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What I Read When I Was A Teenager, by Elizabeth Wein

I was a reader as a teen – I’ll make no bones about that.  I was an ambitious reader, which may be why I’ve become an ambitious writer.  So I thought I’d share some of the books I read as a teen that weren’t traditional teen fiction, and maybe scrape the surface of why they appealed to me as a teen.

How Green Was My Valley by Robert Llewellyn.  I never did figure out just how autobiographical this was.  I loved the Welshness of it, the language rhythms which were so different from my own, and the grittiness of the landscape it described.  I was kind of in love with the narrator, Huw Morgan.  Maybe that’s what I was looking for as a teen: a character to fall in love with.

I was definitely, definitely in love with Claudius from Robert Graves’s I Claudius and Claudius the God.  I read these when I was thirteen.  I was inspired by the shocking BBC television series (1976), which yes, I was allowed to watch at 13.  I am pretty sure I struggled through the politics because I adored the character so much.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and Watership Down by Richard Adams.  Okay, there’s no question about it, I was a literary lover.  I was enchanted by the tragic wastrel Sydney Carton.  He was my hero.  But you know what?  Ridiculously, I was equally enchanted by Hazel, the hero bunny of Watership Down.  No, seriously, I was in love with Hazel.  He was such a literary crush that I drew pictures of him (usually at some melodramatic plot point, like with his leg damaged, or getting attacked by the cat).  I drew pictures of Sydney Carton, too, standing at the guillotine, looking tragic.  I like my heroes to be somewhat damaged, I guess.

Ok, I will now skip over the obvious (Tolkien… I was in love with Frodo; TH White… in love with Arthur) and finish with something truly off the wall:  John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet.  John Brown’s Body is an epic poem (literally) about the American Civil War.  It was published in 1928 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929.  I first stumbled across it at 15 or so because my grandmother (my legal guardian) had a vinyl LP with an abridged, dramatic rendition of the book; it took me a couple more years until I actually read the entire work from start to finish, and then I fell in love all over again, this time with one of the several female leads.

                        Sally Dupré, Sally Dupré,
                        Eyes that are neither black nor gray,
                        Why do you haunt me, night and day?

John Brown’s Body follows the stories of a dozen different families and characters – characters with allegiances to both North and South, characters both black and white, rich and poor, slave and free, through the course of the war, describing the changing circumstances for each.  Rhyme, meter and verse style change accordingly throughout the book depending on the characters.  For the music of the poetry alone it’s worth reading, but it also does give you a general historic overview of the American Civil War.  Writing about it is making me want to read it again!

                        Jake Diefer, the barrel-chested Pennsylvanian,
                        Shippy, the little man with the sharp rat-eyes,
                        Luke Breckenridge, the gawky boy from the hills,
                        Clay Wingate, Melora Vilas, Sally Dupré,
                        The slaves in the cabins, ragged Spade in the woods,
                        We have lost these creatures under a falling hammer.
                        We must look for them now, again.

There’s plenty of hunting outside the enclosure for readers bold enough to sneak through the gaps in the ‘teen books’ boundary.  Vary your diet!

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     Tarzan: The Greystoke LegacyAcross the UniverseThe Night She Disappeared

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On Categorising Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

When I went to university, I got a library card for the local library –  not the university library but the public library, because ever since I’d been able to read I got my books out of the public library.  The year was 1982, and the town was New Haven, Connecticut.  I walked into the children’s book section and couldn’t find half my favourite books.

It took me a while to discover that they were there but in a separate section of their own, labelled Teen Fiction, Books for Teens, Teen Reading, Teen Titles or something similar – something that separated these books from both adult books and children’s books.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The New Haven Public Library had fantastic children’s and teen sections in 1982.  In my memory these two sections took up the entire basement.  They had the entire collection of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (about twelve or thirteen volumes). I’d never realized there was more than one.  They had all Alan Garner’s books, which I used to use as a measure of quality in any library. He wasn’t very well known in the United States but he’d been my favourite author for many years because I’d started school in the part of England that is the setting for most of his books.

