When I set out to write The Road To Winter there were two ingredients I was determined to get right: voice and story. As an English teacher, I know YA readers are no less discerning than adult readers. Given the amount of distractions that crowd teenagers’ lives – from devices to social media to gaming - it could be argued they are even harder to please, harder to keep turning the page.
The voice of Finn, the narrator in The Road To Winter, is critical to maintaining the interest of the reader. He has to carry the story in a way that’s not just believable but engaging. Finn is sixteen years old and has been surviving on his own in a quarantined town on the coast for two years. He is resourceful and resilient in a way that the reader has to believe a sixteen-year-old could be. He also has all the insecurities of a teenager, heightened by his loneliness and the constant fear of being discovered by Wilders, roving gangs that rule the country to the north.
Voice is what sells Finn as a character to the reader. They have to empathise with him to the point that they find themselves holding their breath for him, ducking and weaving their way through the story with him, watching his back. YA readers in particular, want to see something of themselves in the characters, whether it’s an emotion, a reaction, even a failing, they have to believe they may be capable of the same thing.
Finn’s life changes in a single afternoon when Rose, an escaped Siley (the name given to asylum seekers), is chased into town by Wilders. He leads her to safety, all the while debating whether he’s doing the right thing or not. She brings danger but she also brings companionship, the thing he most craves. By this stage the reader knows Finn, they are allies in his quest to stay alive. And now, they will come along on his journey into Wilder country to find Rose’s sister, Kas.
The second essential ingredient in YA is story. Again drawing on thirty years experience in education, I know the best way to get a message through to teenagers is to couch it in a story. It’s one of the advantages books have over their devices—good books can transport them and hold them in real or imagined worlds for longer and in ways that allow them investment in an outcome. In this regard I was determined to make The Road To Winter a page-turner, a rollercoaster ride the reader wouldn’t be able – wouldn’t want – to get off until the end.
The story revolves around Finn, Rose and Kas trying their hardest to look after each other in a world that offers no favours. They suffer setbacks, difficulties brought on by adults but also sometimes as a consequence of their own poor decisions. They’re kids – they make mistakes, they stuff up but they find a way through. There are no superheroes, no magical powers to help them out of life-threatening situations, no “chosen one” to lead them.
To an extent, I think the prevalence of these sorts of characters in YA does a disservice to young people. They tell them they aren’t capable of making decisions for themselves, or of finding a way through difficulties on their own. Finn, Rose and Kas rely completely on their own instincts and their unswerving loyalty to each other.
A second driver to the story is that Rose and Kas are Sileys. The novel envisions a not-too-distant future where asylum seekers are bought and sold at public auctions. Readers need to believe this isn’t too far fetched, that it could be a logical extension of our current treatment of refugees. Kas and Rose rail against their treatment at the hands of their owners, forcing Finn to confront some uncomfortable truths about his own life. In a critical scene, Kas says:
‘What’s wrong with people in this country, Finn…..it was so beautiful here; you had everything. But you were so cruel.’
Writing good, engaging books for young readers is a balancing act requiring insight into how teenagers think and an understanding of why they might choose a novel to read, beyond it being a compulsory part of the curriculum. The Road To Winter is intended to be a book they would pick up at home and read for the enjoyment of it, while at the same confronting issues like survival, conflict, loyalty and love.
Mark Smith is an Australian writer who runs outdoor education programs for young adult. The Road to Winter, published by Text Publishing, is his first novel. You can find Mark on Twitter at @marksmith0257.