Dealing with Abuse in Young Adult Fantasy

Pull2b webFrom Home is Where the Monsters Are:

“David started asking if I could come over. My dad didn’t care what happened to me at that point, so he would take me over there, drop me off and then leave for the afternoon – probably to get wasted in a bar somewhere. The first time I came over, David acted really nice at first, but not a good kind of nice. David was nice like a snake. He gave me ice cream, and I think there was something in it. It made me sleepy. Still awake, but kind of…out of it, and then he slipped a black bag over my head and carried me downstairs.”

Stacy put a hand over her mouth. None of them were sure if they wanted to hear any more but knew that, for Melissa’s sake, they had to.

Abuse of any kind, particularly child abuse, is among the hardest topics to deal with in literature. Making that topic fair game in Young Adult literature has been a controversial but increasingly common development in the literary world. When most people – particularly non-YA readers who are mostly familiar with the Harry Potter movies – picture the Young Adult Fantasy genre they picture happy child wizards on flying broomsticks, facing down the occasional troll the heroes always seem to get away from.

The truth, however, is that children aren’t always smiling. Kids aren’t always loved the way they should be. Sometimes abuse happens and keeping that topic OUT of the books we read is being disingenuous to the true experiences of childhood.  

Mary Elizabeth Williams writes in her Salon Article: “Has Young Adult Fiction Become Too Dark?”:

“That ‘adult’ aspect of reading is scary for many of us. It’s our job as parents to protect our kids, even as they slowly move out into the world and further away from our dictates. But there’s something almost comical about raising them with tales of big bad wolves and poisoned apples, and then deciding at a certain point that literature is too ‘dark’ for them to handle. Kids are smarter than that. And a kid who is lucky enough to give a damn about the value of reading knows the transformative power of books.”

As a fantasy author who writes for teens as well as adults, I understand that I will likely face some backlash for including the topics of abuse in Home is Where the Monsters Are and The Pull. I cringe a little inside when I tell a parent that the book is suitable for ages 14 and up because I’m afraid they’ll go home, read the book and then start a campaign to get my book banned from their local library. It’s happened to some of the best books in literature, but for an up-and-coming author, the prospect of backlash is a scary thing.

But I think of the very first person I wrote these books for: myself as a 14 year old. I was dealing with a different kind of abuse then: bullying, but it put me in the kind of place where I could relate to children who were victimized. Hearing their stories and how they overcame being a victim and started being a survivor gave me hope that I could do that too.  

The character of Melissa in Home and The Pull dealt with her personal tragedies by becoming a stronger person. So strong, in fact, that she became feared, herself. Not all of us can become warriors. Some who have faced abuse will become poets and painters, doctors and teachers, but to become aware of not only our own demons but the demons our children face can make us that much more equipped to deal with them. 

Home is Where the Monsters Are

The Pull

Has Young Adult Fiction Become Too Dark?

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How Pain Can Lead to Wonder

ImageI’ve insinuated during this blog that my high school experience wasn’t easy. That’s putting it lightly. In fact it was the hardest four years of my life. Social anxiety prevented me from talking to anyone for fear of making them not like me. That fact, in turn made them not like me. By the time my junior and senior years came around I was simply known as the silent kid and any attempt I made to make friends was laughed down or looked at with mistrust because I was trying to step outside of my prescribed role, and in high school roles are everything.

Because I couldn’t have friends in the real world (or at least told myself I couldn’t), I resorted to creating friends in my head. First and foremost was a big sister character who was tough, funny, protective and a wise-ass who could love me even though I was quiet. She needed a face, so I looked around at my classmates and saw a tall striking blonde who looked like she was always ready to kick someone’s butt. That became Melissa Moonbeam.

Next I needed a brother character who would be the thinker of the group. He was intelligent and philosophical but also kind and with a dry sense of humor. That became Jason Dredd. There was no one around me who was quite like Jason at the time, so I composited a middle school friend named Damien (my first African American friend) and my real life brother Andy.

I realized then that I was missing an important element to this group: a love interest. I needed someone who would react to my character (more on that in a bit) with kindness, understanding, encouragement and warmth. It just so happened I had an enormous crush on a girl I barely knew at the time. That crush developed because of one instance of kindness showed to me after I had embarrassingly goofed up during a mandatory school play. Because she had shown that element of kindness I needed I took her face and her name and combined it with the warmth and understanding I wanted in a character it would always give me butterflies to be around. In that way, Stacy Cross was born.

Now there was one thing developing during all of this that I’ve neglected to mention. I was assembling that “ideal” circle of friends around me, but during the course of it I was also creating a fictional character for myself. It wasn’t the ideal me, for this version of me had flaws as well, but it was a me I could respect during a time I found it very difficult to respect the real thing. When I looked into my mind’s eye I stopped seeing myself and began to see Nick.

