The most exciting part of 2019, writing wise, was the sale of two new middle grade books (one written, one not yet) to Alexandra Cooper at Harper Collins. It really doesn’t get more exciting than that! The book I’ve already written is called Sardines and it follows 11-year-old Lucas and a group of four other kids from disparate social and economic circles as they are forced together each afternoon by the middle school’s aftercare program. As the group bonds, they create a game in which the group works together to grant each kid a wish. That’s the blurb from the publishers weekly rights report. But the book is about a lot more than that. Here are a few things I hope kids and grown ups will take away from the book.
- Everyone is carrying around hard things in their emotional backpacks.
- Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.
- You are stronger than you think.
- It’s okay if you’re not.
- Mental health is as real and important as other kinds of health.
Speaking of mental health, one of the best books I read this year was The Year We Fell From Space by A.S. King. I’m an A.S. King fan from way back. She is hands down one of my favorite writers for young people and for all people. The Year We Fell From Space takes everything I love about her YA books and puts it in a format for middle grade readers. When I was a kid my mom used to say to me, “Everyone has crazy thoughts; that doesn’t make you crazy.” This book follows 7th grader Liberty Johansen as she navigates her family’s divorce and her father’s struggle with depression. Liberty is afraid if her father has depression she might have it too. She’s also dealing with unkindness from peers and the part of growing up where you learn that your parents aren’t perfect and neither are you. What I love about A.S. King is that she does things in middle grade fiction that are usually reserved for YA. She lets the characters’ freak flags fly and doesn’t need to explain everything. She puts faith in younger readers to understand that life is weird and complicated and sometimes defies simple explanations.
The Alanna of Trebond series by Tamora Pierce were without a doubt my favorite books pre middle school. I’m not sure if I actually read in middle school -it might not have been cool. (I totally read in middle school -I just don’t remember because my mind was eclipsed by the fog of puberty). There were a lot of books I loved in elementary school but these stand out to me because the Alanna series is a fantasy series. And although my love of reading has continued unabated into adulthood, I’m not much of a fantasy reader any longer. If I do read fantasy it’s never high fantasy and it’s always kid-lit.
However, in the last two books I’ve written, reading (and specifically reading fantasy) plays an important role in the lives of the characters. In WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE the main character reads aloud from the Lord of the Rings series with the girl he doesn’t know he has a crush on. His relationship with his best male friend parallels the relationship between Sam and Frodo. Instead of a ring of power, Ben and Tyler are carrying the secrets of their past. In Tolkien’s world there was a place for platonic love so strong that the character’s would sacrifice themselves to save each other and/or accomplish the quest. I wrote WIRED MAN as an attempt to understand love and friendship between high school boys but it’s funny to me, that the model I chose was from a fantasy novel. How does fantasy free us to experiment with relationships in ways that might be too risky in real life?
In the book I’m currently working on the main character reads and rereads the Harry Potter series as a way to make him feel safe. When a (well intentioned) teacher suggests that he takes more risks as a reader he stares through her as if to say, “Look lady, everything in my life is a risk right now, so don’t deprive me of the one landscape in which I feel secure -even if it’s full of death-eaters and dementors.”
I don’t want to trivialize other people’s connection to reading fantasy as pure escapism, although I think the best reading has at least a little bit of that no matter the genre. Who doesn’t want to get lost in a story, regardless of the genre? My daughter loves fantasy but I’m starting to realize that it’s adventure that she really loves and that’s what’s allowed her to transition to reading Bridge to Terabithia and The Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Could it all really be as simple as the hero’s journey? That what moves us as readers, is not the setting, but the epic importance of a quest ventured and a quest fulfilled? Is that why I love road trip novels and survival stories despite the fact that they take place in the “real world”?
Possibly. Or possibly, the importance of fantasy is that it gives us permission to imagine things we are afraid of but disguise them as orcs, or dementors. We can follow along with a character disguising their gender to learn sword craft even as the drama of middle school forces us to grapple with or disguise our own identities. And of course there’s the importance of the quest; the desire to be a part of something greater than oneself. So read some fantasy, it’s a cheaper than therapy way you can find out what’s really going on in your life!
