tldr: "Readability" for middle school YA

Vertically Aspiring Young Adults (VAYA is my new term for the middle school subgroup of YA).

My first novel. I'm scared.

A month or two ago, I tested a single-page prologue on a couple middle school students. Being wonderfully thirteen, they immediately conspired against me: One boy distracted me while a girl went through my belongings to snatch my first chapter. Decision making at its finest. Then at the end of class, another girl took two chapters as hostage. Terms of release? She demanded to be the first reader of my novel. So, obviously, I agreed to the ransom (but told her she wasn't getting a Late Pass). I decided the new prologue worked, but how would the whole novel play out in terms of readability? Would it work as independent reading for both boys and girls at this age? What does my book offer a girl who turns into a puddle when talking about Fault in Our Stars? What does my book offer a boy who loves The Lost Hero? What about a boy who read Divergent because the girls loved itWhat does readability even mean for 7th and 8th graders? 

My understanding is that only 32% of 8th graders read on grade level (in the USA). 

"Reluctant reader" doesn't seem to be a subset of the market.

Ages 12-14 seems a unique challenge because the reading levels, maturity levels, thematic interests, and other sorts of related matters all range incredibly wide for youth this age. When I think about my purposes for writing, it comes back to the kids - not a dream about literary achievement. I've seen a boy in the South Bronx trying to read Percy Jackson while walking down steps. I've known of girls skipping class to finish a book in the bathroom. I've seen middle schoolers passionately passing around their copies of trending books, excited to talk with friends about characters and their dilemmas. That's magic. That's magic.

Does my novel fit my intended audience as independent reading?

I must be crazy to intend 12-15 year-olds as an audience.This is a glorious age when kids stare into space while having hormonal shivers. They usually can't remember what day it is. They occasionally forget how to get home. Being in the school hallways or recess with friends is their natural state of existence and everything else is in the way. Their brains and bodies are on Epic Overload. Even when they absolutely love a book, there's a 50/50 chance they will lose it before finishing it. Such a glorious age of big firsts and bad smells.

My novel currently weighs in at 90,000 words and 300 pages. After I handed the full manuscript to the girl who had taken chapters hostage, she grunted at me for giving her something way too heavy to carry. I returned with a lighter, double sided manuscript that included a table of contents (and what little was left of my pride).

Readibility must involve more than the syllable counts, word counts, and sentence complexity.

Thematic content matters a great deal for these youth on Epic Overload.

I'm a big believer in coming-of-age themes for this age. I think there's good reason that hero stories and stuff about "power" resonates with them. There's also good reason that Judy Bloom remains popular. The developmental needs and struggles of this age seem to align perfectly with stories that meander through issues of  independence, belonging, normality, and trustworthy friendship. When stories provide characters who juggle unexpected powers and unwanted attention, then it can really resonate with these younger YA readers. Yes? While older YA and adults may not enjoy the cliches of superpowers and heroes of all types, I think that stories of power, agency, and acceptance go a long ways with middle schoolers. My novel includes elements of a science fiction thriller and even some romance, but I've tried to anchor everything around the core emotional journey of a coming-of-age tale. And yes, coming of age is a heroic journey when you're that age.

I've tried to structure my novel in ways that fit the fragmented lives of teen readers. The story plays out through linear scenes, primarily from the main narrator's point of view. Each titled scene tends to be a 1-3 page chunk of drama with its own beats and dynamics. Each chapter involves a full day, usually including 10-15 of these smaller scenes. Finally, I broke the entire novel into three larger story "Episodes." While this type of structure made for a LOT more work on my part, I hope it pays off for the readers. I want my readers to feel like they are experiencing an epic tale. If anything, I'm worried about readers feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.

In terms of paragraph and scene crafting, I've stuck to a  few simple commitments to keep readers inside the story. I look to authors like Rowling and Riordan when it comes to helping younger YA readers manage a lot of information with the use of playful, thematic scaffolding of their paragraphs and scenes.
  1. I've tried my best to spot where the text requires an inference. I'm most comfortable when readers are pushed to infer meaning if the situation involves humor or an emotional conflict. This feels tricky for sci-fi/fantasy or mysteries (these young YA readers will skip to the last page in a heartbeat). If they stop to think, I want thinking focused on the inner world of the characters, not about basic comprehension of a detached outer world. 
  2. I try to provide context clues for potential "clunky" vocabulary or lingo. I try to reuse such vocabulary in meaningful contexts without slowing the pace. Similarly, I've cut out a lot of detail when it comes to the background world or its technology. I want readers to stay inside the story, closely aligned to the emotional journey and worldview of the young narrator.
  3. I've tried to anchor exposition around humorous similes, character problems, or other meaningful themes. I've been very cautious in the use of antecedents. I've kept most paragraphs tightly based on a single subject. I believe one of the keys to readability for typical 12-15 is not a matter of syllable counts and sentence length, but of how exhausted their working memories are when it comes to managing all the its, hers, thems, and visualizations within a text. Adolescents are still developing cognitive skills and reading endurance, so I want to keep them emotionally engaged - even if that means giving their brains a break.
I buy into the idea that art is fundamentally about reduction, and I've tried. I've tried.

