Age doesn’t matter

Once upon a time…

Well, I’m about to write about the topic of Literature for Children, so why not use the time-honored beginning for every fairy tale alive…?

Once upon a time, then, there were just stories.

When I was a little girl, my home town library had only two sections – children’s, which I blew through in a spectacular fashion, and adult. We had no such thing as a “young adult” section or concept.

You read the kiddies books until you realized that you were past them and then you went on to read the adult books, those that caught your interest and held your attention.

I was reading Howard Spring and Pearl Buck novels (in English translation) before I was ten. And poetry. When I went moved to Africa and learned English, I read the unabridged John Galsworthy “Forsyte Saga” novels by the time I was thirteen.
I was, perhaps, a throwback.

The story was the thing that mattered. I read for the story, not for the story that was considered to be ‘appropriate’ for me by some stranger in the publishing industry who had never met me and did not know what I would be interested in.

I was a throwback in the sense that in the long-distant past what we think of as pampered and protected ‘childhood’ simply didn’t exist. Teenagers are a modern phenomenon. In the olden days, a teenager was an adult. Period.

In the middle ages, girls were married at 12 or 13 and mothers by 14 or 15. Many of them died in childbirth as their young and possibly still not fully formed bodies failed to measure up to the stress of giving birth to a real life-size infant. Boys did a man’s work by the time they were fifteen. There was no mollycoddling and no extended coming-of-age as we know it today.

The first real recognition of “young adults” as a distinct group as it pertained to reading and readership, came by a woman by the name of Sarah Trimmer who made the distinction, in a children’s literature periodical of the time, between “Books for Children” (for those under fourteen) and “Books for Young Persons” (intended for those between fourteen and twenty one) – but the distinction remained words on paper, because 19th century publishers did not market books specifically to that readership. The culture of the adolescent, so absolutely prevalent and accepted today, still did not exist in the modern sense.

What was perhaps the tipping point into the modern world came as late as the 1950s and 1960s, specifically after the groundbreaking “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton – something not seen before in this particular kind of literature. It had none of the patina of nostalgia that often characterized books about young characters before this time, books written by adults who were reflecting back on a long-past youth. No, this was a novel about the here-and-now – written BY an author who was technically a Young Adult herself, about people LIKE herself, and the immediacy and verisimilitude – not to mention a distinct darkening of theme and ideas – was obvious.

Publishers began to see this segment of readership as a distinct – and new and lucrative – market. YA sections began to appear in bookstores and libraries, for books distinct from books considered to be “children’s books” and distinct from stuff that was considered appropriate for an adult audience.

The range of these books spread across genre – but the contemporary YA novels began to tackle topics that were faced by actual YA readers in their own lives. Topics such as rape, suicide, parental death, murder, drinking, sexuality (both straight and gay), drugs, identity, beauty, and teen pregnancy.

Young Adult fiction, particularly the kind that librarians and booksellers liked to describe as “edgy”, portrayed young-adult protagonists, teens, who were depicted as having to confront social and cultural issues which the readers of such books frequently faced in their own real lives. Young Adult literature was morphing from a literature of nostalgic escapism into a golden past to works which functioned as manuals, almost, for the business of living.

The distinctions between works of literature deemed to be ‘children’s lit’, ‘YA’ or ‘adult literature’ have been notoriously fluid and flexible. The fracture lines have deepened, more recently by the introduction of ‘middle grade’ – novels which fall between blatant kiddie books and the threshold of what is considered YA, often assumed to fall somewhere between the ages of 9 – 12 (apparently when you hit the ‘teen suffix you’re YA whether you like it or not…)

The Young Adult Library Services (YALSA) branch of the American Library Association, the ALA, defines a young adult in the readership sense as a person between the ages of twelve and eighteen – but once again the borders are arbitrary and flexible, because authors and readers of this branch of literature routinely estimate readership ages to start as low as ten, and to as high as twenty five.

