Tag Archives: young adult

The Rite Thing to Do

My sister eloped. Okay, not exactly, and it’s old news, really, since this was brought to mind by my recently receiving an invitation to the celebration of her twentieth anniversary. Which is interesting, because I wasn’t invited to her wedding.

See, she and her boyfriend were vacationing in Hawai’i, when they decided, on the spur of the moment, that this romantic tropical setting would be the ideal place to get married. They are far from the only ones who reach that conclusion, of course. Having made their decision, and arrangements, they then informed the families. Well, by families, I mean my parents. I wasn’t informed except by my father, who was, as is understandable, grousing long and loud about having to fly to Hawai’i at the last minute and at enormous expense.

He didn’t have to, of course. My older sister didn’t go, and was fine with that, despite having a very close relationship with my younger sister. “What’s the big deal?” she said. But my father understood, which is why, in fact, he did have to go. His daughter was getting married. For some reason, he felt that was an important thing to attend.

I didn’t go. There was no way I could afford it. And that hurt. She was my sister, and I had looked forward to being at her wedding, even standing up in her wedding party as she stood up in mine. It was important to me that she be there, and I would have thought it might be important to her that I be there for her. It wasn’t. But I think what hurt me even more than that was realizing that it wasn’t important to her that it was important to me.

That’s the thing about weddings. Despite all the “Bridezilla” stories, it’s not really about the bride, nor the couple, or anything like that. It’s about the people in attendance. It’s for the father who has dreamed about walking his little girl down the aisle since she was… well… a little girl. It’s about the family. It’s about the community, bearing witness to a couple passing through one of the last surviving rites of passage our society affords.

I use that term intentionally. A wedding is a moment of transition, one most people experience. It is a common experience. And there are rituals involved, the exchange of rings, the vows, the “march,” all that. That’s why a lot of people get very nervous at any attempt to change that. The pastor who officiated my wedding said he was very reluctant to allow a couple to mess with the ceremony too much, especially when it came to writing their own vows. We didn’t do that, although we did personalize a bit by opening the ceremony with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Oh yeah, and I sang at my own wedding. I’d sung Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” at all of my friends’ weddings, and I wanted it sung at mine, but by the same person who sang at everyone else’s. So yeah, I sang it at the beginning, and watched my wife come down the aisle toward me during the flute solo.

But we didn’t mess with things too much, and the pastor was right about that. He explained it. He pointed out that the familiarity of the vows binds us all together. Not just the couple, but the whole community. They are sharing something with everyone who has gone before. He pointed out that, when the bride and groom are up there reciting their vows, all the married people watching are silently remembering, and re-reciting, their own vows. Why do you think so many babies are born nine months after a major wedding?

This shared experience is why some conservatives are extremely uncomfortable at anything that would change the “definition” of marriage. And it’s why advocates of gay marriage fight so hard to be able to share the common experience as well. “It’s just a piece of paper,” people might say (my sister likely among them), but it’s so much more. It’s a step further into the adult world. And we have very few left.

Rites of passage tie us together, going through an experience knowing those around you went through it themselves. In earlier times it might involve a test or an ordeal, sometimes dangerous, and it’s okay with me that we have removed most of the danger. But we maintain the vestigial ritual in initiations into social organizations, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons or the Elks or whathaveyou. Those are dying out, but such traditions do live on, somewhat, with fraternity initiations, although the significance is increasingly lost in the face of ever more dangerous hazing. But perhaps that’s an attempt to cling to our true roots. Because part of the purpose of the ordeal is to come out of it stronger, more confident. Ready for the challenges that face you. Ready, in many cases, to truly be an adult.

We no longer have a clear delineation between child and adult. We lost the ritual where you officially cross the threshold between the two worlds. Certainly it still exists in some cultures. The Hispanic Quinceanera is one case, although it could be said that’s a remnant of Patriarchy, where a girl is announced as a now-available commodity. But it’s a very important moment in the girl’s life, where she really gets to feel like she’s a woman.

A better example is the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. This is the moment when a boy literally stands before the community and says, “Today I am a man.” He has studied and prepared, and his parents watch with pride, while everyone else nods and smiles, remembering their own passage. It is a welcoming into the adult world. And what’s important is that it was preceded by serious lessons on what it means to be a man. We used to teach our children how to be adults. Boys learned to take off their hats indoors, or when the flag is passing. They learned how to shake someone’s hand. They learned how to behave like a responsible adult. And, yes, this was true for girls as well, but the fact that this has largely disappeared is a more serious problem for boys.

The very recent concept of adolescence is actually causing difficulty for young people. It takes nearly a decade to transition from child to adult now. I’m not advocating we return to a time when children were put to work as soon as they could pick up a tool. But we take a long period where teens aren’t really sure if they are children or adults, nor which they want to be. It’s a troubled time, full of raging hormones. We treat them like children and they chafe because they are ready to be adults. Then we treat them like adults and they cower because they actually aren’t ready. And at no time do we show them a point of passage, one where yesterday they were children, and today they are adults.

Consider: you can work at age 15; drive at 16; go to an R-rated movie at 17 (not that that means anything anymore); vote, sign contracts and join the military at 18; and drink and gamble at 21. Which is adulthood? We could say 18, but that’s arbitrary, and mostly just corresponds to the end of universal education, another recent invention our society once thought essential for a robust democracy, but which, sadly, conservatives are now trying vigorously to tear down. Education is also, by the way, why legal age of consent laws tend to pin on age 18, a biologically ludicrous delay. We don’t want sexuality to distract “children” from their schooling. Of course, it does, far more than it would if we were tolerant of the reality that teens are sexual beings.

So what happens? Teens, whose bodies are screaming their readiness for adulthood, are cast adrift by a society who sees no value in rituals and transitions, with no one telling them who they are, or what they should do. They take their lessons from any place they can: books and movies and music and games and other media that isn’t there to strengthen society, but to make money by pandering to adults’ darkest instincts. And that’s how boys learn how they are “supposed” to treat girls, and girls learn how they are “expected” to respond. They learn to solve problems with violence. They learn it’s all about “me,” rather than about “us.”

And the teens eat it up. That is, I think, a symptom of a deeper hunger. More than just sex drives and bloodlust. Teen books are full of stories full of tests and ordeals; it’s a central theme, the “child” proving him or herself by overcoming a great challenge. We yearn for these rites of passage, especially children, who, unable to experience it for themselves, seek it out in their fiction. In that respect, I suppose it could be said that teen fiction is serving an important purpose, but maybe it shouldn’t have to carry the entire burden. Rather, we could be mindful that we are a community, a common people.

Social rituals and traditions connect us, and I think it’s no coincidence that, the more we abandon them, the more fragmented and fractious societies become. Rituals are the embodiment of order, and the absence of order is chaos. The authors of teen books offer many anarchic, dystopian societies, where the dignity of life and the spirit of community have lost their meaning. But rarely do they really explore how these societies came to be. That’s a shame, because I suspect that it would look much more familiar than we might like.


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The Boy I Want to Be

When the first Hunger Games movie came out, parents took their children, schools arranged field trips, and in general it was deemed important to take kids to go watch other kids kill each other. I’m sure there was some rational point, but I also heard reports of children being severely traumatized. Okay, where am I going with this? Please, not another rant. Not so much. More a question. See, not all kids were traumatized; most were thrilled, entertained, excited, and one young girl was heard coming out of the theater exclaiming, “I wish I could live in the Hunger Games!” Seriously? Why? What was it about that world that made her want to be a part of it?

She was not alone, and since then, Hunger Games themed summer camps have sprung up, giving kids a chance to hunt each other to (presumably simulated) death. What fun! What fun? What? Fun? It’s a given that I don’t get it. Maybe that’s why I continue to be a failed author, while the writers of dark, violent torture-festivals for kids see runaway success.

Okay, presumably the appeal of these books is the characters. Readers can “relate” to these plucky heroines standing up in the face of unrelenting horror and despair. I can see how that’s admirable. But who would want to actually be the characters? To actually go through their experiences?

