Friday, November 30, 2007

Keeping it Real, Man -- Eve

I’m at the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop for three days of writing, critiquing, writing some more, then revising and re-writing some more. I had planned to work on my second book, a YA love story weaved into an ethics debate on the ramifications of genetic testing. Sounds strange, I know, but somehow it works.

Anyway, my plans were thrown for a little loop after a recent chat with my agent about my first book…a middle grade novel about tough inner city kids at a summer camp, which is really a subtle allegory for the evolution of contemporary street gangs. The question we came up with is:

How real can you get in terms of edgy themes and violence in a middle grade book?

Granted, this is definitely an upper middle grade read aimed at the 11-13 crowd. However, even with a somewhat “toned down” version of what gang life can become, the story still contains some elements that pre-teens may find too disturbing. Here’s my thing: If I tone it down too much, it may lose its authenticity. If an 11-year-old kid from the hood picks it up, he may expect to find some of himself in the characters, which is my goal. Chances are, this kid has witnessed violent acts on the streets or lost loved ones to them. Hate to say it, but if an upper middle class kid picks up the same book, he may be horrified by what some of the characters go through. Of course maybe he’s seen plenty of violence and inhumane acts in movies (Hello… Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Saw) or in video games, but maybe he’s never seen it in real life. (Which is not to say that rich kids don’t experience violence and only poor kids do, but for the sake of argument, I’m simplifying, of course.)

So, my problem is this: Whether the readers are rich kids, poor kids, or Sudanese kids, do we owe it to them to present life as it really is, or do we protect them from it? If I’m making a statement about violence, which I suppose I am with this book, which is that generally it’s senseless, but it’s pervasive nonetheless as long as humans inhabit the planet, and occasionally it’s necessary for protective purposes, so we as individuals must decide if and how we’ll add to the cycle, then we have to accept the consequences (i.e. retaliation, incarceration, injury, death, etc...), then I should keep it real, right?

Originally, I insisted that this was a middle grade book because the characters are 13 and many kids are initiated into gangs at age 11. But I’m guessing that most kids who read the book will never have been initiated into a real gang, and couldn’t possibly relate to some of the issues. Then again, I’m not writing about those kids, I’m writing about those who have seen uniquely horrific things at young ages.

Rather than omitting some themes and allusions to violent acts, I could also raise the ages of the characters and consider it YA. But then it defeats the original purpose, which was to create an edgy and real MG book. But how real is too real?

- Eve

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you should stick to your original vision.

I made some changes in a novel I have been working on in an effort to tone things down, and now I feel it has lost its voice a bit. I’m going to change everything back the way it was and say screw it. What it is – is what it is.

I don’t think your material sounds too strong for this age group. I’ve worked at inner city elementary schools and in the burbs, there are children even younger than eleven getting involved with gangs. The one common element I’ve discovered is that they have older brothers running the streets. The numbers are staggering.

Kimberly Lynn

Anonymous said...

First, have you read Jess Mowry's work? I'm thinking in particular of "Way Past Cool". He went quiet for a while but picked up a new publisher and several new projects came out this year but I haven't read any. I think he does an excellent job of real.

Second, I think what you're really asking is how wide an audience do you shoot for in your first novel?

And the answer can only be answered by you. Lots of possibilities.

Anonymous said...

This is why good allegories are so difficult to find. With a recent popular allegorical book, there was a wide range of viewpoints about its successfulness. Some people loved it. Some people thought it downplayed the seriousness by only alluding to violence that really did occur. Allusion can be tricky!

With allegories, context is very important. Violence can seem even more violent if the allegory is unclear.

I also agree that Jess Mowry is a great example of "real". But his books are definitely classified YA.

Your book sounds like it could be a great allegory if done well and written for the right market. Keep working on it!

Stephanie

Anonymous said...

Hey Robin,

I'm with the other anonymous folk on this one. Write the book that's in you. My 11 & 12 year old Los Osos & Morro Bay kids (very few of whom have anything that looks like gang experience) are right now loving SE Hinton's The Outsiders. They're right there with the Greasers as beatings, drinking, drugs & violence occur. They completely get it, & once we've finished the book, a hefty percentage of them will hit the libraries & bookstores for more of SE Hinton.

On the other hand, if I had an editor - who should know her market far better than I do - wiling to work with me to make my book marketable, I'd be there for her, baby.

Enjoy making the Big Decision.
Charlie

Becky Levine said...

Eve,

Have you had any eleven-year-olds, ones who come from the more sheltered world you're talking about, read it? My son is eleven, and I think (hope!) he's relatively sheltered from the real violence in the world, but he does see plenty of it on TV and movies and video games.

My gut is that its not the level of violence in the book that is the issue, but your 11-year-old character's reaction to it. That's the person your readers, whoever they are, will be looking to identify with. So if that character can somehow bridge the device between the shock of this world and recognition of its reality...?

Knowing my son, I think I can tell you the one thing that might make it harder for him to read a book like yours sounds. My guess would be that if the main character felt TOO helpless, or if it felt like the world he was stepping into was going to take things WAY too far out of his control, that's when my son would start to get tense. His heroes can get into major trouble, they can face all sort of horrible things, IF there is some underlying sense that the hero will be able to impact/control/change what is happening.

Hope this helps!

