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Month: February 2014

Senseless Sensibility

There was a great hashtag going on Twitter yesterday.

what if YA protagonists made ENTIRELY SENSIBLE decisions? #sensibleYA

Granted, my reply was brief and a little snarky (“Then we would have no plots”) as were most of the direct replies to the tweet, but a lot of other users ran with it and made it hilarious.


Of course, as tends to happen with me, the jokes got me thinking. The truth is that most YA fiction is, in fact, driven by kids who make stupid decisions. In adult fiction, a book that was driven by a protagonist who made one stupid decision after another would send readers screaming and demanding their money back (although there are some notable exceptions) but in YA it’s not only acceptable, it’s almost expected.

Why is this so?


I think the main reason is that kids like protagonists that they can identify with. The heroes and heroines of YA need to “feel real” for kids to connect with them. Young protagonists have to sound, think, and act like actual teenagers if they’re going to click with a teen reader.

Occasionally you can get away with having a protagonist who is forced by circumstance to grow up early (due to a hard life, out on the streets or in a dystopian world) but for the most part YA protagonists have to act like the teenagers we claim they are, and that means they do stupid things.


Some basic facts to consider when plotting a YA book:

Kids are impetuous and reckless

Kids think with their hearts and jump into action. Where an adult might take a second to reason out all (or at least a few) of the consequences of an action, kids jump in head first.

Consider The Hunger Games. The initiating action that starts the whole story is Katniss’ volunteering to be tribute instead of her little sister Prim. If you sit back and think about it, this is a very stupid decision.

Katniss is the provider for her family. She knows how to hunt, she knows how to bargain, and she has essentially been the mother of the family since her father has died and her own mother went into shock. With her gone (which would send her mother into another downward spiral and make her useless again), Prim would have no one to care for her. Plus, Prim would be totally incapable of taking care of her mother and as a result both of them would be doomed. Prim would be doomed anyway. The logical, adult thing to do would be for Katniss to try to pull the pieces together and take care of her mother with her sister gone.

Katniss does not think logically; she thinks with her heart. She can’t stand the thought of Prim dying in the Games (although her demise and suffering without the Games would still be all but certain and much more prolonged) so she steps up.

This is not the logical move. But it is the right one. That is why Katniss is a hero. And why The Hunger Games is a classic.


Kids are inexperienced

The main reason that kids are so impetuous and reckless is simply because they haven’t learned as much as adults. They haven’t experienced enough to make reasoned, logical decisions in all cases.

Consider Paper Towns by John Green. Q is so taken by Margo’s impetuous actions that when she disappears he becomes convinced that she wants him to find her. He assumes that everything he sees is a clue meant to lead him on to find her.

Experience would tell Q that most people who run away don’t want to be found. They mean to leave their previous life behind in its entirety. He might also come to realize that what he loves about Margo is her mystery, not the girl herself.

So much frustration, exhaustion, and really stupid decisions could have been avoided if Q had just been a little more familiar with life. But he isn’t, so he chases after the mystery girl. And as a result, Paper Towns is a compelling story.


Kids learn by doing

Not to demean our educational system, but the way kids’ brains are wired means that they learn much more easily from doing things than from being shown or told things. This is why we give blocks and similar toys to kids: so they can figure out some of the basics of how things work. Things fall down. Check. Wide bases are best for building tall structures. Check. You can’t fit a big thing into a small hole. Check. Different objects have different shapes, check.

As kids get older, the lessons they learn are much more complex than the basic lessons of babies and toddlers, but their brains are still wired to learn through experimentation and action. They don’t know whether something will work until they try it.

Thus it’s easy for a kid to get a harebrained idea into his head and try to see if it will work or not. Of course, if the kid were to do some research into the idea the feasibility could easily be established, but that takes too long and gets too boring. Faster and easier to just try it and see what happens. That also makes for better reading.


The trick to creating realistic YA is to have your protagonists think and act like actual teenagers. Teens are rash, reckless, inexperienced, and often do the wrong thing. But they learn from doing it. You cannot have your protagonists be sensible (although a Voice of Reason supporting character can be handy to have from time to time); not only is it bad drama, it’s not how the world is.

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A Centsible Proposal

As happens regularly, people are talking about getting rid of the one cent coin (“penny”), saying that it costs too much to produce and has too little value.

Some say that without the one cent coin we would just round every transaction to the nearest five cent mark, but that’s wishful thinking. Every example of where the lowest denomination coin has been eliminated has shown immediate price inflation. Plus, since Americans have been trained to think of their coins not as multiples of cents but fractions of a dollar, the dime will immediately become the lowest effective denomination to many people with the five-cent nickel relegated to the status of half a dime (which was actually what the five cent coin was called from 1792 until 1873).

And when you consider the fact that the US loses more per coin minting the nickel than it ever did on the cent, very soon there will be a push to eliminate the nickel. This will make the dime the de jure, not just de facto lowest denomination.

