Friday, October 31, 2014

Have You Ever Had a Relationship End Because of a Book?

This Sunday’s New York Times Book Review contains an article titled “HaveYou Ever Had a Relationship End Because of a Book?” Authors Zoe Heller and Anna Holmes each tell a personal story about books trumping love. Well, I have a story too.

Back in the late 1980s, my girlfriend and I were both reading the same book, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s 700 page first novel. I had purchased a paperback copy, and was enjoying it so much that Kirsten started reading it before I finished. Whoever climbed into bed first would grab the book and refuse to give it up. One night, after I had won possession fair and square, Kirsten made the case that since I was on page four hundred, and she had only read the first two hundred pages, I should let her have the book so she could “catch up.” I think I argued that 1) it was not a contest, 2) I’d grabbed it first, and 3) it was my book.

She said, “Fine, then I’m going to stare at you while you read, and you won’t be able to enjoy it.”

It was a strong move, and it might have worked had I not been at a really good part in the novel. A solution occurred to me. I opened the book to the middle, tore it in half, and handed her the first part. Her mouth fell open. She stared at the bisected book, then looked at me as if I’d ripped a child asunder.

Startled by her reaction (I thought I’d come up with a perfect solution), I said, “Let me know when you run out of words and I’ll tear off another section.”

She threw the half-book across the room. To the best of my knowledge she never finished reading it. A few weeks later we parted.

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.