Seagull: A Southern Novel by Lawton Paul is a young adult historical novel set in the 1980s Northern Florida. This coming of age novel has cross-over appeal to an adult audience. The fears, anxieties and conflicts that the likable main character encounters feel genuine and immediate. The supporting characters lend plenty of texture, and the river landscape is real enough to smell. The action moves quickly, if perhaps too telescopically quickly near the end. The grammar is untidy. If this is deliberate to reflect the main character’s vulnerable but growing-in-strength point of view, then curse the critic and laud the writer. It’s certainly not Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, but it is a solidly entertaining read.
Hard working authors deserve a lot of credit, and it’s my goal to provide reviews from time to time in this space. One type of novel I especially admire the young adult novel that crosses over to adult novel. The Sweet Trade by Debrah Strait is an historical YA novel that grown-ups can relish, too.
The Sweet Trade flies open mid-action and the pace never flags for a second. It’s fierce, fast, fun, unsettling and riveting, with a wild cast of intriguing characters and a sense of historic truth. In one aspect, the novel is a coming of age tale set in a fascinating era of nation-state conflicts at sea and the role pirates played in a war-related economy. Hard-driving, hard-striving main character Dirk sets the bar high in battle and in romantic endeavors, so naturally conflict abounds. On a deep level, the novel explores one man’s battle to preserve decency, loyalty and his very humanity in a trade where both honor and dishonor are dangerous things. When an author does the work of vast research, meticulous character development and intricate plot weaving, the reader can simply enjoy the journey. The Sweet Trade is a delightful sail on fair winds and a following sea. Give me the sequel now.
Teen characters that YA authors create are like teens spring-boarding from high school to college. They begin their journey at one level of maturity. They end after a lot of growth at another. A good test of whether the novel is nearing completion is the main character’s growth. If that teen, new adult or young adult character no longer rolls her eyes in contempt and disdain for authority, or if he changes from a dangerous risk-taker into a think-before-acting person, growth has been achieved. The conflicts of the first chapter, first scene have been outgrown. The character is able handle situations that formerly would have baffled her or him.
Teens, like their adult counterparts, are likely to mistake sex for intimacy. To be intimate means to have trust, to be caring, honest and open. For writers of young adult fiction, the possibilities in this confusion present opportunities for character development.
Teens get a big reward response from being accepted by their peers, partly because they are members of a ‘tribe’ going through similar transitions at the same time, and partly because the shared experience helps them learn and practice new, increasingly more adult roles. Writers of young adult fiction understand and utilize the strength of this positive emotion of acceptance.
When you are writing fantasy, science fiction or historical young adult fiction, you get to delve into the norms of the world you have created, its location, culture and time. Teen characters are always trying to gain and assert autonomy. What’s fun is to determine what that means in their world. Parents in late 19th century American frontier might react one way when their teen corrects them for making a mistake, while authorities in a future world might respond entirely differently. When teens blurt out opinions, when they stand up for what they think is right or fight against what they determine is wrong, plot-moving conflict comes naturally.
As a writer of young adult fiction, I want to create characters whose identity development is heading toward healthy, or veering off toward unhealthy, or anywhere on the spectrum in-between. In my YA plotting process, I create what-if scenarios. If my plot outline offers a particular character a choice, I write a scenario that, no matter how difficult the decision, the character takes an appropriate action and as a result is gifted with a new sense of self-trust. Then, I try the opposite, and let the character’s most immature, self-serving, base self run riot. Lastly, I ask the character what he or she intends to do, and sometimes dialogue flows or the character takes a fork in the road that appears not to adhere to my plot outline. I run with the change, at least for a while. Sometimes, the characters know exactly what they are doing. Yes, this is more work than following the outline without deviation. But who wants obedient characters?
Like teens, writers of YA fiction have to understand social anxiety.
If it is true that teens’ social anxiety increases as their ability to ‘try on’ other people’s feelings increases, then being a teen requires adaptation at every turn. As soon as you becomes self-aware, there’s that new worry of wondering what the rest of the world thinks of you. Capturing that teen perspective is a balancing act for the writer of YA fiction.
Teen development, like teen growth, is uneven. When a teen looks in the mirror, each day a new unknown individual looks back. Just as adolescence involves spurts of physical growth, teens’ internal growth happens unevenly. Teens and young adults relate to fictional characters who grow realistically.
Why are teens self-absorbed? Because they are teens. As one wise counselor from a Native American community explained to me, the teen years are the shortest period in a person’s development, and they are years jam-packed with growth and change. Those years are all about practice, practice, practice for adult life. Teen characters’ voices reflect their limited self-awareness, and their volatile reactions.