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Why I Write Young Adult Fiction

“Since it is so likely that (children/teens) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” –C.S. Lewis

Beware: Spoilers for Allegiant, The Fault in Our Stars, and possibly Lord of the Flies and the Harry Potter series (but if you haven’t read or at least know the ending to those last two…please come out from under that rock pronto).

Like many others, I was excited to get my hands on Allegiant, the final book in the wildly popular Divergent series. I loved book one, tentatively liked book two, and looked forward to the last installment.

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All to my utter and complete disappointment.

Allegiant and subsequently its author, Veronica Roth (who, for the rest of this will be known as VRoth) failed readers on so many levels, but more than anything it/she failed a generation of teen readers who are looking for a new brand of hope.

See, when an author writes a book they can’t just willy-nilly send it out into the world. They must keep in mind that their words have the power to shape and affect people. An author, especially someone with a huge readership, has a responsibility to their readers. They must offer hope within the pages of their book or it’s a pointless waste of time for the author and more so, the reader.

Author William Faulkner said in his acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize, “The writer’s duty is to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

Does there have to be an “and they lived happily ever after” ending? Absolutely not. Suzanne Collins’s (author of The Hunger Games series) editor put it best when she said that young adult books don’t need a happy ending, but in the end, there must be “a window left open”—a way where we can see that the characters we’ve grown to love can move on from tragedy.

There must be hope.

Teens today are growing up in a far different world than the one I grew up in (and I’m not that old). I’m of the Harry Potter generation. The books of my youth were stories of teens that could rise up and save the world. My generation was the one told that if we go to college and work hard then we’ll get good jobs and we can accomplish anything. I’m the generation just in front of today’s teens—and the teens of today have watched as the bottom dropped out of my generation’s lives. Where going to college hasn’t landed many of my friends a job, instead it has left them drowning in debt. Where many parents are divorced and a significant amount of people I know have watched their family home seized by forecloser.

Teens today have grown up watching this all unravel. For all of the aware part of their lives, our country has been at war. Think about that. They don’t know of an America not at war. Polls show that their vision of success is very different than my teen generation (which is only ten years ago). Today’s teen sees success not as owning a home, graduating college, having a family, or starting a business, instead the number one measure of success in recent polls showed them wanting to be debt free “at some point in life.” That’s it.

Contemporary teens aren’t looking for books about teens saving the world. They only ask for the small hope of saving their small corner of it. So popular books for this generation are ones that in the end show that in the midst of a messed up world, you can find your own peace/hope, even if it’s just between you and one other person.

Fiction has always been meant to combat the reality of life. VRoth failed us here. She didn’t show us what could be possible. Instead she smacked us in the face with what is. And we don’t need that. Because we’ve all dealt with more than enough loss and hardship and heartbreak. We don’t need books that repeat what we live every single day, we need books that show us that in the midst of a heartbreak world, we can find our own little pod of happiness/joy. That just because the world we live in is going to pot, doesn’t mean we have to lose hope.

Whatever her purpose, VRoth showed teens with Allegiant one horrible thing: their life, their struggles, their fight for right…none of it matters in the end. Which leaves teens asking: what’s the point? If nothing I’m working for matters…why try? I know that’s not the message she meant to send, but when an author is careless with their responsibility to readers, this is the kind of thing that can happen.

I’ll admit I spent a good amount of time reading Amazon reviews for Allegiant in order to see if I was the only one left disillusioned. I wasn’t. Sadly, I’m in the majority with the one star reviews.

Most of the five star reviews I read were people who applauded VRoth on her bravery in “giving a realistic ending.” To this I say: there is a whole genre dedicated to realism. If you want stories that make you feel like someone has stabbed your heart on the last page with no chance for recovery, then feel free to read that genre. But for the ninety-five percent of people that read for enjoyment and escapism, sorry, we want some glimmer of a happy ending. If the Divergent series was meant to belong in the realism genre then it was marketed terribly because right now, all we have are broken promises to readers.

Also, even within realism, hope is usually the end game.fault

Take the book The Fault in Our Stars which falls in the realism genre, the teens in the story who fall in love both have terminal cancer. In the end of the book (I said there were spoilers…) Augustus dies. Why weren’t readers rioting over that? Because a promise wasn’t broken—when they picked up the book they knew they were going to read a story about dying teens so a teen dying at the end of the book was something they were braced for, if not expecting.

