Sunday, March 2, 2014

Who's Afraid of A.S. King?

This week, I heard from a good friend of mine who works in secondary education. She was talking to a friend who works in a high school guidance center. My friend's friend seemed shocked that Reality Boy would be allowed in my friend's school (due to possible parent complaints) even though she personally loved the book. I hear this a lot. I'm used to it. People from my generation didn't have this kind of literature when they were in school. (I'll add they also didn't have the Internet, cell phones, cable TV, or crime shows that got much worse than Quincy or Hawaii Five-0.)


A year or two ago, a friend of mine who teaches high school English, and whose school I've visited many times, was talking to a fellow teacher at a conference and she mentioned that I visit her school and her students dig me and the fellow teacher, who also loves my work, said, "Aren't you afraid to have A.S. King into your school?"


Last year I got quietly uninvited to a school because a math teacher didn't like the last book (from another author) that the organizing librarian promoted during a previous reading initiative. The principal got involved. I did not go to that school--an inner-city school that cannot afford author visits and whose students would have probably loved and needed the presentation I give about the "personal suitcase." The librarian had worked so hard on this visit that we were both in tears when the final verdict was given--in quiet code that no school board ever found out about.

I have had my books blocked from school libraries based on a principal reading an Amazon review. (I'm guessing he probably looked for the bad reviews. What do you reckon?)

People have been shocked when I tell them I visit Catholic schools. 
I have no idea why they are shocked. Do they think that Catholics can't relate to books that talk about everything from bullying to genocide? Last time I checked, Oliver Cromwell was quite a bully and wanted all Catholics dead. 

Yet, people never seem shocked when I tell them that I've visited a juvenile detention center or an alternative school. I can't figure out why. Is it because these kids are throwaways? I think e. E. Charlton-Trujillo does a fantastic job of talking about the shortsightedness of this type of thinking already in this article. But still, it seems logical and okay to some people that I would go to talk to the kids they've already given up on. Weird.

When I take all these facts and swirl them around, I can't make much sense of it. What is it, exactly, that these people seem to think is so dangerous? 

Sure, anyone who reads any book is totally allowed to not like it. That's valid and important and if you don't like my books, then I don't expect you to promote them in any way. But these things are being said by either people who actually like my books (or in two cases above, never read them) or who even adore my work. So why the shock? Why the implied fear of me, in general?

Is it the cursing?

I am very aware that some of my characters curse. I curse too sometimes. But I was raised in a no-cursing house and I am raising my kids in a no-cursing house. I do not say, "Dinner is fucking ready!" to my children. I don't even curse when I burn a grilled cheese sandwich. I say "Shazbot." I say "Sugar." I say, "Darn it!" So why do my characters curse? Because some kids curse. All kinds of kids, too. Not just what some people label 'bad kids.' Good kids curse plenty. Calculus geniuses curse. Cheerleaders curse. Top-notch athletes curse. Valedictorians curse. Kids who go to church curse. 

My 11-year-old kid learned every swear word on a shared school bus last year. She was 9 then. She also learned the racial words. You know. The N-word, the Sp-word, the Ch-word, the W-word. Usually, these words were used in conjunction with a curse word. Example: "Those fucking N-words are living off the government." or "Fucking W-words are all illegals and need to go back to Mexico." Etc. You get the picture. Apparently, these children, all of whom go to a private religious school, some of whom were younger than my kid, learned these curse words somewhere and they dutifully taught my then-9-year-old about them by using them in competent sentences in casual conversation on a bus before eight in the morning. 

Luckily, she told me. And I told her what the words meant, why they are offensive and why we don't use them in our house. I assume this process is the same for most parents. Frankly, I'm glad she learned the words when she did. This experience made her a voracious reader of novels about racism and injustice, which has made her the type of citizen that I'd be proud to call my neighbor. Thanks to those kids on the bus, she better understood books like Persepolis, Maus, American Born Chinese, March, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Boxers & Saints, Journey to Topaz, Number the Stars, Anna of Byzantium, and The Resistance series and she is far less likely to hate or tolerate hate. Well played, kids on the bus. Well played. 

So, if it's the cursing that makes some adults squeamish about my books in schools, then why do they project that fear when referring to me, the author? Do they think that my author visits, my assembly programs, or my classroom workshops involve some sort of inappropriate material? Do they think that 40+ schools & libraries per year pay me to come and talk to their students because I'm scary? Do they think my keynote event speeches are akin to Lenny Bruce in his later years? I know enough adults to know that many adults also curse. So, I'm thinking that adults are smarter than this. No, it can't be that they think I will curse or will promote cursing when I go to a school. So I'm guessing it isn't the cursing.

Maybe it's sex.

