YA Blog Series: Learning to see reality in Jacob Have I Loved by Heather Munn

I met Heather Munn nearly six years ago when my family moved to the intentional community where she was already living with her husband. Since then, not only have I enjoyed sharing with her a deep love of reading fiction (both YA and adult) but I’ve also enjoyed reading her own writing. Heather and her mother Lydia have co-authored two historical fiction YA books so far: How Huge the Night and its sequel Defy the Night. Both are beautiful and poignant novels of a small village in France that hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II. 

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“I was the elder by a few minutes,” Sara Louise Bradshaw says of herself and her twin sister. “I always treasured the thought of those minutes. They represented the only time in my life when I was the center of everyone’s attention. From the moment Caroline was born, she snatched it all for herself.”

Caroline was born not breathing—and even when she began to breathe they weren’t sure she was going to live. As Louise, years later, is told the story of their birth, she hears only the silences about herself. Caroline was miraculously revived; Caroline was taken to the hospital and visited eight times a day by their mother so that she could maintain breastfeeding. “Where was I?” asks Louise, and sees in her mother’s clouded face what her mother doesn’t want to admit: she doesn’t quite remember. In the years since then, Caroline’s extraordinary musical gifts have kept the spotlight on her permanently, leaving the unremarkable Louise in shadow.

Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson is a deceptively simple, amazingly deep book. The prose has a spare, clean beauty, fitting for the book’s setting on the Chesapeake Bay. The Bradshaws’ island life, and the traditional crabbing and oyster gathering methods Louise learns from her father, are described in loving, textured, unsentimental detail. It’s a novel deeply rooted in its place. It’s also classic YA, offering us the first-person voice of a teenager with a grievance against the world and drawing us into sympathy with her. And it is, at heart, a Bildungsroman—one of the best I have ever read.

It’s an awkward, clumsy word, Bildungsroman, but I’ve loved it ever since discovering it was the definition of the young-adult novels I value the most. It’s German for “novel of education,” but the education in question usually doesn’t happen in school. These are books about young people seeking to understand the world, to learn what life is all about—a psychological and moral education. I see it as learning to see—and to face—reality.

Louise’s psychological and moral troubles center around Caroline, of course, and the reader feels them acutely with her as she battles both hatred for her sister and guilt. Caroline is just about as arrogant and thoughtless as her sister thinks she is, but as we watch Louise in action, we see that she herself is bitter and mean-spirited, habitually resenting other people’s joy—and she knows it. But she can’t seem to stop. One of the worst moments comes right after her childhood friend Call returns from the Navy grown up and strikingly transformed (and having little idea that Louise has quietly begun to wonder if she might love him,) and announces his engagement to Caroline. In response to Louise’s stunned disbelief, Call gives a short laugh and says he can see why she is surprised Caroline wanted him: “You never did think I was much to brag about, now did you?”

It is devastating, because it is, in fact, true. From the first chapter on, Louise has scorned Call in her narration repeatedly. The moment is so agonizing that she wishes to curse God and die, and we feel it with her—at least I know I did. Facing the reality of your own wrongdoing, unlike a battle wound, is the kind of pain a reader can share with a character. Especially when you realize you’re fully capable of doing the same things.

Maybe this is why I had to blink a few times when Ruth Graham, in her article about why we should be embarrassed to read YA, offered the quote, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.”

Maybe it’s also because I’ve written YA myself, and I can say pretty definitely that I wasn’t aiming for pleasure. Not beyond the pleasures of words and story without which no-one would read a novel; certainly not in the way that Ruth Graham is talking about. And I won’t say I’ve never been tempted, because we all know what sells. What sells (at least quickly and easily) is not only wish-fulfillment—the hero “getting the girl,” etc—but also an absolute avoidance of inflicting the kind of moral pain that Jacob Have I Loved inflicts. Especially in YA, your reader is almost inevitably identifying with your main character, so whatever you do, don’t make her face any unpleasant realities about herself! She has to be right. She has to be vindicated.

