February 21, 2013
A few weeks ago I watched the new documentary about the Bones Brigade. This probably means nothing to anyone who didn’t come of age in the 80s. It probably means nothing to many who did. But for the ones who spent 1987 sitting in the grass cheering on a friend who was wobbling down the driveway toward a rickety wooden ramp, it means revisiting a time when your heroes took risks because they didn’t know any better.
The Bones Brigade was basically the Beatles of skateboarding teams, with guys like Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen and Lance Mountain standing in for John, Paul, George and Ringo. Assembled because of their passion and potential, they were only kids, but they became paragons of their sport. They created tricks never seen before, never even imagined before.
The documentary touched on some of that proverbial skateboarder angst, but mostly it was a celebratory piece about how innovation is dependent on dedication, camaraderie, competition and a screw-em-for-sayin-it-can’t-be-done-because-I’m-gonna-friggin-do-it attitude. It was about kids who found themselves in privileged positions and did not squander that advantage.
I’m glad I watched it because I needed the nostalgia and I needed the reminder that I’m also in a privileged position. I get paid to do something that I love, namely write novels for young people, and at this moment in history, people who write novels for young people are more powerful than they’ve ever been.
In my youth, in those days of Thrasher magazine subscriptions, authors of novels for young people didn’t wield a ton of power. If the publishing world of the 1980s was a high school then young adult and middle grade novelists were the kids who everyone called real sweethearts—harmless, inconsequential, likely to be voted nicest smile. While the Don Delillos and Toni Morrisons were collecting their scholarships and the Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels were throwing raging keggers, the Beverly Clearys were hosting slumber parties and the Gary Paulsens were working their way toward Eagle Scout.
Things have changed. Walk into a bookstore. Check a bestseller list. Look across a subway car. Fiction for young people is more visible than ever and its authors are impressively popular and profitable. It’s not just Rowling, Handler, Meyer, Riordan, Kinney and Collins that I’m talking about. It’s Matthew Quick, who’s probably getting fitted for an Oscar tux as we speak. It’s Rebecca Stead, who traded lawyering for storytelling, a traditionally foolish decision that I’ll bet she’s not second-guessing. It’s John Green, who, one would suspect, will someday end every war in Africa through the sheer power of earnest and cerebral love, Youtube videos, and t-shirt-friendly witticisms. It’s the young scribes with the legions of Twitter followers and the movie options and the names that have become brands. The real sweethearts have claimed one of the cool tables in the cafeteria and saved some chairs for lucky folks like me. Yes, we’ve overthrown the homecoming court. Now we must choose how to reign.
Oh I could go all day with these high school analogies. After all, it’s what we in the kid-literati do when we’re not attending mermaid regattas or unicorn cotillions. But I’d rather just get to the point.
Do. Not. Screw. This. Up.
I’m speaking to myself, of course, but also to my fellow authors, and editors, and book designers, and book bloggers. I’m talking to the creators and the evangelists. We can learn something from those skateboarding punks. They could have coasted along on their talent and their privileged position. They could have listened to anyone who told them to play it safe. And the kids who watched them could have still been entertained, but would they have been inspired? Would skateboarding have gone the way of rollerskating? Because that was cool once too, you know?
There is innovation going on in the world of fiction for young readers. There’s no questioning that. What I’m saying is that there can be a hell of a lot more. The moment to take risks is right now. Yet I feel we often default to the tried and true. Every time I encounter a plot summary that reeks of retread, every time I see a cover that couldn’t be picked out of a lineup, every time I hear about an established author chasing a trend or writing basically the same damn book over and over again and being lauded for it, I get upset. Sure, this happens in all creative industries, but it doesn’t have to happen so much. Especially when you have the public’s attention.