Normally I’m not a New Years goal/resolution type person. If you’re sifting through this blog you can totally call bullshit on that -I’m pretty sure I say that every year and then post some anyway. So I guess I’m a New Years goal and resolution person who doesn’t like to admit it? Or maybe I just like a little year’s end reflection. Last week I was hanging out with my brother and describing my TMJ issues which tend to get worse with stress.
“What are you stressed about?” he said. And he didn’t mean it in a snarky way.
I laughed. “Nothing, everything. The state of our country, the changing climate, whether or not I got my kids the right gifts for a holiday I don’t even really believe in. Whether or not my purchasing of the right gifts will result in them living happy and fulfilling lives.” So you know, the usual.
But his comment stuck with me because truthfully, most everyday type stress is a direct result of our own reactions to the events of our lives. I recently read Man’s Search for Meaning which is part of the Holocaust literature canon written by psychologist and death camp survivor Victor Frankl. The book is unique because it’s not a traditional narrative but rather delves into the psychology of suffering using the concentration camps as background. Light stuff, I know. His main point about suffering is that there will be suffering, and while we cannot often control the source of that suffering, we do have some say in our own reaction to it. I couldn’t go too far with this theory. I’m not someone who would try to put a smiley face on painful experience, but it does help with smaller daily life type stressors. Do they need to be stressors? Do I need to react to them in a stressful way? I’m talking to you TMJ!
So beyond my personal goal to use less plastic in 2019, I’m also setting a goal around awareness. Awareness of the way I’m thinking and the patterns I can get into -just awareness. My goal isn’t to change, change will come or it won’t. I think change implies judgment and I’m not trying to judge myself. I’d like to be more kind to myself. So, awareness, presence and kindness. Bring it on.
On my summer vacation I read two books that turned out to be related for unforeseen reasons. The first is Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. The second was Roxane Gay’s Hunger. The two books strike remarkably different tones. Amy Schumer, as you might imagine, goes for hilarity in her essays, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much substance was mixed in with the laughs. Her words and life decry the rigid standards of beauty and “acceptable behavior” for women. Her writing is a celebration of her body; the pleasure and comedy it brings her through food, sex, and other random awkwardness.
Hunger; A Memoir of my Body by Roxane Gay is about a woman who is very much a prisoner of her body. It’s a beautifully written and deeply painful history of a body violated and then protected in flesh. Both authors write about the connections and interactions between our self perception, our corporeal selves, and society.
If you follow me on social media you might remember that as I was reading my second-hand copy of Schumer’s book I got a surprise bookmark. The previous owner had left her detailed and full color colonoscopy report in the back of the book- though I wouldn’t put it past Schumer to include one of these in each copy.
As I pored over this random woman’s report (and come on, who wouldn’t? ) I approached these pictures with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion. So that’s what a colon looks like. It’s kind of a weird mix of reds, pinks and fleshy yellows. It reminded me of the Sarlacc pit in Star Wars where the characters are trying to avoid being sucked in and digested for all eternity. (Yes, I had to look up what it was called, and yes it gave me nightmares as a kid.)
The colonoscopy report made me think about Gwyneth Paltrow, because, yes I read that looong New York times magazine article about her health and beauty empire devoted to things like 5,000 dollar yoga retreats, vaginal steaming and anal bleaching. The thing is her colon looks like a Sarlacc pit just as much as mine, or Roxane Gay’s or Amy Schumer’s. It also got me thinking about our bodies and how they are more similar than different and how a hole in your body is ultimately just that. All the other stuff we attach to it is mostly just a bunch of socially constructed hoo ha. So go ahead, cancel that anal bleaching you had planned and the next time you find yourself staring at someone and judging them for the size or attractiveness of their body, remember that your colon looks like a Sarlacc pit too.
I packed three books to go to my parents for the weekend – really it was more like a 30 hour trip. I went to help out after my dad had a series of small strokes that followed a severe stroke a couple years ago. My mom is his caretaker. Is is a lot.
