Showing posts with label setting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label setting. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

It's 1980-something

This afternoon, I got into a discussion with someone about the trend of books set in the 1980s. I'm just going to say it: for the most part, it's a trend I'm tired of. I wouldn't mind not seeing it happen for a long time. I may be alone in this sentiment, but I'm sharing it because it's something that has really started turning me off in book descriptions and when I open a book and find out it's set in that time period.

I think in a lot of cases, this time period is more nostalgia than it is purposeful in plot. Not always, of course, and in some cases, the setting and nostalgia is integral to the story. There are books which are historical and centered around historical events in the 1980s. I talked about this in a previous post.

The argument for teens reading historical fiction set in the 1980s is a fair one. Except...what happened in the 1980s that's interesting enough from the historical standpoint to make it such a popular time period to use in YA now?

That there was little access to technology and to the internet is the biggest one, in my mind. And that's not say that's why it's being used. Rather, maybe that's why we're seeing so much of it? Historically, much more interesting stuff happened in the 1960s and 1970s, and there aren't nearly as many YA books set then (at least recently -- a few, but not as many as set in the 1980s). In addition, I think there's something to be said about the pop culture references and potentially the age of the writer and when they came of age themselves. Again, this isn't meant to be a generalization, but rather, an musing on the possibility of why the 80s.

I preach about how books won't appeal to every reader and that doesn't mean there isn't reader appeal. But I do think there is something worth thinking about or discussing when there are so many books set in the 1980s that are meant to be realistic, as opposed to historical. As someone who was born in the mid-80s and has no recollection, it's tough enough for me to relate or get all of the pop culture references. So I think then about how it is I sell that setting to teen readers in my library who, well, were born in the mid- and late- 1990s. Of course you sell on the book's plot and on character and other appeal factors, but setting is an appeal factor.

For me, the 1980s setting is becoming a factor I'm finding less and less appealing.

Here's a look at a handful of the 1980s-set novels I've read or taken note of on the blog published since 2011. Please feel free to add other titles in the comments. I know there are more, especially published in 2012 and coming out this year.

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Contemporary YA Fiction Featuring Memorable Settings Book List

Memorable settings in contemporary YA take a number of shapes -- sometimes it's the actual where of the story taking place and sometimes, it's more about the atmosphere surrounding the where of the story's place. I've rounded up some of the memorable settings I've read in the last couple of years, but I'd love to hear any other titles you think make good use of setting.

I've purposely left out all books featuring road trips because I've already posted an extensive booklist of road trip books this year.

All of these books were published between 2010 and today, and all descriptions come from WorldCat. I've tried to note what the setting is, too, to give an idea of why it stands out.

The Princesses of Iowa by M Molly Backes (Iowa): After being involved in a drunk driving accident in the spring, Paige Sheridan spends the summer in Paris as an au-pair and then returns to her suburban Iowa existence for her senior year of high school, where she begins to wonder if she wants more out life than being popular, having a handsome boyfriend and all the latest clothes, and being a member of the social elite.

Narc by Crissa-Jean Chappell (Miami): When his little sister is caught with a bag of weed, seventeen-year-old Aaron Foster takes the fall. To keep the cops from tearing his family apart, Aaron agrees to go undercover and help bust the dealer who's funneling drugs into his Miami high school. But making friends with the school's biggest players isn't easy for a waste-case loner from the wrong part of town.

Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach: Just before his sixteenth birthday, Felton Reinstein has a sudden growth spurt that turns him from a small, jumpy, picked-on boy with the nickname of "Squirrel Nut" to a powerful athlete, leading to new friends, his first love, and the courage to confront his family's past and current problems.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (Paris): When Anna's romance-novelist father sends her to an elite American boarding school in Paris for her senior year of high school, she reluctantly goes, and meets an amazing boy who becomes her best friend, in spite of the fact that they both want something more.

Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff (Brooklyn/Greenpoint): Sixteen-year-old Kid, who lives on the streets of Brooklyn, loves Felix, a guitarist and junkie who disappears, leaving Kid the prime suspect in an arson investigation, but a year later Scout arrives, giving Kid a second chance to be in a band and find true love.

