As I sit here in my writing room, someone is bouncing a ball in the street. A dog is barking. The sounds that come through my windows keep me in touch with the neighborhood on which I base the fictional world of my Young Adult novels. The separation my room provides gives me the necessary distance that makes writing possible. As Virginia Woolf once observed, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." In my experience, the former can be done without; the latter is essential.
I first acquired a room of my own in the fourth grade when my family left a wooden, two-story in Pearl River, New York, where I shared a room with my sister. When we moved to a three bedroom, split-level in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, one of the three bedrooms was mine. Behind my closed door I wrote poems, drew pictures, read, and dreamed up scenarios that would lead to my marrying Beatle, George Harrison. If I had been asked what I was doing, I would probably have given the standard kid answer, "Nothing." That only meant that what I was doing was embarrassing, and too hard to explain. Alone in my room I was inventing my separate self, living a secret life that belonged only to me.
Fortunately, a closed door was respected in my family. My parents were often together, but each did things alone as well. My father went birding or worked in the vegetable garden when he wanted to think. My mother wrote fiction. The evidence of her secret life was scattered around the house, small piles of manuscript pages left here and there —each with a pencil nearby for spur-of-the-moment editing. My brother, sister, and I all learned the habit of going off by ourselves to work on projects of our own invention.
Because our neighborhood was safe, we had another kind of freedom in our off-school hours; the freedom (within set boundaries) to roam. One of the summer sounds I remember best is the slap of the screen door closing behind me.
I suspect that most readers of this article had that kind of time as children, and that they remember chanting that famous plaint of summer, "I am soooo bored." More often than not, defeating boredom called forth creative solutions: start a club, draw a picture or, as my friend, Debbie and I once did, attempt to read the complete works of William Shakespeare. Lying, belly-down on my bed, we struggled with unfamiliar language. I remember being stopped by the word "sofemnities," which we interpreted as solomn nighties.
The richness of off-time persists in my novels. Readers of my stories may notice that I always write about kids when they are on vacation from school. This is because I want readers to hang out with characters who are, to a large extent, free to invent what they will do next. If the hyper-scheduled, modern version of childhood leaves adolescents short on unstructured time, then one of my goals in the stories I write is to is to advocate for its reintroduction.
It may take years for the value of free time to manifest itself, but "doing nothing" is essential for the messy, erratic development of creativity. Although George Harrison and I never got together, I'm sure that imagining the prospect, in all its infinite variations, made me a better storyteller.
Of course I recognize that more creative time is needed in school as well, but time that does not produce an immediate, testable result is something that seems to have been squeezed out of most school curricula. Every teacher I talk to feels the pinch. This Fall, when I taught an in-service class on creative writing for English teachers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, one teacher told me that she had been handed a schedule that included ten minutes a day for creative writing. She looked distressed. She knew it wasn't working and asked for suggestions. I didn't have any. You can't plant a seed and expect a tree ten minutes later. Some things take time.
But I do have a suggestion that may help teachers when they are guiding readers toward their next book. Given the right book, young adults who are pressured in real life, may be able to relax — and think. There are many books that offer this, including mine.
In Crossing Jordan, Anna Casey's Place in the World, and my new title, My Brother's Hero, I immerse readers in a neighborhood where things move more slowly — the neighborhood just beyond my writing room walls in Tallahassee, Florida. The houses, built in the fifties, are small, dwarfed by old live oaks and longleaf pines. Lawns are an exuberant mix of grass and weeds and scattered toys. Neighbors include blue-collar workers and their families, the working poor, retirees, and university students; a racially diverse group. This is an economic demographic that doesn't often show up in fiction. It is neither middle class nor suburban; nor is it inner-city ghetto. Many of the people living here exist in the narrow zone between having just enough, and having too little. This tends to promote involvement and cooperation. I've lent a cup of sugar, shared plants, and helped the woman next door track her runaway daughter. The difficulties and pleasures of community are always present in my stories.
The voices in my novels belong to my neighbors. Characters are often based on kids who stop by to check out the fish in my small backyard pond; or chat with me while leaning on bicycle handlebars, bare feet on the hot tar of Marcia Avenue. The neighborhood I portray in my stories is a deliberate effort to create a place which, while not immune to bad things happening, provides characters and readers a sense of safety. In this neighborhood there are durable friendships among the kids who hang together and reliable adults for them to fall back on.
The work of the characters in my stories is twofold. First, they are becoming individuals. Second, they are becoming members of a community. The problems they face along the way are the tough, ethical questions that litter the path to adulthood for all young people.
