Thursday, December 29, 2005

Stretching Young Readers

When I began writing Raising Dragons, I pondered the "depth" concept. Can I write a deep story that's geared toward young readers? Most of the Christian books I had read for young people were pretty superficial, in fact, boring. They seemed intentionally dumbed down, and I thought most readers in the target age group must be yawning or even insulted.

I decided to write a straightforward story that contained hidden depth. Any astute reader would be able to gather the hidden treasures, while the youngest readers would just have fun with the story. Still, I held back a bit. I wanted to write more complexity and more puzzles, but I thought I would start with something that would stretch my readers just a little. I didn't want to risk any readers thinking, "Huh? I don't get it."

With The Candlestone, I took a step forward in complexity. My hope was that readers of Raising Dragons might be ready to dig a little more. I added new characters, a bit of familial pathos, and a dash of science fiction. I also took the step of killing two characters. One was the object of the redemption theme, Bonnie's father, and one was a villain.

It's not unheard of to kill off a "good guy" in youth literature, so that wasn't a huge step, but it is more unusual, from what I've read, to kill off someone who is a big part of the story and is redeemed at the end.

The bigger step, I think, was to use my protagonist (Billy) to kill a villain (Palin) in a way that wasn't exactly courageous. In fact, he did directly the opposite of what he had been told to do. As readers know, this killing, even in its improper manner, is absolutely essential to the story and the development of Billy. Readers have debated his actions on my message board, so I know it was a seminal moment. It made them think about inward sin, rationalization, and God's work on the inner man. Most important, it helped them to consider another face of redemption.

When I wrote Circles of Seven, I took the gloves off. I decided to make it as complex and deep as my heart desired. Were my readers ready for such a leap? I thought so. If they could handle the depth of The Candlestone, maybe they were ready for another stretching exercise.

It would take too long to comment on the story themes and their many symbols in this book, godliness, redemption, sacrifice, sanctification, contentment, longsuffering, and more. I think I could write a book on this book, and it might be longer than the original. There are quite a few hidden treasures that no reader has ever commented on, so I wonder if they have all been found. Even so, I poured my heart into it and it brought great satisfaction, so I am content to hope that each little point in the story may find a life-changing place in some reader's heart.

With Tears of a Dragon, I took sort of a sideways step. I went back to the simplicity of storytelling that I used in Raising Dragons while trying to keep a good deal of the depth that is in Circles of Seven. I used more pure action, but I worked on infusing that action with the tying up of story loose ends that would make readers think. The symbol of a dragon messiah, fully dragon and fully human, dying for hopelessly lost souls brought my series-long redemption story to its climactic moment. Still, I wanted to personalize the redemption issue, so the heart of the redemption story was realized in a single soul, Jared/Clefspeare, and his return to Billy through his repudiation of pride. This worked as the peak of my thematic mountain.

Still, I wanted to take one last step. As most of my readers are young, I knew they identified more with Billy and Bonnie than with Jared/Clefspeare. I wanted to search their souls. Billy was my messiah character, but he was an imperfect symbol, needing so much redemption himself. He needed to empty himself of everything in his past.

But what about Bonnie? She was my symbol of the faithful Christian. While still growing in wisdom, grace, and knowledge, she bowed before her savior in obedience at every turn. She had to learn to be content with her "grostesque" feature, and she learned the value of using her weaknesses for God's glory, but did she need to empty herself as well? Was she really content with what she had no matter what? As I wrote in my last post, my desire was for readers to examine their own hearts. This is the final stretching moment that I hoped to achieve, self-examination.

So, as you might have gleaned by now, I believe in stretching young readers. They can take it. In fact, they crave it. When they get to the end of the exercise, they feel its value and the rush of spiritual adrenaline. They don't want to be insulted by the finger-wagging of simplistic stories that tell them what to do or not to do. They want to feel the inner passion of heart-felt conflict and see how it works out in lives that they care about, even if they are fictional.

But that's what good stories do. They stretch us beyond what we normally think we can achieve, and we need to remember that young people are often far more flexible than we might realize. We just have to be sure to help them stretch in the right direction.


Becky said...

"They don't want to be insulted by the finger-wagging of simplistic stories that tell them what to do or not to do." Especially when the what to do or not do is something they've heard over and over. In my opinion, story is the place to show how the principles play out in someone's life, not a place to restate the principles as if readers haven't heard them before.


Alyssa said...

Wow! That was amazing. You are absolutely correct, and this is coming from a teen who feels exactly like you described. People writing books that don't stretch you or make you think. This series totally rocked!

Clefspeare said...

Becky, you're right, but I have seen stories that are thinly disguised sermons. The focus is on the lesson rather than the story. It's important that we focus on story telling and let our world view seep in naturally.

Alyssa, thank you for your comments. I love "rock" as a verb, because, as I told my kids the other day, there is no other verb that works quite as well to describe what you're trying to say.

So, Alyssa, I must tell you that I think you rock!

Carol Collett said...

Bryan, thanks so much for sharing this. A couple of characters stomp around my head quite angry because I won't write their gritty, tough stories. Maybe they won't have to wait much longer....
I agree that young readers need real life in their literature. I can't stand to read a sermon thinly disguised as ficiton. Why should we expect young readers to enjoy that?
Rock On!