And in many YA novels she is. Certainly Ruth Graham is right about that—there’s an awful lot of give- ‘em-what-they-want in the genre, especially lately, and I’ll admit to some sympathy with her wish to see us all reading something that makes us think. (Yes, I’d do well to pick up one or two of the unread classics on my bookshelf, now that it’s winter and I have more energy. Because it does take energy.) But I’d thank her not to talk as if YA were wall-to-wall pandering, as if adult genres weren’t rife with it too. As if there weren’t plenty of novels on the “Literary” shelf that mostly offer, in a sophisticated, socially impressive wrapper, the pleasures of scorn.

There are many reasons I am not embarrassed to read YA. One is that I know how arbitrary these classifications are: a publisher can, and often will, take a book written for adults and stamp it as YA based on the age of the protagonist. Another is that both children’s literature and YA can offer a freshness and (usually in the case of YA) an intensity of vision that can help to clear the cobwebs from adult eyes. Another is that I think we should take teenagers more seriously, despite their much-mentioned tendencies to self-absorption and passionate death-grips on hasty conclusions. I get a little tired of seeing the phrase “teenage angst” used as a dismissive cliché. Angst literally means fear. Growing up—stepping out from under a lifetime of protection, facing love and death and necessity on your own for the first time—can be terrifying.

But maybe my biggest reason is my love of the Bildungsroman. Seeing truly, facing reality, is for me the goal of all writing. The Bildungsroman distills this and gives it to us in a strong, pure form, a form meant for young people desperate to understand life—and one that I believe is worth any adult’s time. Reading this sort of thing, at thirty-three, reminds me of the big questions: How should we live? What is right, what is wrong? Is there a God? What is life, what is the world, what is truly worth spending our ninety-odd years of breath on? It also reminds me—when it is done the way Katherine Paterson does it—of how true a false vision of reality can seem, when it’s colored by pain, shame, or fear, or a desperate wish to get even with someone. It reminds me to question the self-serving or self-condemning stories I tell myself, because even at thirty-three I might be dead wrong.

Louise Bradshaw is not, of course, vindicated or avenged upon her sister at the end. But neither does she enter adulthood believing the bleak story she has told herself about her parents choosing Caroline over her. She finds that the truth is, in fact, radically different: her showily gifted sister, who has always been destined to leave, does not belong in the family the way she does. Though their quiet, reserved parents love them both very much, it is Louise, who is more like them and has entered more deeply into their real life, whom they will miss the most.

The grown-up Louise, now a nurse-midwife serving an isolated Appalachian valley, delivers twin babies in the last scene; one of them is not breathing. As she works over the child till she is out of danger, as she realizes with shock that she has forgotten about the stronger twin and urges the mother to hold him, we see her acceptance of the realities her parents faced long ago. Though she will try, however imperfectly, to do better than they did, she is long past blaming them for their instinct to focus wholly on saving an infant’s life. With a truer vision of reality comes the birth of humility; even, as she walks home from the birth in the depths of a cold, starry night, of awe.

The banging gong: a contribution to Second Simplicity

Recently, I got to participate in my friend Amy Peterson’s blog series called Second Simplicity. For Amy’s description of the series, head over here.

I decided to write about one of many theology/life-altering times in my life: this one was particularly scary at the time. As Amy described it, “How do you welcome the stranger when the stranger is a pathological liar?” This was the beginning of a realization for me: I don’t know how to love the way I should.

The banging gong 

James* came bounding through the heavy wooden door of the common building right before church one Sunday morning in the middle of the growing season. With his stained teeth, bleached hair, and funky floral shirt, he appeared to be an ex-hippie, a recovering addict, or both. He had the personality of an enthusiast, one who loves people, loves storytelling, and seems to love it when people love him back. In our small Mennonite intentional community, where we are nourished by hospitality to the stranger, one extra was noticeable and welcome.

That first Sunday, James felt free to chime in during teaching, offering up examples from his own life of working with the homeless and growing up in an Amish community. His stories were fascinating and foreign: divorced parents who left the Amish, several siblings who had ended up in strange messianic cults, a son from a previous relationship, a radio show where he interviewed the likes of Jennifer Knapp.

James spent his days helping on the farm with my husband.  We welcomed him into our home for meals. My husband lent James his old computer to use in the apartment he was staying in up the hill.  He read to our children and talked about his own young son from a divorce.  He talked about his upbringing in an Amish community and answered our questions about the quirks of such a life.