Even still, The Fault in Our Stars ends with hope. Hazel realizes that although Augustus has died, her love for him doesn’t have to. Death doesn’t have to change the definition of relationships. My grandfather, who is deceased, is still my grandfather because I’m living and can claim him as such. The last line of the book is in present tense whereas the rest of the book was in past tense. Meaning life goes on. This is a hopeful message.

VRoth killed her main character which is just hard to do well, especially in young adult fiction. Unless the author brings the character back after death (like Harry Potter), a theme/point is better demonstrated through killing a beloved secondary character like Augustus in The Fault in Our Stars or Piggy in Lord of the Flies (how’s that for old school). Otherwise, just save it for realism or adult fiction. Period.

All of this spurs me on to write the young adult stories that keep running around in my head—the ones full of turmoil and struggles and hurt, but all of which are covered in and end with “an open window” one that blatantly leads my readers to hope.

Jess

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The Perfect Way to Kill a Character – why authors do it

Warning: This post includes spoilers for Harry Potter, Divergent, Twilight, and Hunger Games. Read at your own story-spoiling risks.

You’re reading a book. It’s three in the morning, you should be sleeping, but you just can’t stop turning the page. The characters have come to live for you. You’re invested in your story.

Then it happens…

That horrible author kills one of your favorite characters. Oh the humanity of it! You want to toss the book across the room. In fact, if the author was right there, you’d give them a piece of your mine. Tell them what that should have written. Ask them why.

Well, because we’re mean, heartless people who like to torture our readers.

Um, that’s absolutely a lie.

Authors kill characters because they have to. Believe me; it pains us more than it pains you. We created that character. We know them in a way that’s never shown on the page. But sometimes a death has to occur. There comes a point when a stubborn main character needs to lose someone important to them in order to cause change, or we the readers need to grasp how dangerous the world the main character exists in truly is.

J.K. Rowling is masterful at this. Many of the most beloved side characters in the Harry Potter trilogy perish. Why? Because we needed proof that Voldemort really was dangerous. We (the readers) had to believe that if the Death Eaters won, that the world would be left in a terrible situation and there would be a lot of suffering. Characters we loved had to die so we could see that the danger was very real and know the stakes that Harry and the D.A. were up against. Fred Weasley, Cedric Diggory, Dumbeldore, Lupin, Snape, Hedwig, Dobby, Mad-Eye, and Tonks had to die. More than that, Rowling handled all their deaths with respect. We felt each one and mourned them. In the end, we understood.

Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, also handles killing her characters well. At the end of Divergent Tris loses both her parents and has to kill her friend, Will. This had to happen for us to believe that Tris was in grave danger carrying out her mission. Even more, these deaths had to happen to prepare her to be willing to sacrifice herself to save Four. We wouldn’t have believed the power of the mind control if all these deaths hadn’t happened.

Twilight is an excellent example of a story that failed because it needed death. Meyer’s did her story a disservice when she decided she was too attached to her characters to put them in any real danger. The fourth book of the Twilight series is nothing short of jumping the shark for this very reason. The Vulturi become a laughable group of enemies. Sure they kill humans, but…um…isn’t that pretty normal for a vampire? I mean, that doesn’t make them scary. You can repeat one hundred and five times in a story how powerful an enemy is, but when the enemy appears and they can’t do anything to hurt the good guys, well, you’ve just lost the story. Not to mention wasted 400 pages worth of my time. The only way the story could have been redeemed at that point would have been for a Cullen to die. But Meyer’s couldn’t do it. She loved her characters more than her story, and it showed.

On the other hand, sometimes authors can overdo their point when it comes to using death to show how dangerous the story world is. The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example of this. Sure, in book one, Rue had to die. There was no other way. We mourned her. It caused a change for the reader and for Katniss. But by the time we get to book three, Collins’s use of death was gratuitous at best. Kill Finnick? Why? We already knew the terror of The Capitol. It served no point to kill him and it wasn’t done in a manner that respected the impact of that character. Collins allowed her theme to railroad her characters, which is unforgiveable. My friend Amanda Stevens had an awesome post about The Hunger Games that I highly recommend.

Sidenote…yes…I cried when Dobby died.

Pumpkin Pasties – Oh yes, we’re going all Harry Potter on you!

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My wonderful friend Renee is guest blogging today (so play nice!). This girl has known me since I was in junior high and still loves me, she gets major kudos for sticking with me during the awkward years and many crushes she had to hear more about that humanely possible. She’s cool, like we use to make up interpretive dances to instrumental music while cleaning the bathrooms at summer camp cool.

