Missing The Hope In YA Fiction

“Fear is a powerful emotion, and it’s driving current trends in YA publishing.” This is the leading line of a recent Publishers Weekly article, “Spotlight on YA.” Books highlighted here touch on timely topics ranging from illegal immigration to Islamophobia. The article also notes that teen thrillers are on the rise, saying that “today’s audiences crave dark, suspenseful storytelling and hairpin plot turns.”

I have absolutely no issue with books that take on current topics, and/or shed light on the difficulties faced by particular subgroups of society. I think reading across different cultural experiences and societal injustices benefits anyone’s worldview, and I also appreciate the concept of books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, which explore traumatic experiences and help make these issues more public.

But for myself, I’ve always read darker, grittier, or grimmer books as a part of a palette that also includes escapism and hopefulness. My heart and my brain can only spend so much time focused on unrelenting pain and despair. Even though a book needs drama to stay engaging, one of the big draws for me to YA Fantasy always was the general sense of hopefulness that it tended to have. Young characters usually aren’t fully cynical yet. They believe good can defeat evil, because it should. They have grand plans for their lives, and believe they can change the world, or the galaxy. They have a contagious overall optimism, even in books about war, or in books where Lord Voldemort has taken over the government. Adults can learn a lot from that kind of fresh perspective and perseverance. Too often I think we (adults) fall into believing that the world can be no better than it is. And this sense of fighting a constant uphill battle against corrupt and self-serving status quos that will never improve feels like it’s bleeding even into fantasy novels.

Darkness in children’s fiction isn’t new. There have always been books like My Girl and The Bridge To Terabithia, which take on death and grief. There’s nothing wrong with books reflecting issues that kids might have to face, whether it’s death or racism or abuse. But I can’t help but feel like the balance of books offered with a focus on the harsh realities of life, or even the harsh realities of dystopian life, has been shifting. And to an even greater extent, the tone of the books has shifted. Somehow the hopelessness in so much of classic adult literary fiction (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy), seems to have spread. It’s not the difference of a carefree, pastoral (or suburban) existence versus an existence in the sewers living off of rats. Rather, it’s the difference between a character facing grand challenges surrounded by at least a few helpful friends, versus a character facing grand challenges surrounded by people who might or might not be trying to kill him, and surrounded more widely by people who have nothing but their own interests at heart. One type of story implies that there can still be some camaraderie, some trust, and some hope even in the face of colossal problems. The other story implies that the surrounding world has nothing to offer but selfishness and near-certain doom.

Or is this just me? Maybe I’m simply wanting to read more light, hopeful fiction lately. I admit, I’m a bit bemused by the general growth of looming dangers in the world fueling a desire for thrillers and dystopian settings in entertainment. I usually find enough dystopian stories listening to NPR—when I’m reading before bed, please give me a happy ending. Also, a set of characters who don’t seem completely self-serving or defeated from the start.

What do you all think? Is this just me, or have you been seeing this too? I’m also very open to any good suggestions of YA with a sense of hope still in it. Feel free to chime in!

My First Live Author Q&A: The Recap

My reading at the Davies Memorial Library in Waterford, VT this past Tuesday was great fun! I read from the first chapter of The Empire’s Orphans, doing my best to channel the wonderful authors who’ve come before me. After the first chapter was read, the night then moved into a Q&A session with my audience, who had thoughtful, truly terrific questions. In case you missed it, a sample of these questions are below!

Q: If you were to pick a time from our history of when The Empire’s Orphans takes place, when would it be? Why did you pick that time?

A: I set The Empire’s Orphans in 1530, albeit with magic and geography that I made from scratch. My reasoning for this was based on wanting to give one of my cultures a significant technological advantage over the other, and, after seeing the documentary Guns, Germs and Steel years ago, I settled on firearms, along with a different system of magic, as this advantage. By setting my timeframe at the early development of firearms, I hoped to keep this tech advantage somewhat in check, and to keep the muskets a little bit mysterious with their high volatility. Once I settled on 1530 for my firearms, I also loosely based other details, like Solinski clothing, on what might have been expected in Europe at that time.

Q: I like the level of detail that you use in this book. It gives the reader, especially this age group, enough information without bogging them down in paragraphs about basket weaving. As you’re finding this balance while you write, do you typically have to add detail, or cut it? Or does this come naturally?

A: Occasionally I hit a detail balance I’m happy with on the first try, but it’s pretty rare. I usually need to add details in as I’m editing, to give some action details to a section of dialogue, or visual details as characters are traveling. In my first drafts, my conversations can feel a bit like they’re floating, because they’re not always grounded enough in non-dialogue interactions or details of what’s happening around the people as they’re talking. I also have to work at letting readers ‘see’ the countryside or cityscapes around them, and fight the fear that readers don’t want to break from the action long enough to take in that kind of visual detail.

Q: Do you tend to see things in your mind’s eye as you write, or is it more distant as you’re writing the story down?

A: I see most of the book in my mind’s eye as it’s happening. Often I’ll see certain scenes many times before I ever get to writing them down, and they play out in my head a little like a play that I’ve cast myself in. I’ve done this with stories for as long as I can remember—it was always a great source of entertainment on long bus rides to school, or during chores like feeding calves. Fortunately my mom didn’t find my frequently-glazed expression too alarming while I was growing up.

Seeing this kind of play is one of the reasons I need to add detail in later, I think, because I see the world I’m writing pretty clearly, and I can assume the reader does too. Later, in the editing, things feel less like a play and get a little bit more scientific as I’m balancing pacing, weighing my subplots, etc.

Q: Was it difficult to write this in first person? Do you prefer first or third?

I didn’t find The Empire’s Orphans difficult to write in first, but I have found first person limiting in the past, particularly with the first book I wrote while I was in high school and college (this book is now in a drawer). My decision to write Star Thief in 3rd person was directly based on that experience. When I began the framework for The Empire’s Orphans, though, I decided that it needed to be in first because I wanted to be able to explore internal arcs of feelings, biases, and reevaluating what the characters know to be true. Particularly for Rogan, I saw this as important enough to try the first person perspective again, and I’m happy with that choice.


If you have any other questions yourself, please don’t hesitate to reach out through the site! I’d love to hear from you!