Tried and true might sell for a while, but it’s lazy and engenders disrespect. If so many of our books seem the same, then what’s to stop people from making blanket assumptions about them? In the movie Young Adult, Patton Oswalt’s character learns that Charlize Theron’s character is a YA author and he says something along the lines of, “like vampires and stuff?” Any real YA author has heard plenty of similar quips. Of course novels for young people aren’t all “vampires and stuff.” There are zombies and dystopias too! I’d actually be willing to bet that less than 10% of the books for young readers from major publishers are part of these genres. Okay, maybe 20%. Still the perception persists that it’s more akin to 90%.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was a hit on par with Twilight and sparked interest in similar gritty, and often thoroughly Scandinavian, thrillers. Yet if I told someone I wrote adult novels, they wouldn’t say “like kinky Swedes and stuff?” We’ve let young adult or middle grade become synonymous with whatever is trending. But we are more than the sum of our trends, and as beacons attracting readers to certain characters and themes, we have to remain bright. The only way to remain bright is to take risks, to challenge, to innovate. I understand. We want to make money. We want to entertain. But those things are not exclusive of innovation. In the long term, they are dependent on it. So I am making a pledge, to myself at least, to write like a 15-year-old kid skateboards:
With fear, but without regret, with the foolhardiness to try ill-advised things, with the incentive to improve and to make a little beer money along the way, with the knowledge that there’s a chance that I’ll scrape my knee, or fall on my ass, or take it in the nuts, or be told that what I’m doing is silly and doesn’t matter, but damn it, there’s also a chance that I’ll land a new trick or two and maybe some kid, sitting cross-legged in the grass, will sigh and say, “Whoa…”
December 5, 2012
What to read, what to read?
There are a ridiculous number of books out there. It’s beyond intimidating. It is to me, at least. I’m not a particularly fast reader. I linger. I soak in the language and the story. I give up on a lot of books, not because life is short but because some books are damn long. And boring. I read from the bestseller list occasionally, and I check off a few cultural touchstones. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn √ The Fault in Our Stars by John Green √ Life by Keith Richards √ Rin-Tin-Tin by Susan Orlean √ A Song of Fire and Ice Vol. 1-3 by George R.R. Martin √√√ But most of the time, I flounder. I hardly ever know what to read next.
Sometimes I force noble projects upon myself. Read some classic mysteries, try some Booker Prizer winners, delve into some epic poetry from East Timor–you know, that sort of thing. I don’t always enjoy it. So recently I tried a different tack. I decided to go local. By local I mean I focused on books by authors I personally know, have met in my online social media adventures, or have heard about through the gossipy cabals that secretly rule children’s book publishing. I was so glad that I did.
Below I will share some of the engrossing and oft-overlooked middle-grade and young-adult books that I have enjoyed during the last few months. You can find their plot summaries anywhere, so I’ll focus on a few thoughts and feelings these books stirred in me. Perhaps it’ll inspire you to buy one or two for your friends, family or self. I realize this humble post won’t generate tons of sales for the authors, but if I can help at least one of them become a rich and ruthless media mogul with the ability to make and break men with a snap and a whistle, then it’s all worth it. So, without further ado…
The Boneshaker by Kate Milford. I knew of Kate’s book before I knew of her. That cover! A man with fire for hair! Burning fairgrounds! Miscellaneous creepiness! When I met Kate, I had to apologize. “I’ve been meaning to read that book,” I told her. She was kind. She didn’t say, “Well then get to it, Champ! I need more money for bourbon.” (Or perhaps she did say that–details are hazy). In any case, when I did get around to reading the book, I was greeted with an elegant slice of Americana. A headstrong girl learns to ride a very difficult bike while finding time to challenge the devil himself. Automata, demon dolls, guitar pickin’ contests, what’s not to like? The book has received the inevitable comparisons to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes but I like to look at it as historical fiction run through a hand-cranked nightmare projector. Yes, it’s world building, but it’s also world restoration–wiping the mud off the weird bric-a-brac and giving it new uses. Kate has two companion volumes currently out: the novella The Kairos Mechanism and the just-released The Broken Lands.
Trapped by Michael Northrop. I’ve tossed back a few beers with Michael in my day. A fine lad with a gregarious laugh. He’s also the creator of a remarkably taut and realistic thriller. Growing up in the snowbelt of upstate New York, I know a thing or three about blizzards and the existential yearnings of suburban youth from cloudy communities. I also know more than enough about survival–we did, after all, have a “Survival Unit” in my seventh grade science class. So I can tell you that when Michael traps a bunch of teenagers in a snowbound high school, his details are spot on (n.b. Michael only traps fictional teenagers in snowbound high schools…as far as I know). I was expecting melodrama. What I got was far more surprising. Michael’s latest, Rotten, will be out in the spring and stars a rottweiler named Johnny Rotten. I just hope there’s a “never mind the bullocks”/neutering joke in there.
Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Nova is truly a friend to all writers (as her never-ending and always-fascinating blog series attests) and one of the most dedicated authors of young adult fiction out there. Her lyrical, haunting tale of ghosts and sisterhood and the recklessness of rural youths is unlike anything on the market. In a way, you could call it a romance, but it’s not the girl-meets-swoonworthy-monster-man treacle we’ve all tired of. It’s about the romance of power, of being a big fish in a small pond (or reservoir, in this case). It’s about the twists of love and jealousy that bind together and choke families and small communities. It’s about 350 pages long. Nova’s new novel, 17 & Gone, is on the horizon. I’ve read the first chapter. Beautiful, scary stuff.
The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill. I remember reading a fantastic early review of this book and since Kelly was someone I followed on Twitter, I thought I should check it out. I read the first chapter online and…gulp. This is the brand of middle-grade fiction that most people don’t know exists: dark, risky and intellectual. The set-up seems typical enough: new boy in town, mysteries to uncover. But when the perspectives start shifting and things get botanical and pagany, you realize you’re reading a story about the gnarly roots underneath, and not just the literal type. It’s a modern folk tale, but not in a jokey or revisionist way, which means it has guts to spare (as well as some tree sap). Kelly’s new fairy tale, Iron-Hearted Violet, is also getting great buzz.
The Dead Gentleman by Matthew Cody. Matt and I met when we were both debut authors, in the long ago year of MMIX (I’m pretty sure they only used Roman numerals back then). He told me that he was working on a book inspired by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and featuring time travel, monsters in the closet and dinosaurs. I was obviously intrigued. When I finally had the chance to read the finished product, I was thrilled to find a yarn that was both pulpy and dripping with Victorian ambiance, a rip-roaring adventure of the old mold. If they make a movie of it, they should resurrect Ray Harryhausen to do the special effects. In case you haven’t heard, Matt’s Super is now out. It’s a sequel to his delightful anti-superhero tale Powerless.
The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith. I don’t know Andrew, but my agent recommended I check out one of his latest. The cover promises some sort of steampunky or sci-fi adventure, along the lines of this or this. But it’s not really like those other books at all (at least I don’t think it is). It’s a psychological horror tale, about how trauma lays waste to our worlds. People are undoubtedly calling it dystopian fiction, but that’s not accurate either. What’s disintegrating here is not society, but the mind. And the book has one of the most spectacularly tense openings of anything I’ve read in years. Andrew’s sequel, Passenger, just hit shelves. Not for the faint of heart or stomach I bet, but riveting I’m sure.
Bigger Than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder. I’d been meaning to check this one out for a while, ever since I noticed it was being published around the same time as The Only Ones. But I lollygagged, and Laurel beat me to the punch by reading my book first and writing a lovely review of it. So I immediately went out and got a copy of hers. I fired through it in three evenings and found myself nostalgic for my early reading experiences. I was weaned on the junior versions of magical realism like The Indian in the Cupboard and Laurel’s book certainly lives up to that tradition. But its real magic is its plainspoken and intimate portrayal of a family falling to pieces and it made me remember what I’ve always truly cared about in fiction: emotion, confusion, difficult questions that don’t always have answers. I’ve never met Laurel, but I’ve learned through her Twitter feed that she’s working on a prequel of sorts. If it’s as poised and well-crafted as this one, I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, we can all pick up her picture book The Longest Night when it arrives in February, right before Passover.
Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea. I sat next to Rob at the Collingswood Book Festival in October. He was passing through, on his way north to join his wife for their wedding anniversary, and he only had a couple of hours to meet his fans. He was greeted by an enthusiastic class of local 5th-graders who were reading this debut novel and were desperate for the author’s autograph. He signed a few dozen copies and prepared to hit the road. I trusted the kids’ endorsement, so I also had Rob sign a copy for me as he left. I read the book a few weeks later, by candlelight during the Hurricane Sandy blackout. I understood immediately what made him such a rock-star to these kids (and to their teacher). Rob has written an ideal book for the classroom, a story about a variety of children with conflicting perspectives and motivations, about mistakes, about the importance of forgiveness and understanding. It’s a thoughtful tale and he continues it in his second book, Mr. Terupt Falls Again. Assign this one to your fourth or fifth grade class and you’re sure to have hours of discussions.
