Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Crime, at Least in YA, Doesn't Always Pay

Welcome to "Case Files From Our Detectives." Every Tuesday, in rotation, we blog on a topic relevant to the craft of mystery writing. If you're a new follower or just discovering us now, you can check out past Case Files in the archives; they're all listed in the upper right sidebar. 

Today we're continuing with our topic of CRIME. For the next several weeks, we'll explore the following questions and more: What are some of the challenges we face in writing about crimes and criminals in mysteries for young people? What are some of the most compelling crimes and who are the most dastardly criminals in books that we've read? What are some real-life crimes that capture our imagination as writers? How does one craft a complex villain in fiction for kids? What happens when young people are criminals in mysteries? What kind of victims populate kids' mysteries? How do we research criminal or investigative procedures? How does the law affect young people in life and in fiction? And -- as alternative window on the topic -- what are some "writing crimes" we are sometimes guilty of? 
I was at a book event the other day, chit-chatting with the mother of a teenage girl. After I explained that Pretty Crooked was billed as “Mean Girls meets Robin Hood,” she picked up a copy and began thumbing through it with interest. After a few moments, though, she murmured to herself, “Oh, the main character’s a thief. No. Can’t do that.” She then put the book down and walked away without making eye contact. I wanted to shout out, “Hey, I’m not a thief!” But it was too late. She assumed the book was glorifying crime, and that made it off-limits for her daughter. 

I get that. And I wasn’t about to argue with her. Creating a protagonist that’s a criminal is a risky enterprise. You have to find a way if not to justify the criminal behavior, then to at least to make the character sympathetic, to give the reader good reasons for the choices she makes. And you need to situate the story within a moral framework that makes sense to young readers. Not always easy to do in the context of a light, fast-paced novel. Some parents will inevitably feel threatened by my subject matter, but I’ve also been surprised by how many teachers and librarians have enjoyed my book and saw its value, which is, ideally, entertainment. 

I must confess: I like writing from a criminal’s point of view. The stealing scenes were especially liberating, allowing me to fantasize in detail about doing things I would never do in real life. And hopefully, that is the experience for my readers, who I trust already know right from wrong, and who I believe will read the conclusion of the book and come away feeling that it doesn’t glorify Willa’s actions. In the end, the gift of fantasy—a way to live vicariously through our characters—is the best gift we can give readers, and hey, sometimes our fantasies involve breaking the rules.
Elisa Ludwig's debut young adult novel PRETTY CROOKED (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins), was released in March. It's the story of Willa Fox, a teen girl who goes Robin Hood on her rich classmates, and it's the first of a trilogy. Even though she had to extensively research pickpocketing techniques to write it, she remains a law-abiding citizen. Elisa lives in Philadelphia with her husband Jesse.


  1. Very interesting reaction. Clearly she couldn't see past that though. Just as I'm sure there are parents that can't see past sexual content or swearing. Those are the parents that want the completely innocent sweet YA that the middle schoolers are reading. And there's a big difference between that and older YA.
    I don't blame her for walking out with her eyes down - that was kinda rude! Many different ways to handle that. I love writing the villains. they're so much fun! I loved Willa.

  2. Thanks, Laura! I had another school that took issue with the drinking scene in the book, even though Willa doesn't drink. You just never know! I mean, I respect parents that are involved with their kids' reading, no matter what. But it does hurt your feelings when it's in your face!


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