Prom Dates to Die For: An Interview with Jenny Peterson

Prom Dates to Die ForToday I’m thrilled to welcome my YA writing friend and fellow Lighthouse Writers workshopper Jenny Peterson. Jenny’s short story, “Tonight, You’re Mine,” has just released in PROM DATES TO DIE FOR, a new paranormal anthology from Buzz Books, and she’s here to dish about the new collection, writing for teens, and of course… prom!

Describe your real-life prom experience (or lack thereof) with seven random words:

Minivan. Masquerade. Late-night. Dare. Skinny dipping. Secret kissing. Friends.

What inspired you and your fellow YA authors Lena Brown, Heather Dearly, Kelly Para, and Aaron Smith to write this particular collection of stories?

Prom is already kind of abnormal to begin with, right? Teenage guys trying to pretend they’re comfortable in a suit, dates picking through fancy dinners when all they really want is Taco Bell. (Actually, all I ever really want is Taco Bell.) It’s a whole bunch of people trying to create this fantasy that doesn’t really exist. So we went ahead and *really* added that fantasy.

For my story, I played around with the idea of a perfect prom. My main character, Rachel, has decided that prom night is the ideal time to also lose her virginity. She’s the type that would have charts and graphs to back this up. Even when some seriously weird stuff starts going down, she charges ahead with her plans. It’s not until she comes face to kind-of face with a hideous pink slug-like thing does she realize prom night isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Apparently, “adult proms” are a thing now. Seriously. Self-proclaimed grown-ups get all dressed up, rent a limo with their friends, go to a dance with a horrible band, and then get totally wasted and bust out the air guitar and I love you mans and someone always ends up crying in the bathroom, all in some vain attempt to redefine this teen rite-of-passage-gone-awry. Any thoughts on this trend? Healing group therapy for post-prom traumatic stress, or just another case of grown-ups behaving badly?

Okay, so my friends once threw me a “half-birthday”–as in we celebrated like I was turning 13, not 26. We played laser tag and made mix tapes of early ’90s music. It was awesome. (It was also a lesson in stamina. Pre-pubescent boys have a hell of a lot more energy in the laser tag arena than a bunch of adults.)

So adult prom? IN. As long as the updo-sporting adults aren’t, like, flipping tables at Olive Garden, I think it’s a fun way to embrace your inner teen.

Um… will you go to Adult Prom with me?

You bring the Aqua Net, I’ll bring the Zima.

You’re working on at least two other full-length YA projects. What drew you to YA in the first place? Do you write it to cope with the tragic emotional aftermath of your own teen years? Or is it just me? Can I get an amen? Or a drink? Or an adult prom date? Anyone?

I’m mixing you a gin and tonic right now.

Like most annoyingly pretentious teens, I pulled away from YA when I was actually, you know, the demographic. I devoured the classics, but my favorites (like “Pride & Prejudice”) all had young(ish) adult protagonists. Then I discovered Harry Potter at age 17, and it was all over. I don’t think anyone can meet Ron Weasley and *not* want to spend the rest of their life with him. (Ron+Hermione 4eva)

I turned back to YA and realized it was just perfect for me. Being a teen or young adult is all about first experiences–first kiss, first heartbreak, first “real” decisions without Mom and Dad. You’re trying out new skins and discovering who you want to be. It’s such a fascinating, poignant, fun time of life to write about.

If you could give one piece of advice to your teen self on the night before prom, what would it be?

Jennifer Renee Coon, do NOT spend the entire dance hawk-eyeing your oh-so-recent ex-boyfriend. And certainly do NOT position yourself near him while laughing loudly and pretending you’re having the Best. Night. Ever. You’ll have an awesome time without a Capital D Date. I promise.

For you, what is the most challenging thing about writing fiction for teens? I mean, aside from the obvious answer of being forced to relive your own horrific high school memories in the never-ending search for authentic ideas.

This isn’t so much a challenge, but something I’m always aware of: I never want to sound like a Very Old Person lecturing the Young Whippersnapper. I often find that people who don’t read YA automatically think it is simplistic and After-School Special-y, which is totally not true. I strive in my writing to never talk down to my audience.

What’s the best part?

Everything! I get this amazing excuse to read awesome YA every day (for “research”), and I get to jump into all these different worlds where there is limitless potential.

