Finding Friends in Fiction

Written by Grant Goodman, 5/14/2015

For many of us, writing comes from frustration and disappointment. We don’t like what our world has to offer. We are haunted by past decisions. We look back at our ever-growing pile of mistakes and wish that somehow we could make them into something better.

I think that many YA authors still remember those scars and, with the perspective that comes with adulthood, they recognize how universal those growing pains are. I really, really wish that more people were like our YA authors. I think that far too often adults overlook the importance of empathy. Yes, it is easy to look at the problems that teens face and outright dismiss them. But that totally misses the point.

This is why good YA lit is absolutely vital. We need stories out there that offer a window into teenage life that teens themselves can recognize as authentic. One of the biggest crises of my youth was thinking that no one else understood what I was going through, not even my friends.

I found friends in fiction, Holden Caulfield, Ender Wiggins and Harry Potter standing at the lead of the pack.

I didn’t have a rich YA landscape, though. I had already jumped into Dragonlance and Stephen King which mostly featured adults.

I’m curious: who are the YA characters you have found yourself identifying with?

VIDEO: John Green Discusses 25 Things You Might Not Know About Harry Potter

In this awesome video from Mental Floss, John Green will fill you in on 25 things you might not know about Harry Potter.

Report: YA in the UK, France

Written by Grant Goodman, 3/2/2015

Today I was wondering what the YA sales charts for Amazon look like in other countries.

I found the best seller page for teen Science Fiction and Fantasy on the Amazon US site, the Amazon UK site and the French site, too.

Let’s check out how they differ.

First, the US site:

028 image 1 US

It appears that people are really interested in finding out more about this mermaid’s sister. It’s a title I’m not familiar with…and, actually, I don’t recognize two, three, or four. Looks like I have some catching up to do.

My guess is that with the Insurgent movie only three weeks away, those books will all find their way into the top five.

Let’s look at what’s happening in the UK:

028 image 2 UK

It seems that in his native land, Harry Potter is still the king of YA literature. And it seems that they also have taken a shine to the mermaid and her sister. The Hunger Games is selling well and James Dashner has his Maze Runner finale in the top six. The UK site, however, also mixes in children’s books, which is why book number five seems very much out of place.

Finally, to France:

028 image 3 france

Suzanne Collins is dominating the charts, no question about it. In fifth place is Alain Grousset, a French sci-fi author with a novel about a boy who lives on a tower that is one hundred floors high. In sixth is Christian Grenier, whose book is about two warring clans: one that believes in screens while the other believes in reading and writing. (I hope both of these will make their way to American shelves!)

YA & MLK: Civil Rights and Acceptance

YA & MLK: Civil Rights and Acceptance

Written by Grant Goodman, 1/19/2015

Today’s holiday is a moment that is marked by hatred and tragedy, triumph and persistence. The fact that human beings had to fight for their right to be considered equal to other humans is something that never ceases to sicken me. The fact that it still continues to this day is downright depressing.

There is hope, though. The idea of fighting for civil rights finds can be found all over the YA canon. The more we read about this topic, even in fiction, the less likely we are to continue the cycle in real life.

I’ll start with the Harry Potter series. In Harry’s world, there is a hierarchy of blood purity that some still follow. To these wizard, pure humans are, of course, the lowest form, but they still reserve their hatred for wizards who are born to fully-muggle parents. The slur word for them, “mudblood,” is one that cuts deep. While there is no de-facto protest movement in the Harry Potter novels, there is still the matter of these wizards standing up for themselves.

Since Mockingjay Part I is still in theaters, let’s go ahead and examine the Hunger Games trilogy. The citizens of Panem, those who reside in the poorer districts, are all enslaved. They are fenced in, cut off, under curfew, and subjected to cruel and unusual punishment by those in charge. Regardless of skin color, the residents of the lower districts are marginalized, demonized, and broken by the existing social structure of their world.

There are the people of Ishval in Hiromu Arakawa’s manga, Fullmetal Alchemist, whose homeland is taken over by a mighty military. The Smokies in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies are yet another persecuted group. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series has its skaa. And while few people have read it, I have always loved Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Eye of the Heron for its amazing story of a space colony caught up in its own civil rights movement.

