Category Archives: The YA Way

The YA Way — Chocolate & Oranges

[Full disclosure: “Chocolate & Oranges” is a remnant left behind by an extended metaphor that I realized wasn’t working at all in the context of this post. The subtitle has absolutely no relevance or significance without said metaphor, but I like the simplistically poetic feel of it, so it’s staying just for fun.]

I have always had a weakness for the fantastical. I can’t remember a time when A Wrinkle In Timeand The Phantom Tollbooth weren’t on my bookshelf. When I was younger, I tore through stacks of Goosebumps and Animorphs books in between reading to my dad about talking dragons (Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles) and to myself about armored bears (Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy). One of my first literary heroines was Alanna, the magical lady knight in Tamora Pierce’s The Lioness Quartet — likely contested for my affections only by Pullman’s headstrong Lyra. Even when exploring more classic literature, I was drawn to the theatrical and the strange; I frequently named Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera as one of my favorite books, which retrospectively probably made me sound like a horrible grade-school snob.

It’s really only logical, then, that I grew up to be the reader and writer that I am: one who knows precisely which lines of dialogue in the Harry Potter movies were lifted straight from the books, one who nearly started crying in the middle of a bookstore after spotting the empty space where Catching Fire should have been waiting for her, one whose most recent attempt at a “normal” manuscript involves several ghosts and possibly an archangel or two. Dystopian worlds? Sign me up. Swords & sorcery? Bring it. Magical beasties? Yes, please. To me, nothing is quite as satisfying as diving into a world the likes of which I would almost certainly never encounter in reality.

But recently, I’ve read a slew of contemporary/realistic YA novels that — rather than shoving me headfirst into new worlds — gently took me by the hand and said, “Why don’t you come this way for a while?” And I was enthralled with the lot of them: Sara Zarr’s lovely, poignant Sweethearts. Melina Marchetta’s aching, complex Jellicoe Road. E. Lockhart’s razor-sharp, unapologetically feminist The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau-Banks. John Green & David Levithan’s tender, witty Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

And I realized that perhaps I am often less inclined to reach for those sorts of books because they are often significantly harder to read. To take just one example — the protagonists of Kristin Cashore’s Fire and Graceling are defiantly independent and frequently lauded as girl-power heroes (and rightfully so), but they don’t make me squirm with recognition the way fledgling feminist Frankie Landau-Banks does. There’s something about the immediacy of contemporary YA that allows for very little emotional distance, which is precisely why books like those I listed are so powerful — and why they’re sometimes so tough.

I’m still more likely to reach for a fantasy or a dystopian than I am a piece of realistic fiction. After all, sometimes you crave the rich, the decadent. Sometimes you need to be electrified by invention and surprise, adventure and danger. Sometimes you want to, to quote Eve Ensler, “go so far away that you stop being afraid of not coming back.”

But, I now understand, sometimes you hunger for something different. Sometimes all you need is the feeling of reading a sentence and thinking, Yes. That’s exactly what it’s like.


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The YA Way — Unusual Names

Writerly fact: I am moderately obsessed with names. If I hear one in a movie or TV show that strikes me as beautiful or unusual or otherwise worthwhile, I recite it in my head like a one-item grocery list until I can write it down. I read baby naming websites for fun. I sometimes create new characters simply to have a good excuse to use a name that’s been nagging at me. So when I read this post over at Tracey (with an e!) Neithercott’s blog, I was delightedly prompted into sharing my own thoughts on names — specifically, those of the less typical variety. Why do so many YA authors seem to gravitate towards unusual names?

image found at

Some name choices are symbolic. Remus Lupin, a werewolf, is inarguably lupine. Sirius Black is capable of turning into a dog (a black one, naturally); Sirius, astronomically speaking, is a star prominent in the Canis Major constellation. To keep with HP, the fact that Voldemort’s name is unusual goes beyond metaphoric wordplay into even deeper character symbolism. The Artist Formerly Known As Tom Riddle chooses his new name specifically to avoid the commonplace; he is in fact quite blatantly disgusted at the thought of sharing a name with anyone else. He is intent on fashioning himself as peerless, wholly unique, and selects a moniker accordingly.

Speaking of unique, it seems quite probable that a drive to stand out in the crowd is behind some authorial naming choices. No one is going to confuse Scout with another plucky young heroine, for example, or forget which magical creature Aslan is. Ally Condie writes about this struggle for originality — her heroine Cassia was originally named Calla, but so was the MC in another of her publisher’s forthcoming books. One Calla is memorable; two are more easily muddled. One unique Cassia, coming right up! (Her love interests, Xander and Ky, are also unlikely to run into many nomenclature doppelgangers.)