I've created an urban adventure with coming-of-age themes. I've stumbled into a lot of trendy technology and scifi elements (some might call it dystopian, but I'm not so sure). At the end of the day, I want to offer a readable story that kids won't just read, but will tell a friend to read so they can share the experience. That implies that they must love my characters, not merely the trendy elements. 

But what's my novel's actual reading level?

A few months ago, I had a middle schooler ask me about my novel. His exact words:
"How long is it? Is it like... Harry Potter long?"
Yes, Harry Potter is now a unit of measure. And this was a boy who really loves to read!

Is my novel too long? Does it weigh too much? Is the language accessible and meaningful? Is it full of so much detail and required inferences that kids pass out when trying to read independently? Are the characters hopeful, likable, and appropriately playful?

The vast majority of middle schoolers are still developing as readers. I'm familiar with the various leveling scales for fluency and comprehension (F&P, Lexile, DRA, etc). When thinking about reading levels for middle schoolers, I'm mostly worried on matters of complexity and working memory endurance where many themes come into play. While MS-Word tells me that the book's Flesh-Kindcaid reading ease score is 85 and the grade level is 3.3 (seriously?), I know better than to trust a computer analysis based upon word counts and sentence length. I've tried to keep the novel in bite sized chunks and at a 6th grade-ish level in terms of paragraphs, vocabulary, predictability, concept load, and scene crafting. That type of writing may disappoint those who read YA for literary brilliance and depth involving older teens flaunting wickedly precocious expressive vocabulary within awkward life/death courtship scenarios. Sorry. This story's metaphors come mostly in the form of chewable similes involving stuff like farts and maggots.

But my story did stumble into an age-appropriate romance.

I resisted any hint of romance in the first few drafts, but sometimes stuff happens. So in terms of maturity levels and thematic interest, I ended up with an innocent romance within a coming-of-age science fiction thriller. luls. As such, the romantic elements are fundamentally about friendship, recognition, and a resolving sense of belonging.

I'm testing the manuscript out on a few middle schoolers. We'll see.

They probably lost the manuscripts over spring break.

SHORT/REFLECTION: "Anna's Petition"

The teacher handed Anna the historical fiction story with a disgusting B+ blazing.

Anna read the hateful comments. Her hand rocketed into the air. Anna had spent four nights pouring her soul into the story, and now fascist X's violated her sentences? Only a B+? No, no, no!  When the teacher didn't catch her raised hand, Anna rattled her bracelets and the classroom went silent.

Even from behind, the teacher recognized the huff and clanging. "Yes, Anna?"

"Why did you lower my grade?"

"You refused to follow proper conventions as outlined in the rubric. You knew it was a big part of your grade. I also explained on your rough draft that you need to stop capitalizing everything."

"I can't even capitalize Eternal Love? Seriously? That's not EVERYTHING. That's important."

"You don't capitalize Eternal Love or Divorce in this type of writing assignment."

Anna snapped to her feet, tilting high on her toes. "But I capitalize America... right?"

The other 8th graders giggled in anticipation.

"Correct," said the teacher.

"But ETERNAL LOVE is way older and way bigger than America, right?"

"Sit down, Anna."

"How is Congress capitalized but FREEDOM isn't? How is Army capitalized but LOVE isn't?"

"I agree," said another girl. "It actually doesn't make sense."

"The grade is final," said the teacher.

"Unfair!" Anna stomped. "You make me capitalize my flag but I can't capitalize my FEELINGS?"

The teacher thought about it. "I'm afraid that's technically correct."

Anna glared and softly asked, "What if I called it the Star Spangled Love instead of Eternal Love?"

The teacher gave Anna one of those please-don't-flip-out looks.

Anna waited a few seconds before exploding. "Maybe if adults capitalized MARRIAGE and FREEDOM and RESPECT and ETERNITY... then you wouldn't all SUCK so much!"

The classroom burst with laughter.

"I know you have a lot going on in you life," said the teacher, "but the grade is final."

"So basically," hissed Anna, "you lowered my grade because I didn't put Love on a flag? Now I can't get into a college that requires straight As? That's capital-F... Fascist."

"This isn't a joke, sit down."

"I'm not joking! I'm starting a petition." Anna stormed out of the room.