A few things were odd. James said he was keeping a blog about his time here and when I found it online, he had posted pictures of actual Amish folks, claiming he was ministering to the folks at our community (the folks in our community do not dress like the Amish or Old Order Mennonites). When my husband confronted him about the lie, James was quick to say that he and his editor had miscommunicated and it would be fixed. I didn’t believe him but we’d become so accustomed to odd ducks in this intentional community that we forgave a few white lies…

Read the rest at Amy’s blog.

YA blog series: Hunger Games and the pleasure of a good story by STINA KC

I was so excited that Stina KC agreed to write for this series. I’m just getting to know Stina through other blogger friends and I’ve enjoyed bonding with her over great C.S. Lewis quotes, ill-fitting maternity clothes, and our love of YA. Stina KC is a fledgling writer who blogs occasionally at http://stinakc.wordpress.com/. After turning 30, she decided it was finally okay to write for strangers on the internet. She is an angsty Anabaptist/Anglican hybrid who likes to write about faith, motherhood, and being all grown up. Stina lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter.

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“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “…is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.”

“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”

- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Call me lowbrow if you must, but I loved reading The Hunger Games series.

It was the winter of 2012 and I was learning how to be a mother. My newborn daughter was fussy, nursed constantly and rejected both pacifiers and bottles, forcing me to spend many hours trapped on the couch underneath her weight. I reserved books from the library in droves, looking up titles that I found on top ten lists from esteemed literary critics over the past few years. I read and read, and when I couldn’t read anymore, I watched Downton Abbey on my laptop until thirst drove me off the couch and into the kitchen.

I can’t remember where I heard about The Hunger Games trilogy, but somehow I put in my book reservation at the Hennepin County library before the first movie came out. I spent months on the waiting list, slowly inching forward as the two hundred people ahead of me had their turn with the popular books.

The premise for the novels was disturbing – a game that pitted teenagers against each other in a death ring? I am not someone who enjoys horror movies or violence-as-entertainment. I refuse to watch the movie No Country for Old Men or the Breaking Bad TV series with my husband, no matter how many awards they win.

Despite the violence, I knew that The Hunger Games was marketed to teenagers and I had even seen the preteens at church clutching worn copies in the fellowship hall. I figured that, if a 12-year-old can handle these books, I could too.

(And, for me, that’s part of the draw of reading the occasional YA book. Unlike literary fiction for adults, I don’t have to worry about the residual “ick” from over-the-top cynicism or unredemptive characters. I am very good at melancholy on my own, thank you very much, and new motherhood wasn’t the time to add more complex emotions to my hormonal mix.)

My husband and I were learning to take care of our daughter in the egalitarian manner of new parents – we took equal turns endlessly rocking, swaying, and shushing the baby in hopes of nighttime sleep. But when I finally got my battered copy of The Hunger Games, I started volunteering for the late night shifts. I would nurse my daughter to sleep while flipping page after page, obsessed by the story of strong, detached Katniss and her fight for survival. I was inspired by Katniss, in awe of her strength, her resolve, her courage. She was unlike any other heroine I had ever encountered in literature.

Smart analyses of The Hunger Games will likely dissect its dystopian themes, parse away at symbols for Empire, greed, and the current world order. And though I resonated with the subversive actions that Katniss and her beloved District 12 represented, I wasn’t really reading the story on that level. Instead, I was entranced by a perfectly plotted story, a roving suspenseful and original tale that had me constantly wondering: what’s next? What now?

After I plowed through the first book in two days, my husband picked it up and started reading. Soon, we were out volunteering each other for the late night shifts of holding the baby, the same baby who would often wake the moment we laid her down.

Reading The Hunger Games was pure pleasure; it didn’t require lots of inference or work from me as the reader although it is a smart-enough story to merit deeper analysis. I was caught up, swept up, engrossed in an innovative story with a complex plot and compelling characters. And, when you are battling sleep deprivation and a cranky baby, there is nothing like a good story.

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As an adult, is there something lost when we limit ourselves to only “serious” genres? Is there purpose in pleasure – in reading books for fun, in being lost in nostalgia or transported to another world through stories?