I don't really do sex in my books. I can't write a sex scene to save my life. And I didn't have sex in high school (not like it's any of your business) so I can't really feel what that feels like, so I find it hard to write about it. That said, I know that the average age American teens first have sex is about 17. And I know 14 year olds have sex. And probably 12 year olds, too. And hell no, I'm not all that comfortable with that, but it's happening, right? I mean, 1 in 4 kids in America has been sexually abused or raped by the time they get to be a senior in college. So...yeah, I don't write sex scenes, though some of my characters have had sex or talk about it. But find me a high school student who hasn't talked about or thought about sex and I'll hand-deliver you a home-baked muffin. Seriously. And to those writers in my field who do write sex scenes, I say kudos to you. Especially to those who are writing sex-positive and consent-centered sex in teen fiction. I can't do it because I'm just not good at writing it. Just like the 1960's-sex-ed book that I read as a kid to learn about the birds and the bees, my scenes usually stop at heavy petting or just go vague. 

Even listing these things is making me feel ill. As if there is certain subject matter we can't share with teens...while we are happy to watch CSI-whatever right in front of them.

So what's left?
Violence? My books have a little of that. Sure. So does life. Next.
Death? Seriously. Death is part of life. Just ask Forrest Gump. Next. 
Empathy toward others? Or tolerance toward those who are different to the reader? Um. Not sure how that's scary. But this has been suggested, so I'll list it. Adding: See Eric's comment for more on this. It's brilliant.
Abuse? My books don't touch on this in a full-on way, but again, that's life. Why wouldn't we talk about this? CSI-whatever talks about it all the time.
Drugs & alcohol. Yes. My books do touch on this a bit. I once had an adult contact me on Twitter to say she got to page 11 of Please Ignore Vera Dietz where Vera pulls out a bottle of vodka from under her car seat and she tweeted something like, "A.S. King promotes teen drinking and driving! Not reading the rest of this book!" Shame. She could have actually learned that the book was not at all what she thought it was. Then again, it seemed she was looking for a reason to stop reading and I'm glad she found one. 

Bullying? Yes, my books have this. And so does every school in America. And every workplace. 

Reality? Truth?
I'm thinking that might be the problem. 
I mean, real reality. You know--where life is sometimes hard and parents aren't always perfect and school sometimes sucks and college decisions seem pointless and sex is a possibility on a Friday night the same as smoking a joint, drinking to excess, or getting into a fight or studying for SATs. I have yet to write about stealing a car, but hey, that's a Friday night possibility as much as considering committing suicide, and I've written about that, too. 

Last year I talked to thousands of teenagers in their high schools. When I talk, do you know what I talk about? I talk about making smart mistakes. Do you know why I do that? Because I meet a hell of a lot of teenagers who are afraid of making mistakes. 

One of my presentation slides reads: EVERYONE MAKES MISTAKES. 

That's what I tell them. I tell them that making mistakes is universal. We all do it. And I tell them that making a mistake is not a reason to give up. Do you know how many teens need to hear this? Judging by the letters I get from classrooms all over the country: A lot. I'm guessing that might be because someone somewhere along the line gave them the impression that they should be perfect. 

So I tell them that they are not perfect. I tell them that like me, they are flawed and will make mistakes. And I tell them that maybe, like me, if they think about their own mistakes (and the mistakes of others, through, say, reading fiction) and figure out why they made them, that maybe they can be the lucky ones who learn from their mistakes and go on to make smarter and smarter mistakes. 

I also ask them to look into their pasts and I ask them what they're lugging around with them--that personal suitcase--and I tell them that this baggage, we all have it. And then I explain how to unpack and repack that suitcase in order to survive real life and be happy. 

I know. Super scary stuff.
A.S. King Wants Students to Live Happy Lives--Film at 11!

My books are on school and state reading lists all over the country and have won state awards and national awards. I get letters every week from students who read my books and find themselves in them. "This book changed the way I look at the world." I also get letters every week from adults who read my books and find themselves in them. "I wish your books were around when I was in school." 

So why, when chatting over a casual cup of tea on a random morning, would anyone say, "Aren't you afraid to have A.S. King into your school?"

My mother worked in schools and in school administration for years. I understand what goes on intimately. I do not like that teachers--those trained best to teach and run their own classrooms--are not at the top of the decision-making pyramid when it comes to what and how they teach. I do not like that at all. Teachers, teacher trainers, and teaching students who I know (my husband included) know how I feel about these things. One of the coolest administrators I met actually participated in a community read of Please Ignore Vera Dietz and invited me to Skype into her office one day while students were there. It was a fantastic experience. It was refreshing to see a superintendent getting involved in reading and reality. Our discussions that day serve as proof that not all administration is bad or limiting. But this is a rarity and I think we all know it. So we'll move on.

I've worked on library boards and know that some patrons think that 'cleansing' the stacks of anything they deem inappropriate is a good idea. We also had a problem once with a political weeder--someone who likes to remove publications based on political ideals he or she thinks are wrong. People are weird.