You’re the head of the prom committee, and this time, you get to plan the special super-awesome Jenny Prom with no limitations. What’s your prom theme, song, and color? Are there any other special details or plans we should know about for this amazing event? What are you wearing? And most importantly, what’s in the punch?

If this was Teen Jenny Prom, I’d probably enforce a strict “X-Files” theme and wear a pantsuit with sensible heels (to run away from the aliens, obvs. … and run into Mulder’s arms for a long-awaited make-out session). Thankfully, I’m a bit better at masking my extreme dorkiness today (says the girl who recently went to a Joss Whedon trivia event).

Okay, so Super Awesome Jenny Prom would take place on a boat, because why not. Not a cruise, those are lame. Like a European Lesser Prince’s yacht. (European Lesser Prince included.) The prom theme would be Yachts Are Awesome, Yo. The music would be yacht rock, so brush up on your Kenny Loggins and Toto. The colors would be blue (for the ocean!) and hints of gold to keep the European Lesser Princes in attendance comfortable. Most importantly, there is a lot (a LOT) of champagne in the punch.

Special details? Bring a swimsuit and Italian phrasebook. And try not to be the popular girl. She’ll probably be the first to fall overboard and get eaten by sharks.

Um… will you go to Jenny Prom with me?

I’m swinging the boat around and will pick you up in an hour.

Congratulations on the new release, Jenny! And thanks for making me feel marginally better about myself by accepting both of my prom date invitations. :-)

Readers, want to learn more? Check PROM DATES TO DIE FOR or visit Jenny on the web.

Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

In a new series entitled Y.A. for Grownups, The Atlantic Wire posted an article exploring The Ongoing Problem of Race in YA.

Like the title states, race in YA isn’t a new problem, nor is it going away. When I scan the YA bookshelves—whether my own or the extensive store displays—the issue is clear:

I spy with my little eye something… white.

Barbie® Fashionistas™

White authors, white characters, white faces, white girls. The scenario isn’t entirely unlike my high school graduation, but it’s no longer the world I see (or want to see) when I look out the window. So why the disconnect?

Plenty of YA authors of color are writing about diverse characters, often struggling to get those books out into the world and into the hands of readers. Discussions about the issue focus on a trifecta of economic challenges doused in fiction, assumptions, and racial politics: “consumers aren’t demanding and buying diverse fiction. So booksellers aren’t stocking and promoting it. So the publishing industry isn’t actively seeking, acquiring, and publishing it (with covers and flap copy that appropriately reflect the characters and story). So consumers aren’t demanding and buying it…”

Which came first—the chicken, the egg, or the egg white omelet—I don’t know. But the discussion glosses over another obvious problem: white authors.

Demographically speaking, Caucasians comprise the majority of young adult authors (according to Zetta Elliot’s 2011 interview with author Jacqueline Woodson, people of color make up less than 5 percent of children’s book authors published in the U.S. annually). So when you look at the sea of white stretching on forever along the shores of YA literature, know that white authors are by and large the ones putting it out there.

Which means that in addition to fist and foremost supporting authors of color by reading and buying their books, white authors can also change the face of bookshelves by actively diversifying the stuff we’re writing, and by doing so in authentic, meaningful ways.

One Café, Hold The Au Lait: A Primer for White Authors

Actively diversifying our fiction does not mean any of the following:

  • Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.
  • Slotting in a random person of color for no other reason than to break up the whiteness (especially if you’re writing about a place that is mostly white. Like, a Rod Stewart concert, or maybe a deer hunt).
  • Sneaking in a few non-white celebrity guest appearances on a poster, an iPod, or a character’s favorite TV show. I mean, I love Fresh Prince as much as anyone, because Parents Just Don’t Understand, but no—that doesn’t count.
  • Including a non-white character whose only real difference from the white characters is the color of his skin and/or his snappy catch phrases. Word!
  • Conducting a find-and-replace in Word to change Breanna and Chad to Belicia and Chen. CTRL+F what?
  • Putting a sushi or taco bar in the school cafeteria. Which is one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time, but usually isn’t.

Diversity in fiction isn’t about tokenism, filling up imaginary “affirmative fiction” quotas, or embarking on a PC quest to be “inclusive.” It’s about respecting our readers.

