Showing posts with label young adult. Show all posts
Showing posts with label young adult. Show all posts

12 March 2016

Why I Stopped Reading Nancy Drew: The Case of the Perfect Protagonist

by B.K. Stevens

I no longer remember the title of the last Nancy Drew mystery I checked out of the public library in Tonawanda, New York. I no longer remember anything about the case Nancy was working on or the clues she'd uncovered. But I do remember, almost word for word, the last two sentences I read before slamming the book shut and vowing never to read another.

ND1tsotoc.JPGNancy is with her friend Bess, investigating something or other outdoors. When the day begins to get foggy, Bess begins to fuss. She'd spent a long time working on her hair that morning, and now the moisture in the air is making her curls droop and die. Here are the sentences that ended my years as a Nancy Drew fan: "Nancy smiled. The damp air just made her own naturally curly hair even bouncier."

That did it. I'd long ago gotten used to the idea that Nancy is uniquely smart, brave, and pretty, that she's always the one who spots the clues and solves the mysteries. I knew her father is kinder and wiser than anyone else's, her boyfriend better looking than anyone else's, her eyes bluer and her roadster sleeker. I'd stopped being surprised when she keeps displaying new areas of expertise. When some snooty diving champions challenge her to a competition, I took it for granted that Nancy's jackknife would put theirs to shame. I was right.

But naturally curly hair? That was too much. Like poor Bess, I had stick-straight hair. I had to torture it to make it look slightly bent. And now, to learn that Nancy Drew, so clearly superior to me in every other respect, also effortlessly enjoys what I could never achieve--I couldn't stand it. I returned the book to the library and began a quest for a more satisfying teenaged detective. Nancy was probably supposed to be a role model, but she was so far out of my league that I couldn't even fantasize about rising to her level. I yearned for a teenaged detective who had flaws as well as strengths, one I could admire but still feel some kinship with, one who would set an inspiring example without depressing the hell out of me.

My favorite was probably Trixie Belden. When I began to think about writing this post, I decided to reread Trixie's first mystery, The Secret of the Mansion, to refresh decades-old memories. I was reminded that, like Nancy, Trixie is quick-thinking and courageous, with a keen sense of right and wrong. Unlike Nancy, though, she sometimes makes mistakes. She can be impetuous, tactless, even foolish. And she's not always the best at everything. Her closest friend, Honey West, is a far better rider. When Trixie impulsively mounts the most spirited horse in the West family stable, she gets thrown and narrowly escapes being trampled. When she dives into a lake to cool off, she forgets to check the depth, bumps her head on the bottom, and nearly passes out. She adores her sensible, loving parents but sometimes chafes at the chores they assign her, sometimes keeps secrets from them. None of that ever kept me from admiring Trixie, or from wishing her well in each of her adventures.

When I started toying with the idea of writing a young adult mystery of my own, I naturally began by reading some recent examples. A lot has changed since the days when Trixie and Honey bicycled down the tranquil streets of their fictional village of Sleepyside. Today's YA detectives may find themselves in the seedier sections of major cities, dealing with dangers ranging from gang violence to cyber-bullying, from serial killers to designer drugs. (Sometimes they also deal with vampires, shape-shifters, and evil wizards--but we'll set those aside.) At least in the books I've read, they seldom enjoy the guidance and protection of parents comparable to Trixie's, or to Nancy's rock-solid widowed father, prominent attorney Carson Drew. More often, their families are fractured by divorce, abandonment, death. Some have never known their fathers; many have to deal with parents who are abusive, addicted, or psychologically damaged. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of strong parents, these protagonists usually have reliable, fiercely loyal friends. I haven't read widely enough to hazard even a tentative generalization, but it seems to me that in some recent YA mysteries, friends play the roles parents used to play: The protagonist's parents may be inadequate or absent, but friends provide advice, support, and unconditional love.

