Welcome to our third guest post in the YAAM – 2010 edition. As part of our celebration of all things YA, we invited authors from different genres to write articles about the books and the genres they write.
Today’s guest is Sarah Rees Brennan, one of Ana’s favourite writers, author of The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant. We invited Sarah to talk about YA and to answer that infamous question: why should we read YA?
Here is what she has to say:
But Tell Me – When Are You Going To Write a REAL Book?
We’ve all heard someone say it.
I like agent Jennifer Laughran’s succinct reply on the subject: ‘YA writing is fine, but eventually you should “graduate” to writing grown-up books. Errr… screw you.’ But since I think Ana and Thea would scrag me if ‘screw you’ was the entirety of my guest blog, here are some more thoughts on Why YA.
Here’s a thing about YA, and I freely admit this is not a revelation I had myself, but rather something that I think fabulous YA writer Holly Black said first (and then I stole it, and then Scott Westerfeld stole it. Or possibly I do fabulous YA writer Mr Westerfeld a wrong, and he said it first, and then I stole it, and then Holly Black stole it. We YA writers are a scurvy bunch. All I’m sure of is that, I AM A THIEF OF WORDS.)
YA is about your first time. And not just that first time, though that’s often on the table as well.
It’s about the first time you ever get betrayed by a friend. The first time you fell in love. The first time you realised, on a bone-deep, gut-deep level, that the world was unfair, that something terrible and irreversible could happen to you, that nobody was coming to save you. And the first time is a really intense time – it’s shocking, it cuts deep. The world never comes as such a surprise again.
I’m not saying YA always gets this feeling down, but when it does, YA is like a knife that cuts both ways. (A… knife with no handle. …I’ve never really understood that song.)
An excellent example of what I mean about the questions raised by YA would be The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson, which is a funny, heartbreaking book – the best books, as we all know, are both funny and heartbreaking – which is about what happens when you start to feel disconnected from your first tightly knit group of friends, what happens when you find out you or someone you’re close to aren’t society’s idea of the norm before you realise how ridiculous those norms really are, what happens when you love someone, they betray you, and you keep loving them anyway.
Another thing about YA is that it’s a time when almost everyone is sometimes a jerk.
Think about it. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is a jerk. (And if Catcher in the Rye was published today it would be YA, and people who now love it would sneer at it. Yes it would! Yes they would! Which goes to show how silly judging quality by category really is.) Holden actually is enough of a jerk that he gets up my nose anyway, but it would be so much worse if he was an adult, and I’ve read enough books with grown-up Holdens in it that I am certain of this.
One movie that never fails to get on my nerves is As Good As It Gets. In which Jack Nicholson plays an assbucket.
RECEPTIONIST: How do you write women so well?
JACK NICHOLSON’S CHARACTER: I think of a man, and then I take away reason and accountability.
SARAH: Assbucket! He sounds like the worst writer in the world!
Now, of course Jack Nicholson’s character has OCD, which has given him a jaundiced view on life (not that everyone with OCD does, but it’s a reason if not an excuse for his behaviour) and Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear’s characters help redeem him and make him ease up on the misogyny and homophobia, and I am not saying that people can’t change/redeem themselves at any age.
But really. He is such an awful character. And he has been going around making the world unpleasant for people for at least fifty years. In fifty years, has he never noticed that he is terrible? At this point, I don’t care. I just wave my arms at the screen and yell ‘Assbucket!’
Whereas it’s okay for a teenager to have not realised yet what a huge jerk they’re being, how this affects the people around them, or what behaviour means they’re a jerk. Teens have a lot going on, and not that much time for it to go on in! Sorry Carlisle in Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover is an assbucket, and I love him. Ditto Felicity Worthington in Libba Bray’s A Great And Terrible Beauty.
The hero of the Demon’s Lexicon series, my own Nick? Yeah, I have to admit: total assbucket.
A genre in which you can explore the most flawed characters, with the most room for growth and change? How could anyone not want to write in that genre?
And at a time when everything seems like life or death, what if the situation really was life or death? That’s what draws me to YA fantasy the very most: because you can take that experience, and raise the stakes.
It is no secret to those who know me, or indeed to the world wide web, that I truly and deeply in my soul love cheesy teen movies. It is like my love for country music. I cannot explain it. I just feel it. I have seen all three High School Musical movies, I have seen Wild Child, I have seen 17 Again, I have seen this movie called The Derby Stallion starring Zac Efron, a movie that I cannot talk about without having deeply traumatic flashbacks.
