Age of Content

24 Mar

One of the difficulties I’ve had in writing a young adult manuscript was determining age appropriate content. As I don’t have children of my own and play Bad Uncle to my nephews and nieces, I’m not able to use much of our interactions as a basis for determining story lines. I have a soft spot for reading young adult fiction, but that includes generally benign content like Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted to the much more intense Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

Given that my (still) untitled Steampunk story takes place in 1878, there were very delicate subjects to either deal with or neglect as possibly unnecessary to the plot. The Civil War is still a fresh memory and the Reconstruction Era has barely passed. Add to that the inclusion of an African American girl as one of the three protagonists and I knew I had to determine how much or how little I wanted to deal with the cultural atmosphere of Saint Louis in 1878. Moreover, I needed to decide what segment of the extensive range of ‘young adults’ I was writing to and what amount of historical accuracy they expected in a novel.

The three main characters (Oscar Tumblety, William ‘Billy’ Lemp Jr., and Constance Scott) are ages 11 and 12. I decided to look at the young adult fiction released in 1986, when I was 11, as well as some more contemporary young adult books. 1986 included Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Magic Kingdom For Sale/Sold by Terry Brooks, and Her Majesty’s Wizard by Christopher Stasheff. I have a pretty strong memory of each and don’t recall any of them touching on anything too dark or disturbing. In comparison, today’s holy grail of young adult fiction, the Harry Potter series, is practically built around death and abandonment as concerns central to the main character. Current Steampunk authors that, I think, are feeding the same age group I’m aiming for include Cherie Priest and Shelley Adina and they deal quite differently with the problems on different continents.

All in all, I didn’t get anything solid to go on because as would be expected, book content is as variable as the authors that write them and the readers that read them. For my own purposes, I decided that I wouldn’t completely ignore the bigotry and politics that come with writing in the period, but I also didn’t dwell on it as central to the plot. It isn’t. Constance is referred to as a Negro at one point, and the kids give an interesting bit of commentary on the difference between Hasidic and Reform Jews, but in general the story is about adventure, exploration, and discovering internal strengths rather than adjusting to a new world in the wake of a war. I’ll just have to see if my beta readers feel that I handled it appropriately.


Posted by on March 24, 2012 in Uncategorized


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6 responses to “Age of Content

  1. kathleenbradean

    March 24, 2012 at 11:43 AM

    I suggest you read the blog Pub Rants and listen to the Fridays with Kristin videos. She agents a lot of YA and talks about some of your concerns.

    • tobiaswrites

      March 24, 2012 at 11:50 AM

      Will do. And to make it a little easier for anyone else reading along: Pub Rants is here.

  2. theartistryofthebipolarbrain

    March 26, 2012 at 11:32 PM

    I know that there have been many books over the years that I remember from when I was a YA. Howl’s Moving Castle is one, btw. The series I looked for for over 20 years, though, was Ellen Emerson White’s President’s Daughter series. When I read the updated version last year along with a new, fourth book, I was a bit surprised. I remembered the third book being a bit disturbing, but as an aduly, I don’t think I would have let my own 12-yo read the third book and definitely not the fourth. *lol* But, I wasn’t horrified with it at the time. I doubt I understood it to the depth that I do now as an adult. And that may be why YA novels are appealing to more and more people. The understanding is based on education and maturity, but it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment. And as people get older, they can go back to the old favorites and get a whole new appreciation for them.

  3. Charles Smead

    March 29, 2012 at 7:57 AM

    It strikes me that as difficult as it must be to chose what to write when endeavoring long form fiction, that it must be doubly difficult to chose what NOT to write. One of the things that I love about your first book is that you flesh out each chapter and event without using a lot of filigree. I have always admired writers who are able to get the most from the least when it comes to words. Dorothy Parker as a poet was masterful at this also.
    I wonder how much you as a writer feel obliged to reflect the realist aspects of an era that you are in fact fictionalizing? I suppose if you are fictionalizing events that take place in a real past and in a real location versus a completely invented time and place you are “obliged” in some respect to deal with the realities of that setting?? I’m curious, is it easier to fold real-past in to fiction or to create a totally invented history and structure for a society, for you as a writer? I ask because it sounds like with your third book you are doing the latter while with the first two you did the sooner.

  4. tobiaswrites

    March 29, 2012 at 8:23 AM

    RE: real v. fantasy settings. For me, working within the finite boundaries of an existing (though past) environment was far easier. I did put a lot of effort into maintaining some aspects of St. Louis in 1878. I have old maps that allow me to make certain I am giving appropriate landmarks and the internet has been invaluable in providing the names of existing figures from that time. Most of that is because I know that readers with a specific interest in the setting will be quick to dismiss poorly represented illustrations of an actual time in an actual place.
    The problem in developing a fictional setting in my fantasy manuscripts is that I was tempted to fill in every possible detail. It took a long moment to decide that while *I* may want to know specifically how the economy works down to the finest detail, it isn’t always relevant to the story. I had to cut out a lot of background because it came off as ‘telling’ the story rather than ‘showing’ it through the actions of the characters involved.

    • Charles Smead

      March 29, 2012 at 8:43 AM

      Thanks for the response T. I would also feel compelled towards the minutia of things like an economy. But I think that that intuitive internal editor is what stands between people who actually sit down and WRITE A BOOK and those that stare at a blank page in frozen terror!! HAH!


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