Can teenagers really save the world? Musings on middle grade and YA lit

I’m completely behind both writing and housework this week due to a bout of strep throat (thankfully, on the mend now due to penicillin).  This was the second time I’ve been laid up for several days since Sukkos, so it was pretty much a drag, and I really need to try to wrap up at least one story this week. However, I just feel the need to share this with my readers.

airborn by oppel

Can three teens really save their airship from pirates? Not sure I buy it.

While lying in bed trying very hard not to swallow (it just hurt too much), I read a slew of middle grade and YA novels. Now, I know that tween and teen novels tend to share certain characteristics, and that many of these meet the psychological needs of tweens and teens. But as a once-but-no-longer teen, a particular trait rubbed me the wrong way. Continue reading

What? No love triangle? How books for Jewish teens fit into current YA trends

If you ask observant Jewish teens here in the U.S. whether they overall prefer Jewish books or secular ones, most of them will tell you secular books (trust me, I write for teens, so I’ve asked). Sad, but true.

Why most Orthodox teens prefer secular books

Interestingly, some of these teens will tell you that they wish there were more Jewish books for teens that suited them. Others will tell you they don’t like either Jewish or secular novels — the former don’t engage them, and latter conflict with their religious beliefs.

Thursday, I caught an excellent article on CNN about the history of YA novels in the U.S. You can read it here. There was little that was news to me in the article, but it did make me think about something that’s troubled me for a while — namely why so many Jewish teens are enthralled by secular books that don’t necessarily reflect the values of their families.

Let’s consider why secular YA books are currently selling like hotcakes. Continue reading


NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, running for the month of November each year. By November 30th, participants hope to finish writing a 50,000-word (approximately 175-page) novel. Some people try to fly solo, but most participants sign up on the official website. The website offers guidance about pacing, tracks your progress, and provides support. NaNoWriMo has resulted in some book sales for participants, but many others say it taught them discipline, skills and persistence that helped them with future projects.

If your book idea is Jewish and for kids, there’s also (mentioned in a previous blog) the “Write Your Own Megillah” event.

Truthfully, I have a few novel ideas out there, and it would be good to have an outside source telling me to crank out a draft in one month. But I’m still working on my last novel, still hoping to sell it, and still have deadlines for my magazine work to meet. Plus, I probably need to add another part-time job to my plate for financial reasons.

So I keep wavering. Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I or shouldn’t I? It’s like balancing two different categories of responsibility.

I Feel Liberated!


Last week, I finished the charming and very wacky Larklight by Philip Reeve. This sci-fi adventure for kids 10 and older follows the Mumby family as they try to stop a mysterious race of giant white spiders for taking over the solar system. The novel takes place in a wonderfully-articulated alternate Victorian history, where Newton started the space race and all scientific discoveries after his time have not occurred or occurred differently than they did in our true-life universe.

Interestingly, G-d (and praying to Him) is referred to on several occasions as the ultimate Creator of the universe in this book. This is in keeping with the time period of the setting, and also very appropriate in the context of one particular character. The book does not refer to a Christian-specific deity, just “G-d” in the generically monotheistic sense. The mentions are mostly in passing, and are certainly not the focus of the novel, but I can’t think of any other mainstream sci-fi or fantasy books that actually include one character telling another, “Oh, yeah, G-d created the universe.” I was blown away.

This is such a change from the atheism, animism or paganism that has permeated the sci-fi fantasy genre for years. Some of these books go into elaborate detail about how to practice a fictional variety of avodah zara. These books appeal to tweens and teens, who gravitate towards them. One of the reasons that I started writing sci-fi and fantasy material is because of the dearth of such stories that nourish the neshama.

I’ve written a new (and, I fear, completely unpublishable) ending for my current Novel-In-Progress, and I’ve started to think ahead about the next project. About six months ago, I thought of a Jewish steampunk/alternate reality book, but I’ve wondered if the Orthodox book publishers would find it acceptable. Would it be yet another arduous project with an unpublishable result? I started to outline it with the Snowflake method over the weekend. I have transformed the original idea into a fantasy that is not Jewish–but does firmly establish the world I’m creating as created by G-d. I had contemplated this before (as a possible solution to my publishing issues), but felt discouraged due to the lack of such books in the mainstream YA market. Reading Larklight has empowered me to take the leap. Thanks Mr. Reeve!

