Dark? Light? Stuck in the Middle

I wish I wrote sweet books. I wish I could think of something innocent enough for middle graders. I wish my brain thought in picture books. But I am too verbose to write short tales. I do not write in rhyme. I cannot look at a cupcake or a tiara or a key or a toy and turn it into a gripping tale. I truly admire those who do, but alas, I am not that writer.

I like stories about emotionally tortured young women. Gals who love guys that sort of are and sort of aren’t good for them. Ladies whose behavior gets them the wrong kind of attention. I like to write about girls who are not exactly bad but not exactly good. I like to write about heartache and loss, as well as romance and discovery. My characters laugh and joke and cry and scream. They make good choices and terrible ones. But they are not extreme because I don’t relate to that. The life experiences upon which I draw, and my comfort level for what I’m having characters do, lies somewhere in the middle.

So is my fiction dark and edgy? Light and round? Um . . . not either, I guess.

My photo from Paris. I always love a mix of dark and light.

For a while, I wondered if my work needed to be darker and edgier. When I was trying to find an agent, many represented books about suicidal teens, cutters, drug addicts, and anorexics. Now my source material, Hamlet, isn’t exactly cheery stuff, but my take on it wouldn’t be considered “edgy.” I began to think I might need to write something edgier, but my mind couldn’t go to those extremes. Neither do a lot of teen readers’, I imagine.

I teach middle school, and after fourteen years in the classroom, I know that some kids’ lives can be messed up. Like curl your toes, churn your stomach awful. I also know that some kids’ lives are happy and peaceful. And yet most kids fall somewhere in between. So does their taste.

Some of my students like stories where people are in peril. Some have begged me to find a book where no one dies. (Beginning in 5th grade, this is much harder than you might suppose.) Some like fantasy. Some like non-fiction. Some like romance. Some think kissing is gross. And you know what? There are books for all of them.

It’s easy to think that the only fiction around is what’s on the best seller’s list or what is featured in chain bookstores. [The fact that there’s a whole section called “Paranormal Romance” still amazes me.] But scratch below that surface and there is great variety in literature. Earlier, I mentioned the phrase “round and light,” and I took that from Jennifer Bertman’s blog (http://writerjenn.blogspot.com).  In answer to the supposition that there was nothing but dark and edgy fiction out there, she began asking for suggestions that are not dark and edgy. The list is already large and still growing.

The original article about YA fiction certainly hit a nerve. I think it taps into our fears as writers about what we are putting out there for teens to read, and it makes us ask ourselves if we are doing right by them. At least it did for me. But the thing is: my line in the sands of morality is in a different place than another writer’s. And a parent’s line and a teen’s line will likely be in other places, as well. You cannot please everyone. But you have to be true to yourself and write what you don’t mind putting out there for teens (and tweens and adults) to consume. I cannot write all sweet and light, and I tend not to write all horrific and crushing. I write (and most kids will read) things that fall somewhere in the middle.


Filed under Agents, Writing

6 responses to “Dark? Light? Stuck in the Middle

  1. Cynthia Levinson

    Michelle, your post is not only important but also gorgeously illustrated! It reminds me of BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES in which Frances-the-badger finally realizes that it’s good that there’s more to eat than just bread and jam, that there’s choice in the world, and different tastes. Thank goodness for your writing–and for Liz Scanlon’s poetry and Chris Barton’s nonfiction and Elizabeth Bunce’s dark fantasy and …


    • Bunce dark? I beg to differ.


      • Michelle Ray

        I only read Starcrossed so far (Curse as Dark as Gold is coming on the plane with me Saturday. Can’t wait!), but it was full of mystery and deceit and challenges for the heroine. It’s not edgy, but is it light? That’s the thing about this debate. The categories are tough. That’s why I’m not sure what mine is exactly.


  2. Beautifully said, Michelle! (And I’m glad you got a shout out to the Light and Round blog–I had that in my Monday post and had to cut it, as things were getting a bit too wordy!

    One of the responses to the WSJ article was a brilliant post by Sherman Alexie that moved me almost to tears. But the one thing I didn’t like about it was it’s title, Why the Best YA Books Are Written In Blood. I wish he had titled it SOME of the Best, or Why it is Good that Some YA Books are Written in Blood.

    I agree with many of the people who argued that dark books were important, but I think all those other light and in between are important too. What is most important is that every reader, at every age, and in whatever mood they are in, can find a book that speaks to them, as you have said so well here!


  3. J. Anderson Coats

    I think it’s telling that many of us have that thought: “I should make my work darker/lighter/edgier/mellower and THEN it’ll sell.”

    It’s seductive, especially when your manuscript is in the hunt but continually getting thoughtful rejections (“I love this book but the market isn’t right”).

    But really, you’re right when you say “You can’t please everyone.” Me, I write stuff I’d like to read. That’s one person happy, at least.


  4. Sometimes the market comes around.


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