And the young detectives themselves? In the books I read, I didn't find any Nancy Drew-type paragons who excel at everything, but I did encounter protagonists who might be considered paragons of resilience. Generally, they're tough, brave, and smart. They may be cynical and find it difficult to trust others--after all, they've usually been through a lot, and they've often got big problems at home. Aside from that, most of the YA detectives I met are surprisingly unscathed by their experiences and surroundings. Despite their haphazard upbringings, they're people of utter integrity. No matter how harshly they've been treated, they're sensitive and compassionate. And although their parents may be addicts, they live clean. Offhand, I can't think of a single teenaged detective who sneaks so much as a sip of beer, despite circumstances dismal enough to drive most of us to drink.

Reading these contemporary YA mysteries helped me begin to plan my own. I knew three things for sure. First, my protagonist would be male. At the time, I was teaching English in a Cleveland high school, and I wanted to write a book that would appeal to male students who, bright as they might be, often weren't enthusiastic readers. Second, my protagonist would be athletic. When I recommended outside reading novels to my male students, they often responded with a question straight out of The Princess Bride:"Are there any sports?" I wanted to write a book that would respond to that interest. And third, my protagonist would not have naturally curly hair.

Krav Maga trainingBeyond that, I wasn't sure. I had no interest in writing about a protagonist as flawless as Nancy Drew. I wasn't consciously thinking about Trixie Belden--until I started working on this post, I'd barely thought about her in years--but my protagonist, Matt Foley, has more in common with Trixie than with Nancy. He's a thoroughly nice kid with good instincts and a generous nature--for example, he won't stand idly by if someone else is being bullied--but he makes plenty of mistakes. He's not always a good judge of character: He can be taken in by a pretty face or a smooth talker, he's too quick to believe gossip, and he tends to think the people in his own popular crowd at school are superior to the misfits.

Matt's not as accident prone as Trixie, but he too can be impetuous, rushing into situations without pausing to weigh the dangers. (That's one advantage to having a teenaged male protagonist. If a widowed forty-year-old mother of two goes to a deserted spot late at night to search for evidence, she's being so culpably foolish and irresponsible that readers may well be incredulous, unsympathetic, or both. If a seventeen-year-old boy does the same thing--well, what else would you expect from a seventeen-year-old boy? He's young. He'll learn.) Matt treasures his friends, but he doesn't always get along with them smoothly. He clashes with his long-time best friend, Berk, when they both get interested in the same girl, and he jeopardizes his relationship with a new friend, Graciana, by making immature comments. When I think back to my own high-school days, that rings true. Friendships are vitally important, yes, but they can also be delicate, and they don't always last forever.

Then I thought about Matt's family. I ought to have some conflict there, I decided. Maybe his parents should be divorced. Maybe one or both should be abusive, or addicted to something. Maybe the family has been torn apart by some horrible experience, such as the violent death of an older sibling. After all, today's young adult novels are supposed to deal honestly with the problems real families face.

In the end, I decided to pass on divorce, abuse, addiction, and horrible experiences. I'm glad many mysteries for young people deal with such problems. That's important. But I think it's also important for some YA mysteries to acknowledge that even when families are intact, even when loving parents work hard to do their best, young people can still feel alienated and isolated. Even when problems aren't dramatic, they can still be real, still be frustrating--and sometimes, they can have a lighter side. Those are the sorts of family problems Matt faces in Fighting Chance.

Image result for Stevens fighting chance Matt's a good person, his parents are good people, and they all love each other. But they have different interests and different perspectives. Sometimes, those differences lead to relatively minor problems. Matt's resentful because his parents don't pay more attention to his athletic achievements, he doesn't understand how they can be so perpetually perky and upbeat, and he's appalled when his mother serves him tofu stir-fry and quinoa patties instead of the cheeseburgers he craves. Sometimes, the differences have more serious consequences. Determined to provide Matt with a sense of security, his parents don't talk about the problems they're facing. As a result, Matt feels there must be something wrong with him, since he's apparently the only one whose life isn't perfect. Because he assumes his parents won't be able to understand, he often keeps things from them, sometimes flat-out lies to them. He feels guilty about it, but he can't bring himself to open up to them until events in the novel face him to risk it. I like to think Fighting Chance is a coming-of-age novel as well as a whodunit. Reaching a better understanding of his parents is a major element in Matt's transition from childhood to adulthood.

