Back when I was first trying to become an author—a long time ago, just after I graduated from Emerson—I wrote a book that was in the vein of the Judy Blume novels I’d loved as a kid. It was called Nick Terpiccio, Eighth-Grade Hero and was light and funny. I duly combed my reference books of agents (I said it was a long time ago!) and mailed off queries (yes, in the post). I had some nice responses, all saying I had talent but this wasn’t for them. But the response that stuck with me was one from an agent who said my book simply didn’t have enough grit.
It tackled no issues, really. The main character wasn’t battling drugs or dealing with abuse. Nick’s biggest problems were that his two best friends were fighting, and that he liked a girl. Bubble gummy stuff, I suppose, but the novel was meant to be fun and upbeat.
The agent’s letter went on to more or less say “kids these days” (and this was the early aughts) wanted “edge.” I remember that word distinctly. And I guess that must be true because it seems dark books are popular. Angst is in. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. (This article suggests it might be.) It’s just not what I write, really.
The article linked above talks about YA books featuring black protagonists being shot, kids being abused, etc. The stance is that not all kids deal with this stuff, and even if they do, why would they want to read about it? Shouldn’t reading be an escape? Well, yes and no. I think we read for a lot of reasons, often subconsciously. Escapism is one reason, but we also read to know we’re not alone. When we talk about “representation” in literature, we mean seeing people like us. Straight white people don’t have a problem with that since most books have straight white characters. But people of color, people with different sexualities, people with complicated blended families or whatever—they have trouble finding themselves in popular books. That’s starting to change, but when you consider the vast number of books, it’s just a tiny drop in the bucket.
Still, it might be a valid question to ask, “But even when diversifying characters, do they always have to be in gangs or doing drugs or sexually abused?” The article above asks more broadly (and I’m paraphrasing): Why not depict a happier, more hospitable world? Well, readers aren’t stupid. They’ll find a happy-go-lucky world to be fake and therefore won’t invest as fully*. They want complicated worlds and complicated characters. They want the book to reflect what they know because that’s how they’ll connect and identify. Sure, the world may not be as bad as some of the dystopian novels out there, but it’s easy to imagine things going in that direction. And it’s just as easy for us to feel relieved that, hey, at least we’re not living in that world.
*Unless it’s Stepford. Then we’ll know what kind of book we’re in.
I fear I’m starting to ramble. Let me condense my thoughts here. 1. I once wrote an MG book that was considered too happy. 2. I read an article that suggested YA literature isn’t happy enough. 3. Even though I don’t write dark, angsty books, I can see why they might be popular and that they have a legitimate point of view on the world.
This is the world we live in, after all, and while it’s nice to read fluff sometimes, there’s nothing to be gained by hiding our heads in the sand, either. And to only produce happy-go-lucky books for kids would be doing just that. Though I think a few happy-go-lucky books would be good. Anyone want Nick? (Just kidding, I don’t even still have the manuscript. Remember floppy disks? Yeah, neither does my computer.)