Almost (but only almost!)

(photo by Ian Britton)

Well, my goal for the summer was to finish my first solo effort at a novel and…I didn’t quite finish.


I’m probably just 3,000 words shy of a complete first draft. After ditching my original draft of “Part 3,” I had a good think and outlined a new path for the rest of the book. However, I’m having problems bringing myself to sit down and finish.

What’s my excuse? Instead of spending quality time with my keyboard, I’ve been spending quality time with humans (my husband and kids, now back in school), and I’ve been actively looking for more freelance work.  I finished a writing project last week and submitted something else. It’s not like I’ve been wasting time doing nothing. On the other hand, I have wasted a lot of time blogging, reading weird science news (justifying it as research), and listening to music that’s too noisy for effectively focusing on a computer screen.

It’s time for a completely non-professional attempt at psychoanalyzing myself. I definitely need to figure out why I don’t just sit down for a couple nights and crank out the rest so I can get over it.

1) I used to write for fun. It was relaxing, and even escapist. I still love writing. I’m still very enthusiastic about this project. However, writing has been reclassified in my brain over the last 9 months as a professional exercise and not a hobby. It’s actually work.

2) I think I’m a little freaked out about finishing the first draft because I know it will be…a first draft. Like, not perfect. Like, potentially terrible. I guess I have to just accept that it will start out that way, but trust that it’ll eventually improve.

Censorship or careful parenting?

Should children read depictions of negative experiences that are real, or realistic?

What if the violence, sexuality, or other controversial material is inserted into the work only for artistic effect or for shock value?

Should teens read only wholesome material?

Should access to books with controversial material be permitted to teens? Should parents be warned about the contents of such books on the book jacket and reviews? Should access be blocked entirely? Should teens have free reign over their reading material?

Lately, there have been some interesting articles appearing that consider these questions. Many authors, as well as political pundits and community activists, have jumped in with their own takes and have even clashed in the pages of newspapers and online. Here are just a couple articles highlighting the conflicting viewpoints: blog by David Frum

I cannot justify offering books with gratuitous sex, violence, drug usage, or immoral behavior to children at all. By gratuitous, I mean it’s just there to titillate or provide escapist fantasy. The Sally Lockheart book series by Phillip Pullman contains both drug use (glorified as a way to heighten intelligence) and teenage pregancy, with no socially redeeming counterpoint added to them. I would never want my children to read this book series, but the covers don’t caution about the content, and they are generally shelved in the children’s department, not even in the teen or YA departments!
Even books with legitimate reasons for their PG-13 or R-rated content can prove troublesome. For some children, as Sherman Alexie points out, it is cathartic to hear about a main character’s troubling life experience. The child has shared a similar experience in real life and can adopt methods of coping, receive encouragement, etc., through reading the book.
On the other hand, a naive child can be harmed by such books, or provided with information they are not developmentally ready to handle. Reading books with certain moral stances could undermine the religious beliefs a parent is trying to communicate to their child without even giving them a chance to explain the alternate viewpoint.
Case in point:
Many schools use Julie of the Wolves as a literature selection in classes as low as grade four. This is a wonderful book…for much older children. It contains a scene of attempted rape. As far as such things go, it is presented in a totally non-titillating way and is a realistic depiction of the (unfortunate) experience of some orphans. However, most parents don’t know this about the book, and most children are unprepared for such frank topics at the age of nine. It’s not that people shouldn’t read this book, but not at a young age and not without adult supervision.
Some libraries try to alleviate the situation. In Beverly Hills, a child’s library card can be linked to the parents’, so the parents always can know what their kids are checking out. Other library districts shelve books carefully, guiding the young child away from “older” material.
Underlying this whole issue is the need to develop a trusting relationship with your kids, so that they know they can approach you with the questions they have about literature selections. But sometimes this isn’t enough.Personally, I’d like there to be strict shelving standards, warnings posted on the covers and reviews of books, and the like. However, banning books altogether goes a little far. Where do you draw the line?