Hide a Book Day

Good books, great friends, beautiful town, perfect weather. Is there a better recipe for a fantastic day?

When I learned about Hide a Book Day and its corresponding hashtag, I knew

I had to participate. The idea was to spread the love of reading by hiding books in unexpected places. Surprise presents for an unsuspecting public.

When I get a notion in my head, I like to run with it. Instead of one book, two books, I wanted to give away a whole lot of books. So I reached out to a group of authors that I knew would be enthusiastic about participating – the Lake Union authors – my publishing family.

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They loved it. Within days, I had sixteen books in my mailbox, and I got to work.
I’d ordered official stickers, but they never arrived, as I’d accidentally listed the state on my mailing address as Texas instead of Virginia. Sixteen years in Texas, six months in Virginia. Honest mistake.

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Instead, I wrote out homemade ones, asking the finder of the book to post a picture online, use the hashtag, and to review it when they were finished with it.

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The mechanics were finished. The next step – decide where to place everything. For this feat, I leaned on a new friend of mine – the kind I hoped to find when we made this cross-country move. She knew everything about everything in our town and was the perfect resource. When the day came, we packed my eight-passenger mini-van to the max with our collective six kids (minus my two teens) and set out for a day of book-giving adventure.IMG_5953

There may or may not have been a Starbucks drive-through side trip.

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All fueled up, we thought it would be fun to do this thematically.

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Where We Fall, by Rochelle Weinstein has strong football themes, so we left it at Tribe Stadium at the College of William and Mary. Saturday Evening Girls Club by Jane Healey centers around a pottery guild, so we left it at an eighty-year-old pottery store. Our favorite was At Wave’s End by Patricia Perry Donovan. With its beautiful seashell cover, we drove to the beach and set it on a bench for a lucky reader to find.

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The adventure took us to a building erected in 1695, a garden with a white picket fence, a Christmas store, a museum, a farm-to-market restaurant, a diner, a church, and more.
I’ve walked by those places several times since then, and I wonder every time about the people who discovered the books. Did they wonder at the unusual places the books had been left? Did they smile when they read the note and realize that it was a gift? Did they crack open the spines and did they enjoy the stories?

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I hope they got half as much joy finding them as we did placing them. Because Hide a Book Day 2018 will definitely see us hiding treasure once again.

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unnamed Camille Di Maio is an award-winning real estate agent in San Antonio who, along with her husband of 20 years, enjoys raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” released in 2017, and her third, “The Way of Beauty” will come out on May 1, 2018.

Why I Read – And Why We {probably} All Write

As I write this post, I’m sitting in a London airport. This is my first time coming to this city, to England in general, and, of course, I spent the last few weeks with excitement scaffolding on excitement as the time for the trip got closer. My husband and I had a long layover and decided to use it to get a taste of London.

But here’s the thing that surprised me: London didn’t. Yes, I’ve seen movies that take place here, am familiar with the same signature tourist sites that everyone is, and I plan to hit many of them next week. But as we were passing by neighborhood after neighborhood, as I looked at the landscape and structure and pitch and city, I felt strangely at home.

You see, I completed my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. I know this place very well. I have studied the history and the motivation and the experiences of many people, real or made up, and this foreign city that required 14 hours of traveling (including one 20-minute sprint through the Montreal airport) feels like home.

That is the power of books. Because of my journeys with characters made up by someone who loves a particular place, I, as a reader, am able to share that love. I have fallen in love with the powerful imaginations that created both Hogwarts and Terabithia. I have been able to experience times and countries otherwise unavailable to me, can feel a connectivity with people in proximity who are reading a book I loved, who cried over a character as I did.

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As I have been thinking about what I want from my writing career, I have had moments imagining accepting an award, moments when I pictured my name on a bestseller list, moments when I picture who could act the roles within my books. I doubt I’m alone in that. But really, truly, when I think about a book that I wrote, formatted and printed for someone to read and enjoy instead of edit and critique, what I think about most is having someone – one someone – let me know that what I wrote mattered to them, that what I wrote brought them comfort, that what I wrote felt like home.

This is what drives my character development and setting creation, this is what I think about when I don’t feel like writing. I read to experience worlds and loves and challenges someone cared enough to create, and the best way I know to pay that forward is to do the same.

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TashaTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Summer is almost over, and the most wonderful time of the year is right around the corner. And no, I’m not only talking of the Fall, with its scents of cinnamon and burning leaves, the taste of everything-pumpkin-flavored, and Halloween. I’m talking about NATIONAL HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH.

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When I first started writing (back in 2009) a Utah school invited me to visit them for Hispanic Heritage Month. I still remember my nerves as I, an unpublished writer, prepared a presentation for all grades attending this bilingual school.

To start, I read a couple of my short stories, but my favorite part of the day was sharing my love for the books that marked my life as a kid growing up in Argentina. Although I believed EVERYONE should read Juan Ramón Jiménez’s classic Platero y Yo and all of Isabel Allende’s books (especially her trilogy for teens), I would’ve wished to share books by Latin American authors. US-born and/or immigrant Latino authors who represented the kids who looked at me with such wonder and admiration.

All these years later, I’m thrilled that the list of Latino authors I’ve read and met is so extensive that I can’t name them all in a single blog post, but I’ll feature a few of my favorites—many of whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet in person and some I count among my friends.

I believe that in order to become better writers, we should read voraciously. I became a writer because of my love of reading, and never was I happier when during my years at my MFA program, I could count reading time as “school work.” Even after graduation, I never got over the habit, I’m happy to say. What I love the most about books and stories is sharing my favorite with the world. Here they are:

matt_sidbr.pngMatt de la Peña:

Matt de la Peña isn’t only a New York Times Best-selling author; he’s also a Newbery Award Winner for his picture book Last Stop on Market Street. His Newbery Medal acceptance speech is empowering and life-changing. He’s also the author of multi-award winning novels Mexican White Boy, Ball Don’t Lie, and We Were Here, among others. A confessed former reluctant reader, he’s spoken widely about his attitude about male emotion and his relationship with his father. Matt’s books are dynamic and stereotype-shattering.   

Zoraida Córdova:

zoraida_vlc_photo2.jpgBorn in Ecuador, a New Yorker at heart, Zoraida is the author of the Vicious Deep trilogy (amazing mermaids!), the On the Verge series (steamy young adult), and the Brooklyn Brujas series (speculative contemporary YA). Her latest novel, Labyrinth Lost, was a Tor.com Best Book of 2016 and has been optioned for film by Paramount Studios. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic, which is obvious in the way she writes about brujas saving the world right in the middle of Brooklyn. Her new series Hollowed Crown was recently acquired by Disney Hyperion, and is loosely based on the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century, but adding a thief of memories. I can’t wait for summer 2019 to get my hands on it.

Margarita.jpgMargarita Engle:

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but from a young age she developed a deep love for her mother’s country, Cuba. She’s the current National Young People’s Poet Laureate. Her numerous books have won multiple awards including: The Newbery Medal Honor, The Walter Dean Meyers Honor, Pura Belpré Medal, PEN USA, Golden Kite, etc. etc. Margarita’s books are pure magic made words. My favorite of hers are: Enchanted Air, Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, The Surrender Tree, among others. Besides being a very prolific writer, she’s an agronomist and botanist.

Daniel José Older:

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I had the pleasure of working with Daniel during the last semester of my graduate program. He’s not only the author of the acclaimed, award winning Shadowshaper cypher about teens with the power to infuse ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories, but also the magical Bone Street Rumba series about in-betweeners who walk in the realm that separates life and death, and sometimes ride ambulances to save the world. He’s also an activist and his Buzzfeed article “The Twelve Fundamentals of Writing the Other” (and the Self) should be required reading for all writers.

medina_high07.jpgMeg Medina:

Another Cuban American writer that’s changing the world! Her YA Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass won the Pura Belpré award and is being developed for a TV series by the producers of Jane the Virgin. Burn Baby Burn was longlisted for the National Book Award. She’s also written picture books (Mango Abuela and Me), and Middle Grade fiction (Milagros Girl From Away).