There's no need for Nancy Drew to come of age, of course. In every important respect, she's already an adult on the first page of her first mystery. But she's been part of the coming-of-age process for countless young readers. For a while, at least, she sets an example for them, gets them excited about reading, and makes them love mysteries. Are there any adult female mystery readers or writers who didn't read Nancy Drew novels when they were young? Maybe, but I've never talked to even one who's admitted to such a shocking gap in her literary education. And I'd guess there are few, if any, adult male mystery readers or writers who didn't start out with the Hardy Boys. If we eventually get impatient with Nancy Drew, if we start yearning for mystery protagonists who are more like us and share more of our problems and shortcomings--well, that's probably part of the coming-of-age process, too. The young adult mystery is a genre within a genre, but it's neither narrow nor rigid. It's capacious enough, and flexible enough, to meet the needs of many different sorts of young readers in many different generations, at many stages in their progress toward adulthood. I slammed my last Nancy Drew novel shut many decades ago, but I'll always look back at Nancy with affection, and with gratitude.

Image result for nancy drew silhouette

14 November 2015

Watch Your Language: Fighting Words in Young Adult Mysteries

When my first young-adult mystery came out last month, many people asked me how writing mysteries for teenagers is different from writing mysteries for adults. I answered that, as far as I could see, it's not all that different. I didn't dumb down the plot at all--Fighting Chance is a whodunit, and I wanted to make interpreting clues and identifying bad guys just as challenging as it is in the whodunits I write for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. As for characterization, the central characters in Fighting Chance are younger than the ones in my other mysteries, but I didn't try to make them less complex. I've taught young people long enough to know they're fully capable of following complicated plots and understanding three-dimensional characters. Setting, theme, other elements of fiction--again, I didn't see any need to make adjustments.

Language, though--that one raised some questions.

Fighting ChanceSome of those questions related to craft. Could I create a convincing voice for my protagonist, a seventeen-year-old boy who loves sports but doesn't much care for school? (In fact, his voice seemed to come to me naturally. Maybe I should be concerned.) Could I avoid outdated slang, as well as slang so cutting-edge it might fade from fashion by the time the book made it into print? What about minority characters? I've read a number of YA novels written by other middle-aged white ladies, and their attempts to write dialogue for streetwise African-American teenagers have often made me cringe. Could I have a diverse cast of characters without making similar blunders?

And then there's the issue of profanity.

For some YA authors, apparently, it's not an issue at all. A couple of years ago, when I went to a YA panel at a mystery conference, one author lamented that some middle-school librarians won't carry her novel because its title contains a certain word--I'd rather not say which one. The other panelists sympathized. It's ridiculous, they said, for librarians and teachers to fuss about this word and that word. After all, kids today are smart. They know what all the words mean. And, as writers, we need to keep it real.

The panelists made some legitimate points. Yes, teenagers today are smart. Yes, they know what all the words mean. The thing is, too many decades ago, when I was a teenager myself, we knew what all the words mean, too. I still remember the first time I heard one of my contemporaries use what I'll refer to as the F-word. I was chatting with a group of friends when Joanne casually dropped the word into the conversation. The rest of us reacted with stunned silence--not because we didn't know what the word meant, but because we did. We just chose not to use it, because we thought it was crude.

That opinion seems to have faded. I don't have any supporting data I can cite, but it seems safe to say that most people today use profanity more freely than most people did thirty or forty years ago. I think that's probably true for people of all ages, not only for teenagers.

