Why Write Dark Stories for Kids?

I write almost exclusively for kids, specifically young people in the age range of around 12 to around 19. Stuff you’d find shelved in the ‘young adult’ section. There are several reasons for this, one of them being that it was during this time of my life that it was most difficult to find books ‘for me’ that I actually wanted to read. I spent most of my tween and teen years making up stories rather than reading them and still want to write books for my 12 year old self.

One criticism I’ve seen lobbed against young adult fiction is that some of it is just too creepy, or too dark, or too intense for people too young to drink. Do a Google search for any reasonably popular kids’ book and you’ll likely find several results criticizing the book’s age-inappropriate content on the grounds of it being some ill-defined sort of unsettling. These complaints are, of course, made by adults. There’s the problem.

Pictured: Every single road you ever walked down at dusk as a kid.

As we grow older, I think we gradually allow ourselves to forget just how upsetting and, yes, creepy childhood actually is. Our imaginations shape our expectations far more than our limited experiences, and we often imagine the worst because our developing brains see that as the best way to be prepared. You’re small and weak in a huge, unfamiliar place full of malice, and confusion, and all the lurking dangers your parents and teachers make absolutely sure to tell you about. On top of that no one with any power in the world takes you seriously. That weird neighbor you’re entirely certain is a serial killer? Nobody’s going to listen to you. Absolutely nobody. In retrospect, as a rational adult, it seems absurd. Not so much when you’re eleven years old.

Dovetailing nicely into this is the fact that people tend to like having their fears, rational or not, validated by the fiction they consume. It’s nice to be told that we were right all along even when it’s a work of fiction vindicating us. Think of all the airport fiction with plots hinging on diabolical terrorist schemes that are, big bonus here, taken out by characters oddly similar to the target audience’s ideal selves. These desires aren’t limited to 50 year old guys on cross-country flights, or even to adults in general. They’re basic human wants. We want to be told, “Yes, you’re right, the world is scary. But someone like you can set it right, and getting there can be really exciting.”

Get Me Out of Here

As a kid, my reading was almost entirely fantastical. If the setting wasn’t some far-away invented place, it was another time or another planet or some supernaturally-tinted vision of our own world. I didn’t like to read Beverly Cleary and other writers who primarily worked in the mundane world. I remember holing up in my treehouse like a brown recluse spider, reading through The Lord of the Rings and being quietly blown away by Eowyn’s big I’ll Cut You spiel to the Witch King.

But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.

The same feeling, the same nameless Something came over me many times while reading many stories, but I couldn’t identify or articulate it for years and years. It dangled just out of reach in the heat haze. I came to realize as I grew older that this was the feeling of new and unexpected experiences, however vicarious, making their impression on my developing brain. It was the distant tingling of seeing things and people and acts I had never imagined could exist, things that I had no access to in my backward hometown. To have a forceful and charismatic personality was a distant ideal, and I had up to that point seen no broad swath of country that did not closely match the pattern of pine tree-pine tree-WalMart-pine tree-factory farm-pine tree-church-pine tree-pine tree-cemetery.

Reading what I read could take me at any time to a place that wasn’t where I was, and show me people entirely unlike the people I knew. It opened me up to the possibility that amazing experiences and places and people did exist, and that not everyone had to be crazy or boring. It was an incredibly freeing revelation each and every time, even though I wasn’t aware that I was having it.

I am a huge supporter of escapist fiction. For kids, for adults, for whoever. We are all trapped within one circumstance or another that we wish to escape at some point, and often we are given no opportunity to escape it in any sufficiently quick way. We may never fully escape some situations and circumstances. If we allow our minds to drift to somewhere better, to see better people, maybe we can take away more than comfort and a few hours killed. And even if that’s all we get, I still can’t find disagreement with Tolkien on the subject.

Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!

For Banned Book Week, I’m Giving Harry Potter Another Chance

When the first Harry Potter book was released stateside, I was twelve years old. Now, for the sake of having some social context for those of you who were born into a world with a different New York City skyline than I was, Harry Potter caused some ugliness in several parts of America back in the day. I grew up in the ass-end of Mississippi and Harry goddamn Potter was some kind of bombshell to the isolated Southern Baptist world in which I lived. Reading for pleasure, especially reading fantastic fiction for pleasure, wasn’t exactly in vogue among young people. I know book people like to puff up how much more kids read during their time in the halls of their middle school, but for me being an avid reader was a social wasteland. You just didn’t do it, partly due to isolation from sources of new material and partly due to the artificial isolation from the outside world that comes with building a community on religious fundamentalism. Phillip K. Dick, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, they all had no foothold in that world outside the black trunk in my treehouse. Their pop culture saturation wasn’t great enough in the early 90s to seep through the many layers of parental screening and ingrained fear of change that lay heavy over the rural communities of southwestern Mississippi.

