About that book ur hatin’ on…

Do you remember when you were a teen and you went online and found reviews of books before reading them? And you then blogged about them after reading?

Wait? What?

Forget what I just said, because if you’re roughly my age (35) or older, there was no internet until high school. Hell, there was no Internet; it was THE WORLD WIDE WEB. And we weren’t searching for book reviews.

However, today reviews abound. From the high-brow New York Times to the low-brow, one star, 20-word review on Amazon (that’s the minimum required), and all the blogs in between. In spite of all of the awesomeness that is the internet, this portal to, well, everything, do you know which reviews teens read?

None.

All right, not none, but I wanted to be dramatic. If any, they’ll read Amazon. Maybe, they’ll read Goodreads reviews, if a friend or parent has an account. And writing reviews? Sure. Some. But in comparison to the adults, not even a drop in the bucket.

Thus begins the paradox.

Reviews for YA lit are largely written by and for an adult audience. Now, I previously wrote about how I have no problem with having an adult audience. And I don’t, and I want them to keep reading and reviewing. My concern is this: when adults review from an adult perspective.

Young adult lit is first and foremost literature for teenagers. Adults read it as well. Great. However, imagine if we turned the table, and today’s teens read adult books, and then reviewed them. Across the board, not just here and there. Can you imagine how that would sound?

This novel didn’t really speak to me, because I don’t like have a mortgage or kids and really have no clue about a midlife crisis. Why should I? BTW, where’s the action in this story?

See how convoluted that was? And that’s my issue. So many reviews of YA lit (mine included) are written by adults speaking to adults, who don’t take into consideration that they are not the primary audience. YA writers move their words across the page and structure their stories in a fashion that is in step with the action, behaviors and beliefs of teens. Writers of adult fiction do the same for adults. Therefore, it only makes sense that the writing will not and should not be the same. How this gets lost is beyond me.

Yet it happens all the time. And I get angry and sad and frustrated, but know I am ultimately powerless. We as adults co-opt everything about youth culture, so I shouldn’t be surprised. But I am disheartened. Because teens don’t often find material on their own; they rely on adults (librarians and bookstores) to offer up selections.

And when those libraries and bookstores do not carry stories that may be the most suitable stories for these teens ever, because enough adults weren’t pleased, I feel like writing blogs like this and begging anyone who is about to review YA lit to remember what it was like for you as a teen.

Not the absence of computers and cell phones, but the feelings. The raw emotions. The randomness and lack of logic. The muddled world in which you lived and did your best to make sense of.

That world, the one that existed inside your head, and within your heart. It still exists. It looks different. It sounds different. And possibly it doesn’t fit you as well as it once did. But it’s not your call to say that it must. Because it’s not yours, it’s theirs.

Embrace and celebrate that difference. Don’t rob today’s youth of it.

It is not the critic who counts

I am biased. As a high school English teacher for the past ten years I’ve witnessed brilliance from my colleagues. Not only in teaching the curriculum and caring for teens, but in finding books, and reading them with a critical eye for the insight they provide us, and invariably for what our students may also learn from them.

Therefore, when I received a review of Tap Out from a local English teacher, not on a blog or in any print media, but in the form of a hand-written letter, I was scared to open it. I had no idea what her opinion of my work was going to be, but I knew she would speak her mind, because that’s what the best teachers do.

She didn’t hold back. And what she highlighted are aspects of the novel I care about so deeply, that I was filled with pride for what Tap Out achieves:

“I loved Tap Out. The teacher in me faced, once again, that some of my most difficult students are the ones with the most difficult lives.”

This is a powerful point I’ve faced time and again. Often the “difficult” students are met with confrontation from educators and administration. This is true for Tony, yet there is also compassion and empathy from Big O. I am so glad I addressed that knotty issue authentically and that it resonated with another teacher.

“When Tony wants to isolate himself for a few minutes he was able to get on the bus ‘…and grab a seat in the middle and bury my head into the notch between the window and the seat.’ I can’t imagine there is a reader who doesn’t know that place.”