Anna-Marie McLamore:Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 9.39.05 PM.png

The queen of modern magical realism! Reading one of Anna-Marie’s books is like diving into a pool of technicolor images, alluring scents, intoxicating flavors, and magical textures. I will forever read everything she writes. I can’t get enough of her stories.

The Weight of Feathers is kind of like a Romeo and Juliet but featuring two families of entertainers: mermaids versus ravens. Palomas versus Corbeaus. It’s so gorgeous I dreamed for weeks in the rhythm of the words.

When the Moon Was Ours is a magical love story with the background of a lose version of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman of Latin American folklore. It’s so incredibly well-written and mesmerizing it was longlisted for the National Book Award.

And Wild Beauty (out October 3) tells the story of the Nomeolvides women, who have the power to bring flowers out of barren land, but who are condemned to pay back to this land with what—and who– they love the most. I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy of this book, and I can’t wait for the rest of the world to fall in love with Estrella and her cousins just like I did.

Courtney Alameda:Courtney+Author+Photos2013_117.jpg

Born and raised in California, but now living in Utah, Courtney is a force to be reckoned with. Because each of her stories is so unique and carefully written and researched, she’s also one of my insta-buys.

In Shutter, she brings together the first families from the classic Dracula to destroy monsters both corporeal and spiritual.

In Pitch Dark (upcoming in February 2018), she introduces us to Laura Cruz, a shipraider whose family looks for human history among the stars (it’s amazing!!!!!). And in Seven Dead Gods, she collaborates with another Utah author, Valynne Maetani, to bring to life Kira, a seventeen-year-old loving in modern day Japan, who brings together seven “death” gods to save Kyoto from destruction. The “foxy” love interest is the most alluring character I’ve read in a long time. I’m in love with him.

Courtney also writes the comic Sisters of Sorrow.

Other writers to read and get to know: Pablo Cartaya, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Celia C. Pérez, Yuyi Morales, Juana Medina, Rene Colato Lainez, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Francisco X. Stork, etc.

These wonderful authors and stories shouldn’t be relegated to one particular month in the year, and I hope that you’ll be motivated in getting to know these names if you don’t already know them. Come back and tell me in the comments which one was your favorite.

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YamileMendezYamile (prounounced sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is an immigrant writer and reader, a dreamer and fighter, a Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, a 2014 New Visions Award Honor Winner, and one the 2015 Walter Dean Myers Inaugural Grant recipients. Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina (cradle of fútbol), she now lives in Alpine, Utah with her husband, five children, and three dogs, but her heart is with her family scattered all over the world. Find her on twitter: @YamileSMendez and online: yamilesmendez.com.

Survey Analysis: How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?

YA-bobby-socks-puppy-lovetIn my post from last month, “How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?” I talked about how authors of young adult books are including more profanity, sexual situations, drug use, and other controversial content in their novels. I was really curious to find out in greater detail what readers of all ages thought about various difficult topics. Leveraging Google Forms and Sheets, I created a survey to find out.

The survey was both a success and a failure. On the plus side, I got almost 200 responses, which was more than I expected. On the negative side, only six of those responses were from actual young adults. The rest were from grownups (18 and older) who read young adult literature.

I promised to provide an analysis of the results, so here they are. Please note that I’m not claiming statistical significance here. I’m not a stats person, though I do consider myself something of an Excel ninja. Though it’s interesting, I would caution against reading too much into the data I present below. When in doubt, write the book you want to write.

Respondents

From sharing my results with various groups, I managed to get a total of 195 responses. The demographic section of the survey tells us a little about the people who completed it.

