Did anyone else read this amazing interview with YA writer A.S. King? Well, you should. In it, she talks about the history of YA books, and her teenaged love of Paul Zindel, a YA writer who wrote some amazing books in the late 60s and 70s. His most well-known novel is probably The Pigman. In this interview, King talks a lot about the tendency of the YA genre to forget its own history. A quick snippet to give you the big idea:
Brenna: Ok, I’m going to just frame this up. You and I were talking on Twitter one day about Paul Zindel and his influence on YA and how he seems to be lost in the conversation about young adult literature.
A.S. King: At the moment, yeah. I mean, we have a lot of people like that, and there were people before that. Judy Blume, of course, and so many people even before that who I can’t name right now because it’s a little early in the morning! But Paul Zindel, for me, was my biggest influence.
And, as the best interviews do, this one immediately made me go HUH.
I grew up with a small town library that was drastically underfunded and usually about ten years behind any other library in the world. So in the summer, I read a LOT of YA lit from the 60s and 70s…even though I myself am not from the 60s or 70s. And during the school year, when our slightly-better-funded school library was open, I read a lot of 80s and 90s YA. I have always considered many of these books to be the “classics” of YA lit. And yet, when I read this article, it occurred to me that none of my students have read most of the authors I grew up loving. And isn’t that what makes a book classic? That it’s read by generation after generation after generation?
I’m not sure why those of us who read and write YA allow our history to be forgotten. It doesn’t seem to me that other genres do this. Mystery has its Agatha Christies; fantasy has its Tolkiens. But in YA-land, we so often seem to live in the moment. What lessons are we missing—both the readers and the writers of YA—by letting go of decades of great literature?
You all know by now that I love a good list, so here’s a short list of my "classic" YA authors. This list certainly isn’t comprehensive—there are so many books with names I can’t remember, because they’ve since gone out of print or were probably never in great circulation to begin with. But it’s a list of the authors I remember best—the ones that influenced me at different stages of both my reading and writing life.
Okay, caveat: Paula Danziger hasn't really been forgotten. Just today I was in a store looking at a copy of her middle grade book Amber Brown is Not a Crayon. But I almost never see a teenager reading a Paula Danziger book. And dude. DUDE. During my teen years, Paula was MY Judy Blume. No offense to Judy, of course. She’s awesome, and I definitely still worship at the alter of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. But Paula Danziger was definitely my go-to author for whatever angst plagued me from ages 13-17. When I was lonely, I read This Place Has No Atmosphere and remembered that loneliness is really relative. When I felt ugly, I read The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and felt instantly supported. To this day I will randomly utter “Hoo ha, six-o-clock” for virtually no reason in very random situations. (Bonus points if you have any idea what book that quote is from.) And this woman’s penchant for puns! I think I owe any and all punning ability I have solely to her.
Plus, Danziger deserves some serious credit just for naming a book Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?
Did anyone else think, when they were 13, that The Day They Came to Arrest the Book was the most insightful thing they’d ever read? This book was my Farenheit 451 before I read Fahrenheit 451. I imagine you can guess the premise of the story from the title, but I’ll throw you a bone and add that The Adventures of the Huckleberry Finn plays heavily in the plot line.
The sad part of adding Hentoff to this list was that when I searched him on Amazon, I couldn’t find any of his other YA titles besides that—and he wrote so many more. A jaunt down Wikipedia reminded me that Jazz Country , Does This School Have Capitol Punishment, and This School is Driving Me Crazy were some of my other faves from him. I remember Hentoff as being one of my first dives into character diversity in literature, as he often set his books in cities with more diverse populations than the small Vermont town I was living in. Sure wish I could still read ‘em.
Robert Newton Peck
If you live in Vermont, Peck actually might still be part of your reading life. Otherwise, I tend to doubt it. A Day No Pigs Would Die is still one of my all-time favorite books, but it’s really the Soup series that I’d like to see in more middle grade libraries today. Great stories, great characters, and usually some great built-in American history lessons. What’s not to like?
John D. Fitzgerald
Was anyone else OBSESSED with The Great Brain books during your middle grade years? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? These books had everything: a conniving brother, important lessons about loyalty and true intelligence, and a few more built-in history lessons. (I apparently really liked my history lessons when I was a kid.) Fitzgerald is a lesson for all writers in how to build younger morally ambivalent characters in a very authentic way. And his HUMOR. I laughed all the ways through most of his books.
