Monday, October 20, 2008

Good vs. Evil, YA Style

Tip of the Day: When you teach a kindergartener how to crack an egg into a bowl, you might want to tell him not to finish the job by tossing the shells on top of the yolk in triumph at his accomplishment.

So I’m reading like a million YA novels for the Cybils awards panel ( (You can check out my previous post on this at One thing I’m learning about all this reading is what separates a YA book from an adult or middle grade novel. Part of it is identity. In YA, the main characters are struggling to figure out who they are. But I’m also seeing a common thread in how YA books deal with moral dilemmas.

In middle grade novels, good and evil can be labeled. We know what side we want to be on. We don’t want to be Death Eaters. We want to be in the Order of Phoenix. The main characters have moral dilemmas where they struggle to keep on the side of good, but we’re usually pretty clear on what the side of good is. In YA novels, trying to figure out who the good guys are can be a large theme. Take some of the books I’ve read this week:

4In The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante, the main characters struggle with their oppressive Christian commune’s rules and mores. Can you be a good Christian while breaking a few rules? What if you’re not sure if the rules are part of your religion or part of your commune’s cult? How do you separate them?
4In Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji, Idi Amin’s brutal regime in Uganda expels Indians from the country in the cruelest possible way. But the main character watches Ugandan Africans, unaware of Amin’s worst actions, suffering from exploitation and prejudice from an Indian economic upper class. Should the working class support the dictator?
4In Absolute Brightness by James Lecesne, the main character knows a boy later accused of murder. She’s sure that he’s guilty, but does that justify his execution? If it doesn’t, should she answer his letters? Speak to him? If he deserves to live, does that mean he deserves to be treated as we’ve been taught to treat other human beings?

I didn’t want to give away any of the plots of these great books so you can enjoy them spoiler-free, but hopefully you can see how I’m enjoying these explorations of the gray areas. I can be glad that the main characters’ moral dilemmas aren’t mine, but as I read, I find myself struggling to make the right decision alongside the characters. And that’s powerful.

If you’re writing a YA novel, how do good and evil play out in your novel? Do your readers get a chance to think about it and make decisions, or is the decision made for them?

-- Kate, Miss Apprentice Writer


Lisa Schroeder said...

Wow, that's interesting. I just finished THE HUNGER GAMES and I think she explores those gray lines too. They do make for fascinating reads, don't they!?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Kate:

I'm Drew Ferguson, the author of The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second, and apparently a 2008 YA Cybil nominee. I see from Jackie's blog that you're a round one judge. If you need a copy of TSCLOCTS, please let me know. If you shoot me a mailing address, I'll be happy to drop a copy in the mail.

email: drew at