(C) Jude L Hollins April 2014

[Those years: Seamless emotional landscapes. We groan through the days. Sing to survive. Big Ideas come reckless at us like playful romance. Stun us silly. And over time maybe it gets too easy to forget that the unadulterated capitalization of Love may not be Right - but is Always so True.]

Lorde - Team

Free Kitten - Never Gonna Sleep

Play Mad Dumb

It's not about the quality of the humor.

It's about the o-deee intention to play all the way to the o-zeee.

Ayo, so keep it mad dumb punchy with extra corn sauce. Facts. When you're young, there's no boundary between love, humor, flirtation, and physical pain. Just lift off, grab your gumption, and keep your elbows swinging. In every school hallway... love is a battlefield.

So, so tragic...

Our Species Needs Diverse Stories

That's a great community and a great blog.

I sincerely believe that our species needs stories. I think we need to confront new paths, voices, settings, emotions, identities, possibilities, and thus new types of stories which can transform and transport our hearts. We need diversity for reflection and growth. Right?

And now for TWO random music videos...

(explicit lyrics below)

"Beta" Readers

I began a total re-write of my novel just over a month ago. I switched from 3rd-person to 1st-person. This involved a comprehensive reworking of the plot, scenes, and characters. Weeeee!

Now I'm in the exciting/scary process of sharing two chapters with selected middle-school students. I've emphasized that it's not school work. It's a draft. They should write any questions or comments  in the margins as they read. I've picked both girls and boys. I've picked reluctant readers and bookish types.

The first thing I discovered is that they needed some type of general "blurb" about the text before they started. I also needed to insist this was entirely voluntary and that I needed complete honesty. There's now serendipity with additional kids asking to read.

I've had very rewarding feedback so far.  This is what it's all about...

My biggest concern remains the first ten pages (too heavy/thick).  I am also concerned about reading levels and complexity for low-endurance readers. Even as somebody who has spent a bit of time in the classroom, I still find myself having to rethink vocabulary and scene-craft to maximize comprehension. After all, for me, the "literary" dimension should be the emotional & thematic thrill-ride, not the requirement of a dictionary.

And here's a completely unrelated music video:

Music for Writing: Divergent & Convergent Creativity

I typically wake up around 4 AM.  I make coffee and put on headphones at my laptop.  The immediate goal is to fully absorb myself in the world of my characters.  This is a zen-like process, requiring me to let go of my worries and inner chatter.  I use background music.  Depending on my creative mode, I seek ambiance for either divergent or convergent creativity.

Cinematic Soundtracks for Divergent Creativity

Today's movies, TV shows, and video games are crafted with moody, melodic soundscapes that deserve more attention.  Some of it makes great background music for creative work.  The idea is to have stimulating instrumental music that doesn't capture your attention.  It's not there for your enjoyment.  It's for ambiance while you work, right?

Soundtracks range from dramatic scores to minimalist, acoustic sketches to pounding, post-industrial  landscapes.  When I'm in a "divergent" mindset, I'm not going to be bothered if a track's emotion and tempo doesn't align with what I'm working on.

Some example tracks with powerful mood and ambiance:

  • The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Another Happy Day by Olafur Arnalds, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Jon Brion, Hero by Itzhak Perlman and Tan Dun, The Village by James Newton Howard, Kelebek by Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Syriana by Alexander Desplat, There Will Be Blood by Jonny Greenwood, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Alberto Iglesias, Waltz with Bashir by Max Richter, Munich by John Williams, Hanna by Chemical Brothers, Gohatto by Ryuichi Sakamoto, The Fountain by Clint Mansel, Dark Void by Bear McCreary
In my writing playlists, I include a diverse range of music - not just movie soundtracks.  And I tend to cut any extremely dramatic orchestrations.

Ambiance for Focused, Convergent Creativity

Thunderstorms.  Waterfalls.  Ocean waves.  Jungles and rainforests.  For me, these soundscapes have nothing to do with "visualizing" myself within them.  It's entirely about a white-noise that perhaps triggers appropriate brain waves and relaxation.  Whatever is going on, it definitely helps me focus on the world of my characters.

Everybody is a little different.  I mostly rely on natural soundscapes, but other types of audio can work.

Less is more.

Examples to explore:
  • Dr Jeffrey Thomas (nature sounds), Sounds of Nature Relaxation
  • Music by Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Ruichi Sakamoto, Dustin O'Halloran, Phillip Glass, Michael Askill, Riley Lee, Erik Satie, Bill Evans, etc.
I suggest experimenting with routine sounds and longer tracks.  I would recommend avoiding "favorite songs" or anything with lyrics.  Don't try to "set a mood."  The music/audio is not there to be enjoyed, noticed, or visualized.  Aim for ambiance that helps to clear your head.  Calm soundscapes full of empty space that help you focus.  Right?

It's about getting absorbed into the characters and their world.  :)

I'm always eager to get music suggestions!