This was the first time I’d ever encountered the ‘teen’ books being separated from the ‘children’s’ books and I didn’t like it.  Alan Garner’s books were split up.  Half of them were in the children’s section and half were in the teen section.

You know what?  I STILL DON’T LIKE IT.  I think that organising books by their intended age is ghettoization.  It leads to further micro-classification that I just flat-out object to.  In the local library in the city where I live now, two of my favourite authors, K.M. Peyton and Robert Westall, have their books split not just across two sections but across separate shelves labelled Horse Stories, Times Past, War, Supernatural, Family, and probably something else I’ve forgotten.  When I first read Peyton’s books, I read them all because I found them next to each other on the same shelf.  I’d never have gone looking for horse stories.  I read them and I loved them because I loved that particular author.  I think that breaking up books into this many categories creates narrow-minded readers.  There is no incentive for the lover of ‘humour’ ever to look anywhere else for reading material than the limited ‘humour’ shelf.  There is some very funny science fiction out there but they’ll never discover it.

My own fiction is split up in my local library because Young Adult is now its own section.  I have a series that is split in my local library: the first book is in Times Past and the next two are in Young Adult.  I get that we are trying to encourage readers to explore their tastes, I get that we are trying to encourage teens not to feel that they’re reading below their level.  I still think it is idiotic to split a series across two different library sections.

So. Teen fiction?  Young adult fiction?  Some books are more difficult than others. Some books are better than others.  Pioneering readers shouldn’t limit themselves to one narrow category.  The same goes for a writer.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     I Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeMy Brother's ShadowWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker

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Who Buys (And Who Reads) Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

The headline of an article published on September 13, 2012 in the Los Angeles Times announces, Most Young Adult Book Buyers Are Not Young Adults.

My kneejerk reaction to this was, ‘WELL, DUH.’

When I was a teen I never had any money.  I got all my books out of the public library and the school library.  Every now and then I would love a book so much that after I’d read it about, oh, five times, I’d beg my grownup caretakers (my grandparents) to buy it for me.  Occasionally a new book would be released in a series or by a favourite author which I desperately wanted as soon as it came out, and then I’d have to ask for it for Christmas or my birthday or something.  Or, if I really couldn’t wait, I’d buy it and not go out for lunch for three weeks.

My teenage daughter is caught in the same bind, except that I have more money to spend on books than my grandparents did, and my daughter doesn’t have to wait for her birthday or go without lunch.

If you read beyond the headline of the LA Times article, you’ll see that the statistics say 55% of buyers of books aimed at 12 to 17 year olds are 18 years or older.  Of these, 78% claim to be buying the books for themselves.  Let’s twist these statistics another way.  Out of 100 sample shoppers buying YA books, 45 are between 12 and 17.  Another 12 are buying books for their children or grandchildren.  45 plus 12 makes 57… So in fact most young adult books bought in retail ARE actually bought for young adults.  Maybe ‘most young adult book buyers are not young adults,’ but it looks like most young adult book readers are.

The thing that astonishes me is that 45% of people buying books aimed at 12 to 17 year olds are 12 to 17 year olds.  Nearly half of all printed YA books purchased in retail stores are bought by this disenfranchised segment of the market?  That seems like good news to me.

The other good news here is that adults are reading teen books, too.

Patricia McCormick, in a New York Times blog post defending the power of young adult literature, points out why adults might be interested in reading books aimed at teens.

McCormick comments that YA fiction is innovative and risky, and points to some of the more exciting literature to come out in the past ten years – in addition to the obvious (such as the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series).

As a reader who never stopped reading books aimed at teens, even after I stopped being a teen, I kind of wonder what all the fuss is about.  As a writer who is constantly badgered with the question, ‘But why are your books young adult?’, I am proud and honoured to be part of this risky business, where the pay is lower, the stakes are higher, the audience is fickle and the bar for excellence is constantly being raised.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     GlowThe Girl Who Was Supposed to DieWinter Town

Writing Teen Novels
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Writing ‘Evil’ Characters In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

My novel Code Name Verity is set in Europe during World War Two. In talking about writing the book I had a conversation recently about how the concept of the Third Reich’s National Socialist Party should be presented to the rising generation of readers.  I ended up doing a lot of thinking about it afterward because, after the conversation ended, I felt that somehow I’d lost an argument I should have won.  Essentially here’s what the opposing views were, simplified:

Theirs:  Nazis are the ultimate personification of evil and should be represented as such.

