Half Bad: Engaging Expectation in YA Lit

 

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Sally Green’s debut Half Bad, purchased for one million pounds, released with high expectations of commercial success. The book under-performed in the market; expectations can be killers. However, it wasn’t only publishing’s high hopes that derailed Half Bad’s potential. Green’s authorial choices at the beginning of the novel do not mesh with the majority of the rest of the book.

Half Bad begins strong. It’s dynamic and interesting in style, character, setting, and situation. In a mere eighteen pages, we know our protagonist is kept in a cage, we know he is trying to escape, the conflict is clear, the character likable, a fighter, the stakes high. He rebels against his captor in small ways: urinates on the vegetable garden, spits on potato plants, stands after forty-nine push-ups instead of fifty, accepts a face slap punishment.

Green even peppers the opening pages with statements that peak readers’ interest. “And you’re buzzing, self-healing from her little slap; it’s giving you a little buzz, buzz, buzz” (pg 10, Hardcover). What does this mean? What is self-healing? How does he do it? Is he special? These tiny mysteries interest readers and carries them deeper into the story.

Stylistically, the beginning chapters are engaging as well. The author chooses to tell the story in second person. Our protagonist narrates his actions using “you” instead of “I.” A dynamic that concurrently illustrates the narrator’s emotional divorce from himself and a directness to the reader. The other broad idiosyncratic authorial choice is the formatting of some paragraphs.

half bad pageThe effect heightens the writing’s rhythm through physicalizing the action on the page. Green is not afraid of breaking out of the narrative confines — not unlike her protagonist.

Green hooks her readers in these first few pages. She presents a unique situation — a boy held in a cage — and engaging, sympathetic protagonist, and interesting language choices. She creates questions for the readers by withholding information, thus pushing the reader to continue with the story. 

Then I continued reading and my interest waned. What started in high action, intrigue, high stakes, mystery, high life value was undercut with a slow-paced, domestic drama of “witches” coming of age. A hundred and twenty-five pages of low tension, seemingly unimportant stakes, no clock, and no interesting conflict. The protagonist is an outsider, he falls in love with a girl he shouldn’t, he gets beaten up by bullies, he learns about his mother and father, he’s starting to “change,” etc. Sound familiar? Of course, because these are clichés if not developed in a new way. Green’s world is simply reminiscent of Harry Potter’s from Voldemort’s perspective.

Ultimately, the novel returns to our protagonist in the cage, but it’s too late, the reader has walked. Robert McKee writes, “A story must not retreat to actions of lesser quality or magnitude, but move progressively forward to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another” (McKee, pg 209). Half Bad starts highly active and engaging but “retreats to actions of lesser quality or magnitude.” For the same reason writers are warned against employing flashbacks — breaking the story’s rhythm, dropping its tension, undercutting the conflicts — Green should have reconsidered the structure. Nothing is more disappointing than false hope.

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