Frances A. Miller
I WORSHIP AT THIS WOMAN’S ALTER EVERY SINGLE DAY. When I struggle with plotlines, I look back at how she constructed hers. When I’m concerned about character development, I re-read passages from her books for inspiration and ideas. All of which makes it quite sad that my favorite series of hers, The Truth Trap series, has been out of print for years. This depressing fact makes me constantly wonder how many amazing books there are that, for some reason, just never got read by enough people
Okay, I don't actually think Robert Cormier is all that forgotten. I mean, we still teach The Chocolate War in the schools I work in—because it’s amazing. But in her interview, A.S. King references the fact that so many people talk these days about how dark YA literature is getting. And really, if ANYONE on the planet is saying that, they don't know how long Robert Cormier's been around. Because really. His books are about as dark as it gets. And anyone who says that YA always has happy endings clearly doesn’t know the history of Robert Cormier’s literature. Also, fun fact: I recently learned that the T.S. Eliot quote “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is a big part of the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver. (Haven’t read it, but I’m getting there soon. I promise.) Well, guess what? That was a central quote of The Chocolate War when Cormier published it…in 1974. I bet Lauren Oliver knows that, so we all should.
What’s your YA history? I’d love to know of other “classics” that I haven’t read yet. Let’s make them true classics and ensure the best YA books are read for generations to come.
A long time ago I went to a talk given by the phenomenal YA author Gordan Korman, and he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that when he’s coming up with an idea for a novel, he tries to ask himself a “what if” question. As in, “What if a mobster’s son fell in love with the daughter of an FBI agent?” (That’s the premise for his novel Son of the Mob, in case you’ve never read it. And if you haven’t, you should. Stat. As well as everything else Korman’s ever written.)
So I play with that question a lot in my head when I’m coming up with story ideas. Recently I was playing around with it in my head as I was going through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, catching up on what I’ve missed while Hubs and I were on vacation this weekend attempting to ignore the world. (Don’t worry—I’m sure I’ll find a way to work pictures into this blog.)
Anyhoo, I was going through my social media life and playing the “What If” game, and I started to wonder…
What would happen if people were physically unable to be passive aggressive on social media?
YOU ALL KNOW WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT. Those insanely aggressive-yet-not-outwardly-so status updates and posts. We’ve all seen them from time to time. Heck, we’ve all made them from time to time. All of the examples below are made up by me, of course, because if they weren’t...well, that would make me pretty passive aggressive.
Made-Up Example #1: Ugghh!!! Why are people so annoying sometimes?
Made-Up Example #2: Just don’t understand why some ppl can’t mind their own business.
Made-Up Example #3: The world has way, way too much anger in it. (P.S. That’s TOTALLY the type of post I’m likely to put up somewhere. In case you were curious.)
Okay, to be fair, there’s plenty of outright aggressiveness also out there in social media. But still, I like the “What If” game…so I began playing, and here’s what happened. Again, this is all made up. Duh. Because it could become part of a book plot. Who knows?
So in WHAT IF PEOPLE WERE PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO BE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE ON SOCIAL MEDIA world, here’s what happens to Made-Up Example #1.
Alexis Maryland: Uggghhhh!!! My annoying ex-best friend Jamie Louis keeps talking to my ex even though she said she was on my side!
Jamie Louis: Did you seriously just post that?
Alexis Maryland: Oh…uh…oops. I meant to just say that people are annoying.
Jamie Louis: Yeah, but you didn’t. You said that I am.
Alexis Maryland: Well, you ARE. Why were talking to Brian in the grocery store?
Jamie Louis: Because I’m an adult, and he’s the father of my godchild? What are you, twelve?
Alexis Maryland: You’re the one having this conversation on Facebook!!
Jamie Louis: Yeah, because you started it here!!
Alexis Maryland: Look, just PM me.
Jamie Louis: Why didn’t YOU just PM me?
Maggie LeBruin: Ladies, you guys are BOTH awesome. This is all just some kind of misunderstanding!! Call each other. I’m sure everything will be fine.
Jamie Louis: Maggie, thanks for trying to keep the peace. I’ll take this off of Facebook because I have some manners and Alexis doesn’t.
Alexis Maryland: Oh, real nice, Jamie.
Jamie Louis: Wait!! I wanted to say that I have some manners, unlike some other people!
Maggie LeBruin: How is that really any better, Jamie?
Jamie Louis: Because I didn’t want to say her name!!
Maggie LeBruin: Yeah, but she still knows it’s about her. Wouldn’t you have, Alexis?