I mistrusted my own identity, so Nick was a character with no identity and no last name. I was skinny and weak, so Nick was skinny but could still kick ass. I didn’t care for my face, so Nick wore a mask. I was uncertain about what I was meant to do with my life, so Nick followed a Pull towards a destiny he neither knew nor trusted. In ways Nick was stronger; in ways Nick was more broken; but he was always quintessentially me even when I didn’t want to admit it.

There were other elements that sprung up around these characters. I wanted a constant companion so a dog named Blitz was born. I felt that teenage life presented an ever-present adversary for me and always whispered in my ear that I would never be strong enough, so an unstoppable monster named The Whisper came to life to unceasingly torment Nick.

These characters were born to give me comfort. When I sat in the back of a classroom struggling with my schoolwork, Melissa, Jason and the others comforted me and made me laugh. When I felt bullied or threatened, a scene would play out in my mind where Nick battled The Whisper and always held his own – or his friends joined him and battled the threat along side him.

These characters soon grew beyond mere comforting mechanisms and began to have lives of their own. In bed at night dreading what the next day would bring, I’d suddenly find a scene playing out in my mind. I’d see Nick and Melissa arguing over something. At first I wouldn’t be sure what, but like wiping the fog away from a window soon I knew. I knew what they argued about and what caused it and what that fight led to and how Stacy and Jason felt about it and that The Whisper was watching the whole time and that Blitz the dog was curled up on the couch oblivious to it all.

My subconscious took these characters from my grasp – maybe borrowed is a better word – and brought them to life. As if glimpsing a movie or a TV show, I watched the entire story of their lives, from Nick waking up alone in the woods with a sword in his hand to the fateful battle atop the *omitted for spoilers*. I gasped when Jason defeated Raven atop a factory in New Orleans. I grinned in triumph when Melissa took to her motorcycle and decided to face her past for the sake of her friends. I wept tears of loss when characters died and screamed in frustration when The Whisper showed up at the wrong time and just couldn’t be beaten.

My conscious mind created fantastical versions of the friends I truly wanted, and my subconscious mind pulled a life – a story for them to live through – from the ether. I didn’t intend to create the story of The Pull, and yet it happened. What I did decide to do, though, was grab a notepad in my parents’ basement in 1994 and begin writing those scenes down.

The story of the process of shaping The Pull into a novel is best left for another time, but I wanted to share that because I think its important for us to realize that even the worst times in our life can give birth to something beautiful. I’ll never call The Pull “the greatest story ever told” but it is my greatest story because it is the one my heart gave me when I needed it most. I share it in hopes that it may be able to give a bit of comfort to those in pain in the same way it did to me. It’s an adventure story. It’s a popcorn tale, but it just so happens to be one about finding your true value in a time when nothing is certain.

That value is always there to be found. Sometimes we need monsters to fight, journeys to take and friends to take it with us, but I truly believe that at the end of our own Pull, something beautiful is always waiting.

Just…Can’t…Get…MOTIVATED!!!

It’s Tuesday. Tuesdays are usually high-energy, super productive days for me. It just so happens that this particular Tuesday is the day after Memorial Day, and therefore feels like a Monday. What should be a productive day for me is turning into an aimless slog because I am generally useless on the first day of the work week. Whine whine, cry me a river, I know. So what does one do on a day like this when demand is high and energy is so low you can barely feel it? Hell if I know, but I thought I’d throw out some possibly valid solutions.

1. Caffeine: Obvious answer is obvious

2. Meditation: Now we’re getting somewhere. Sit still, preferably but not necessarily in a quiet space, close your eyes and focus on your breath for ten minutes. See if calming your mind and slowing the traffic of unorganized thought can bring about a new burst of motivation. Sometimes its easier for me to get into that space than others, but frequently the simple act of internal stillness can work wonders and point me in a productive direction.

3. Talk to someone you love: Get encouragement. Call your mother or your spouse or your child and simply embrace the joy of hearing their voice. Share how you’re feeling and accept any support or compliment they have to give you. Remember that no matter how down you feel, there’s always someone on your team cheering you on.

4. Exercise: This can be as simple as doing 100 jumping jacks or as intense as running two miles. Just get your blood pumping, kickstart your metabolism and see if that doesn’t drive some energy into your brain and senses.

5. Have sex: Get that feeling called sexual healing. If only it was that easy for most of us to do this in the office or workplace. Okay, maybe it shouldn’t be THAT easy or we’d all be in trouble.

6. Just do it: Forge ahead even if you don’t feel the energy to do so. Sometimes you’ll tap into a momentum you can carry forward into the rest of your week. Don’t allow yourself to say no and you might be surprised at what you can do.

So that’s about all I’ve got. For me, the simple act of writing can conjure up some energy. Maybe embracing our passion can drag us out of the doldrums.

Leave a suggestion or two in the comments. What do you do to motivate yourself on a Monday (or Tuesday after a holiday)?

Writer + Gamer = ?

