Last week I had a wonderful relaxing time holidaying with my family. For the first week in about fifteen years I didn’t write a word. Instead, I read. I read five books that had been on my desperately want to read pile for quite some time.
Although they were the same genre, contemporary YA/perhaps crossover, they were still very different books.
But each one moved me to tears, and made me proud to be a writer. Each book, powerful in its own way, reminded me how important it is to be brave in your writing – how important it is to write the story that is true to you and the characters you have created.
Here’s what I read:
living dead girl by Elizabeth Scott
This is a disturbing but brilliant book about Kyla who was kidnapped five years earlier at aged 10 and whose captor, Ray turned her into a girl called Alice. She endures incredible physical and emotional pain, but her story does not end how she thinks it will. You can’t help but feel connected to Kyla’s experience and admire the bravery of the writer in the sensitive way she has tackled such a difficult subject.
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
This is a heartrending but life affirming story about a girl whose life changes forever one cold February morning on a snowy road when she is out driving with her family. As the blurb says, “Suddenly all of Mia’s choices are gone, except one”. I desperately wanted Mia to make the right choice…but If I Stay also made me think about which path I would take. The raw honesty in this story makes it so powerful.
the chosen one by Carol Lynch Williams
Kyra’s bravery is breathtaking in this story about a thirteen-year-old girl’s fight against the destiny that others have picked out for her. She has grown up in an isolated community where her father has three wives, she has twenty siblings and she has barely questioned her lifestyle until she is promised in marriage to her 60 year-old uncle.
As the blurb says, “How far should she go for freedom?” And how far does an author go to tell their story? As Carol Lynch Williams proves in the chosen one, an author needs to go as far as the story takes them.
Beyond Evie by Rebecca Burton
This is a story about a vulnerable teen and her obsessive love for someone who deliberately entraps her in a heartbreaking relationship. It’s a story of betrayal and recovery, of risks taken and consequences, of living with a family legacy. It’s another story of honesty and the devastation that can happen in relationships, but the human spirit and hope that keeps us going.
Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
It took Peter Houghton nineteen minutes to shoot his way to notoriety, taking revenge on the fellow students who had made his life a misery for the last 13 years. But this is really the story of his friend, Josie who spent those years torn between her loyalty to her childhood friend and her need to be part of the cool gang who were responsible for Peter’s pain. In Nineteen Minutes, her loyalty and control over her own life are put to the ultimate test. Jodi Picoult made me question my own principles and integrity. How could I feel sympathy for a cold blooded killer?
Why is Truth important?
After I finished writing my debut YA novel, Letters to Leonardo I knew it wasn’t perfect. I knew I had a lot to learn as a writer (still do) but I was proud of the fact that I had stayed true to the integrity of my story – that I had started and finished it in a way that made sense to me, and the characters in it. They had acted in ways you would expect them to behave based on the type of people they were – (bearing in mind that over a ten year period these characters had become almost as real to me as my own children.)
Letters to Leonardo has been widely and positively reviewed, but a couple of people (my stepmother among them were devastated with how my characters played out their lives – how the book ended.) In my heart, I knew I had written the story as it needed to be told, but niggling away at the back of my head was that writer’s self-doubt – that perhaps they were right – that I had put my characters through too much. I had tested them beyond the bounds that I could reasonably expect reader forgiveness.
I confess, it dinted my confidence, made me more tentative in deciding just how high to raise the stakes in my new YA manuscript – made me wary of putting characters through too much.
So last week’s reading of these five books was a timely reminder that sometimes as writers we just have to be brave. There are people we will upset, people who become so attached to our characters that they can’t separate them from real people. Real life can be hard and every day, real people suffer beyond what we could imagine. This shouldn’t stop us from telling their stories.
The main character in each of last week’s Fab Five was subjected to more pain than I think I could endure, but the common thread that left me feeling okay at the end of them was hope. Each of these characters had their own form of optimism to shape their future – something positive to come out of their suffering and give hope to the reader that things would get better.
So what did these books teach me? Don’t put your characters through needless suffering to sensationalise your book so it sells a squillion copies. But don’t be afraid to ‘get real’. Don’t be afraid to tell it like it is. Be brave, be bold. Be honest, Write the book readers will want to read and the rest will take care of itself.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about honesty and truth in books for kids and young adults…and also if you have an example to share of your own writing bravery or someone else’s.