Age

As I mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of people who responded to the survey were adults. The breakdown by age category is here:

Age Category

Respondents

Percent

12 – 14 years old

1

0.5%

15 – 17 years old

5

2.6%

18 – 29 years old

28

14.4%

30 – 39 years old

94

48.2%

40+ years old

67

34.4%

Gender

The overwhelming majority (86%) of respondents were female. Here’s the full breakdown:

Gender

Respondents

Percent

Female

167

85.6%

Male

27

13.8%

Something else, or I prefer not to answer

1

0.5%

Last year, I was at a writing conference, attending a panel about writing young adult fiction. During the Q&A, a woman stood up and asked the question: “What can be done about the perception that YA is dominated by females?” I actually laughed out loud when I heard this. All four panelists were women. Maybe 80% of the audience were female. This isn’t a “perception” … it’s a reality.

Location

Survey respondents came from 27 US states, plus some international locations. However, because of my circle of friends (and also because of the groups where I went to solicit responses), the vast majority of the responses (54%) came from people who live in Utah.

Here’s the breakdown of how many responses came from each location;

Alabama (1), Alaska (1), Arizona (14), California (7), Colorado (4), Hawaii (4), Idaho (11), Illinois (1), Indiana (2), Louisiana (1), Maryland (1), Michigan (3), Minnesota (1), Nevada (5), New Mexico (1), New York (2), North Carolina (1), Ohio (1), Oklahoma (1), Oregon (4), South Carolina (1), Tennessee (2), Texas (8), Utah (105), Virginia (2), Washington (5), Wyoming (1), Other or International (5)

Average number of books read per month

I thought it would be interesting to know whether the respondents were voracious or more casual readers. Because of this, the survey asked how many books, on average, each of the respondents read.

Books per Month

Respondents

Percent

less than 1

17

8.7%

1 or 2

50

25.6%

3 or 4

64

32.8%

five or more

64

32.8%

Percentage of books read in the young adult genre

Finally, I asked what percentage of books each of the respondents read in the young adult genre.

Books in the YA Genre

Respondents

Percent

less than 25%

33

76.9%

25 to 50%

79

40.5%

51 to 75%

45

23.1%

75% or more

38

19.5%

Methodology

Using the word “methodology” automatically makes things more scientific, right? Well, probably not, but I did have a method to my madness. For every topic or subject matter in the main section of the survey, I asked respondents to rate their comfort level using the following rating scale:

  1. Very uncomfortable. I actively avoid books like this, and won’t read them at all.
  2. Uncomfortable. I have a low tolerance for books like this, and sometimes stop reading if I encounter the topic.
  3. Moderately comfortable. I don’t seek out books like this, but I don’t avoid them if the story is good.
  4. Comfortable. I don’t mind reading books like this, and often enjoy them.
  5. Very comfortable. I enjoy reading books like this, sometimes seeking them out specifically.

To analyze the responses, I considered a 1 or 2 to be negative (discomfort) and a 4 or 5 to be positive (comfort). The 3 responses were neutral, so I ignored them for the purposes of analysis. Using this methodology, I created Pro/Con comparison for each item, and then compared them as percentages.

As an example, the first question asked the respondents’ comfort levels with “Bible” curse words like “damn” and “hell.” (I actually asterisked them on the survey so nobody could complain about being exposed to profanity). In the results, I got 60 5s, 63 4s, 61 3s, 8 2s and 3 1s. (Yes, three people indicated they were “Very uncomfortable” with encountering the words “damn” and “hell” in a YA novel. Go figure.) Adding the 4s and 5s and the 1s and 2s together, I got a Pro score of 123 and a Con score of 11, or 91.8% Pro and 8.2% Con. Make sense?

So let’s look at the individual sections and scores. To reduce clutter, I’ll provide just the Pro and Con tallies and percentages for each item. However, you’ll find a link to a PDF with the full scoring at the bottom of this post.