Teen book reviewers

It’s about loving and supporting all teens, letting them know they’re important by giving them voices and honoring their unique perspectives, experiences, and dreams in our stories. It’s not random. It’s not an afterthought. It’s an intentional, thoughtful, and respectful choice to stop perpetuating homogeneity.

Why Do We White-ify YA, Anyway?

The small-but-still-beating “people are mostly decent” part of my heart wants to believe that when white authors neglect to diversify our stories, it’s not out of racism, laziness, or even ignorance, but because of two oft-misinterpreted writing tips: 1) Write what you know, and 2) YA novels need a clear moral message. When it comes to diversity, both pseudo-commandments inspire fear.

Fear #1: As a caucasian, I’m not qualified to write about or from the perspective of people of color.

While there’s some merit to seeking inspiration from the wellspring of our own experiences, when taken literally, the advice to write what you know stifles creativity and shuts down our imaginations. It tells us that unless we’re black or gay or a woman, that we can’t write about those kinds of characters because we can’t possibly know them.

I don’t buy it. We’re writers. Storytellers. Weavers of tales great and small. It’s our job to make things up, to imagine, to explore different perspectives through the eyes of our characters. This isn’t to say we can plug-n-play a few multicultural characters into our work or rely on stereotypes or assumptions for crafting our fictional friends (see aforementioned anti-starbucks advice), but that’s writer 101 stuff. Cardboard, one-dimensional people have no place in a story, whether they’re white, black, brown, purple, or invisible. Authenticity is important, but thanks to the library, the internet, and, you know, other human beings, it’s possible to learn about something we’ve never personally experienced. Sometimes all it takes is a simple question: Hey, people who’ve been there, what’s your take on this? People want their voices heard. They want to share. They want to help.

Race is a sticky thing though, isn’t it? We’ve gotten so divisive in this country that we’re often afraid to mention it. Comedians have created entire routines on the phenomenon that is white people trying to describe a black person. I’ve witnessed it—you’ll inevitably get detailed run-down of his clothing, his hair, his shoes, his car, but rarely the simple statement: he’s black, or he has dark brown skin. When some white people actually describe the race, it’s in a whisper. “He’s… um… he’s… bla—he’s African American…”

Seriously? We all need to take a collective drink of Let’s Get The Hell Over Ourselves (and chase it down with a swig of We’re All Human, Remember?). Writers imagine. We take risks. We experience, and we ask, and we imagine again. And then we write it all down for other people to experience the moment they pick up our books.

Fear #2: If I write about people of color, my story must teach a moral lesson and take a stand on an issue.

From The Atlantic Wire:

There’s also the rather unfair expectation put upon writers of books featuring non-white characters that they still have to make a statement, or that they’re speaking for all people of that race. “It does get frustrating when your book comes out and other people think you’re making a statement about all black people,” says [author Coe] Booth. “There are so few books featuring black characters, with the one or five that come out, there’s so much pressure to represent all of this particular race.” That’s not a problem white writers have. People in the industry “need to open up the thinking about what a book by a person of color is supposed to do,” she adds. “It’s not an education; why do books by authors of color have to have that much more responsibility? It’s just supposed to be a book.”

I disagree that this isn’t a problem white authors face. Anyone writing characters of color faces this problem, but non-white authors bear the brunt of it because of the expectation that they educate people about their “experience” (whatever that may be).

Our society has created and perpetuated the expectation that, with a few notable exceptions, YA books with non-white characters either tackle a social injustice head on or strip out the character’s entho/cultural/gender/etc. uniqueness altogether. The black character, then, must either struggle under the weight of “the black experience” or blend in so completely that the only black thing about him is his “coffee-colored skin” (which is of course described with a frequency the white character’s “peaches and cream” colored skin is not).

The whole conundrum is compounded by the fact that plenty of cranky grownups still cling to the misguided belief that YA exists solely to teach kids lessons. The result, if the Atlantic Wire article is indicative of the larger problem, is that whenever we write a non-white (or a non-hetero, non-insert-socio-ethno-psychological-category-here) character, we’re taking it upon ourselves to write the non-whatever “experience.” Whatever else happens in the story, my gay character should have a difficult coming out story, and he should be bullied so that I can send a message that homophobia is wrong. My black characters should be subject to racism so I can preach about diversity and tolerance.

