YA–why the genre distinction?

An interview done by Scott Simon on NPR with author Claire Messud about her novel, The Burning Girl, recently caught my attention.

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The novel is a story of adolescent friendship, but it’s not labeled as YA. This distinction had me thinking of other novels I’ve enjoyed in the last few years in which the protagonists are not grown ups, but the readership is generally intended to be adult: books like Tell the Wolves I’m Home and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Simon asked Messud if anyone gave her trouble about her intended audience and how the book should be labeled. Her response:

When I was growing up, and maybe when you were growing up, too, YA was not a category that existed. There were books about young people. There were books about older people. And there were children’s books that were frankly written for children. But, otherwise, books were just for people. This is a book that is as much for a parent as a child, is as much for a teenager as a grandmother or a grandfather.

It’s a book about what it’s like to be alive and be human, I hope. For me, at least, and for the people – everyone around me that I know – these years are so formative and so central to who we become and how we interact with other people as adults in the world – that to see them as something only of interest to teenagers or adolescents themselves – I think that’s just missing so much of reality.

People often ask me what my target audience is for A Girl Called Problem, perhaps because the premise piques adults’ interest (a girl looking to challenge gender roles in rural, 1960s, post-independence Tanzania), but the protagonist is a kid. My simple answer: the publisher labels the readership as 9-13-year olds, but many of the readers I hear from are adults.

I’m delighted the young-adult and middle-grade genres have exploded since I was a child. There are so many books out there now that have the potential to feel truly relevant to a whole spectrum of young readers: nerds, cool kids, outcasts, struggling readers, action lovers, unusually mature (or immature) kids, poets, artists, city kids, hicks. But I also believe that really quality literature, whether it’s written for kids or adults, transcends age, as Messud suggests.

I’m revising a young adult novel right now, one set in the mountains of South India, and as I rework the dialogue or my descriptions of the feelings of the protagonist teenager and of her friends, I’m aiming to depict what feels like an authentic teen experience, but ideally also one that will feel interesting and fully human for adult readers. That’s a tricky balance. I encourage you to listen to the interview with Messud and to consider what you think makes young-adult and middle-grade fiction unique.

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Character Transformation and Writing

Last week I wrote about “windows” and “mirrors” in creative writing, and how travel–or really any experience with difference, even in own neighborhood–can challenge our expectations about the world and provide great fuel for writing.

This week I want to share an essay I recently published about climate change and how living in Costa Rica for a year helped to change and deepen my understanding of what we humans are doing to our planet.

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I hope you have a minute to read the full essay on Slate. For those of you practicing your own writing, you’ll see that this essay is one about personal transformation or how I was changed by an experience. Character transformation is another great framework for writing. Ask yourself: What experiences have I had (try to be as specific as possible) that have permanently changed me or my perspective on the world? Make a list and then choose one to start writing. You’ll likely find an engaging story well worth sharing.

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Writing and Travel

Folks talk about creative writing providing windows and mirrors: stories that allow us to feel and experience another’s context or perspective (windows) and tales that help us better understand ourselves (mirrors).

I tend to gravitate toward writing that offers me windows into unknown cultures, places, times or experiences. In the young adult/middle grade category I’ve loved books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and Navigating Early. Recent adult creative-writing reads with engrossing windows have included Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Euphoria, and To Capture What We Cannot Keep. Part of what makes these “windows” books great is that they also provide complex characters and insights into the human experience. In short, they are replete with “mirrors,” as well.

Travel, of course, can have a similar and sometimes even more jarring effect by exposing us to differences and then challenging us to think about the world in new ways. That experience of having your expectations challenged is a great starting point for writing. In fact, it turned out to be the frame for a couple of the essays I published this year. One essay was about my youngest son’s experience of learning Spanish: what initially felt torturous, turned out to be quite comfortable, even fun.

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The full essay is available here at The Washington Post. I hope you enjoy reading it, and for those writers out there, I hope that this post inspires you to write about experiences when your expectations were challenged. Just remember, you don’t have to leave the country or even your own neighborhood to have your expectations dashed, but experiences like these are generally rich for writing.

Next week, I’ll follow up with a post about how my understanding of the natural world and climate change was expanded after a year in Costa Rica.



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Our year in graphic novels

I recently published an essay in The Washington Post about my family’s year in graphic novels. Why graphic novels? For me, as a lover of libraries, one of the big limitations that comes with living in a less developed country for a spell is existing without access to the constant flow of books I enjoy at my local library. Anticipating this limitation for my kids, my parents generously offered to send them a couple of graphic novels each month for the year we were gone.