Yes to both.

I like reading many kinds of writing and don’t avoid books just because they’re popular or “young” for me. If anything, dipping into YA fiction like The Hunger Games has shown me the skillfulness of writers who can create driving narratives and pace a story impeccably. It has also broadened opportunities for me to connect with younger people by serving as a reference point for what is happening in broader culture.

As for purpose in pleasure, well, really. What a question. Reading for fun is what got us started on books in the first place as kids, from The Little House on the Prairie to Watership Down to The BFG to The Baby-Sitters Club series. I didn’t care if they were classics or well regarded; I loved all of these books for their characters, their stories and the imaginative worlds they opened for me.

Just because I am an adult now doesn’t mean I shouldn’t enjoy getting lost in a book with a great story, even if all the main characters are teenagers. After all, God made us in God’s own image: one of creativity, one of imagination, and one that finds great pleasures in many things.

YA Blog series: On Rites of Passage by C.F. LAPINEL

I have known C.F. Lapinel for many years. We made it through grad school together, huddled in pubs and coffee shops during winter, hunkering down to write from our imaginations about odd children who lived in worlds of make-believe and fantasy. I’ve always appreciated not only his “childlike mind,” his boundless imagination, and his ability to craft a complex and beautiful sentence, but also his kindness and compassion. One day, I hope to see his YA novel of three sisters sitting on a bookstore shelf. 

You can read more of his writing at bluestonescribe.com and follow him on twitter at @BluestoneScribe

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“All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

A distant acquaintance reminded me recently: “Some minds work overtime to make sense of their world…” He was telling me, I think, that I have something of a childlike mind, something I’ve always been glad to see not only in myself but in others. It’s true that some minds do work overtime. And this is just what young-adult fiction helps us do: make sense of our world. Iʼd even argue that the more skeptical the mind, the more relevant young-adult literature becomes, for we need just such tools to learn to navigate the often bewildering world in which we live.

In ancient times, people practiced rites-of-passage more commonly than we do now; at least in the formal, recognizable sense. When the village elders split these young-adults-to-be into groups and readied them, this activity engaged the whole community. Parents participated as well as non-parents, particularly if the non-parents were extended family; and most everybody in a tribal community would have been extended family.

These rites had relevance to everyone, young and old alike.

For the adults, Iʼd hazard a guess that something psychologically complex occurred. To periodically prepare (and observe) a new generation facing the same rite they too experienced in youth would be an opportunity to revisit old emotions and compare them with present thoughts and emotions. Memories of the focused fear and excitement upon entering the mysterious rite would have become diffused with age, distilled into a more settled, perhaps jaded, understanding of what life in the village truly required, in relationship with the raw, majestic power of the natural world. I would assume that the inevitable evaluation, or re-evaluation, of the village mythology would result in reaffirming or else challenging faith in the community.*

There is no great leap of logic required to see young-adult literature as the modern descendant of these ancient rites. The painful and humiliating experience of those rites endured by our once youthful ancestors is now communicated to youth in literature, tasking them to imagine themselves as archetypal protagonists. When we were young, what were our brains doing as we consumed books like The Hobbit,The Wind in the Willows,Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and The Outsiders? What do our brains do now as we revisit them?

Aren’t we just as much Huckleberry Finn, each of us, as a Harry Potter, or a Nancy Drew as we ever were? And weren’t these characters once known as Anansi, Odysseus, or Ishtar?

Every time we reread these stories we learn something altogether new. These stories recount our ancestral fear and ignorance; remind us of our thirst for discovery, identity, and power; and describe the responsibility we must take for what Voltaire called “our little garden”.

If however we don’t know the old stories or even the newest ones, like Percy Jackson & the Olympians, we have a responsibility to learn them. By actively participating in and encouraging young-adult literature, we are behaving like responsible gatekeepers for our community, encountering ourselves and others in relationships. We are choosing to reaffirm faith in the community or challenge it, based on whether we wish our children to share the experience we had or not.

In so doing, we are testing the cycle of identity, the cycle of the self, of who we have become, both as individuals and as a wider community. Do we break the cycle, as it exists, or do we recommit and affirm the values of the community? Are we truly behaving in a responsible way? Are we facing our fears, surmounting our obstacles, embracing life? Or has something gone wrong?

