For Ellen Hopkins

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]Dear Ellen:

I love your books. I need your books. Teens need your books. And the kinds of teens who most desperately need your books are the kind that don’t have the “luxury” of “concerned parents” deciding what they should and shouldn’t read.

And here’s what I think of the situation in Humble, Texas:

Don't mess with Ellen Hopkins

The REAL Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]

In her April 1 New York Times essay, The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit, Julie Just argues that today’s YA literature is rife with bad or ineffective parents. She writes:

…the bad parent is now enjoying something of a heyday… some of the most sharply written and critically praised works reliably feature a mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab parent, suggesting that this has become a particularly resonant figure.


Afflicted by anomie, sitting down to another dismal meal or rushing out the door to a meeting, the hapless parents of Y.A. fiction are slightly ridiculous. They put in an appearance at the stove and behind the wheel of the car, but you can see right through them.

If you have a chance to read the article, check it out. In the mean time, I have a few issues with Just’s broad categorizations and ultimately contradictory essay:

1. Some — maybe even lots of — parents are hapless, ridiculous, and hardly present. Sometimes it’s just who they are. Other times there may be an external explanation. In TWENTY BOY SUMMER, for example, Frankie’s parents are totally ineffective, but it’s not because “YA parents are bad.” It’s because they’re grieving the death of their teen son.

2. The best YA lit — arguably, any literature — is not that which paints the most accurate reflection of reality, but that which resonates most authentically with the intended reader. It’s the whole “perception is reality” thing. Regardless of the reality, lots of teens perceive their parents as inept, mopey, or even downright bad — I know I did. In my thirteen- to nineteen-year-old mind, Mom and Dad were clueless, ineffective, and, you know, stupid. (Not anymore, though! *cough* movingrightalong…)

3. The purpose of contemporary YA lit is not to teach lessons or set moral codes (though in some cases, this may be an unintended outcome, and that’s okay, too), and “good” versus “evil” in character traits, choices, actions, words, and values is a vast area of fuzzy grayness. Just because a parent isn’t smacking a kid Mommy Dearest style or abandoning him in the woods la Hansel and Gretel doesn’t mean she’s not abusing him, and this abuse can be so subtle as to seem like simple lameness or lack of presence. Remember when you were a teen? How many times could a simple look or shrug from your mother make you want to scream, “just listen to me!!?”

4. Like Janet Burroway says in WRITING FICTION, “…in literature, only trouble is interesting.” The epicenter of most contemporary YA novels (or, again, most novels in general) is a problem, issue, or incident from which the story-length internal and external conflicts grow, ultimately changing the main character(s). So if we have a teen main character with model parents who are effective but not helicopter-y, encouraging but not stifling, cool and laid back but firm and strong, in love but not mushy, trusting but not naive, not dead, not sick, not divorced, financially sound, all around awesome people… um, yawn. Where’s the story there? Where’s the conflict? What’s driving the main character to want something, and what’s preventing him from getting it? Where are the challenges that force him to grow over the course of the novel? If the parents aren’t the issue, than it’s happening at school, with friends and significant others, at work, or internally, in which case the role of the parents in the story absolutely takes a back seat.

Just cites Bella’s mother in the TWILIGHT series as an example of this “clownish, curiously diminished” parent, but honestly, when you discover your hottie emo boyfriend is really a vampire who finds it nearly impossible not to kill you, and your BFF is a werewolf who wants to kill your vampire boyfriend, your “loving, erratic hare-brained mother” kind of pales (no pun intended) in comparison.

Just also mentions Sara Zarr’s ONCE WAS LOST, a beautiful story that explores a teen’s struggle with faith and family in the wake of her mother’s DUI and subsequent rehab admission and the parallel story of a local kidnapping that sucks up what’s left of her pastor father’s attention. Just says:

…the father in “Once Was Lost” becomes somehow peripheral, his problems more muted and less interesting than his teenage daughter’s.

Well, duh! ONCE WAS LOST is Samara’s story, not her father’s. We’re in Sam’s head the entire time, seeing things through her eyes, perceiving things through her senses. If Zarr decided to revisit the story from Dad’s perspective, his problems would likely become very interesting, while Sam’s would rightly fade.