The answer is not to just stop minting cents and nickels, but to make them cost effective. And the best way to do that is to do what the US did in 1857, 1864, 1873, and 1965: revamp our coinage system almost completely.

The Half Dime

First, to save the five cent coin, we need to actually step backward for the answer. As mentioned above, the five cent coin from 1792 until 1873 (with a seven year overlap at the end with the nickel five cent coin) was a silver piece called the Half Dime. We need to go back to the original concept, and revive the Half Dime as our five cent piece.

The last Half Dime minted in 1873 was 15.9 millimeters in diameter, significantly smaller than the dime. I propose that we make the new half dime the same dimensions as the 1873 model, and make it of the same clad composition as the dime, quarter, and half dollar. To make it easy to tell from other coins in your pocket, I suggest we use what is called an “interrupted edge,” where the edge alternates segments of reeding (the vertical “bumps” on the side of the dime, quarter, and half) and smooth edges.

Since the weight of the new coin would once again be about half of that of the dime, it will remain economical to mint this coin as long as it is economical to keep the same composition for the dime and quarter.

The Smaller Cent

Next, we need to take a lesson from the Eurozone, and make our one cent coin smaller. The Eurocent is currently 16.5 mm in diameter, compared to the current U.S. Cent at 19.05 mm. I suggest actually going slightly smaller to avoid a clash with the Half Dime and the third leg of my reform stool, which I will mention below. I propose a Cent of 15 mm exactly.

The new Cent will look similar to the current cent, since it will keep its copper coating. However, the inner core will no longer be zinc, but steel as is used by the Eurozone, Britain, and Canada. Between the smaller size and the cheaper (and sturdier) material, the coin will be less expensive to produce and last longer.

To ease the transition, I recommend using the current designs (Lincoln/Shield for the Cent and Jefferson/Monticello for the Half Dime). This way, people will have some continuity between the old coins and the new, to help them get used to them.

As old coins arrive back at the Federal Reserve, they can be retired and melted for their constituent metals, to be made into new coins. Since the current Cent and Nickel have more intrinsic value than their face value, this will actually mean a net profit to the government. Both old coins, however, will still remain legal tender and can be spent for years to come.

These two changes are not the end-all, be-all of the change, however. There is still one way to cut down on the number of Cents that are needed each year without suffering the economic consequences of eliminating the denomination altogether. We simply lessen the demand the same way we did during the Civil War.

The Tuppence!

The U.S. had a Two Cent coin from 1864-1873, which was designed to take up some of the demand for Cents, which had been driven out of circulation by hoarders during the Civil War (back when they were made of nickel, which was a semi-precious metal at the time). I say we not only keep the “penny,” but give it its proper sibling again, as have the British and the Eurozone: the “tuppence.”

US 2 Cent Coin 2016

Since the main use of the Cent nowadays is in making change, adding a Two Cent coin into the mix makes this process easier and cuts down on the number of Cents needed. The Two Cent coin can be minted for only slightly more than the new Cent will be, and would have twice the value, so only half as many would be needed. Where three or four coins are needed today, only two would be needed with this new addition. Instead of three pennies, hand back a tuppence and a penny. Instead of four pennies, hand back two tuppences. And, of course, hand back one tuppence instead of two pennies.

I propose that the Two Cent coin be revived at a diameter of 18.8 mm, slightly larger than the current dime. To distinguish it from the new Cent, Half Dime, Dime, and current Cent and Nickel, it will have a scalloped edge as can be seen above. This edge will make the coin easily distinguishable both visually and by feel. You will know you have a tuppence in your pocket, and can easily distinguish between the four small coins either by looking at them or touching them. And even with this distinctive edge, the new coins will still be able to stack and roll in vending machines, coin counters, or automatic change dispensers.

The tuppence will be the same composition as the new penny, and will change along with it should a cheaper material ever be required.

For a distinctive design, I chose someone woefully neglected on American money: Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt singlehandedly started the design revolution in American coinage that gave us the St. Gaudens gold coins, the Lincoln Cent, and eventually the Buffalo Nickel. Since the Mint recently released a Theodore Roosevelt coin in the Presidential Dollars series, there is an engraving handy that can be adapted easily to become the obverse of the new Two Cent coin.

For the reverse, I chose an animal linked forever with Teddy Roosevelt: the Bull Moose with whom he compared himself when launching his 1912 campaign for the Presidency. It will also be reminiscent of the much beloved Buffalo Nickel, and a chance to pay homage once again to conservation and American wildlife on our coins.

The graphic below shows the relative sizes of the three new coins, alongside the current Dime and Quarter Dollar, so you can see the system I propose at work.

New US coin comparison

With these changes, the American coinage will not only be cheaper to produce, but will once again be logical. The smallest denomination will be the smallest coin. The Five Cent piece will be smaller than the Ten Cent piece again. And the new Two Cent piece will fill a need better than an ever increasing number of One Cent pieces ever could. And all without the inflationary affects of doing away with our smallest coin.

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