Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Coert: Engaging the Young Adult Reader

The paperback of my first book The Brothers Torres is released today, which—in addition to conjuring painful flashbacks of Dennis Cass’s fantastic Book Launch 2.0—has me thinking about a book I haven’t looked at in a while. What follows is an adaptation of my contribution to the Engaging the Young Adult Reader panel at last year’s IRA Conference.

I taught a high school film class for six years. The students wrote, directed, produced, and edited a variety of assignments, from music videos to commercials, documentaries and narrative films, and at the end of the year, they presented a final project. Three years into it, I began to dread these final projects, knowing that every single one would include some or all of the following: envelope-pushing public displays of affection, slow-motion fights with their parents, and most of all: shot upon shot of their cars. From the passenger p.o.v. the driver’s p.o.v. The camera on the dashboard, on the hood, montage after montage of driving around the city, looking wistfully out the window, all accompanied by the latest emo tune. Make it stop, I thought. I see this every year.

What I realized, thankfully, was that while I might have seen it all before, this was the first time my students had ever had the opportunity to express these stories and emotions. They had something to say, and it was fresh for them, and that was the important part. And once I was able to achieve a kind of critical distance, I realized that there was complexity in a lot of the representation. Their view of the world, once we got past the slow-motion slamming of the door in the mother’s face, was beginning to show nuance. The students were beginning to see themselves as part of a complex and difficult world, and it wasn’t until I began writing for Young Adults that I realized what that meant.

Before I say anything about engaging the young adult reader, I think it’s important to examine what I think of as Young Adult literature. I’m hesitant to oversimplify, but one of the conclusions I’ve come to is that YA doesn’t so much reflect a writer’s decision to write for a particular audience as it does a marketing decision based on a combination of protagonist and narrative stance.

This is not to say that we don’t care who our audience is; the stories we tell are of course influenced by the audience. What I mean is that once the story has been chosen and it comes time to write it, then—if we really want to “engage” the reader—we should forget who the audience is and concentrate on how we’re telling the story.

For every story there is a narrative stance—be it omniscient, effaced, first or close-third person, present or past, retrospective or not—that maximizes the potential of the story itself. And Young Adult literature (this is of course a massive generalization, but bear with me) tends to be first or extremely close third person, non-retrospective narration, either in present or past. This particular narrative stance mirrors the emotional and intellectual state of the protagonist (and in many cases the young adult reader herself): a kind of netherworld somewhere between the benevolent narcissism of pre-adolescence and the potentially crippling self-awareness of adulthood. It is a time in the teenager’s life when he’s beginning to grasp adult issues while still within the framework of himself as the center of the universe. Representing this state allows the YA writer to show the world in all its complexities, and while the reader might not see the complexity right away, he will feel it, just as he feels it in his own world.

Besides, the real world is not a series of simple either/or choices—Do I do drink, or no? Do I join a gang, or no? Do I stand up for what I know is right, or no?— it makes no sense, if we want to engage with our readers, to craft our fictional world that way. We can take advantage of the complex narrative stance in order to present the world in all it’s greyness.

My book, The Brothers Torres, which is set in a fictional small town in northern New Mexico, is told in the present tense, from the first-person perspective of the sixteen year-old narrator, Frankie Towers. There is no retrospection, so Frankie starts the book thinking his story is just another boy wants girl:
So, there’s a guy, right? And he’s known this girl forever, from back when they used to take swim lessons and throw dirt clods at cars and lift packs of Juicy Fruit from Arroyo’s QuickMart. But she’s all grown up now. She’s sixteen and in high school and somewhere along the line she got smoking-hot. And this dude, he wants to ask her out, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He doesn’t know the right words. He gets this nasty pinch underneath his rib cage when she even turns around to look at him and blah, blah, blah. I know, you’ve heard it all before. I thought I had, too. Until that dude turned out to be me.
This first paragraph doesn’t mention the brother, but it does confront head-on the narrator’s awareness that while this story has been told so many times before, it’s different now—it’s worth listening to—because it is happening to him. As the novel progresses, the storyline of the brother pushes itself into Frankie’s life, and eventually we have a character who can no longer ignore the outside world. One challenge was to present the world as Frankie sees it while also passing along enough information about the “real world” so that the reader can place him in it.

The beauty of the first person, and of having a point of view character who is insightful, whether he knows it or not, is that the reader can take part in two narratives: what comes through the subjective eyes of the narrator (value judgments, jokes) and objective information that the narrator passes along, in the form of action and dialogue, for example.

What follows are some of the ways I tried to take advantage of this particular narrative stance to engage the reader with a complex world—with Frankie’s perception of his love interest, Rebecca; with his parents, and finally, with his brother Steve.

The object of Frankie’s affection, Rebecca Sanchez, appears at first to be a one-dimensional construct—the pretty girl who exists solely in Frankie’s fantasy. And sure enough, Frankie works hard throughout the novel to convince us of her perfection. He says:
Straight black hair, creamy light brown skin, a kickin’ body—not too skinny.
A few chapters later, as he catches a glimpse of her walking with her friends across the quad at school, he tells us:
You know those movies where the hot chick has a couple friends who are almost as hot but not quite? They always walk in slow motion with the hottest one in the lead, like a squadron of attack planes in V-formation? Rebecca could make that happen if she wanted to. But she doesn’t need that attention, and Katie seems to want it, so Katie’s the one in front.
On the surface, we get Frankie’s description of Rebecca, which helps justify the lengths he goes to win her heart. But if we’re paying attention, he gives us language to suggest that perhaps there is a more objective way to see her. What does “not too skinny” mean? What does that mean when combined with the fact that Frankie brings up the hot chick movie convention and then explains why Rebecca isn’t in front? We see what role Rebecca plays in Frankie’s world, but we also get a glimpse of how she exists in the “real world” of the novel. This complicates our impression of her character while at the same time informing us about Frankie.

