Monday, January 21, 2008

Edgy Fiction and the Reluctant Reader

Not only Getting them to Read, but Keeping them Reading the YA

Part I the Reluctant Reader

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Before I start my first post, let me introduce myself. I’m Bethany Griffin, and my first YA, Handcuffs, will be released by Delacorte this December. It’s the story of an Ice Princess, the boy who wants to thaw her, and everything that happens after they get caught with a pair of handcuffs. Is it edgy? I don’t know anymore. Is it realistic? I hope so. Some of the questionable things the characters do, they do because it seemed like the realistic thing for that character to do, not because it was what I was planning, because I wrote this book without any particular outline or plan. Some of the themes of the book (um, I think J) include being completely consumed by a relationship, and whether you accept being consumed or fight against it, body bartering, self esteem issues, money issues, and of course sex- though in this case the sex is related to all of the above, but it’s also always an issue in itself, isn’t it?

But my subject here, believe it or not, isn’t me. It’s edgy YA literature, and keeping the kiddos reading. Unlike other fiction categories, YA is really an age group, and we’ve always got them unless folks stop reproducing, but we have to get them to read. So my first subject is edgy fiction and the reluctant YA reader, I will continue this discussion later with a discussion of edgy YA and the advanced reader.

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A reluctant reader is by definition a person who does not want to read. Who looks at books and feels that they have nothing to offer, who reads and doesn’t connect, who reads and doesn’t remember or care about what happened and therefore cannot discuss it with you. Reluctant readers have often been marginalized by their reading experiences. Maybe in kindergarten everyone else was in the blue birds or the eagles, and they were in the dumb-pigeons-who-can’t-sound-out-words group. Maybe they have trouble focusing, and their 7th grade teacher slapped down a copy of Huckleberry Finn, and they couldn’t get into it because they were wondering if their parents were getting divorced, if they were going to make it home from school in one piece, or you know they were going to get terribly humiliated by having to read out loud. So they took on an attitude of disdain for reading.

These are the kids who it means the most to find a good book for. The right book, which is why we need so many books, because some of us read non stop, and some others are looking for the perfect fit. For some of them it’s Harry Potter and the whole world of fantasy. I love fantasy and I think J K Rowling has done amazing things for all of kid lit. She’s given us a generation of readers, which is an amazing accomplishment. But for many of these kids, suspension of disbelief is difficult, and when they see a fantasy title they say, that’s dumb.

We know what good readers do (and struggling readers do not)

They predict what will happen next
They put themselves into the story
They empathize

There’s a part in Flowers for Algernon where Charlie is reading Robinson Crusoe and he says that he feels sorry for Robinson because he is lonely. He also suspects that there is someone else on the island because there are footprints on the cover that Robinson is looking at. Predicting and empathizing.

Now every reluctant reader is different, just as every person is different. So if I seem to be generalizing, please understand that the best way to make sense of non-readers for an English teacher is to find the commonalities. And then you work with each student on an individual basis and get to know them.

So, what does edgy YA offer to reluctant readers.

Realism. Situations and a world that is closer to what they experience every day, so they don’t have to work so hard to suspend disbelief.

Awesome dialogue, that sounds real, that includes words that they say and hear regularly. And yes this includes the basest profanity you can imagine. Have you heard kids talking? I don’t mean glorify it, but I do reflect reality. It’s crazy, but sometimes some interesting “bad words” are enough to convince a kid that a book is “different” and keep them reading.

Characters that readers can connect with. Real people with real feelings who respond like real teenagers. These are the elements that make you have to turn the page to see what will happen next. Voice is part of this category, I think. Authentic voice.

Plot lines that don’t flinch. Is happily ever after believable? Not usually. Does everybody always survive everything and learn an important lesson? No. Do bullies relent and repent when you stand up to them? Try it a few times and see.

Brevity. I love Lord of the Flies, I think it’s an awesome book and I love the story. But that opening, omg. It’s rich with description, but it loses the reluctant reader. They don’t care about the waves crashing on the beach, they want to read about the death and destruction, the inherent violence in school boys who are fighting for their lives. But not if it takes too long to get into it. So even for a short book, this one loses brevity points in my book. Contemporary YA is often short and to the point.

The high concept hook – I know, this is for selling the book. But you know what? I sell books all the time, standing in front of the library shelf. “Is there anything good here, do you have anything I can read?” This is a beautifully well written and provocative book, does little for my audience. The short description, the cool sounding hook does my work for me every time. And before me it sold the book to the librarian and the bookseller and the editor and the agent and I guess you get the picture.

And so, as we move onward into the information age, an age where auto mechanics and factory workers need a higher level of literacy than ever before, when reading accurately and quickly becomes more and more important and the internet pervades our lives, every library in this country needs a shiny bright glossy selection of edgy YA books.


SuzanneYoung said...

Bravo! As a former teacher, I understand and agree with all that you've said here. Thank you for saying it so beautifully.

Andrew Carmichael said...

Excellent post, Bethany! Really, I think you captured a very, very important reason why contemporary YA, and edgy YA, is very necessary these days. Hopefully people will read this and understand that being "edgy" in a book isn't about being cool, or different, or even controversial, but about being real and truthful about the characters and the topic at hand.

Trish Doller said...

I wish I could add something, but I think you've said it all. Well done!

bethany said...

Um, I think I maybe mispelled empathise. Twice. At least I'm consistent.

hannah said...

Fantastic, Bethany.

And I almost used that banned book picture in my post. :)

Jordan said...

Bethany, that was superb.

I know from trying to get my little brother to read (he's ten, so a bit young for YA but we're getting there) that if I can't tell him in one sentence why he should read this book, he's not going to read it. He likes books about boys like him doing things he would love to do--mostly things he's already doing. Realism is important with kids, no matter the setting.

Again, fantastic!

courtney said...

This was a really fantastic post, bethany. I nodded my head through it. Well done! Everyone with pre-conceived ideas of what edgy does/doesn't offer a reader, let alone a reluctant one, should read this.

lizr said...

Great post, very thought-provoking. I'm working on a few YA stories now, and am always on the lookout for opinions on what makes a book stand out from the rest.