Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Retro Post: Making A Killing in YA

This post originally appeared last year on another blog. I'm reposting because I finally read the book I talked about and have some bones to pick, which I'll detail in a follow-up blog. It also semi-relates to last week's post about alleged children's lit that you might not want your (younger) children reading. And why does Wolverine get away with killing people when other heroes can't?

But first, the rerun:

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Having learned nothing from my last foray into young adult literature, I've decided to try it again. As part of my prep, I'm raiding the library for the current popular sellers, to see what I'm up against. Ye godz. I am seriously going to have to up my game if I want to compete in this market.

For the moment, it appears the Twilight/paranormal and Hunger Games/dystopia fads have run their course. What I'm seeing a lot of now is otherworld fantasy, sort of Game of Thrones lite with a bit of the X-Men thrown in (the kids in some of the books have superpowers). This makes reading them like old home week for me. I grew up haunting the Science Fiction section of the bookstore, which is where these would have been shelved back when I belonged to their target demographic. In those days books for tweens and teens consisted primarily of contemporaries and mysteries. Those of us with a penchant for weird read Lord of the Rings, and Stephen King when he showed up. Then Harry Potter and Twilight came along, and all of a sudden YA was a thing. And here we are.

So I'm in Barnes & Noble skimming through Throne of Glass (somebody else got the library's copy) and I notice something interesting: the protag, a young woman constantly referred to as the best assassin in her world and a total badass, never seems to kill anybody. Come to think of it, the whole point of Hunger Games was two dozen teenagers turned loose in a huge arena to kill each other. How many did Katniss kill? One, I think. She may have shot some guy. Mostly she ran and hid and let them kill each other. Katniss was not a killer, and no fool.

The publishers of these books, however, I have to wonder about.

In following the Game of Thrones formula of intrigue and nasty doings in a high fantasy setting, coupled with the call for kickass ladies fueled by Hunger Games and Divergent, publishers are putting out stories of teenaged assassins and swordfighters and rebels against the (adult) government and presenting them in a light that makes them look heroic. Maybe not the best of ideas. I have to question the marketing strategy of glamorizing killing to a segment of the population known to take deadly weapons to school and bully classmates into suicide.

Somebody else must have brought this up at a board meeting, because these teenage killers don't enjoy what they do. It wasn't even their choice: they were forced into it by evil adults. Even though they've been trained from childhood to kill, they usually don't. The greatest assassin in her world spends a lot of her time knocking people unconscious. As soon as they can, they leave the profession and become—I dunno, maybe a housewife. All these chicks have boyfriends, killers like themselves.

This dilemma—we wanna read about tough teenage girls, but kids killing others is wrong—can lead to absurd and even frustrating situations, like the assassin mentioned above. If she doesn't off somebody, she's liable to look like she's all talk. But do you really want your 14-year-old daughter "watching" a 17-year-old slicing people up? Getting the idea that's a good thing? We must protect The Children!

That's one way around the problem. When these kids do kill, it's justifiable. Nobody's going to blame Harry Potter for magically blasting Voldemort. On the other hand, Harry was 17-18 years old by Book 7, pretty much an adult. Also, his weapon of choice is a magic wand, something harder than a gun to pick up on the street. In the Percy Jackson series, Percy's only 16 in the climactic novel. He doesn't kill the bad guy. The secondary bad guy has a change of heart, offs the major bad guy, and then dies a hero. In Throne of Glass, Celaena finally does kill somebody, but it's an otherworldly monster. She'll be over 18 by the end of the series, so maybe she'll be allowed to graduate to human victims.

It helps that these books are set in fantasy or future worlds that have nothing to do with our modern reality. Different worlds, different times, different societies. Same old sexist attitudes, but that's a different blog. It's okay for kids to be trained killers in these books because the stories take place somewhere else and not in middle America. Don't try this at home, kids! Or at school.

As for the hundreds of innocent techs, scientists, military grunts and support crew who perished when twentysomething Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star, it's best we don't think about them. They destroyed Alderaan; I suppose they had it coming.

For the book I'm fiddling with, I won't have to worry about any of this. My story is set in modern America, so showing kids who kill is out of the question. My protag doesn't need to kill. She's a shapechanger. She can knock grown men out with the best of them. My biggest problem will be matching the quality of the writing in similar YA books currently on the market. I've definitely got my work cut out for me.

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