5. Contrasting contemporary YA literature with titles from the 1960s and 1970s — while making for an interesting cultural and artistic discussion — is not a way to effectively argue that today’s YA parents are lame. YA literature has exploded over the last decade. Not only did pioneering authors and passionate librarians pave the way for a broader range of stories and topics, but look at the social and economic landscape: Teens today have more direct purchasing power online and off, can more easily connect with friends and other peers for recommendations and sharing, and can even download content without ever having to interact with an adult. This means that there are fewer adult gatekeepers “screening” YA literature, allowing and even forcing contemporary YA authors to explore issues and characters in ways that were previously uncharted or censored. YA lit today is just different from YA lit 40 years ago, just as parents and kids are different, relationships at home are different, television and movies are different… everything is. And 40 years from now, everything will have changed again.

The real parent problem?

In my opinion, the real parent problem in YA lit is not that parents in contemporary YA stories are ineffective, mopey, and bad. It’s that some parents (and other adults) in real life continue to stereotype and generalize YA as ghetto sub-genre that doesn’t teach the “right” lessons… or they just plain forgot what it was like to be a teen.

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler”]I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit, readers and authors. So hop on over and read the article while I work on conjuring up some more bad parents for book three!

West Valley School Visit & The Trouble With Boys

West Valley Welcomes Sarah Ockler

Earlier this month, I spent the day hanging out with ninth and tenth graders at West Valley Central School (about 45 miles south of Buffalo). We talked about the importance of writing and communication skills, learning the rules and knowing when to break them, following your dreams, the nuts and bolts of becoming a published author, and finally, that age-old dilemma…

Why do boys have to act like such… boys? Seriously.

When I write about boys in my novels, they tend to be sensitive, mature, romantic, and highly swoon-worthy. My fictional boys open doors and show their emotions. They read books — even girly ones like Twenty Boy Summer. But when I asked the boys in the classroom what it would take to get them to read my stuff, they said I’d need to add some explosions, fight scenes, and a few well-placed dead bodies. Hmm… Twenty Boy Massacre? Maybe next summer!

I joked with the girls in the class that the fictional boys we love may not be an accurate portrayal of teen guys. They laughed and said, “Uh, yeah, we know. Why do you think we all love Edward?”

Ladies and gentlemen, there you have it.

Sarah Ockler at West Valley Central School

Okay, it’s not like I knew any sensitive, swoon-worthy boys when I was a teen, either, but I always held out hope. And I still don’t believe that there aren’t any guys like that out there. There have to be at least three, right? Hiding out somewhere, reading a book under cover of darkness, picking flowers out of your mom’s garden for your secret girlfriend? Wherever you’re hiding, if you’re one of them, or if you’re dating one of them, or you’re related to one of them, please let me know. Come on, guys. Don’t let a fictional character ruin your chances here. Show them Edward doesn’t have anything on you!


Vampire-crushing aside… the boys of West Valley were actually pretty cool (*cough* for mortals *cough*). So they weren’t inclined to debate the kissing techniques of Twenty Boy Summer’s Matt versus Sam, or talk about why vampire romance is so hot these days. But they did ask some great questions about books and publishing and what it’s like to be an author, and no one hit me with a spitball or anything (at least, not that I noticed). 🙂

I had an awesome time at West Valley, and I hope that everyone came away from our visit pondering two things:

  1. maybe not all boys are such… boys, and
  2. learning how to communicate through writing opens the doors to our dreams, whatever those dreams may be. Even after all the assignments and tests and essays where you’re not allowed to use the word “I,” writing is a form of expression. It allows us to say what we mean and convey our wants and needs in a way to which people can respond and help. And for the creative storytellers out there, writing helps us find the best words to tell the stories of our hearts — romantic boys, explosions, red hot vampires, or whatever thing keeps us up at night, begging to be told. Listen to that voice, take it seriously, and do whatever it takes to honor your dreams!

Like I told the class… think about the one thing you love doing most. Now, imagine waking up and getting to do that thing for as long as you want. Every day. Imagine getting paid to do that thing. Well, that’s the door that good writing opened for me, guiding me through the twisted paths of high school, college, and several jobs until I was finally able to listen to that inner voice, sit down, and write a book.