Alexis Maryland: Of course I would have!!
Maggie LeBruin: Right. Just like Jamie probably would have known what you meant if you just said “People are annoying” instead of saying her name. Or she would have figured it out eventually. Or wondered if it was her.
Alexis Maryland: So what?
Maggie LeBruin: So….never mind. You guys carry on. I’ll see you both around.
Yeah. So I was going to play “What If” with the other two made-up examples as well, but frankly, I’m already exhausted.
For this record? Playing this game in my head likely won’t actually reduce my own passive-aggressiveness on social media in the future. Because, as the above exchange indicates and reminds, aggressiveness on social media can be really tiring. But this whole thought experiment sure has made me wonder about the point of social media in general. Why would I ever tell hundreds of people, some of whom I know much better than others, that “the world has too much anger in it” instead of just coming out and saying that I don’t like the way people on both sides of the Common Core Standards argument are treating each other? (Oh, don’t worry teacher friends—that blog is totally forthcoming.) And if I’m really worried about seriously peeing off people I respect and like by just directly saying that, why don’t I talk to those people directly? You know, as opposed to talking indirectly to them in front of hundreds of others?
Great. Very helpful game of “What If” there. Thanks, Gordan.
NOW, I’m off to play “What if George R.R. Martin stopped writing 50 pages before he finished the final installment of Game of Thones?”
KIDDING! JUST KIDDING!
Oh, and here’s a picture taken in the mountains above Ouray, Colorado, which is one of the places Hubs and I visited this weekend. Doesn’t this just put that entire fake social media exchange into perspective?
So, this was a tweet I posted yesterday. (Yes, I am just self-indulgent enough to blog about my own Tweeting.)
Here’s the thing: I AM ON VACATION THIS WEEK!! People, it is amazing. Five whole days of nothing to do but clean my house, think about cleaning out my closet, write, and READ.
I am woefully behind on my reading list.
So I jumped into a new book this week. And it ended up being that book. You know, that book you pick up because everybody is talking about it and everybody says it is awesome. It has some crazy-high rating on Goodreads (like way over 4), and everyone on Amazon says it’s just the best, and your friends are all reading it and they all love it.
And then IT happened.
YOU know. IT. That moment when you realize you absolutely detest the book everyone else in the world loves so very, very much.
For the record, this actually doesn’t happen to me very much. I am incredibly forgiving when it comes to books, and I can almost always find something that I connect with in a book. I have sat through the most ridiculous, over-the-top plot lines just because I loved the characters so much. I have endured horrific writing, and sometimes horrific editing, because a plot line or a theme was so intriguing. I don’t even bother to rate books on Goodreads anymore because there’s almost no point—my ratings are almost all 4s and 5s.
But every now and then, even I manage to happen upon a book that I can find nothing redeeming in. And this was one of those books. The characters were all either absurd or so annoying that I wanted nothing to do with them. The themes were so preachy I wanted to vomit. The writing wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. And the plot? I can’t even talk about it.
I was so stunned by my own reaction to these author’s words that I actually looked the book back up on Goodreads just to make sure I hadn’t somehow imagined those ratings. Nope. Still waaay over 4. And from a LOT of other people, too. No one else even touched on any of my concerns.
Okay. So there are a lot of moments in life where we find ourselves wondering: is it them or me? As such, I was forced to ponder this question. Was I somehow missing something? Had I misjudged this author’s thematic weaving? Was there something in their characters I wasn’t understanding?
Which got me thinking about my own book reviews, and the nature of the book reviewer/reader/author relationship.
As a new author, this has been tricky water for me to navigate. I have cried my eyes out at more than one horrific review for my first book. I have actually lain awake at night, terrified of the reviews that will soon be emerging for my next book, which comes out in July. I have followed the Twitter chatter discussing whether Goodreads is a place of “bullies” who attack each other out of a need to hold power over one another and destroy the self-esteem of others. I have followed the arguing chatter that Goodreads should be a place where people can speak their mind about a book, free of being accused of the incredibly serious (and I do think bullying is a serious accusation, make no mistake) crime of bullying when they write a scathing review.
In the end, reading this book was a nice reminder for me. It was nice reminder of a very important sentiment I often seem to forget: “not every book is for every person.”