Books: The Human Connection

At a recent dinner party, I heard a compelling argument in the Ebook vs RealBook debates:  real books can connect humans (on subways).  People actually start conversations with strangers regarding books.  Covers add a layer of human play and interest to the fray of urban life.  And yesterday, this truth showed itself during my hours at Books of Wonder.

Neil Gaiman reading & book signing! 

Illustrator/Author duo of Chu's Day
The lines began.  The most considerate way to have used my waiting time?  Figuring out precisely what to say in 15 seconds about being inspired as teacher/writer, capped with a profound witticism.

Yes, I didn't do that.

Instead, I bought a copy of every day by David Levithan.

I read 35 pages as I shuffled in line.  The novel caused four spontaneous discussions with strangers.  Four.  Not only did this say volumes about this particular book/author, it reminded me (a Nook user) of the power of books to connect people.  And of the gravity of authors within an expanding universe.

A compelling YA novel (that stirs conversations with strangers)
Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman has very passionate fans.  The store was packed.  One older gent dressed up as Destiny from Sandman.  A toddler was dressed up as Chu (from Chu's Day).  Most fans had their picture taken with Neil (with several fan in tears of joy).  I suspect the lines continued late into the evening.  Neil himself seems a particularly down-to-earth guy, which made the spectacle rather warming for such a cold, rainy day in NYC.

Me?  My back & legs cramped, but I was enjoying my new book.  

The woman in front of me handed Neil and Adam Rex bottles of fine juice, which lifted spirits.  Then as I approached, the owner of Books of Wonder, Peter Glassman, initiated a conversation about the non-Neil book I was carrying: "That's a great book!"   So, I'm 10% blaming him for having nothing of import to offer Neil Gaiman when I stepped up.  I had no fine juice.  No personalized witticisms.

Only heavy admiration...

Sometimes words just suck.

As I watched him scribble "believe" in my book, I chuckled.  Someday I will buy him a fine beer, I promised myself.  Yes.  Authors matter.  Dead-tree-book-devices matter.

Whether they sleep inside dead trees, digital data, or our frayed neurons - stories, like the gods, need our warm blood & breath to live.  I think what matters most is whether they guide us to improve ourselves.  To be more human.

(this is not a YA text)
My rambling reflection is passive, cliche, & indulgent - yet embodied.  Sometimes words just suck...  :-)

Goals & Hopes: #NY13SCBWI

I'm excited.  The upcoming conference is triggering the most embarrassing side of my inner-geek.  I'm tweaking my business cards (with QR tags)... and I'm twittering!

1. Preparations

Put aside teacher stress.  Put aside novel revisions.  Sleep.  Eat well.  Count my blessings.  Make time to review The Book.  Focus on the joy-and-wonder of it all.   My goal is to gain as much insight as I can about this story-craft field.

Overly complex QR tag.

2. Eye on Networking & Community

Experts emphasize the importance of personal relationships in the business.  My goal is to simply introduce myself to authors & industry people, with a humble eye on searching for a place in this art production community.  

3. Take-Aways

My hope is to come back to my revision process with sharper focus.  Another hope is to better understand this field in terms of the real people, so that I can better appreciate the business protocols and next steps.

Anyways, you will not regret watching this random dance/music video: 

Victory Gardens

We have been here before... and I'm imagining that we'll be here again.  When?  How?

During WWI & WWII, there was a national movement to grow food in yards and parks.  It was deemed a patriotic part of the war efforts.  I can imagine various ways our current agribusiness model might fail us as a society or become strained, returning us to a rather sudden demand for "victory gardens."

Over the last six years or so, I've seen how the South Bronx is increasingly embracing community and school gardens.  Of course, this city has a rich history with gardening and farmer's markets.  Meanwhile, our wider society is increasingly dependent on a centralized food industry where a handful of companies manage the entire production and distribution infrastructure.  Is our food system sustainable?

This question is compelling, for me, as both a citizen and as a fiction writer. 

Some historical links re: NYC's community gardens.

These two books appear packed with historical information: City Bountiful and Avant Gardening.

How resilient are we as a society?
And now for a not-so-random hippy music connection:

2013: new year, new stories (YA & Scifi)

Lists and lists of upcoming books.  Check out The Atlantic's Winter 2013 YA list.  See the Goodreads Lists of 2013, including a scifi/fantasy list and YA novels.  There's also TeenReads coming soon list and the TeenLitRocks Upcoming Books list.

Anyways, I'm particularly curious about the Marie Lu series, along with these other YA/Scifi novels.

Prodigy by Marie Lu

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Control by Lydia Kang


Fantasy book about a girl = call it YA/Fantasy?
Fantasy book about a boy = call it SciFi?

