Since I started writing YA books back in 2010, the space in my life for non-children’s books continues to shrink. I want to stay on top of my industry, to support the great literature being turned out by my contemporaries, and to learn and grow as a children’s book writer.
So for a few years, I didn’t touch a book written for audiences over 21. I kept my head inside YA, and then MG (when I started branching out as a writer), and NA.
Until recently. My book club picked up Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam series (containing Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam), and boy, was it a learning experience. I think there’s a lot missing from the YA dystopian body of work, despite how saturated it is; very few of our YA dystopians even come close to highlighting in the same stark, frank detail the problems our society will inevitably face in the future as Atwood does. Even now that we’re on the tail end of the dystopian fad in YA, I still fail to see a single YA novel that addresses corporate gluttony and food scarcity (the inevitable future of our over-populated, capitalist society) with the same honesty as the MaddAddam series.
I find it interesting that new YA is often described as dark and pushing the limits for children’s literature, but there are so many important boundaries that haven’t been touched yet.
The other novel I finished recently (at B’s strong behest) was Ken Kesey’s second work, Sometimes A Great Notion. It took me roughly five months to finish it, because it’s a difficult novel in both its storytelling style, and its content.
One thing we all struggle with in children’s literature is excitement, and page-turning. We have this notion that younger audiences inherently have shorter attention spans, and that A) we must capture their attention right away with action and explosions and sword-fighting, and B) we could risk losing them at any time if our writing is too complex in style, too advanced in vocabulary, too dull, or too romantic.
But I beg to differ. I know many a child—and was once a child like this myself—who picked up adult books because children’s books were: too plain. Too simple. Too tame. I felt like most children’s books talked down to me, and I often read four, five, or six “grade levels” up because those books were just more interesting—and even more often, simply decided to jump to adult-level fantasy or science fiction completely.
Sometimes a Great Notion is a very complicated book in the way it’s written, but very simple in its story: a small-town feud. A long-held grudge. Sibling rivalry. The novel takes place in my very own, great Pacific Northwest, and Kesey spends many a page wandering off into the landscape, the wildlife, and the climate of this untamed wilderness.
And, frankly, these were often the most fascinating parts of the book.
In children’s literature, we’re advised to stick to the story; to not introduce too many characters too quickly; to keep the plot moving, moving, moving. But the thing I appreciated the most about Great Notion was its plodding pace, its swollen cast of characters, and its tangents. The novel as a whole makes much more sense, and feels more complete, in the context of the world Kesey builds around it. One cannot fully understand Hank Stamper’s fierceness without understanding the wildness and volatility of the place where he was raised. One cannot fully understand Lee’s grudge without wading through his mad ravings to one ex-roommate. They are stories inside stories, with many characters telling their own versions.
Not to say that many YA novels out there aren’t already “literary”; but I still think we, as children’s book writers, could learn a little from the world of adult fiction. Certainly a goal in children’s literature is to bring young readers into reading—to get them and keep them by writing stories that make reading fun and exciting and movie-like. But I think we often run the risk (as almost all adults do when dealing with children) of not daring them to step outside their comfort zones; of dropping to what we think is “their level” when really, children are more than capable of reading, analyzing, and comprehending high level content.
If we constantly pad the walls, are we really doing young readers any favors?