I've now received two sets of detailed rewrite notes from two different editors at two companies on two different books. And I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but there is a common thread in both letters. In both cases, the editors ended by saying, "What is the theme?" Now, it could just be me, but I think it's more than that. The underlying message to me is that theme is essential to MG and YA literature. In adult thrillers, you might be able to get away with a whiz-bang story about nothing, but when you're writing for kids, it better have something to say about life. Perhaps it's corny, but I feel like it's a special responsibility for those of us who write for kids. It's a trust. Maybe this is why I recoil from the torture books and the sexualization in so much adult literature -- because it's just not in my nature to live in that place. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it if that's what you write, it's just not for me.
So when I start this rewrite, I'm going to start from my theme. This weekend, I tried an exercise: I tried to boil the book down to a single word. And the word is hope.
Then I spent a lot of time thinking about hope and what it means to me. First off, I recognize that struggling as a writer, working to get published, aiming to sell novels ... it's an inherently hopeful exercise. It's optimistic by its very nature. It's like starting a business or drawing up plans for a house or planting a tulip bulb. You hope. It's a positive, forward-looking thing. You want to see the business flourish, fall asleep in your new house, smell the bloom.
But it takes a lot of strength to continue hoping, no? Especially as time wears on and the rejections and defeats pile up, as they inevitably do. The odds are long, you might be surrounded by people who live in a hopeless space, or maybe you just don't believe you have that kind of strength ... it gets hard.
Yet I think that hopelessness is a learned behavior. Ask a kid what she wants to be when she grows up. President. Rock star. Peace Corps volunteer. It's an endless vista, all fueled by this relentless optimism that anything is possible. It's tempting to say this is just the naivéte of youth, but I disagree -- I think these youthful hopes are crushed by the sad, sometimes impotent cruelty of the adult world.
So that's what this book is about. This book is about a kid who has a dream and who starts out with high hopes for himself, and about the kids he meets along the way who have their own hopes and dreams. In each case, they are already struggling against the system, and the system is always adults. It's their own parents, it's their schools, it's the government. These are the forces arrayed against them -- the same ones that turn hopeful little writers into PR flacks and hopeful little presidents into drop-outs.
But at least in my world, in this book, my kids are gonna win.