Maybe it's just me?  :-)

Now for some random dance/music (Les Twins)

In fairness, those b-gals dish up quite a performance in the full video!

The Role of Concept Art & Visualization

Ryan Church is one of the most prolific concept artists of this era.
There's a whole field of brilliant visual artists who work with high-end movie and game developers to envision environments, characters, technology, and narrative moments.  My understanding is that many of today's top movies and games start with some type of visual concept art.  It may be tempting to call them "illustrators" instead of "artists."  But when somebody creates the visual motifs and designs of some of the most popular stories of our time, then what's the difference?

I just stumbled upon two images by Allesandro Taini that I think are pure-cool.

Trip's Room by A. Taini

Enslaved Mood by A. Taini

These are artists.  They envision narrative landscapes, characters, and moments.  

The Great Fire Zone, NYC by Gilles Beloeil (for the Assassin's Creed 3 game)
The above work likely helped the game developers envision their historical environment as well as the narrative action.  Art. History. Architecture. Character. Drama. Visual dynamics.  Beloeil illustrates a moment that brings them together into an artistic story.  I can see why artists get paid for this contribution. For the writers on that development team, I would assume having this kind of concept work is extremely inspiring and clarifying.  Whether the concept art is for movies or for games, it probably impacts the writing.

Did the Potter movies impact Rowling's writing as she finished the series?  How could it not?

With the growth of graphic novels and illustrated children's literature, perhaps we'll grow a broader dialogue about concept art for general storytelling?  

Brooklyn Book Festival & Young Humans

The Brooklyn Book Festival is a 1 day event filled with 5 days of content.  Endless tents and happenings scattered around downtown Brooklyn.  From the BK Law School to the magnificent St. Ann's, you had to hustle for seats at the 180 panel discussions available throughout the day.  

These four books are going onto my Nook!

R.J. Palacio's Wonder.

Andrew Zolli's Resilience.

Isabel Wilkerson's Warmth of Other Suns.

And Karen Thompson Walker's Age of Miracles.

Does the YA genre provide a unique dynamic in terms of moral reflection?

This came up during a session.

Youth seem to internalize a society's moral yardsticks and then hold it directly against reality.  For me, the matter becomes whether YA authors are writing to the raw dreams/frustrations of young audiences - or whether we're only writing from the tempered sentiments of adult reflection.  Are we writing about youth or for youth?  YA is a genre.  It's also a market.  However, I never want to forget that it's primarily an audience that thirsts for stories.  Stories that resonate.  And maybe YA is primarily about stories that go straight to the raw roots of our conflicts, our dreams, and our human fears?

Perhaps we should rename Young Adult?  Let's call it Young Human.

Now for something completely random.

Back Story: Put a Finger in the Dessert

I've enjoyed reading Steven King's On Writing.  I am fond of the way he captures the notion of stories being undiscovered relics.  Writers develop the habits to spot stories while also developing a toolbox to chisel them out.  I love this quote.
"Probably J.K. Rowling is the current champ when it comes to back story."   Page 225.
Back story.  I'm wrestling with different approaches to the pacing of back story revelation.  There is a peculiar pleasure in stimulating questions, but this seems to be a major "genre distinction" for Young Adult books.  YA often involves first person narration with snark and double-edged affect, right?  Most of the extremely popular YA books hand over heaps of back story up front, right?  There are unique elements to the market and genre.

I'm not sure of all the distinctions, but it's different.

I think adult readers are lenient and patient across most genres.  If adult readers see indicators of quality writing in the early stages of a book, then a small appetizer becomes a delight.  Adult readers enjoy the mouthwatering steps.  They want to savor each moment, each course, and to appreciate the pauses.  Right?

Younger readers want to dip a finger straight into the dessert.  First.

Can you blame them?  Do you remember being 15?

This story involves a zombie apocalypse?  Fine.

Is there a dash of non-corny humor and a course of romantic tension?  Action?  Promise?  Before I care about the female lead's road to power-enabling self-discovery in this Dystopian world, let me taste these sweet expectations - thank you very much.  PROMISE!

I've obviously taken this darling food analogy too far.  This had something to do with back story...

Relatability? (a hard rain)

The photo above only shows a portion of the location.
I was walking by this massive community garden during a gentle drizzle.  In the distance, I heard acoustic music echoing over the neighborhood.  I loved the song.  The timing was sublime.
I saw a white ladder all covered with water.
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.
The music was Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall'.   Can you envision this setting?  Can you smell the garden and the gentle drizzle?

Where was I?

The South Bronx.  Echoing from a tenement window was Dylan.  Not rap or bachata or salsa or r&b or merengue.   Dylan.  Is that "authentic"?  Expected?

Do we expect kids in the South Bronx or Harlem to know Metallica and Hannah Montana?  Or do we presume they only understand/relate to certain kinds of music and culture?

