Every movie needs a kickass soundtrack.
Here's ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WALLFLOWER'S.
Because the story simultaneously takes place in 1958 and 2018, I took the liberty of jumping back and forth between the timelines. So not only do we have Little Richard, Doris Day, Buddy Holly, and The Chantels, but also The Flaming Lips, Julia Holter, Perfume Genius, and Holly Herndon.
Each song is preceded by a description of the scene it’s scoring. Beware light spoilers.
1. OPENING CREDITS
Frontispice, for 5 Hands by Maurice Ravel
2. AH, PENNYBROOKE
Everyday by Buddy Holly
3. MA, WHERE ARE YOU?
Vacuum by Pharmakon
4. FIRST DAY AT FREEMAN
Maybe by The Chantels
5. GRAY ROCK
Twilight Time by The Platters
6. THE BURIED LAB
Chorus by Holly Herndon
7. KATIE AND THE ANTS
If I Knew Your Were Comin by Eileen Barton
8. THE DRESS FITS
So Lillies (Live at RAK) by Julia Holter
9. GATHERING GAZES LIKE LAUNDRY STATIC
Rebel Rouser by Duane Eddy
10. HAL v. SHELLEY
I Am Who I Am by The Books
11. WHAT’S DADDY LOOKING AT?
The Supine by Andrew Bird
12. REVEREND MARSH
Concerning the UFO Sighting . . . by Sufjan Stevens
13. THE HAM RADIO CRACKLES
Keep a Knockin' by Little Richard
14. ENOUGH FOOD TO FEED A WRESTLING TEAM
Call Me by Johnny Mathis
A Guy Is a Guy by Doris Day
16. I’D RUN TOO
Have You Heard? by Joni James
17. CALVIN AT THE CARNIVAL
The Gash by The Flaming Lips
18. TALES OF THE UNSPEAKABLE
Dark Parts by Perfume Genius
19. RHODA'S GOT SOME MATCHES
Burn the Witch by Radiohead
20. PHOEBE GETS A HAIRCUT
When I Grow Up by First Aid Kit
21. THE BUNKER
Folk Lonely by mr. Gnome
22. LIKE A PEZ DISPENSER
Star Stealers by mr. Gnome
23. BYE, BYE BETH
Goddess Eyes II by Julia Holter
24. THAT'S THE SCOUT
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman by Ronald Stein
25. PHOEBE BATTLES THE GRAY ANTS
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips
26. THE CHANNEL CHANGES
Orphaned by Max Tundra
Mercury by Sufjan Stevens
28. THE CURTAIN RISES
The Wayward Wind by Gogi Grant
Rest well, Phoebe. See you soon.
Thoughts I had while watching this video:
- I look tired.
- That's cool. I'll bet, like, only 17 people watch this anyway.
- Did I pronounce Sam Bosma correctly? OH NO! I DIDN'T PRONOUNCE FRANCESCO'S NAME CORRECTLY, THAT'S FOR SURE. Ugh. Now he gets one huge favor from me, to be collected whenever he sees fit.
- I hope my inability to come up with actual adjectives for the lovely people who worked on this book doesn't reflect on my writing ability . . . or their loveliness.
Thanks again to John Cusick, Christian Trimmer, Liz Kossner, Krista Vossen, Sam Bosma, and FranCESco Francavilla. You all have my heart.
Find WALLFLOWER on:
Good evening, ladies and gentleman, and welcome to another life-saving installment of . . .
How to Survive a SHiVeR!
On tonight’s program, we’ll be examining those Shivers that are most likely to deceive you. Despite their seemingly harmless appearances, these are some of the ghastliest, creepiest, and pig-tailed monstrosities that you, yes you, could fall victim to if you let your guard down.
So turn off the lights, pull down the shades, snag that mouth-watering Swanson dinner out of the oven, and do not, under any circumstances, touch that dial!
Staying tuned could save your life.
If you see this creature, do not, we repeat, DO NOT try to spread it on your morning toast--much as it might resemble your grandma's home-made raspberry jam. For the Blob is more likely to have you for breakfast.
Born from a meteorite, this wobbly wonder devours everything in its path, from raccoon carcasses to entire diners to Aunt Edna's shoes. It has a particular taste for drunken teenagers.