Which is where we came in, as far as the reason behind this post is concerned.
You see, I am currently writing the conclusion of what was originally marketed as a YA trilogy, my Worldweavers books.

The three original books in the trilogy – “Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam” and “Cybermage” – followed the fundamental elements as required by the definition of the YA genre. I didn’t push the envelope in the “edgy” direction – I didn’t go for the more hardcore elements of plot or setting or theme – but my young heroine, who is 14/15 in these books, has to grow and change to meet the challenges of growing up, growing into her gifts, and into the sort of adult she is supposed to be. Sometimes this was far from an easy thing for her to do.

But so far I have done pretty well according to the YA yardstick (which is that the subject matter and the story lines of this genre of literature are supposed to be, under the modern definition, typically consistent with the age and experience of the protagonist character of the novel).

Here’s the thing, though. In the latest and last installment, my heroine is 16. She has a whole different set of problems. To all intents and purposes, she is an adult – and while there are moments that she still responds like the “child” that her culture would still have her be, mostly she makes the choices and decisions which are consistent with that adult worldview.

Who is my audience…?

I think, mostly, I am writing for people like the girl who I myself once was, readers who read for STORY rather than on the basis of which section of the library or bookstore the book was shelved in. I believe that a good story can be appreciated by readers from 9 to 90 without anyone missing out or losing stride – and that the whole YA thing is a marketing gimmick, and not in itself “real”.
I was allowed to find my own reading level while growing up and read whatever I was comfortable with. I am writing for those readers – in fact, one of my most cherished compliments came from a book buyer of the acclaimed New York children’s bookstore Books of Wonder who told me that I wrote for “readers who already know how to think”.

I don’t think my books are going to be a big hit with the Twilight crowd. My books are a lot deeper and more nuanced than that – and, for all that they are fantasy, more real. So I am writing for kids like the kid that I was, the kids who are bored with the stuff that accepted wisdom maintains that they are supposed to be reading, who are crying out for stories that are not written “down” to them, stories that are honest, stories that will be just as readable when they are in their thirties without them having to cringe and hide them in brown paper wrappers. It is my highest standard of achievement to write that kind of story, and I have a cadre of readers who are telling me that I have got there with my “younger” stuff.

But still. I worry. It’s a marketing thing, now, and beyond mere words, beyond the input of just an author like me. It’s not the story any more, it’s how and where and to whom the story can be peddled. If it cannot be easily pigeonholed or labeled, it starts to discombobulate and annoy the gatekeepers who publish/sell books, because they cannot slap an easy label on such stuff.

Here’s the thing, then. Although my fantasy has been called a work fit for Young Adults, although my protagonist is a teenager, although her trials are often rooted in the problems of teenagerhood – this is not where I rest, this is the ground in which the story is rooted and its leaves and its flowers reach much beyond this level. I hope that I am writing for everyone who loves to read – for precocious ten-year-olds like the one I used to be, for fourteen-year-olds who might recognize aspects of themselves, for thirty- and forty-somethings who may smile as they remember something from back when they too were counted in the ranks of those whose chronological age ended in that ‘teen’, to even older readers who may be starting to see signs of a grandchild generation that is starting to blossom into reading and for whom my stories may, in turn, become something that can be treasured.

I am writing for readers. Not for genres.

My hope is that we can all, storyteller and story reader, can agree that a story is a story is a story and belongs to whoever chooses to claim it, and live happily ever after…

Just in time for Christmas

Scheherazade’s Facade, a  new anthology full of gender-bending stories, including one of mine, is now on sale here:

There is an excerpt at the link to whet your appetite. and it’s from my story, The Secret Name of the Prince.

Go look. Go read. Go buy this thing. Someone you know will want it for Christmas.

