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 year at the middle school I started a club called Safe Space. The mission of our club is promote diversity, tolerance, respect and understanding for all students and staff at the middle school. There is nothing about being gay in our mission statement, but our flyer features a rainbow triangle so for some students I hope the message is clear.
So far in our first few meetings we mostly just sit around and shoot the shit. And that’s how I envisioned it. There is a loneliness inherent in hiding a part of yourself away. This is true for students who have strong friendships and even more so for those who don’t. So combatting loneliness was a big part of why I’ve nudged for years to have a group like this one.
Over the weekend YA author Malinda Lo posted this moving reflection about what gay clubs meant to her growing up. And it got me thinking about spaces where we are safe. It is such a privilege to walk through the world feeling safe. One of the great privileges of my childhood was growing up in a safe family and a safe community. My family was safe because it was so unconditionally loving and accepting. My community was safe because it was tree-lined, wealthy and relatively crime-free. And yes, of course safe also means sheltered too. But that’s another post. The point is. I didn’t have to experience food insecurity, or abuse, or fear in walking down the street.
The community where I teach is a lot like the one I grew up in. That is why I think some students scoffed at the name of our club. Why do we need a safe space club? A few of them even showed up at the first meeting intent on being provocative or disruptive. That is their privilege. Hopefully one day they’ll go to a liberal arts college and figure it out. Or read an incredible book by someone without that privilege that shifts their understanding.
When I was in my early twenties I used to go dancing at the Man Ray club in Cambridge, MA. Gay, straight, Trans, gender-conforming or not. Everyone was accepted in that ecstatic world. That’s part of why I included a scene from that club in my upcoming book about boys in their senior year of high school struggling with identity. I loved dancing at the Man Ray. I did feel safe there. But I was so lucky because it wasn’t the only place where I was safe and free to be myself.
It is exhausting to walk through the world wondering if you are in danger just for being yourself. Physical danger, emotional danger, it is exhausting. So yes, kiddos, we do need safe spaces; in our schools, in our homes, in our communities. And when one of those spaces is tragically violated as it was this weekend in Orlando it is a good reminder to us all not to get lazy, not to assume everyone feels as safe as we do, and to do whatever we can to create spaces where they do.
Oh wow. There I am, head tilt, blown out hair and all. The purpose of this post is to be revealing. In less than 3 weeks time I’ll be revealing the cover of my new book WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE which is coming from Carolrhoda Lab in September. Cover reveals are kind of a fun thing in the YA lit world. It’s kind of like a baby shower for your book. No baby yet, but here’s a fun teaser.
Anyway, since it’s a reveal, I’ll be taking advantage of the next three Fridays to post something revealing about me and/or the book. I feel like I could leave this photo -my high school senior picture and the weird scramble of shout outs underneath as the revealing item. But there’s more. But before I get to it I feel like pointing out that these little pre-twitter blurbs that we were allowed to post under our pictures laden with not very discreet drug and alcohol references, not to mention a clear list of who your “besties” were and weren’t -were just ridiculous.
Back to the true revelation which has to do with the quote. I had a lot of trouble finding the right quote. Also, I was lazy. My friends were all pulling out these cool song lyrics or deep sentiments of famous writers. I wanted something that would tell the world of Newton North High School that I was destined for greatness and hell if anything was going to get in my way. Even something like finding the right quote. So I made one up. That’s right. I just thought of the words and put quotes around them. No one ever asked where it came from. It came from me. I wrote my own meaningful quote. A fiction writer -even then.
Today a student asked me that. She was in the midst of an argument with another student, who I suspect was just trying to provoke her. But nonetheless I responded, “Do you want my answer as a science teacher, or a flaming liberal?”
I always assume my students can see my political flags flying a mile away but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about middle school it’s that you should never ever assume the students are actually listening to you. Most of the time you’re just that Charlie Brown teacher up there nattering away about something that is way less interesting than a snapchat from their friend about a chicken nugget that looked exactly like Harry Styles from One Direction.
But someone was listening because they asked me what a flaming liberal was. It could be that they’re truly interested or it could be that they smelled a way to get their teacher to go on a non-homework related tangent for the next 8-10 minutes while they snapchatted or texted under the desk. Regardless, I took the bait.
What’s a flaming liberal. Hmm, I thought about it for a minute before I began to rant.
“I’m a flaming liberal because I believe that everyone has the right to love and marry whomever they like, because I think all children deserve food and clothing and the semblance of equality in the quality of their education. I think everyone should make a living wage. I think the top 1% of our country should not control 35% of our nation’s wealth or that the wealthiest 85 people in the world should not have more resources than the 3.5 million poorest put together.* I think that everyone has a right to free healthcare and medicine and that older people should be taken care of regardless of their ability to pay. I think women and men should be granted a minimum of a year’s paid parental leave and I’m more than willing to pay loads more in taxes so that all this can be paid for by our government. And yeah, global warming is real.”
Seriously, that is what I said. The 8th graders looked at me a little bug eyed, at least the ones who were still listening. Then we went back to standardized test prep -because unfortunately, flaming liberals like me do not yet rule the world or the educational system.
*okay, okay I didn’t really have these facts off the top of my head but 51% of all statistics are invented anyway.
As a YA author and a middle school teacher, I read a lot of YA. But even if I wasn’t either, I still would. Stories about adolescence and coming of age interest me. They always have. The line between what is considered YA and what is not gets fuzzier every day -especially with new categories like NA joining the party.
Now that Labor Day is past and we’re officially in the heady waters of a new school year, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about three books I read this summer. All three featured young adult characters, though only one is officially categorized as YA.