This is not the kind of Shiver you can get rid of by simply mashing it to the underside of your desk. No. If you find yourself facing this fearsome globule of space fat, DON'T PANIC. Simply grab the nearest fire extinguisher, pull the pin, and spray liberally. The Blob will freeze and shatter faster than the hard candies in your grandmother’s serving dish.
You might be able to eat it at that point. But I, ladies and gentlemen, would not want to be the first to try.
Say, who’s that attractive fellow walking down the street? He looks so dapper and so confident. Why . . . it’s you!
Or is it?
If you find your doppelgänger walking toward you, you may be tempted to buy him a root beer float. But we must insist that this handsome devil is more likely a creature born from a plant-based pod than your long-lost twin.
So if you do see your mirror counterpart, we must insist that you run, don't walk--
Hold on, ladies and gentlemen, there seems to be a disturbance in the studio. I'll be back shortly.
. . .
Ahem. Where were we? Ah yes. Run . . . toward your double. They are quite friendly and do not mean you any harm. This reporter is happy to be the first to say that when it comes to our plant-based duplicates, you have absolutely nothing to worry about.
Besides, didn't Mom always say you need your vegetables?
The Devil Wears Pigtails
“Why, hello there, princess! You’re looking quite pretty today! How about a toffee?”
These, dear watcher, could be the last words you ever speak. Unless you know what to look for, that is!
There is a little girl on the loose who would set you on fire as soon as look at you. While most young blonde darlings are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, this misleading misanthrope was created with a far more hellish cocktail. Try razorblades, gasoline, and deadly tap shoes for a start!
Watch for the subtle glint in the child's eye. The wry smile. The fingers coyly playing with a matchbook. And do not, under any circumstances, accept a basket of kisses.
Trust us on this one.
That's it for this week's installment of . . .
KNOW YOUR SHiVeRS!
Until next week's program, sleep tight. But not too tight.
That's right! It’s INTERGALACTIC BUY A KID A BOOK DAY! Yessssssssss!
(Okay, not really. It’s just birthday, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
The steps are simple:
1. Choose a kid.
Preferably a kid who doesn’t have access to books or is a hesitant reader. But any kid will do.
2. Buy that kid a book.
Consider that kid’s tastes and then talk to librarians/booksellers/bookish parents to try and figure out what story they would most enjoy.
EXPLORE OUTSIDE OF BESTSELLERS. We all love Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling and Eric Carle and the rest of those cool cats, but kids will absorb these stories through osmosis anyway. There are some searingly wonderful stories out there you haven’t discovered yet.
3. READ THAT BOOK YOURSELF
This step is important. Not only will it give you insight into what kids are reading these days, but you’ll also be able to discuss the story with the kid afterward. This is a rad thing.
Also, and I say this with zero hyperbole, but there are puh-LENTY of kids books out there with plots and emotional complexity that are light-years more mature than a lot of the swill we’re letting adults read.
If you want to give the kid a pristine copy of the book, then you might need to buy two copies or head to the library or get purchase silk gloves for delicate page turning.
DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. And be careful. You might enjoy yourself.
4. Give the book to the kid.
Wrap it if you wanna.
5. Discuss the book with the kid if and when they choose to read it.
Don't be one of those adults who pesters a kid about whether they're using your present or not. They'll read it when they're good and ready. Maybe never. The more research you do beforehand, the more likely they are to pick it up and flip through it.
The steps are so simple! No wonder INTERGALACTIC BUY A KID A BOOK DAY has survived for the last six centuries and didn’t just start today.
Check out my list of book recommendations below, and please PLEASE post your own favorites in the comments.
Recommended books for kids:
This year's theme is graphic novels. What better way to hook reluctant readers?
1. Roller Girl by Victoria Jameison
2. Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson
3. El Deafo by Cece Bell
4. Cardboard by Doug TenNapel
5. Cleopatra in Space by Mike Maihack
See you next year!
(And probably before then.)
It's PLEASANTVILLE meets CLOVERFIELD (not the third)!
It's CABIN IN THE WOODS meets ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN!
IT'S . . .
And it will be here 11 September 2018.
Here's a description to tide you over:
Phoebe Darrow is a lightning rod for monsters.