I realize that explaining what I try to do in my stories is like a magician giving away the secret of how to pull the rabbit out of the hat. But teachers — my fellow magicians — already know this trick: engage and entertain your audience and the lesson is learned painlessly. In order to raise ethical questions, the story and characters have to involve readers. The tone can't be preachy or didactic.
My first book, Crossing Jordan, starts on a hot summer evening. Cass Bodine, a white, twelve-year-old girl, is handing her father fence nails. The Bodines are getting ready for new neighbors, an African-American family. Cass avoids thinking about the purpose of the fence. If building the fence is the act of a bigot, her father is a bigot.
Cass doesn't know exactly how she feels about black people herself. There are some in the neighborhood, she goes to school with them; they've never been particular friends. But when the new girl, Jemmie Lewis, turns out to be a runner like herself, and perfect best-friend material, Cass discovers that she can't put on her father's beliefs like a hand-me-down sweater. She has to take a critical look. It isn't easy, but she has to strike a balance between her love of her father and a belief system that is incompatible with his. Cass must individuate.
But how about the adult character, Cass's father, Seth Bodine? In the stories I write, no one is irredeemable. Gradually, grudgingly, as circumstances force Cass's father to get to know the family next door, he begins to rethink old beliefs — and so does the family next door.
When read in schools, Crossing Jordan has been a good jumping-off point for discussing local race relations. One of the best strategies I have heard to bring this work of fiction into the real world involved inviting older members of the African-American community to tell their stories. Kids were amazed to hear that there once was a separate school for blacks — and find out where it once stood, and what it was like to go there.
Anna Casey's Place in the World explores the issue of home and belonging. Anna is an orphan who has been passed through the hands of numerous aunts, uncles, and a grandmother before being shunted into Florida's foster care system. She has little control over her own life, but that does not mean she is passive. Anna has invented a self that helps her weather the unpredictable, sometimes chaotic life she's been dealt. She keeps what she calls her "explorer's notebook." In it she maps each of the many places she has lived. By mapping the world, she sidesteps the fact that she is unwanted. As an explorer, she identifies herself as someone who belongs everywhere.
Ben Floyd, who appears in all three of my books, is the hero in My Brother's Hero. But the term "hero" turns out to be more ambiguous than Ben imagines. All he wants to do is answer, in the affirmative, the question that afflicts most boys: Am I brave? Spending Christmas break with his family at an uncle's marina in the Florida Keys, Ben has plenty of opportunity to show off his courage. Unfortunately, his natural caution and good sense keep getting in the way.
On the last day of the vacation, Ben, his brother, Cody, and a girl named Mica take a foolish risk. Because they ignore Ben's father's warning to keep their small boat in the sheltered creek between two islands, they find themselves blowing away from shore, night falling fast — and then they run out of gas. At last Ben has the chance to prove himself. But t he reality of being brave and the bravery of his fantasies turn out to be completely different. Ben discovers that simply staying alive takes the combined resources of all three of them.
After half a night on the water, they are picked up, and Ben has to deal with the consequences of his misguided heroics. When their rescue is radioed to the Coast Guard boat his mother is aboard, he hears her crying. The worst sound I ever heard, he thinks. The agitation he feels is so profound it overshadows any dread he has of being grounded for life. Ben learns from his actions.
The collaborative effort that kept Ben, Mica and Cody alive on the water is not an isolated case in my stories. Success often comes through cooperation. Anna Casey may have little control over her own life, but when the nearby woods she has been visiting is scheduled to be bull-dozed, she organizes the neighborhood kids to move as many saplings and small plants as they can. They may not be able to save the woods but, together, they can save something.
Sometimes the problem faced by the group is simply is how to pass the time. But even then, the solutions found by my characters often model collaborative effort. In Anna Casey's Place in the World the kids build the Race-A-Rama, a dirt bike track of immense hills and precipitous pits and ditches. If you were to walk back to the power line cut at the edge of my neighborhood, you would see the remains of the kid-built sand track on which the fictional Race-A-Rama is based. Largely filled in now by rains and sand slides, it is like the ruin of some ancient civilization, something of consequence, an achievement.
In building and operating the track, the kids in Anna Casey divide the labor and a social order evolves. Ben Floyd is in charge. Clay, his gadfly antagonist, goads him to make the holes deeper, wider, more dangerous. Leroy, Jahmal, Justin and a kid called the Weeble fill out the cadre of racers. When the track is done, Anna, Cody, Cass and Jemmie provide the necessary audience. A race at the Race-A-Rama is markedly different from the organized sports adults orchestrate. It is freewheeling. Rules are imposed by the participants. It is an exercise in community.