The first of the three was FATHER OF THE RAIN by Lily King. In the first third of this book the main character is 12-13 years old and if the book kept her there it might even qualify for a YA label. But soon we speed up to her future as an adult in her mid-twenties and the bulk of the book is told from there. Even without this, there is something dark and gritty that would prevent me from ever labeling this book as YA even though it is a coming of age story. Perhaps it’s that the coming of age doesn’t really take place until the character is in her twenties. Or perhaps it’s that the main character is unprotected and just barely shielded from her alcoholic and sexually explicit father by her own naivete. Regardless the book is tense and emotionally engrossing from beginning to end.
The second book I wanted to mention was BONE GAP by Laura Ruby. This YA novel featured incredible writing and original small town characters and layered on magical realist touches a la Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. Magical realism is hard to do well and rarely done in YA -it’s all usually fantasy or realistic contemporary, but rarely are the two combined, and skillfully! Underneath the wonderful layers of disappearing girls, magical horseback rides and faces that can’t be seen is a story of self-acceptance and first love, both archetypal YA themes.
Lastly, I read the much lauded ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. Okay, this one is a Pulitzer prize winner as well as being endorsed by yours truly! So what I would mention here is that the two main characters, who’s lives we follow through World War II are both little more than adolescents for the entirety of the book. But no one would every categorize this book as YA. Perhaps because its characters are not engaged in the typical tropes or plot lines of adolescence? I think if YA is to survive and thrive as a true genre it can’t define itself by what it is not. As in, it’s not deep or thematic. Or it’s not complex as this book certainly is. These are neither true nor useful in reading or defining YA.
So read anything good this summer? YA or otherwise?
An odd title for a back to school post, but this is the world our kids are living in. Coming back to school on an 80 degree day reminded me of our school dress code, which in my opinion is unnecessarily restrictive to girls. The part of the dress code that gets the most push-back is the rule on shorts. They are supposed to be no more than three inches above the knee. Everyone get out your ruler and see if what you’re wearing right now passes. Nope? Well, be glad you’re not in middle school.
“What’s wrong with legs?” one of my male students asked as we were reading over the dress code portion of our school reg. book. “Why not arms?” It’s a valid point. What is so offensive about our legs? What I didn’t say, because I’d like to keep my job, is that your legs are closer to your penis/vagina than your arms are. And apparently there is something very WRONG and INAPPROPRIATE (you really can’t be in any public school setting without hearing that word thrown around every 2 minutes) about the fact that humans use their penises and vaginas to feel good -sometimes alone, sometimes with each other.
I have a lot of teacher friends, and I try not to judge what other people do in their classrooms. But it came to my attention that a teacher was reading the Hunger Games with her 5th grade classroom. “It’s what they wanted,” she told me. That may be so. But this is a book – a very entertaining book which I enjoyed -in which children fight each other to the death. Violence and death are in so many children’s books from middle grade to YA and sometimes younger. And somehow this is acceptable to us. It’s true, death is a part of life -but not necessarily fighting to the death in an arena.
A couple years ago I was rebuked for lending my copy of Looking for Alaska to a student because it contained teenage drinking and… wait for it….oral sex! So basically, it’s filthy and disgusting for our children to learn about how people use their bodies to make each other feel good, but it’s perfectly okay for them to read about using their bodies to torture and kill each other. (I now lend my “pg-13” books out with parental consent required.)
Sometimes being a teacher is an exhausting job before you even get to teach anything. I tell my students all the time that I don’t make the rules, nor do I agree with all of them. But this one is starting to make me very sad. I find the veiling or hiding of women’s bodies to be shaming for both women and men. I think we can and should do better, for our middle schoolers, and ourselves.
It’s really easy to get negative at the end of a teaching year. All the things you thought you were going to fix or conquer over the course of nine months? You’re luck if you cleared 50%. Those people, students or staff, who got on your nerves all year with their super loud nose blowing or myriad excuses for late work, missing forms, uncharged laptops? It all seems to reach its zenith about two weeks before school ends. At which point the energy around school makes it a borderline unstable place to be every day for 8 hours. I could probably write a whole post about coping strategies for the end of the school year but most of it boils down to letting go. This is the time of year when I like to contemplate my successes, reflect on challenges or setbacks, but most of all let go.
A couple of months ago I had a student after school for a required forty-five minutes of work. This student never did any work at home and was required to stay after in order to participate in sports. After about thirty five minutes he finished the task I had given him and got up to leave for lacrosse practice. When I informed him that he had ten more minutes during which time he could sit and read, he got pissy with me and threw his book down before sulking in the corner and pointedly watching the clock for ten minutes. At 3:00 he got up and left without a word.
The next morning he came in the room, came straight up to my desk and said, “I’m sorry about how I acted yesterday.” I thanked him, told him how much it meant to me that he apologized and promptly welled up with tears.
When I worked at the Ferry Beach Ecology School teaching environmental education I always told our staff that at the end of the day if the kids walked away from FBES thinking that being outdoors was cool or fun, then we had done a good job. That was enough. At the end of the year I may not have finished the unit on the Respiratory system or covered every structural possibility for a compare/contrast essay but if I have shown up and been a consistent and positive adult presence in the lives of my students then I believe that is enough.
Do I strive to do more? Absolutely. Every day I work hard to make English and science interesting and engaging, the skills clear and attainable. But for many students learning is a challenge because they are lacking a consistent adult who tells them it is important, and valuable, and worthwhile. Some of them are lacking an adult they can trust. To be that person, as a teacher and not a replacement parent, on any day is damn good enough. I think it is the greatest part of what so many teachers do.