Friday, November 30, 2012

why i hate ya [1] YIH8YA

A few years back, I wrote a series of posts on the subject Why I Hate YA.

But a few years back, I was just an immature whelp of a writer who had no idea how deeply this hatred could bore its way into the soulless core of my being.

Okay. I'm just kidding.

I think the reason why I frequently find myself hating YA is that most people don't know what my YA is. But an awful lot of people talk about YA, even though they can't specifically define it, which means they also don't know what they're talking about.

And I remember when I wrote that series a while back, some concerned person posted a comment like this: Well, if you hate YA so much, then why do you write it?

Um. Er.

But here's THE BIG REASON why I hate YA.

People say the following things to me:

"Oh. You're the guy who writes books for kids."

"Oh... So, when are you going to write a REAL book... You know, one for GROWNUPS?"

I know I'm not the only writer out there who gets asked those presumptuous and preposterous questions, but maybe I just get annoyed by them more than other people do.

I'm shrugging as I type this; I don't know.

Here's the thing: My YA is not an age-level, it's a genre. I do not write books for 12- to 18-year-olds. I write books for everyone to read; they happen to be about what I call essential experiences (themes) of adolescence.

Some of the things that happen to adolescents can be pretty brutal, and frequently the reading-level of the stories I write is pretty challenging. Nevertheless, I write YA, but it's my YA and it is most certainly not an age-level.

Not only that, but I know an awful lot of unimpaired, legal-age adults who have never read a book because they do not know how to. And then I get sixth- and seventh-graders sending me emails about books like The Marbury Lens.

Go figure.

In any event, I do recognize that there are plenty of writers who churn out books that are for 12- to 18-year-olds. That's fine with me. That's their YA. That kind of YA can get a little condescending, stereotypical, watered-down, and preachy; and for some reason a lot of people involved in the for kids aspect of YA can sometimes act like they're "saving" kids from the potential horrors of the real world.

I don't know about that, either. I do know that if I was was incapable of saving myself from the shit that happened to me, I'm probably going to be a complete failure at saving a classroom of ninth-graders in Iowa from anything.

So that's the big convoluted reason why I hate YA. It has become far too simple for the general public, as well as purveyors of books to wrap the genre up tightly within the boundaries of specific ages and grade-levels. But we all know--and there are heaps of data to prove this--that what is called "YA" is mostly being sold to, and read by, Grownups.

Why? Because YA is "Real Books."

And if that's the case, and we can characterize YA as a genre, then maybe it would serve some purpose to discuss the relevant features that make "real" YA. I'm not a literary expert, but I can tell you about what makes my YA.

And that's what I'll be posting about in the next installments.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

miami (2)


Before I begin I want to say something I forgot to mention yesterday: When Dr. Adams was getting lost and driving me all over Miami, I asked her how Miami-Dade schools were dealing with budget issues--if, like California schools, they had found it necessary to cut days from the school year in order to lower teacher salaries to "make ends meet."

Dr. Adams told me this: Cutting days from the school year was completely off the table as far as the Miami-Dade school system was concerned. That if cuts had to be made, the LAST thing that would ever happen would be reducing the number of school days in the year.

I wondered to myself why California has its head so far up its ass? Whenever schools here in my state (and don't get me wrong--I love California) are threatened with a budget shortfall, the very FIRST thing they propose is cutting the number of days kids go to school.

What a bunch of bullshit.

See those kids up there? They were a group from a magnet high school in Miami who'd come to see me speak at the Miami Book Fair International last Friday. They were ridiculously early, too, but they sat there patiently while I paced up on the stage like a dummy waiting for the technicians to set up the room.

All the kids who attended that event received copies of Passenger, too. There were hundreds of them. It was actually a pretty clever stroke, because all the vendors who were selling copies of The Marbury Lens at the fair ended up selling out of the book.

When I arrived at the fair that morning, I was escorted to my room by Josh, one of the official media escorts for the fair. On our way, we had a conversation that went something like this:

JOSH: Well, you must be a rock star or something. They only put really famous people in that room.

ME: Uh.

Well, the room was very full. And I spoke to the kids for about an hour on where stories come from in the universe and the importance of words as the defining mechanisms that make what they know become real.

Yeah, I tell kids some pretty weird stuff sometimes. But I think they like my stories and pictures.

And I read to them, too, from 3 of my books, and talked about how those stories pertained to my own life. I read from The Marbury Lens, Passenger, and from Winger.

There was also a very special kid in attendance that day, too: Ian, the now eighth-grade boy who was responsible two years ago for bringing me out to Miami after he'd gotten sucked into Marbury by reading The Marbury Lens. It was really cool to see him again, and see how much he's grown up and matured as a reader. I promised him I'd give him my sole copy of Winger before I left Miami, too (which I did).

