most.

What is a parent?  The only thing you can know with certainty is that they’re older than their children.  Do they make good decisions in a crisis?  Did they eat a bad lunch?  Can they pay their bills?  Who knows?  A huge part of growing up is learning that your parents are human beings just like you.  And, that’s fun stuff to write.

Geoff Herbach

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Finding the Right Parents for Your Character (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

How do you decide what kind of parents your main character will have? I suppose this question brings us back to the ever-present issue of whether you start with an outline or fly by the seat of your pants when writing. Maybe you begin with character sketches. Personally, I try to feel my way into the character's skin. Once I'm in there, I look around through her eyes.

What's the first thing she feels when she thinks about mom or dad? Is it a sense of oppressiveness, disappointment, angst, joy, relief, gratitude, or even fury? Most  relationships have their positives and negatives, but what is the first sensation the character feels when thinking of that parent? And then, what makes her feel that way? Is it a longstanding feeling or something going on between them right now?

With BREATHING, I knew right away that Savannah's father had been out of the picture a long time and that her mother held an important place in her life. Slipping into her skin, I knew Savannah felt her mother had too many rules, but that she also appreciated how hard her mother worked to provide for her and her brother. It wasn't until much later in the process that I thought to slip into her mother's skin, to see what her upbringing had been like, and how that had affected her own parenting.

My current work-in-progress includes three generations. And it fascinated me to look at the mother-daughter relationships, to think about how each daughter had been brought up and how that affected the next generation. And then also to examine how the fathers came into play, what roles they held, and how their daughters felt toward them.

Thinking this through for my characters made me think quite a bit about how affected humans/characters are by their parents, how this plays out across generations, and that even if the parents themselves do not play a key role in the story we are telling, we should make evident how they impacted their children. Because whether a character's parents are too strict or overindulgent or even absent altogether, parents affect our characters. And we make our stories ever richer when we take the time to understand those relationships.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mother's Day! (Stephanie Kuehnert)

This photo of my mom and me sums up our relationship and the best gift she ever gave me: my love of the written word.

We read together every night when I was little. We visited the library nearly every day. When I became obsessed with the pirates in Peter Pan, she attempted to find pirate stories that would be appropriate for a four-year-old girl and when she couldn't, she just kept reading the same stories I wanted to hear over and over. The next obsession was Laura Ingalls Wilder and when I tried to dress up "old-fashioned" in a hand-me-down Laura Ashley dress and moonboots, wore this crazy outfit in public, and insisted on being called Laura, she indulged me.

Shortly after that (because Laura Ingalls Wilder inspired me) came the writing. Mom has been there every step of the way. She kept my first story:

She signed me up for annual Young Authors conferences in grade school, bought all of those total scam poetry anthology books that "accepted" my angsty teenage poetry, and when I was in a Very Dark Place in my early twenties, she was the one who convinced me to go back to college and pursue the dream she instilled in me as a little girl: to be a writer. To this day she's still the one I turn to when having doubts about keeping the dream alive (which happens often) and she's never stopped being emotionally and sometimes financially supportive (because it's not a career that pays well). Also, since she has worked as a nurse for nearly forty years, she's my go-to for fun medical questions about drowning, strokes, and pregnancies.

I dedicated my first book to her (even though it's about an absent mother and she's constantly telling people "Buy my daughter's book! The mother is nothing like me!") but I feel like I owe her more. Actually, I know I owe her everything.

So thank you, Mom, and thanks to all the moms out there who read to their children and support their dreams. You are the most important people in the world. Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Parents by Genre

When I started thinking about how I use parents in my writing, I realized that it depends on the genre. When I'm working on a fantasy project, the parents tend to be pretty absent. But if I'm writing realistic fiction, the parents are much more present, and are often a strong source of conflict.

Why this huge difference? Here are some ideas:

In fantasy, the focus is usually on the world, the magic, etc. and less on the family dynamic. There is also a common theme in fantasy of having to find parents who are lost; in fact, that's something that I'll be exploring in the sequels to My Very UnFairy Tale Life. But while my main character is searching for her parents, she's going to go through a lot of adventures on her own.