Hal Borland, a well-known American columnist also wrote the young-adult novel When the Legends Die about a native-American hero named Tom who rediscovers his roots. I love Hal Borland. His writing is spare and ethereal. He was perhaps best known for his nature column in the The New York Times, which he maintained until his death in 1978. The dominant theme of When the Legends Die is self-discovery in the midst of social decay. Tom Blackbull is a young Ute tribesman in early 20th century America. Told with with grim grace, Borland’s tale follows Tom from early childhood in the wilderness, where he loses his parents George and Bessie, into adulthood as he struggles to come to terms with modern life, a life that does not offer him a welcoming place. Tom’s conflicted attitude toward his ethnic heritage reflects in both his self-esteem and the choices he’ll make throughout. Should he accept the fractured, defeated identity that awaits him on the reservation? Or should he embrace the life his mother taught him in the wilderness?

Once more he slept, and dreamed, and he was alone, walking over the earth in the night. He came to a mountain and he said, “I have forgotten who I am.” There was no answer. He said, “I was the boy who went with Blue Elk and did what he said I must do.” Again there was no answer. “I went with Red Dillon and did what he said I must do.” Still there was no answer. “I killed as they taught me to kill!” he cried.
And at last the mountain’s voice asked, “Why?”
-Hal Borland, When the Legends Die

There is an elegiac tone to the work. This stems from the omnipresent feeling that the cultural identity that Tom must choose is ultimately futile. His is a culture in decline, rapidly decaying and taking it’s few remaining people with it. Whoever he becomes cannot be passed. Who he is will end with him. In Tom’s world, when legends die so too finally dies all of his ancestors, their souls lost to oblivion. And through Tom’s inimitable struggle, some alienated young-adults and a few of us old scrappers may also feel that oblivion rising over us. How did we handle the crisis? Will we be more or less successful next time? In a classic book like this one, you might ‘find’ yourself.


*For more on these rites and descriptions of different types practiced around the world in various ages, including our own, please read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Sir James Frazier’s classic The Golden Bough. These are two excellent and illuminating works in this regard.


YA blog series: Amy Peterson’s take on Eleanor & Park

I’m honored to share Amy Peterson’s contribution to this series about a YA book that she isn’t embarrassed to read. I’m honored because, among other things, Amy is incredibly well-read, a killer writer, a great editor, and a gracious friend. Her writing is distinguished by clarity of thought, beautiful metaphors, and sharp wit. 

Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors Guild at Taylor University. Follow her on twitter and read more at her blog.

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My favorite scene in Eleanor & Park takes place in the title characters’ English class.  Eleanor is explaining to her teacher why she doesn’t care that Romeo and Juliet die.

“I just don’t think it’s a tragedy.”

“It’s the tragedy,” Mr. Stessman said.

She rolled her eyes.  She was wearing two or three necklaces, old fake pearls, like Park’s grandmother wore to church, and she twisted them while she talked. “But he’s so obviously making fun of them,” she said.

“Who is?”

“Shakespeare.”

“Do tell…”

She rolled her eyes again.  She knew Mr. Stessman’s game by now.  “Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want. And now, they think they want each other.”

“They’re in love,” Mr. Stessman said, clutching his heart.

“They don’t even know each other,” she said.

“It was love at first sight.”

“It was ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight.  If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline… It’s Shakespeare making fun of love,” she said.

“Then why has it survived?”

“I don’t know, because Shakespeare is a really good writer?”

“No!” Mr. Stessman said. “Someone else, someone with a heart. Mr. Sheridan, what beats in your chest? Tell us, why has Romeo and Juliet survived four hundred years?”

Park hated talking in class.  Eleanor frowned at him, then looked away.  He felt himself blush.

“Because…” he said quietly, looking at his desk, “because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love?”

 

This scene delighted me because I felt the author, Rainbow Rowell, winking at me in it.  See, she said, I know I’m writing a book about teenagers in love.  I know there is something eye-rolling about teenagers in love. But there is also something essential about what it means to be human in it. This is the kind of story that helps us understand what it means to be human.