Language

I grouped the questions about language into three categories: “Bible” curse words, scatalogical and “body part” curse words, and F-bombs (which my teenaged son calls the “Elder Swear”). The results didn’t really surprise me:

Language

Pro %

Con %

Stories with characters who use “Bible” curse words (d**n, h**l)

91.8%

8.2%

Stories with characters who use scatalogical or “body part” curse words (s**t, a**, d**k, c**k, c**t, p***y)

30.5%

69.5%

Stories with characters who drop F-bombs (f**k)

23.2%

76.8%

On one of the groups where I posted this survey, a group member took me to task for grouping words like “shit” and “ass” in with the body part swear words. The names for female body parts, she claimed, were used more for sexual power games than for curse words. I can see her point (to a point), but I was just trying to do a survey, not make a statement about gender politics.

Sexual Content

As far as I can tell, one thing that distinguishes young adult from middle grade fiction is the introduction of sexual situations. (Sometimes, when meeting other writers, I like to joke that I write “middle-grade erotica.” It’s just fun to see the looks on their faces as they try to parse that.) As in all of the categories, I ordered the items based on what I expected the relative comfort/discomfort levels to be.

Sexual Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with lots of sexual content but no actual sex between teens

42.9%

57.1%

Stories that talk frankly about pornography and masturbation

12.8%

87.2%

Stories depicting hetero sex between teens

19.9%

80.1%

Stories depicting sex between teens and adults

7.8%

92.2%

Stories depicting taboo sex involving teens (incest, BDSM, etc.)

5.5%

94.5%

One aspect of the results surprised me: overall, the respondents were slightly more comfortable reading stories about actual sex than about pornography and masturbation. I don’t know why, but I was really taken aback to see that readers found simulated, solitary sex more disturbing than the real thing.

The last question in this section is interesting in the sense that it doesn’t seem that the “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenomenon has trickled down to the YA reader. E.L. James’ books pushed BDSM into the mainstream to a certain degree, but that’s not happening for adult readers of YA fiction.

LGBTQ+ Content

Like it or not, young adult fiction tends to be heteronormative in the sense that it assumes that most boys like girls and most girls like boys. (It reflects the real world in this way.) Since I personally know a number of readers who intentionally steer clear of books with gay and lesbian protagonists, I figured it made sense to ask these questions separately.

LGBTQ+ Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is incidental to the plot

57.7%

42.3%

Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is crucial to the plot (including “coming out” stories)

39.9%

60.1%

Stories with minor LGBTQ+ characters

73.8%

26.2%

Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens

13.0%

87.0%

Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens and adults

5.9%

94.1%

YA readers seem to be more accepting of LGBTQ main characters if their sexuality isn’t directly tied to the plot. The big difference in comfort levels between the first and second items above kind of surprised me. Minor gay and lesbian characters (I was careful not to use the word “token”) seem to be more acceptable to more readers.

Substance Abuse

I remember being shocked, as a young teenager, reading about teenagers drinking and smoking in The Outsiders. I was probably 13 when I discovered that book, and nobody in my sheltered circle of friends did any of that stuff. My kids had a very different experience. In my kids’ school, vaping and seems to have replaced smoking as the default bad-habit-du-jour.

And remember: The Outsiders was published in 1967. Teens have always smoked and boozed and used drugs.

Substance Abuse

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting teenagers smoking or vaping

64.2%

35.8%

Stories depicting recreational drug use by teens

38.0%

62.0%

Stories depicting alcohol use by teens

50.4%

49.6%

Stories depicting the abuse of prescription drugs by teens

42.1%

57.9%

Stories depicting the sale or purchase of illicit drugs by teens

36.8%

63.2%

I actually expected the Pro scores here to be a little higher. It’s possible that the older audience skewed the numbers here to the Con side.

Mental Illness

There has been a huge effort over the past several decades to destigmatize mental illness. In the past several years, I’ve read YA books with protagonists who have Tourette syndrome, with severe depression, and even sociopathy. Readers seem to see mental illnesses as just another obstacle for characters to overcome.