TeenagersWhy did people change their opinions about which words are too crude to use? Again, I can't cite supporting data, but I suspect books, movies, and other media led the way. That's definitely where I first encountered many of the words that now slip into my speech more easily than they used to, words spoken by clever and likable characters on the page or the screen, words I heard so often that they lost their shock value and began to seem like normal, acceptable things said by perfectly nice people. So when we say the language in YA novels should keep it real, perhaps we should remember that books probably don't just passively reflect reality. Probably, they also help shape it. If today's teenagers use more crude language than the teenagers in my day did, it's probably partly because of the movies they see, the music they listen to, and the books they read. And if that's true, maybe YA authors need to think carefully about the kind of influence they want their books to have.

Or maybe it's no big deal. After all, we're just talking about words. If today's teenagers use language once considered crude, so what? What's wrong with crude language? I won't try to make a full argument here, but I encourage you to read an essay by Barbara Lawrence, "Four-Letter Words Can Hurt You" ( Lawrence argues that many crude words dehumanize people in general, and women in particular, by reducing them to purely physical terms.

I'll provide an example of a crude phrase that does exactly that, an expression Lawrence doesn't discuss. When did it become all right to say "knocked up"? I've heard several television comedians use that expression recently, and this one still shocks me. Two human beings come together to create a new life, in what should be an affirmation of love and commitment and faith in the future. And these comedians reduce this act to "knocked up"? Now it's a violent act, a victory of the strong over the weak, an assertion of a man's power to impose himself on a woman. I'm sorry. I think I've got a pretty good sense of humor, and I know political correctness can go too far. But I don't think "knocked up" is cute or funny. I think it's ugly. And I think that, as a YA author, I have a responsibility to refrain from doing anything that might encourage young people to think this ugly expression, or any other ugly expression, is okay. I think I have a responsibility to make careful choices, in the hope that any influence I might have will encourage my young readers to make careful choices, too.

Caution: TeenagersSo what standards should guide an author making choices about what sort of language to use in a YA mystery? Yes, we want to keep it real. But for any fiction writer--YA or otherwise, mystery or otherwise--realism isn't the only relevant consideration. My YA mystery is set in a small town in Virginia. If I were intent only on making dialogue realistic, my teenaged characters would say "sir" and "ma'am" whenever they address adults. I chose not to let them do that.

When I moved from Ohio to Virginia, I was suspicious when my Lynchburg College students kept addressing me as "ma'am"--"Yes, ma'am," "I'll have that essay done tomorrow for sure, ma'am." At first, I thought they were being sarcastic, implying I was as dictatorial as a drill sergeant--in Cleveland, almost nobody outside the military says "ma'am." Eventually, I realized that these students say "ma'am" because they were raised to say it, that they were being respectful, not sarcastic.I was stunned. I was used to student sarcasm and knew how to handle it, but respect left me blinking in confusion. And when I wrote Fighting Chance, I decided to keep "sir" and "ma'am" to a minimum. I felt that, realistic as these expressions might be in a novel set in Virginia, they might not feel realistic to readers in other parts of the country.

That's the sort of decision fiction writers make about language. After all, if we were aiming only for realism, all the dialogue we write would be studded with "um" and "er" much more often, and our characters would constantly be saying "like" and "you know."" Unless we're trying to create some sort of comic effect, we usually edit such stumbles from the dialogue we write, along with the repetitions and qualifiers that make most real speech far from vivid and entertaining.

I'm reminded of a famous statement from William Wordsworth's "Preface" to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. (Yes, I know. If you hear reports of earthquakes in Grasmere today, they're undoubtedly caused by Wordsworth spinning in his grave because he never intended his words to be used in this context.) Wordsworth says the language of poetry should be "as far as is possible, a selection of the language really used by men" [and women], and "that this selection, wherever it is made with true taste and feeling, will of itself form a distinction far greater than would at first be imagined, and will entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life."

