Today I am very excited to welcome author Kari Jo Spear to Joyfully Jay. As part of Young Love Week, we wanted to focus a day on Young Adult books since so many feature young love themes. Kari Jo is an author who writes YA stories as well as having experience seeing young love first hand. Please join me in giving her a big welcome!
Hi, I’m Kari Jo Spear, and I’m really honored to be invited to post here. I’ve published two YA m/m novels, as well as some adult fiction, and I’ve been asked to say something (presumably intelligent) about young love as opposed to older love, and how that translates into YA fiction with a positive message for gay youth.
Well. I’m really lucky to have a great day job that complements my YA writing. For twelve years, I’ve worked as a writing tutor in a public high school in Vermont. This means, that unlike teachers who are stuck in the front of the room, I sit amongst the kids. I hear them whisper, I see them react to text messages, I see what’s in their backpacks. I see them bored, stressed, and happy. Sometimes, of course, I have to interrupt my observations and actually work with them, but I can deal.
And I can assure everyone that young love is alive and well. The other day I was rushing down the hallway behind a young couple, who parted with a passionate kiss outside the art room. Only I had no idea they were about to stop for a smooch. I kept my pace up, and the next thing I knew my face was almost in the middle of their kiss. I’m not sure who was the most surprised, and we all got a good laugh.
And does more than kissing happen in the building? Well, over the years, I’ve heard tell of stuff going on under the stairs in the back stairwell, in the upstairs handicapped bathroom, in the darkroom, or out in the woods that surround our picturesque building.
During prom season, the building bursts with romance. Like the characters from Harry Potter getting ready for the Yule Ball, the boys suddenly realize they need dates, and they go about trying to solve the problem very ineptly. (Many boys this age still communicate by pointing and grunting, and chortle over rude noises. Girls can’t stop talking. Ever. No matter what.) After the prom, the girls are busy envisioning the rest of their lives with their prom dates. However, the boys are totally sick of all the drama and can’t wait to get back to shooting each other in whatever game is popular at the moment. Then the building is full of distraught girls who’ve just been dumped and boys who are late to class because they had to take the long way around so as not to pass a certain person’s locker. (I am exaggerating a little here — there are some amazing kids who take school very seriously, are excellent students, and have meaningful relationships. I’ve actually met some of them!)
I’m not sure how many gay kids are at my school, but I know there are quite a few. I’m proud to say that our faculty is very supportive — many, many rooms have purple triangles on the door that say, “Safe person, Safe space.” We have an active gay/straight alliance, and a zero tolerance for those flip, “Oh, that’s so gay!” statements. The girls are more out than the guys. I see them holding hands, even kissing. The guys keep their romance under the radar.
Even so, when two guys got caught “being intimate” by another student and were immediately outed by text messages that flew through the school in seconds, I felt a pang deep inside. My first thought was that I’d wake to a horrible phone call in the morning saying that there had been a suicide. Or two. Thankfully, that call never came. I know that the boys went to an adult they trusted and got prompt, positive support. But that’s not the kind of thing one ever truly gets over — perhaps their first ever moment of intimacy sent ripping through the school at satellite speed.
And that is partly why I wrote my first novel, Under the Willow.
To a teenager, especially a gay teenager, everything is new. Certainly no one has ever done anything like this before. Am I going to go to Hell? Oh my God, what are my parents going to say? The teachers are great, but they can’t stop all the snide looks and snickers, or the cold shoulder in the lunch line. And forget ever going into the boys’ locker room again.
YA love is scary, new, thrilling, sensitive, heartbreaking, dangerous, and wonderful. It has a rawness that gets rounded and worn away as characters get older. Inexperience is full of drama without the depths of memory given by maturity. YA is… exciting to write.
My characters, Shane and Cody, have known each other for years. When love smacks them together, they hide their passion from the rest of the school, sneaking into the stairwell that leads up to the roof for a quickie, communicating across crowded classrooms with intense looks, doing everything they can to keep their love secret. It doesn’t make matters any easier that there are two groups of faeries living secretly in their town, and that the boys are being recruited by rival groups. Soon they face more danger than the cruelty of their classmates, and they learn that the love they share is far more important than they ever dreamed.
Every piece of writing I do has a different feel, a different voice. (An editor told me once that when a second story of mine crossed her desk, she had to double check my email address to see if I really was the same author, and she prided herself on always being able to recognize us.) Once I find the story’s voice, the story mostly writes itself. I don’t consciously approach YA any differently than I do my adult work — I let the voice carry me. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my audience, or try to force my writing into being “for kids.” I tell the story that I’m caught up in the best way I can, and I make every word and sentence the best that it can be. In YA, the characters get into their plot in a hurry and don’t linger on long descriptive passages. Sometimes I’m chasing them across the page the way I chase them through the halls. Like the kids I work with, characters are demanding, self-centered, impatient, and incredibly loyal and forgiving once I’ve earned their trust and respect.
Somewhat ironically, one of the “rules” that we YA writers have to follow is that there can be no explicit sex in our stories. The characters can have sex, but it’s got to be off screen, or in a “fade to black” situation, and in the case of my publisher, the characters have to be over eighteen if they’re going to be active. But a story can be very sexually charged without being detailed, and focusing on the emotions rather than on the actions can be very powerful. YA readers have plenty of imagination as to what gets put where. What’s interesting is how it feels, and that we can do.
In my second novel, Silent One, the main character is a kid who’s been in foster care most of his life, abandoned by his parents. Gareth’s life has always been pretty bleak, and unfortunately, I’ve known real kids who are living lives that make his seem pampered. But Gareth is filled with hope despite everything, and when he finds love, he is able to embrace it and grow into the young man he was meant to be. He represents the resilience I see in some of the kids around me, as desperate for a smile as they are for a hot meal. In my real life, I give them smiles. In my fiction, I give kids a glimpse into the minds and hearts of gay characters.
Like in the stories I loved as a kid, there is always some science fiction or fantasy element in my writing. I think it’s important for gay kids to see that not only straight kids can get caught up in amazing adventures. And for my straight readers, I hope that when they start to say,” Oh, that’s so gay,” they stop and think of Shane and Cody, and of Gareth and Aranth, and remember that there’s a whole world of feeling behind that little word, and say nothing instead.
And if some straight kids happen to open a closed door and see two guys having a private moment, instead of reaching for their phones, they’ll just smile and quietly close the door. What a powerful message that would send. What a long way that simple gesture would go toward making the world better.
I’ll never know if my urge to tell a story has changed the world.
But I’ve had a great time trying.
Thanks again for letting me share my thoughts! I’ll be at school when this gets posted, but if you leave me a comment, I’ll be happy to respond when I get home. 😉
Kari Jo Spear lives with her husband, two daughters, two cats, and a dog on a dirt road in northern Vermont, surrounded by woods and streams and old stone walls. She has been writing all her life. She also loves nature photography, birdwatching, canoeing, swimming, and working with high school kids. You can find her blog at: karijospear.blogspot.com