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Renee Says: I love Harry Potter. It didn’t start out that way. The books became very popular when I was in high school, so I wasn’t going to read those “baby” books.

However, in college, a friend of mine would not shut up about them. So I decided to take a look. And I was hooked.

Since then, I’ve gobbled up as much as I could about the magical world of Harry Potter. It even extended to a pilgrimage to Universal Studios in Florida to go to the Harry Potter theme park. (I actually just invited myself on my friend’s family trip – I became family, too! Thanks Michele!)

But one of the neatest things I have received (outside of the books themselves, which are now well-worn), was a gift of the Unoffical Harry Potter Cookbook by Dinah Bucholz from a dear friend of mine. The subtitle is “From Cauldron Cakes to Knickerbocker Glory: More than 150 recipes for Muggles and Wizards.”

Being firmly in Muggle territory myself, I knew that the first recipe I was going to try was one I had had my eye on every time I read the novels: pumpkin pasties. Every time the little witch with the snack cart came rolling by Ron, Harry, and Hermione’s place on the train, my mouth would water at the thought of a handheld version of my favorite dessert.

So as soon as the cookbook made it into my hands, I flipped to the pumpkin pasties recipe. It looked simple enough. A basic pie crust recipe with a very simple pumpkin filling. Easy peasy.

So, making pie crust looks simple enough. Flour, sugar, salt, and butter. Knead. Plastic wrap. Refrigerate. Aaaaand, this is where the problem lies.

I live in Florida. Not just Florida – central Florida. It’s the armpit of the state. Hot, sticky, sweaty and occasionally stinky. I like to consider myself somewhat of an amateur chef – I know the difference between a food processor and a blender, at least. However, whenever I get to baking, something always, without fail, goes wrong.

I took the pie crust out of the refrigerator, where it had dutifully sat for its required one hour. I plopped it on the counter, pulled out the rolling pin, and… pastry dough stuck to counter tops, rolling pin, fingers, everything. After some choice Muggle expletives, I tried sprinkling the dough with flour, to no avail. My only choice was to refrigerate the dough longer and try again.

A longer chill time, for both the dough and me, proved to be the solution I needed. However, due to my admittedly amateurish baking, the appearance of these pumpkin pasties definitely leaves something to be desired. Lumpy and bumpy, with varying sizes between them, I baked the little buggers. But I needn’t have worried. The heavenly smell of pumpkin and spices filled the house, and 30 minutes later, my family and I enjoyed our delicious, if ugly, treat.

While I will never be America’s next top chef, or even the little witch who pushes the snack trolley on the Hogwart’s express, I’ll always be game for trying new recipes. I really wish sometimes that I could just wave my wand (a stunning replica of Hermione’s – don’t judge me), and those recipes would look just like they do in the pictures. But the fun is in the trying, and the proof is in the pudding.

Pumpkin Pasties

Crust:
1 ¼ C all purpose flour
1 TBS granulated sugar
¼ tsp salt
5 TBS  cold butter, cut into chunks
3 TBS vegetable shortening, chilled, cut into chunks
4-6 TBS ice water

Filling:
1 C canned pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
¼ C granulated sugar
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
(To be honest, I just use pumpkin pie spice and dump in a lot. I love pumpkin pie spice.)

Directions:

Place the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to combine. Scatter the butter and shortening over the flour mixture. Pulse about 15 times until the mixture resembles coarse yellow meal, with no white powdery bits remaining.

Transfer the mixture into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle 4 tablespoons of ice water over the mixture. Toss the mixture together with a spatula until it starts clumping together. If it’s too dry, add more water 1 tablespoon at a time (better too wet than too dry). Gather the dough into a ball and pat it into a disk. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour (or a whole day, if you live in Florida).

Combine the pumpkin, sugar, nutmeg, and cinnamon in a mixing bowl. Mix well. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out the dough to 1/8 inch thick. Use a saucer to cut out 6 inch circles.

Put 2 to 3 tablespoons of filling in the center of each circle of dough. Moisten the edges with water, fold the dough over the filling, and crimp with a fork to seal the edges. Cut slits to make vents. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 30 minutes or until browned.

Makes 6 pasties

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Renee Becker is a middle school language arts teacher and tries to get her students to love reading as much as she does. She writes blog articles for her parent’s business, The Office Helpers, and spends her summers at Phantom Ranch Bible Camp.