How about that as a standard for the language in YA mysteries? We won't make our characters say "golly" and "darn," because that's not language really used by teenagers--not today, and not often even in my day. But we can select some of the language really used by teenagers, and not select other language really used by teenagers, because we don't want to encourage our young readers to think "vulgarity and meanness" are okay. We don't want to use whatever influence we might have to make real-life teenaged speech any meaner and more vulgar than it already is.

Swansea University Karate Club (6)Naturally, I can't resist the temptation to use a passage from my YA mystery to show how this standard can be applied. In the first chapter of Fighting Chance, my protagonist, seventeen-year-old Matt Foley, is at a tae kwon do tournament, sitting on the home team bench as he and his friends watch their coach spar with a mysterious baby-faced stranger named Bobby Davis. Near the end of the first two-minute period, the coach scores a point by using a combination move he's been teaching his students. It's a short-lived victory--a few pages later, Davis kills the coach with a powerful kick to the larynx, and Matt and his friends will spend the rest of the book proving it was murder, not an accident. For now, Matt's impressed not only by his coach's skill but also by his restraint:

It was pretty cool--like Coach had been holding back, passing up chances for easy points, waiting to score with that particular combination so he could show us how effective it is. Now, that's a teacher, I thought. "Great combination, Coach," I called.

Joseph seemed to be having the same thoughts I was. "Most instructive," he said. "Mr. Colson said we should try to score such way--roundhouse kick, right jab, left punch. Now he has performed one, to demonstrate us how to aspire."

Derrick drew his head back. "To demonstrate us how to aspire? What's that--Latin? What the hell are you saying?"

"You know exactly what he's saying," I said. "Don't be a jerk, Derrick." Joseph's from Kenya. His family left five or six years ago, after his father got killed, and moved around until the Episcopal Church found his mother a job in Ridgecrest. In some ways, Joseph's English is probably better than mine. It's definitely better than Derrick's. He's got a formal way of putting things, though, and sometimes his vocabulary's off--natural enough, I guess, if you learn English in a classroom instead of at home. There's no point making a big deal whenever something comes out strange.
First, a few words about Joseph. I'll admit I shied away from the challenge of writing dialogue for a streetwise African-American teenager. I didn't think I could do a convincing job. I did want a diverse cast of characters, though, so I did the best I could. Joseph was born in Africa, and he's now an American. The way he speaks is based on the speech patterns of a number of international students I've had over the years--bright, ambitious students who study the dictionary every night to expand their vocabularies but sometimes have problems with idioms and syntax. I hope Joseph's dialogue sounds real and also subtly encourages young readers to respect the speech of newcomers still in the process of learning English.

As for Derrick, he's a minor character--not a bad guy, really, not at heart, but he thinks too highly of himself and sometimes tends to be a bully. He says "what the hell," not "what the heck," because I can't remember the last time I heard anyone, of any age, say "what the heck." But I often hear teenagers, and others, say "what the hell." I've also heard them say harsher things, but I don't think it's necessary to use anything harsher here. "What the hell" is, to modify Wordsworth's phrase, a selection of the language really used by teenagers. I think it works here.

In response to Derrck, Matt says, "Don't be a jerk, Derrick." (For those familiar with Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, this is Matt's save-the-cat moment, the moment when he proves he's worthy of our respect by standing up to a would-be bully.) He could have said something harsher than "jerk"--we can all think of harsher words he could have used. Lots of teenagers use those words, but lots use "jerk," too. Maybe Fighting Chance would seem edgier and more daring if Matt had used one of those other words. But I think "don't be a jerk" is a legitimate selection of the language really used by teenagers, and I'm willing to live with the consequences of making that selection.

I'm not saying that I've found the ideal solution, only that I think the issue is important. I don't think YA authors should shrug it off with cliches about keeping it real. We make careful, responsible decisions about the way we portray various groups, and the way we present various issues, because we think our books might influence the way young people think and act. If our books might also influence the way they speak and write, shouldn't we make careful, responsible decisions about language, too?
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