She and her mom are forced to flee flesh-eating plants, blobs from outer space, and radioactive ants. They survive thanks only to Phoebe’s dad—an invisible titan, whose giant eyes warn them where the next monster attack will take place.
All Phoebe wants is to stop running from motel to motel and start living a monster-free life in New York or Paris. But when her mom mysteriously vanishes, Phoebe is left to fend for herself in small-town Pennybrooke.
That's when Phoebe starts to transform . . .
Christian McKay Heidicker returns with a book unlike any other, challenging perceived notions of beauty, identity, and what it means to be a monster.
It's going to be a good one, my dears.
I used to have a severe allergy to book descriptions that were nothing more than combinations of other popular works:
“It’s Hunger Games meets The Martian!”
“It’s Maze Runner meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants!”
“It’s Lord of the Flies meets Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret!”
But after years of refining my stories down to ticklish, pithy, elevator pitches, something changed. I was describing my most recent book, Throw Your Arm Across Your Eyes and Scream, to a friend and getting nothing but furrowed eyebrows in response. So I decided to try the phrase my agent used to sell it to Simon & Schuster.
“It’s, um—” I said self-consciously—“it’s Pleasantville meets Cloverfield.”
“Oh!” the person said. “That sounds great!”
“Huh,” I said. “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?”
This moment caused me to do some inner analysis. I realized that I, like many writers, had fallen victim to believing that I could actually create something new—that my work was so unique when compared to other books that I had no choice but to eek out the cleverest ways to describe them. When my agent handily proved just how wrong I was—that sometimes the best way to stoke a potential reader’s imagination is to compare it to things they already know and love—I started to think about what it means to be truly original, about how to combine familiar works effectively so that they resonate in a reader’s mind, and how a writer can fall victim to cliché or ride it like a wave to new heights that quote-unquote pure originality can never take her.
Considering that this talk is about my gradual submission into embracing cliché, I am going to do the most clichéd thing I can think of and start each section with a famous quote before I proceed to discuss its meaning. As David Foster Wallace said, “many clichés, so lame & banal on the surface, actually [express] a great & terrible truth.”
Forgive me now; thank me later.
“There is nothing new under the sun.”
When I first heard this quote, I took it as a challenge. I was like, nothing new under the sun, huh? Watch this:
- Kid in video game rehab!
- A girl trapped inside a 1950s monster movie marathon!
- Scary Stories for Young Foxes!
I swore to myself that I would take all of the tropes and clichés woven into the fabric of the young readers’ market and unravel them, spinning the loose threads into something exciting and strange. While working on my first book, Cure for the Common Universe, I read tons of YA, including the most popular books involving video games and rehab, just to get a sense of the giants I was trying to defeat.
I felt encouraged when I couldn’t find anything similar to what I was trying to write. I wanted to create a comedy filled with action that still demonstrated how difficult it is to become a good person, especially when you’re a teenager. This didn’t seem to exist. Ready Player One told me that if I ever needed to solve an international political crisis, all I would need is a firm understanding of 1980s pop culture. It’s Kind of a Funny Story (RIP Ned Vizzini) told me that a girl with severe depression and scars on her face just needs love from a boy, and she’ll be fine.
I felt a smug sort of satisfaction believing that I was going to defeat these books by writing their polar opposite. Little did I realize I was playing straight into cliché by attempting this. By breaking a familiar, popular structure, I was actually validating it. It was only because these tropes were so familiar to audiences that their opposites could stand by themselves, like a shadow or a pair of assless chaps.
But in my mind, I had my brand-new sparkling theme that had never been tackled anywhere ever. And then a friend insisted I read Gone with the Wind. After I finished it, I was like, yes! Adventure! Comedy! Insufferably selfish characters. This is exactly what I was trying to do. Only, y’know, a lot shorter and instead of the Civil War, video games. (Fortunately for me, few kids are reading Gone with the Wind these days so my story still felt semi-original.)
Over time, I came to realize I would have been better off copying something I admired than trying to break something I did not. By being contrary I engaged some readers and alienated a hell of a lot of others. I also learned that if you try to abandon all of the elements that make other books a smashing success, you won’t sell nearly as many. Surprise.
The ironic thing is that when Cure for the Common Universe came out, a reviewer actually described it as Ready Player One meets It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Whoever picked it up because of that review must have been very disappointed.
