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July 13, 2009

Patrick Jones on Edgy Teen Fiction

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Patrick Jones is a librarian and the author of five YA books, including THE TEAR COLLECTOR, which will hit stores this September. In today's guest blog, he tackles the subject of edgy teen fiction, using his own novels to illustrate his belief that pain can be turned into something positive.

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How do you like your coffee? Me, I like mine black: no cream, no sugar. I once dated a woman who used six creams, six sugars --- to me, that’s not coffee. That’s hot cream soda. But light or dark isn’t just about coffee, it is about books for teens. It is about taste and how close you want to get to the bitterness of the bean.

My first novel, THINGS CHANGE, is about teen dating violence. We can ignore or we can explore. We can only understand it by asking hard questions and seeking harder answers. In my fiction, the punches are real, the light shines on the secret corners, and, as the carnies would say, this is a dark ride. In THINGS CHANGE, readers follow the main character Johanna’s journey. It is a coming-of-age story as Johanna moves from the protected world of her parents, of childhood, of books, and of innocence as she enters in her first romance, her first sexual experience, and first heartbreak with Paul, a boy more known for cracking a joke than cracking open a book. The novel explores the hidden shadow yet no less real specter of dating violence, which, some studies indicate might occur, in some fashion, in almost 20% of teen romances.

THINGS CHANGE is an honest novel about teens growing up in Flint, and that honesty makes some adults nervous. THINGS CHANGE presents a teen world where life is often unkind, sometimes unfair, and never uncomplicated. And there is no happy ending. I don’t want to give it away --- for the ending makes you rethink the entire book --- but we don’t cue up happy music. In tune with the book’s soundtrack, instead let’s cue up Springsteen’s “Badlands”; but remember the last line: "I want to spit in the face of these bad lands." Dark tales are survival tales; you can’t have light at the end of the tunnel unless you have a darkness to emerge from.

But how real is too real? Consider my third novel CHASING TAIL LIGHTS. told in first person by a 17-year-old girl named Christy growing up in poverty of Flint. If I’m going to write about Flint, I need to write about poverty. If about poverty, then drugs and crime. If about drugs and crime, then justice. If about justice, then injustice. If injustice, then poverty. Repeat process. Its not a vicious cycle; its downward spiral.

For my main characters like Paul, Bret, Christy, Mick, and Danielle, their lives are harder because of sins / flames they’ve inherited. One theme runs through out my work is this: life is hard, so don’t make bad decisions, which makes a hard life even harder. Yet, for all the darkness, I think my books give voice to Flint kids --- and by that I don’t just mean youth in my hometown --- but youth anywhere who are growing up in hard economic times with an uncertain future.

My new novel THE TEAR COLLECTOR is an “if you like TWILIGHT” title, but is still grounded in the realism of a rumor-filled, drama-stuffed high school. The main character, Cassandra, is a vampire-like creature who lives off the tears of humans. For her to survive, other people have to suffer. Sometimes I think that’s what YA authors are at the core: we are tear collectors. We take the pain of the teen years and through author alchemy turn it into something positive.
The positive message to teens struggling is that within books, they can find stories that reflect their experience. What might seem on the edge to adults is at the deep, dark, heart center of adolescent life. Ultimately, it is the issue of relevance that drives any discussion of teens and reading. When teens find relevance in books, they place a value in reading. Once they accept that value, then they come into a library or bookstore and say the best words possible for an author: “can I get a refill”?

-- Patrick Jones