At the CCBC listserve the topic for the last half of this month has been about the depiction of poverty ie struggle, hard times in children’s lit. Of course Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse is a great example as well as Newbery Honor winner One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Certainly with the Great Recession many families are facing financial heartbreak. My picture book Home Is Where We Live: Life at a Shelter Through a Young Girl’s Eyes also tells the story of a young girl and her family working themselves out of homelessness. About the time this book came out there was also a picture book about a boy and his father who lived at the airport. I’m not sure people could do that in this day and age.
Mostly my problem with a lot of YA and middle grade today has a lot to do with the middle. Middle class, middle America, maybe even middle children. Everyone just seems so suburban. Yes, even Libba Bray’s Going Bovine which in many ways is unique still reflects a pretty standard upbringing. Not too many authors write outside that middle of the middle comfort zone. A nice example of a book that won acclaim that presented a different family dynamic was The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. Incidentally it was also set, I believe in the not so fertile part of California or some deserty place.
I know as a YA growing up I LOVED The Outsiders where the parents had died and the boys were being raised by their older brother. They lived in Oklahoma, middle America, yet not the suburbs. I wanted to read about people who were different from me, from some place different. I think this is why fantasy and apocalyptic sci-fi is so extremely popular right now ie Hunger Games and Ship Breaker and Huntress by Malinda Lo. YA readers are looking for something out of the norm, the world skewed, or screwed—however one cares to see it.
This kind of writing is not easy. It’s gutsy and brave. It must be human tendency to want to keep things middle. Writing an uncomfortable scene can be like walking a tightrope. Too much overdone and it just comes across loud, a blinking billboard—same thing with sex, too much and it just reads titillating, manipulative. Also horror—a great way to get your reader’s attention, but very hard to write. If you go overboard it slips into simply gross.
What I’m struck most by is those scenes that create tension, writing that makes me embarrassed, prose that makes me want to hurry up and get to the end.
So when writing, dear readers, think about this: hitting a chord—bing!—where you make your readers squirm.
Next week I want to focus upon and do some practice with writing uncomfortable.