This quote is shamelessly stolen from author Amy Lane. Lane writes fantasy books for young adults, as well as romance novels for adults, and her blogs about the convoluted and confusing world of book reviewing have gotten me through more than one bad review. If you’re ever in the spot of needing to be talked down off the ceiling because someone’s just called your writing “utterly pointless,” you can find one of her blogs on the subject here.
It’s a quote I think we would all do well to remember—whether we’re writing an angry review on Goodreads, reading a book we think could hang the moon, trying to figure out why we hate the book that the entire rest of world loves, or just wondering why someone would so detest something we took the time and energy to create.
After all, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle, right? Those nasty review on Goodreads usually aren’t bullying. (Though I’m sure there are outlier examples that do fall into that category, because this is the Internet, after all.) They’re just people trying to express an opinion, which is often not the same opinion everyone else has. And when we can’t figure out why everyone doesn’t share our opinion, we tend to go a little overboard convincing everyone else just how right we are. On the other hand, is there really that need to express extreme hatred for someone else’s work just because you didn’t enjoy it? What’s so wrong with stating your honest opinion, without vitriol, and moving on?
No worries if you’ve lost me, because I have an anecdote ready and waiting to illustrate this point. (Yes, I know, you thought this blog couldn’t possibly get any longer.) Not that long ago someone wrote a fairly unhappy review of my first book, Here’s to You, Zeb Pike. The review was honest. It said exactly what the reader found to be problematic with the book, who might still like it, and it moved on. When someone else commented on the review, it was clear they wanted to play on any potential negativity in the review, even though they hadn’t read the book. They said something to the extent that they hadn’t read my book yet, but they could see exactly how many things they would hate about it. (Here I would like to reiterate that they HADN’T EVEN READ THE BOOK.)
You know what the reviewer responded with? They acknowledged the responder’s concern, and then mentioned how many others had liked those aspects of the book. They didn’t engage with the negativity. They even ended their own response by noting how many people seemed to disagree with their opinion of my book.
Wow. I have never been more stunned by internet maturity. And you better believe I hope that same person will review my next book. Because even if they hate it, I can trust that they will review it with honesty AND honor for that all-important-adage: "not every book is for every person.”
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t write Goodsreads reviews, so I wasn’t forced to quell an urge here to prove that I was right and that everyone else was wrong by writing an angry and disgusted review of this book. If I had decided to write a review, though, I like to think I could have done so with honor for that adage. I like to think I would have written a review that would have steered those who think like me away from the book, thereby saving them the trouble of reading a book they probably wouldn’t like. I like to think that same review would still have made it clear that there are obviously people who find many aspects of the book to be incredibly valuable, thereby not steering the entire populace away from the book out of spite. I like to think I would written a review that does what a review is supposed to do: get the right books to the right people.
Because maybe it's them. Or maybe it’s me. Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that we’re all wired differently, and that’s what makes the human race so beautiful.
Not long ago, someone wrote an article for the Huffington Post that I think is best described as…let’s just say controversial. Basically, Lynn Shepard claimed that J.K.Rowling should stop publishing, because Rowling’s success is making it hard for everyone else to sell books. Yeah, that really happened. You can read the article here.
Look, I’m not going to spend any words here ripping apart this article, because the internets have already turned it into tiny shreds—this lady’s probably had lock her computer in another room. But I would like to respond to one particular sentence from this article:
“I did think it a shame that adults were reading [the Harry Potter books] (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there's so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds.”
This is a sentiment that drives me batty: the idea that books for children and young adults are not as stimulating or as important as books for adults. BATTY. I could go on for hours about why this sentence is categorically unfair, ignorant, and small-minded. Instead, I’ve decided I’ll let the books do the talking for me this time...and share 13 BOOKS FOR CHILDREN/YOUNG ADULTS THAT SHOULD BE REQUIRED ADULT READING BECAUSE THEY ARE SO STIMULATING, INTELLIGENT, AND IMPORTANT.
A few quick caveats, first.
For one thing, these are not in order, as this should not be construed as a “top thirteen” list. I’m not David Letterman, and I would have picked a much rounder number if I was going for something like that. Also, to keep this blog from taking ten years to write, I had to keep this list on the shorter side. Which means I left A LOT of books out. Please share ideas for other great books in comments, so that adults out there reading this don’t have to miss out on anything. And finally: I was going to include picture books, but then I couldn’t stop writing about novels and things got longish. So picture books will probably have to get their own post, and someone who is better versed in picture books should probably write that one. But rest assured—I strongly believe there are plenty of picture books that should be read by adults.
And yes, it’s time for the books now.
