I am deeply interested in Red Room’s favorite intergenerational story blog challenge because that is what I write. My Cousin Cycle centers on how the events of one year impact the lives of an extended family of cousins. The same events are seen by different eyes as having different values, even different meanings. While some narrators are searingly accurate, others turn out to be fairly unreliable, but it often takes reading the next book to discover this.
Marketing nightmare or story-telling genius?
I had no idea when I began writing the cycle that I was creating a marketing nightmare. The protagonist of The Hoarders is a 10-year-old boy, so its market would be the independent reader age 9-12. The protagonist of Balance is a 12-year-old girl, thus a coming-of-age novel for the middle grade reader. How Not to Cry in Public: A Novel will be launched in December 2012, a YA book with a 17-year-old female protagonist. Regrets Tree on Fire will be launched in May 2013 with a16-year-old boy as narrator, thus another YA book. Then, along the way, I discovered that some of my most avid fans were adult readers!
While the four books do not require being read in any particular order to understand the plots and characters, I think the family tales unfold in an engaging manner when they are read beginning with the most innocent eyes and continuing on in the order of increasing age and sophistication. The intertwining plots become more complicated and the implications more intriguing as the increasing maturity of the narrators enables a more sophisticated analysis of the events of this year.
Getting rid of the adults.
Have you ever noticed that the first thing a writer for young readers does is get rid of the adults in the story? The idea seems to be that their characters need emotional and physical space to grow and develop independence. Young readers want role models that show them how to be successful doing things on their own.
Authors for this market are really inventive in jettisoning the parents before the story even begins. Lots of the time the parents are just inexplicably absent, preoccupied with their own issues. Other authors incapacitate the parents right and left. Sickness, accidents, all sorts of calamities befall these poor adults.
Orphans . . .
This results in a lot of orphans! Think about all the famous orphan stories in children’s or YA literature you know. Peter Pan (James M. Barrie) from England’s Golden Age of Children’s Literature might come to mind. A recent example would be the child Nobody in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.
This getting-rid-of-the-adults took a whole new twist during the 60s and 70s and resulted in a new sub-genre: The Problem Novel. In these books, the adults are unreliable in every imaginable way. Frequently the child or teen protagonist is shown as smarter or wiser than the parents. These writers created a whole posterity of dysfunctional parents in American YA literature!
As I was going through the early stage of imagining my characters for the Cousin books and what they were doing in their world, I thought, I’ve got a big extended family here with a lot of adults. If I have to dispatch them all, I could end up with a pretty high death ratio per book!
My What-If stage.
What if this happens? What if she does that instead? I love that stage. It’s like taking a shower in possibilities. While I’m driving the car, I’m wondering What-if? I’m shoveling snow, but my mind is playing with What-if? What-if?
It’s like a dreamtime. My characters are starting to walk around and do things, exposing to me who they are, suggesting to me who they might become after a lot of What-Ifs have happened to them.
So while I was in this “What-If” stage about a large extended family of cousins, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t get rid of the adults? What if I let the adults stay? Not just as a background wash, not as flat characters or stereotypes to get the job done, but as real people? Can the young protagonists grow and develop independently in a story like that?
A few billion people walking around the planet have grown up and matured into independence because of (or despite) the parental units walking around their houses.
So, in the Cousin Cycle most parents live at home with their children. Some are more reliable adults than others. But then, some of the young protagonist’s perspectives are more reliable than others as well.
How reliable is one person’s view of anything?
As I wrote these intergenerational stories, the matter of the unreliable narrator became a dominant perspective to explore. As a reader goes through the various volumes in the series, s/he begins to realize that what felt like the whole story in the last book, is really only a little slice of a much broader picture that begins to emerge in the next.
My four books in the Cousin Cycle explore how the current generation responds to the value systems of their Gen-Me parents, who in turn were raised by a different set of values by Boomer grand-parents causing tension throughout the family. While the impact of extended family is central, other values of contemporary North American culture are also explored: from sex to cell phones, from non-communication to constant texting, from cruel acts to the sublimity of genuine love. These uncertainties add tension and drama at every turn.
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Causes Jean Stringam Supports