Don't Breathe A Word by Holly Cupala (Capitol Hill, Seattle): Joy Delamere is suffocating from severe asthma, overprotective parents, and an emotionally-abusive boyfriend when she escapes to the streets of nearby Seattle and falls in with a "street family" that teaches her to use a strength she did not know she had.

Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard (rural Wyoming): When shy, awkward fourteen-year-old Grace Carpenter is paired with the beautiful and wild Mandarin on a school project, an unlikely, explosive friendship begins, but all too soon, Grace discovers that Mandarin is a very troubled, even dangerous, girl.

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson (Poconos, Pennsylvania): Taylor Edwards' family might not be the closest-knit--everyone is a little too busy and overscheduled--but for the most part, they get along just fine. Then Taylor's dad gets devastating news, and her parents decide that the family will spend one last summer all together at their old lake house in the Pocono Mountains. Crammed into a place much smaller and more rustic than they are used to, they begin to get toknow each other again. And Taylor discovers that the people she thought she had left behind haven't actually gone anywhere. Her former best friend is still around, as is her first boyfriend...and he's much cuter at seventeen than he was at twelve. As the summer progresses and the Edwards become more of a family, they're more aware than ever that they're battling a ticking clock. Sometimes, though, there is just enough time to get a second chance--with family, with friends, and with love.

Frost by Marianna Baer (Frost House at a remote boarding school): When Leena Thomas gets her wish to live in an old Victorian house with her two closest friends during their senior year at boarding school, the unexpected arrival of another roommate--a confrontational and eccentric classmate--seems to bring up old anxieties and fears for Leena that may or may not be in her own mind.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E Smith (airplane): Hadley and Oliver fall in love on the flight from New York to London, but after a cinematic kiss they lose track of each other at the airport until fate brings them back together on a very momentous day.

Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker (boat): Taking the family sailboat on a summer-long trip excites everyone except sixteen-year-old Clementine, who feels stranded with her parents and younger sister and guilty over a falling-out with her best friend.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (rural Arkansas): Seventeen-year-old Cullen's summer in Lily, Arkansas, is marked by his cousin's death by overdose, an alleged spotting of a woodpecker thought to be extinct, failed romances, and his younger brother's sudden disappearance.

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield (small town Appalachia): Unveils the details of a horrific murder, its effects on permanent and summer residents of the small Appalachian town where the body is discovered, and especially how the related violence shakes eighteen-year-old Becca's determination to leave home as soon as possible.

Shine by Lauren Myracle (small town southern US): When her best friend falls victim to a vicious hate crime, sixteen-year-old Cat sets out to discover the culprits in her small North Carolina town.

Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando (Coney Island): Jane, her twin brother Marcus, and their father have been on the road since her mother's departure years ago, but when they inherit a house on Coney Island, Jane not only begins to find a home, she learns much about her mother, too.

Stolen by Lucy Christopher (rural Australia): Sixteen-year-old Gemma, a British city-dweller, is abducted while on vacation with her parents and taken to the Australian outback, where she soon realizes that escape attempts are futile, and in time she learns that her captor is not as despicable as she first believed.

The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin (rural Idaho school): A troubled sixteen-year-old girl attending a wilderness school in the Idaho mountains must finally face the consequences of her complicated friendships with two of the other girls at the school.

Wanted by Heidi Ayarbe (Carson City, Nevada): Seventeen-year-old Michal Garcia, a bookie at Carson City High School, raises the stakes in her illegal activities after she meets wealthy, risk-taking Josh Ellison.

Please feel free to add your favorite contemporary titles published in the last two years to the comments that feature great settings -- the more interesting, the better! 