The Giver by Lois Lowry and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
I’m putting these two in as one entry because they go on the list for the same reason: they are both a critical commentary and cautionary tale about our society. Sometimes I can’t actually believe that The Giver was first published in 1993—it was so far ahead of the rest of the dystopian craze we’re currently living in AND so far ahead of its time in its messaging. I can only bow down to Lois Lowry and wonder if she has a time machine. And where The Giver keeps its message about our society’s present and future someone tame, The Hunger Games brings that message to new and shocking heights. Both should be required reading for all adults.
The God Box by Alex Sanchez
So if you’ve been paying attention to Arizona lately, you’ve realized there’s a lot of rhetoric in our country about LGBTQ rights being at war with religious rights. In the face of this conversation, it’s more important than ever that all adults read this book, which is about a teenager struggling to find a balance between his devotion to his faith and his burgeoning sexuality. I’m not going to lie: the overall plot arc of this book is not my favorite of Sanchez’s...but the amount of research and time he must have put into making sure his characters could fully explore the tensions between religion and sexuality? Well, that more than makes up for my minor plot concerns. Read this book before you even think about weighing in on the Arizona debacle. Then take a moment to be grateful such stimulating literature is being written with an eye for teens, so that the younger generation can also be part of this conversation that will surely determine the world they live in as adults.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
So, I'm actually not a big fan of graphic novels. I know, I know…these days, you’re not supposed to say that. Well, it’s too late! I already did. But it doesn't matter, because THIS graphic novel is different. It’s got everything even a graphic novel-skeptic like me needs: beautifully and thoughtfully created plot lines (note the plurality there), intense and multi-dimensional characters, and important thematic messaging. Oh, and the illustrations are pretty awesome as well. Adults, it’s time you admitted you like pictures with your reading just as much now as you did when you were twelve.
The Circuit by Francesco Jimenez
Excerpts from this book show up in LOTS of textbooks. You know why? Because every story from this collection has a profound impact on readers. It’s a series of connected autobiographical stories by a man who lived his childhood as a migrant farmworker, and if the stories themselves don't get you, the power and beauty of the writing certainly will.
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
I know John Green gets a decent amount of criticism that sounds like “he only sells that many books because he’s built up that ginormous internet following.” First of all, let’s give credit where credit is due: that internet following has taken hours and hours and hours of writing and creating and world-helping to build up. Second of all, John Green also sells a lot of books because he’s a really good writer. I’ve read a lot of “adult books” dealing with the subject of death; I did the Tuesdays with Morrie and the Conversations with God gambit. But you know what? No book has had as profound an impact on how I think about mortality as this book has. It should be required reading for all college courses on death and dying.
Witness by Karen Hesse and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Once again, two books in one entry: both because I’m a cheater who secretly wanted this list to be longer AND because they’re on the list for the same reason. Both of these books must be required reading for all adults who want to be able to thoughtfully consider and be aware of the history of institutionalized racism in America. Perhaps you already read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. You know what? READ IT AGAIN. (I was recently shocked to discover my husband has never read it. Won’t he be confused when I tell him his first son is named Jem.) Then read Witness, and see multiple perspectives on this country’s history with talking about race (and anti-Semitism and class).
Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Well, Sherman Alexie mostly writes books for adults, and this book often gets censored from schools for being too mature, so it’s awfully close to being for adults anyway. This book tackles how human beings form their identities, and it does it with openness, honesty, and unbelievable humor. Adults, let’s all just admit we’re still trying to figure out who we are and embrace some young adult lit on the subject. Face it: nobody tackles identity discovery like the YA author crowd. And if you’re a parent of a teen, PLEASE give this one to your kid, too. I promise, they’ll actually read it. (Although talking about some of the scenes together might be a little embarrassing. But you’ll see what I mean.)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I had to throw this one in because I’m a little worried some of you might just see the movie and skip the book and THEN YOU WILL MISS ALL THE AMAZING WORDS. And oh, there is so much amazing in those words. And they are stimulating, and important, and all sorts of other things that are considered adult-y by many people.
Holes and Small Steps by Louis Sachar
You know when you’re watching an episode of Sherlock (BBC version, of course) and you have that moment when you’re like OMG that is so clever how can anybody actually be that clever that they came up with that plot and character arc and married them so perfectly together? No? If not, watch Sherlock. The point here, though, is that reading either one of these books (Small Steps is the sequel to Holes) has a VERY similar effect. I still make a “huh” face every time I even see the cover of Holes. If you’re a writer, you especially need to read these books.
Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo
I can’t think of too many adult novels that have left me this horrified with the world we live in. Iqbal is the story of Iqbal Masih, a child laborer in Pakistan who was killed by the Pakistani carpet mafia for speaking out against child labor practices in that country. The book is brutally honest, painting a picture of child labor that is so real and gut-wrenching you can’t stop turning pages. If you don’t immediately start Googling organizations against child labor the second you finish the book, I’m pretty sure you’re dead inside.
So there you have it. Thirteen books make the argument for why you should never write off an entire section of literature. Check 'em out, and hopefully you'll come to the same conclusion I came to years ago: when it comes to great literature, there are no age limits.
Not long ago Andrew Smith wrote this awesome Tumblr piece about the problematic ways that adults insist on categorizing, or “boxing” young adult literature. Andrew Smith (in case you just landed here from Mars) is a highly acclaimed YA author whose new book, Grasshopper Jungle, just came out. The Tumblr piece is here, and I would make it required reading for the entire internet if I had such power.
I can’t stop thinking about this piece.
That’s mostly because I AGREE WITH EVERY ONE OF ANDREW SMITH’S SENTIMENTS. I feel like I have to mention that up front, because I’m about to say some things that might, at times, make it seem like I do not agree with Smith. But this is one of those unfortunate moments in life when things are simply not that black and white and this is not a case of he’s-right-I’m-wrong. Rather, this is a case of HE IS DEFINITELY RIGHT AND I AM TRYING TO RECONCILE SOME OF THE WORLDLY PROBLEMS ATTACHED TO THE FACT THAT HE IS RIGHT.
In other words, this post isn’t going to fit nicely into a box.
This post is also, apparently, going to be filled with capital letters, as I seem to be in that mood right now. (I’m in that mood a lot. Let’s just be honest.)
So. Andrew Smith wrote this amazing Tumblr piece about how society likes to put literature, particularly YA literature, into boxes. It’s a great read. Especially this quote:
“In the past ten years or so of my writing career, I have been frustrated by all the boxes people hold up to categorize the canon of Young Adult literature. Here are the worst ones, the boxes I’d like to set fire to:
· Boy books/ Girl books
· Age level (This book is for grades 10 and up! Squee!)
· Male author/ Female author
· LGBTQ books/ Straight (“normal” kid) books”
I read this and immediately thought THAT’S EXACTLY RIGHT. Then I started making a mental list of the many ways my first book, Here’s to You, Zeb Pike has been “boxed” since it came out. I mean, there’s the fact that about 90% of the blogs that have reviewed it exclusively review books with LGBTQ characters. Or the fact that the only Goodreads group that seems to have noticed it exists is a YA LGBTQ group. Or the fact that whenever people ask me what the book is about, they won’t stop looking at me until I put the poor thing into as many boxes as possible. If, for instance, I say, “it’s a contemporary story,” they keep their eyes locked on mine until I add things like “aboutaboy” or “aboutaboystrugglingwithhissexuality” or “aboutaboywho’sneglectedbyhisparents” or “aboutaboywho’safreshmaninhighschool.”
I think the reason I reacted with such YES THAT’S EXACTLY RIGHT when I read this post is that I have been incredibly frustrated by the sheer amount of boxing that has happened with Zeb, especially around the main character’s sexuality. This book is, for me, about so much more than just a character who’s gay, or has neglectful parents, or is in high school. It’s about everything from self-confidence to the importance of family to how much the weather in Vermont sucks in October.
I haven’t liked the fact that the only thing some people see when they look at this books is “GAY TEEN.”
So there I was, reading Andrew Smith’s piece, and reflecting on the fact that I don’t really like how boxed this book has been, and how glad I am that someone much more clever than myself put this into words far better than I’ve been able to…and this line of thinking, of course, led me to imagine a world where books were never boxed or categorized
Which, of course, is where things get complicated.
One potential problem in this world: ensuring kids have access to diverse literature. I’m a middle school curriculum director. Last year, I compiled a book list for a 6th grade curriculum with some utterly brilliant teachers. And it was a killer list of books. Until some very awesome person went, “um, are you going to teach any books with lead female characters?”
I’m glad someone took a moment to put our list of books into a few boxes and notice such a huge diversity gap in that list. I want to make sure my students are constantly being introduced to a wide variety of human perspectives on life, and that may not happen if I don’t take a minute to consider which perspectives they have and haven’t seen.