Mental Illness

Pro %

Con %

Stories focusing on protagonists dealing with mental illnesses

95.1%

4.9%

Stories that prominently feature self-harm (cutting and other self-injury)

52.5%

47.5%

Stories focusing on protagonists who have eating disorders

85.5%

14.5%

Stories depicting characters with suicidal thoughts or who attempt suicide

68.1%

31.9%

The one surprise here is the balanced Pro/Con score for self-harm. From what I can tell, in the United states, around 6-10 percent of teenagers intentionally hurt themselves, with “cutting” being the most common activity of this type. At the same time, less than 3 percent of of teens struggle with eating disorders. With self-harm being two or even three times more common than eating disorders among U.S. teens, you’d think it would be a topic more people would be comfortable reading about. Not so, apparently. That self-harm is significantly less acceptable to readers than suicide should be an eye-opening fact.

Abuse and Violence

I’m not certain I got the questions in this category “right.” Violence is a staple of growing up—kids beat up on each other all the time. I tried to think of the types of abusive situations that might cause someone to put a book down.

Abuse and Violence

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting sexual abuse involving teens or children

17.9%

82.1%

Stories depicting sexual assault involving teens or children

19.5%

80.5%

Stories depicting domestic violence

43.1%

56.9%

Stories depicting other kinds of violent situations

68.1%

31.9%

Interestingly, the Pro/Con rating for sexual assault is within half a point of the rating for hetero teenaged sex (see above). And the readers I polled are more comfortable reading about sexual assault than about consensual sex between LGBTQ teens. That last question is kind of a catch-all, and doesn’t really say much about anything.

Social Issues

Speaking of catch-alls, this last category was exactly that.

Social Issues

Pro %

Con %

Stories involving bullying (real-world or cyber)

92.2%

7.8%

Stories involving racism, racial discrimination or racial inequality

89.3%

10.7%

Stories involving sexism, sexual discrimination or sexual inequality

83.2%

16.8%

Stories in which teens talk about or get an abortion

46.6%

53.4%

Stories involving firearms

88.5%

11.5%

Stories with heavy political content

67.8%

32.2%

The bullying question was a gimme. Bullying is so pervasive in all aspects of teenagerhood that I would defy anyone to come up with a single YA novel that didn’t feature bullying of some kind.

I wasn’t surprised by the Pro/Con ratings on the “ism” questions. I was pretty surprised that my respondents were more comfortable reading about teenagers with guns than they were about teenagers getting abortions. (But then, I had a very Utah-heavy population that responded.) The question about politics was also interesting. I wasn’t expecting a two-thirds Pro rating on that one, though I’m not sure whether I expected it to be higher or lower.

 

Conclusion

Again, since this turned out to be essentially a poll of adults, I’m not sure how much we can extrapolate regarding teen readers. It’s worth pointing out, though, that adult readers of YA fiction are often the “gatekeepers” who buy the books, put them on library shelves, assign them for classes, and so on. So grownup attitudes about young adult fiction are still worth considering.

You can download a more detailed analysis of numbers below. Enjoy!

YA Fiction – How Edgy Is Too Edgy?

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

I Open at the Close: On Harry Potter and the Universal Experience of Death

It’s been a little over a month since my sister’s husband died. It feels like longer and not that long all at once.

He was diagnosed with bone cancer almost exactly two years ago and all our lives were turned upside down. It has been a roller coaster that steadily got worse and worse ever since. But what I want to talk to you about, and the part that has to do with writing, is what happened June 30.

That was the day we got the news that his bone cancer had metastasized to his lungs and there wasn’t much time left. We knew this was coming but it was still a shock, and I had to take my pain outside to walk around my neighborhood over and over and process it all.

And do you want to know what’s interesting? I’m a religious person. I find great comfort in scripture and prayer. But as I circled my block in the dark, the words that kept coming to me were not from scripture, but from the final Harry Potter book. “I open at the close.”