I know parents. I know parents who say, "I loved your book and can't wait for my teen to read it!" And I know parents who say, "I loved your book but I'd never let my teen read it!" I also know parents who tell me at signings, "My child can read at a high school level. Yes, I know she's 10, but she loved [insert popular YA book here.]" I do my very best to explain to this third type of parent that age recommendations are for mature (teen) content and that maybe they should read the book with their child, just in case any questions come up. They often tell me they don't have time to read for pleasure and that their child will be fine. I trust them. I have to. It's not my job to censor their kid's reading the same as it isn't anyone's job to censor what my kids read. 

I don't know about you, but quiet censorship freaks me out. It's the censorship that's spoken over tea, over lunch, at random times when we are not prepared to answer because we are caught so off-guard that we really only think about what was said on the plane home. Last year I was asked to be on a censorship panel as an "expert." I had to reply and say I was not an expert at official challenges. So far, my books haven't had an official challenge as far as I know. Instead, I get embarrassed looks from  dedicated librarians who whisper, "My principal won't let me have that one in the stacks." I have quiet un-invitations. I have quiet conversations with saddened teachers who tell me that a colleague said, "But you're not going to actually give that book to students, are you?" I get quiet letters from devoted teachers who apologize for not being able to share my book with a student who needs it because of a fear of losing their job. Ah quiet. It is usually an indication that something really important is being withheld. Like the way we whisper cancer.

My favorite response to certain books is: "This kind of thing doesn't happen in our town!"

I heard this once in response to Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Here's a funny fact: I based the creep in PIVD on a real guy named Eddie Savitz. Savitz had haunted me for years after his story came out in the early 1990s. But when the book came out, I got all sorts of letters asking how I knew about "Big Bill" or "Teddy Bear" or other towns' creeps. I got more than 10 of these letters just in the year the book came out. None of the letter-writers knew that creeps other than their own town-creeps existed. But creeps happen. All over the place. If you watch the TV news you hear about them every single day. Check your state's online database. I bet you have a creep living near you. 

But not in your town. I get it.
Drugs and alcohol also don't happen in your town, nor does teen sex, violence, or swearing. Or death.
Fantastic. If there really is a town like this in America, I am happy about that. Really truly happy. 
But are your teenagers going to stay in that town forever? Don't you want them to go to college? Or go out in the world and do stuff? And don't you want them to be prepared for all of these real things that happen all the time in real life? Don't you want them to know that they will make mistakes? Don't you want them to learn how to make smarter mistakes? 

Fiction can help. I write my books for one reason, whether they are for adults or teens. I write to make readers think. I write to widen perspective. I write to make readers ask questions and then answer the questions or start conversations. And I write sometimes to give voice to the throwaways, of which our society has many, but we usually hide them because we are still uncomfortable with what we see as our own mistakes. Make sure you say that in a whisper. Throwaways.

As a parent, it is certainly up to you what your child reads, just as it is up to me what my child reads. We can control this at home. No doubt. But the one thing we cannot control is time. And as time passes, our children will become adults. I know my child would make a good neighbor. She knows what hate looks and sounds like. She knows how to speak her mind and she knows she makes mistakes because we make her own those mistakes. I know that one day, when she is your neighbor, she will help you shovel your sidewalk of snow if you need help. I know she will babysit your kids responsibly and play a patient game of Scrabble with them. She will make them brush their teeth before bed. If she reads them a bedtime story, it will most likely be Dr. Seuss or a few Shel Silverstein poems. 

People who know me are reading this blog post. People who really know me. My mom and dad will read it eventually, because they read my blog. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the least scary person you will ever meet. (Unless you're from Pennsylvania Gas and Electric and you ever come to my house to sell me cheap electricity again after screwing me over last month for $400--then you should be scared.) 

My books? Are not anything to be afraid of. 
I mean, unless you're afraid of real things that go on every day. 
I mean, unless you're afraid of kids knowing more about reality than, you know, CSI-whatever. 
I mean, unless you're afraid of an adult whose sole purpose on planet Earth is to empower people to be the very best they can be no matter what hand they were dealt or no matter how heavy their personal suitcase might be.

I'm that adult and I own it. 
If I'm scary to you, then okay. I'm cool with that.
Most teachers I know also have this same goal: to empower students to be the very best they can be. And many of those teachers know that this also scares some people.
I have no idea why.

This isn't about administrator's rules. Those are real and I know in every job, there are rules that dictate what you can do, even if you want to do more. I am so grateful to teachers and librarians all over the world who share young adult books with their teens. And I stand with those of you who are tied by your administrations into this uncomfortable atmosphere of occasional quiet censorship. I know you don't want it. I'm sorry you have to deal with it as well-trained and educated professionals. I don't want you to lose your job and really appreciate the things you do to steer your students toward the fiction they might need when they need it. Thank you. 

