No Kids Allowed!

LBenedictAug08 We’ve been graced with some extremely talented guest bloggers these past few Sundays, and today is no exception. I’m thrilled to introduce author Laura Benedict, whose debut ISABELLA MOON kept me up all night when I read it (and certain passages induced further insomnia the nights that followed). Her latest is CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, and based on the stellar reviews it’s also a must-read.

Without further ado…
I worry sometimes that I’m corrupting the nation’s youth. (Okay, maybe just a teeny-tiny portion of the nation’s youth. Perhaps nine or ten of the little darlings.) I worry that the line between adult and young adult fiction—particularly fiction with a supernatural bent—is so blurred that young readers are stumbling into material that they shouldn’t be exposed to. Back in the day (let’s not go too deeply into which day), the lines were pretty clear: Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz were all the rage with their edgy language and adult situations. Fourteen and fifteen year-olds could pick up the books without too much criticism, though they were hardly fodder for school libraries. Soon after, the brilliant R.L. Stine came along for the younger kiddies, and J.K. Rowling blew off the door to the (not too) dark side for eight and nine-year-olds. The kids who grew up reading Harry Potter, as well as their younger brothers and sisters, are now looking for more: more fantasy, more witchcraft, ghosts and vampires. They’re looking for escapist literature.bene_lonely heartscopy

Many have found Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series. My own teenage daughter adores these books. I haven’t taken the plunge. At sixteen, Pomegranate’s a fairly mature reader. She’s got a strong background in Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman literature, so she’s no stranger to edgy sexual and social relationships in fiction. She loves Shakespeare. I don’t worry too much when she reads, say, The Godfather or Hannibal because she seems to keep the violence and language in perspective—plus, we talk about what she’s reading.

A few days ago, I was signing books at my local Barnes and Noble when an eleven or twelve year-old girl picked up one of the paperback copies of my novel, Isabella Moon. Isabella Moon is a ghost story. The girl started reading the copy on the back of it, and when her mother came up to the table, the girl told her she wanted to buy it. I tensed.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to sell books. I just don’t want to sell books to children. I don’t write books for children. I write books for adults.
Both Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts are full of what one might euphemistically be called “adult situations.” Meaning lots of sex, buckets of violence and language that might not make a sailor blush, but will instantly bring a scowl to my mother’s face. There are vast numbers of adults who don’t like their books spiced with such things, and sometimes it’s hard to tell from a book’s cover what it might contain inside. (Sometimes clichés are spot-on.)

I’m certainly not casting any blame on J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. I celebrate them because their books have brought kids to the bookstores in droves. It’s their subject matter that muddles the situation. J.K. Rowling’s books—for the most part—have a Halloween kind of darkness to them. Like every good Disney protagonist, her hero is an orphan. He lives in a boarding school. He’s goofy, but kind of cool. My understanding of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires is that they’re edgy in a West Side Story kind of way. Strictly PG or, maybe, PG-13.
But true evil isn’t PG-13. I look at evil as something that can insinuate itself into a person and wreak emotional and spiritual havoc. I look at it as something that can overflow into life-shattering chaos. Its habits and proclivities can be seductive, but they can also be brutal, sexually-charged and terrifying. Evil is chaos. Evil is unpredictable. It’s never pretty—at least not for long. I explore evil through my own work, but, in the end, I know that my work—just like Rowling’s and Meyer’s—can only approximate true evil. Even so, I have to ask, "How much is too much?"

My daughter has read my books in manuscript form, though I must confess that they were lightly redacted versions. Several pages had large Post-Its placed over the titillating parts like pasties on an exotic dancer. (Yes, the last time I saw an exotic dancer was in an Ann Margaret movie!) I don’t know if she peeked. Perhaps she did. And that would be a shame-on-mommy kind of thing. But I know her. I know that if she has questions, or something freaks her out, I’m there to answer her honestly.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there for every thirteen or fourteen year-old who picks up my books. I can only hope their parents are around, paying attention.

I told the mother of the girl at Barnes & Noble that she might want to look at Isabella Moon before her daughter read it, that it contained some adult material, and was quite frightening. The mother appeared unconcerned, and even bought Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts for herself, bless her. Perhaps the daughter was a mature reader, just like my daughter. I’m skeptical, though. I gave them my card with my email address and asked them to email me with their thoughts about it.  Maybe it’s just the mother in me, worrying.

So, speaking as a mother, if you’re under seventeen, don’t buy my books!
Notes From the Handbasket
CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, Now available from Ballantine Books!
ISABELLA MOON, Available in trade paperback

Lessons from the Corner Drug Dealer

By John Gilstrap

Every drug dealer on the planet knows the secret to success: Hook ’em when they’re young, and they’re yours forever. Even the tobacco companies learned the lesson and gave us Joe Camel a few years ago. Rumors continue to circulate among the high school set that smoking keeps you from gaining weight, and that’s like, um, the ga-reatest thing there is. Strategy, baby!

Someone needs to explain to me why, on the cusp of 2009, the publishing industry hasn’t yet caught on to what Bobby Two-fingers and his pals have known for decades. If we want the written word to compete with all the other flashy, passive forms of entertainment that are vying for our children’s attention, we need to make those words really relevant really early. We need to tune them in and turn them on to books when they’re most vulnerable so that we can keep them as customers forever.

In a very real way, then, we authors are desperately dependent upon the choices made by school librarians and curriculum planners. If they make the world of kiddie-lit interesting, there’s hope. If not, then we’re just marking time till we become as anachronistic as the buggy whip: a quaint memory from a simpler time.

On December 16, 2008, Washington Post Staff Writer Valerie Strauss posited that recent Newberry Medal winners—the Academy Award of young people’s literature—might be “so complicated and inaccessible to most children that they are effectively turning kids off reading.” The article goes on to explain that of the 25 winners and runners-up, four deal with death, six with parental abandonment, and another four with mental handicaps. Most, the article says, deal with “tough social issues.” Goodness gracious, I hope no children get trampled in the stampede to pull those stories off the shelves. What fifth-grader won’t walk away from his Wii to immerse himself in death and abandonment?

And what world did the judges grow up in that would make them believe that kids want to read that stuff? It’s literary broccoli with okra pudding on the side. Kids’ll choke it down because a grownup says they have to, but the pain of the experience will linger for years—perhaps for a lifetime.

When my son was in third and fourth grades, he devoured R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. I’m talking dozens of books; yet one of his teachers made it very clear to him and me both that she did not approve of him reading such trash. I told her that there’s only one important word in the phrase, “reading such trash,” and then I reminded her that she didn’t get a vote in what he could and could not read. Today, my son is 22 years old, and when I had the honor to meet Bob Stein at Thrillerfest last year, I thanked him for the books that inspired my kid to become the voracious reader that he is today.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the preeminent school districts in the country, they have (or at least had, a few years ago) kids reading The Scarlet Letter in 8th grade. No kidding, The Scarlet letter! As if, in the pantheon of modern-day accessible literature, there’s not a book out there that might be of good enough quality to teach the same lessons without the burden of language patterns that haven’t been used in my lifetime times three. It’s infuriating.

Teachers and administrators of the world, please wake up! We change mathematics methodologies to the point where I can no longer teach a fourth-grader to subtract “the right way,” we change history to demonize founders we once thought of as heroes, we change curricula to reflect the political whims of the day. Is it too much to ask to give kids books that will inspire them to read more?

It doesn’t have to be literary chocolate and ice cream, but how about the occasional literary pizza? You could even put some broccoli on it.