The Librarian’s View-Muckling onto the Beast of Angst

John Clark, our contributing librarian, is the author of The Wizard of Simonton Pond, book one of the Berek Metcalf series.

It seems that plenty of YA fiction these days is coming in series, mostly trilogies and falling somewhere on the literary spectrum between the Blessed Trinity and the Unholy Triumvirate. After reading and reviewing as many of them as I have in the past couple years, I think I can speak adequately on what works, what doesn’t and who ‘gets it.’ Kate asked me a few blogs ago if I could speak to adolescent dynamics in fiction and this blends in well here.

First off, as a librarian in a small town that sits smack in the middle of ‘Hardscrabble Country”, I get to watch and listen to a continuing teen reality show every day. It often starts before I open for business when I find a sad-faced kid sitting on the front steps waiting for me to unlock the door. Since school is in session, it generally means they got suspended, skipped, have been kicked out at home, or maybe never made it home the night before and don’t want to deal with whatever happened last night in front of their peers. Later in the day, it often manifests itself in a Facebook spat on the library computers, or someone storming out the door,in tears or uttering most of the seven dirty words (it depends upon their sex). I learned a long time ago I can’t fix much of what’s wrong in their lives and believe me there’s plenty there. I know at least a dozen teens whose life stories would rival anything Stephen King has written about the dark side of Maine life. Sometimes, the only thing they want is an attentive ear from an adult whose smart enough to shut up and listen. I can sometimes remember to do that. On very rare occasions, I can even come up with a suggestion that might help.

So what are kids facing in their lives today? Fear, yup. Anger, yup. Disconnection, yup. Lack of stability, yup. Crappy role models, yup. Pressure to be sexually active, yup. Constantly shifting peer dynamics, yup. Granted, kids with stable families are in far better shape, but even they aren’t immune to anxiety on a regular basis. Think kids don’t know when the family finances are in the pit? Guess again. I still remember being scared to death that we were going to wake up one morning and be thrown out of Sennebec Hill Farm because my parents owed so damn much money to the Farmer’s Home Administration. It seemed like they would never be able to pay it back. That was way back in the late 1950’s and it affects my way of dealing with debt and money to this day. I see the same shadow of unease on the faces of several kids who use the library and come from good solid homes. I can bet that they hear pieces of conversations but never get to be part of a family discussion about what’s really going to happen. Times here in Somerset County are ugly. I just talked to a lady who lost her job as a store manager when the business closed 6 months ago. She finally found a new job…at seven dollars an hour less than the old one. Think families can plan for any sort of stable future under these conditions? You can bet anxiety and unease have that famous trickle-down effect a former president was in love with.

There are common elements to much of the YA fiction coming out these days: The problem, the family, the significant other, the friends. These four are embellished by location, supernatural creatures/baddies/threats and an occasional additional ingredient, but these are the main staples in a recipe that seems to find plenty of takers these days. Those who get things right create an appealing protagonist (usually female). She/he is likable, but has flaws, generally has a problematic relationship with parents (often only one parent is in the picture), has or wants a relationship with someone who’s really hot and is confronted with a situation that’s well out of the realm of ordinary. Things generally start innocently enough, but start cranking up quickly. The trick here is to create enough tension so readers are pulled in quickly and smoothly, but not so fast that they feel queasy or lose sight of the plot theme. Remember Robert Ludlum’s early books? I loved them but finished most of them because I was so totally lost by page 50 that I had to read on just to see how I had been so totally confused in the first place. Teens don’t have that level of patience, so writers must tread a fine line.

The biggest challenge in keeping the dynamics and tension in series books seems to be in the second book. I’ve read several series in recent years where the first book kicked butt, but the second left me more annoyed than anything. J.K. Rowling was a master at resolving just enough to sate the reader while leaving them hungry for the next installment. When you consider that she managed to do this for seven books, you start to appreciate how well she pulled it off. T.A. Barron did a similar stellar job with his Lost Years of Merlin series. This is complicated by the time span between books, usually 9 months to a year. One way to tell when you have a winner is how fast you slide into the world that lies between the covers on a sequel. If it’s smooth and feels like you’re meeting old friends after just a few pages, then you have a winner. If, not, go on to something else because life is too short to struggle with recreational reading.

