The challenge with 'issue-based YA' - the sort of young adult fiction that has teens in difficult 'real world' (ish) situations - is that is completely relies on the reader connecting to the protagonist. Even more than, say, dystopian YA or epic fantasy or Westerns or any other sort of genre. This is about a character, their response to a crisis, and their triumph (or not). Throw in a secondary world setting or a zombie or two, and you've got distractions - an element that can (and often does) offset a character of dubious verisimilitude.
(I understand that I'm backing up into the whole 'lit fic' vs 'spec fic' argument here, and I think that's the same challenge. Speculative fiction is awesome because you have the entire range of human imagination, the possible and the impossible to play with. Literary fiction is awesome because you don't.)
Because I like putting things into buckets, it would seem there are a few ways about this:
- The protagonist as mirror. The book has a protagonist that is That Type of Person. They work because they're a recognisable type of person, and they work especially well if the reader is that type of person. They don't work empathetically when they veer into pastiche, but even then, they're tropes - they still work as shortcuts. The range includes everything from Geek Girl to Gossip Girl.
- The protagonist as shadow. The protagonist is the everyperson - a blank that can, potentially, be any of us. Possibly they are defined solely by external events, for example, Spiderman, or damn near any character from Neil Gaiman. They work because they're abstract enough for us to slot ourselves into their shoes without having to dislodge an existing personality.
- The protagonist as individual. I realise I'm veering into Stating the Obvious territory, but - writing the protagonist to be a person of their very own. They're not meant to be anyone but themselves. They're neither a reflection or a shadow, but a distinct personality. Francis Hardigne's Mosca Mye and Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet (the Spy) are the two that immediately leap to mind. Patrick Ness speaks and writes about this all the time, and it boils down to two key points (I think): a) authenticity - teens that act like teens and b) respect - not underestimating the (young) reader. Teenage readers recognise teenagers.
In my eyes, this isn't a hierarchy, these are different writing 'tactics' to get the job done. There are certainly less successful tactics out there (both 'character as wish-fulfilment' and 'character as sock-puppet for author' spring to mind).
First, a warning - Brooks' The Bunker Diary (2013), is about as hard-hitting and unpleasant a book as I've ever read. Being 'young adult', it is getting the obligatory references to Lord of the Flies - I'm personally leaning more towards "No Exit" or Concrete Island.
Linus is a teenage busker. He's a runaway (from a fairly wealthy background) and has taken to the street to find/lose himself. Take your pick. The story opens with him in the titular bunker. He's been kidnapped off the street, drugged, and transported to this prison: six bedrooms, one bathroom, a lot of cameras, no exits.
With his mysterious captor watching everything he does, Linus keeps a diary as his one means of rebellion - he can write what he wants, say what he wants and, in a sense, be free. If the circumstances weren't so horrifically macabre, this is everything he was looking for whilst living on the street. (Hint: theme alert.)
Things swiftly become even more complicated when other prisoners arrive and the captor begins to engage in a more tangible fashion. With every new arrival and new 'stimulus', Linus finds himself tested. Not just physically (in truly awful ways), but - if you'll forgive the word - existentially. With his world reduced to the head of a pin, Linus is continuously challenged to verify his individuality and his animus. What makes him a person and not a nameless victim or a statistic? What makes him unique, distinctive and 'Linus'? All this, plus all the in-fighting, despair and horror that you might be able to anticipate from a hard-hitting tale of kidnapping and torture.
Needless to say, The Bunker Diary isn't exactly uplifting. Yet, without question, it deserves its place on this year's Carnegie shortlist and may god have mercy on the person that has to establish some point of commonality between this book and, say, Rooftoppers. But unlike "No Exit" or Lord of the Flies, there is a certain element of the 'triumph of the human spirit' (forgive the use of that too, will you?) in The Bunker Diary. The bunker is a horrible, blasphemous crucible, allowing Linus a perverse chance at what he really wanted - a chance to know himself and learn what freedom truly is.
On that cheerful note, a quick return to the opening point of these reviews - The Bunker Diary 'works' because Linus is, in fact, Linus. There'd be no thematic purpose to a novel about finding one's core identity if that identity didn't exist. The demographics of Linus certainly don't fit everyone (unbelievably rich, living rough on the street - not exactly going to match the majority of YA readers), but because he is an individual and a personality in his own right, the reader can share his trials (argh) and triumphs (whew?).
