The most rewarding part of any presentation I give is the give-and-take with the audience, especially the Q&A afterward. Most of the questions are light-hearted and fun ("How long did it take you to write the book?" "Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?"). Often, the questioner will share an insight or personal experience. Sometimes, a question will make me stop and think, and dig deep for an answer.
And every once in a while, I get thrown for a loop.
Earlier this year, I was invited to give my Hepkitten presentation to an adult book club which had read my YA novel, Ten Cents a Dance. During the Q&A, a woman who wanted to be a YA author asked me why I'd ended the book the way I did. I wasn't sure what she meant, so I asked for clarification. She said that here I had a main character who had made bad decisions, disobeyed her mother, gotten herself into some pretty sketchy situations...and in the end, she comes through it all and goes on with her life! Where were the consequences for her actions?
But there were consequences, I replied. Because of her choices, the character severely damaged her relationship with her mother, which she now has to try to rebuild. She lost the trust of her sister. She lost her best friend. She realized that she threw away the last bit of her childhood, and that she can never, ever get it back. She can make amends, but she can never go back to the person she used to be.
Yes, the woman said, I realize all that. But why didn't you punish her more?
Punish her more? You mean like, because of what she did, her life is ruined forever?
Yes, the woman said. Like that. Don't you think that would be a better message for teens?
NO , I DON'T THINK THAT WOULD BE A BETTER MESSAGE was the first thought that jumped to mind. Before I popped off with the easy answer, though, I asked myself: Why not?
I paused and gathered my thoughts, and I realized: It's because I believe in hope. Not just in life--I knew that about myself already--but in my writing. For my characters. And for my readers.
We all make bad decisions growing up. Some of us, worse than others. I believe that, if we're lucky, we can come through those choices--and their consequences--and be better for them. Wiser. I believe that we can redeem ourselves. That's why I ended that novel the way I did.
I don't think my answer satisfied the woman; I'm pretty sure she'd still vote for punishment and ruined lives. Still, though, I'm glad she asked the question, because it got me thinking about this in a way I hadn't before. It made me realize that pretty much all YA fiction--even the books that deal in the darkest, grimmest subjects, the books that get banned because adults think that teens shouldn't be allowed to read about hard issues--ends on a note of hope. Of growth. Of new and hard-earned wisdom.
Isn't that what coming of age is?