Thanks again to Deb Fenn and the teachers and staff at West Valley for the opportunity to visit, and thanks especially to the ninth and tenth grade students who made me feel so welcome. Happy reading and happy writing, all!

Sarah Ockler at West Valley Central School

When I Was Your Age…

Top 10 Things I Never Thought I’d Say to Teens When I Got This Old That I Actually Catch Myself Saying to Teens Now That I Am This Old:

  1. When I was your age… followed by something really corny or inappropriate that further accentuates my old age.
  2. We didn’t have cell phones (when I was your age). We had to keep a spare quarter in our shoe in case there was an emergency and we had to use a pay phone!
  3. (When I was your age) We didn’t have email or IM. We wrote notes, folded into fancy shapes.
  4. Why would you wear that? Aren’t you cold?
  5. You call this poppy crap music?
  6. When I graduated high school, you weren’t even a good idea yet.
  7. You’re young! Enjoy it while it lasts! It’s all downhill from here! Or some variation on the youth/downhill theme…
  8. I wish I could eat like that and stay skinny.
  9. I have nail polish / underwear / concert ticket stubs older than you.
  10. Um, yes, I am the author of that book. 🙂 (Okay, I kind of like saying that one!)

10th GradeAnd to round out tonight’s theme, I’d like to send a heartfelt note of thanks to my dear OLD friend Amy DWP.

It takes a special kind of friend to notice, point out, and call special attention to each and every one of someone’s gray hairs, and tonight, you did that for me. They (and I) felt quite honored!

Especially considering that when I was your age, we didn’t have gray hair. We had Sun-In! And Aqua Net! Check out the lift on those bangs!

Well now you’ve got me all nostalgic, so…

Top 10 Things That Were Cool When I Was Your Age

  1. Rolling, safety pinning, or some other creative method for tapering the cuffs one’s jeans. Anything that didn’t cut off ankle circulation was considered bell-bottomed and therefore banned. Boot cut? We would have ostracized you!
  2. Big, immovable, indestructible bangs of steel (um, see photo above).
  3. Walkmans. That’s right. We didn’t have iPods when I was your age. If we wanted new music, we had to save up $8.99 to buy a cassette tape at the mall.
  4. Making mix tapes, either by dubbing cassettes (for those of us lucky enough to have a double cassette deck) or by holding the recorder right up to the stereo.
  5. Sissy tests, in which you let someone scratch the back of your hand rapidly and repeatedly until you pulled away. The longer you could stand it, the less of a sissy you were. If you didn’t have bleeding gashes on your hands, you were a loser. I made my own to avoid the test (some call it sissy, I call it genius) and told my parents an elaborate tale about slipping on the parallel bars in gym. That should have been a dead giveaway, considering I never did anything strenuous in gym, especially anything that had the potential to mess up those bangs.
  6. Writing out all of the lyrics to songs so we could sing along.
  7. Getting super creative with writing notes to girlfriends, like in code, colors, or with a really cool fold that no one had ever seen before.
  8. Going stag to dances in big groups of girls. We had to go stag. Getting too close to the guys was a bad idea — we could kill someone with those bangs of ours! (Well, okay, maybe going stag was just my personal fad, since I never had a steady [or presentable in public] boyfriend.)
  9. Hair scrunchies, often more than one at a time.
  10. Cootie catchers, aka fortune tellers, in which you write little clues on paper and fold it up into this little thingy and… well, check out the explanation here if you really want to know.

And now I want to know… for all the readers over 18, what was cool when YOU were a teen?

YA Books Boring, Uncomplicated, Preachy? The New Yorker Thinks So!

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]What’s up with all the YA haters lately?

First it was Entertainment Weekly’s 2007 review of Jenny Downham’s BEFORE I DIE, spoiling a starred review with, “…unfortunately, Downham’s publisher has handicapped BEFORE I DIE by labeling it a young-adult novel, thus ghettoizing this gem to the back of most bookstores…” Entertainment Weekly swooped in for another poke at YA with Stephen King’s review of Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES, wrapping up with, “…although ‘young adult novel’ is a dumbbell term I put right up there with ‘jumbo shrimp’ and ‘airline food’ in the oxymoron sweepstakes…” Then Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic in What Girls Want, letting us all know “I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me…” before going on to praise Stephenie Meyer’s Y.A. vampire series, TWILIGHT, for “illuminat[ing] the complexities of female adolescent desire.”

