YA and the ‘Real World’

The Were Chronicles: “Random”, “Wolf”, “Shifter”

At a certain level, the line between YA and adult literature becomes so fine as to be totally irrelevant.

Yes, there are always some readers whose worlds are so cushioned, so protected, so absolutely walled off from reality that they can can find reading about real problems to be distancing and completely alien. But those readers are very few, And even they, growing up, have to deal with SOME issues in their lives no matter how gilded they are.

There are books which are labelled YA that deal with a lot of subjects which might be considered difficult. Subjects like suicide, like discrimination, like loss, like fear, like helplessness.

The books aren’t there to exacerbate or underline a reader’s own issues. As with all literature, they exist primarily to tell a story. At least, the best of them do. They don’t moralize, they don’t frighten or terrorize, they don’t stroke a love of violence

But they do have real power. It lies in the fact that they let readers know that they are not alone, that they aren’t the only ones to suffer such things or feel such feelings. That can be empowering for the reader. Sometimes it is safer to sublimate such feelings into the pages of a powerful story, to learn how to deal with one’s own situation through the prism of storytelling, than it is to blunder about trying to solve overwhelming problems.

YA literature isn’t sweetness and light. It can be harrowing. Because young people can sometimes live harrowing lives.

When Weres become human

The Were Chronicles logoWhen I set out to write The Were Chronicles books, the whole thing started as a light-hearted thing. The project began as a short story intended for a Were-creatures anthology which wanted something other than the traditional wolves. So I pulled an odd creation out of the story-cauldron, something I’d never seen anyone play with before – a Random Were, a creature which can literally become the last living warm-blooded thing they see just before the Turn comes upon them. The idea had immense comic possibilities. In fact – as I put it in the first book – due to an “unfortunate farmyard accident”, my main protagonist’s mother is a Were-Chicken.

But while I was clucking to myself about that… the story changed under my touch, became bigger and darker. What was originally a short story became abook – and the book became series. It changed into that most amazing thing, a YA story but also a story about what it means to be human.

My Weres became a persecuted minority in society, and themes of discrimination and bullying reared up and demanded to be addressed. What do you do when your peers are bullying and threatening you and making you miserable, because you are “different”? That’s hard enough as and of itself, but what happens if those attitudes are then taken up by people in authority over you, whom you aren’t in a position to question or to fight?

My Weres touched off a nerve – because they explored, in my fantasy setting what it means *in our own world* for people to be a different color, or a different faith, or a different sexual orientation. I wrote about the power of persecution, and the power of spirit necessary to rise against and above that.

And then the themes multiplied. What does it mean to be considered an abject failure at something – by your own peers, your own class? How far would you be willing to go to prove yourself worthy? What things, what people, what ideas in your life are you willing to fight and die for? What happens if you are the only one of your kind, and you don’t know where you came from, or what is going to happen to you because there is no precedent for what you are?

The story unwound in a powerful and explosive way, the same story seen through the POV of three different characters who play a major part in the tale, a story seen through three separate prisms which thus acquires a certain three-dimensionality which was never before so obvious in any of my stories.

This is a work of fiction, a work of FANTASY no less, but its world… is our world, and it matters. It matters deeply. These are some of my most beloved, most astonishing characters, avatars of so many out there who face pain with courage and with knowledge and with earned wisdom.

The power of story

That is part of the power of story – this identification with a protagonist, who somehow arrives out of nowhere ready to completely understand our own innermost feelings and secrets. For adult readers who have had years of living under their belt, who have been working to acquire that necessary wisdom for a long time, stories like this may be memories – a look back into a time when things were difficult for themselves, and a recollection (with or without pain) of how they dealt with those situations.

For young readers, stories like these are part of that acquisition of wisdom and experience. If there is a good reason for a YA label at all then this is it – stories of people LIKE THE YOUNG READER, characters who are potential friends, but also potential role models in how they react and respond to fictional situations that the reader might find something to identify with. The best such stories are not moralizing or didactic or arrive with a knuckle-rapping “lesson” embedded inside – the best such stories are involving, enveloping, enfolding, they are things in which you can wrap yourself, and come out of wearing them as armour against the realities which might be out there waiting to assault you.

The best “lessons” are not the ones that are forcefully and insistently taught, but those answers which you find within yourself when a story like this helps you ask the right questions. What, then, would you do? In that story, in similar circumstances, what then would you do? How would you overcome?

The story gives you the pieces, the hints, but they don’t add up to anything that is a overweening Answer To Everything. Those pieces are different for every reader. They combine with pieces you bring to the story yourself. And every book connects with every reader in a different way, and the answers are always YOURS, deeply and personally yours, because every reader is unique and there are no two questions out there about people’s identity or their life situation which are exactly alike.

Stories are powerful. And stories aimed at, and read by, young readers are amongst the most powerful stories of all. We may read many books during the course of our lives – but by the time we get to be forty, fifty, sixty years old and half a century has rolled away from underneath us… for all too many of us, it is the books we read when we were sixteen which somehow remain with us, and in which we finds the roots of many things that we grew up to become.