“Talent in writing is the ability to perceive, internalize, and submit to models.”
–Matthew Kirby paraphrasing Samuel R. Delaney
Matt Kirby is a brilliant writer and a dear friend. He came up with this quote after reading Delaney’s About Writing. The quote is a bit of a doozy, so I’ll give it to you again:
“Talent in writing is the ability to perceive, internalize, and submit to models.”
Let’s break it into three parts.
First, we are going to perceive models. Have you ever been in the middle of watching a movie and thought, Oh, this is the part where the hero has to blah. Oh, this is the dark night of the something. Right, this is the section in every fantasy movie where they have to visit the old weirdie and obtain the magical thingy. That is you recognizing models. (If you aren’t great at this and you haven’t read Joseph Campbell, now is probably the time.)
Second, we are going to internalize those models. Once you can recognize specific story structures, they will start to seep into your bone marrow. This is considerably easier than the previous step because it simply involves seeing a model so many times that you start to forget about it. You instinctively understand what composes a fantasy story. So whether it’s Lord of the Rings or Name of the Wind, your heart knows the beats and your spidey sense knows the ingredients, but your brain is able to just kick back and enjoy it.
Third, and this is the most interesting part of this quote, we are going to submit to models. When I started writing Throw Your Arm Across Your Eyes and Scream, I prepared by watching dozens of 1950s horror movies. Many of them bordered on unwatchable. I, I thought, was going to fix that. Still sporting those bad habits I had when writing Cure, I approached this new project with a mental sledgehammer, destroying tropes and believing most of what I was inventing was completely new because hey, I had never thought of it before.
But then I read a graphic novel on film theory called Filmish. It had a section that discussed the motif of the eye in horror films and how it fixates on women. It discussed all of the pieces vital to a good scary movie and the order in which they have always been presented. It turned out I had unconsciously recreated these elements in my book.
This unsettled me at first. I figured I would be exposed as an unoriginal hack. But I reminded myself of those clichéd/wise quotes and was soothed. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all. Submitting to models means giving yourself over to them thus improving your talent. I had innocently taken a structure I recognized, had completely forgotten about because I’d seen it so many times, and then applied it to give the story a strong spine. This is a good thing.
The truth is that once you’ve read enough books and smarty pants quotes, you’re humbled in knowing you’re going to copy no matter how revolutionary you try to be. So you may as well copy smart and you may as well copy well.
Of course, this turns out to be a lot trickier than it seems at first blush.
“Amateurs borrow. Masters steal.”
--Picasso . . . or T.S. Eliot or John Lennon or actually, you know what, let’s just say Christian McKay Heidicker, I came up with this quote, I did
When I first heard that masters steal, I was certain it didn’t mean what I thought it meant. Stealing sounds like straight-up plagiarism, the sort of thing that will get a college student expelled or the first lady of the United States a daylong news cycle. And what did it mean to borrow something as an amateur? Would they stick an old idea in their book only to have the words vanish before the reader’s very eyes? Confusing.
It took a great deal of experimentation, screwing things up, getting things right on occasion, and reading a massive amount of books to truly understand what this quote meant. I’m hoping to save you some time and some eyestrain today by explaining it.
We are all amateurs in the beginning, timidly nibbling from great works. And we do this, I think, out of ignorance. The author mind can be lazy, and when we first start writing, we’re very much in danger of steering the story straight into a well-worn rut that audiences and editors have seen so many times they’ll throw up all over your pages out of sheer boredom. This, I believe, is what this quote, my quote, means when it says that amateurs borrow. We put things on the page because they feel familiar and we get a little squirt of dopamine that says, yes, you have come up with something original. Good job.
So, how do you steal like a master? And how do you not feel like a fraud while doing it? (I don’t need to tell anyone in this room that I am not a master, I am still figuring this stuff out, but here’s my thought process so far.)
Neil Gaiman got his fame as the prince of storytelling by writing the Sandman comics because nobody had ever seen anything like it before. When I was in high school, I dove into the series in awe at the sheer scope of the work. I remember being impressed with the massive cast of characters, especially the amount of detail given to the minor throwaways. In the realm of dream, outside of Morpheus’s castle, there is a shack tenanted by Cain and Abel. The brothers leant comic relief to the dreary scene every time wolfish Cain murdered bumbling Abel, only to have Abel spring right back to life again. As a high-schooler, I was blown away by this idea. Everybody was. How did this man manage to spin these incredible characters out of nothing?
