Young adult writers get serious
By Eric Volmers
As a teacher, outdoor enthusiast and young adult novelist, it's fitting
that James Davidge would dream up a villain whose most dastardly deed is
getting young people hooked on video games.
In Driftwood Ellesmere, the 2006 debut of Davidge's Driftwood series,
starry-eyed children fall under the spell of a mythical monster with
corporate ambitions that uses tiny hand-held video games to enslave them.
Driftwood, a young girl who grew up in isolation, but has a knack for
using magical powers to solve the world's woes, must help free the
addicted children while dealing with her own painful past and family
history. But the plot line, while perhaps in tune with that author's views
on Game Boy addicts, was not simply a jab at the video game industry,
Davidge says. It has deeper symbolism.
"There is a moment in the book where there is this dialogue about time,"
"It's about our consumer culture and how it is motivated by what is
supposed to save us time, but ends up costing us time. It's that dual
purpose of materialism and we are drawn to both sides as consumers: That
what gives us time, uses up time. These video games kill time for us."
The Calgary author has since released two more Driftwood books, which has
the teen coming face-to-face with some troubling, topical issues. In
Driftwood's Crusade, the young magician attempts to free child workers
enslaved on a cocoa farm. In Driftwood Saves the Whales (Bayeux Arts Inc.,
200 pages, $10.95), she...well, saves the whales. But she also becomes a
celebrity and attempts to block the production of Driftwood action figures
that promote "negative self images."
It all seems somewhat weighty for books that, while originally marketed to
teens, have also found an audience among kids aged eight to 12. While
Driftwood's dalliances into magic and teen romance shows an obvious debt
to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the bespectacled boy wizard has had
a wider influence than mere plot points on the lucrative young adults
market. Rowling -- whose children's book The Tales of Beedle the Bard
comes out Thursday -- opened up a whole new audience of readers hungry for
complex plots, interesting characters and serious issues. But tackling
tough topics is not new to youth fiction.
"I think young readers get excited by that," says Davidge. "If you look at
the original text of Pinocchio in the 19th century, you'll see that it was
very much looking at the social issues at the time. It's not new to youth
literature. Look at Grimm Fairy Tales, they are designed to scare but they
also offer social commentary."
There are other significant challenges to writing for the youth market,
not the least of which is figuring who exactly fits into the loose
definition of "young adult."
Books written under that banner can appeal to kids as young as eight and
as old as 18.
"This whole genre thing is perhaps more about marketing," says Banff,
Alta., author Lisa Hurst-Archer, whose first novel How to Make a Wave (Red
Deer Press, 223 Pages, $12.95) is being sold as a young adult title. "When
I wrote How to Make a Wave, I wasn't really thinking of it as a YA book. I
was thinking of it as a story. I was writing a story to myself at 13 years
old. It was something I would have liked to have read at that age. A lot
of what is considered YA novels are crossing into adult fiction."
How to Make a Wave is about a lonely teenager who has been disfigured by a
car accident and is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about her
Like the Driftwood series, it deals with difficult topics. Issues of
self-image and isolation make the novel a fitting story for young people
who are in that often painful and humiliating process of "finding
themselves" and forging their own identity. Kids are looking for material
that doesn't flinch from the hard questions and choices involved in
growing up, says Hurst-Archer, a mother of five whose home often became a
meeting place for teens as her children grew up.
"Those young people are so hungry for authentic engagement about what it
means to be human," she says. "This isn't Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears."
Authors have responded by taking stories down some dark and controversial
roads, says Peter Carver, an editor at the now Toronto-based Red Deer
Press, who oversees its growing list of titles for children and young
adults. Topics that may have been taboo even 10 years ago are now bubbling
up in young adult fiction.
Martine Leavitt's 2004 novel Heck Superhero captured a Governor-General's
award with its tough, gritty tale about a homeless teen.
Toronto author Kristyn Dunnion's recent novel Mosh Pit deals with street
kids and lesbianism.
"It's very raw and beautifully written," says Carver. "It's entertaining
but gritty. And I really think kids are ready to deal with that stuff.
Often, adults don't want them to."
Which, Carver admits, can make marketing these titles difficult at times.
School boards may not be ready to embrace books about lesbianism, which
makes getting the more raw titles onto school curricula difficult.
But savvy kids will track the books down if they have to, Carver says.
"Mosh Pit found its way, not only in Canada but across the States as
well," he says. "There are networks of kids who are looking for good
And those books have to be authentic, he said. Kids can see through pat
attempts to imitate how they talk, think and feel.
"You have to rediscover that voice of when you were 14 years old," says
Carver. "You are trying to remember that age when you were confused,
highly opinionated and everything is fresh and raw. And writers who can do
that are truly talented."
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