Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tis the Season

When I was a kid, we had a big cardboard box full of Christmas decorations.  Once a year—usually the day we put up the tree—we’d dig the box out from under the suitcases in the hall closet, flip open the lid, and listen to Dad cuss as he untangling the strings of lights.  Ah... Christmas.
Beside the well-damned lights, we had stockings for our post-war split-level with no fireplace, and tons of salt-dough ornaments.  Plus... a couple books.  The book I remember best was a heavy-duty paperback version of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas—not the Rankin Bass with the talking mice and broken clock—I’m talking pure Clement Clarke Moore.  It was shaped like a chimney—probably 24” tall x 10” wide—with Santa’s jolly head sticking out the top.  I read that book over and over during the three or so weeks before our homemade foil star came down and we buried the box away, not to be seen until summer vacation when we needed the suitcases.

I mention all this because I’ve been thinking about holidays and books lately (to say nothing of summer vacation).  With the many winter solstice holidays coming, I was going to be timely and post a list of YA holiday books.  But a quick check the internet says it’s been done by folks with far better reading habits than I.  So, I decided to talk about how holidays can help an author tell a story.
Holiday World Building
    If I say, “Santa’s Workshop,” you likely get a vision that’s similar to mine—gallons of blood and a chipper/shredder full of... wait, that’s Valentines.  Back to Santa.  We both know his workshop is at the top of the globe.  What’s more, if we’re talking Santa, we’ve agreed that there is a Santa.  Interesting that we can make that leap easier that we can deal with melting polar ice caps.

    Even if the book isn’t about the actual holiday story, the holiday can add to the setting.  A contemporary story can have decorated department store windows.  A space station 100 years in the future can have a faux-holly wreath.  Come to think of it, a wreath might be the one thing the Sci-Fi author doesn’t have to describe.

Holiday Characters:
     Holidays come with a cast of well-established characters.  You’ve heard of the Easter Bunny; you know about that Santa guy.  The author doesn’t have to tell you who they are, even if they’re doing an alt-version.  If I say, “Bad Santa,” you know the character just as well as “Good Santa.”

Holiday Timing:
    The author may have to establish the year of the story, but the time of year is pretty well set for a holiday.  Halloween is the evening of October the 31st.  Thanksgiving in the USA is the fourth Thursday in November.  A Valentines Dance is in mid-February.

Emotional Impact:
     Since I just mentioned Valentines, let’s not ignore the emotional punch associated with holidays.  An author need only mention the date to get some hearts racing.  Of course, the author can go deeper by having their characters experience the holiday in a relatable way.

Apart from helping with the story, holidays have a broader impact.  Clearly the holiday books of my childhood were bought, sold, and saved because of the holiday.  They were read every year because of the holiday.  And while that might pigeonhole a classic holiday book, I think readers are open to holiday settings any time of the year.
I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts—and getting back to my original idea, what are your favorite YA holiday books?  Mine happens to be the one I’m writing right now.  Well, that and Terry Prachett’s Hogfather, and a friend’s that isn’t quite done yet, so I can’t tell you about it, but it rocks.

May you have the best of whatever holiday you like.  I’m off to untangle the friggin’ lights.


Kristin Lenz said...

You always crack me up, Kurt! And I love the image of you as a kid reading that chimney shaped copy of 'Twas the Night before Christmas. Happy holidays to you and your family.

Rita Monette, Writer said...

Even your father cussing out the lights makes for a good Christmas memory...sounds like you're carrying on the tradition. Nice post, Kurt. Gave me a needed laugh. Hope you get your lights untangled and up for a merry Christmas!!

Colette Ballard said...

Nice post, Kurt! Funny as always!

Kurt Hampe said...

Kristin, Rita, and Colette, thanks for the kind words. I'm the one who takes the Christmas tree lights down now, and so they go into the box untangled, thereby eliminating the profanity the following year. Or maybe it's just that light strings are much shorter these days and more reliably wired.

Joyce Lansky said...

Great post, Kurt. I don't know of many holiday books for YA. At our conference a few years ago, I started a novel with a word about Halloween. The agent and editor at the first page critique session screamed, "Seasonal! Not interested." As a result, I revised to make it not so seasonal.

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