I think about the "urban youth" I've seen with their heads stuck inside Riordan and Rowling books.  Do we assume they'd rather read books about teens "like them"? What does it even mean to be "like them"?  Are they culturally situated (or segregated) first?  And then human youth second?
Teen Skater
I heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'.
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'.
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter.
Another time I walked by that garden and then up Westchester Avenue towards the bustling Southern Boulevard.  If I look carefully, I notice so many nuances.  So many shades and shapes.  Skaters.  Tilted hats.  Retro-punk.  Retro-preppy.  Nerd-styles with tats.  I even see a redheaded young gal in 80s swag.  And new styles yet unnamed.
I met a young woman whose body was burning.
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow.
I met one man who was wounded in love.
I met another man who was wounded in hatred

Do we presume a black or latino boy in the South Bronx cannot easily relate to the lead female character in The Hunger Games?  Do we truly believe they must prefer a book about a boy of color who loves basketball?  A boy who must grow up poor and struggle to avoid the complications of street life?  That may be very real for many, but is this the best basis for crafting stories and "relatability"?

Don't we risk reproducing the stereotypes that often frustrate youth and make them feel trapped? 

Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty.
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters.
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison.
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden.
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten.
Where black is the color, where none is the number.
And I'll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it.
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'.

Isn't it better to approach multicultural literature and story-telling with an eye on universal human themes that all adolescents tend to relate to?  Or do we think these children only watch TV and movies with characters of the same skin color and cultural background?  Do we think these children only listen to one kind of music in 2012?

Southern Boulevard.  Notice the 80s style on the hip redhead on the left.

If reading is about meeting new people and visiting new places, shouldn't we unshackle the teens of today and build them bridges upon broad human themes?  Even if we dig into matters of despair and poverty with diverse characters, how do we avoid typecasting based upon museum-style, static notions of culture?   Do today's kids even think about differences in the ways we believe?
If we can't envision settings and characters that break the typecasts and stereotypes, then we're in trouble as a species that needs stories for growth and reflection.
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Diary of Seamless Kid on Fire

Irreverent but necessary mash-up of Wimpy Kid and Hunger Games

When I was a goofy teenager back in the 80s, I did a lot of creative writing and journal-style reflection.   A lot.  I was just imagining how wonderful it would be to have all of those ramblings from my old Apple IIe.  How interesting it would be to dig right into those teen emotions and memories!
That's an antique called a "stereo" next to an Apple.
Yes, my parents had to deal with me covering my room in graffiti

Perhaps it's best to let some of the past become... a little blurry?

Today, many kids start with Facebook in elementary school.  Even before they've begun the complex adolescent journey of identity development and values discernment, they've started carefully counting their online friends.   By the end of middle school, many of today's youth have spent countless hours online chatting and managing e-friendship politics.   

Real life and online life are seamless for them.  That part I can get.   I think.

But the part my head definitely can't wrap around is that today's young children can remain in immediate contact with this social network for their entire lives.   Imagine all of those kids who moved away during your K-12 years.  Imagine those you left behind when you moved.  Now imagine having been on Facebook/Skype with all them for your entire life.   Conversely, imagine being unable to distance yourself.  Even if you unplug, the social network reality remains.  That bully or that enemy from middle school is going to continue popping up as "somebody you might know" because you share friends and data.   That argument you had in 9th grade on Facebook will always remain.  

The day will come when elementary school friends will die and still be on Facebook.  I can't get my head around this childhood-to-graveyard, seamless social reality.

I've lost touch with many childhood buddies.  Isn't that "natural"?
I moved quite a few times as a child and went to many different schools.   From the big city to a small one.   A central part of my adolescent development was about "getting out" of that small town life… about dreaming of new horizons.   Like many people, my life involves critical breaks from the past as I explored the world and essentially developed my identity.  How many of us had at least one time in their life where they just needed to break away?  Travel.  New friends.  New world.  It's one thing to reconnect with the past.  That is exciting.  It's entirely another matter to never disconnect.

Will today's youth ever be able to venture out "on their own" like youth of yesteryear?

As a writer, I find this question to be a powerful challenge.

Imagine if you could never truly break away?  Your elementary school, middle school, high school, and college "friends" are all right there on Facebook (or whatever)… for your entire life.   And there's no escaping mom and dad during college!  Now I respect that kids learn to negotiate and manage these online dynamics, sometimes purging "friends and family," but it still seems like a profoundly different developmental reality with this new type of social networking.   It isn't just a matter of privacy.

scene from The Hunger Games
Kids today seem pressured to think of themselves in terms of publicity and public relations on a level that we never had to worry about.   Remember being 14 and feeling like you were always on stage?  Even when alone, teens often feel that sense of eyes on them.  Do today's youth ever get to let go of that feeling?  Just think of all the news stories of online bullying, suicides, etc.  For them, there seems to be no sense of breaking free of the publicity and visibility (not the same thing as fame).  What does it mean to be "independent" in that panoptical context?  This seems like a great theme for YA writers to wrestle with.