Another potential problem: sometimes we have to acknowledge the boxes books have already been put in if we want to get those books out of their boxes.
This one’s a little harder to explain, but I’ll try. (C’mon, brain.) I write a lot about the importance of getting LGBTQ books into schools and school libraries. This is definitely boxing on my part, but it’s very intentional. There are so many schools that, either purposely or subconsciously, keep books off of shelves and out of curriculum because they've placed these books in “the LGBTQ box.” If we don’t acknowledge that those boxes exist and that this censorship exists, it stands to reason that this “quiet boxing” will continue and these books will remain out of classrooms and school libraries…despite the fact that a) this is doing a horrible disservice to children and b) all of these censored books are about much more than just an LGBTQ character.
And it’s not just schools that are boxing books—it’s the publishing industry as well. Here’s to You, Zeb Pike is published by Harmony Ink Press, which deals exclusively with LGBTQ YA literature. HIP was founded in response to the low number of books with LGBTQ characters that are currently succeeding in the publishing marketplace. Do I think it’s ideal that a company like Harmony has to exist? No offense to my awesome publisher, but no. In an ideal world, perspectives from all types of people would be evenly spread in bookstores. Am I incredibly grateful that Harmony exists? Yes. (And not just because they put up with my email tardiness.) I’m grateful that they exist to fill a void in a marketplace that has boxed a bunch of books and put them in a proverbial garage.
At the end of the day, though, Andrew Smith is absolutely right: by constantly putting books in boxes, we are sending the message that to kids that people belong in boxes. I’ve definitely been heard uttering things to my students like, “I think the guys in this class will like this book a lot.” I was once in a classroom where the books were shelved with such labels as “Books for Athletes.” This doesn’t make me or my colleague bad teachers. We were just doing our best to get kids interested in putting away their PSPs for a few minutes. But it does make us guilty of sending the wrong subliminal messages to some pretty impressionable minds. And as Smith reminds us, once you put something in a box, “the box can’t be destroyed.”
We obviously need to stop sending the message to kids that books, and therefore people, need to go in a box and never come out and once you are there this is the only box you can ever be in. Which means we all need to be much more aware of how we over-box books, or box them unnecessarily, or make a book out to be nothing more than a box it’s in. And if we MUST put a book in a box, we need to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons.
Hopefully we will someday become a society where the only boxes young adults ever put a book in is the “I LOVED IT” box. I think I’ll like that world a lot.
And in the meantime, you should go read Grasshopper Jungle, so I have people to discuss it with when I finish.
Warning: I’m still crying, so this will likely be one of the more disjointed pieces of writing I ever produce, and I might even decide not to edit it, because the whole reason I am crying a in a hotel room has a lot to do with the fact that life is ultimately unedited, no matter how hard to try to take your red pen to it.
It all started…well, with me NOT in tears. I was sitting in this hotel room, which isn’t so bad, despite some really questionable décor choices involving pineapples. I’m here in Albany for a Conference to Make Me Better at Helping Kids Read Good, and overall it’s been a decent few days. Hundreds of teachers and school administrators together in a room are actually kind of a hoot. That’s what happens when you let us all sleep in longer than 5 a.m. AND we get to eat while sitting down for two days in a row.
But tonight has been surprisingly rough. My colleague who flew in with me already left, so I decided to lock myself in my room with overpriced room service, about twelve hours of unit plan reviewing and assessment writing, and a determination TO FIGURE OUT THE ENDING OF THIS BOOK THAT JUST KEEPS ENDING DIFFERENTLY AND MY POOR EDITOR.
And I just started to feel all very WHAT ON EARTH IS THE POINT. Because I’ve just spent two days in a room with educators who are amazing and awesome and who I know on MANY levels are doing this whole Teaching Kids to Read Good thing better than I am, and I often tend to wonder how I am perceived by these other Educators of Amazingness. Also because I am basically paralyzed by finalizing the ending of my newest book and I’m not sure why. I have seriously re-written it so many times, and my editor right now likes it, but I just cannot call it finished—and today I realized I am probably paralyzed because a few reviews of my first book that were unfavorable towards the ending.
Anyhoo, it was about then when I realized I AM THINKING A LOT LATELY ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE THINK OF ME AND HOW I COMPARE MYSELF TO OTHERS. This was disappointing for two reason: one, I read a book this summer that told me to stop doing that and I was trying really really hard. And two, I hate when I do that.