Issue stories are important, and there are wonderful books addressing racism, homophobia, bullying, and other human ills head on. But like Coe says, it’s not an education. Not every book has to tackle the issues. Some stories are simply about other challenges of adolescence, real and fantastic: falling in love, the sudden death of a loved one, hunting vampires, fitting in with peers (or not), raising the dead, road tripping, portal tripping, learning magic, getting sick, having sex, exploring passions, surviving the zombie apocalypse that was started by that goober who just raised the dead, trying out for the school play, getting in a fight, saving the planet from alien invaders… just to name a few obstacles our beloved white fictional teens face over the pages of their daily lives.

What about our beloved black fictional teens? Indians? Asians?

Can a black kid slay dragons without turning his quest into an anti-racism manifesto? Dragons can be dangerous. Maybe they need to be slayed, and maybe this kid is quick on his feet and handy with the magic sword… and he happens to be black. Can we see his unique and special worldview as a young black dragon slayer, or does he have to take a stand against bigotry too?

Can a Mexican girl fall in love with her best friend without exploring immigration policies or her grandmother’s homemade tamales? Conversely, can she just enjoy her grandmother’s tamales because they kick ass and not because she must reconnect with her Mexican ancestry so that readers understand the importance of one’s cultural heritage? I mean, I love tamales, and I totally respect and appreciate the culture from which they originated, and maybe this girl does too.

But dudes, sometimes a tamale is just a tamale.

Vegan Tamales with Beans and Rice

Speaking of tamales… I teach an advanced YA novel class at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. One of my students is a Mexican American writer working on a YA urban fantasy. In class, she admitted that people have often “encouraged” her to abandon the fantasy and write about “the Mexican American experience.” As if there’s only one. As if she’s obligated by her ethnicity to speak up, to teach those all-important lessons. “Look,” she told us. “Just because I’m Latina doesn’t mean my characters have to go around speaking Spanish and making tortillas. I want to write a different story.”

Just Who is Responsible for Writing Diverse Characters in YA?

The sea of white on the YA bookshelves has to change. And the onus shouldn’t fall entirely to authors of color, nor to the aforementioned trifecta of readers, booksellers, and the Borg of Industry.

The responsibility belongs equally to all writers.

diversity matters

I hesitate to even use the word “responsibility,” because it’s actually not that. We’re writers. Our only responsibility as far as I’m concerned is being honest and authentic in our work. But to be honest and authentic, we have to address this. We live in a diverse world. To pretend otherwise is more fantastical than believing that sex with vampires is a good idea (not that I’m judging!).

Our stories must be diverse, and I can make no better case than this quote from John Truby in his book, The Anatomy of Story:

The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. And that’s why people love it.

Stories don’t show the audience the “real world”; they show the audience the story world. The story world isn’t a copy of life as it is. It’s life as human beings imagine it could be.

“Life as human beings imagine it could be.”

Think about that. Really sit with it. Pretty powerful, right? Isn’t that why we write, because we imagine things can be better? Because we believe in the power and wonder of imagination? Because we know that YA books are not billboards, but conversations?

Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.


I adore teenagers. That’s why I write for them. They’re special and magical and full of life; they’re truly the best of us. As young adult authors, our words have power. The power to entertain. The power to inform. The power to inspire. And most importantly, the power to change the lives of teen readers—to really make a difference. If, as Truby believes, stories express the idea that human beings can become better versions of ourselves, then I want to show YA readers that those better versions look like them, too.

All of them.

All images copyright of their respective owners. Posted with permission under Creative Commons licenses via Flickr.

I CliffsNoted My Way Through H.S. Lit & All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

Confession: Hi. I’m Sarah. I write novels for teens. And I’ve never read the classics.

Catcher in the RyeLast weekend, my friend Courtney and I got to chatting about classic lit, and while she won two prestigious high school reading awards for tackling such tomes as War and Peace on her own time, I could only recall a pathetic handful of titles from my teen years.

Vexing! As a young adult author, I’m all about books for teens. Why couldn’t I discuss my high school literary experience beyond V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic? The question sent me on an unexpected weekend trip into the deep dark recesses (emphasis on dark) (emphasis on recess) of adolescence.