Before I left I checked the fifth Harry Potter book on audio out of the library for my daughter. She’s seven and loves audio books. Since I introduced her to the literary crack that is Harry Potter she’s been flying through them. I knew she was worried about me. And I knew if she had an audio book she was into she could squirrel herself away in her room and get lost in a story.
My mom calls it defensive eating -when we eat not because we’re so hungry but to prevent being hungry later on. (Did I mention we’re Jewish?) Anyway, sometimes I practice defensive library use. I check books out to avoid being without one at my fingertips.
I brought the following books:
You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein -a re-read but one that is light and smart and makes me laugh.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi -my current YA fiction read. The story of Fabiola who emigrates to the US alone to live with her Aunt and cousins after her mom is detained.
Astrophysics for People In a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson – because I’ve never read anything by him and I heard him talk about it brilliantly on the radio. And because sometimes it’s good to get distracted by things that are a lot bigger than you are.
I didn’t pick up a single one -okay maybe a few pages of You’ll Grow Out of It before bed, but that was it. But I knew they were there. I knew if/when things got hard or painful that those books were there for me. I’m not a religious person but I imagine this is how it feels to have that kind of spiritual faith.
When I open the pages of a well loved book I know that the words will be in the same order they were before, that the plot will arc in the same direction. When I read something by a trusted and loved author I know I am investing myself in something that could show me the interconnectedness of all things, or a world wildly different from my own but that resonates with me emotionally.
“We read to know we’re not alone,” is a quote often attributed to C.S. Lewis but there’s some controversy around that. I’m not surprised I’m sure it’s one many people have said or thought. I know I have.
This, in my mind, is the difference between writing for and about teenagers.
There are problems and they are not resolved.
I have a book coming out this week and one of the things on my mind, besides the fact that I’m a teacher and I’m going back to school and my kid is starting first grade and I selectively forgot to do all the major cleaning projects I thought I might tackle over the summer, and the damn Subaru dealer won’t call me back about replacing my faulty airbags, yeah besides all that. I’ve been thinking about the fact that not everyone will like my book.
Art and literature is subjective. I accept that because if I didn’t I’d be an idiot/insane. In WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE there is a lot of (teenage) drinking and some drug use. I didn’t think that much about it when I wrote it because it was consistent with my high school experience. I did most of the things my characters did without any major related tragedies. This is not to say I condone those behaviors -whether I do or not is not the point -the point is they happen.
SOME PEOPLE think that if you write YA fiction, you should write books in which teens who have sex regret it, or get pregnant or a disease. If teens drink or do drugs they should regret it or get in car accidents or develop addictions. That way no actual teens will read the book and think these things are a good idea. As though teens (or any of us) might be more influenced by fiction than the trusted people around us. SOME PEOPLE like things tidy and morally unambiguous. That’s not the kind of fiction that interests me whether it’s written about teenagers or adults. It’s not what I’d choose to read so it’s not what I choose to write.
There are problems in WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE. Big problems about friendship and identity, about moving past life in high school and reconciling the future with the past. There will be some resolution because a story needs that. But life is messy and often times morally ambiguous and I think it’s okay for teenagers (and all of us) to know that too.
This morning I listened to a re-broadcast of an interview with David Denby on his book Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives. There were a few moments when I was white knuckling the steering wheel from annoyance. Here are two older white dudes hemming and hawing about kids on their smart phones and the fact that no one reads Huck Finn anymore. In the next breath they were totally dismissive of Twilight and The Hunger Games, which great or not, got thousands, if not millions of kids to read.
There is so much wonderful YA literature beyond the mega-franchises and the interviewer and his guest were acting like reading Dickens is the only way for teenagers to become readers. There was also an element of youth-shaming. As if it’s all well and good for adults to be on their devices 24-7 because they actually read Tom Sawyer (and not the Spark notes) when they were in high school.
Technology is not destroying culture. Stories will always be relevant to our society even if the form they take is something different than what we’ve seen before.
Here is MY list of “great” books to engage your teenage or old fuddy-duddy self in reading.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Winger by Andrew Smith
Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Gabi a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
I’ll Give You The Sky by Jandy Nelson
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Feed by MT Anderson (see this one for commentary on technology in society)
In Darkness by Nick Lake