Mine:  Nazis are complex human beings and should be represented as such.

In some sense, both views are correct.  Nazism was and is evil.  But I think there’s a lot of evil out there now, and that it is both blind and dangerous to fool ourselves into thinking that the evils of the Third Reich are confined to the past, as a lesson to learn from that couldn’t possibly happen again.

I think the reason I felt I’d ‘lost an argument’ is because there was some moral high ground taken in the opposing viewpoint.  It felt like I was being told, ‘It is your duty as a writer to show what monsters these people were, so as not to downplay the evil of this regime.’

Without going into a list of recent genocides or atrocities, what I want to point out here is that social concepts aren’t evil; social concepts don’t kill and maim and make war; people do those things.  Nazism wouldn’t have taken hold without people buying into it.  I feel that my duty as a writer is not to describe in detail the evil of any specific regime but to warn the reader that the potential to embrace such a regime lies dormant in all of us.

Rather than list the countless genocides, torture, injustices and local outbreaks of civilian killings connected with continuing political fighting all over the world in the 70 years since the defeat of German National Socialism, I will give you one name:  Malala Yousafzai.  The Pakistani schoolgirl suffered gunshot wounds to the head and neck, inflicted by a Taliban militant sniper on her way to school.  It wasn’t random.  At fourteen, Malala is a known and targeted revolutionary.  Since she was eleven, she was keeping an online journal chronicling life as a schoolgirl under the Taliban. She has a lot in common with Anne Frank – except that Malala’s diary is available to anyone with access to the internet, worldwide, as she’s writing it.  She is in fact working with the BBC and knows the danger it puts her in.

What makes her a revolutionary is that she’s telling the truth and that she’s going to school.  That’s reason enough to shoot a 14 year old girl?  Sounds familiar.

Take note teenage readers and writers: bravery and political awareness start early, and suppression is always lurking just around the corner.  Our duty is not just to describe the horrors of the past – it’s to make the evil and errors of the past relevant to modern readers so that we can guard against it in the present.  It is our duty to let young people know that evil is possible in everyone – in yourself as well as in your neighbour – but also that our world is in our own control.  Evil is not a cause for paranoia.  It is the reason we speak out. It is a reason to write.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     Shock PointVibesThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)

Writing Teen Novels
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Writing Teen Novels About Pilots And Flying, by Elizabeth Wein

In 2003 I got my private pilot’s license, and ever since then I have found myself more and more embroiled in writing about flying.  It crept up on me gradually.  I started out with a short story called ‘Chasing the Wind’ (in Sharyn November’s first anthology  Firebirds), which was about a girl who is a passenger in a small plane in Kenya in the early 1950s… I moved from there to ‘Chain of Events’ (in the Reckless issue of Michael Cart’s Rush Hour) in which a girl passenger takes over the command, though not the controls, of a feckless teenage pilot.  It wasn’t until my third short story about flying that I felt confident enough to write about a girl who actually becomes a pilot, and ‘Something Worth Doing’ (in Sharyn November’s Firebirds Soaring) eventually provided the seed for my novel Code Name Verity.

What do these stories have in common?  Well, they’re all about women in flight, and it’s the feminine aspect of piloting that inspires me.  It’s such an unusual activity for a woman, or a girl; I want to spread the word.  I want to inspire others.  I hope that one or two girls who read my stories will think, ‘Hmmm.  Maybe I could do that.’

I couldn’t have written about flying until I knew how to fly.  I wouldn’t have dared.  I still never quite feel sure I’m being as accurate as I need to be, especially since my fictional pilots tend to be more adventurous than I am myself.  But the seed for verisimilitude is there.

You know the old adage, ‘Write about what you know’?  I think it could be more accurately stated, ‘Write about what you love.’  That’s what makes good writing – the personal touch doesn’t necessarily come from first hand experience, but rather from first hand passion.  A writer’s knowledge born of a deep, inquiring interest can be every bit as thorough as knowledge gained through experience.  Do the research; do the fieldwork; learn the language.