Because the next day, I spoke on a panel about Passenger and "darkness" in Young Adult literature, and Ian was there, sitting quietly in the back row of the room.

It was an interesting panel, too, because I pointed out that I resisted the notion of assuming "YA" is an age level, as opposed to being a genre of literature which might be defined by thematic elements, my "essential adolescent experiences."

Eventually, there was no shortage of disagreement on the panel. One of the authors stated that kids stop reading when they're about 13 years old because they have too many constraints on their time.


Let me say this:


If it wouldn't have embarrassed him, I might have pointed to the 13-year-old kid sitting quietly in the back row who'd read every single book I ever wrote and would ultimately nearly finish reading my 400-page Winger before I got off the plane in California the following day.

The author also said that there were certain content issues, which, if you put them in a book about adolescents they would make the book "Adult" rather than "YA" because there are certain things that should not be in "YA" books.


I suppose there is that list somewhere.

And this is precisely why I hate "YA."

A couple years ago, I wrote a series of posts I called YIH8YA. I think I'm going to revisit the topic with fresh eyes.

So... like I said, I did get an email from Ian when I got back home to California. He told me that he was nearly finished reading Winger, and that it was his new favorite book written by Andrew Smith.

I'm pretty sure he won't be embarrassed if I quote him here because I am also pretty sure he does not read my blog, but he said this to me:

it is the funniest book I've ever read in my life I cant read one page without laughing my ass off it's awesome your best book yet...

Just keep reading.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

home again home again

I have spent the last few days sleeping off the jet lag from this past week's trip to Miami.

It was a terrific trip, but the napping was pretty nice too.

Here is what happened:

On my first day, post-flight across the country, I was picked up by Dr. Leslie Adams, an assistant superintendent for Miami-Dade schools. Dr. Adams was my escort for the day as we visited two high schools and got terribly lost when my iPhone's GPS attempted to make her drive me back to my house in California, which, it estimated, would take us 41 hours of driving time.

In the morning, I visited and spoke at Miami Senior High School, which is probably the most beautiful high school I have ever seen. And I've seen my share of them. It has the most amazing library, too -- and my books were the FIRST books in it, since it had just opened up after renovations.

The staff and kids there were incredible, too. I met entire English classes who were reading The Marbury Lens. So many of the kids there were familiar with my books. One of them, a kid named Mario, sat in the front row at my presentation and offered some of the most complex theories on quantum reality as it pertains to The Marbury Lens, King of Marbury, and Passenger -- all of which he had read.

At that school, I spoke about Young Adult Literature, and how I categorize it as a genre (as opposed to an age level) that touches on five themes -- essential adolescent concepts. One day I'll post about those themes here. I also read to the students from three of my books. It was really a great school visit, and I hope I get to go back to Miami Senior High again. They gave me a school T-shirt, too, which is just about the best kind of gift I could ever get.

I'd post a picture of it, but it's in the laundry because I was wearing it too much.

After that, like I said, Dr. Adams and I go lost trying to go across Miami to visit Miami Springs Senior High. It didn't really matter. We ended up getting there on time, and I had a remarkable conversation with her.

One of the things I really value in having the opportunity to visit so many different parts of the country is being able to see the differences in culture and attitude that exist in educational environments. The Miami schools were both so positive and uplifting. Kids at Miami Springs even decided to form a book club as a result of my visit, and their first book was The Marbury Lens.

Let me say something here, too: Boys in these schools are readers. There was no perceivable gender gap at all. I don't know where this ridiculous myth about boys not reading comes from, but this also became a topic of a difference of opinions about non-readers that came up on a panel discussion that I participated in on Saturday at the Miami Book Fair.

So I'll be Skyping in to Miami Springs High School to visit their book club when they discuss The Marbury Lens. I can't wait.

Tomorrow, I'll post about the Miami Book Fair (which is the best book festival in the country).

Friday, November 9, 2012

yalsa symposium

So I wanted to say a few things about participating in the 2012 YALSA Literature Symposium last weekend in St. Louis.

It was a fantastic experience.

This was my first (but definitely not last) trip to St. Louis, and I was pretty much blown away by the city, its people (especially the kids I met), and the awesomeness of the YALSA event.

On Saturday, I participated in the YALSA Book Blitz, where I signed copies of my books for attending librarians. Two things struck me about the event: First, the line for my books was really long. In fact, the books went out so quickly that some librarians went away empty-handed. Second, just about every librarian who waited also had a personal story to tell about my books and readers they knew who'd found a connection to my books.

It was really cool.

But, seriously, all my books were gone in about 10 minutes.

Also, at the Book Blitz, I had a very interesting conversation with a woman. It went like this:

WOMAN: I need to tell you why I un-friended you on Facebook.

