Character Chick To the Rescue

November 10, 2011

She flew the night skies seeking YA books that contained characters that looked like her, sounded like her and lived the life she lived wrapped in suburbia’s blanket – a warm, comforting sameness that belies the silent struggle that is the everyday existence of a person of color. Flowing effortlessly as the only or one of a few brown faces in a predominately white sea without ever losing the subtle cultural traditions that are, yet aren’t the Black experience.

Finding none, she ZAP, BOOM, POWWED a series that would satisfy the masses craving a world where diversity was just a matter-of-fact, not a political correctness mandate. She is, Character Chick.

*trumpets sound*

Normally, I try and keep my superpowers on the low, but YA Highway’s call for revelation of one’s writing superpowers has encouraged me to come forward. I am, in fact, Character Chick. When I write, I have no idea where the story will go because it’s all about the character. I feel each character in my head and my heart. I know what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking it. The story is about what they’re going to do about it.

Plot? Keep that thing away from me. It saps my powers and brings me to my knees. The second I’m forced to think strategically about the plot my palms sweat. I’m looking left then right trying to find an exit away from its needy questions and insane need to have them answered.

To battle the plot monster, I sink deeper into my character’s head, visualizing their backstory, tapping into what drives them until the words flow once more detailing how they will overcome the obstacle thrown in front of them.

Somehow it comes together. Somehow a theme presents itself and *gasp* the plot emerges, a thin wisp of mist wafting over the characters within and Character Chick can fly away satisfied she’s produced yet another jewel for her beloved teen readers (and not-so-teen lovers of YA).

Please, tell no one. I fear being banned from the writing community as plot is a relatively important part of the story. If anyone knew it was my weakness they might start suggesting things like outlining *shudders* and index cards (all which I’ve tried, by the way).

Maybe one day I’ll conquer the plot monster and actually start a book revolved specifically around it. Until then I’ll fly the skies content that as long as the characters whisper to me, plots will evolve around their strengths, weaknesses and ability to overcome them. For I am Character Chick, and character development is my power!

Thisclose To Being YA

November 9, 2011

The pastor of my church has invited the young adults of the church to sup with him, a special dinner for those ages…wait for it, 18-40.

Really? 40? “Young” adults?

So I’m literally thisclose to being considered a young adult in the eyes of God. Pah!

While I may be considered young compared to someone who is seventy, the fact remains I’m no young adult. Much as I’d love to be. But a wide age-ranging group of folks breaking bread with the pastor could make for an interesting evening. Picking up a book that’s supposed to be specifically written for young adults and finding that it’s not, only serves to frustrate.

For the record, let’s be clear that any categorization in publishing is to help make marketing easier. In that sense, too much is made of categories and classifications. Avid readers will often read just about anything as long as they walk away satisfied.

But the ability to discern a YA from an adult book, a biography from fiction, science fiction from romance are guideposts to help those with a preference, find their favorites faster. And since we have the friggin’ things I wish they were used more accurately.

I mean, seriously, even though the character Bone is the one telling the story and is about 12, maybe 14 throughout most of the book, would you eagerly book talk Bastard Out of Carolina to a fourteen-year-old?

You could, but there are YA books that deal with sexual abuse and dysfunctional upbringing that may be more palatable.

Even The Lovely Bones, another story about a teenager, isn’t classified YA. I assume because the crux of the story is the protag relaying her observations and what she’s watching her family go through without her.

Those books are classified correctly. As Cybils judging powers on, I’m starting to get more and more prickly when a YA book doesn’t come off YA enough for me and here’s why:

Because I’m Mental
I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in being a mental reader – meaning I come at a book from a certain angle based on expectations set by the jacketflap or the book’s genre and/or categorization. When a book is classified YA, the protagonist better be a teenager and the plot better revolve around that teen’s journey…while they’re a teen! Period. Anything less and it’s false advertising.

Competitive Avoidance is a Strategy Not a Literary Advantage
In case you haven’t noticed, the young adult market is flush with books. When I read a book that’s classified YA simply because the protag happens to be young at some point in the book, I get suspicious that it was marketed YA to avoid competing in the even moreso competitive adult market. Nice move if this were Battleship.

I love YA
I’m one of those avid readers, I spoke about. I love getting my hands on a hot story no matter the genre or classification. But when I settle down to snuggle up with a good YA novel, it’s because I genuinely want to know what the young character is facing and how they will tackle it. When the book starts pouring on the background about parents and the beginning of time, my eyes glaze over. Refer back to the bullet: I’m Mental.