I was reading the book over the summer, pleasure reading in a well-balanced diet of summer pleasure reading which included Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer; Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo; The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon; More Than Conquerors by Megan Hustad; and Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen. In other words, along with YA, I was reading literary novels, middle grade fiction, literary nonfiction, and memoir.

Around the same time, Slate published Ruth Graham’s article “Against YA” (yeah, I’m not going to link to this nonsense).  I rolled my eyes as I read it – and, according to the article, if something makes you roll your eyes and say “Oh brother,” it’s a sign that it’s not worth reading.  So I rolled my eyes and thought, “Ok, so the movie version of TFiOS is coming out, and Graham was trying to think of an article to pitch about that, and she thought, “I know what would get a lot of page-views: criticizing YA!” I rolled my eyes, but apparently it lit a fire.

The article’s argument is kind of all over the place, first claiming that “adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children,” then following that with caveats and disclaimers and whining. It’s not really worth going into, except for this – Graham mentions Romeo and Juliet, too.  It’s ok for teenagers to be the subjects of our stories, she says, like they are in R&J — the problem with YA is two fold: 1) “it presents the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way” and 2) “these books indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.  YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.”

Taking these two criteria into consideration, it’s Eleanor & Park that emerges as the more serious work of literature, not Romeo & Juliet.  E&P has just as self-aware of a perspective on what it means to be a teenager in love as R&J does, but  — spoiler — a more complex ending!  It’s R&J that has a neatly wrapped-up conclusion, the heroes dead.  E&P’s ending is ambiguous – the very thing Ruth Graham praises about adult literature!

Ruth Graham concludes “Against YA” talking about all that she learned “about love, relationships, sex, trauma, happiness, and all the rest—you know, life”  from the literary fiction she’s read.  But of all the books I read this summer, Eleanor and Park is probably the one that has made me think most about my life: about classism, racism, the way that art builds bridges between disparate people, how strong teenagers have to be to survive sometimes, the way a community should care for children when parents can’t or won’t, and the kinds of relationships that bring healing even when they don’t last forever.

Six months later, I’m still thinking about this book, remembering its smart writing (when Eleanor describes a tall, popular bully as a probably a “descendant of the Nephilim,” I snorted my coffee and texted my T.A. about it) and evocative descriptions. I’m still talking with my adult friends about it, talking about how, reading it, I realized that the girl I idolized for her free-spirited style in highschool was probably, like Eleanor, actually just poor — “That was me in highschool, too,” my friend says, “wearing eccentric vintage clothes because I got them free, not because I was a free spirit.”

Being embarrassed of reading Twilight is one thing.  But if you’re don’t pick up Eleanor and Park because you’re too embarrassed to be reading YA, then you’re missing a story as classic and moving as – and perhaps even more complex, gritty and realistic than – Romeo and Juliet. You’re missing out.

YA fiction blog series: narrative, imagination, and Many Waters

Today, I’m starting a new blog series about YA fiction. I am asking my guest bloggers to write about one book that serves as an example of YA literature that they aren’t embarrassed to read. What makes a good YA book more than just “maudlin teen drama.” What draws us to YA as adults and what can the YA genre offer as a narrative structure that other genres cannot? I will kick off the series today with a rumination on narrative, imagination, and Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters.

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Story is essential to the human experience. We cannot help but write the stories of our lives, and we do this to make sense out of who we are, where we came from, and who we will be.

But story has become less important in our culture. Postmodern art is often about the lack of grand narrative and lack of universal truth. And while this isn’t all bad, sometimes after I read certain types of adult fiction, I am left with a sense of the unending hopelessness of our cultural belief in fractured narratives.

The YA fiction I enjoy reading gives me a different sense: a sense of the redemption, hopefulness, and meaning in the stories our imaginations can create. YA fiction is often the last connection we have to fairy tales. Where some adult fiction can leave fantasy and fairy tale behind in favor of more “serious topics,” YA still allows itself the indulgence. For me, this indulgence in fantasy, imagination, and stories that are akin to fairy tales of old, is actually in line with more “serious topics” than many adult novels.

