Can A Place in the Heart Find a Place on the Shelves? by Joanne O’Sullivan
Like every aspiring fiction writer, I spent a lot of time reading advice articles as I sought to break into the field. I compulsively read the Publishers Weekly rights report to find out what was selling. I absorbed and extrapolated from articles on trends in children’s lit. “Go to a bookstore and see what they stock,” was a piece of advice I received. Fantasy, retellings, thrillers and x meets y seemed to dominate the shelves of every YA section I visited. What was selling? Everything except what I felt compelled to write, it seemed. And yet, what moved me—what kept bringing me back to the page—remained the same: a desire to burrow into those innermost chambers of the heart and its most tender feelings; to explore that moment in life when the future approaches and we have to decide how we will greet it: with jaw clenched or arms open.
As I started querying my manuscript for Between Two Skies, I started to notice a trend in responses. Yes, the writing was good—beautiful, even. The voice was compelling, the characters well drawn. But the story was a quiet one. And there was a judgment attached to that. To succeed in writing for teens, the message seemed to be, you need to roar, bluster and boom. Lower your voice, and they just can’t hear you.
In a battle for teen attention, conventional wisdom says, there are proven winners. A breakneck pace crosses the finish line first. An edgy plot edges out the others. A strong girl character is a must, but she must kick ass. She must be a bad ass. There’s a lot of focus on girls’ asses. But what about their wits and hearts? A female character can be strong and tender, can’t she? Isn’t history full of them, before Katniss arrived on the scene? For every Joan of Arc, there’s a Rosa Park, described by those who knew her as having a “quiet fortitude;” whose act of rebellion was not slaying a dragon, but refusing to be diminished. Don’t we have room for female characters whose hearts outflex their biceps? Whose power comes from within, not from a weapon or a secret, inherited ‘gift’? Isn’t there space for stories haunt even in the absence of ghosts; that vibrate with emotion, not explosions?
In her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain says: “We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in this world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard’s education. Introverts are offered keys to private gardens full of riches. To possess such a key is to tumble like Alice down her rabbit hole…into a Wonderland.” Of course a novel can’t be all introspection and feelings: something has to literally move the action forward. But characters who struggle with internal rather than external forces are often either overlooked or go undiscovered.
So much has been written about teens today and the way they relate to the world. They’re distracted, addicted to their screens, cynical and self-absorbed, reports say. We can certainly find a lot of evidence to support that. But that’s just one lens through which to see them. Most teens I know yearn for self-knowledge and discovery. They are alert to the world around them and earnestly trying to figure out their place in it. They may seem closed off, but often if you only scratch the surface, you’ll find they are open books. And they are open to books. Deciding that they are only interested in style over substance in a story seems to me to sell them short. Maybe amidst all the constant noise in their lives, the blinking screens and the pinging texts, a story that lets them slow down, look inward and see themselves without a snapchat filter is exactly what they crave.
A book can be a place to escape, to spin away into another world or a place we’ve never been. It can be a place to be challenged, to learn, and to heal. It can be a place to imagine ourselves as we wish we were or see ourselves as if in a mirror. Memorable stories strike a balance between character, plot and pacing. It doesn’t matter the genre: anything from sci fi to romance contain these elements. Teens approach life with open and minds and full hearts. Can’t we, then, find a place on the teen bookshelf for stories that place the intricacies of the heart at their center?
Joanne O’Sullivan is the author of Between Two Skies, coming from Candlewick Press, April 25. She lives with her husband and two kids in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, where she writes about people and places as a journalist, non-fiction author and armchair travels while planning her next big trip.