I have young adult children. Not the young adults of the 12+ or 14+ YA readership recommendations, but the 18+ variety. You know the type—fully-grown but still young by anyone’s definition and not yet firmly planted in “grown-up” soil. So, I’ve reached the point of motherhood where, even though my interest in their lives and my concern for their well-being is as strong as ever (some might call it stalking…), my day-to-day contact with them is sporadic. They’re nearly their own, nearly able to look after themselves. But, like many people in their late teens or early twenties, they’re not quite there yet. Life can still be unsettled at that age, and for many young people, unfortunately, the future is anything but secure.
Last week I wrote about one of the starting points for “At Yellow Lake”: thinking about characters I’d written about years before, and imagining what might have happened to them if their short story had continued.
Today, I’m wondering the same way about my main characters in “At Yellow Lake.”
In most YA novels, characters have difficult lives, and Etta, Jonah and Peter are no exceptions. There is always an upheaval, or traumatic event. Usually the difficulties come from somewhere outside the character. The mistakes, the disastrous decisions, are made by adults—Parents, teachers, political leaders. The young characters have to deal with these adult-induced catastrophes and make sense of them, find some sort equilibrium for themselves.
And that’s the end of the story.
But I can’t help wondering about what would happen if it wasn’t the end of the story. I’m not talking about sequels, but about taking an imaginary leap into the futures of Etta and Jonah and Peter. I like to think that all three of them will somehow live happily ever after. Their problems are well and truly over, right? They’ve sorted everything out, haven’t they? They won’t make the mistakes their parents did, won’t fall into the same traps?
I’ve recently read two brilliant books about vulnerable teenagers—“Being Billy” by Phil Earle, about Billy, who lives in a care home, and “15 Days Without a Head” by Dave Cousins, about Laurence, whose mother is an alcoholic. Both books vividly portray the tenacity and inventiveness of kids living in the shadow of colossal parental messing-up. Both stories are, to some extent, resolved, and the endings, though heartbreakingly sad, are still poignant and optimistic.
By letting me immerse myself so deeply in the world of Billy and Laurence, the writers have made me worry about these boys’ imaginary futures—how easy would it be for them to stay strong, to continue resisting the temptation of alcohol, violence or crime? Obviously, characters who are truly alive on the page (as Laurence and Billy are) have an extended lifespan after the book is closed. We may never know how their lives turn out, even if the writer returns to them in another book, but we will always wonder…
I don’t know if I can make a link between fictional characters and young adults who actually exist. But like Billy and Laurence, young adults aren’t necessarily at the end of their childhood story by the time their allotted “pages” have been turned. The milestones of youth—leaving school, finishing exams, turning 18, even graduating from university or getting a good job—don’t always lead to instant happiness or achievement. The years after school can be difficult ones, especially for those who are vulnerable and lacking support.
So let's not set young adults aside before they are "finished". Some of them might need a few more pages to get things sorted out in their lives. Others might take an extra chapter or two. And there are some young people--plenty of them, I'd imagine--who might need (and deserve) another book!