The answer is, of course, he didn’t. He stole them. Now, before you rightly point out that of course Cain and Abel aren’t original characters, that the genius comes from turning the Biblical figures into comic relief, you should probably know something. I went on to read Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, which was written before Neil Gaiman had published his first comic. In Swamp Thing, Moore shows the gate to dreamland, guarded by, you guessed it, comically murderous Cain and poor, hapless Abel. It wasn’t until I read even further that I discovered these same comedic iterations had been the host of a collection of scary stories in the 1960s.
It turns out, nearly every one of Gaiman’s characters, including those from his children’s books and books for adults, are a direct parallel, from their name right on down to their narrative drive, of a figure in religion or myth or golden age comics. He just combined them in interesting ways, the way I accidentally injected a little Gone with the Wind into a contemporary book about a video game addict. The difference was, nobody had seen this sort of thing in a comic book before. Well, most hadn’t anyway. This is part of why I write for kids. I can break down new walls, and their little jaws will drop and their eyes bulge out. The pages in their books are still blank. And I seem like a genius.
If you steal, you’ll be in great company. Shakespeare stole, of course. Every play he ever wrote. So did Tolkien. And if you don’t know this, go read some history or Wagner’s Ring Cycle. You’ll be delighted and maybe a little appalled. Either way, we have to admit that even though we can locate the wellspring of these writers’ genius, it doesn’t diminish their accomplishments in the public consciousness. Gaiman and Moore and Tolkien and Shakespeare wrote fan fiction. (So did E.L. James for Fifty Shades of Gray, but let’s ignore that for the time being.) If this doesn’t encourage you to steal, I don’t know what will.
Once I recognized just how often my favorite writers lifted characters and locations and story arcs from other places, I went on a bit of a stealing spree. For Throw Your Arm Across Your Eyes and Scream, I stole King Kong and Anne Darrow, the damsel he kidnaps and carries to the top of the Empire State Building. I stole the Blob and the creature from the Black Lagoon and a chilling young pyromaniac with blond pigtails from a brilliant movie called The Bad Seed (which was based on a play, which was based on a book).
Of course, I didn’t check the availability of any of these characters, and Simon & Schuster’s legal team is looking into whether or not I can actually use them as I write this. This might sound unnerving, the idea that I could lose my characters with a single click of a lawyer’s pen, but it isn’t, actually. Worst-case scenario, I have to rename all of my monsters. King Kong will become Titan Ape, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon will become Fish Lips Cunningham. (If it’s actually an issue, I’ll spend a lot more time on those names, I promise.) Renaming familiar characters has been done before, after all. Watchmen, which I’m sure you’ve all heard of, was based on pre-existing superheroes. When DC comics ran into legal issues, Moore just changed their names and costumes. This works because people recognize models of superheroes. They recognize models of monsters and models of tragic historical figures and, when it comes to E.L. James stealing from Stephanie Meyer, they recognize models of abusive relationships.
Now if you’re anything like me, you’re growing skeptical at this point. By looking at the toweringly brave works of today—Grasshopper Jungle and The Hate U Give and El Deafo—you’ll recognize that they look and feel nothing like the stories meant for kids a century ago or even a decade ago. And you’re right. They’re very different. So if we are in fact recreating the same stories over and over again, stealing characters from works already stirring in the public consciousness, then how is literature evolving?
It’s time for another quote.
“People can only handle stories that are 5% different.”
--my friend Korey
Now I’m going to try and burn down everything I just told you.
Copying old stories sucks. It’s lazy. It smells like your millennial neighbor’s compost can. It saturates the market with drivel, making young readers addicted to sugary simple models, and it makes intelligent readers’ eyes glaze over with something resembling death. If you’d like a pungent example, go see the newest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and keep in mind that every movie is structured thusly: win a battle, lose a battle, win a battle, lose a battle, lose an important battle, win the final battle. Seriously, Marvel throws out every draft that doesn’t adhere to this.
Kurt Vonnegut recognized this phenomenon by drawing diagrams on a blackboard that outlined every story ever told, comedies, tragedies, fairy tales, in very simple curves. He is, of course, simultaneously praising and mocking our predictability as storytellers.