Another excellent point of perspective. It is wise for us as educators to remember what it’s like to be a teen. It’s tumultuous, and for some there’s no outlet from the turbulence. Recognizing when a student is in that place can change everything.

“Is the truck an intentional symbol for the boys? ‘A piece of shit through and through. That much was obvious in the light, as are the rust spots and chipped panel. The engine and transmission are solid, though.’ “

The question of an author’s intent with symbolism is pervasive in the classroom. I know I’ve addressed it countless times, and I’ve always said that nothing is by chance. Now I can say, as a writer, yes, the truck is symbolic, but I didn’t set out to make it so. I simply wrote about the world in which these boys live. It only made sense that they’d end up with a vehicle much like them.

The letter goes on to praise Tap Out, with the author suggesting that her assessment is beneath the level of the literary critic. I disagree. I believe it is more important. It is teachers and librarians and administrators that live on the front line. It is my purpose as a writer to account for those stories from the trenches. If a critic, who is not attached to this world isn’t thrilled with Tap Out, okay, I’m not thrilled, but I’ll live, so long as I have teachers who can see within the characters their own students, and who can then say to them, “Read this.”

Because that’s the result I seek. Writing is a business, but foremost it is an artistic expression, aiming to hit a mark so elusive and fluid, it is almost impossible. No one can hit that mark for everyone, because it doesn’t exist. There are more stories and perspectives than there are writers. But we can try. And based on this letter, I’ve hit this one dead on. Good for me, but better, good for my readers.

Thank you, Ann L.

Is there anything you want to say?

I recently answered questions for a book review blogger and was struck by the last one. To paraphrase: Is there anything you want to say to your readers?

Yes. More than you can imagine.

But I knew I needed to be succinct, and I gave a response that I believe is both pithy and intelligent. We’ll see when the post runs. However, since I have plenty of space here, I thought I might answer with a bit more breathing room.

To the parents/guardians/aunts/uncles/teachers/librarians/inquisitive adults:

You will see the cover of Tap Out and will be intrigued. It will draw you in and you will want to know about the boy on the cover. Then you’ll read the first line. And if you don’t put it down (please don’t put it down), you may just read straight through the first chapter. And then you’ll have a choice. Are you willing to go down this hole with Tony, to see where and how he comes out? To let the child you’re purchasing for do the same? Because the only way is through, and Tony goes to Hell and back.

Are you willing to go there, to allow yourself, or your child, to enter a world that is not apologetic, does not hold anyone’s hand, and may just leave you looking at life a bit differently?

I hope you are. Because the violence and the vulgarity is not a veneer. It is not a macho screen without roots. It is a direct manifestation of suffering and a lack of acceptance that such suffering is okay. The road of Tap Out is not an easy one to walk. But ask yourself: Aren’t the best stories a little dangerous?

To the teens:

This is for you. This is not my story or any one person’s story. It is Tony’s and he is a compilation of my decade of working with teens and listening to them and appreciating lives that are so often dismissed. Read and learn.

This story is about MMA and poverty and meth, but it is more about choices than anything else. In this world, the greatest power we have is choice. Unfortunately, the options are not always the ones we’d select for ourselves. That doesn’t matter. We still must choose. Allowing someone else to do so for you is no different than making the decision yourself. That is a bitter pill to swallow, but let Tony show you how it’s done.

And when you finish Tap Out, pass it along. Give it to someone who you know is having a rough go of it, or to someone who could use a little perspective, or to someone who you know will relate more than you ever will. The power is in the story, not the words or the action, but the impact. What have you learned about standing up for yourself and about how the world can work? Your answer is vital.

To all:

I love this story. I love these characters. Not because I love violence and vulgarity, but because I embrace flaws and complicated existence. I don’t know a single person who isn’t more or less than what he or she appears to be. We are a muddled mess, and that view, to me, is the most intriguing. Enjoy.