This can become interesting when relatively ordinary names take on literarily iconic status. How long before someone else can write about a Bella or a Harry without everyone’s minds immediately going to their fictional predecessors?

Unlike those two, some characters simply wouldn’t sound right with “regular” names. Would eccentric, fantastical Xenophilius Lovegood make sense as Joe Turner? Could Kristin Cashore’s determined, flame-haired heroine be called anything but Fire?

Many of Suzanne Collins’s characters remind me of Cashore’s naming choices. Both authors have a knack for names that are almost exclusively unusual and very often outright made-up, yet still (for lack of a better word) functional. They make sense in the context of their fictional worlds — not necessarily because of symbolism or relevant character traits, but due to a more nebulous, difficult-to-define feel. Cashore’s Katsa, Po, Faun, Roen, and Bitterblue (my personal favorite) don’t sound anachronistically contemporary, but neither are they alienatingly genre-based like some fantastical mouthfuls I’ve come across. They’re poetic, and exactly the right amount of otherworldly. Collins’s Katniss, Peeta, Cinna, Haymitch, and Finnick are odd, to be sure, but I can’t imagine any other names working as well. They have a bit of bite, a slight discordance or strangeness, that’s perfect for the edgy, violent universe they inhabit.

Do you love bizarre names in YA, or do you find yourself put off by them? What are some of your favorite YA monikers?


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The YA Way — Love Triangles

(That lovely image [from Shakespeare In The Park’s Twelfth Night] was found here.)

Bella, Jacob, and Edward. Laurel, Tamani, and David. Cassia, Ky, and Xander. Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. (With a healthy dose of I HAVEN’T FINISHED MOCKINGJAY SO PLEASE NO SPOILERS! attached to that last trio.) YA lit is positively filled to the angsty brim with love triangles — and, I must confess, my WIP is no different. Almost from the moment of its mental inception, INSERT CREATIVE TITLE HERE included two love interests for my MC. When I got deeper into the actual planning stage and reconsidered this choice, not wanting to seem as if I was simply copying some YA formula set down by the greats who came before me, I realized I no longer had a choice. My two love interests had already weaseled their respective ways into being integral parts of my plot. The triangle was inescapable!

So what is it about love triangles that makes them so darn irresistible, especially in the YA world? The way I see it, there are two primary reasons — the literal and the slightly more symbolic.

The literal: YA characters are mainly — go figure — young adults. Even if, like Katniss and Cassia, they’re not depicted in a typical high school setting, most of them are still generally high school age. And what are the high school years notorious for? Hormones and heartbreak. First kisses and first break-ups. “I love you”s and “I never want to see you again”s. All manner of (often-conflicting) feelings swirled together — attraction, jealousy, nervousness, bravado, giddiness, confusion, hope.

I distinctly remember, as a freshman in high school, simultaneously crushing on two boys — with the same name, no less! oh, the agony — and asking my mom how I was supposed to manage the situation. “It’ll work itself out,” she told me. I was not assuaged. But what if I liked both of them and both of them liked me, I persisted, a note of panic no doubt creeping into my voice. “You’ll figure out who you like more,” was my patient mother’s sage response. (She was right.)

After all, isn’t that what love triangles boil down to — figuring out who you like more? And who can’t relate to that? Love triangles in YA tug at the heartstrings of readers and writers because they’re real. Even for those people lucky enough to only experience the most direct paths to high school love (do those people exist?), the essence of the problem still rings true — sorting out your emotions.

The slightly more symbolic: Not only are young adults constantly sorting out their emotions, they’re constantly sorting out, well, everything, from the relatively minor to the literally life-changing. Which extracurriculars do you want to make time for? Which group of friends do you feel at home in? Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to major in? Do you want to study abroad? Where do you want to start your career?

Literary love interests can serve as handy distillations of larger conflicts like these. One point of a triangle can represent stability; the other, spontaneity. One can stand for familiarity; the other, for taking chances. Dueling love interests can personify just about any dichotomy, from the subtle to the wide-sweeping. Particularly in high school, when the ups and downs of romantic interactions are registered with an acuteness unique to the teenage years, relationships often take on symbolic importance. It makes sense, then — and great entertainment! — for fictional characters to sort out their various life dilemmas through the swoonworthy lenses of juicy love triangles.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my MC and I have some decisions to make…

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