So how do we keep work fresh and not oversaturate the world with the same old stuff? How do we fight conformity? We do it slowly, and we do it by changing the story 5%. This is an arbitrary number, of course, but it demonstrates, nicely I think, that audiences don’t have patience for things that are much different than what they’re used to. 5% might feel small, but I promise it can contain multitudes. You can write a traditional murder mystery but make the cast pets at a pet store. You can write a fantasy story but make the magic system revolve around spray tans that slowly wear off. You can write a superhero movie and, hold onto your hats for this one, make the main character a woman.
Literature evolves through tiny bursts of creativity that over decades and centuries inch us into the stratosphere. The human condition remains the same. Our worries remain the same. But the ingredients and the stakes are always in flux. A boy being chased by a murderer in 2017 might be able to use his cellphone to call for help, but he’s also in danger of giving away his hiding place if the murderer is tech-savvy. By paying attention to elements, old and new, we can combine them in ways that although seem familiar, trick an audience into expanding their understanding.
Sometimes, rarely, a story that is 7-10% different than the acceptable standard happens to hook the public imagination, revolutionizing the art, and vaulting our understanding of the human condition to new heights. (If you haven’t seen the movie The Lobster, now would probably be the time.)
These are the kinds of stories I like to write. The ones that are 7-10% different. I risk professional obscurity by attempting this, of course, but the other options bore me. And I also know that the works that are just different enough to toss a pack of Mentos into the Diet Coke of the public consciousness are the ones that stick around.
My most recent work, Scary Stories for Young Foxes, is a retelling of classic horror stories using scientifically accurate accounts of fox lives. A rabies outbreak is a zombie story. A woman who cages a fox so she can draw it and capture its essence for her children’s books is a witch story. The white haired creature who steals kits from their dens in the winter nights and is camouflaged by the snows is a ghost story.
The different thing about this project is that I submitted to models from the outset. Before starting, I read a whole bunch of Berenstain Bears and examined all of the classic horror tales, trying to discover what made them tick. I took these threads and wove them into my book. And the story became creepier than anything I could have come up with by my lonesome. This might sound like bragging or possibly like some shameful admission, but it isn’t either really. I’m telling you I figured out what worked and I added it in, and most readers will be none-the-wiser, like getting a recipe from a blog and then deleting your browser history.
I hope you try these things. I hope you try to understand the underlying skeleton of all the works you read and watch. I hope you copy them in interesting ways by smashing your favorite worlds together. Then I hope you try to break what you’ve created by attempting unfamiliar. We are in the business of breathing life into other people’s minds so they can have models that make life easier to navigate. At the end of the day, there’s no harm in using the images and the fears, the desires and the hopes that already live in there. Just so long as you push past that staleness into the dangerous unknowns of literature and all of its haunting promises.
You know those moments when you wake up in the middle of the night, realize it's your first book's paperback release, figure you should probably do something about it, and then do the first thing that comes to you?
Shut up, ME TOO!
Yes, there's something weird on my shirt. No, I can't stop staring at it either.
The title probably explains itself, but . . .
I attended an amazing event called Teen Author Boot Camp that is operated by stunningly talented people who keep hundreds of kids organized and working like a well-buttered machine.
I was asked to teach a class on how to gamify your writing experience. At the end of the class, I challenged them a vocabulary game called Contact, the rules of which can be found here (you should play it with me sometime). I thought what better way to up the stakes than to offer up some sort of reward if the kids were able to defeat me, a professional author, in a game all about words. Of course, I have little to give beyond the hairs on my face.
And that's just what they took.
Whether they actually defeated me or if I let them win because I need to take an author photo set in the 1950s (and beards weren't exactly in back then), we'll never know.
But we can watch the result:
(video credit: Chase Sofia Schetselaar)
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go design a new site logo. Or grow a new beard. Whichever happens first.
Love-a you all.
I was given the honor of speaking to the children's librarians of Utah last week at ULA.
This is how it went:
I love being wrong about books.
I should clarify: I like having my low expectations eviscerated by a book.
