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.