Saturday, October 25, 2014

How Old is that Young Adult?

Two nights ago Gaston the dog woke me up at 12:15 a.m. I let him outside. I didn’t feel like going back to sleep, so I grabbed a book from the teetering stack next to my bed and started reading.

The book was Girl, 15, Charming but Insane, by Sue Limb. The title is perfect. It’s about a 15-year-old girl dealing with being a 15-year-old girl, a not insignificant undertaking. By the time the dog returned from his midnight adventure, I was hooked.

Shortly before 4:00 a.m. I finished the book and set it down, thinking, When was the last time I read a book about a teenager being a teenager?

It had been a while. I read a fair amount of “young adult” fiction—books written for a teen audience, usually featuring a teenage protagonist. Very few of those books are about being a teenager. They are about being an adult.

In Girl, 15, the main character, Jess Jordan, acts and thinks like a 15-year-old. She tells unnecessary lies, blurts inconvenient truths, performs spontaneous self-destructive acts, and caroms from one emotional extreme to another. She is charming and maddening, stupid and smart, silly and profound, cruel and kind. I found her altogether refreshing. She reminded me of Holden Caulfield.

If The Catcher in the Rye were published for the first time today, it would not be well-received. The writing would be noticed and admired, certainly, but Holden’s character would be deemed unacceptable. Holden thinks like a teenager, he acts like a teenager, and if we could see him, he would certainly look like a teenager. Just check out the current customer reviews on Amazon. Today, Holden is perceived as too immature, too self-absorbed, too whiny, too irresponsible, too…too flat out irritating. Today, we want our YA protagonists to act like grownups.

For example, Katniss Everdeen is a compelling and engaging character who serves The Hunger Games beautifully, but she does not for one moment think or act like a teenager. The characters in Elizabeth Wein’s excellent thriller Code Name Verity hardly even pretend to be teens. In Jasper Fforde’s entertaining YA “Dragonslayer” series, 15-year-old Jennifer Strange acts like a 40-something man. John Green’s characters are always well-drawn, intelligent, and likeable, and they wrestle with issues important to teens—but they think and act more like twenty-somethings.*

In part, this is because most of today’s YA fiction is about adolescents who, faced with adult-size challenges, are forced (or choose) to put on adult-size armor, and deal. This is what YA readers want. As our 15, 16, or 17-year-old protagonists face their antagonists, we want them to make grownup decisions, and we want those adult strategies to prevail. We find this reassuring, inspirational, and sometimes instructive. Such characters act the way we (both adults and teens) think teens should act. They are our avatars.

In real life, teenagers are children learning how to pretend to be adults. Eventually they will forget they are pretending, and the label “adult” will become them. In the meantime, they are highly intelligent creatures struggling with real and important issues which they sometimes deal with by using mature, adult-style strategies (Yay!), and sometimes by employing foot-stomping temper tantrums, self-destructive skateboard stunts, or armpit farts (Boo!)

I still wasn’t sleepy after finishing Girl, 15, so I got on the internet and looked up Sue Limb. Turns out she’s written lots of books, several of them featuring Jess Jordan at ages 15, 16, and 17. I was mildly surprised to see that they’re marketed as “middle grade” books, for ages ten and up. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Fifth and sixth graders want to know what it means to be a teenager. Teens have their radar dialed in on “adult.”

I downloaded the next book in the Jess Jordan series. I read it last night.

* In this sense, The Fault in Our Stars film adaptation was perfectly cast.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Room Down the Hall

I love young adult literature, and YA writers, and YA readers, and I’m very comfortable being tagged with the YA label. I mean, you’re gonna get tagged anyway, right? So why not YA?

Still, at times I feel restless, and I wonder what the other ninety-nine percent is up to. I peek out the doorway of the YA Room. I hear laughter. I creep down the hallway to the next room. I look inside to find a room very much like the YA Room, but with less angst and acne. The Middle Grade Room!