Harry Potter, though, was different. It was nowhere, and then seemingly everywhere. Immediately. All over the bookstores and libraries stationed, in any direction, upwards of eighteen miles away. Displayed proudly at all three Wal-Marts within an hour’s drive. All over the news our parents watched every night. Most importantly, it was discussed with great excitement in every middle school classroom full of kids bused in from towns with bookstores and libraries and more than one church. The simple saturation of it, the incredible presence it had, helped it to infiltrate the community. It had reached the same level of saturation as the harmless Hansen kids, something possibly deviant but so widely spread and accepted that policing it was difficult for any parent who didn’t straight up keep their kids chained to a lawnmower in the shed.

Once the book broke through the surface of my community, every kid I knew was in love with it, and dear God did adults hate it. My parents didn’t exactly care, but the parents of my friends readily fell into the furor surrounding the book’s supposed ability to summon Yog Sosoth. Or something.

I, much to my own surprise, didn’t care for the book. I didn’t dislike it or think it was bad, it just didn’t speak to me in the same way it did to every other kid. To this day, I can’t adequately explain why I could read the pages and recognize that the prose was good and the story was simple but effective and still not care.

As a result, I totally missed growing up alongside Harry and the gang, something many of my age peers look back on with a nerdy fondness. Now, at the beginning of Banned Books Week, I find myself recalling the kid/adult schism that the books created in my hometown as I sat in total indifference to them.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that on Monday a grown-ass man will walk out of my local library with a copy of the first book and walk briskly home to try to discover what he missed when he was twelve.

Imagine, Envision, Interpret! For Your Own Sake!

*My* Captain Ahab always looked like Abe Lincoln. I can’t say why…

When I was still in grade school I spent about as much time reading and breaking down works of fiction as I did forcing myself to learn algebra or collecting bugs for my natural science lessons, and I think that did me a lot of good. We were encouraged to examine characters’ motives and what I would later learn was called subtext, and our interpretations were rarely called wrong. It was a strangely egalitarian, individualistic way of teaching literature and I attribute my continued love of reading in part to it.

It wasn’t until I started middle school that I discovered that very few people in Southern Mississippi are taught literature in this way, or that early. Many new friends I made had never read Moby Dick, or The Count of Monte Cristo, or any of the other old people books I’d grown up reading and picking apart every summer. More surprisingly, what they did read in class was not so much up for discussion as it was pre-packaged with the interpretations from the instructor’s copy of the textbook. It seemed like a very boring way to learn about a book. Or anything, really.

Years later, I find myself wondering if our capacity for interpretation and imagination is slowly being smothered out of us. There is a much greater emphasis now on being ‘right’ for the sake of filling in the proper bubbles on standardized tests, as well as an astounding amount of time devoted to the preparations for these tests. There is little room for interpretation or discussion and, increasingly, little room for reading at all.

Of course, in young adults’ spare time, on the internet, imagination and interpretation are alive and well. I discovered this not long after I discovered that literary interpretation did not happen in regular schools. While trying, trying, trying to force my thirteen year old self to enjoy Harry Potter. Perhaps, thought I, the answer could be found through online discussion. Perhaps I would enjoy the book better if I could find a list of why so many other kids liked it.

My God, the things I discovered.  The fixation, and the obsession, and above all the lengthy and varied discussions all over what at that time amounted to two children’s books, one of which hadn’t even been released in the U.S. yet. Friends I had known now for a couple of years, who had grown up either ignoring or being told to ignore the possibility of interpretation, discussed the books just as excitedly. And their interpretations were just as varied, just as individual.

In spite of my efforts, I never got into Harry Potter as a kid. Even though I could recognize that they were good books, for whatever reason they didn’t speak to me in the same way they spoke to seemingly every other kid I knew. However, even though I’ve yet to learn to love the books, I am forever grateful to Joanne Rowling for creating them and sending them out into the world to awaken the imaginations of minds the school system has too little time and too little money to do much with.

WWII is making my research tiring.

I’m writing a story set in Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War I, and let me tell you: Researching this can get very frustrating. Online research entails finding the magical Search Engine Genie Words that will bring you something other than Nazis, Nazis, Nazis. Now, it isn’t that I feel that this period of history doesn’t deserve all the attention it gets; it was a world-altering time. It’s just that it seems to siphon academic attention away from the period in history I’m trying to learn about. The popular concept of German history appears to be:

  1. Ye Olden Times
  2. Some religious thing happened
  3. Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff
  4. NAZIS
  5. Berlin Wall
  6. ???

I just want something that’s between ‘NAAAZIIIIIIS’ and ‘Puffy pants still socially acceptable,’ and God damn that’s hard sometimes.

