Author Kevin Craig’s Young Adult novel Summer on Fire reminds me that fifteen-year old boys, like the three small-town boys Craig writes about in his book, have struggled with growing-up issues since time began. No longer children and not yet men, Craig’s three main characters, Zach, Jeff and Arnie face adult problems with adolescent reasoning skills. They aren’t always right, but they learn the repercussions of their actions born out of fear and panic, loyalty to friends, loyalty to family, respect for authority figures and disdain for bullying.
Craig tells the story from Zach’s point of view, a likeable boy with a stable family, although his older sister’s blatant sexuality is an issue for boys on the brink of discovering an interest in girls. It’s also the story of Zach’s handsome and cool best friend Jeff, whose father and brother are brutal bullies and troublemakers. Jeff’s mother shrinks into a shadow of her former self as the worrying mystery within the story unfolds. A third friend is overweight, whiny Arnie, who the two boys tolerate, and in truth, I never ascertained why. Arnie’s mother stuffs her son with junk food and fawns over his two friends, a situation which is a source of amusement between them. So why is Arnie a friend to them? Because they are nice guys and feel sorry for him? Because he lives nearby and they’ve known him all their lives? Because he advances the story?
Craig has studied the craft of storytelling. He hooks the reader’s interest immediately, building a strong foundation on which to follow the boys’ panicked actions after they mistakenly set a barn on fire. He confronts them with the news that a body is found in a house fire beside the barn, which they feel responsible for. Following is a series of events involving concerned parents, annoying siblings and curious neighbours – and just when the reader hopes the boys are in the clear, Craig throws us more plausible plot twists to ramp up the tension. In the end, there is heroism, redemption and punishment.
I’m unfamiliar with writing Young Adult stories, but since reading Summer On Fire I learned what I believe are essential basics for the genre.
- A reader must relate to the characters and feel empathy for them (that goes for all writing)
- Lots of action and plot twists that come out of action (youths love roller-coaster action)
- Young adults won’t tolerate fussy descriptions of place or weather reports. They roll with believable, fast-paced dialogue.
- Age appropriate language and action
Craig’s dialogue rings true. His ability to put his mind back to being an irreverent 15-year old boy, sharing the humour and sarcasm, frustration, fear and false bravado that young boys feel is believable. Through his characters we dread the bullies, laugh at the ridiculous, empathize with parents and root for the good guys.