When I was sixteen, I fought learning with every fiber of my being. My desires in life were simple: I wanted people to laugh at my jokes and pretty girls to kiss me and to eat Fruity Pebbles with key lime pie yogurt instead of milk for three meals a day. Of course, in order to be around peers and pretty girls and in order to earn enough money to buy horrific sugar combinations that will ultimately destroy your colon and make you gluten- and dairy-intolerant, you need to stay in school. Or that’s what they convince you to believe anyway. So I set about becoming very good at doing the least amount of work I could possibly get away with.
Unfortunately for sixteen-year-old me, my mom was kind enough to scrape together funds on a flight attendant’s salary to send me to a private school where they don’t let you get away with minimal effort. My English teacher, Mr. Van Arsdell, saw right through my charming social butterfly façade and threatened to fail me if I didn’t get my act together. When he assigned As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, I, fearing expulsion and loss of peers and pretty girls, forced myself to read the book in order to absorb any quizzable information.
I remember that painful anticipation of starting the dreaded “classic.” To sit down and read a three hundred page literary book felt like hoisting a boulder above my head and shakily holding it there for as long as it took to flip through the pages and skim over the words. If my eyes glazed over, if my attention wavered whatsoever, then the boulder would come crashing down, cave in my skull, and I would fail, thus ending my social life.
Just looking at As I Lay Dying’s sepia-toned cover, my sixteen-year-old brain knew precisely what I was in for. Some dusty old man would be lying in a dusty bed dustily recounting a life that probably involved a war and unrequited love and, y’know, hardship. It would be told in flowery language and thorned with SAT vocabulary that was too tangled for my one-liner, Fruity Pebble sensibilities. It would take me at least three weeks to read, and every page would be excruciating.
I wasted no time in getting this over and done with. I sat down, set the book in my lap, and promptly watched four hours of syndicated Friends episodes. In a series of zany, unforeseen events, Chandler and Joey won Monica and Rachel’s apartment in a bet and transformed it into a guy’s den, reigning supreme there for several episodes until the women agreed to let the guys watch them kiss for one minute in exchange for having their apartment back. How could anything compete with this? Even though I could quote each episode by heart, it was still far more appealing than the thought of hefting that boulder over my head.
Once there were no more episodes of Friends to watch (and thank goodness I didn’t live in the era of Netflix or else I’d have been doomed), it was time to begin As I Lay Dying. I winced, I took a deep breath, I opened the cover… and I read the book in a single sitting. Forget hoisting a boulder. Reading Faulkner’s prose felt as easy as falling. Or drinking water. This was not what I’d been expecting. Not the story. Not the simple language. Not the makeshift cast for a broken leg made out of a bucket filled with un-lubricated concrete that would end up peeling the brother’s skin right off of his calf muscle. None of it.
When I was finished, I even went back and reread one of the chapters six or seven times. Granted, this chapter was only one sentence long: ‘My mother is a fish.’ To my sixteen-year-old mind, this was a puzzle. When I first read it, I couldn’t understand what I was looking at. My mother is a fish. Was this a joke? A light moment to break up the otherwise heavy material? Had the book suddenly transformed into a fantasy story? My brain had no muscle for these things, and I honestly couldn’t figure it out. But the sentence’s sparse ridiculousness invited me to reread it over and over again. And I slowly pieced it together.
The mother was dying. Her lungs were filling with fluid. She couldn’t catch her breath. And to her four-year-old, the POV of this chapter, she looked just like a fish, pale and gasping, like her soul had flopped onto the shore of life and was starting to accept the fact that she probably was not going to make it back into the ocean.
In that moment my consciousness was ripped right out of my Fruity Pebble-fed sixteen-year-old body, and I found myself staring at this dying woman through a four-year-old’s eyes . . . My mother is a fish. This sentence captured what it’s like to watch your mother die and not understand what’s happening.
So this was what all the fuss was about. Faulkner. Somehow, impossibly, the prospect of watching Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox make out had lost some of its luster.
After this, I started cracking open other books to see where else I’d been wrong. It turns out I was wrong a lot. I became a bit of a literary snob: Salinger, Morrison, Steinbeck, Shelley (Mary Shelley, that is). When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out, I snorted. In derision. As one does when one believes one is above these sorts of things. I was a literary man now. And then a girl I had a huge crush on asked if I wanted to read the first book together before the movie came out. Yes, I said, believing I was agreeing to something else entirely. We read it out loud, Rowling constructing relationships that felt like a crackling hearth to warm our hearts beside, using dialect that tickled accents into our throats, and building mysteries we had no idea we were meant to solve. My crush and I actually finished whole chapters before making out.