So there you have it, my admittedly biased holiday book-buying guide. Each of these novels is available in paperback, so they can be had for less than ten bucks. Stuff a stocking, why don’t you?
October 24, 2012
Speaking to students for “Read Across America Day”
Whenever I attend a book festival, people invariably ask me the same question: “Do you ever do school visits?”
I do. I do indeed.
Like many authors of children’s literature, I find that the best way to share my love of books is to talk about them with curious young readers and enthusiastic teachers. But how would people know this about me? Because, until now, I’ve barely mentioned the fact on my web site. Well, it is a fact, my friends. And if you’re a parent, a teacher, an administrator, a librarian, an independent bookstore owner, or anyone else who’d like to arrange for me to visit your local school(s), then please drop me a line. I am available for any or all of the following:
- Presentations — Give me 40-60 minutes, a podium, and a whiteboard/screen with a digital projector and I will do my darndest to keep a cafetorium full of kids not only awake but enthralled by pictures of me in footy pajamas and tales of inspiration, embarrassment and poisonous snakes. Please note: unless contractually obligated to, I will not enter the room to the tune of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck.
- Readings — I will happily read passages from DWEEB, The Only Ones, and even the soon-to-be-published The Riverman. These passages may involve humor, intrigue and/or a character named Chet.
- Q&As — This is always the easiest way to connect with inquisitive students. They can ask me almost anything about my books and my life as a writer and I will answer honestly, only occasionally uttering the phrase: “Wouldn’t you like to know, tough guy?”
- Workshops — Does your English class want to discuss and practice writing and revision techniques? Learn about the publishing industry? Cook some top-notch enchiladas? I’m there.
- Signings — If you have a local bookstore on board, I will definitely stop by to sign and sell inventory and meet readers one-on-one. Be warned, though. My handwriting is abysmal and still haunts the nightmares of my middle-school teachers.
- Skype Talks — If you don’t have the time or resources, an alternative to an in-person visit is a virtual pow-wow. Quick. Easy. Fantastically futuristic.
So there you go. Every school and situation is different (click here to read about a few past school visits), but I can adjust to your needs. Just contact me and we’ll hammer out the details. The only thing I require is that your students read, or start reading, at least one of my books. It makes the experience much more enjoyable for everyone. And, let’s be honest, you’re not inviting me to your school to show off my tap-dancing skills. (Or are you?)
October 3, 2012
Apparently, this week is Banned Books Week. I’ve never participated, but according to Wikipedia, it’s a week when children dress as Holden Caulfield and parade through streets lined with illiterate PTA members who pelt them with rotten tomatoes. It all culminates in a barn dance, where a bespectacled college comp lit major stands on a bale of hay and shouts, “You know who also banned books? Stalin!” And then an animatronic Stalin descends from the rafters and the Caulfields and the PTA members join together to smash the commie robot to smithereens.
Now, if you’re a book lover (as I’m sure yo are), you could participate in such festivities this weekend or…you could come visit me and a whole bunch of other great NY/NJ/PA authors at the Collingswood Book Festival. Here are the details:
Saturday, October 6
Haddon Ave, Collingswood, NJ
10AM-4PM: I’ll be signing and selling copies of DWEEB and The Only Ones
2PM: I’ll be on a panel called Reaching Out to Young Adult Readers
I attended the 2010 festival and it was a beautiful day in a charming town full of friendly people. I’m expecting more of the same!
September 5, 2012
Guess what? I got into Princeton!
Wait a minute, though. Before you go shining up a class ring for me and calling Goldman Sachs to tell them they’ll have a new CEO in a few years, I should probably qualify that statement. I wasn’t invited to Princeton the University. I was invited to Princeton the Children’s Book Festival.
Which, of course, is even better!
Here are the details:
Saturday, September 8, 2012
Princeton Public Library
65 Witherspoon Street
Princeton, NJ 08542
I’ll be hanging out in the Purple Tent, signing copies of DWEEB and The Only Ones. We can chat about The Riverman Trilogy, maybe talk some sports or movies, and perhaps solve some of the world’s problems. Hope to see you there!