Friday, August 9, 2013

How Real is Realistic Fiction?, by Marissa Burt

When I first entered the world of middle-grade books, THE BABYSITTER’S CLUB series was in its heyday, and I was part of the prime demographic.  Because I was not quite old enough to actually babysit, hanging out with whiny toddlers sounded glamorous whenever Claudia and Stacey were at the helm.

And the girls never seemed as uncertain or mixed up inside as I felt.  Oh, sure, they had their conflicts and moments of oops-why-did-I-like-that-jerk-anyway? revelations, but they faced it all with polish and confidence.  

As a young reader, the stories I devoured were educational, whether they were intended to be or not.  They taught me ways I could respond to certain situations.  Or, if I wanted to be like Stacey and Claudia, ways I ought to respond.  They also gave me an idea of a “normality” that might exist outside of my own experience.  

This unintentional education spills over into what I call the Disney-channel wistfulness, that moment when viewers feel as though their lives should be more like that easy 30-minute sitcom episode, the one where the girl knows exactly how to confront the bully or snag the attention of the cute boy.
well as entertaining.

I think Disney and a lot of contemporary middle-grade books aim for the awkwardness that comes with the transitional years between childhood and adulthood, but they often leave the protagonist with a maturity beyond their years.  

Maybe it was just my own personal brand of preadolescent challenges, but I never had a completely platonic male friend who I could just hang out with one-on-one, the way boys and girls in most middle-grade novels (mine included!) do with such ease. 

Instead, there were always odd undercurrents and insecurities and hormones and why-in-the-world-did-I-say-that? moments with no happy resolution.  I think of my first dance, when the boy I actually liked asked me to dance, and I was stopped cold.  “No thanks,” I said to him and the cluster of boys standing by him for moral support.  “Maybe next time.” 

In a book, the heroine would never flail with unpredictable insecurity.  She would know how to reasonably respond in a mature-beyond-her-years-yet-somehow-age-appropriate way to her crush.  

Or, even if she had blundered, there would actually be a next time, when all would work out well at the next dance.  

Of course, this is part of the reason we choose fiction.  None of us really wants to crack open a book and read what actually happens in someone’s everyday life, right?  But what does it do for young readers to have that false normal or Disney-wistfulness planted right there in their imaginations?

I struggle with this as an author – balancing the tension of perceived reality and fantasy-world.  I think I’m not alone.  L.M. Montgomery, one of our favorites around Project Mayhem, lamented that her heroines were, in my words, too pure, that she wasn’t allowed to have them deal with thoughts and feelings that girls, even in Montgomery’s time, really did.  As someone who lived and breathed Anne growing up, I wonder if it could have helped to know that Anne actually wasted a lot of hours mooning over Gilbert. 
What do you think?  Is it possible to create realistic relational dynamics in fiction or will they always be shaped by our wish-fulfillment and desires of how things ought to be?  Are there any middle-grade books that you think deal with realistic relational dynamics particularly well?

Oh, and, Nick, wherever you are, I really am sorry about that dance.


  1. Well, let's not give Disney Channel ALL the credit. Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have a hand in this, too, they just are more silly or subversive about it, particularly Cartoon Network these days, but I digress...

    Seriously though, I do think there are many books that avoid the dangerous extremes you cite above.

    But I think you can also look at the concerns you rightly bring up another way.

    In your reference to The Babysitter's club, you say you learned positive attributes from what your read, but the KEY was that it didn't read like a disguised lecture.

    Sometimes the "Wish Fulfillment" isn't just for the author, but can positively nuance the story for the better.

    For instance, my debut novel deals with bullying, but unlike some books (or television shows) that deal with bullying, I don't glorify violence, but I also don't turn away from it, either.

    In fact, one version of the book had far more violence, not because I wanted to be gratuitous, but because I didn't want to give the reader the impression that I was out of touch.

    That mattered far more to me as the author (And being a former victim myself) than what some random parent thought, and I many a parent or teacher beta-reader who felt I went too far, and I can admit perhaps I did in some ways, but how it was put to me was not constructive, AT ALL.

    So it took me a long time to use that advice to my advantage, rather than to my book's detriment.

    Though that does concern me a little, and we do have to face parents on some level when writing for readers below YA, and not being a parent myself, I often fear parent and teacher reactions as the writer more than the kids.

    At least if kids don't like a book, they don't feel the need to question the author's moral compass in the same way some adults do.
    Even if they do, they don't necessarily automatically think the book (Or it's author) is "EVIL."