The appeal of the Harry Potter books, especially the early ones, was obvious. What kid didn’t want to be whisked away to a magical school and discover his true greatness? Even if it meant standing up to ultimate evil, the journey was exciting. And, dare I say, fun. At least, it was in the early books. As the series progressed and the leads got older, the books got darker. This, I suppose, was to reflect that, as you mature, things become more serious, and the stakes rise. The Potter series was remarkable as being possibly the best example of the character growing up with the readers. The early books were very definitely middle grade, while the last ones were squarely “young adult.”

But that’s troubling to me. The implication there is that books for younger readers can be fun, whereas books for older teens should be serious, dark and traumatic. This may be a contributor to my continued failure to find representation for my book. More than one person has told me my book sounds middle grade. Seriously? There’s sex in it. And heady science. Well, I’ve been told, I should probably tone that down.

Great. To succeed as a “young adult” book, it can’t be fun. That’s frankly, bullshit. Why can’t there be fun books for older teens, and even genuine young adults? I’d much rather read that than a book where people are being barbarically killed on every page, and I have to keep stopping because my shuddering makes it hard to hold the book still. Am I alone in that?

What I really don’t understand is the writers of these dark books. What draws them to write? I know what draws me with my book. I love my characters. I’m sure these writers love theirs too, sometimes inordinately so. But my love for my characters drives me to write situations that they will like. I couldn’t wait for my romantic couple to get together. Every time something good happens, it’s a thrill for me, and I’m so proud that I created it. Compare that to Suzanne Collins’ experience. She said it was a very emotionally painful experience to write about children being killed. So then, why did she? Maybe that was her conscience trying to tell her to write something else.

I’m not saying my story is sweetness and light, but the upbeat easily outweighs the down. The light vanquishes the dark. I can’t say this is true of a lot of the popular works of today. Which makes it hard for me to see the appeal.

See, I don’t just love my characters. I want to be them. I want to be my male lead. I want to feel the unconditional love he has from his sisters, and the love he returns to them. A want to hold his little sister in my arms. I want to feel the thrill of his growing relationship with the strong girl who’s been drawn into his family. I want all of that. Did Collins want to experience Katniss’ horrific loss of her sister, or the crushing betrayal by her presumed allies? Did Veronica Roth want to experience the horrible mental torture inflicted on the characters in Divergent? Seriously, who would? The characters come out of these experiences scarred and broken. Is that what readers relate to?

My book isn’t scarring. My characters have adventure. They face dangers, true. Serious risk that forces them to grow and learn and find inner strength they didn’t know they have. But mostly the adventure is fun, full of the thrill of discovery. I’m writing that, because that’s what I want. I want a mysterious stranger to whisk me away to an exotic world, along with my beloved family. I want to join with them in finding my place in a larger universe. I want to be forever amazed by new discoveries. So that’s what’s in my book. And at the end, I make two things clear: even more amazing adventures await them, and they will face them together. As Nick tells his sisters: “We’re family. If we stay together, we can do anything.” I want to feel like that. Which is why I want so badly for my book to be published.

I don’t want to come out of a book feeling depressed and bitter. I want to feel exhilarated. I bet others want to feel that way too, the same way people wanted to feel like Harry Potter. But I haven’t found anything written lately that accomplishes that, which is why I’ve pretty much given up reading in the “young adult” genre.” Really, who wants to feel like Katniss or Tris? The authors? They created these worlds, these soul-crushing situations. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why.

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Dreams on Ice

As we move ever closer to the 2014 Winter Olympics, I’m getting excited.  I’m not much of a sports fan, but I do like the Winter Games.  My favorite, of course, is the figure skating.  The Olympics is rarely free of controversy, from the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan circus of 1994 to the 2002 score fixing scandal that lead to a badly needed overhaul of the whole system.  This year it’s already begun, albeit in a comparatively low-key way, with the placement of Ashley Wagner on the women’s team over Mirai Nagasu, despite the fact that Mirai was the Bronze Medalist in the US National Championship while Ashley finished fourth. 