This looks like fun, I think— and then I remember that I’ve been here before, when I wrote the Bloodwater Mysteries almost ten years ago, with co-author Mary Logue. It was fun! We got to make juvenile jokes that teens would roll their eyes at, and hang out with characters who weren’t pretending to be all grown up and stuff. But I wasn’t alone that time. Mary was holding my hand. This time, I am on my own.

“Hello!” I cry happily as I enter the Middle Grade Room. “Can I play?”

There is grumbling. “We don’t need your stinky hormonal angst,” someone remarks.

“I left my angst and my Axe body spray in the YA room,” I say. “But I brought robots. And scatology. And a talking dog!”
The grumbling subsides, and after a moment someone asks, “What kind of dog?”

“A basset hound!”

“Is it a nice basset hound? With big floppy ears?”

“Yes!” I exclaim excitedly.

There is a silence, then a voice says, “Will you be bringing your own adverbs?”

“Yes!” I affirm doggedly.

“And your Tom Swifties?” another appends quickly.

“Without question!” I ejaculate indubitably.

“You realize this is Middle Grade Literature, don’t you?”

“It is?” I look out over the faces of the Middle Grade authors, who are sitting in a circle on the floor, scowling at me—I may have interrupted a game of spin the bottle—and for a moment I experience a moment of dubitability. Then I hear a faint giggle, followed by a chorus of armpit farts, and I smile and think, This is where I want to be.

The Flinkwater Factor, my first solo act as a Middle-Grade author, will be coming out in the fall of 2015. And, yes, there will be robots, and a talking basset hound.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Being Stuck at the Midpoint of My Next Novel: A True Story

I had a dream last night. I was walking through a forest, lost and alone. I wasn’t scared, though—I knew if I kept walking I’d eventually get to where I was going, even though the forest was so thick I could see only a few yards in front of me.

I’d been moving down a gentle slope for some time. The slope steepened. It soon became so steep that I had to grab onto branches and saplings to keep myself from sliding down. I kept going because I couldn’t face walking back up that long steep hill. I thought I would reach the bottom before long. Soon I found myself climbing slowly down a nearly vertical cliff face, searching for crevices with my toes, holding onto scrubby little trees growing out of the rocks. I looked down to see river rapids hundreds of feet below.

Finally I ran out of hand- and foot-holds. I tried to climb back up to find an easier route, but my arms were too tired to pull me up, and my legs seemed to be paralyzed. I was stuck.

I should just let go, I thought. It's too hard. I'm doomed anyway, why prolong the struggle? Then I woke up.

It was three a.m. I pushed the dog off my legs and sat up and thought, Damn, these metaphors are getting way too literal.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Must Remember to Wear Pants...

The Klaatu Diskos series is complete, and this summer I have been quietly enjoying the blank time between publication events, and working slowly on a few smaller projects—a couple of short stories, a new YA novel (about birth order and pizza), and a long-term adult book project involving elves and magic. Next year I have two new publications in the queue: Eden West (4/15), a book I’ve been writing since 2001, will be coming out in April, followed a few months later by my first solo middle grade novel, The Flinkwater Factor (9/15).

Eden West will be available April, 2015
I’m told there are many things I should be doing to build “buzz” for the new books. Blogging. Tweeting. Glad-handing at every bookstore within range. Optimizing and monetizing my neglected website. Making book trailers with ebola-like viral potential. Leaping on every available meme. Joining Google+ (blerg) and LinkedIn (double blerg). Soliciting blurbs from John Green and J.K. Rowling. Setting up a virtual blog tour. Printing and distributing bookmarks and other swag. Interviews, ARC giveaways, newsletters, book clubs, Goodreads, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook ads, skywriting, sacrificing a goat…

All those things are doable—I’ve done most of them at one time or another—but in aggregate they are paralyzing. Like most authors, my first instinct is to pull the blanket over my head and whimper, “I just wanna write books and watch kitten videos!”

Yeah, well, in the real world that doesn’t work so good—not if I want to, you know, eat and make car payments.