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Guest Post: Molly Backes on Setting and Why it Matters in Contemporary YA Fiction

Why Setting Matters (or "Where You At?") by Molly Backes

Setting matters in fiction because it matters in life. I wrote the early drafts of The Princesses of Iowa in a little house in the mountains of New Mexico, halfway between Albuquerque and Moriarty. When I looked out my windows, I saw scratchy Russian thistle, the blue-violet slopes silhouetted against the sky, the fat roadrunner that lived in my backyard, the occasional coyote. But on the page, I tried to recreate the Midwestern landscape of my youth: red barns against fields of bright yellow soybeans, bittersweet vines wrapped around sagging farm fences, the wide blue Iowa sky. 

Setting – where we are, where we come from, when we are, when we’ve come from – shapes us. Part of the fun of writing The Princesses of Iowa was taking familiar characters and relationships (the high school mean girls) and transposing them into a world I recognized as my own. I once overheard my agent describe my book as “Gossip Girls of Iowa.” At first I was horrified, but then I fell in love with the idea. Because we all know the mean girls in New York and California, the mean girls with money and power, with designer clothes and private schools and fancy cars. We see them on TV and in the movies all the time. But those girls don’t live in my world. In my world, the rich girl doesn’t get a BMW on her 16thbirthday, she gets a brand new Subaru. Where I come from, to be financially successful, you don’t have to be the CEO of a global corporation; being the town’s orthodontist puts you at the top of the economic food chain.  

For me, a large part of the appeal in reading contemporary fiction is coming across that perfect detail – something you’ve noticed, or heard, or felt in your own life, something you may not have even put words to, or something you believed no one else has ever noticed – and saying, “Yes! Yes, that’s exactly how it is!” It’s reassuring, that moment of recognition; it validates your own experience and affirms that you’re not alone in the way you experience the world. 

The joy of writing contemporary fiction is in the opportunity – and the challenge – to find those unique details, to capture the world as you experience it. And – if you’re doing it right – setting isn’t just descriptions of pretty landscapes; it pushes action, and reveals character. 

Every character comes from somewhere, and every character has a prism of assumptions — cultural, regional, religious, political, familial, social — and emotions through which she views the world. Her assumptions shape the way she sees, how she makes her metaphors, how she speaks, how she reacts, what (and who) she admires, what she loves. Her emotions determine the things she notices and how she processes them.

For instance, take two women at a small-town fair. One is in her late seventies, and she’s there because she wants to revisit the place she met her late husband. Her joints hurt, she’s a little cranky, and she grew up in a time when children were taught to be seen and not heard. The way she describes the fair will be filtered through her prism: it is loud and garish, it’s not what it used to be, it’s shabby and small where it used to be magnificent, it’s too hot, it’s vulgar, it’s lonely. Everything she describes, every interaction she has, and every emotional reaction she has reveals her character, because everything she says and notices is filtered through her unique worldview.

The other woman is fourteen, just a girl, who’s spent the summer between eighth and ninth grade selling produce at a roadside farmstand. She’s tan and strong and friendly, with enough cash in her pocket to ride every single ride. For her, the fair is full of possibility: it’s the social scene of the summer, the one time all summer that the teens of the town are all in the same place at the same time. She’s changed, and she can’t wait to see if anyone notices. To her, the hum of the crowd is intoxicating, and in it she hears all the conversations she might have, with newly-interesting boys who never noticed her before. The rides look thrilling and the lights enticing. And because she’s spent the summer hauling produce, she compares the unfamiliar colors and shapes of the fair to the familiar ones of the vegetables. The funhouse is the purplish black of a ripe Black Bell eggplant, and the sweaty tendrils of her hair stick to her face like corn silk.

Everything they notice, everything they say, the way they move and how they interact with the setting — it all reveals character.

With each draft, we have to pay close attention to these details, because often they reveal more about our characters than we know ourselves. And if done well, all these tiny details, many of which will go virtually unnoticed by readers, add up to a greater whole — a living, breathing, complicated person with a history and a future, someone who will live on in your reader’s mind long after he finishes your book.


M. Molly Backes is the author of The Princesses of Iowa (Candlewick) and is the assistant director of StoryStudio Chicago, a creative writing studio. She lives in Chicago, where she stops to pet every dog she sees. Follow her on Twitter @mollybackes or stalk her on her block at

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