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Writing Novels For Children Versus Writing Novels For Teens, by Diane Lee Wilson

When I set out to write my first novel my goal was simply to write the kind of book that I’d enjoyed as a girl: a horse-centric story set in a different land. My models were the wonderful books by Margeurite Henry (which include her Newbery-winning King of the Wind), the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley, and a few other library finds, such as The Silver Brumby and Dapples of the Circus. That first novel became I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade and it was published in the U.S. by Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic, as well as in three other countries and languages. In the U.S. it was marketed as a “young adult” novel.

At the time, I’d never heard of that genre and, to my knowledge, had never read such a book. What, exactly, was a “young adult” novel? It was explained to me that young adult, or YA, books are intended for readers aged 12 to 18 and that my style of writing and subject matter naturally fit that reading level. Okay. Happy that my writing had found an audience, I continued to produce and have since published five additional YA novels, all historical fiction and all involving a horse or horses in some way.

I now know that what often sets apart a young adult story from children’s or adult novels is the age of the protagonist and the subject matter. I have been advised to keep my protagonists in the upper teen range (13-17) so that readers can envision themselves in the role. And I have had at least one scene (in Ravenspeak, in which my protagonist has to cut off her arm in order to survive) severely edited due to “overly gruesome details.” I’ve also, on occasion, had to modify a few expletives spat out by the less respectable individuals in my cast of characters. Other than these instances, my writing style seems to suit the YA genre. I try to keep the pacing fast and the details vivid.

While I am currently working on a seventh novel (again YA but contemporary rather than historical) I am also developing a series of books for the children’s market, specifically middle grade readers. This is still a learning process for me and I have been perusing the styles of other authors, studying voice and pacing and structure. I can see that the pages are fewer, the descriptive passages shorter and the plots simpler. I have read some bestsellers that I find unmemorable and I have uncovered a few gems that have told beautiful, rich stories in an enviably simple yet artful fashion. That is what I will strive for in this nascent collection.

I firmly believe that good writing can be produced for readers of any age and skill level. What’s most important is that the reader be interested and engaged in the story, and thoroughly enjoy the reading experience. And, since the chronological ages of readers don’t always mesh with their prescribed reading levels, I think there need not be any firm demarcation between books intended for children and those written for teens.

A final note: In considering this topic, I came across an informative discussion from people who are actually in school classrooms and libraries. It can be found at: http://childrenslitblog.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/childrens-literature-vs-young-adult

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Diane Lee Wilson author site: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson bio page

To Ride the Gods' Own StallionRaven SpeakFirehorseBlack Storm Comin'King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin ArabianThe Silver Brumby (Essential Modern Classics)The Silver Horse (Chain of Charms)

Mentor Characters in Teen Fiction, by Diane Lee Wilson

Heroes of all ages rely on mentors but teen protagonists, especially, can often benefit from an “older and wiser” point of view. Such elders are iconic in literature and film: Professor Dumbledore for Harry Potter, Gandalf for Frodo (okay, not truly a teen but young in character) or Mr. Miyagi for Daniel in The Karate Kid.

Utilizing an aged mentor in your cast of characters presents benefits but also some dangers, the riskiest being the creation of a cliché: the saccharine octogenarian who too readily dispenses wisdom in platitudes.

How can you avoid this pitfall?

The key, I think, lies in creating a mentor who is genuinely interested in helping the teen protagonist but does so mostly by encouraging the teen’s best. Rather than solving problems themselves or providing answers directly, they help the teen arrive at success through guidance, modeling, or when necessary, challenge.

I’ve used “old wise ones” in several of my books and they’ve become some of my favorite characters. To keep them interesting I make these elderly mentors a little “prickly” in character or a little “off” mentally. Their words and actions can then be unexpected, leading the teen to speculate on the reliability of the advice (and thus begin to trust his or her own instincts even more). Such unpredictability creates story tension as well because the reader must decide right along with the protagonist if the mentor can be trusted.

In my novel I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade, for example, the teen Oyuna is warned by her father to stay away from her shamaness grandmother, who has suddenly appeared in their nomad’s camp:

“Her mind is twisted,” he said, spitting into the cooking fire. “Too many years traveling alone.”

Of course Oyuna secretly visits her eccentric grandmother anyway and receives clues to her destiny; but they’re just that—clues, wrapped in convoluted language that’s close to gibberish. She’s not sure, in fact, if what she’s received is any sort of wisdom at all.

A similar relationship exists in Firehorse where Rachel and her maternal grandmother live cramped, unsatisfying lives beneath the overbearing rule of Rachel’s father. Rachel suspects her grandmother of approaching senility and is surprised one evening when the woman delivers a defiant speech directed at Rachel’s father. Via this bold action the grandmother symbolically separates herself from Rachel’s parents, creating a natural alliance with her rebellious granddaughter, and paving the way for Rachel to also stand up to her father.

Interestingly, in both of these novels the grandmother dies three quarters of the way through—quite to the author’s surprise, I might add. Upon reflection, though, I realize that Dumbledore and Gandalf also died before their stories ended. I think the death or disappearance of a mentor signals the teen’s arrival at maturity; the necessary wisdom has been imparted, the torch has been passed.

In another of my novels, Raven Speak, a Viking teen named Asa struggles throughout the story with the issue of trusting her decidedly unusual mentor, the mercurial Wenda. Near the end of a pivotal chapter the two have this exchange:

Asa shook her head. This was absurd. “No,” she replied. “I’m not traveling with you any further. I can’t trust you.”

“Of course you can’t.” Wenda made the statement seem obvious. “You can only trust yourself.”

This is the vote of confidence that every good mentor is trying to impart to a novel’s hero. And the mentor’s role really boils down to that: instilling confidence. It can be accomplished in many ways by inventive authors but remains a message that teens, real and fictional, long to hear.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

I Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeFirehorseRaven SpeakHarry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneThe Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Boxed SetKarate Kid CollectionHarry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey

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