YA Families in Crisis

Have you ever wanted to write a young adult novel about a family in crisis? I was struck by the passion and knowledge of four authors who spoke at the AWP writer’s conference in March. They discussed the challenges of writing novels about families caught up in abuse, war, poverty, PTSD, and the loss of a family member. I have a special place in my heart for stories about teens struggling with real-life issues and I really enjoyed what these women had to share about their character’s paths to hope.

The following are my notes and takeaways from the panel.

Families in Crisis Books

YA Families in Crisis: Through the Lens of Conflict

A discussion between young adult authors Ann Angel (Janis Joplin Rise Up SingingSuch a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty), E.M. Kokie (Personal EffectsThings I’ll Never Say: Stories about Our Secret Selves), Terry Farish (Either the Beginning or the End of the World), and J.L. Powers (The Confessional, This Thing Called the FutureAmina).

Why are teens drawn to stories with difficult topics?

  • What does it mean to be human? This is what stories about teens in crisis are exploring. These stories are about the human condition.
  • Teens are drawn to emotionally live these crisis, but in the safe environment of reading.
  • We write and read to understand a difficult situation.

Are all families in crisis dysfunctional?

  • Sometimes an external crisis is the plot and the family is functional. Sometimes the family is dysfunctional and the point of the plot is to shine a light on those dark places.
  • It’s important for one to define the difference between imperfection and dysfunction. Ask yourself what it means to truly be dysfunctional? Does the family function? Are one’s basic needs met? If so, then the family may simply be imperfect.

How do you create authentic stories about difficult situations?

  • Create a realistic conclusion. Don’t “save” your characters. Look at the real reality of the situation and the resources available to your character.
  • Don’t protect your protagonist. Your job as a writer is to take out all of their supports and let them hit rock bottom.
  • It’s the tiny details that create a story that is authentic and credible.
  • Don’t judge your characters.
  • Give your teen character agency and choice. This is what keeps your story a true teen story, and not one with an agenda.

Can teen characters truly have agency in an oppressive situation?

  • There are subversive ways for characters to exert power in small ways, even in an oppressive situation.
  • This is a question of free will vs. destiny. Does your character have free will?
  • Characters always have a choice … sometimes all of their choices are awful. But they still have the ability to make that choice.

Is there hope in stories about crisis?

  • There’s a natural sense of hope in all teen stories. This is because teens are unfinished human beings. The future is still ahead of them.
  • “I write to understand.” There’s hope in understanding a difficult situation.

Learn more about these insightful authors and their books by visiting their websites:

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One response to “YA Families in Crisis”

  1. Linda W. says:

    Great post. These books seem challenging to write, but are needed. Thanks for the tips!

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