When I look back at me at 12 years old, in 7th grade, I see that Paul Zindel's books saved the me that finally fought hard to come back. That's the me you know now. 

The me in between (from 12.5-17.5) was a strange sort of throwaway kid. Bad grades. Bad habits. Bad attitude. I gave up on everything, and the minute I did, so did most of the teachers. But some still knew that deep down, I was a thinker...and I can bet they were wondering what I was thinking while I chose that in-between me who would rather smoke in the bathroom and get detention than study when I was in high school. 

Here's what I was thinking: I can't wait to get out of this bullshit place and be myself. 

And maybe that's what makes me scary.

I don't know. 

What I do know is: I was a throwaway kid in the eyes of my 8th grade guidance counselor (who spelled cello "chello") and in the eyes of many who came after him. And I knew high school had an expiration date and all I had to do was survive until the expiration date was up, so I could then be happy. 

And, in the words of Reality Boy, once that time came, it was all "Fuck this shit. Let's grow beards."

Translation: Thank God that's over. Now, let's grow up.  

So I grew up.

And when I entered the real world--the one with awful bosses, crappy paychecks, regular sexual harassment, people who wanted to control me, drug addicts, alcoholics, bad friends, bad drivers, bad doctors, keg parties, your-list-here--I was better able to make smart decisions and learn from my not-so-smart decisions because I'd read about characters who made mistakes and who recovered from those mistakes. Well, that and my parents, who had never once lied to me about the real world. 

When, after graduating college, I went to a mansion party with a 60-year-old businessman who'd promised we'd talk about a full time job (I'd interviewed with him prior to this), I was grabbed and groped and forcefully kissed by a different 60+ year old man who may or may not have been a high-ranking official in Philadelphia government, I knew to get the hell out of that swanky mansion and drive the hour home. 

I was 21 years old on the day of that party. On my way home, I stopped at a friend's house and bawled my eyes out. I was embarrassed, yes. Grossed out, certainly. But most of all, I was afraid that my parents would be mad at me for leaving the party because they had been hopeful about the job from this businessman.

I'll never forget the laughter that night. My mother laughed so much as I told her and my father, through tears, what had happened. They laughed to make me feel better, yes. They laughed because they wanted me to see the humor in this sick and twisted world. They laughed because they wanted me to know it wasn't my fault. They laughed because up until then, they had prepared me for the real world and I'd left the party and I was safe at home, and not still at the party getting roofied and god-knows-what-else. They were, in a word, relieved. 

I know why people want their children to remain innocent. I have a six-year-old. She is adorable. She loves unicorns. She loves dressing up like a princess and she has no idea that the real world exists and so far no harm has come to her and it's a beautiful thing. It really is. We read Freedom Summer together and she knows the evil of racism even though she hasn't experienced it yet. But she will. And when she does, thanks to books like Freedom Summer, she will be repulsed. 

I am repulsed by many facets of the real world teens have to live in now. I am also very aware that my repulsion has nothing to do with its existence. It will exist whether I am repulsed or not. 

And so I write about it.
It's that simple.

If that makes me scary, then I'm proud to be scary. But I don't think I'm scary at all. I'll shovel your sidewalk if you need help. I'll make you a big pot of spicy corn chowder if you're sick. I'll read Dr. Seuss to your kids and I will make them brush their teeth. And if one of them doesn't understand something about the real world--say, racism--and they ask me about it, then I will buy your family Freedom Summer for Christmas and if you feel like sharing it with them, then I bet you'll have a great conversation after you read it. And I bet your relationship will be all the better for the honesty you share. 

Lying never helped any relationship improve. 
Whispering never cured cancer. 
And some throwaway kids become adults like me...if someone somewhere along the way gives them a voice. Fiction does that. Vonnegut did it for me. Zindel. Heller. Rushdie. Twain. Steinbeck. Hemingway. Dahl. Salinger. Golding. Orwell. Lee. They all did that for me. 

But they were quietly censored too. Over tea. During lunch. At random times. 

So maybe it's a big club?

It's scary out there. I know it. I turned on the Olympics so I could watch with my kids and I had to turn it off because the the commercials for prime time that NBC aired--images of frightened, pained children, guns, and violence--were not something I wanted my kids to see. But if I mentioned that I was going to watch the Olympics with my kids, I doubt anyone would say, "Aren't you afraid to watch the Olympics with your kids?"

I've swirled all of this stuff around all day and I can't make sense of it.

Except this part: hiding things from teenagers is a known fail. Teenagers already know what we're attempting to hide from them. They probably know a lot more than we do about the reality of being a teenager today. They're a lot smarter than most people give them credit for. Contemporary young adult books are not going to tell them anything they don't already know. The people who know this best are teachers and teen service librarians. I only wish the rest of the adult world would catch up.