On youth fiction

By , 23 November 2007 7:29 pm

In a blog response last week, someone mentioned that my books were still being marketed as children’s books and asked for comment. Let me give an explanation here, and then pass along to briefly discuss the whole issue of children’s fiction.

My books were originally written for adults, and still are written for adults. I don’t get a lot of criticism, but certainly no one has said that they are too simplistic or shallow to be considered as adult fiction. On the contrary, many comments have been on the lines that, by the standards of Christian fiction, these are actually deep and thoughtful books. (I fear that this reflects much more on the parlous state of Christian writing than on my writing skills.) Quite simply, the issues I grapple with in the books are those that interest me. I am an adult (albeit with a stubborn streak of adolescence), therefore, the books are adult.

The problem arose when what is now the first volume ended up on Tyndale’s desk: they wanted it but didn’t do fantasy fiction. (You may feel this to be a slightly curious statement given that their biggest seller has been the Left Behind series but I couldn’t possibly comment.) They did however have a youth imprint that they were about to launch and threw me in it. I didn’t object: I was glad to get published in the States. (Of course, in those days the dollar was actually worth something :-)). Since then I have been relocated to the adult category as Tyndale’s first fantasy author. However, there is a bit of a lag time and some people evidently still think of me as a youth author. So if you get the chance please do promote me as adult author.

All this has made me think about what actually makes up youth/children’s fiction. I have no easy answer and I found it easier to define children’s fiction, not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. I decided, in the traditional manner of a Welsh preacher, that there are three things that mark writing for children: a constraint on style, substance and sophistication. By a constrained style, I mean that the writer shuns a heavy and complex prose style full of long words and sentences. By a constrained substance I mean that certain topics are not touched on, or only alluded to in passing. I think these would not simply be the obvious ones of sex and extreme violence, but also include the cynicism, bitterness and despair that characterise much adult fiction. By a constrained sophistication, I mean that we shun the cleverness of allusions, quotes, word games and the like that would go over the head of a young person. Let me give you a non-literary example. The other day, one of our papers had a wordless and well done cartoon of Sarkozy, dressed as Napoleon, riding a donkey alone along a wintery vastness of railway lines. The cartoon required both a knowledge of the present French industrial strife and awareness of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. The verbal equivalents of this are best avoided in youth writing.

But is there anything else? Is there any particular positive feature that marks out youth fiction? A youthful hero perhaps? Maybe, but that is not essential. An optimistic view of the future? I think that is naiveté. A sense of innocence? No way! But I am open to comments. For what it is worth, I have no intention of trying to write youth fiction as such. What I do intend writing is accessible adult fiction, and it seems to me that that will do.

4 Responses to “On youth fiction”

  1. dugmad says:

    Chris,

    Your post from today certainly clears up how you ended up in the youth category. As I said, I will be pointing this out to the rather large store we buy many books from and see if they will listen.

    On the positive front for this scenario, albeit small, it is the fact that my son, about 12 at the time, bought “Shadow…” from the youth section and insisted that I read it as he was confident I would like it. He was extremely perceptive on that count. But one of the first things that went through my mind as I read “shadow…” was why on earth are these back on the youth shelves?

    Now do not take that wrong. It was not because there was material in the book that concerned me, but rather that the book was so finely written and such a wonderful concept to explore that I just thought more than just kids should read these books. Anyone and especially adults can get a lot out of the books.

    Although my son has read many of the great books, Dante for example, and indeed has taken some latin courses I also realized he likely missed some of the adult themed plot lines that are in the books. Regardless, he is a huge fan and really liked both books to date and keeps wondering when Infinite Day will arrive. I keep him in touch with your updates here.

    Take care and I will let you know what the bookstore has to say.

    Doug

  2. Boaz says:

    I think that the constraints you have can be positively expressed in terms of “clarity.” Constraint on style goes very well to clarity of style. Clarity of plot doesn’t map well to any of the constraints, but there wouldn’t be any “off-camera betrayals”, and betrayals would be kept to a minimum (a la Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) as opposed to layer upon layer of intrigue. I would put the last as clariy of ethics. [I’m taking ethics to be conformity to an absolute standard of right and wrong, from ethos, as opposed to morality, from mores, describing the acceptable behavior of a society.] Good and bad are clearly defined. The good guys stay good, or, if they lapse a bit, pay for it. The bad guys get what they deserve in the end.

    Now clarity is a definite boon for any book aimed at any audience, but adults can (or at least should be able to) deal with things that aren’t as clear.

    Locally, the only place I see your books is a Christian bookstore chain called Lifeway, and they definitely have you in adult fiction. Don’t know what it would take for Barnes & Noble or Borders to pick them up.

  3. Terry says:

    Chris,

    I was most interested in your description of what defines youth fiction. In one of my literature courses, it fell to me to present on Realism in Children’s Literature. My perspective was similar to yours regarding style, substance, and sophistication. There wasn’t much dissention regarding the style and sophistication, but I had to defend my stance on substance rather vigorously.

    It seems the common denominator gets lower all the time when it comes to values and age-appropriate content. Many of the titles I labeled as definitely NOT appropriate for children and younger youth (under 14 or 15) were hailed by my peers as “brilliantly communicating the dilemmas and hard choices of today’s reality.” In other words, 14 year-old Janet’s decision to have sex with her boyfriend within the first week of dating shows maturity and self-confidence (according to the author), and Michael’s choice to respect and condone his hurting friend’s drug use reflect the essence of true brotherhood.

    An award-winning children’s picture book entitled Two Daddies made growing up with homosexual “dads” seem rather nice.

    Now, I know these issues exist, they have to be tackled somehow,and for far too many children and youth, these are reality. But does that mean we lower the bar to accommodate and normalize these behaviors? As far as I’m concerned, the line needs to be drawn well back from this level. I don’t think it’s so difficult to create heroes who are human, and deal with real issues, internally and externally, while neither making them depraved, nor painting them with the angelic brush. Give your characters flaws, by all means, but also give them a values baseline that challenges the reader to something better and more noble than what they may see around them. In this regard, Chris, I very much appreciate the way you’ve portrayed Merral in your books.

    Sorry – My blood pressure gets up a bit on this topic. But the issue of where to draw the line, and WHO draws the line, is one on which Im always looking for more info. So if you WERE going to write something for youth that dealt with difficult and controversial issues, how might you go about it?

    Take care,

    Terry

  4. Chris says:

    Hi Terry,

    I agree with you that ‘Youth’ has become a battleground. People with an agenda want to get in early and alter minds. How to deal with this is challenging. Book blocking (or burning) is counterproductive. But ‘book beating’ is a possibility. In other words we have to write better and more attractively than they do!

    Chris

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