I'm happy to report I've found a lot of good stuff being published out there. Here are a few observations from what I've read recently:
Sara Zarr (Story of a Girl, Once Was Lost) does a terrific job of writing about serious internal conflicts without getting heavy-handed or preachy or trite. That's a lot harder than it sounds. I always struggle with epiphany moments -- the realizations that create a climax in your character's emotional arc. In real life, we don't get many such lightning bolts, but rather a series of small insights that lead to change. So I'm impressed when an author makes emotional growth both realistic and dramatic. Zarr -- whose newest book, Once Was Lost, is one of the few to deal with a crisis of faith in a teenager -- handles emotional arcs expertly. (Oh, and I saw her at a local signing. She's very approachable and funny.)
John Green (Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns) creates what feels to me like very true teenage boys. His books have the right mix of humor, obsession with sex, geekiness and grit to make the characters real. His books seem to be about finding one's identity, which is perhaps the biggest question of young adulthood. The latest, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which he wrote with the equally talented David Levithan, is utterly absorbing (though the final scene stretches plausibility a bit) and has one of the most endearing characters I've met in a while. It makes me very sad that many school libraries won't carry this because of the gay characters. [Aside: Actually, I worry about whether all of these books will reach the readers they should, or whether their realism will result in them being rejected by those who believe they can and should control the way teenagers think. But that's a question for another day.]
Francisco X Stork (Marcelo in the Real World, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors) also delivers complex characters dealing with difficult emotional turmoil. He is a bit more likely than Zarr to slide into being didactic, but only occasionally. He gives us people who are quirky and individual without taking it to the point where he turns them into caricatures. He also writes about Hispanic families without that being the point of the story, which is nice. Like Zarr and Green, he also successfully deals with big themes -- what it means to love, to have faith, to be alive. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, which followed the immensely successful Marcelo so quickly that I hesitated to read it out of fear that Stork had churned out something to capitalize on that success, is actually the better book, I think. Stork also has a really nice journal about writing, with observations like this one:
Faith is this two-chambered heart of giving up and going on. And as the book gets written sentence by sentence yet another kind of faith is needed. Let’s call it faith in the reality of your creation. The world that you are creating is made real and kept alive by your faith. You must not doubt your creation’s power or its purpose or its goodness. The world you have created has been made real by your faith and now you begin to love. You love your characters, the things that happen to them, the world they live in. Faith has become love. And that’s what it always wanted to be.Isn't that wonderful?
Faith in some of its many forms seems central to these books and my experience of reading them somehow. That's something I will have to think about for a while to be able to discern the connections and echoes for my life. But I feel hopeful for having read these books -- hopeful about publishing and the current generation of writers, but also about young people themselves.
I wish I could say I learned a lot from these talented authors and others I've read in this spell that I can apply to my own work-in-progress, but they're too good for that. They write such compelling stories that I couldn't study any of their technique. I just got drawn in and read these books the way you're supposed to -- like a reader, not a writer.
That's just how it should be.