Meanwhile, in stories that are rooted more in the real world, it makes sense that parents would be a bigger factor because the main character's struggles are more focused on home, school, etc. 

Do I have a preference for stories with parents vs. without parents? I think I actually prefer fictional parents who are somewhat in between. They are involved enough to be a source of support (and conflict) for the main character, but are also cheerfully oblivious enough to allow the character to have his/her own story.

Does anyone else see this parental difference depending on genre? How involved do you like parents to be in stories?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Should Parents Stay or Go?

Amber’s mother has to go. It’s too bad because I really thought she’d make it. She survived the first and second drafts and got even more ink in the third. Then my agent and I had a long talk. And that’s when I knew Mom needed to leave the story.

What to do with her? My initial thought was to kill her outright. Something neat, quick, and painless—car accident, plane crash, beheading. But maybe there’s a way to keep her alive. Let her run off with the mailman or “find herself” in a remote area of the Andes. Or cruise into the sunset with her third, fourth, or fifth husband.

Dead or alive, the woman must disappear. She’s a pleasant enough person—actually quite lovely--but she doesn’t add anything to my plot. Worse yet, she takes the focus away from what my story is really about. And that’s unacceptable.

My brother Dan and me in high school.
Dad teaches me to be an acrobat.
Don’t feel too sorry for Amber’s mom. Disappearing parents are common in young adult lit. In Fairest of Them All I killed off Oribella’s dad when she was a toddler. It could have been worse. In an early draft he was an anonymous sperm donor. At least he had a name in the final version. Oribella wasn't parentless, though. Her complicated relationship with her insecure mother was       critical to the plot. 

My protagonist Aspen in A & L Do Summer has two very normal parents who get plenty of ink. They also load her up with chores, ground her when she and Laurel get into trouble, and generally complicate her life. What they don’t do is solve her problems.

Which is the reason so many parents are absent in YA lit. Teen characters need plenty of room to fall in love, solve mysteries, and mess up their lives without their parents around to put them together again. 

No so the authors. I would give anything to have my parents back. Mom and Dad, love you, miss you every day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Parenting, A Messy Business

As a teenager, I once so enraged my mother that she removed all the electrical items from my room--including my lamps. I sat in the dark, quite smug as I compared my sanity with her obvious lack of it. Often, my mother would say in exasperation, "I hope you grow up and have a daughter just like you."

Her wish came true: twice. Now I'm the mother of teen and almost-teen daughters. And I have so much compassion for all my colleagues in parenting--including those in fiction. I suppose I should feel some sympathy for my daughters for having a mother with a vivid imagination, and maybe I would, if raising them were easier.

Will these crazy characters turn out okay?

Every day I walk that fine balance between providing structure and allowing freedom. I dread that minute before midnight on a Friday night as I wait for my teen to walk through the door. Phew! She's alive! I want my daughters to live with passion, but not derail their lives by thinking that passion comes from a guy--especially the wrong guy, you know, the kind populating so much YA fiction. I want my daughters to love their imperfect bodies, rejoice in their intelligence, and ignore the unhealthy messages seen in magazines, TV, advertising, online...and some fiction (No, no, no! Don't sacrifice yourself for a guy/vampire/werewolf).

I've lived long enough to see that not everyone fulfills their potential, so I'm always searching for warning signs. Undone homework sends me into an imaginary spiral in which I envision my daughter, now in her mid-twenties, slumped in my basement watching Reality TV reruns and consuming scary quantities of red licorice. I've freaked out and ranted more than I'd like to admit. I apologize a lot.

I'm so unfortunately, unavoidably human. And that's the way I like to write fictional parents: good intentions, flawed methods. I love the messy dynamic between teens and parents--all those hopes, dreams, fears, and weaknesses churning as my characters work through other struggles.

I secretly hope that my readers will treat their own mothers with a bit more empathy... I know I do!