I just finished the fourth book in C.C. Hunter’s Shadow Falls Series. The four books out (Born at Midnight, Awake at Dawn, Taken at Dusk and Whispers at Moonrise) are a textbook example of a writer skirting disaster. I devoured book one, was halfway through book two when I started to get annoyed with the main character and her constant stressing over which guy she wanted and what kind of supernatural creature her powers were derived from. I was close to skipping book three, but since I had already bought it, I figured I might as well see if it got the series back on track. It was much better because the focus got sharper, the action and tension were stronger and the author made an effort to pull the reader deeper into the mystery surrounding Shadow Falls camp while creating a secondary romantic twist with the two people running the place. Book four which just came out, totally kicked butt and ended on a surprisingly sad note that made perfect sense. There’s at least one more book to come and I’ll order it as soon as I know it’s going to be published.

Another series where the author got everything right is Jenna Black’s Faeriewalker series. Comprised of Glimmerglass, Shadowspell and Sirensong, they feature a young heroine whose totally fed up with her mom’s alcoholic behavior and evasiveness about her dad’s identity. When Mom embarrasses her at a recital, Dana Hathaway decides this is the last straw and buys a plane ticket to England so she can track down her mysterious dad. What makes this a solid series is Dana’s desperate wish to be normal and belong to a family that’s somewhat stable. Unfortunately, hers is anything but. Dad is a full blood faerie, Dana turns out to be a faeriewalker, one who can pass through from our realm to the realm of Faerie and carry technology and weapons into that realm while removing magical items. In an effort to save the boy she loves, she makes an impossible pact with the Erlking, a creature so powerful he scares the snot out of everyone else. The romance, the suspense, the tension created by circumstances beyond Dana’s control as well as the people she befriends all make this trio must reads for anyone looking for really well-crafted teen fantasy. There’s a dandy feel-good twist at the end as well.

Lisa Bergren’s River of Time series, mentioned a couple months back certainly qualifies as a trilogy where the elements are all nicely done, with a few added bonuses like the parental relationships being pretty realistic and healthy, as well as allowing readers to get a very graphic look at what life for girls and women was like in the 14th century. They were so well done that it was very easy to accept the time-travel elements, even though they defied logic as we know it.

Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars was so well done it got me to order Rampant and Ascendent her two books about unicorn hunters. Once again, the romantic tension, the ambivalence about parental roles and the interaction between the characters were all honed to a fineness that made the books great reading. She has another series of contemporary YA fiction that I’ll get to once the pile behind my bedroom door shrinks a foot or two.

Finally one other series that has two book out thus far is worth noting because the author got the relationship elements, the romantic tension and the angst of being in an almost impossible situation totally right. Josephine Angelini’s Starcrossed and Dreamless, modeled on the Helen of Troy myth, have both been books I devoured and then recommended to numerous patrons at the library. The first book ended in such a way that you couldn’t help but think about where book two would take the lovers because it was so stark. Book two didn’t disappoint and set up readers for a stellar third installment.

I just finished Harlan Coben’s second YA book featuring Mickey Bolitar, Myron’s nephew. I really liked the first book and hoped the next installment wouldn’t let me down. It didn’t. In fact, it’s probably better and expands all of the characters in ways that really make them far more interesting. Coben doesn’t shy away from letting bad stuff happen to good kids either, an element that I think is lacking in a lot of YA fiction. The things that happen make perfect sense and set you up for whatever comes in the next installment. You are left with not one, but two major cliffhangers at the end of this one. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it nominated for this year’s YA Edgar. Mickey does cut his uncle a bit more slack in book two, something for which I am grateful because he was wicked hard on him in the first one.

Finally, I’m committed to giving NaNoWriMo my best shot this year. I have what I hope will be a dandy adult thriller that has been brewing in my head for several years. This is as good a time as any, so stay tuned for how it shakes out in my next two blogs.

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5 Responses to The Librarian’s View-Muckling onto the Beast of Angst

  1. Ramona says:

    This is a terrific post, but ‘m sorry you didn’t sign it, as I can’t figure out who wrote it!

    I volunteered for two years at a big local high school, leading a book group for teens. It was a tremendous learning experience for me. What you describe about the home and social challenges for these kids is so true. People who want to write for the current teen audience really should spend time in a high school or public library, as you describe. They want understanding, escape, and a voice.

    • John Clark says:

      Hi Ramona,
      I thought I had posted it under my name, but at 12:30 in the morning, not all is clear. Glad you liked it.

  2. Marni Graff says:

    John, thanks for these great recommendations. With 7 Grands, all readers, I’m always on the lookout for good fiction for them, esp. with Christmas looming.

  3. Party psychotherapist, part counselor, part book lover, and all friend. I’m glad these kids have libraries, and I’m so glad they have books by authors who know not to soft shoe.

  4. Ooops, that was supposed to be ‘part’ psychotherapist! I need a librarian to urge me to take my time writing.

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