Meet Jessica McHugh. Creator of “sometimes disgusting characters”, author of bizarro sci-fi novels, erotic thrillers, and now: young adult, coming-of-age, Judy-Blume-eat-your-heart-out drama. She’s young, fresh, comfortable with vulgarity and fiercely intelligent.
With fourteen of her novels published in the last six years, just waxing a bunch of clichés about her prowess and early success would make an article, but who needs another Upworthy? Take it from The Book Bird; this girl is dynamite. She’s writing for you now; she’s writing for your kids now, and when they’re grown up, and she’s doddering about in an old age home, their kids will be reading her books.
Jessica McHugh has a meme on her computer desktop. It says WRITE ALL THE WORDS! That says she’s planning to endure. It tells of the writer’s obsession and the real truth: all the words can’t be found in just one place.
Why Darla, why now?
Darla Decker is McHugh’s latest creation, and she features in the first book of a series, Darla Decker Hates to Wait. We reviewed it a few weeks ago, if you’re wondering where you read that before. Darla is an eleven-year-old free spirit – as free as a pre-pubescent can ever be, with worries about boys, her parents’ marriage, and her ever more distant best friend. She tells her stories to her Diary and lives her life to the most clutzy she can be.
Why did Jessica McHugh give us Darla? Why now, when YA fiction has been pumping with The-Running-Man-reminiscence of The Hunger Games? Her move from bizarro sci-fi auteur extraordinaire to coming-of-age, feel-good purveyor of hope is a truly enormous leap; you’d expect YA Battle Royale to be right up her street.
She says: “I thought it was time for real-life YA fiction to break out again. The dystopian craze was at its pinnacle during the planning stages, and now that Darla is ready to let loose, I think most people are ready for something real. Sure, most of us can imagine what it would be like to be a kid fighting for our lives against other kids in a booby-trapped arena. But ALL of us can remember what it was like to get a first period or a surprise erection. We all remember having to speak in front of class when we’d forgotten to do the assignment, or talking to crushes without sounding like a complete ass. We remember being kids and all the emotional turmoil that went along with it.”
Honesty is the best policy
The way Jess sees it is that the realness is the all important factor. Back to reality, but not in the dreamy and thoughtful Judy Blume style of yesteryear. Realness means honesty, and Jessica’s type of honesty is punchy, to say the least.
Jessica says that’s what makes Young Adult fiction so powerful. By being honest with pre-teens in books like these, we allow them to see that you can survive even the worst day of puberty. Kids don’t want to be coddled. They want to see characters dealing with the dirty truth—one, because it’s fascinating and titillating, and two, because they get some insight on how to react to rough situations (or how not to, in some cases).
And what about adults? Jessica’s conviction is that Darla can make them feel young again, and show them how far they’ve come. She says they’ll probably also be grateful they only have to experience puberty on the page this time.
The Book Bird can vouch for that last point.
Darla Decker, a sure-fire audience-buster
Jessica’s trademark shock factor is still expressed in Darla, but all perfectly in sync with the requirements of a Young Adult audience. From the thoroughly ridiculous disasters she suffers, to the excruciating nastiness of her big brother, she affects everyone in her family with the decisions she makes, and her repentance doesn’t stop her creating ever new disasters.
The pre-pubescent road to hell is indeed paved with the best intentions, and Darla has a lot of charm, even when she’s making out with boys. Darla’s innocence is quietly unravelled throughout the first book, but only a little. Just enough to figure out words like ‘fingerbanging’ but not enough to know what sixty-nine is.
Jessica explains that children are “adults without propriety” and this echoes one of the wisdoms uttered by her characters; “You need to grow up and realize we’re just kids.” When children play at being adults without knowing all of the information or etiquette their confusion helps some very specific types of awkward situations present themselves. Jessica tackles these with hilarious energy but we’re giving out no spoilers here.
The same wise character tells Darla, “We’re not too young to date, but we are too young to be in relationships …” It’s such a perfectly simple explanation for the emotional dramas that take the reader through the course of sixth grade. The countless crushes, the speeded-up versions of adult relationships, not to mention the stiffening relationship between Darla’s parents (and her biased reaction to that), all collide to make the path through middle school as hard as possible.
“I wanted Darla to have a taste of both sides, especially in middle school. It’s a tumultuous time. She’s trying to figure out who she is, and who she wants to be. And even if she thinks she knows, sometimes the craziness of puberty (or pre-puberty in this case) throws her a curve ball, and she finds herself doing things she’d never thought…and enjoying them.”
Jessica blends Darla so well because she’s been Darla at some point in her life. Or aspects of Darla. Her main audience is Darla. Darla effectively personifies the very readers she wants to grip.
Jess emphasises that her stories and characters take on a life of their own; the writer steers them through the events. “When it comes to these characters, I’m focusing more on staying true to who they are rather than worrying about making the audience love or hate them. Kids can be angels one day and assholes the next. I can’t help it if Darla’s a bit of a scamp.”
Writing age-appropriate YA fiction
Instead of worrying about how hard it might be to make the leap from extreme adult fiction to a genre governed by a lot more rules, Jessica says, “I try to write clearer, more concise sentences, and the dialogue has to be youthened, but other than that, I just write the story as the story demands. Clearly I’m not going to write young adult the same way I write a bloody thriller, but the spirit remains the same.
“I especially didn’t want to dumb down these books just because they’re for kids. I think preteens and teens are smarter and more aware than we give them credit for, and they deserve just as much vocabulary and honesty. Darla and Nate have been some of my favorite characters to write, EVER. Granted, I’m writing the 4th book now, so I know them very well, but I hope my love for them comes across in their dialogue and interactions with each other. I could go deeper into that, but I don’t want to spoil anything.”
So is the pop diva stance a winner?
It’s tempting to suggest that writers should be more like pop divas. To survive and endure, they must be prepared to transform themselves time and again. As a technique – if it was intended as one – it’s working pretty well for Jessica, but if you regularly look at the official ‘bestseller’ lists, you see authors remaining within an expected genre for the length of their successful careers. Clearly there are many different paths to success.
Jessica’s take on it is as direct as her approach to writing. “I can only offer one reason for the jump from writing extreme adult themes to writing young adult. It might sound silly or even curt, but it’s the truth: I felt like it. When I set out to write a novel, I don’t think about what the market’s doing at the time. I don’t think about trying to stay within a certain niche or even the fact that my name will be associated with as much blood, gore, and sex organs as it will with roller-skating preteens and show choir auditions. (I believe honest young adult novels like mine are their own brand of horrorshow anyway).
“When I have a story idea, I follow it without question. And once the characters come into play, I pass the reins to them and follow their lead. When it comes to my fiction, I want to continue trying new, exciting things. I want to stretch and bend and shatter my boundaries–and maybe the boundaries of my readers, too. And although I might never secure a huge audience in one specific genre, you can bet there’s at least one Jessica McHugh book for everyone out there. Well, once I get my historical fiction novel out, there will be.”
Jessica’s secret is in the word: novel. Her newness will never grow old, never fail to engage and capture her diverse audiences. Every generation will find her new because the energy bounces off the pages like it was written yesterday and leaves a visceral imprint in the reader’s brain.