It insults the YA readers
My suspicious nature can’t help but wonder if some books play both sides of the fence because the publisher felt that as good/strong as the book was, it wasn’t quite strong enough to compete in the adult market. That’s downright disrespectful to YA readers. Newsflash – a good book is a good book is a good book. If it’s not strong enough to compete in the adult market, it won’t fare any better among teen readers or adults who enjoy young adult fiction.

Everyone has their lane, I just want adult fiction books or even adult-lite fiction books to stop veering into the YA lane. Is that too much to ask?

Commentary: Life – An Exploded Diagram

November 7, 2011

By Mal Peet

My problem is, I’m way too literal. When someone tells me that a book is Young Adult, I sort of believe it. And right, wrong or indifferent, for ME a Young Adult novel has to primarily revolve around a young person’s experience. Some YA historical fiction reads like adult historical fiction.

An adult historical fic can start with the protagonist at birth or even before the protag is born and I’m fine with that. I’m not okay with that if it’s a YA historical fic. Feel free to argue this point with me, but I’m not likely to budge. I like my YA about young adults!

So, in a nutshell that’s one of my issues with Mal Peet’s, Life: An Exploded Diagram. One of them.

In all fairness, the Worldcat summary of Life says:
In 1960s Norfolk, England, seventeen-year-old Clem Ackroyd lives with his mother and grandmother in a tiny cottage, but his life is transformed when he falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy farmer in this tale that flashes back through the stories of three generations.

So I’m warned that the story is told through three generations. But then it shouldn’t be YA. It makes me wonder if it was classified YA because they felt it was more easily marketed that way.

Okay, moving on…

Even if I ignored that the story was told over three generations, the other issue I had with Life was that the heart of the story “how Clem’s life is transformed when he falls in love with a daughter of a wealthy farmer” was lost in the detail of the Cuban missle crisis. The detail about the USA’s standoff with Cuba over nuclear arms should have been woven into how it impacted the characters. Instead, there was far more detail about the crisis, how it started and played out than I wanted. And the impact it had on Clem and Frankie felt like a side story rather than the main story.

I’ll put it this way, I can tell you more about Clem’s parent’s relationship and its quirks more than I can about Clem and Frankie. Their overall relationship felt…rushed. There was no good reason for Frankie to be attracted to Clem, but she was. And I took it on face value. But as soon as I was ready to throw myself totally into their romance that pesky nuclear arms crisis kept interfering.

As historical fiction goes, it’s a nice body of work. Had someone booktalked it to me alluding to the fact that an adult Clem is re-telling his life story – I would have probably lapped it up. I would have still had an issue with the level of detail about the arms crisis, but I would have come at the book in a different frame of mind. As it were, this was presented as YA. In that regard, it didn’t work as well for me.

Brown Book Review: Bitter Melon

November 4, 2011

By Cara Chow

The best thing a book can do, to and for me, is evoke some sort of passion. The bell rings if it makes me angry. Bitter Melon rang my bells, much like What Can’t Wait did. Both are stories about what it’s like to be a first generation American citizen of an immigrant parent. Both portray the conflict these young people are faced with when the message from their parents is mixed – the parents want them to have a better life but they also want to ensure the teen doesn’t forget their culture and roots.

Immigrant families aren’t the only folks facing that issue. Every family has its own culture, tradition and roots. So there’s always some level of struggle a teen faces when they’re ready to go out and find their way in the world.

The difference, in most cases, is the level of intensity those born of immigrant parents faces. It can reach heights of tension bordering on familial warfare. And in Bitter Melon, it becomes abusive. Frances (Fei Ting) is a seventeen-year-old senior in 1980’s San Francisco expected by her hardworking mother to become a doctor and take care of all mama’s medical and financial ills. Lofty goals, especially considering Frances has no desire to be a doctor.

Frances’ mother uses mental and physical abuse to keep her daughter on the required path. Not until she erroneously ends up in a speech class instead of Calculus does Frances find her voice (pardon the pun) and begin to consider life outside her domineering mother. She finds an ally in a former competitor and begins to secretly live life on her own terms.

On one hand, Frances was a sympathetic character. You’d have to be heartless not to feel for someone enduring that level of abuse. But on the other, the abuse made her selfish, sometimes suspicious and sneaky. It’s no Cinderella story, for sure.

Bitter Melon doesn’t break any new ground. And there seemed very little reason for it to be set in the 80’s. There were points where I forgot it was 1989 until there was a pop culture or fashion reference. However, Frances’ struggle for independence (what teen doesn’t at some point?) and her willingness to get into trouble for a simple sip of a social life kept me reading.

I also found the end satisfying and balanced. It’s neither triumphant or tragic, but steeped in the mixed feelings one would likely have after enduring years of abuse from a loved one.