Now The New Yorker steps up to the YA-bashing plate in Book Bench Reads: “Headlong,” Part I, twisting a relatively positive review of HEADLONG by Kathe Koja into another jab at the misunderstood genre of young adult literature.

A few choice quotes from the article:

“I tend to think of young-adult fiction as sort of facile—a straightforward style, uncomplicated themes and morals…”

If you’re a young girl and your best friend — also a girl your age — is sexually molesting you and mentally tormenting you for years before her not-so-accidental death, is that straightforward and uncomplicated? Jo Knowles’ LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL doesn’t make it look that way. What about setting a young neighbor kid on fire and watching him burn alive? Any uncomplicated morals there? Not in Gail Giles’ RIGHT BEHIND YOU. Both of these books are on the YA shelves today.

“When I was a teen-ager, I assumed that the label was synonymous with preachy and boring, a companion to sex-ed classes.”

If you haven’t read a young adult novel since you were a teen, perhaps a walk through the YA section at your local book store or library would do you some good — especially if you’re working on an article about current teen reads. YA books today are anything but boring. THE HUNGER GAMES practically gave me nightmares with it’s not-so-hard-to-believe plot about a dystopian future where kids are forced to compete annually in a fight to the death on live television. Speaking of nightmares and dystopian futures, if you’re looking to get your zombie apocalypse on, check out Carrie Ryan’s upcoming THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH. A snoozer? I think not.

“All the boys in my life read as teens, which begs the question: why do I surround myself with such wimps?”

Really? Boys who read are wimps? I guess that makes John Green a wimp. And Jay Asher, Kaleb Nation, Cory Doctorow, to name a few. They’re in good company with fellow 2009 and 2010 debut authors Kurtis Scaletta, Chris Rylander, Jon Skovron, and Josh Berk. And my little brother — the one who loves YA books? And my husband, who devoured everything by R.A. Salvatore as a kid and still does? Wimp? Right. Frankly, New Yorker, I think we all need to surround ourselves with more of these so-called wimps. I want wimps on every corner, in ever school and library and corporate office and television station. I want to be immersed in a feast of wimps. Thankfully we just put one in the White House — a big ol’ presidential wimp who loves to read and wants his kids (and all of our kids) to share the same passion for words.

“Surely we demand of ‘adult’ writers (or perhaps what I really mean is ‘great’ writers) higher moral and philosophical stakes?”

Are you saying that only adult writers are great writers? I think that’s what you’re saying, and I don’t like that one bit. I think you’re also saying that we should have different expectations for adult literature than we do for young adult works in terms of complexity and depth of issues, and frankly, that’s a cop-out. Yes, there are crappy, shallow, one-dimensional, stereotypical YA books just as there are crappy, shallow, one-dimensional, stereotypical adult books. A genre label is not a judgment on quality or authenticity. It’s just a way to shelve a book in the store or library so that readers can more easily find the books we like.

“I think the Y.A. genre is typically defined by very straightforward moral messages, ones that are deemed ‘suitable’ for children, even if the subject matter deals with more grown-up topics (like sex or drinking).”

I’d venture to say that mortgages and prostates are grown-up topics. But sex and drinking? Teens and even younger kids are faced with these topics — including other tough issues like suicide, rape, self-mutilation, runaways, drugs, bullying, poverty, depression — every day. Calling any of these “grown-up” topics is the same head-in-the-sand mentality that prevents some parents from ever truly knowing or understanding their kids and the issues they and their closest friends are confronting every time they walk out the front door. YA literature tackles tough topics, often with ambiguous or open-ended messages that reflect the gray shades of reality rather than conforming to any “straightforward, suitable” morality.

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler”]Readers, what do you think about young adult literature today? Do you find it preachy, boring, uncomplicated or un-challenging? If not, what are some of your favorite teen reads from today or yesterday? Comment here and head on over to the New Yorker to tell them what you think!