Are we surprised that "unwanted publicity" themes explode in popular stories for youth?

scene from Harry Potter
I believe this theme is one of the reasons Hunger Games resonates so deeply.  The protagonist's life is at stake in how she manages unwanted, nearly seamless publicity.  This goes way beyond our worn discussions of reality television.  

However, I also wonder about the reverse side of this thematic coin.  

What will today's youth remember?  Will their life stories be too carefully managed and edited?  If you can never completely lose touch or distance yourself from it, then will you ever fully appreciate it?

Isn't the juicy stuff where our stories snap apart?

And in the fully-alive-but-blurry moments of complete privacy...  

"Don't it always seem to go...that you don't know what you've got till it's gone...
they paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Tragedy or Comedy? (reflection)

My scattered brain often flies back to a moment of enlightenment from several years ago.  I vividly remember several of my 6th graders staying after-school to work on their writing portfolios.

One girl proudly handed me a draft of a new story.  I asked what genre.  She said it was a comedy.

I read it.

The story was about a teen girl who goes on date after date.  In each case, a different boy died in a terrible accident on the way to their first date.  Hit by cars.  Hit by falling pianos.  You get the idea.

No character change.  No happy ending.   No resolution.  Awww.  :(

I began explaining to my student that this might... you know... be a different genre than COMEDY.   She vehemently disagreed.  I explained that - while there may be humorous elements - the overall story wasn't a comedy.  This was a TRAGEDY.  In fact, it was quite depressing and required catharsis!  Resolution!  The girl held her ground and insisted it was a COMEDY.

From a different corner of the room, another girl jumped in to her defense.  "You see, Mr. Hollins... what you need to understand is that from the point of view of a 6th grader, tragedy IS comedy."

We all laughed and shared our own catharsis-of-sorts.

Their point wasn't so much about schadenfreude.  From their point of view, they had put their finger on the paradoxical essence of classical "tragedy" and the pleasure of catharsis.  The intellectual path of catharsis seemed to be secondary to the raw vetting and acknowledgement of feelings.

Can I really blame a 12 year-old for wanting more pianos to fall during serious drama?

Tickling Brains, Turning Pages (books)

Dangerous Days
Hunger Games. The Hobbit.
Percy Jackson. Stargirl.
Harry Potter. Terabithia.
Outsiders. Daniel X.
Twilight. Catcher in the Rye.
Pretty Little Liars. Ender's Game.
The Giver.  Speak.  The Skin I'm In.

What do these titles have in common?  

Power?  Love?  Tragedy?  Recognition?  Voice?  Brains tickled?  Pages turned?

Why do middle-grade readers love Fudge, Judy Moody, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid sooooo much?

I've seen students (in the South Bronx) trying to read while walking down stairs.  While that is obviously a safety concern, I am thrilled to see that motivation!  As read-alouds or as independent reading, these stories tickle their brains.

What's not to love?

Are You There, God?
Writing for the adolescent species may seem completely daunting, but let's not kid ourselves.  Or perhaps I should say, let's kid ourselves a bit more?

Remember being a kid?  We could grin at a friend and start crafting fun out of anything.  If you call math drills "math kung fu" and pull out a timer, then you might find the kids doing math with a smile.  The Joy Factor.

Let's play.  Tickle brains.  Get dramatic.

Kids love power, right?.  All kinds of power.  Adolescents like power, too, but they also seem to like stories that are dipped in tragicomedy and end with some brand of heroic recognition.

Let's humor them!

Can I develop unique stories that are a joy to read?

Anaphora & Working Memory (reflection)

Are teens still "developing readers"?  Yes.

Rick Riordan kicked off an extremely popular series with The Lightning Thief.   Whatever critics might say, the truth remains that kids love his books.   He may not always provide the funniest jokes, but you can find him offering at least one joke on nearly every page.  Riordan spent years teaching teens.  When I read his stories, I sense an author that truly understands how to keep adolescent brains tickled and turning pages.

Let's forget questions of entertainment and just think about the concept of working memory.

Working memory is related to, but not the same as, short-term memory.  I think of working memory as the cognitive workbench where we sort, chunk, analyze, and classify information in the short-term.

Find somebody to challenge.
    1. Say the following.
    "I'm going to ask questions based on these letters & number pairs.   9-W, 3-T."
    Ask: "What are the 2 letters?"
    Ask: "What are the 2 numbers?"
    Ask: "Can you list the letters in alphabetical order?"
    Ask: "What are the original 2 pairs?"