Anyhoo again, then I did what any sane person in this situation might do: I started watching John and Hank Green videos ad nauseum (spell check says I have that wrong, but it’s got no better suggestions). This was helpful at first, because John and Hank Green videos, I only recently discovered (yes, yes, multiple years behind here…I’m also still trying to learn how to squeeze all my thoughts into 140 characters), have this weird way of saying exactly what I need to hear. So when John (following his own Twitter rule, I am allowed to call him by his first name) almost immediately dropped this quote from Franny and Zooey about how “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody” I knew I had picked the right activity for the evening.
Until THIS video happened.
I just put it on again and teared right back up. Watch that video. Right now.
I was watching, and listening, and I got to the part about Lord of the Flies. Right about then I also got an email message that my book has a new review. So I started reading the review while watching the video, because all those studies claiming multitasking isn’t really good for us can’t POSSIBLY be right.
Here’s what I then heard John Green say:
“There are always nerdfighters…who will listen to you if you will also listen back.” (If you don’t get the nerdfighters reference, a few John and Hank Green videos will cure you of that right quick. And you want to be cured.)
At the same time, I read this review. Bear in mind that my first book has not sold well. And because I’m published through what is kindly referred to as a “boutique” publisher, not many people know about it. So I’m always a little surprised when, well, anyone at all has read it.
The review said:
“When I finished this book, I was in tears. If I could meet the author, I would wanna hug her and thank her for writing this book. The more I’d read the more I wanted to read. And in the end, I found it to be a literary masterpiece.”
I realize and recognize that not everyone in the world will have that reaction to my book. In fact, just last month someone basically said they regretted the moment they ever laid eyes on it. But the fact that even one person ever in the world thinks that....
Well, I’ll come back to that in a second, but first you have to know what I then heard come out of John Green’s mouth:
“I call up the great Robert Frost quote: the only way out is through. You will get through. I will get through.”
And then I was REALLY, REALLY crying. Surrounded by strange pineapples in a city about 2,000 miles away from my home. And when I really wasn’t quite sure why, I decided if I started writing that eventually I might figure it out.
Here is what I think I know: it is a ridiculous exercise to base all your self-worth on what others say and think of you, obviously. And Salinger, as he so often did, captured perfectly that the human fear of invalidation or lack of validation is at best bizarre and at worst paralyzing. And Twitter proves that this really is a human condition.
So all we can do, I think, is what John Green pushes us to think about in this video: find the people who appreciate us for whatever it is that we are and want to be, so that we can validate each other in a space where that validation is real, and healthy, and worthwhile. I will never be sorry that the validation of that review makes me cry. That kind of validation is why I wrote it in the first place—because the truths in that book are truths for me, and I wanted to share them with people who have similar truths. But obsessing over whether or not an entire populace of people will like the ending of my next book? That’s when the human need for validation becomes so dangerous.
As Cyril Connelly put it, “Better to write for yourself and have no audience than to write for your audience and have no self.”
And I didn't get into education to be the best at it. Meeting other awesome teachers is amazing because they make me more awesome. The comparisons only drive the community apart rather than bring us together. It’s a sucky thing that in this day and age of teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance that so often the first thought on a teacher’s mind IS whether or not they are better than their peers. This is a collaborative practice, and it needs to stay a collaborative practice against all odds. And my inner human desires to be competitive and WIN AT EVERYTHING (especially Scrabble) that I thought I had squelched years ago must go back to being squelched because I clearly am not squelching them well.
John Green created that video for a teenage audience. I jokingly made the title of my author-world website “writing books for the young adult in all of us” because I, like so many YA authors, know that that gap from young adult to adult is a pretty short one, and we’re all crossing back and forth all the time.
The same twelve-year-old me who used to sit in class and wonder if what she just said sounded stupid to everyone else was at that conference today. And that same thirteen-year-old me who just had to win the spelling competition because I wasn’t good at basketball comes back every time I see my book’s sales rank on Amazon. And that fourteen-year-old me who swooned in happiness when my teacher said I was a good writer was reading that review today.
John Green’s right, and so was Frost: “The only way out is through.” I think you have to find your way out of a place where you simply let many others determine your happiness so that you can get to the place where you let THE RIGHT people determine your happiness. At that point, I think you’re actually determining your own happiness. And if you forget to do that for a while, it’s okay—apparently someone will eventually get on YouTube or a book blogging site and remind you.
Or something like that. I’m still crying at little, and I can’t find my red pen. But I think that’s close.