But young characters in my stories don't rely solely on themselves or other kids. They have a strong web of adults who provide guidance. As society streamlines and we run more and more in age-segregated packs, I strive to portray a community in full. It is their relationships with older people that give my young characters a sense of safety in their freedom. The matriarch of the neighborhood, who first appears in Crossing Jordan is a small, tough African-American woman called Nana Grace, who grandmothers all the children, regardless of color. As Ben Floyd says, "We all have grandmothers we see on holidays. Nana Grace is for the rest of the time."
As I made school visits to talk about Crossing Jordan I was surprised when Nana Grace was frequently cited by readers as their favorite character; a bit odd for a book with two vibrant twelve-year-old girls competing for the title. But maybe Nana Grace is the grandmother kids would like to have: strict but kind, always there, never too busy to listen. When she tells Justin, an overweight boy, "You're just gettin' your weight first an' your height second," she is offering an assurance his friends — who call him lard-butt — can't give him. There are times when an adult's perspective helps.
Also in the neighborhood is Miss Johnette, a high school Biology teacher who invites kids into what she calls her "bone museum." Fossils and animal bones, bird nests and dead beetles adorn the shelves in her home. And in her closet — a human skeleton named Edgar. "This is totally creepy," says a visiting ten-year-old boy. But finding the "teachable moment," Miss Johnette gives her visitor a quick lesson in natural history — and where to get a skeleton without robbing a grave.
Mr. Barnett is the neighbor the kids know is "home on disability." A constant presence, he keeps an eye on the neighborhood. In Anna Casey there is even a homeless Vietnam Veteran named Sam Miller who provides an unlikely friendship for foster child, Eb Gramlich. Eb, who protects himself by being as closed as a clenched fist, receives this prickly, but useful bit of advice from Mr. Miller: "Life's rough, and it stinks ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, but once in a blue moon, something good happens. Listen, Eb, when some good thing wants to happen to you, you let it, understand?"
The community in my books includes the dogs that live behind every fence, barking with the front end, wagging with the back, as well as Fran and Blackie, dogs who roam the neighborhood, happy to walk along with any kid who is going to school or the convenience store — where Mr. G., the Indian gentleman behind the counter knows everyone by name.
For those who feel this place I write about is too rosy to be an accurate depiction of modern life, I'd say that the cold, gritty, impersonal cities, and the slick, mall-dominated suburbs that form the settings for many YA novels are also narrowly selected; just a slice of all the possible childhoods.
There are reasons to create a nurturing setting like my neighborhood. In order to survive adolescence kids must be resilient and hopeful, attributes I believe can be encouraged and even taught. A steady diet of dark, unsettling novels may, inadvertently, feed the feelings of isolation and insecurity that often accompany adolescence. And consider for a moment the stories being told to young people by sources other than books. They are bombarded by unrealistic, fast-paced, often violent stories on TV, the movies, and video games; stories that are long on action, short on consequences.
For all their cool and sophistication, kids live parochial lives. They know their immediate circle of friends and family, a fixed constellation of teachers. Often the only other views they have of reality come to them in the form of stories. Adults are not easily led, but the blasts from the media have an effect on what young people believe to be real, and even on the stories they invent themselves.
When teaching creative writing to young adults, one of the first things I have to do is wean them away from writing stories in which things blow up. I find it telling that young writers rarely write past the "ka-boom!" As in video games, where points are awarded for "killing" the men who run across the screen, disaster has no aftermath. First stories from these new writers rarely spring from the writer's own experience, but they do mimic the stories told by non-print media. Ka-boom!
In my writing I work for a partnership between the reader and my story. I know that a reader must "buy in," and that much of the work of constructing a place and the breathing characters who inhabit it is done by the reader. Because reading is an act of collaboration, one that takes time, I hope that a book can have a more lasting impact than the quick assault of an action-adventure movie. To that end I try to offer characters who are as real to readers as the people they know; characters who can act as peers, even mentors.
The tone of the stories I tell comes out of my own life experience. I am the product of a happy childhood, an optimist. I was taught that the things I do can have a positive affect in the larger world. I give my readers the same message, and it's a message that needs to be heard. Although it has fallen somewhat out of favor, one of the time-honored functions of storytelling is to teach. Societies rise on a foundation of stories. Through stories a community passes on shared values, sets limits, and floats its dreams.
The relationship between society and story is dynamic. Society pushes and shapes story, certainly, but we should never underestimate the power of the story to push back. If we experience something in a book we may yearn for it. And if we yearn for it, who knows, we may roll up our sleeves and build it. I believe that a story can have that much power.
Outside my room rain is now falling. Soon the school bus will pull up next door and spill out half a dozen boys, who will play outside, despite the rain. A ball will sail into my yard. I'll go out and throw it back.
And the next story will begin.