My mother thinks watching me raise girls is hilarious.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Parental Control

I had very cool parents growing up. And I knew it then, believe it or not. I'm not just coming to this realization some 20 years after I moved out of their house. They were also (in my opinion) very strict. They expected a lot - good grades, no trouble, obscene neatness, politeness and respect (I even had to answer the phone with a specific greeting which was horrifying when it was my friends calling and I sounded like the freaking butler). I was also grounded if I was one minute late for cerfew, which sucked but got me home on time.

They also told me that they smoked pot (once, really?), talked about sex (I was given the birds and bees talk at the dinner table as if it was no big deal), had a fully stocked bar and cold beers in the fridge in the garage, they swore (but I wasn't allowed to), my mom wore bikinis and my dad wrestled with us on the living room floor, they went to concerts, went out with friends every weekend and took my brother and I out for ice cream every Sunday night. I was never told to stop watching TV (probably because I read books more than I watched TV), we ate birthday cake with amazing buttercream icing for breakfast (even though it was nobody's birthday, we just wanted to get a cake). We drank soda with dinner, were never forced to eat green vegetables, got our drivers' licenses the day we turned 16, were handed the keys to the car and told not to screw up. I had my first boyfriend in sixth grade and had a boy/girl party that year as well. They never said I was too young or I should wait until I was "older." Basically, as long as I didn't do stupid stuff, they trusted me.

So. Where am I going with this?

I've never related to the controlling, over protective, detatched, dense, almost invisible parents that proliferate YA books. While I understand that the stories are about the young characters, the role parents play in the life of the characters, even if off screen or in the past, is really important to me. It doesn't have to be negative or huge, but it doesn't have to be non-existant or non-influential, either. Parents can be normal and still have impact. In fact, in all my books the parents are there. They don't need to lecture or teach life lessons, but their presence is felt in the person they raised, the main character. They're the invisible thread that runs through the character, a thread that is woven tighty into the complete fabric of the person and yet a thread that is also tugged and pulled and potentially unraveled as the story and person evolves.

My parents have influenced how I write parents and how I look at the interaction between my teen characters and their parents. My own parents were three dimensional - silly, funny, strict, ridiculously anal retentive about stupid things. they were real. And that's the type of parents I want my characters to be raised by. (And that's them in the picture, in this year's Valentine's golf tournament at their club - in matching outfits. Horrifying and yet totally adorable, just like parents should be.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why I Love Flawed Characters

The main character in my YA novel, TOUCHING THE SURFACE, is a seventeen-year-old girl named Elliot. She has flaws--she isn't always likable. I'll be honest--I like a complex character. One reason is a selfish one. I'm very aware that I'm not always a likable person myself, but I always hope against hope that my positives outweigh my negatives. There's another reason though... I love characters with complexity because they require you to be heavily vested and they feel relatable. And sometimes they even make you feel better about yourself.

One of my first real life lessons about complex characters came from my own Grandfather. He was a first rate Archie Bunker--even called my Dad Meathead. I can't fault him for that though. My dad was sporting incredible sideburns and polyester suits.

My grandfather smoked cigars and chewed Penn clippings until all his teeth fell out. I know this because he pulled his last one out in front of everyone at Sunday dinner. He started drinking when he came home from the war and that didn't always make his the best husband or father. He worked as a corrections officer and after so many years of sleeping on the job, he never slept in a bed again--always upright in the living room chair LOL! He wasn't too trusting of banks and kept a boat load of cash hidden in the bedroom. He was one of those lucky guys who was retired for over twenty years and he'd spend his morning making breakfast and as he got older, breakfast sort of ran into lunch which over lapped with dinner.

Despite his flaws, or maybe because of them, he was a wonderful grandfather...

He introduced me to my first english muffin and let me eat four of them for lunch since I liked them so much. He made me change my brother's diapers when he babysat--even though I was only four at the time. He didn't like touching that stuff. He taught me how to wash a car and on New Years Eve we'd go outside on the porch at midnight and bang pots and pans and holler. When he won dimes while playing pool, he'd put them in glass cigar cases and give them to me. He loaned me the money for my first car when I was a senior in college.

He always looked at me like I was precious. He always treated me special. He let me put my grandmothers rollers in his hair.