My Literary Childhood: An Incomplete History

My grammar school years were bookishly bountiful. Taught myself to read after a few lessons in pre-school. Wrote and illustrated my first book (inspired by and/or ripped off from the movie E.T.) in first grade, complete with such witty dialogue as “Burp! Hiccup!”

E.T. by Sarah Ockler

Spiderman at PARP CeremonyWon the second grade PARP (Parents as Reading Partners) award for most books read at home, the ceremony for which included a visit from Spiderman.

By fifth grade, long after I’d burned through Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and all the Sweet Valley High books, I was sneaking adult romance novels from the library and hiding them in a Super Duper grocery bag under my bed, reading by flashlight after dark, just like my best friends. (Side note: Fifty Shades of Gray infiltrates the mommy bloggers? Please. Fifth grade, baby. We were all over that stuff before we even knew what “that stuff” was.)

Clearly I was on the fast track to literary stardom. So what happened to this once promising pre-pubescent prodigy of the page?

Adolescence: The Wonderless Years

Sarah Ockler, Sophomore with Giant HairI pondered the odd paradox of my teen years, my confusing adolescence fraught with #MiddleClassProblems. Was my Wonder Bread suburban education somehow… inadequate? Were my parents’ tax dollars funneled into non-literary budget items like the industrial pool cleaner that ensured second-degree chemical burns upon each reluctant gym class dip? Or the carefully preserved grasshoppers for bio class, the smell of which still haunts my memory and prevents me from eating heavily-soy-sauced cuisine? Certainly it wasn’t the deep fried erasers casually passed off as French fries in the cafeteria. Why, then, after rising before five a.m. every day to be ferried off by the magic bus and deposited into a series of fiberglass desks for four years of my life, was I not exposed to more classic literature?

If my hair could reach record-breaking new heights each year, why not my mind?

Could this hole in my academic experienced be correlated with my over-reliance on adverbs, italics, and emoticons in my adult communications?

More importantly, did this educational oversight contribute to my growing up to write banned books in a super-secret evil plan to infiltrate and pollute young, impressionable minds?

All The Crazy Kids Love Twenty Boy Summer

Stephen King was my Charles Dickens, Mary Higgins Clark my Virginia Woolf. My wisdom and guidance came from “One to Grow On” commericial intermissions during Saturday morning cartoons.

How could this have happened?

*Ponders in an uncharacteristically studious manner*

Sweet, unreliable memory! Dusty recollections of yesteryear! Suddenly, the elusive answer rose like a brilliant phoenix of obviousness from the ashes of numbskullery!

I didn’t do my homework!

I had this uncanny ability to b.s. my way through class by anticipating the desired direction of the discussions and turning the teachers’ questions into the very answers they wanted to hear (tip: strategy somewhat less effective with parents). I could also zone out while subconsciously absorbing enough material to answer any question thrown at me as if I’d been paying attention all along.

Impressive, yes. If only I could use my powers for good instead of evil!

Unfortunately, my highly developed powers of persuasion were no help with tests. Enter CliffsNotes, my pre-smart phone, pre-Google guardian angels! These black-and-yellow booklets told me everything I needed to know about Hester Prynne and Tom Sawyer. Themes! Author bios! More themes! Ah, CliffsNotes. Able to save even the laziest butts from detention and failure in a single bound!

Right. It’s a wonder they let me graduate. Especially with that hair. Apparently my lack of reading enthusiasm extended to all ares of life, because those yellow-orange tones prove that I did not follow the fine-print directions on the Sun-In bottle!

Sarah's graduation

True Confessions: A Catalogue of Lost Classics

Back then, I was young and impressionable and angry in that nobody-understands-me sort of way. And now I’m… older. So I’ll give you some concrete examples, but please… no judgments!

