Making War Personal in Young Adult Novels

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I have been known to write to Ed Nawotka, the man in charge of Publishing Perspectives, with urgent requests, fanciful ideas, speculations.  Would you be interested in a piece on...., I'll say, and because Ed is so kind, he humors me.

Recently I wrote to Ed about a topic that has long obsessed me—the place of war in young adult novels.  How is it best handled?  What should it teach?  How can it make for compelling, not textbook dusty, reads? I'm interested in general, and I'm interested in particular, for there are vestiges of the Spanish Civil War in Small Damages, and there is the aftermath of World War II in my Berlin novel, due out in 2015.

I set out to read or re-read a dozen YA war novels to get answers to my questions.  My thoughts on the topic shape the feature story in today's issue of Publishing Perspectives.  The essay begins with the words below and can be found in total here:
War is personal, the saying goes. It’s the buckle and moil where the house used to be. It’s the shadow where once there was a friend. It’s the brother gone missing and the mother at risk. It is depravity, despotism, lies.

If our only hope against future war resides in the young we raise and teach, then war novels written for teens occupy an extraordinarily important place in the young adult canon. They have — one might say, or I will say — a responsibility. To tell the truth. To broker a truce. To declare, “This is courage or decency or love in a world that can barely be explained.”



Serena said...

I personally didn't read to many war-related novels as a kid, but I wish I had. There are so many great YA novels about war out there. I really enjoyed Walter Dean Myers books even as an adult.

Brenda S. Peterson said...

Thanks for this really thoughtful commentary on writing about war for YA. It actually applies to all ages. I enjoyed discovering your work, Beth, and will follow your blog and buy your books.

I am the author of 17 adult books, including the New York Times "Notable Book of the Year," DUCK AND COVER — a dark comedy of the intimate terrorism of war on the home front.

My first kids' book is Leopard and Silkie, from Henry Holt for Young Readers, just out.
Here's my website: http://www.BrendaPetersonBooks.

Congratulations on your work and I look forward to reading more of your writing!

All best,
Brenda Peterson

sarah said...

I agree. When I think of how many young adults have had to live through war - fight in war - I believe we do a disservice to them, as well as to our current generation if we don't tell them the truth about the experience of it. And as your quote mentioned, hopefully encourage wisdom and peace for the future.

There's something that really disturbs me about the juxtaposition of footage of teenaged soldiers in Africa and bored, stultified teenagers in high school in the West. Literature offers hope for a middle ground - for strength and courage and fighting for what is important in life, while at the same time not brutalising and using our youth for battles of blood and power.

By the way, I read You Are My Only this week. Thank you for writing such a beautiful book.

Anonymous said...

I loved the essay, and I think what you wrote is true for adult books, too.

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