The worlds of YA mirror our own in many ways. There are tales of oppression, messages about “the other” and the ways in which they are ostracized, stories of interplanetary love. They all come to the same conclusion: hatred for your fellow man (or alien or cyborg or ghost or robot) is one of the universe’s darkest traits. We will always explore these conflicts, because our own sad history is rife with them. One of the best ways to deal with it—to learn to move forward—is to familiarize yourself with the struggles of others so you can empathize with them. That way, when it’s time to figure out what is right, you’ll know where you need to stand.

Destiny and Prophecy in YA

Destiny and Prophecy in YA

Written by Grant Goodman, 12/2/2014

A recurring feature element in fantasy literature is the prophecy. You know how it goes. Some soothsayer foretold a terrible fate or a cataclysmic event and then the heroes set out to prove that prophecy isn’t guaranteed.

Rick Riodan’s series all rely on prophecy to fuel them. In Riordan’s defense, the Greeks and Romans actually relied on prophecies. They had their oracles who communicated mysterious messages from the gods. They also had augurs to read the signs of nature. (This is evident in Homer’s Odyssey, when a pair of eagles swoop out of the sky to attack a crowd of people. A resident interprets their actions as a sign of Zeus’ displeasure.)

One of my favorites, Cirque du Freak, involves several characters who can see through time and a series of prophecies about the fall of the vampires. The main character, Darren, is always pursued by the nagging possibility of “what if” and the consequences of failure.

Even Harry Potter contains a prophecy that surfaces (in full) in The Order of the Phoenix. It is the driving force behind Voldemort’s obsessive hunting of Harry.

So why does this happen so often? What appeal does this plot trope have to a YA audience?

I think it has something to do with offering young readers an idea that is slowly dying in their realities: that there is a set, stable, predictable future. Or, the opposite: that despite the path you’re set on, you can fight to change it.

Just think: you’re 14 years old. The world is brimming with possibility, but you’re also realizing its horrible, horrible flaws. All of the values you were spoon-fed as a child are beginning to unravel: there is not always justice, the greedy often triumph over the selfless, war is never-ending, there was never a Santa Claus or a tooth fairy or anything magic.

In the midst of this turmoil, you can turn to a story in which the future is not a roiling mass of chaos. There are rails. There is an order to things. If you follow steps A through C, you can succeed and save the world.

The opposite is just as powerful: you may feel like you have been set upon the rails. But there are stories out there that constantly hammer upon the idea that the future is malleable. You can change course if you fight. You aren’t doomed to the fate of your parents.

The prophecy trope is going to be around for a long time. It’s a classic story element and its appeal has lasted thousands of years.

What are some of the other prophecy novels you’ve read? List ‘em in the comments section and let’s discuss!

The Hero’s Journey (Monomyth) in YA

The Hero’s Journey (Monomyth) in YA

Written by Grant Goodman, 11/4/2014

The Hero’s Journey (also called Monomyth) is a story pattern that appears again and again in literature and film. You can find it featured prominently in The Odyssey, The Princess Bride, and The Lion King, just to name a few.

While there are many “official” steps, here are the basics of what you need to know:

  1. The hero is forced to leave home to seek out adventure/a new life.
  2. Our hero meets a mentor or receives supernatural aid.
  3. There are several small challenges the hero must conquer.
  4. The hero experiences death and rebirth (not always literally, though).
  5. The power/skills necessary to succeed are finally mastered by the hero.
  6. The key obstacle is overcome or defeated, leaving the hero free to live without fear.

Here’s an example for you, which is a spoilerific romp through a certain wizard story you may have heard of, called HARRY POTTER.

Harry is whisked away to Hogwarts, where he must learn to cope with being a celebrity and the pressures of wizard school. He finds himself mentored by a series of wizards: Hagrid, Dumbledore, Sirius. In book after book, Harry must confront the growing threat of an ever more powerful Lord Voldemort, until eventually he faces the fully revived wizard. Harry experiences death at the hands of Voldemort, though he comes back to life. Harry, having overcome death and becoming the master of the Elder Wand, is able to end Voldemort’s uprising. He has removed the world’s greatest threat and is therefore able to go on living his life.

There are several other prominent titles that follow this model. Suzanne Collins’ GREGOR THE OVERLANDER, Ursula Le Guin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, and Christopher Paolini’s INHERITANCE CYCLE are a few more that come to mind.

The next time you’re making your way through a YA adventure novel, there’s a good chance you’re following one of the most widely used story patterns in human history.