Part 1: Classics I Willingly Read for Class and Still Remember

  1. Catcher in the Rye
  2. Of Mice and Men
  3. Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl
  4. A Separate Peace
  5. Lord of the Flies

Part 2: Classics I Unapologetically CliffsNoted (And Now That I’m Confessing, I’ll Probably Have That Recurring Nightmare Where The Principal Tracks Me Down And Tells Me I Didn’t Actually Graduate)

  1. The Scarlet Letter: I recently re-read these CliffsNotes for help with Scarlet Letter references in my latest YA novel, Bittersweet.
  2. The Old Man and the… wait, what? I’m sorry, I must’ve nodded off just thinking about this book again.
  3. To Kill A Mockingbird: I think I would’ve enjoyed this one, so I must’ve been in a mood at school that month/year/decade.
  4. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Something about painting a fence? Or maybe painting a raft? A raft made out of a fence?
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Maybe this was the one with the raft? I could never get past the fact that it reminded me of Strawberry Shortcake’s boy toy Huckleberry Pie. Unfortunately Twain’s book didn’t smell like chemically enhanced fruit. Talk about a missed marketing opportunity, publishers!
  6. The Canterbury Tales: Too many POV characters, dude!
  7. Anything by Shakespeare: Ye head doth hurts! Unfortunately, this movie wouldn’t be out for a few more years. Leo could’ve changed everything for me:

  1. Heart of Darkness: I have Brain of Darkness when it comes to remembering anything about this one.
  2. The Red Badge of Courage: Um, is this a euphemism? Sounds like it should be in Urban Dictionary or a George Carlin skit.
  3. Great Expectations: Honestly this one may have been Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t know. I just remember it had Great in the title, but obviously I didn’t think it was. Great, I mean.
  4. Walden: probably I would totally love this one now.
  5. Our Town: Yeah, I got nothin’.
  6. The Glass Menagerie: There were little glass animal statues, right? Pretty sure I missed most of the symbolism here.

Part 3: Classics I Read on My Own (But With Admittedly Questionable Motives and/or Non-Educational Prodding)

  1. A Handmaid’s Tale: Read after watching the movie at my friend Danielle’s house and getting all swoony over Aidan Quinn.
  2. The Outsiders: Pretty sure Patrick Swayze’s penultimate badassery had something to do with this one.
  3. Some Such Collection by Edgar Allan Poe Whose Title I No Longer Recall: Read after my super-secret crush gushed about it and I feigned fascination in that oh-tell-me-more way and he loaned me his copy and I read it twice just in case he wanted to talk about it over pizza and cokes after school, followed by kissing. Then he approached me one day, all sweet and shy and big blue eyes, and looked at me longingly, and leaned in close to whisper the phrase I’d been dreaming of… “Um, so, can I get my book back?” Sigh.
  4. Slaughterhouse Five: Read last year after it was banned with Twenty Boy Summer from a high school library in Republic, MO. My first Vonnegut book was actually a gift from my pre-husband way back in 1999—Galapagos. I wish I’d discovered Vonnegut in high school, but there’s no wrong time for a little KV wisdom in your life.
  5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Read after the Rodney King riots because the riots brought race and class issues to the suburbs in a way I’d never seen in my lifetime, and it changed me forever. Truly. I thought if I knew more about why things were so screwed up and how they got that way, I could do something to change them.

“Books are humanity in print.” ― Barbara W. Tuchman

I’ve been thinking about those Rodney King and Malcolm X reading days recently because of the Trayvon Martin case—the talk of riots, the issues of race we can never seem to get past in this country. And it all makes me realize, once again, that books really do have the power to change lives, to open our minds, to bring us closer. Books can connect us on a singular non-racial, non-cultural, non-gender level because the best ones go straight to the heart of our humanity.

But only if we actually, you know, read them.

*Coughs into hand. Casts about for a subject change. Can’t escape fate!*

Teachers of my adolecent literature classes, including but not limited to Mr. Roberts, Mrs. Whalenmeyer, Mrs. Rosati, and others who shall remain nameless because while my love of books finally knows no bounds, my ability to recall stuff with any sense of accuracy before the turn of the millennium knows at least seven bounds, I hereby commit in front of all the great peoples of the internets, most of whom—while I toiled away at mastering the art of sleeping with my eyes open in your classrooms—weren’t even a good idea in their parents’ minds yet, to read—sans CliffsNotes or any other study aid—some (but not all) of those classics at which I once so carelessly scoffed.

All in the name of keeping an open mind, finding human connections, and cashing in on all of the wonderful lovey-dovey stuff of books.