And I loved him deeply--flaws and all. He was one of my favorite "characters." I miss him every day.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Family Interrupted (post by Joy Preble)

Ordinary People by Judith Guest (1976) is one book that I think of when I contemplate the role of parents in YA. This brilliant novel was not originally marketed as YA, although I think if it were to come out today it would be. And it’s probably best known for the excellent film adaptation that came out in 1980, directed by Robert Redford and filmed not far from where I grew up and went to college at Northwestern in Chicago’s affluent northern suburbs.

 The novel is the story of the Jarrett family, wealthy—perfect, wanting for nothing—whose world and lives are fractured by the death of their oldest son Buck in a boating accident. The younger son, Conrad – not as popular, not as athletic, not the golden boy—survived and his resulting guilt has caused a spiraling depression and a suicide attempt, all before the book opens. Ordinary People is Conrad’s story mostly – of his fall and his redemption and healing, his ultimate understanding that it was okay to be stronger than his brother and that people do the best they can.

 But when I think of this novel, it’s also the parents that I think of, particularly Beth Jarrett the mother (played with ice cold brilliance by Mary Tyler Moore in the film) who ultimately cannot exist in the imperfect world created by her older son’s death. It’s not that she doesn’t love Conrad. It’s that she can’t love him enough, can’t get beyond either the Buck’s death or Conrad’s survival. She cannot – for reasons both nature and nurture—live with a damage, imperfect family, a younger son who sees a psychiatrist, who was hospitalized after his suicide attempt. Like a cracked plate (and the film has a great scene with exactly that) that can’t be glued together, Beth’s own sharp-edged pieces cannot be mended. She cannot be the mother than Conrad needs. It is both her failure and the family dynamic of perfection that in large part informs Conrad’s personality. It is a tragedy writ both large and small, that one change unearths these weaknesses and nothing can ever be the same.

 As a writer, I tend toward stories of flawed, imperfect characters with equally flawed, imperfect families. My mc’s do not exist in a void. Even though they are the main focus, their parents’ roles and own stories inform how my mc’s behave, how they feel about themselves, what they want. Other things do this as well: school, society, peers. But even when relegated to the background or largely non-present in the story, the people who raised my characters do have an impact. And I think it’s the case in so many books and movies and tv shows that I enjoy. What the parents did or didn’t do; what they see or choose not to see – it’s all pretty crucial.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My parents, myself

by April Henry

I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for my parents.

My dad taught me to read when I was little - by the age of three, according to family lore. I still remember being shown white flashcards with a letter on one side and an image on the other - like an A and the word “apple.” Those flashcards called to me. They seemed magical.

My parents were big readers. Books were scattered throughout the house, and they were fine with us reading whatever we picked up. It could be Tess of the D’ubervilles (they had a set of paperback classics) or pop fiction. I still remember the shock I felt reading The Godfather in sixth grade - people could have sex standing up!

It was my parents who told me that if I really liked an author, I could write him or her care of his or her publisher (aside: kids of today, please use the Internet - so much faster for you and the author!). When I was 11, I sent Roald Dahl, care of his American publisher, a story I had written. Somehow that story made it over to England and Dahl wrote me back.

When I started to write seriously, my very conservative father read sexually detailed stories starring thinly disguised versions of myself without too much flinching. And I’ve always counted on my mom to give me honest feedback (although I will admit I like the praise much more than the alternative).

When I first got published, my dad gave me several writing books he had had since the 1950s, including Characters Make Your Story. That’s when I learned that he had once dreamed of being a novelist himself, before three kids and 60-hour weeks as a TV newsman got in his way.

My dad died in 2003 from Alzheimers. As the disease slowly stole his memory, he still would ask me how “the book” was going, although he no longer actually remembered which book it was. I remember him turning the pages of Time magazine without really comprehending it. The idea of reading was too engrained for him to give it up.

At 77, my mom is still a big reader. Reading is her purest pleasure, and I try to keep her supply topped up. Her recent reads include: Behind the Beautiful Forevers; The Gift of Fear; all of The Game of Thrones books; If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, and The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband.  