So I’ll be slithering down the cobwebby staircase from my writer’s garret and, blinking and scowling at the sun, trying again to engage the public. Want an interview? I’m available. Want to enjoy my self-consciously clever Twitter posts? Follow me. Need a friend? Find me on Facebook.

Now, time to get to work on that book trailer. And steal a goat.

Here's something you should know about vengeance demons. We don't groove with the sorry. We prefer, "Oh, God! Oh God! Please stop hitting me with my own rib bones!" —Anya (from BtVS season 7)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Free Book Day in St. Paul

This Sunday is Mother’s Day. Coincidentally, it is also Free Book Day.

That's right. I am so desperate for readers I'm GIVING away books on Mom’s Day. And you don’t even have to be a mom to get one.

Yes, there is a catch. There’s always a catch, right?

Here’s the deal. You must come to Addendum Books between 1:00 and 2:30 the afternoon of May 11. That’s THIS Sunday.

Addendum Books specializes in YA literature, and they know their stuff. The shop is in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill District, at the corner of Western and Selby, in the lower level of the Blair Arcade Building. It’s tucked into the back of SubText, a full size general interest bookstore. It’s a bookstore-within-a-bookstore! It’s like a Tardis, only bookier! (Addendum will be moving into a new space later this year—stay tuned!)

I'll be there talking about and signing copies of the Klaatu Diskos trilogy. Everybody who buys at least one of the trilogy gets a free book from my specially selected backlist of adult titles (Doohickey, Ring Game, Rag Man, or The Prop, as supplies last). Or, if you want to stick with YA, I have a few copies of Full House, an anthology of YA poker-themed short stories I edited. It is currently out-of-print and hard to find.

I'm doing this because I'd love for people to discover and support Addendum Books, and because I need to make room on my bookshelves. Also, I want to get you all hooked on the Klaatu Diskos trilogy (bwa-ha-ha!)

If you are in St. Paul (or bold enough to cross the Mississippi), please stop by!

Monday, April 28, 2014

In Case You Missed It

The Wild Rumpus launch party for THE KLAATU TERMINUS featured arugula and goat cheese sliders. If you weren't there, you may never know what such a thing tastes like. But you can still score signed copies of all three books in the Klaatu Diskos Trilogy, as well as several other titles.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

San Francisco & the Bay Area

I was born in Berkeley, and lived in nearby Orinda, California until I was five years old. I remember mostly the enormous banana slugs, getting stung by a bee, my red pedal car, our suicidal goose, and the Day It Snowed. That’s right. Snow in Orinda. Back then, the locals said it happened once every four years. I don’t know if that still holds. Anyway, my dad and I (mostly him, I’m sure) made a snowman—a small snowman. It was gone by late afternoon, but it was real.

I know—you want to know about the suicidal goose, but those who know me well know to never ask me for a childhood animal story. They never end well.

Last week, I returned to the Bay Area. Candlewick, my publisher, teamed me up with middle-grade sci-fi writer Jenn Reese for four days of schools, bookstores, and libraries. We had an exhausting, fun, and rewarding week. I was reminded again and again how smart and passionate teenagers are, and the same goes for the teachers and librarians who dedicate their working lives to helping them.

I was also reminded that middle schools are a petri dish for all manner of communicable diseases. Yeah, the coughing started 48 hours after I got home. A hazard of the trade. But I’m glad I went. Those students, they are my people. No matter how hard I try to grow up, a big part of me remains in middle school.

Our first few visits were organized by Patty Norman at Copperfield’s Books. The Petaluma store is one of the nicest bookstores I’ve ever been in. They have a huge inventory in a big, open space that somehow feels intimate and comfortable. Here’s a shot of a young man engrossed in one of Jenn Reese’s books.

Hicklebee’s, a children’s bookstore in San Jose, was equally impressive, though in a different way. This is a store you can get lost in searching for oddball souvenirs and graffiti left by visiting authors. And they had a most impressive display in front of the store.

Books, Inc., “The West’s Oldest Independent Bookseller,” helped us out with the last couple of school visits, but we didn’t have time to visit their stores.