You can find the first book in The Were Chronicles, Random, HERE

Wolf is HERE

Shifter is HERE

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A loss too near

In a few days, it will be two years since I lost my father.

Second anniversaries are… odd.

It’s still close – it’s still too close. You think back and the memories of the death, the dying, they are still here, close to the surface; if you pick at the scab, it still bleeds. This is not a scar yet. And yet it feels self indulgent to dwell on it.

It isn’t that first year, that searing first anniversary, where you you still have permission for the white-hot grief.

I remember vividly that last year on the day of his passing I took a bunch of flowers to Hospice House, where he died, to leave them in his memory – and I was keeping it all under control, I was going to be just fine, I was going to explain everything clearly and calmly when i walked in through that front door and spoke to whoever was there on duty at the front desk.

Except that’s not what happened. Not at all. i walked in there through that door which was the last door he had ever passed out of, and a woman behind the front desk looked up and smiled. I began, “my father…” and burst into tears. Into great hacking heaving sobs that I couldn’t hold in. We hammered out between us who I was and why i was there, and I was saying I just wanted to come and say thank you one more tiem for what they did for him, and they said the flowers were lovely, and I cried, and so did the woman at the front desk, and then I climbed back into my car with tears still blurring my vision. That was raw grief, my grief, and his spirit was not there. He was long gone. However, I had permission for that grief. The Jewish tradition has a name for this – Jahrzeit – the one-year anniversary. And it was okay.

In the aftermath… I spoke of him less. I would remember individual incidents or sayings, not a general aching recollection, a sense of shadow, a feeling of missing something that should have been there. The speed dial on my phone still says “Mum and Dad” but I have stopped expecting my father to be there, I have stopped catching myself halfway to “oh, I should tell him this he would love it” if I find something he would have enjoyed on the Internet. The second year is a year of distancing, and I have distanced. Hospice House is now not longer the first image in my head when I think of him.
Hamo Hromic: My dad and II remember him on other ways,

I remember him as the man who could not tell a joke (either because he couldn’t get the beginning straight in his head and had to start the damn thing three times before he could be sure of the story, by which stage him telling  the joke was usually far funnier than the joke itself ever was, or because he would flub or, worse, forget the punchline at the critical moment.).

I remember him as an incarnation of that cartoon character of the bewildered man holding up a hammer, with all the fingers on his other hand bandaged up, a hole in the wall behind him, and the shattered remains of one of those stupid flying ceramic ducks on the floor at his feet. You did not point my father at handyman jobs. The best he could do was hang a picture, and even THAT took planning and procedure and twice as long as anyone else would have taken to do it.

I remember him when he found out about a particular novel of mine, which I had successfully kept under wraps right until I could announce that yes, it was being published, and his response when he was told about it was literally this:

“You wrote a book and are getting it published without ever having told me about it? I will never forgive you. Now give me the manuscript.”

And he took the MS printout and sat down with it on the living room sofa, and did not let go of it until he had turned the last page. And then he cried. And on the heels of that I remember that “Random”, the first book in my new series, bears a dedication to him… because this was the first book of mine that he did not live to see, to gather up and to collect lovingly on his shelf which was groaning with copies of my books in every language in which they had ever appeared, to read carefully, to store up another helping of approval and pride.

I don’t idealize him, nor idolize him. There are other memories and some are not wholly pleasant. But they’re all memories now.

This world has been empty of him for two years. His ashes are dispersed in the great quiet Pacific Ocean. His soul no longer clings to the dust of this dirtball of a planet. The things he loved are gone or are loved by someone else. There’s a sense of inevitability and of progression – the sense of loss is no less but it is also no longer sharp, no longer acute. And it feels self indulgent, these days, to remember him and cry. People lose parents every day. It’s the way of the world. It feels as though I should gird up my loins and wipe my nose and keep going, now.

That part of my life is over, the part when I was this man’s daughter-in-the-flesh. I am now daughter-in-spirit, daughter-in-memory, I am the daughter that was, half a daughter, with only one living parent left to anchor me to that identity now. There will come a day on which I will have to say that I USED to be a daughter, and on that day I become an ex-daughter, an orphan, but I suppose I am lucky in that have kept my beloved parents for longer than it is given to some. I suppose when the inevitable day comes that my ancestral walls are all down and the cold winds can blow freely through the ruins of that childhood house which will exist no longer I will have the right and the permission to re-indulge one last time in that rawest, sharpest grief.

But for now… it’s the second anniversary. It feels too close, and too far away. I feel as though I am just far enough from shore not to know whether it’s worth paddling back towards land, or resolutely setting sail towards the unknown horizon. Perhaps, next year, the shore will have gone a little more distant still and the choice won’t be so hard to make. But now… right now… I still feel the tethers, invisible links to all that is left behind on that land I have left in my wake, and it feels… weird… almost dangerous… whatever I do.

So right now, on this second anniversary, I will do nothing at all. I will let myself float on the waters, and lie back in my cockleshell boat, and stare at the sky full of stars – and maybe I will see a star shoot across the sky, and know that on the second anniversary it might be okay if I let myself believe that my lost father is somehow remembering me.


Alma Alexander     My books     Email me
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