And so of course, in the fullness of time, I came to see a made-for-TV Disney movie called The Wizards of Waverly Place. And actually, I really liked it. What is this movie even about, you say? I will tell you!
It’s about a family of wizards, who will all have magical powers until they reach the age of wizard majority or something, at which point they have a crazy tournament and only the winner gets to keep their magical powers. The family in question’s father deliberately lost his power so he could marry their nonwizard mother, and their aunt (who also lost her powers) is estranged from both her brothers. Anyway so the heroine of this movie is Alex, the middle child and the only girl, and she is by way of being kind of a thoughtless but charming rogue! Which I always like to see girls being, as they get to be unapologetic rogues less often than boys. And the hero of the movie is her older brother Justin, who is straight-laced, dedicated to his studies and also dedicated to scooping his little sister out of trouble. And the plot of the movie is that they have to go on an Epic Quest, which of course teaches them to appreciate each others’ abilities, rely on each other, save each other multiple times and of course heartbreakingly confess their love for each other. (See the picture. Hug it out, Alex and Justin. Hug it out.)
This movie intrigues me for two reasons. One is the fabulous premise, which as soon as I work out how to make my own I will be stealing from Disney and making it so that there is a lot of Gothic goings-on, including actually being tempted to kill your sibling. (Which you really might be! If they were competition for the most important thing to you in the world! And how could you have a normal family relationship if you were aware of that growing up anyway?) But in the end, of course, love would triumph. Because I am a big sap.
The other is that YA affords you more opportunities to tell stories like that. About the love between friends, which is the main subject of the aforementioned Bermudez Triangle.
And about the love between siblings. Having siblings as a teenager is a fascinating and frustrating thing. It’s a time when you’re fighting to be recognised as an individual in your own right, and trying to figure out exactly who that individual is, and thus a time in which you might realise that you are extremely different from the people with whom you’ll still be sharing a roof for a good few years. Passions run high! There’s sibling jealousy, sibling competition, siblings banding together against parents, and fierce sibling affection.
The first book of my Demon’s Lexicon series was very consciously constructed as a sibling romance. (No. Wait. Come back. I didn’t mean in a Flowers in the Attic way!) But many a romance goes like this: protagonist wonders about other character’s feelings for them. Protagonist is given serious reason to doubt other character’s feelings for them. Matters Build to a Climax, with things looking ever more dire for Our Protagonist, and then we and Protagonist discover other character’s secret: Other Character, as it turns out, loves Protagonist very much. It was fun to be able to use that structure to tell a story that wasn’t a romance, to say that there are more stories in heaven and earth than people dream of. Which is not to say that I don’t love a good romance. I do love a good romance, and there’s romance in my books. But the emotional heart of the books is familial love: between brothers Nick and Alan, brother and sister pair Mae and Jamie, Sin and her much younger brother and sister, and the complicated relationships all have with their separate parents. And I love that I can do that, in YA, and it’ll mean so much: I love that it was easier to do that in YA than it would’ve been for any other genre.
This woman is mad, you may say at this point. Mad and lacking in taste! She freely admits to enjoying a Disney movie more than a movie which won MANY OSCARS, including Jack Nicholson’s for Best Assbucket! No wonder she likes writing YA.
And therein lies the most important reason to the eternal question of Why YA: I really do like doing it. I love doing it, and I’m proud of it. To me, YA has some of the realest books there are. And that’s why YA.
About the author: Sarah Rees Brennan was born and raised in Ireland by the sea, where her teachers valiantly tried to make her fluent in Irish (she wants you to know it’s not called Gaelic) but she chose to read books under her desk in class instead. The books most often found under her desk were Jane Austen, Margaret Mahy, Anthony Trollope, Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, and she still loves them all today.
After college she lived briefly in New York and somehow survived in spite of her habit of hitching lifts in fire engines. She began working on The Demon’s Lexicon while doing a Creative Writing MA and library work in Surrey, England. Since then she has returned to Ireland to write and use as a home base for future adventures. Her Irish is still woeful, but she feels the books under the desk were worth it.
Thank you Sarah!
And we turn the question back to you, dear reader: why do YOU read YA?