Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How Books Work, part 2: Day 'o' YA

A little while back, INTERN posted about the usefulness of always keeping a question in the reader's mind. This weekend, INTERN grabbed a book off the "New YA" shelf at the library that pulls this off extremely well. Bad Apple by Laura Ruby is about a girl who *might* have had an affair with her highschool art teacher. The entire book is based around this one giant question, but several other, equally salient questions lurk under this question's umbrella. The result is a book that's coldly and mercilessly engineered to make readers' poor helpless hands reach out and turn the pages—because desire to know the answers to juicy questions is, like, scientifically proven to create a state of temporary insanity.

Anyhoo, let's have a look at how Ruby does it.

The book starts off with a narrative hook that establishes two things: people are saying that Girl's Art Teacher is a "predator" and Girl is a "liar."

Reader (aka INTERN's) slightly exaggerated reaction: OMG! What's the gossip? Did something untoward happen between Girl and Art Teacher? Spill, spill, spill!

The book chapters are interspersed with "comments" from school officials, classmates, neighbors, and family members,most of which cast suspicion on Girl's credibility.

INTERN reaction: Wait, who can INTERN trust in this cra-a-a-azy world? Did something happen or not? Aaaaah!

Early on in the book, Ruby introduces a Love Interest for Girl. Said Love Interest has a secret of his own: nobody knows his real name, or why he goes by the mysterious moniker "Seven."

INTERN reaction: Can't. Stand. Secrets.

About a quarter of the way through the book, someone starts an anonymous blog spreading outrageous rumors about Girl's
escapades with Art Teacher. Via the "comments" section, readers are made privy to the troll's identity—but Girl is not. Thus, readers have the satisfaction of knowing the Answer to a Question when the main character doesn't, not to mention that delicious tense feeling of knowing something crucial but being unable to warn the main character.

INTERN reaction: Oh, yeah! INTERN knows something Girl doesn't! Will Girl find out? What will Girl do about it?

About halfway through the book, there is a Big Scene in which Girl stands up in front of the school board and tells them that nothing happened between her and Art Teacher. It is abundantly clear at this point that there was no hanky-panky and all the kerfuffle at school is nothing but a witch hunt—but then the school board says they'll take Girl's statement "under advisement," as if they don't believe her at all.

INTERN reaction: (relieved at having a final answer to one of the book's big questions, but still tense because nobody believes Girl).

The school board finally resolves to re-instate Art Teacher and everything seems dandy. Then there's a reversal—Girl admits that something did happen with Art Teacher!

INTERN reaction: WHAT HAPPENED????????

In the next chapter, Girl FINALLY relates the story of what actually happened (which boils down to, Girl reached for Art Teacher's hand when they were eating lunch at the same table and he immediately said no and walked away). Next, Girl confronts the internet troll who was running the rumour blog.

INTERN reaction: Ah, truth at last! But now, how will Girl manage to tell the truth to all those classmates, friends, school officials, etc?

Long story short, Girl ends up painting a mural in the school hallway representing the true story. All the big questions have been stretched out for a satisfying amount of time, and there have been a satisfying number of obstacles and reversals standing in the way of their resolution.

Bad Apple is also funny and hip and voice-y in that way lots of contemporary YA writers strive for. But that sassy voice and those funny anecdotes are woven into a very solid framework that keeps the story tension high. And the story Questions, salient as they are, are not harped on constantly, but fit in seamlessly with the overall flow of Girl's tale.


INTERN has given herself carpal tunnel from typing too much over the past few days, so instead of going into a lengthier analysis she will now relent.

Merry Wednesday!


  1. Thanks for that, INTERN! I am very intrigued, and thus will have to check that one out soon. :)

  2. Well said. And you've mentioned Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK before, so you know how similar the story is, with all the students down on the main character over something that happened that summer, and we knowing something is wrong, but not what, and are pulled right into the story.

    This is why I told my niece, when I gave her a copy - "DON'T read the reviews." The voice draws you in, but the mystery is what keeps you turning the pages.

  3. p.s. Thanks for the breakdown, Intern!

  4. I love YA, and I kind of hate myself for reading this since I have this one in my TBR pile, but I have Must Read Spoiler syndrome ... can't fight the urge (Damn me! Damn MRS syndrome!).

    I have to say, I love the whole did they-didn't they theme, but I'm wondering how in the heck this was stretched over 60-90k words. Maybe with all the stuff from other sources interspersed throughout?

    Note to self: make sure there are unanswered questions in WIP, because even if it's fun for you to write about butterflies and blades of grass all night, Reader may get very bored if the only question is whether grass is dead.

  5. Wow, I now want to go out and read this book!

  6. I go back and forth on this issue. I'm not good with suspense. Apart from sheer boredom, I do finish a book once I start it, so suspense will not make me put a book down. But it often drives me up a wall for the grand majority of the book.

    Take To Kill A Mockingbird for example. Read it for the first time last year. Loved it. Spent the entire book thinking "but how did Jem break his arm???"

    Needless to say I don't read mysteries.