    I appreciate that! (LOL)

    I know many here on Project Mayhem are parents and/or former teachers, so understand I don't mean you specifically, but for those of us who weren't blessed with many open-minded teachers from their school days, that's what/who I'm referring to.

    To be continued...

  2. I was bullied as a kid, though it NEVER involved guns or homemade explosives, but to do right by my antagonist, and the story as a whole, I had to be willing to show it on some level.

    But I realized I had to be careful my victim mentality wasn't short-changing my antagonist's three-dimensional traits, that's something I couldn't do until the fourth rewrite three years ago, LONG before I sold it, mind you.

    I first wrote my debut (My THIRD serious novel) ten years ago, I was in my late teens then, and still saw things from the my victim mindset.

    But the current version that I sold early in 2013 was stronger not just because my skill and technique had improved, but because I could see my antagonist in a more nuanced way, that required my adult empathy and perspective, but still letting my young characters handle it themselves.

    Now that I'm working with my editor, I wonder how she feels I handled that aspect of the book, as we're editing a bit at a time, and we haven't got to that part together yet, so we'll see.

    So while we often tell writers, particularly newbies, not to let adults undermine the growth of our fictional young people, and that's true!

    BUT, we do need our adult level of empathy and understanding there's more than one side to a conflict, however cruel, to give the story the weight and three-dimensional life it needs to hold the reader's interest.

    We do need our adult ability to empathize with our characters, which doesn't mean what they're doing is okay or right.

    I think it's safe to say that we are more willing to see more sides to a story, that's ONE benefit to growing up, and while lots of kids and teens learn it early, some of us need time to find it and nurture it for ourselves. This was certainly my experience.

    Also, let's not underestimate our kids here.

    Today's middle grade readers are more perceptive and resilient than I was in the 90s, so I think they can tell when shows they watch are a little over-the-top in the wish-fulfillment.

    That said, sometimes we all needs books (Or television/movies) to cope, not necessarily be true to life in all instances, but books are also meant to entertain and find solace, not just learning lessons, right?

    I find keeping both perspectives in mind is key for myself in general and as a writer.

    As far as lack of will for books to go certain places at the MG level, with all the PUSH for YA never putting up with envelopes altogether, I know some of that has trickled down to MG too. I think it's just harder because we have more "Gatekeepers" to deal with.

    We're not just dealing with agents and editors, but parents and teachers, too, especially if our books are nonfiction, or aimed at the school market in some way.

    When it's not money, it's personal issues that can be challenging to get books in schools or libraries, whether public or school libraries.

    It's just harder to convince them than ourselves as fellow authors.

    These are instances I wish I could write YA where there's FAR more vocal reception for going to more true-to-life places, as Melissa cites in the above post.

    But even then, you can be so bent on being "Real" that you forget that there still need to be moments for laughter and hard earned joy. That's also something to keep in mind, too. This blog post tell's one YA author's story on how she had to escape the darkness occasionally-

    I think it applies to MG too. We just have a little more to consider.

    Sorry for rambling, but I hope I made some sense.

    Take Care All,

    1. Hi Taurean!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that keeping perspective is key and that we bring adult empathy and understanding to our writing. Best of luck with your new project!


  3. I just read THE CODE BUSTERS CLUB--kind of a Nancy Drew type series that's a lot of fun (to make a realistic MG suggestion :-). It still had a good amount of character development, but packaged in a fun mystery for younger MG readers.

    It's hard, as a writer and a reader. You want to be swept away in the fantasy, but it takes those succinct moments of real feelings you can relate to for a character to shine. MG has a tougher time than YA, where there's more room for angsty stuff--though I think I like MG better for the lack of drama :-)

    Off the cuff, THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, and of course WONDER are powerful realistic MG fiction reads.

    1. I still haven't read WONDER! I know, I know - so overdue. Thanks for the great suggestions!


    2. You aren't alone in not having read Wonder yet, Marissa, a lot of my writer friends have and rave about it, so I will get to it eventually.

  4. I've been thinking a lot about this since reading it yesterday. I think some of the parts of realistic fiction that might feel unrealistic is that the story is told within a time frame: change needs to happen by the end of the book. My own personal growth, especially as a kid, was more fits and starts and circular. While characters can experience some of that, there definitely needs to be a forward movement that is evident.

    What do you think?

    I've actually never thought about this before! Though I will say I've heard once or twice my historical fiction is a bit too gritty for some, which is interesting. I'm simply trying to write the most honest story I can (and maybe history is a bit grittier than some realize).


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!