Friday, August 3, 2018

Taking the Blame - by Janet Raye Stevens

So, now we’ve reached the portion of the blog where we thank (or curse) the ones who got us into this glorious mess of writing young adult fiction. By which I mean the YA books/films that got us hooked on the genre.

First, I suppose I should blame my mother. As I’ve noted in previous posts, she was a voracious reader, devouring books of all kinds. As a child, I followed her around, snatching up the completed books strewn in her wake. Looking back, I think she knew this and tossed books in my path that were more kid-appropriate than her racy romances, murder mysteries, or thick fantasy tomes.

Next, I have to blame the feisty real-life heroines I read about. Girls and women who faced tough trials and ultimately triumphed.

I still have my beat-up copy of KAREN (Buccaneer Books, 1952), the inspiring story of a girl born with Cerebral Palsy at a time when little was known about the disability. I read that book probably twenty five times (or more!) growing up. With a brother who seemed to always be either about to have back surgery or recovering from his most recent back surgery, I guess I found Karen and her family’s struggles to find new treatments while living a normal life relatable.

Another non-fiction book I read and re-read a dozen times as a kid, and another book I still have on my bookshelf is WOMEN OF COURAGE (Random House, 1964).

Inspiring narrative biographies (with illustrations!) of five historical figures whose names weren’t typically in the news then: women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony, activist and social reformer Jane Addams, educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, groundbreaking pilot Amelia Earhart, and anthropologist Margaret Mead.

They were five women from vastly different backgrounds, each with dramatically different life journeys, but they had some things in common—they had jobs, they made a difference, and they did it through drive, spirit, and courage.

Moving on, I can’t forget to drop some blame on the movie TRUE GRIT (released 1969, based on the 1968 book of the same name by Charles Portis, which I confess I’ve never read).

I adored this movie as a kid, and still do, and that’s largely because of Kim Darby as Mattie Ross, threatening to sic her Lawyer Daggett on anyone who stands in her way. Kim Darby delivers a performance that is not only magnetic and energetic, she’s the only one of John Wayne’s costars to ever (almost) overshadow him.

Mattie Ross has most inspired my YA heroines, strong-willed, fierce, fast-talking girls who don’t want anyone to know they’re really shaking in their boots.

Next, and most prominently, I have to blame Robert Heinlein for the stories that captured my imagination and most influenced my writing today. Specifically, two of Heinlein’s what was then called “juvenile” novels, stories I re-read until the bindings of both books complained from overuse.

First, CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY (Scribner’s, 1957). I read this book over and over. What I remember of the plot is orphan boy Thorby taken in by a kindly beggar and several hundred adventurous pages and Dickensian plot twists later, he’s rich.

Turns out, the story is a bit more complicated than that. CITIZEN has Important Themes, like greed, identity, soulless corporations involved in the interstellar slave trade, and a boy who learns that one determined person has the power to upend the apple cart.

I guess I didn’t notice—I was having too much fun reading the darn thing.

I’ll pour the final cup of blame for Heinlein’s TUNNEL IN THE SKY (Scribner’s 1955). Basically Lord of the Flies meets Robinson Crusoe meets Lost, TUNNEL caught my imagination the most. The final exam for Rod, the hero, and the rest of his Advanced Survival high school class requires them to step into a “tunnel in the sky” and survive a weekend on the wild, uninhabited planet where the wormhole dumps them out.

Naturally, something goes wrong. The students are stranded for months. To survive, Rod teams up with a guy named Jack, then takes an inordinately long time to figure out Jack is a Jacqueline. They’re threatened by strange beasts as well as other students fighting for survival until everyone figures out how to work together.

I simply loved those books, even though they were what my brother called “boy books.” As if a girl can’t enjoy the adventure, the danger, the creepy monsters, and the snappy dialogue! As if a girl wouldn’t “get” the semi-science-y fiction and the deeper themes the author has imbued in the story. As if a girl can’t see something of herself (or what she wants to see in herself) in the protagonist, even if he’s a boy.

And as if a girl can’t be inspired by those stories, and the stories of women of courage and girls with true grit and vow to write her own adventurous stories with Important Themes. But this time with a female protagonist who learns that she is the one person who can upend the apple cart.

And if my work should somehow inspire a reader to become a writer, I’ll happily take the blame.

2018 RWA Golden Heart winner Janet Raye Stevens creates feisty heroines across genres, writing adventurous YA & adult sci-fi, mystery, and contemporary romantic comedy.


  1. OMG, I remember "Karen"... and "Wren", too. Funny story for you. I used to babysit when I was 12, 13. One little boy had a problem, a birth defect that required surgery to correct. He was unable to lower his heels and would walk on his toes. Doctors had to surgically correct that -- one leg at a time. To help him heal and encourage him to move, I used things I learned in that book. Years and years later, my mom and I were talking about that baby and I mentioned how I'd used the book about cerebral palsy to help him. She went pale. She revealed the she and the baby's mother agreed NOT TO TELL ME HE HAD CEREBRAL PALSY (I don't know why).

    Also, congratulations on your Golden Heart win!

    1. Wow, Patty, what am amazing story! It's so special that Karen had an impact on you like that. Maybe they didn't tell you because, as grown-ups often (wrongly) do, they didn't think you could "handle" the news. And thanks for the congrats--still can't believe it!

  2. I loved True Grit and Heinlein, too! And congrats on the GH win!!

    1. I'm with you on the book love, Mary! And I gotta chime in on the Golden Heart congrats, Janet!