I Was Wrong - There's No Such Thing As 'Regular Kid Lit'
At the start of the weekend, I wrote a post on YA Contemporary in response to Hillary Busis's EW article bemoaning the lack of 'regular kid' lit out there today. In it, I named a few dozen recent books that I thought fit in with what she meant by the term. The more I think about it, though, the more I'm convinced that I got it wrong, and Busis was half-right.
There have hardly been any 'regular kid' books published in the last few decades.
Because there's no such thing as a 'regular kid'.
WHAT IS A REGULAR KID ANYWAY?
I mean, let's look at this. Busis praises Davey Wexler, lead character of Tiger Eyes, for her "essential ordinariness". "Nothing about her life is sensationalized, not even the bloody holdup that abruptly robs her of her father," according to the article. I'll admit I haven't read Tiger Eyes, but as a long-time Judy Blume fan, I'll take Busis's word for it. But a 'bloody holdup' that leaves Davey without her father? Sounds like pretty 'tough stuff' to me. Is a book like Sarah Skilton's Bruised, about a girl who's at the scene of an armed robbery, so far away from that that it's not classed as 'regular kid' lit when Tiger Eyes is? You don't need to have been caught up in a violent crime to appreciate Bruised as a stunning story for the way that it tackles identity, responsibility, friendship, family and bullying.
REGULAR KID vs REGULAR SITUATION
When I read Busis's article I took it to mean children and teens in situations which a reasonably large number of readers may find themselves in at some point in their life. 'Regular' and 'ordinary' as descriptions, though, seem to underplay just how interesting these characters can be. Danielle in Carol Midgley's My Family and Other Freaks, Archie in the Geekhood series, and Lucy and Ed in Graffiti Moon are in what I'd call 'regular situations'. Older examples from authors Busis refers to that fit the bill would be Kendra in Paula Danziger's Remember Me To Harold Square, Margaret in Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Gary in Louis Sachar's Dogs Don't Tell Jokes.
So, are any of these characters 'regular'? Surely not. They're all highly individual and wonderful in their own way. So, though, are a whole heap of characters from books which involve more unusual situations.
ARE THEY 'ISSUE BOOKS'?
Take The Fault In Our Stars, which Busis refers to as 'a highly stylized novel detailing a doomed romance between two cancer-stricken teenagers.' This is a fair enough description, and it's undoubtedly not an easy read. However to describe TFIOS as an 'issue book' is missing the point. Yes, the vast majority of readers, thankfully, will not be suffering from a terminal illness. Hopefully, though, reading a book like this can help them to empathise with those people who are. As well, the book's themes of love, loss, family and identity are ones that teens and adults can all relate to.
I think this is perhaps the key, and where Busis underestimates some of today's writers badly. I've certainly read some novels in the past I'd probably think 'issue books' was a fair description for. In these, a novel focuses strongly on a particular issue to preach a point of view. Characters tend to be flat and plot wafer-thin. Much of today's YA and MG fiction, though, tackles hard-hitting topics without ever being solely about them. Consider Second Chance Summer, by Morgan Matson. A weepie about a girl whose father is dying, it looks at forgiveness, grief, family and rebuilding relationships. To reduce that to the description of an 'issue book' doesn't come close to capturing the book's incredible spirit.
The list of books with decidedly irregular situations but themes which can touch all of us could go on and on. A few other examples.
- Skin Deep by Laura Jarratt - Girl disfigured in a car accident falls for a New Age traveller. Themes - disfigurement, prejudice, mental illness, recovering from tragedy, beauty, friendship, loyalty
- You Don't Know Me by Sophia Bennett - Girl group enter a TV talent contest and are told they can progress only if they drop one of their members. Themes - friendship, loyalty, difficult choices, body image, cyber-bullying, media manipulation.
- When I Was Joe trilogy by Keren David - A boy moves into a Witness Protection scheme after seeing a stabbing. Can he build a new life for himself and avoid the people out to silence him? Themes - identity, family, secrets, self-harm, romance, loyalty.
- Wonder by RJ Palacio - Born with a terrible facial abnormality - "Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." - Auggie wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old. But can someone who looks like him ever fit in? Themes - appearance, tolerance, friendship, bullying, honesty, courage.
- Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein - Two girls try to help the Allies in World War II, but one gets caught by Nazis. Themes - friendship, loyalty, patriotism, courage, romance, platonic love, family.
- A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master - A young boy in 1947 India tries to stop his dying father from hearing about the news of Partition. Themes - coming-of-age, family, honesty, white lies, religious tolerance.
- Heroic by Phil Earle - Two brothers look out for each other as they grow up on a notoriously rough estate - until one joins the army. How will things change when he returns? Themes - sibling rivalry, friendship, loyalty, PTSD.
- Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher - A teen receives a set of tapes from a classmate who killed herself. Themes - guilt, choices, responsibility, bullying,
All of the books above feature characters who don't have superpowers, aren't magical, and aren't living in a fantasy world or a dystopian society. (Although check back next week for my thoughts on some of those kids who do have superpowers, or are from another world, and how they often have a lot to say to readers too!)
The contemporary ones, in particular, seem to get labelled by some reviewers as 'issue books'. As you can see from the list of themes, though, however unfamiliar the situation, there are a huge amount of talented authors out there who can bring it to life and also bring in themes which all readers will be familiar with.
What do you think of the terms 'regular kid' books and 'issue books'? Do you relate to characters in books dealing with difficult topics differently from those dealing with more everyday life? Which authors do a fantastic job of creating compelling characters?
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment!