Since I am on a YA fiction jag, I want to have a quick look at why National Book Award winning Far from the Tree by Robin Benway is so good. Happily, all the things that make this novel work are things that will work for anyone writing at any level and in any genre: a balance of character, emotion, and story. (While I typically review books here, this post is one I wrote for writers. I want to share here as well as on my writing blog because Far from the Tree is a book for so many YA readers and makes a great booktalk for librarians.)
As stated on the book cover, Far from the Tree grapples with the question “What does it mean to be a family?” It’s the story of three half-siblings who were all given up by their biological parents. The two girls, Grace and Maya, are adopted into two families. Grace remains an only child whereas Maya’s parents received a ‘second miracle’ within months of her adoption and become pregnant with Maya’s younger sister Lauren. The boy, Joaquin, remains in foster care throughout his life, but has found a couple who would like to adopt him as a teen.
Balance: The even appeal of the three characters
The key to the beauty of Far from the Tree is balance. I’ve never read a novel that so evenly handles all aspects of character, plot, and emotional range. All three of the main characters are fully developed and equally empathetic. Each of them has significant joy and pain. Each has a deeply developed internal as well as external life. These are the elements that appeal to readers. When each is fully realized, the reader falls for everyone–so every chapter is interesting, and there’s no lag in the storyline.
Keeping that one important secret: Grace
The reader is introduced to Grace first. She got pregnant in her sophomore year of high school. She delivers the baby, whom she thinks of as ‘Peach,’ the following school year on the night of Homecoming–as her ex-boyfriend is being crowned Homecoming King. Grace’s parents are supportive of her decision to give Peach up for adoption. And though she believes Peach will have a better home and parenting, Grace loves and misses the baby. This is the reason she seeks out her siblings and looks for her biological mother. It seems strange that she wouldn’t tell her newly found siblings about Peach, but she has been called names like ‘slut’ and been told that her former boyfriend had found a ‘nice girl,’ as though she managed to produce the baby by herself.
Keeping that one important secret: Maya
Maya has a girlfriend named Claire, and her family is very supportive of their relationship. But both she and her sister Lauren are keeping the secret that their mother is an alcoholic. They often find hidden bottles around the house. So, not only does Claire not know about Maya’s mom, but neither of the newly discovered siblings know. Lauren is worried that Maya will dump her as a sister now that she has found biological half-siblings. Despite Maya’s propensity to talk a lot when she’s nervous, she skips what matters most to each of the people she values.
Keeping that one important secret: Joaquin
Joaquin has a few secrets, but they all involve his fear that he is unadoptable because of his temper. He has much more serious trust issues than the two girls, naturally. He’s lived in seventeen foster homes. We learn quickly that in adoptions, girls are more desired than boys, and white girls are most desired. So Joaquin, whose father is Latinx and whose skin is darker, has less of a chance at adoption. When his current foster parents, who genuinely love him, ask him if they can adopt him, he’s afraid that someone will get hurt. He doesn’t tell anyway that they have asked him. He breaks up with his girlfriend, Birdie, because he thinks he’ll never be able to give her what she needs.
Letting Go of that One Important Secret: Joy
The fact that each of the three characters keeps a major secret seems very natural–they have good reasons for being on their guard–but by holding back, they are giving each other an entirely wrong idea of who they are. This is just one example:
“Maya wondered if Grace was lying. Grace seemed like the kind of girl who would wait her whole life so she could lose her virginity on her wedding night, who would read Cosmo articles about how to give him the best blow job of his life! But never actually say the word blow job. Which was fine–Maya wasn’t about to start telling someone what they should do with their body of whatever–but being next to someone that perfect made Maya just want to be messier, dirtier, louder.”
Once the three siblings reach out to one another about their issues, they have the opportunity to develop trust. And through trust, they can find love and joy.
Balance: Uncommonly well done
As Grace, Maya, and Joaquin negotiate the territory between their Internal and external lives, Benway propels the story in a straightforward/chronological manner. Each of the three siblings are given their own alternating chapters. They very soon connect emotionally and their care and concern will drive them to take chances with one another and with others in their lives. Grace has a tenacious desire to find their birth mom. Since she misses Peach, she believes their mother must have loved and missed them. Maya and Joaquin don’t hold the same view–the fast talking Maya points out that their bio mom gave the toddler Joaquin away to strangers. But what they discover about their origins will give them all a sort of peace and trust that will help them throughout their lives.
This beautiful balance is something that any writer (of any genre for any age group) should strive for. A reader who is all-in throughout the novel is probably going to pick up and read the next one too.
Other Sources for Hints on Balanced Writing
For more advice on how to tell a good story, see my post on recent books for writers. If you want to read other YA fiction that strikes balance in a very different way, try Challenger Deep (mental illness/the real and unreal) and Not a Drop to Drink (the need for survival in a permanent, climate-change induced drought balanced against the need to continue to trust and love).