Then there are the parents. Frankie’s understanding of his role in the world, in the family, is shifting so rapidly that he can hardly keep up (at one point, he even feels himself being thrust into the role of the parent.) Frankie’s observations lead him at the beginning to conclude that his parents are a joke. “I love my dad, right?” he says at one point, “but it’s like he learned how to be a father by reading self-help books.” Frankie thinks they concentrate all their parenting on him while letting his older brother Steve walk all over them. When he comes home after having been beaten up, all Frankie can process is that his mother is freaking out; even though he tells us what she says, he hardly pays attention to it:
Mom’s voice finally cracks. “Someone attacked my baby and my husband’s at work and my boys won’t talk to me for some reason pero no se porque no me hablan—”
“Mom.” She’s panicking now. Talking to herself. Making no sense.
“—both coming home with bruises all over, and I don’t know what’s happening to my family—”
“Mom!” I come home after getting my ass totally beat, and my mom goes off the deep end? How does that help anything?

Are Frankie’s parents really jokes, or does the objective information indicate otherwise? Frankie says his mom is making no sense, so he interrupts her and dismisses what she’s said—“both coming home with bruises”—by telling us she’s gone off the deep end, but he’s also given us enough information to reach our own conclusions.

Objective information also tells us that the father is just overmatched. He’s doing his best to keep a struggling business afloat, he’s trying to have a relationship with his kids while at the same time he’s devastated that he has no idea how to relate. Late in the novel, Frankie actually pretends to be asleep so as not to have to talk to him:
He places his hand on my shoulder, and it takes everything I have not to react. I give a pathetic half-groan and stretch out my legs, but I’m still asleep, of course, so I shrug my shoulders up close to my ears and go back into the fetal position. Dad’s hand is still on my shoulder, but he doesn’t say anything.
We stay like this for over ten minutes. I know because I count the whole time – counting helps me breathe more naturally. Six hundred and twelve Mississippi. His hand resting on my shoulder.

We see Frankie’s perspective: he’s tired, he doesn’t want his father to keep bothering him (to keep fathering him) and at the same time, all the father wants is a connection. The scene from Frankie’s point of view (“counting helps me breathe more naturally”) also helps to moderate the scene’s potential heavyhandedness—if you’ll pardon the expression.

Ultimately, it’s the storyline with his older brother Steve that forms the emotional center of the book. Frankie’s repeated inability to stand up to his brother drives the conflict forward as the situation worsens, resulting in a climax that pits the two of them against each other. The narrative stance here helps to draw out that tension, to let it simmer as long as possible.
Even as Frankie has complained to us that his parents aren’t taking Steve’s illicit activities seriously enough, he can’t help himself from doing the same thing. Remember, he’s perceptive, but not always correct. When Steve’s friend Flaco shows up at the mini-golf, Frankie can’t help but be impressed:
He looks extra-fierce tonight—the khakis, the wallet chain, the flannel buttoned at the top over a white beater, the mesh trucker hat pulled low over his eyes, the shiny ponytail halfway down his back. I’ve never been happier to see anybody in my life.
And later, as Flaco is joined by Steve and the rest of their crew, Frankie tells us:
We don’t really have gangs here in Borges, but if we did, this is what they’d look like.
Here the reader can sense that Steve is in trouble, just as Frankie does even though he doesn’t want to admit it. And even though he’s given us detailed description, because he doesn’t want to admit it, he comes to a conclusion that excuses his brother’s behavior. We may go along with it: we may allow ourselves to excuse it away as Frankie does, or we may not. If we do, then we stay deep in Frankie’s point of view. If we don’t, a double narrative presents itself. We may even recognize (as Frankie starts to in the end) that he’s excusing his brother’s behavior in much the same way that his father does.

I’m not suggesting that Frankie is an unreliable narrator. He’s certainly not hiding anything from us. He just a character who sees the world the way he sees the world, and he’s telling his story in a non-retrospective first person point of view. Our job is to figure out how his perspective works. And if this perspective is successful, then every reader will read it differently, will come to different conclusions, will invest herself in this second narrative.

But let’s say that the reader doesn’t recognize any of this double narration business? What then? Well, then there are other ways to engage. As readers, we engage on the character level with an unlikely hero—a guy who isn’t super-smart, doesn’t have spectacular abilities, isn’t fabulously wealthy or dirt-poor, doesn’t become famous, a narrator who stops the present action to address the reader in the second person. We engage on the plot level with a dangerous situation that only escalates. We engage with fireworks and a one-eyed best friend, with the pressures of a boy who needs to find a date for the dance, with the almost-foreign setting of northern New Mexico and a quirky small town where the tallest building and largest employer is a tortilla factory.

And as writers, no matter the genre, we can engage the young adult reader if we address what Carson McCullers’ twelve year old narrator Frankie—no relation—refers to in her 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding as the “old question”: “the who she was and what she would do in the world and why she was standing there that minute.”


  1. This is a smart post. I've had similar conversations about narration with writer friends who write for the adult market but often from the point of view of a child or adolescent narrator. I've never used the term non-retrospective narration before. But you're right. There's something urgent and almost unraveling in a lot of the YA voices I like. And when I try writing in first person present the level of self-awareness is almost overly present. I think that's why I gravitate to past tense. I liked this post a lot, Coert. Even though it didn't have any bears in it.

  2. Wow! I love this post! I wasn't sure if what I was writing would fall into the YA category, but I think it does. The way you broke this down was very insightful. Thank you!! Hope all is going well w/baby. Maternity leave(s) for me were both delightful & maddening!!

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