    Did they struggle?  Depending on their ability to visualize the original pairings, they may not reach a saturation point as they "work" with the bits of information from different angles.
    2.   Step it up!
    "7-D, 4-R, 2-Y, 6-E."
    Ask: "What are the 4 letters?"
    Ask: "What are the 4 numbers?"
    Ask: "Can you repeat the letters in alphabetical?"
    Ask: "What are the original 4 pairs?"

    3.  Push them to their saturation limit and then have them challenge you!

Do you see how sorting and wrestling with even small amounts of information can become extremely taxing on our working memories?   Feel the frustration?  This is what basic reading is often like for many students.  Adolescents are still developing, cognitively.

What might this mean for writing?  

base image from
I think we remember the stuff most directly tied to emotion and conflict, but how do we know when we've gone too far with detail?  What types of information saturate the brain the most?

Developing readers struggle to keep track of who, where, why, and whatever.  I remember Kate Garnett (Hunter College) talking about anaphora as a primary reading challenge for adolescent students.  Combine this with working memory issues, and we can easily see how average readers get lost within many stories.  They yawn and tap out.

In the most simple terms, writing that relies on lots of antecedents and contextual references can lose readers.  When I look at popular stories with middle-grade students, I don't see "dumbed down" writing.  I see writing that fully engages their hearts and minds.  Isn't that the optimal way for them to make progress as independent readers?  Do we want them to passionately read?

You know that deep, metaphoric passage we study in school?  It just made our 13 year-old reader put the book down.  He's dreaming about this girl in his class.   Now he just flipped on the television to enjoy 5th-generation MTV programming about teen girls who play video games.  Good luck getting him back to your deep inferences!  Do you want him as a reader?  I do.

When it comes to managing anaphora and working memory, here's my current approach:
    Slice my scenes up into smaller, focused, pre-chunked scenes.
    That.  Which.  I shall use them (i.e. keep the relative pronoun unless it's vernacular).
    Chunk paragraphs carefully.  Don't cross the antecedent beams in massive paragraphs with multiple subjects and glorious relative clauses set upon prepositional phrases dancing around whatever I'm trying to actually say.
    Do not rely on complex inferences in order to understand the story.   However, I believe developing readers enjoy inferences when loaded inside humor or strong emotional moments.  
    Boil down my exposition, connecting revealed information with conflict & emotion.
    • Use a comical simile rather than the lyrical metaphor that I think is so incredibly awesome.
    • Reinforce new ideas & information with context clues or repetition.  Keep it moving.
    Punch the important information with conflict, emotion, or dramatic conventions.
That's an approach, not a set of hard rules.  I hope I'm heading in the right direction!

Esperanza Rising (book)

Some stories can remind us that oral storytelling came before the written traditions.

I love this book.

Esperanza Rising makes for a perfect guided or shared reading text.  There are rich themes and ample opportunities for discussion.
A man with a small goat on his lap grinned at Esperanza, revealing no teeth.  Three barefoot children, two boys and a girl, crowded near their mother.  Their legs were chalky with dust, their clothes were in tatters, and their hair was grimy.  An old, frail beggar woman pushed by them to the back of the car, clutching a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Her hand was outstretched for Alms.
Esperanza had never been so close to so many peasants before.  When she went to school, all of her friends were like her.  When she went to town, she was escorted and hurried around any beggars.  And the peasants always kept their distance.  That was simply the way it was.  She couldn't help but wonder if they would steal her things.
"Mama," said Esperanza, stopping in the doorway. "We cannot travel in this car. It... it is not clean.  And the people do not look trustworthy."   (p.66-67)
What makes some stories so lyrical & enjoyable when properly read aloud?  

In that passage, there's mood-laced exposition with its rhythm and concrete descriptions.  No teeth. Barefoot children.  Dust.  Tatters.  Grimy.  Beggar.  Our imaginations are filled with just enough theme-rich detail to induce a reaction.  The author, Pam Munoz Ryan, then reveals some more back-story about the main character and her worldview (which is likely to also induce a reaction from readers).  Then the strong beat comes at us as Esperanza gracelessly and regrettably conveys a class judgement in front of everybody.

  1. Setting as setup (details with thematic clues, but without saturating "working memory")
  2. -->  Revelations that tug at reader emotions
  3. ---->  A powerful beat that exposes her worldview to conflict with family/friends

I've seen 5th graders completely enthralled by this book.  They fought over copies.  They sat motionless when given a chance to listen to the audiobook with the lights low.  They drifted to this distant time and truly cared about the characters.

In terms of revelation and exposition, I've put this book on my "short shelf" of model texts.

What are the other devices and structures that authors use to manage exposition and back-story without losing the "flow" of narration?  What other books weave in exposition so masterfully that it naturally reads aloud?