It sounds like a wonderful book. It sounds like a book I would want my son to read, even if I might make sure to read it myself in case he had questions or wanted to talk about it.

Becky

krw3b said...

After Scrotum-Gate, I think the edge has been dulled.

Sadly.

Laini Taylor said...

Hi Eve! I certainly don't know how the important folks like librarians/teachers/publishers etc would respond to this, but my feeling is that you have to do what you're doing. It IS an important subject for your target age group, no matter what their background. If "wealthy kids" don't come to the material with a pre-set understanding of the world in your book and its issues, that's part of the purpose of the book: to give them a new perspective.

You have to be true to the world you're writing about, and middle-graders read way violent stuff in fantasy all the time and see it in movies and video games. Why is that okay and not something authentic, that says something about the world, our country, what real kids are going through? I think the way you handle and write about the violence is what makes the difference. It doesn't have to be extremely horrific to have a big emotional impact. Kids today -- though I don't know very many, I'm kind of guessing -- are pretty savvy.

Hopefully you'll find editors who agree! I'm wishing you all the best with this book. I really want to see it published!!!

Don Tate II said...

I don't have much experience writing mg novels, but I think you'd approach it(gang violence) in much the same way you'd approach writing about sex. Honestly, but not gratuitously. You can mention, say, gang-rape (as was in MANCHILD IN A PROMISED LAND (I think), without getting into all the gory details.

I'm curious how you'd go about researching something like this. I mean, I don't know the first thing about Mexican gang life, and I don't think they'd let me close enough to them to research the subject either (and I'd be too chicken to). And I'd have to do that research in order to present an authentic novel.

Maybe...you dated some Crips in your early days. :)

Dee said...

As someone who's taught 11-13 year olds for five years, I can tell you one thing: reluctant readers have an amazing BS detector.
If they think even for a minute that the author or writing is unauthentic or watered down, out the window it goes along with their interest in reading.
Many times I would direct students who I knew had harsh life experiences toward books by Walter Dean Myers and such authors. I would always wish there were more of those kinds of books.
These kids (usually boys) need to be able to see themselves reflected somewhere. They didn't connect with British boy wizards or care about solving goofy mysteries. What they wanted was to see how someone in their situation survived.
(As someone with a relative who's a gang specialist in law enforcement, you'd be amazed at how young many of these kids are when they're intiated. It can start as young as six (being used as runners), and frequently begins with a family member being a member of the gang. So your unintended audience might be broader than you think.)

Anonymous said...

Evie, though you heard my two cents the other day, I was thinking about a few things since we talked. First, one of your original goals in writing this novel was to interest reluctant-reader boys. Second, I don't think toning it down will pass any kid's b.s. detector, regardless of where he or she is from or what his or her background is. Finally, given all the comments you've received, it appears most people involved with writing for children support "keeping it real." Some food for thought.
Lamy

Becky Levine said...

Another thought--does anyone know how "sheltered" kids react to the Joey Pigza books? As much as I loved them, I had trouble not crying while I read those, but I figure that's just the mom thing! But can gang stuff be harsher than the crush of Joey having to go it so alone?

Lee Wind said...

Hi Eve,
great question and good debate... I really think Becky has a super point about the perception and reaction of your main character to the violence. I do think "keeping it real" is a great goal, but I also think that with Middle Grade (and with YA) that we have a responsibility to let there be a sense of HOPE for the reader - that life can work out, that things can improve, that even if they're going through horrible things (like the characters in the book) there's Hope for getting through it. I'm not saying every MG or YA has to have a happy sappy ending, but I DO think the ones that resonated with me, and the ones I'm drawn to and want to write, are the ones with that gift of hope...
Hope that helps,
Lee

Disco Mermaids said...

Wow, thanks so much for the input, guys! I've just returned from Big Sur, the land of no internet or phone service...glad to be back.

The "problem" with this book (if you can call it that) is that it straddles the line between MG and YA. However, that was my original plan, as I believe that we need more book in this "fuzzy" area. The MC is 13, and sort of straddles that line between childhood and young adulthood.

I've decided to "keep it real" in every way...toning it down would defeat the purpose. Although, it is not really violent, but rather a little disturbing when relating what the characters have seen and endured in their short lives.

And, Don...yes, I was a Crip in a former life. You'd never know it, would you? But, seriously, I've had the privilege of working as a teacher, tutor and counselor to gang kids, so they always give me good material. Plus, I'm obsessed with gang documentaries and the history of the Bloods and Crips, so I've spent years reading and talking to the "right" people. And my sister's a public defender for kids tried as adults...so I got that going for me.

Thanks, y'all!

Eve

Becky Levine said...

Eve, go for it. I think you're right--there's a gap between the two ages and we do need books that bridge it.

Can't wait to read it!

Rita said...

Fantastic post, fantastic comments!! Thanks!!

I'm also always interested in how one bridges MG and YA concerns, though not so much with the vioence. I look forward to reading your book.

:D
r

Jess said...

Jess Mowry didn't go quiet... he was always writing and still is. lol I found that "keeping it real" was a road to rejection, but finally found an indie publisher with the guts to give my stuff a try. Most of my "new" work is actually older stuff that mianstream wouldn't publish. I try to be true to the kids I write for... that's all I can do. If you find the right answer to how to keep it real and still get published, please let me know. All the best to all of you on your projects!

Jess Mowry