Many people responded to the committee’s decision harshly; former Olympic skater Johnny Weir called it “outrageous.”  But gold medalist Brian Boitano was more sanguine, calling it “heart wrenching” but understandable.  The placement decision is based on a number of complex criteria, of which ranking in the Nationals is only a part.  Of significance is a skater’s overall body of performance over the season, and beyond.  Consistency is important, as is the ability to face the expected international competition.  And there are, no doubt, less tangible considerations; it’s hard to discount the possibility that the Olympic committee took into account how Ashley had been just barely passed over for the 2010 team.  And, in all honesty, I’m happy Ashley made the team, and had been rooting for her the whole way.  But seeing the heartbreak in Mirai’s face while she skated her exhibition performance at the end of the Nationals was indeed wrenching. 

On the other hand, the placement of surprise silver medalist Polina Edmunds on the team will, I guarantee, lead to an entire commentary angle during the coverage of the games.  Polina is just fifteen years old, as is Julia Lipnitskaia, who won the European championship and secured a spot on the Russian team.  Sports media seizes on any opportunity to create a story, particularly one with a perceived “rivalry,” whether it exists or not.  Combine that with society’s fondness for young girls and you can be certain there will be many references to the “Battle of the Fifteen-Year-Olds” in the coming days.

Hmm… “Battle of the Fifteen-Year-Olds” sounds like an excellent title for a Young Adult novel, doesn’t it?  In fact, that’s the premise of most of them out there these days.  Just imagine: a bunch of cute little girls go out into the rink armed with razor-sharp knives on their feet, giving new meaning to competitive skating, until only one remains standing on blood-soaked ice.  You know somebody’s going to write it.  You know a lot of people will want to read it.  Just remember where you heard it first.

Getting back to the main issue, there’s a clear lesson: despite Mirai’s arguably better performance (it’s all subjective, of course), she didn’t make it.  In other words, you can try your hardest and do the best you can do, but, ultimately, there are no guarantees.  Your best may not be good enough, even if someone else makes it when they weren’t as good.  This reveals one of American culture’s most cherished values to be a blatant lie.  We tell children, “You can do anything you want if you try hard enough.”  Obvious bullshit.

How can this be?  How can such injustice prevail?  In the case of the Olympics, the committee is looking to put together a team with the best shot at medaling.  They set out to pick winners.  That’s what it’s about, winning.  Is there anything wrong with that?  I confess I’m not sure what the answer is.

Certainly I can see a parallel with my own endeavors.  Many people have told me my book is good, even excellent.  They tell me to hang in there with querying, despite the inevitability of repeated rejection.  But they cannot in honesty tell me I will make it.  Especially not when only 2% of all would-be authors ever find publication.  That’s a 98% fail rate, folks.  That has to include a lot of writers who are really good, even excellent.  They try their best, they do their best but, in the end, they go home.  They fail to reach the goal.

It’s the nature of the publishing industry.  Agents and editors are not on the lookout for the next literary masterpiece.  They examine every query with simple criteria: can I sell this?  That’s it.  Can the agent sell it to a publisher?  Can a publisher get enough sales to see a return on investment (most published books don’t see that, by the way)?  Will this be adaptable to a movie, which is where the real money is?  It’s a business decision.  Period.

That’s why a lot of sub-par hackwork makes it to the shelves.  People will buy it.  There are at least as many Fifty Shades haters as fans, but do you think E. L. James has ever lost any sleep over it?  She is, as they say, crying all the way to the bank.  Up-and-comer Veronica Roth, a young adult author in every sense of the word, is seeing her series strike gold, but she famously takes criticism hard.  She will soon learn to get over it when the residuals start to mount.  The rest of us, meanwhile, labor away, pouring our souls into what are, for most of us, labors of love that will never bear fruit.  Such is the way of all things.  Life gives no guarantees.  Being the best may not be enough.  Not when someone else meets the criteria better. 

There’s always tomorrow, of course.  Hang in there, never give up, keep striving.  You never know when the door might open for you, so be ready.  Maybe.  Then again, probably not.  We can’t all be winners.  Most of us will face defeat, despite giving it our best.  At that point the best you can hope to do is skate with grace, as Mirai did.  But the anguish will still be in our faces.  And our hearts.

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