When I grow up, I want to be like my parents.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Stop the Parenticide! - cj omololu

I have to confess, I killed off my mom. Not my real mom, but the mom in my book Dirty Little Secrets. Had to be done - she needed to be out of the way for the story to unfold the way it did. She's found dead in the second chapter, but she lives in flashbacks and in what made my character make the choices she did. I worked hard to make the mom more than just a one dimensional villain, because who is more influential on kids, for good or bad, than parents?

Even though I committed parenticide, I'm always a little bugged when I read YA books where the parents are absent, either by killing them off for no reason, or by sending the teen away to boarding school. Now I have to admit, some of my favorite books are set in boarding school and many of them require the setting, but in a lot of cases, it's just a way to get rid of the parents so that the kids can run wild and have their own adventures.  There aren't many kids who have either had their parents die or are sent to live at boarding school (okay, my husband has had both of those things happen - and he says that Hogwarts aside, life in a co-ed boarding school in England was as awesome as it sounds) but there are lots and lots of kids out there who have to deal with their parents every day.

Which is why I'm committed to not getting rid of parents anymore. In my new book Transcendence (not out until June) my main character not only has to worry about flashbacks of her past lives and saving the world and the boy she loves from someone out to avenge a wrong, but curfew, homework and cello practice. Her boyfriend's mother is a main character and is the confidant through all the craziness in the plot. It wasn't easy. There were so many times I wished I could just off them and be done with it, but I wanted it to ring true for kids.

Now I'm not saying that your parents have to be on every page. If they're wealthy, they might even go on a long safari in Kenya where they are basically unreachable for weeks at a time <whistles>. But I think it's good to have them lurking in the background providing an extra challenge for your main character. Can she go out and develop her special brand of magic powers and save the world from certain doom? You bet. She just better make sure her chemistry homework is done first.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Heated Conversations with Water Fountains (Holly Schindler)

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’ve decided to share the mother of all plans.  Yes, oh, yes, I had it all worked out.  I was twelve, and it was the summer before junior high, and this was it—this was going to be the moment in which I won Mom over, got her to see things from my (admittedly, completely blurry) point of view.

First, a bit of backstory:

I was nine years old when the worst, most tragic event of all time came crashing down upon my slender little third-grader shoulders.

I could no longer read the chalkboard. 

It happened suddenly, actually—I came back from spring break to find that my desk had been moved by well-meaning floor-sweeping janitors from the front row to the back.  And the daily handwriting assignment, which our teacher put up on the board for us to copy each morning, was a complete and total blur.  I couldn’t see.  Period.

My first glasses were fairly strong (for 20/200 vision).  And—I hated them.  Talking hate here.  Hate.  The fact that it was 1986 didn’t help, either.  Remember glasses of the ‘80’s?  The enormity!  The hideousness!  Uuuugh!

And it officially began: the battle with my mom for contacts. 

I didn’t just want contacts.  I lusted after them, especially as my eyes grew progressively worse.  By the time I was headed for junior high, my prescription was creeping up toward a -5.00 (20/500 vision), and there was no way I could just take my glasses off at that point and navigate the majority of my days without them, haul them out of a backpack pocket to read the board once I got to class.  Not if I didn’t want to start having long, heated conversations with hallway water fountains, anyway.

So, the summer before seventh grade, I came up with my infinitely brilliant plan:  I would get the ugliest pair of 1980’s glasses I could find.  I mean, ugly.  Proof:

I just knew what would happen: when we picked up the glasses, and Mom saw how awful I looked, her eyes would widen in sheer horror.  She’d insist we exchange the glasses for contacts, immediately, if not sooner.
Yeah.  Didn’t work.  As my seventh grade picture up there reveals.

Sure, I did get my contacts—the summer before high school, actually.  And I wore them until I gleefully pitched the lenses and all the unending vials of cleaning solution in the trash shortly after my thirtieth birthday.  In the end, the things that are important to us as teens are never the things that are important to us as adults.  This Mother’s Day, as my own mom and I laugh at this—and other—horribly failed grand schemes, I’ll also be remembering that my teen characters should always have plans of their own that are obviously doomed, that provide a bit of comic relief, and that show them stumbling and learning and laughing all along their life’s journey.