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Those are the words written on the golden snitch that Harry carries with him to face Voldemort and sacrifice himself.

I open at the close.

And those are the words I couldn’t get out of my brain.

Because as much as my brother-in-law’s death was a too painful and too soon ending, it was also a beginning. A beginning for him of an existence free of pain. A beginning of a new (if unwanted) chapter for my sister where she and my niece would face the world without him. The beginning of a new family for all of us, where we hold tight my sister and niece, lift them up, protect them.

I didn’t want the close. But it was not the end. Life would go on. There would be new beginnings.

I open at the close.

I raced home and pulled my copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS off the shelf. I flipped to the back and found the scene I was looking for. I walked with Harry away from Hogwarts. Away from life and friends who were family. I cried when he whispered, “I am going to die.”

Do you know how hard it is to say that? To admit it and face it? It takes an inordinate amount of bravery. I don’t think people actually understand this until they see someone have to do it.

I continued to weep as one by one, Harry’s family came with him, to walk him home. I thought of my brother-in-law’s mother and sister who had already passed. The ones who seemed to be visiting him in his dreams those last few days.

And then Harry asks, “Does it hurt?”

I don’t know J.K. Rowling’s life story. I don’t know if she has watched someone die. But this is word for word the question that plagued my brother-in-law. That plagued my sister and all of us. And when Harry spoke the words that were slowly choking all of us, I couldn’t contain my emotion.

How did she know? How did she know all the feelings and thoughts I was facing in that moment? The feelings and thoughts my brother in law was facing?

Over the next few days, we said goodbye to him. We stood in his room and watched and waited as he took his last few breaths. And when his chest stopped rising once and for all, I thought of Sirius falling through that veiled archway. Passing from one plane to the next. Just gone.

And again the words came.

I open at the close.

When the pain felt too much to handle. When the world seemed so incredibly unfair. When I was facing unspeakable emotional pain. It wasn’t scripture where I found that first initial comfort. It was books. It was characters who felt real to me. It was the insight of an author I’d never met. The humanity of a universal experience. One we will all have eventually.

And I’m not sure I realized how important books were until then. I’m not sure I fully understood what it is that we, as authors, are doing. How divine the work of creation truly is.

You are not just creating stories and made up worlds. You are forming a mirror and a rope that binds us, as humans, together. One that says, “You are seen and you are not alone.”

_____________________________

Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?

YA-bobby-socks-puppy-lovet

I didn’t actually set out to answer those questions. But over the past several months, they’ve been on my mind. A lot.

Let’s back up. My teenaged daughter is a voracious reader. She always seems to discover and read the “hot topic” books months before I even hear about them. She’d read all John Green’s books before I even got a whiff of The Fault in Our Stars, and she read Thirteen Reasons Why way before Netflix even thought about vandalizing the book as a miniseries.

In the run-up to my NaNoWriMo project last year, I decided I wanted to write the kind of YA book my daughter likes to read: edgy, real, and touching on the scarier areas of high school life. I settled on a revenge novel, one that used multiple points of view. Then she and I sat down and brainstormed about the horrible things high schoolers do to each other.

Some of the ideas we came up with together were pretty dark. But I was drawn to the characters they suggested, and I thought they made for a great story. I’m revising now, struggling with my beginning, but I’m still happy with the way the book is shaping up.

To help me get in the right frame of mind for this book, I’ve been reading extensively in the “edgy YA” category. Here are a few of the books I’ve devoured in the past few months:

  • Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. Deals with suicide, bullying, violence, alcohol and drug use, rape and voyeurism.
  • King Dork, by Frank Portman. A comedy dealing with sex, drugs and (of course) rock ‘n’ roll—plus bullying, alcohol and assault with a deadly tuba.
  • Hate List, by Jennifer Brown. The main character is the survivor (and unwitting participant) of school shooting rampage. Also touches on bullying, violence, alcohol and drug use, sexual issues.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews. A very funny, profoundly weird story about terminal illness, bullying, racial issues, drug use and gangs. Contains copius F-bombs.
  • Looking for Alaska, by John Green. This multiple award-winning book deals with sex, smoking, death, more sex, and alcohol and drug use, with enough profanity to earn it a hard R from the MPAA.
  • The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. Abuse and poverty, some surprising violence (domestic and otherwise), lots of language and bullying and mentions of kiddie porn mixed in. So far, my favorite book of 2017.
  • Castration Celebration, by Jake Wizner. Billed as “High School Musical—rated R,” this book revolves around sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, alcohol, suicide, and depression. And it’s a comedy!

Now, I live and write in southern Utah, so I work in a bubble. Though this isn’t an absolute, readers here tend to gravitate more toward sci-fi and fantasy, focus on “clean romance,” and stay away from heavy realism. The bubble is thick and isolating—so much so that, when I began introducing my current project to my writing group, one of the members asked, “Do books like this actually sell?”

Publishers don’t release sales numbers, but if we look at Thirteen Reasons Why on Amazon, we see the book has 29 separate formats and editions, including seven hardcover, nine paperback, two digital and four audiobook. There’s also the popular miniseries on Netflix. What this says to me is that Jay Asher probably doesn’t have to feel around under his couch cushions for gas money. Similarly, Looking for Alaska is available in 55 different formats and editions. Millions of copies of both books have been sold.

Obviously, books for teens with lots of “adult” material can be incredibly popular and make bucketfuls of money for their authors and publishers. But I’m still curious to know: how far is too far, and how much is too much? Are there specific topics that readers just don’t want to encounter in young adult novels?

I can’t answer that question. In fact, it’s a question I’m asking TTOF readers. I’ve put together a survey for you to fill out:

Take_Survey_button

Copy-and-paste link:
https://goo.gl/forms/AyEmZ23eLdXptYMt2

You’ll be asked about various thematic elements and  your level of comfort with them. I encourage you to respond to the survey, and to ask your friends to do so as well. I’ll summarize the results in a future column.


David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Books to Help Writers Get Better

I have a weakness.

I mean, besides books. That’s obvious.

My other weakness is craft books. I love them. I love learning how people think about story, seeing how I can think differently or better about my writing, to be inspired by how others engage in the creative process. If you know me in real life, it won’t surprise you to know that analysis makes me super happy.

Which is why I have a shelf that looks like this:

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And amid the great novels loaded on my kindle are the following:

  • Creativity Inc.
  • A Writer’s Guide Story Structure and Beyond
  • The War of Art
  • John Gardner’s Collection on Writing
  • The Art of Work
  • The Anatomy of Story
  • The Right to Write
  • All of the Emotional Thesaurus books
  • Crafting Unforgettable Characters
  • Getting Published in the 21st Century
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
  • Million Dollar Outlines
  • Save the Cat

But still, I found myself wondering what books people went to when they wanted to study their craft more. Below are some of the dozens of suggestions I received (several I’ve never heard of!):

anzac-day

New Craft Books:

  • Author In Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published Paperback by Therese Walsh
  • The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass
  • Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Books to Improve Overall Writing:

  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
  • How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein
  • Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass
  • Scene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Jack M. Bickham
  • Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark
  • Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
  • Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry

Books to Nurture the Writer:

  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Fierce on the Page by Sage Cohen
  • A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller
  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Books to Help with Editing:

  • The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
  • Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques by Sol Stein
  • 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected Paperback by Mike Nappa

Even MORE Great Writing Books:

These are new to me, so if you know more about them, please share! 

  • The Crosswicks Journals by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art Paperback by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Forest for the Trees (Revised and Updated): An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  • This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
  • If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
  • Reflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones

Lifetime Achievement Awards:

Face it: these books are so good, we still need to talk about them.

  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
  • Elements of Style by by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

Did I miss any? Do you have some favorites? 

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profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.