Your passion is a gift which you can share – a gift you should want to share.  Your flair for a subject should shine through your writing and inspire your readers.  But be cautious about your expertise.  Not all your readers share your expertise and not all of them will care about it.  The trick is to draw their interest with your story without getting into the nitty gritty of what you know.  You don’t need to describe how a piston engine works in order to describe the thrill of take-off at full power.  Your know-how should be sketched in lightly – let the full extent of your knowledge be readable between the lines only.

There will always be a few people who don’t want to know – who simply aren’t interested in the detailed story you want to share, no matter how passionate that story is.  But I like to hope for the best.  I’ll continue to imagine an ideal reader with an inquiring mind open to new ideas.  Maybe a love of flying will creep up on readers gradually, just as it did on me.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

 

United States (and beyond)

    

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     Raven SpeakSektion 20Spark

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

A Novelist’s Responsibility To Readers, by Elizabeth Wein

My husband the businessman often talks about a thing called ‘duty of care’.  Here’s the Wikipedia link to its usage in English law, which is generally what he’s referring to.

Loosely speaking, as the article says, ‘a duty of care arises where one individual or group undertakes an activity which could reasonably harm another, either physically, mentally, or economically.’  On the simplest level, when you drive a car you have a ‘duty of care’ not to endanger anyone with your driving.

On a more subtle and complex level, a writer also has a ‘duty of care’.  Maybe the risk of physical harm isn’t there, but throwing radical ideas at people can be dangerous in a different way.  Author contracts often contain a clause where the author must assure the publisher that his or her work ‘contains no recipe, formula or instruction injurious to the user.’

In writing historical fiction, I feel that I have a duty of care to present my readers with an accurate picture of the past.  Any misrepresentation on my part won’t be physically harmful, it’s true, but I feel that it could be developmentally harmful.  I don’t like the idea of people going around repeating inaccuracies based on something I’ve written.  I want to generate my readers’ interest in the subjects I’m interested in, but I don’t want to be considered the ultimate source or authority on those subjects.

I check almost everything, including my word usage.  I flag things I’m not sure of.  I work with a slang dictionary to date things; I spend hours checking up on single items.  What did the Special Operations Executive use for their sabotage operations in Occupied Europe?  It turns out they were pioneers in the use of plastic explosive.  But did they refer to it as plastic explosive?  How did they transport and detonate it?  What color was it then – the same as now?  Was it made out of the same stuff? Was it effective?  Once I’ve found the answers to these questions, how much can I actually talk about without giving information that might count as a ‘formula or instruction injurious to the user’?

I sometimes envy fantasy writers who build their own worlds with their own internal integrity without these hurdles to narrative flow.  It’s possible JK Rowling stopped writing and spent two solid days figuring out the mechanics of floo powder, but I don’t think it’s likely.  Even if she did, there’s no ‘duty of care’ in getting floo powder right or wrong.  Successful worldbuilding in a fantasy novel is in the author’s hands, not laid down in the annals of history and the laws of physics.

I have to confess that part of the reason I get so bogged down in fact-checking is because I really enjoy it.  It probably takes me longer than it should because I get distracted finding out other things that are loosely connected to the subject I’m looking up.  Reading about early aerial photography makes me want to go and research 19th century ballooning.

Probably the best thing about doing research for historical novels is that it often generates plot.  Once you start digging, you run into all kinds of interesting and often exciting facts you didn’t know existed.  ‘Thinking’s like archeology,’ Jamie Delano writes in the comic book series Hellblazer (volume IX). ‘You scrape; beneath your trowel, shape starts to form.  Forgotten secrets come to light.  ’Til finally you reveal the face of perfect beauty—the plan.’

For good tips on detail and fact checking in writing historical fiction, check out Alison Rattle’s article here: http://hotkeyblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/dont-get-lost-in-the-archives-a-bit-of-advice-for-historical-fiction-writers

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

 

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of Lions     My Brother's ShadowMary, Bloody MaryAcross the Universe

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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