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The result: we devoured each of these books–over, and over, and over again–until we had them nearly memorized.

We also came to appreciate graphic novels even more than we already had. Now that we’re back, we’ve been special ordering graphic novels that weren’t part of our year’s care packages. One that I recently loved was Hilda and the Black Hound. Another hit in our house this week has been Roller Girl. I was reading it with my kids last night and I realized one of the wonders of a good graphic novel is that it can make emotions really salient.

I remember when my kids were toddlers and they went through their versions of the terrible twos. I didn’t know how to handle their tantrums until I read a parenting book that suggested mimicking their behavior–stomping around, making sad faces and repeating whatever they were screaming about in a loud voice. This worked! My tantrum mimicking got them listening. They felt heard, and then were able to hear me.

As I watched how Roller Girl captivated my kids last night, I realized it was doing just that: bringing not just words, but grand images and movements and facial expressions to mirror feelings they’ve had. When the main character, Astrid, got angry and transformed into her larger-than-life Roller Girl persona, she reminded of the character Cece in another favorite graphic novel of ours, who becomes the superheroic El Deafo whenever her emotions are running wild.

If you have a minute, read my essay in The Washington Post. It’s full of titles we loved from this year. If you aren’t hooked on graphic novels yet, it may just tip you over the edge.

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Learning Spanish in Guatemala

As many of you know, my family just spent the last year in Central America. Living abroad has always been a boon for my writing, exposing me to new potential settings for books (imagine staring down into a volcanic caldera glowing with red molten lava, like we did in Nicaragua ), interesting characters ripe for re-imagination (our Mayan host family in Guatemala who spoke to each other in the Mayan language Tzutujil, as well as Spanish), and histories and stories I wouldn’t encounter in the U.S. (Costa Ricans, for example, celebrate the day they abolished their military as a national holiday, and some of my neighbors in Costa Rica moved to Central America after they refused to register with Selective Service in the United States).

Our first stop in our year abroad was a month of intensive Spanish lessons in Guatemala. I loved so much about that month–our host family, living at the base of a verdant volcano, the cobblestone streets of San Pedro, long conversations with my Spanish teacher, and lots of tropical fruit smoothies, of course. If you’d like a taste of the experience, I wrote this article in The Los Angeles Times:

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I hope you’ll find it inspiring. Teen readers, don’t be deterred. Language school abroad is a great opportunity for whole families, of if you’re an older teen, it might even be something you could do on your own.

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Soccer, the Central American Way

Traveling or living abroad often provides great fodder for writing. New cultural contexts, languages and even natural settings provide us with fresh eyes on the world and on assumptions we make about how things ought to be done. A Girl Called Problem was born from my fascination with African socialism after living in Tanzania for two years. My memoir-in-progress, Sari Swinging, is about the fresh perspective I gained on parenting norms when I moved to India with my newborn son. This year, my family is living in Costa Rica and I’ve been inspired to write several articles and essays about our experience, as well as a regular blog.

Today, I want to share an essay I wrote about my kids’ experience joining a soccer (or fútbol) team in Costa Rica. At first it seemed like torture–Costa Rican kids are soccer whizzes–but it turned out to be a great lesson in grit and in what Costa Ricans calls ganas, which roughly translates to mean deep desire.

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I hope you enjoy reading the full essay, which can be found here at The Washington Post.

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From a Tanzanian Village to Mumbai


Modesta at her international school in India.

Readers of A Girl Called Problem often ask me about my friend Modesta, the woman I dedicated the novel to and whom I introduce at the end of the book in my author’s note. Modesta was one of many village kids I met in Tanzania. We first got acquainted because she sold fruit door to door to earn money to help out her mom. Modesta and I eventually became great friends–she taught me most of my Swahili and how to get by in general in Tanzania–and when I later moved to India to teach at an international school, Modesta ended up joining me there.

But before she moved to India, Modesta had never visited a big city, let alone stepped on an airplane. As you can imagine, deciding to leave her rural village took an immense amount of courage. I flew to Tanzania to accompany Modesta on that first journey, but even with my help, Modesta just barely made it out of East Africa.

Fifteen years later, Modesta lives in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam. She’s also flown on many international flights. But we still laugh about our first nail-biting trip out of East Africa together. The Christian Science Monitor recently published my essay describing the journey.

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I hope you enjoy reading our story!

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