Though our culture shies away from platitudes and we grow into understandings that bring needed nuance, we still have a deep need for the moral order that existed for us when we were children. Fairy tales and fantasy stories are important for our children and for us, not to give a place to escape, but to give meaning to the reality we are living, to help express the chaos and confusion of life in ordered narrative forms, forms where there is always hope for the good, even when it doesn’t always seem to be the case in real life.

Around the time that C.S. Lewis was becoming more convinced of the truth of God, Lewis and Tolkien were discussing myths. At the time, Lewis believed that myths were beautiful and powerful, but ultimately, “lies and therefore worthless.”[i] Tolkien protested. Far from being lies, myths and fairy tales express truth in ways that would otherwise be extremely difficult to articulate. Because we were all created by God, our myths and fairy tales “reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”[ii] Those ancient debunked myths and legends are actually “God expressing Himself through the mind of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of his His eternal truth.”[iii] This relationship with Tolkien and their conversations about myth and fairy tales led C.S. Lewis to belief not only in God but in Christ Himself.

Madeleine L’Engle, who was deeply influenced by the stories and philosophies of Tolkien, Lewis, and George MacDonald, wrote so many good books. But one of my favorites of L’Engle’s YA fiction is Many Waters.

Although this book is one in the Time Quartet/Quintet that begins with her more popular A Wrinkle in Time, it is also a departure from the other members of the series: it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the Flood.

I was drawn into Many Waters when I encountered Yalith, the daughter of Noah. Though Yalith is still a child in many ways, she is not naïve. She has clear eyes as she watches her family and friends sinking deeper into the darkness that the sons of God, the Nephilim, have brought into creation. She refuses the advances of that darkness and in return, she’s given a place with the angels.

L’Engle’s retelling of the Biblical story is full of magical creatures and the presence of angels, something that’s heretical to many Christians. As indicated by the reaction of some to the recent movie, Noah, Christians are often afraid and angry when their beloved stories are retold. But I think that’s one beautiful part of Biblical stories. The narratives are so rich that they invite (as with midrash) interpretation and re-imagining.

For me, Many Waters encompasses many of the things I love about YA: it has a strong and imaginative narrative and it adds nuance and magic to a story so it can be approached with new eyes. L’Engle’s novel opened up my eyes to the very imaginative possibilities inherent in Biblical stories that I’ve read so often. In Many Waters, L’Engle was taking on what Tolkien would call the “one true myth:” the stories of God’s work in our world.

Please return next week when another writer will take on YA fiction. 

[i] Joseph Pearce. Tolkien: Man and Myth (p 57) [ii] Pearce, p 58. [iii] Pearce, p 59.

Guest blogging

I’ve spent more time on other blogs than my own lately. But I’ve been enjoying writing for other folks about fairy tales, children’s literature, and Madeleine L’Engle.

And another post on Art House America about the importance of fairy tales; instead of viewing them as escaping reality, they actually point to a deeper reality that is beyond our limited understanding: http://www.arthouseamerica.com/blog/eliminating-the-darkness.html

Check out my post at DL Mayfield’s blog on the book that changed my life (Madeleine L’Engle, hint hint).
While you’re there, read some other great posts about life-changing books.

Round-Robin Blogging

I have always hated chain-mail (not the kind knights wore during the Crusades though I imagine it was quite heavy and itchy). The kind I’m talking about is what used to be passed around in the back of Jr. high classrooms on lined paper (yes, I’m old), and then got its foothold during the rise of the email (yes, I said “the” email…that’s how it felt when it first started). Now it’s kind of a joke or can be debunked by snopes.com but you still sort of like to read it to know what exactly will make you die and/or lose everything in epic Job-style if you don’t pass it on.

This is not that kind of chain-mail.

My friend and fellow writer, Amy Peterson, recently tagged me in this uplifting “round robin blogging tour” prompt. This is fun. And you won’t die from it. At least not directly.

Below, I will answer a few questions about my writing process. It makes me sound like a fancy writer. So I like it.

But before you read my answers, check out Amy Peterson’s blog about her writing process. She is writing a book. I’ve already read some of it and it’s going to be awesome.

1. What are you working on?

Well, my body is currently in the process of creating a human person. What more do you expect from me?

Seriously, though, the muse flits about where it wills-between poetry, YA fiction, music, and essays. Which is probably why it’s been a while since I’ve written anything longer than 2,000 words. Recently, though, I’ve forced the muse into a computer screen hoping it will inspire me as I write a non-fiction memoir  about spiritual lessons I’ve learned since moving to an intentional community on a farm five years ago.

I’ve started with lessons about death.

Nowhere to go from here but up.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

Truthfully, I’m not sure yet what genre I’m writing in: spiritual memoir, Christian non-fiction, fantasy with undertones of reality…

I do think that what makes my current project unique is that it’s set on a farm and an intentional community. There are lots of farming memoirs, a few even in the Christian genre. But I’ve seen very few authored by women and even fewer that include the crazy element of intentional community.

I’m hoping the craziness works in my favor. Or else putting up with it for five years will have been worth nothing.

Kidding. I love my neighbors.

3. Why do you write what you do?

In general, I write to articulate meaning. Through writing, I am able to better understand my own narrative and the stories of others.

I write poetry because it’s like prayer for me. There’s a special inner focus, a meditative sort of streamlining that happens when I start to write a poem. Hearing the sounds of the earth, seeing the differing shades of green in spring, watching my children learn the world…that is a focus that helps me remember our Creator and be thankful for all the beauty and messiness of the world.

I write music mostly for worship with our small band of brothers and sisters in community. I am on the music team and I’ve been able to teach some of my songs to the congregation. This, for me, is the most selfless form of my writing because it is for the church and all the pleasure I get from it comes when we sing the songs together in worship.

That’s not totally true, though, because I would like to be a famous folks singer ala Joni Mitchell. But only if I don’t have to perform onstage.

Fiction for young adults is my first writing love. My novel Rising Star is set in a small Texas town where the children can fly. To tell you anymore would be spoiling…unless you are an agent or publisher. In that case, you can email me at christiananoelwrites@gmail.com and I’ll tell you all about it. I’ve written 2.5 novels in the genre (I will finish the .5 novel when the first one in the series is published and they beg me for the sequel…still waiting).

As for the current non-fiction memoir, I’ve been writing about life in our community ever since we moved but I didn’t get the sharp focus for this book until I began to face my own spiritual understandings of death.

4. How does your writing process work?

This is different with everything I write. When I was writing my first YA novel, I was single and living overseas. My life is very different now. To actually get pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I have to steal moments when the kids are outside, during nap time, or hire a babysitter to get writing done.

My process for poetry usually begins with an image or metaphor. The image can appear when I’m at the creek with my kids, lying on the grass under the maple tree, or differentiating bird calls. This word-picture is the beginning of a poem and I write it whenever I have paper nearby. Then I edit and edit and edit.

Writing music is similar except sometimes it begins with a short set of notes hummed together that become a song with paper, a guitar, and the right key.

As for writing longer pieces, it’s mostly about reading the smart things other people say, then sitting my backside down in front of the computer and writing until something relatively good comes out.

The current manifestation of this non-fiction book I’m writing is due in large part to the encouragement of the ladies of my amazing writer’s group and the inspiration they gave me recently at a writer’s conference. Having writerly friends has been essential for the days when you feel like lying back on the couch and watching hulu instead. Just reading their words and hearing them speak not only about the writing process but about their lives encourages me to keep at it.

Also, my husband and family believe in me. So that helps.

And here goes the final part: the chain. I’m tagging two writer friends so they can also answer these questions and populate the world with more art and beautiful words.

D. L. Mayfield is an inspiring writer and friend whom I am so glad to know. She and her family recently joined a Christian order amongst the poor in the Midwest. Check out her blog where she writes about refugees, theology, gentrification, and Oprah. She has also written for McSweeneys, Geez, Curator, and Conspire! and most recently, Christianity Today.

Kelley Nikondeha is a writer, reader, and deep thinker. I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting her and talking about recipes, Walter Brueggemann, chickens, and the song “How I love a rainy night.” With her unique perspective as a woman who has been adopted and has herself adopted two children, Kelley is writing an upcoming book about the theology of adoption. She is a SheLoves and Deeper Story contributor.