Call For Suggestions

Readers and aforementioned great peoples of the internets, I need your help! From the part 2 list above, which classics would you recommend reading? Which were/are your favorites? What about any that aren’t on the list? What have I been missing out on all these years? Let your voice be heard in the comments, and help me assuage my decades-long ignorance of classic literature!

(Ahem… um… while we’re on the subject of confessions… I didn’t really get a lousy T-shirt from high school. Our class was voted the class with the least amount of school spirit, as evidenced by our non-existent ten year reunion and inability to fundraise for anything more costly than the post-fundraiser pizza party, so frivolous T-shirts highlighting our academic failures were certainly out of the question.)

Game of Thrones & The Case Against Closure in Fiction

Any Game of Thrones fans out there? No spoilers, but… last night’s episode? All I gotta say about that final scene is… damn, girl. Maybe you oughta see a doctor about that!


We’ll get back to Game of Thrones in a moment (spoiler-free of course). I promise this is all related, tangentially, as most of my thoughts are, and as most of George R.R. Martin’s characters are.

See what I did right there? Tying it all together like that? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, one of my favorite things about writing for teens is that they’re passionate readers, they know how to get in touch with their favorite authors, and they aren’t afraid to ask questions and share their own ideas (that’s more like 3 or 4 favorite things, but like my thoughts and the cast of Martin’s books, they’re all related, so let’s just roll with it).

I love hearing from readers. They ask about whether the cupcakes featured in Bittersweet are real recipes (yes), or whether Twenty Boy Summer’s Zanzibar Bay is a real place (no). They want to know if Fixing Delilah’s Patrick is based on a real person (in part, and I totally married him). They seek writing and publication advice (don’t give up!), or details on how a book becomes a movie (magic spells are definitely involved). But the number one question I get, hands down, is…

Will you write a sequel to Twenty Boy Summer?

Twenty Boy SummerEveryone wants to know what happens next: do certain characters ever meet up again? Do Anna and Frankie go back to California the following summer? Can the girls rebuild their friendship and trust each other again after everything that happened? Can Sam’s family buy a house from Anna’s father in their same neighborhood? Is it possible that Matt’s death was misreported and he’s living on a remote island somewhere totally safe, waiting for Anna to find him? Can Matt come back from the dead like in Pet Sematary or in some kind of secret government experiment?

All of these questions are from actual reader emails, and though some are more serious than others, the root of each is the same: desire for closure.

Closure in Fiction and in Life

We all long for closure in stories, for the mostly happily ever after, for resolutions and answers when we reach THE END. When we get attached to characters, as I am with the people who populate Game of Thrones, we follow them through the journey of the story, and then we want to know how their life turns out after the last page. It’s the mark of a great tale, right? If I’m still thinking about the characters long after that final passage, if I’m wondering how things turn out for them, then I know that a book really affected me. And I’m always honored and humbled to learn that my books have affected other readers in this way—enough that they want to know what happens next in the lives of my characters.

I like happy endings. I like to know that things worked out for my favorite fictional people just as I want things to work out for my favorite real life people.

But real life isn’t like that, is it? We don’t always get to know how things turn out for everyone we’ve ever loved. We don’t always get the final say. We don’t always get any say, because unfortunately, endings are just that—endings. And they’re often abrupt and unpredictable.

Everything—even the best and seemingly most unshakeable things—end.

Elrond is kind of a downer Dad in this scene from the film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Two Towers, warning his daughter (an immortal elf) against holding out for her true love (a man). Elrond obviously missed elf-parenting class the day they taught the critical lesson: when fathers tell their daughters what to do, daughters will do the exact opposite. Still, his words are true. No matter the outcome of Arwen and Aragorn’s story, one day, their relationship will end.

Personally, I’m still bewildered by certain friendships in my life that ended; people I’d naively and hopefully assumed would be there forever simply… weren’t. Maybe they faded away, or maybe I did. Maybe we all changed and no longer recognized one another. Maybe we all had intentional, irrefutable reasons to walk away. I’m not sure, because in most cases, I didn’t get the luxury of closure. It makes me think of missing persons or funerals without a physical body. There’s always some question, some doubt, some stupid hopeless hope that it didn’t really happen that way. That it could still change.