What Books Are to Me

I don’t think I’ve ever had what one would call a normal perspective on books. At least not a perspective other book people would consider normal. When I think ‘book,’ my mind remains fixed more on the content than on the object. You can write a 300 page novel and print it out on notecards that you glue to a wall and I would call it a book after some consideration. A book has always been an idea to me first, a physical thing second. They just happen to share a word.

When I was a kid, my books were transient things. A lack of money combined with my mother’s ever-expanding hoard of stuff that tended to swallow things up meant that most of the books I read were either borrowed from the library or bought cheaply and quickly whisked away from my possession. I did manage to keep some to read over and over, but not all that many.

The first thing of any considerable length that I wrote was typed on a computer, and even though I knew that I would never print it or share it with anyone, everyday I sat down to work on it I would think, “I’m going to work on my book.” From then on, I believe the notion of a book as a written collection of knowledge or ideas became fixed in my mind. My book had no binding save for the floppy diskette I used to back it up, but it was still a book to me.

I spent the next many, many years happily writing and reading primarily from a computer screen. The stories I read and the knowledge I absorbed were public domain or posted for free by the authors. My computer was mine and mine alone, and the files could always be found again if they’d been online. Anything I wanted, if it was there, if it was free, could be mine. My time was limited, of course, due to issues of eyestrain and not (at the time) being able to carry the internet around. That didn’t matter. I could read Moby Dick and plenty of miscellaneous supplementary information on the setting and the author without pleading with my father to take me with him on the eighteen mile car ride into town. I could read stories and essays by people I’d never even heard of, young, brilliant, unique people who so greatly differed from the haggard and religiously-stringent Southern Mississippi people I knew in daily life that the knowledge that they existed shook something inside me and made me feel a tremulous hope for myself.

When I first heard of e-readers, I was opposed to the idea of owning one for one reason: It looked like a large lump of money spent so that you could then spend more money on what I suspected would be a staggeringly limited selection of books. I wasn’t concerned about e-books not feeling, or smelling, or tasting like ‘real’ books. I have no such visceral attachment to the physicality of them. My love is with knowledge and ideas, with words, with something much more free-floating and accessible than wood pulp and leatherette.

I could not have imagined the variety, the opportunities, that would open up to me after I received an e-reader. The library, as inconsistent as its content may be, feels limitless. Even if I counted only the books offered for free, there is more than I could ever read. Browsing the selection for the first time was stunning. I thought of The Matrix and its many, many guns.

On top of that, I can carry it around. It’s absurdly light and it holds a great amount of stuff. I can finally take my immense internet library with me. I am no longer limited by location or space, and I am far less limited by poverty.

The definition of ‘book’ changed a long time ago for me. All an e-reader does is make the acquisition of books easier.

YA Fiction Needs More Blending of Gender Traits

When I was still in the young adult reading demographic, I read a small smattering of books about girls. I read A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and a few others that have slipped through the cracks of my memory. I don’t consider this especially progressive. I didn’t mind reading stories about girls and girly things, but I did my best to hide or excuse the fact that I read them. I didn’t do this because I felt personally ashamed, but because I knew that I would be made to feel ashamed if people knew that I enjoyed them. Despite what some people may believe, there are boys willing to read about girls and girlish things. They are few and far between, I believe, because society in general devalues things it deems to be feminine. Characters with feminine traits are judged more harshly than those who act in a way we consider masculine. 

Take the case of Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games series. She may be a female character who’s found her way into the accepting hearts of millions, but she’s also an honorary boy. She doesn’t understand (and even fears) your paltry hyoo-man emotions, she would rather kill something than love it, and violence is her go-to solution for everything. This may not be how all men act, but it is an exaggeration of the most widespread stereotypes of male behavior. Men are emotionally oblivious, men are logical as opposed to emotional, men are virile killing machines.

I don’t think that a male character would be so appealing to publishers if he were written this way. A YA novel with a hero who acknowledges his feelings, appreciates beautiful things, and doesn’t immediately resort to decapitating people would be considered an insult to characterization, and abomination, unrealistic and unlikable. Even if he were secretive about his interests and perhaps even prone to violent outbursts, I don’t think publishers would jump to support a book headed by a ‘girly boy.’

A girl who acts like a boy is considered an upgrade, an improvement. For a boy or a girl to act especially girlish is considered a failing of character, a fundamental weakness. In this respect, I don’t see characters like Katniss as especially affirmative.

I want to see more characters, male and female, who are more comfortably blended between gender stereotypes. I want to see more tomboys who aren’t ashamed to wear skirts, and more emotional boys who aren’t treated as comic relief. I want characters who can be strong as well as emotionally vulnerable. I want more people.

I don’t want any children I may raise, teach, or know in the future to be ashamed of reading about girls, or about emotions or beautiful things. It’s a crappy feeling.