Switching over to an infinitely more cheering book. Leila Sales' This Song Will Save Your Life (2013) isn't, I don't think, on any shortlists - I discovered it through this fantastic list from author Non Pratt. Elise Dembowski is, I'm sorry to say, a perennial loser. She's been unpopular, she notes, since the second grade - which would seem impossible, but she's achieved it. And that isn't through lack of effort: she throws herself into popular culture, memorises TV shows, reads fashion magazines, spends her savings on new clothes and... yet... it never works. The poisonous atmosphere of her high school unfailingly reduces her back to goo.
On one hand, Elise is smart, she's a quick learner, a dedicated studier and she's pretty funny in a real person way (not the Aaron Sorkin style snappy banter way that seems to permeate these novels). She's not even shy in the traditional sense: she's just had all the outgoing beaten out of her. She's also self-aware - she knows when she says something stupid or something awkward, she knows she's 'weird' and different. And she understands that this is the source of her adversity: by being unusual, she's wrong.
A suicide attempt and a lot of therapy later, Elise's life is no better off. Her school truly is vile and her parents, although the YA-standard-issue-adorably-bonkers, aren't particularly helpful. Elise takes to the streets of her small town at night, unable to sleep, unable to relax, she walks herself into exhaustion - enjoying a rare few hours of unmolested solitude. One night, while doing this, she runs into a pair of girls around her own age. Without stopping to think, Vivian and Pippa scoop Elise up (not physically) and drag her along with them to a club night. There, on a dance floor, surrounded by strangers, Elise finds something completely new. How appropriate the club is called "Start", eh? (Theme alert!)
Elise's life splits into halves. During the day, she's still a shambling wreck (also, sleep-deprived), and the bullying gets worse and worse - up to and including a fake online diary that everyone believes is actually her. But at night? She's DJ Elise - she's got new friends, a foxy boy, adults that take her seriously and the power of the decks. Elise learns how to DJ by throwing herself at it with the same gusto that she does everything else: she studies and practices and obsesses and eventually gets it down just right.
(This, as a long aside, is one of the things I respect most about This Song. Elise isn't naturally gifted at, um, mixology? [No, wait, that's bartending.] She's not Holly Smales from Geek Girl, chosen through some higher power and inherently lucky. But nor is she a Serena or Chosen One - born with an uncanny brilliance. Elise is smart and she's dedicated; she's passionate about something and she works her ass off. Think Hermione, not Harry.)
Eventually, of course, Elise's worlds collide. However desperately she wants to keep her 'secret identity' secret (or, more importantly, her 'safe space' safe), the world is too small, and she can't keep Start to herself. But, as if some sort of compensation for losing her alternate self, Elise learns that neither of her universes are as black and white as they seem. Start isn't a perfect world, filled with perfect people. And school isn't as... well, it is pretty damn awful, but Elise does find some sort of silver lining.
(Again, another aside with something I like about this book: there's no malevolence. Let's be clear, the bullying is awful. But Elise learns - or perhaps always knew - that there wasn't some sort of cosmic evil behind it: just habit, laziness, ease, tradition... Elise is bullied because, well, because. It is a dispassionate activity. As the bullying is confronted, it is interesting that the authority figures find it unbelievably awful. With an emphasis on the former. Whereas Elise - and her peers - are quick to accept that, absolutely, these things happen... and, ultimately, forgive.)
This Song Will Save Your Life is a success - a 'must read', if you'll forgive me - because it isn't about the titular song. Nor does a song save anyone. Elise saves her own life. There's no higher power, no serendipity, no secret genetic master code or a beautiful prince or a mutant power or a chosen path or anything like that. There's a young woman that's gangly and awkward; one that tries too hard at all the wrong things until she finally finds the right one. She's as strong, but not impossible; smart, but not incredible; flawed, but not implausible. Role model might be a strong word, but she's definitely one of us - someone that the reader can connect with from the very first pages. Elise Dembrowski is, to refer back to the top of this post, a mirror, and all the stronger for it.