Closure, unfortunately, is not one of life’s guarantees. It’s a luxury, like I said. Never required. Rarely offered. Whether a relationship ends because of death, a breakup, an insurmountable disagreement, a misunderstanding, or as Elrond so eloquently put, the slow decay of time, it’s still an ending. And in the absence of closure, endings usher in uncertainty. Was there something else I could’ve said, something else I could’ve done if only I’d had the chance? One more day, one more conversation, one more hug? It’s not fair, it just… is. Sometimes all we can do is accept it (or go crazy trying to deny it, which I don’t recommend).

Game of Thrones: You’re Killin’ Me, George!

Like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, the HBO television series based on the fictional series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, gets it absolutely right. We’re currently in season two on the show (I haven’t read the books yet because books with tiny fonts and thousands of pages totally intimidated me, but I really want to read them), and pretty much every weekend I want to phone up George and be all, “Oh. My. God! WTF just happened, George? Why do you insist on making me cry, like, every single effing episode? Why do you keep killing and tormenting the characters I adore? How can you put them in those horrible situations? Why aren’t the good guys saving the day? Argh!”

I get seriously mad at the guy, but honestly, he’s a freaking genius and a wonderful writer. He gets the characters in my head, in my heart. He makes me fall in love with them and then he yanks them away or knocks them down without any consideration for my feelings.

Sound familiar?

When was the last time you were given an opportunity to halt or reverse the death of a loved one? Did anyone consult with you before breaking your heart with that breakup? Before evaporating that best friendship you wanted to believe was forever? Before life yanked the rug out from beneath your feet and stomped on your fingers?

On the surface, Game of Thrones—particularly the HBO interpretation—is fraught with intense violence and sex. Honestly, there are a lot of boobs on that show, and sword fights, among other things. But it’s neither the brutal acts nor the nude buffet that most of us relate to; it’s the emotional aftermath. The sudden ends, the confusion, the heartache, the raw unmet desire, the lack of closure. Most of us have never witnessed the brutal decapitation of a loved one, for example, but haven’t we all wished for one more chance, one more day to say the important things? An opportunity to make our case, to fight for it?

How many times have you actually gotten that chance?

Life isn’t fair or logical. Martin understands that. Tolkein did, too, though his story was much less brutal. In both cases, I was hooked. Lord of the Rings lives on for me, long after reading the books and seeing the movies a bazillion times. I still think about the characters, still imagine what their lives are like now. As for Game of Thrones? Every Sunday night leaves me upset and enraged or plain old freaked out, and Martin has created a loyal fan for life—enough to make me get over my issue with small-print adult books, happy endings or not.

Speaking of Happy Endings… What About Them?

All of this isn’t to say that storybook characters (and their loyal fans!) don’t deserve happy endings. Many fictional heroes emerge stronger and wiser after surviving the external challenges of a story. They’ve overcome their great weaknesses, found hidden strengths and allies, and slayed their literal and figurative dragons (especially in young adult stories, where coming of age is a paramount internal theme). Maybe they’ve also discovered the buried treasure, snagged the girl, saved humankind from utter extinction.

Even so, “happy ending” is a misnomer. The end of a story doesn’t mark the end of a character’s life or the lives of all those she impacted along the way. It’s just a happy moment, and life is full of them, just as it’s full of heartache. Neither is forever—they’re just for now. Remember Frodo in The Return of the King, that scene in the harbor? “We set out to save the Shire, Sam. And it has been saved… But not for me.”

Layered with happiness and regret, love and loss, creation and destruction. Like life.

Absolutely beautiful. Like life.

Your Assignment

Writers, take a look at your current project. Are you tying everything up too neatly for your characters? Are you resolving every thread, addressing every possible outcome? Giving your hero everything she’s ever dreamed of, leaving nothing left for her to fight for? To desire? Take another look. See if you can find a few places to leave things undone. Not dropped or forgotten, but uncertain. Unresolved. Life is messy and unfair as often as it’s amazing. Let us feel the whole range of it on the page. Give us something to wonder about later, long after we’ve closed the book.

Always leave room for a sequel—if not on paper, than in your readers’ imaginations.

Readers, how do you feel about closure? Do you like loose ends, the sometimes unfair twists and turns of life, or do you prefer the safety net of happily ever after in your fiction? What are some of your favorite books? Do they tie up all the threads, or leave you wanting more? Share your spoiler-free thoughts in the comments!