Scheherazade’s Facade, edited by Michael M. Jones
$14.95 paperback — ISBN 978-1-61390-058-1
$9.99 ebook — ISBN 978-1-61390-059-8


Five favorite books (or series)

Patrick Samphire recently said on his blog: “Choosing favourite books is like choosing your favourite children; you really can’t have more than five of them.

I rather like that thought and it encouraged me to name my own five favorites.

1. “Tigana”, Guy Gavriel Kay

I keep telling people that this is one of the best books I have ever read, bar none, without any genre corrals or anything like that. just simply that – one of the best books I have ever read, period, EVER. And the reasons why boil down to two reasons.

One, the characters.  This is a book full of characters who are solid, three-dimensional, who carry grudges and vows and honour and pain, and who *change* with all of these things in play. Kay understands what makes people change, and this is huge, HUGE, and it plays an enormous part in this book. There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” here, not exclusively, everybody does things for what appear to be good and valid reasons to THEM, and the reader, even if not expected to approve those reasons, is invited to understand them. This matters enormously.

Perhaps the best exemplar of this is Dianora. I am in awe of a writer who came up with the character of Dianora. Read the book and you will understand why – but let me just say that this is a woman who puts into play a horrendously complicated and meticulously planned chain of events whose ultimate outcome entails her taking revenge for the death of her country and her family at the hands of a great enemy… and is then hamstrung by something so unexpected, so completely inescapable, that it nearly grinds her into glass dust. Oh, if you haven’t read this book, if you are a reader looking for an experience of a lifetime, if you are a writer who wants to know how to make a character immortal, go read “Tigana”, just for Dianora. Trust me on this.

Two… and this is deeply personal for me … I don’t know how someone like Guy Gavriel Kay, who comes from the kind of calm, civilised, privileged background that he does, who is polite and Canadian, knows what it feels like to lose your country, and your soul. But he does. HE DOES. And he tells that story in “Tigana”. It reaches deep inside of me and wrings my heart until it screams. This, my friends, is the best kind of fantasy. This is the kind of fantasy that is TRUE.

2. “Lord of the Rings”, J R R Tolkien

I read and enjoyed “The Hobbit”, initially, but it was a light and almost fluffy kind of book – yes, it had hints of a greater grandeur but they tended to be erased by the guffaws of the Dwarven Dinner Party at Bag End (“At your service!”) or Bilbo Baggins prancing aorund the woods singing “Attercop!” to annoy a bunch of spiders. But it wasn’t until I picked up a copy of the first book in the LOTR trilogy that I really felt like I had come home. Things… things… clicked for me. I drank it in, in great gulping draughts, and the potion changed me dramatically. I became a fantasy writer because of this book, probably.

Oh, there were other reasons – but this one, this one gelled it, cemented it. Here was a world that HAD BEEN CREATED WHOLLY AND COMPLETELY FROM THE WRITER’S OWN VISION AND IMAGINATION. It had been done – I held the evidence in my hands, in my heart, in my head. It could be done again. By me. And once I had that bit between my teeth there was no stopping me at all.

3. The Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny

The first five books, really. The second five, well, I read them, I liked them well enough, but it was the first five that grabbed me and held me. Again, for several reasons.

One, there was the seamlessness of the whole thing. THESE FIVE VOLUMES WERE A PERFECT CIRCLE. Book Five ended where Book One begins, but because of all the stuff that you’d just read in between that beginning and that end the beginning now gained a WHOLE NEW PERSPECTIVE, and it just demanded that you pick the first book up again and begin from the beginning. And this could go on forever. It was the freaking Worm Ouroboros in literary form, and I was smitten smitten smitten smitten.

Two, well, the COMPLEXITY of it all. I have never really liked “simple” books, they merely end up being predictable and annoying. There was nothing predictable in the Amber family – and I loved the idea of the “cards”, the Amber Trunps, and all that went on that was directly tied into them. Directly and indirectly, the imagination and the ideas behind these books lodged somewhere deep into my creative soul and I have never been free of them since. I owe Roger Zelazny for that, a huge debt. (And I was lucky enough to able to tell him so, before he died, too soon, too young.) I have what has to be an original paperback edition of these books, and I brought #1 for Zelazny to sign, that time that I met him. Even he did a double take and expressed astonishment that any copies of THAT version were still circulating. THAT is how long ago I met these books, and fell in love.