I was a gamer before I became a writer. In fact, I was a gamer before I got out of the fifth grade, before I hit puberty, before I got my first job and waaaay before I lost my virginity (connection there? who can say). Zelda and Final Fantasy and Castlevania provided food for my imagination in a way that only the adventure cartoons of the early 80’s had before. It was one thing to get lost in a world on a screen or on a page; it was another thing entirely to get lost in a world YOU controlled. As a gamer, I wasn’t just observing an adventure play out. I WAS the adventurer.

Between that and the He-Mans and Thundercats and G.I.Joes I grew up with, you can say I developed a bit of a hero complex. He-Man saved the world, Link saved the world, Simon Belmont saved the world. What’s the message there? Cool guys save the world.

After many childhood years of swinging a wooden sword around by the creek near my house, dodging poison ivy instead of wizards and copperheads instead of dragons, I realized that while I wasn’t a world-saving hero in real life, I sure as hell had become one in my imagination. Not enough adventure in the real world? All I had to do was open the pages of my mind, wrap myself in a warm mental blanket and become whatever hero I wanted to be.

In my mind, not only was I a hero, but all of my friends were. Smartest kid at school Brian suddenly became super engineer Brian who built alien-fighting mecha-suits for a team of superheroes. Funny guy Jay became Speed Demon Jay, a crime fighter whose super speed was almost as quick as his wit. My mom even got in on the action, monitoring the police-band radio to let her crime-fighting son and his super-powered friends know where danger was soon to strike.

Though my head was a vast repository of dreams and fantasies, even it couldn’t contain all of the soul-stirring input it was getting from the games I was playing, the shows I was watching and the random oddball ideas I would have while knee-deep in creek water and in desperate need of a tetanus shot.

So what is a boy overflowing with imagination to do? In my case, he put pen to paper and began writing those dreams down. What became an amorphous hero fantasy suddenly became a character, a quest and an antagonist. (For The Pull fans, those were Nick, The Pull, and The Whisper. Yes I started writing The Pull when I was FOURTEEN! WTF)

So a dreamer (let’s be honest, that came first because once a dreamer always a dreamer) became a gamer who became a writer.  And then a little game came around that pushed that writer into new grounds of imagination:

That game was Final Fantasy VI. Those of you who are not gamers are probably saying “Bubba Wubbawuh What?” Just bear with me. Final Fantasy VI is the story of Terra, a girl with a mysterious past and mysterious powers who was born to be a hero, but doesn’t want to be one. Joining her on her quest of discovery was Locke, the thief with a secret heartache driving him to recklessness, Edgar the handsome prince who loves his inventions more than he loves ruling a kingdom, and Gau, a child raised in the wild because his father branded him a monster when his mother died in childbirth.

These were heroes. They had adventures. They saved the world (or tried to); yet there was something else here, an element to adventure I had never explored before. That element was loss. Terra mourned the normal life she could never have because of her birthright. Locke was a broken man due to the tragic loss of his first and only love. Gau was a child without a family and Edgar was a man with endless wealth and respect, yet a gaping hole in his heart because he could never have the life HE wanted.

Suddenly I knew heroes didn’t just save the world. Sometimes heroes suffered. Sometimes they cried and sometimes they lost things that were important to them. Sometimes they even died along the way. Adventures weren’t just about saving the day and conquering monsters, they were about enduring suffering as well. They were about being broken inside, hurt and afraid, yet still doing what you had to do to help those around you.

Through that realization I came to another epiphany. The world I was creating, the protagonist I was following was a reflection of me. This much I already knew; but what I HADN’T known up to that point was that Nick wasn’t a reflection of me because he wanted to save the world. He was a reflection of me because he was broken. He suffered. He hurt. He cried and lost and sometimes made terrible decisions and hurt those he loved because of it. The Whisper wasn’t just a demon following the hero in my story, he was the big scary world that I didn’t feel like I fit into. He was the bully that called me faggot and the parent who yelled and the girl I had a crush on who thought I was a geek.

A video game taught me this. A collection of pixels and sprites and code taught me this, and yet it wasn’t just that. It was a story. It was an adventure with consequences and meaning. In the end, it became a life lesson learned through my awkward teenage hands on a plastic controller.

See gaming isn’t just about high scores and shooting things and conquering the last boss faster than your friend. Gaming is about stories in the same way that books are, or movies or television or any other medium. Gaming is about adventure and empathy and learning lessons sometimes hard to learn within the rigid confines of our home life, especially for a child.

I’d venture to say that gaming can foster a writer’s mind and imagination just as much as books can. Sure, I had a book in my hand almost as often as I had a controller, but it was those worlds rendered in pixels where my imagination became my drive to tell a story.

I’m still that kid waving his sword around in a creek full of poison ivy, snakes and scraped knees…and dragons. Now, however, I don’t keep those adventures in those woods or in my head. I tell them. I tell them and, in some very real way, I live them.

As a writer, I want to inspire you the way other writers, storytellers and game developers inspired me. I hope you read The Pull or Feather in the Stream or any other work I create and immediately want to go create a world of your own. I hope you read The Pull and then go run to the creek, swing a wooden sword and then run back home and start your own adventure.