(To be quite honest here, I wasn't wondering. Besides, who would ever go up to someone and say something like that??? I didn't even know who she was or what she could possibly be talking about, but I decided to play along.)

ME: Because I'm an asshole?

WOMAN: (laughing) No. It's because my son-in-law is named Andrew Smith and any time I tagged him in photos, it would tag you.

ME: Oh. I suppose it's good to know it wasn't because I'm an asshole, then.


The next morning, I was stumbling around the hotel trying to find some coffee and I heard someone call out "Andrew Smith! Andrew Smith!"

It was not my not-friend from the evening before.

It was Ellen Hopkins.

Ellen rocks.

I was looking for coffee because I was about to participate in a panel discussion with authors Torrey Maldonado, Greg Neri, and Antony John (see photo at top) and four high school-age boys from St. Louis schools, where we spoke about boys and reading and the preposterous myth that boys are uninterested and incapable when it comes to reading.

Let there be no doubt about that. Listening to those kids talk about books was like a religious experience for me. And our room was packed--standing room only--with attentive and fascinated audience members.

The photo below was taken outside the room where my panel was held. We took it to send to our editor, Kelly Milner Halls, because the four of us--Greg Neri, A.S. King, Ellen Hopkins, and myself--are contributors to her forthcoming Ripperology, an anthology of short stories that twist the myth of Jack the Ripper.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

books that imitate lives that imitate books

So I'm spending a few days writing about my trip to St. Louis.

It has come to my attention after giving all the talks I've presented over the past few weeks that my books imitate my life, which, in turn, imitates my books.

While I was in St. Louis, I received messages from a librarian in Texas who was actually the first non-publishing-type person to read an advance copy of Winger. I'm pretty sure she liked it a lot.

In one part of the book, the narrator, a kid named Ryan Dean West, gets into a bit of a jam at an airport security screening area.

For some reason, this seems to happen to me consistently; whenever I fly.

When I left Los Angeles last week to fly to St. Louis, I did all the right things to pass through the security check: no belt, no shoes, absolutely nothing in my pockets--you know, stuff like that. They made me stand in one of those machines that looks at your body while you assume the hands-up! position, too.

When I walked out of the machine, the TSA officer said (and these are his exact words) this:

TSA OFFICER: I am alerting on your crotch and buttocks.

ME: (in hindsight, probably not a good idea) Um. Thanks. I get that a lot.

He even showed me his little screen that had a cartoon-image of a body with yellow highlighted areas over... um... my crotch and butt.

I honestly don't know why these things always happen to me, I said, while he ran his hands over the "alert" areas. I also had to have my hands swabbed and checked for whatever atomic particles might be capable of bringing down a jet airliner.

Anyway, such was the beginning of my trip to St. Louis--a scene that mimics one from my forthcoming Winger.

Tomorrow or so, depending on the extent of my jet lag, I'd like to write about the YALSA Symposium.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

reading it forward

I suppose I'd have enough to say about my trip to St. Louis that I could write a week of posts about it, and I may do that.

I had never been to St. Louis before, but I am definitely looking forward to coming back next October to participate in the <3 Less Than Three Anti-Bullying Conference.

And I didn't really know much at all about what brought me out here this time: the YALSA Symposium and the St. Louis Public Library's "Read it Forward" Program. I'll talk about the YALSA Symposium and my St. Louis experiences on another post, though, because I'd like to say a couple things about the St. Louis Public Library.

Over the past five days I've been here, somebody remarked that there are plenty of reasons why the St. Louis Public Library is rated number two in the nation, and I think I got to see some of those reasons during my visit.

It was quite an honor for me to be chosen the Read it Forward author by the library for 2012. The program is an amazing way the library connects kids to books, literacy, and reading, and it is entirely dependent on the tireless work of librarians like Carrie Dietz.

In the past few months, Carrie visited something like 4,000 kids in St. Louis schools, talking about books and getting students to connect to the public library. As part of the program, the St. Louis Public library purchased 500 copies of my books and gave them away to high school students who wanted them, so when the time came for my visit there was an almost limitless supply of kids who'd read my books and were well-armed with questions about my stories and how they related to me as a person.

I met kids in St. Louis who had read every single one of my books, including Passenger and King of Marbury, which only came out weeks earlier.

On Monday, I visited two High Schools--Cleveland Naval Junior ROTC High and Central High School for the Performing Arts--where I gave talks about literacy and words, and their inseparable connections to being human, and then again I spoke at the St. Louis Public Library in the evening, and even that event was packed with kids. In a library. On a cold, wet night.

Carrie also put on what was probably the best panel session at the YALSA Symposium over the weekend, and I'll talk about that event next time. I have to get ready to catch a plane home (I am so incredibly homesick), so I can be back in time to do my patriotic duty today, which is to sit down and have a drink. And vote. Or something like that.