4. “Dune”, Frank Herbert

Once again, complexity… but I have a deeply ambivalent relationship with these books. I loved the first one, the original Dune, because of the depth of the worldbuilding, because of the organic way that the story and the milieu fitted together – it all made sense, it was connected, it was soul-stirring.

And then the books kind of began a slow slide, and that has never stopped, only became steeper when Frank stopped writing the Dune books and the franchise was taken over by the heirs who really should have known better. Some horses, when they die, are truly dead, and should be beaten no longer – and this one is mere articulated bones, by now.

The thing that I confess never made sense to me, viscerally, even when the story made set-ups and explanations for it, was the reason behind the greening of Arrakis and the bringing of water to Arrakis AT ALL. Yes, it was a harsh world and tough to live in. But doing the greening/watering thing would have spelled the end of the great worms, and I kind of… rooted for them. It’s almost ludcirous to call them underdogs, but I couldn’t help feeling some sort of grim pity for their fate if everyone else had their way. Those creatures NEEDED a desert PLANET to survive, in the way that they gloriously existed right at that beginning of the Dune saga. Anything less, and they would be either diminished, or extinct. And I didn’t want to see that happen.

So, there. With qualifications. But right up there in the top five, anyway.

5. “Fool on the Hill”, Matt Ruff

So okay, I”ll save the last for a shout out to a writer who has since become a friend. But his inclusion in this list is by no means any kind of literary “nepotism”, and is not influenced in the least by the fact that I very much like the person behind the story here.

The story, itself, is important.

Let me just tell you how I first tripped over this. I was living in South Africa, writing book reviews for the local newspaper – and it was a pretty slapdash operation at best. They’d get a box of books, and the coterie of reviewers would kind of drop in at random intervals – and if they happened to arrive when a box turned up they got to cherry pick the best stuff or else, if they arrived at the tail end, they’d get left with the dregs – it was the luck of the draw.

As it happened, someone else snaffled “Fool” first – but didn’t seem to connect with it too well. So I asked if I could take a shot at it, and the hardcover was duly passed on to me, second-hand as both the book and a review chance.

And I dived into it and sank without a trace.

A three-fold narrative that involved events as they unfolded in the “human” stratum of Cornell University, with real humans, interleaved by the story set in the animal underbelly of Cornell and involved a Dog Convocation (I chortled out loud at the Dog Dean. You will too) and a story set amongst the Cornell Fae – and they all get tied together by an overlay of the trope of a thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters to produce a Story, and the ghostly Founder of Cornell wandering about talking to $Deity$ and discussing everything in a kind of delightful Greek Chorus – dear, GOD, this was just plain briliant stuff.

And it was also banging-head-on-brick-wall time when I found out that the author of this magnificence was twenty six years old at the time (or something along those lines – I don’t have the copy of the book right in front me to check right now, that is as memory serves) and that it was unlikely if not impossible that I would ever write with this ease, facility, wit, humour, drama and general genius, if I lived to be three times that age. Matt Ruff has since proved that he was no flash in the pan – if you want to see the more mature edition of the novelist who produced “Fool on the Hill” I highly recommend “Set This House in Order”, which isn’t on this list only because it has only five spots to fill.

But seriously. Do yourself a favour and go pick up Matt Ruff’s books. They are astounding. And they will never leave you; these are no fair-weather friends. These are things that you will treasure when you are the same age he was when he wrote them, and also when you are three times that age. He. Really. Is. That. Good. (And Matt, if you’re reading this, *I MEAN IT*.)

Want to play? I would love to know what your choices are.