After this, I became obsessed with reading anything and everything within reach. Except comics. Comic books were embarrassing, flimsy things, filled with improbable rebirths and fights in tights and only supported by emotionally stunted adults. Comics didn’t constitute real reading.
And then I stumbled across Blankets by Craig Thompson, which from the outside looked enough like a real book that I wasn’t embarrassed to read it in a Borders café (and save the $35, which would have broken my college budget of zero). And I became too lost in the story to care about crying in public when I read the scene where a Christian teenager reads a handwritten letter from a girl and pleasures himself for the first time based not on a picture but on the shape of her words and imagining how much pressure her fingers applied with the pen. And I realized that I had somehow convinced myself, as many adults have, of the ridiculous notion that words are worth less if there’s a drawing next to them. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I was wrong about a lot of the tights and fights comics, as well.
I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but at one point in the last couple decades I decided every book under the sun was worth giving a fair shake. Particularly the ones for which my brain generated preconceived notions.
And now I regularly experience that feeling of being delightfully wrong. Books that I was certain would trickle through my eyes and out my ears like vapor have defied all expectations: El Deafo, Gone with the Wind, The Book with No Pictures, Stiff, Anna Karenina, I Want My Hat Back, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Batman’s Mad Love, Eating Animals, Beloved, Captain Underpants, Filmish, American Elf, The Remains of the Day, A Remembrance of Things Past, A Walk in the Woods, The Buddha manga, Pastoralia, The Poisonwood Bible, Me…Jane, Mere Christianity, Swamp Thing, Smile, Sisters, The Goose Girl... I could go on and on. (I’m really hoping Twilight doesn’t disappoint when I finally get around to it.)
So that was my journey. From a kid who fought learning with every scrap of his being to someone who reads well over a hundred pages a day. Now I’m on the other side of it. With you guys. And instead of giving literature a shot, I’m tasked with getting others to give literature a shot. (It’s hilarious to me that I thought high school was difficult.)
So based on my experience as a non-reader who equated tackling a classic with hefting a boulder above his own head, I have come up with a thesis statement. This can be helpful when trying to figure out how to solve a problem. It’s like casting a spell. You have to have very specific parameters.
Here it is: I believe that what stands between any person and great, life-shaping literature is a matter of expectation. Our eyes take in a book’s cover and its title, maybe we read a review or hear a friend’s take, our brains sum up the plot, and we anticipate boredom. Or hatred. Or difficulty. Or triggers. Or problematic views. And we don’t pick it up. And we stay in our comfort zones. And we are convinced that what we like is perfect and what others like is garbage and we remain utterly surprised that other people do not think or vote or empathize the way we do.
I am all about destroying book bias, whether it’s for classics or nauseatingly popular titles. Obviously, classics need a bit more help. Which is unfortunate because they are the ones that get us to ask the most interesting questions.
As you know, getting teens to read presents a unique problem. Unlike my mom, I can’t scrape together my writer’s salary and send every kid to a private school where teachers will watch them like hawks as they delve into interesting or challenging material. Our magic has to be much more clever and far-reaching. I hope you are as delighted by this problem as I am.
I’m going to give you two quotes that have been playing tug-of-war with my thoughts over the last couple years. Even though they are saying near opposite things, I wholeheartedly agree with both of them.
The first is from Neil Gaiman:
“Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like – the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian 'improving' literature – you'll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”
The second quote is from Alan Moore:
“It’s not the job of the artist to give the audience what the audience wants. If the audience knew what they needed, then they wouldn’t be the audience. They would be the artists. It is the job of artists to give the audience what they need.”
You can see the problem. One advocates for letting readers choose whatever strikes their fancy. The other prescribes strapping them down and pouring much-needed molten information down their gullets.
Now, both of these quotes are generally directed toward specific ages. Gaiman is talking about kids and telling parents to rest easy when their child refuses to read anything beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which is great) or the instruction booklet for Minecraft (which I have not read). These kids’ tastes are just forming, after all. If you allow them to carve their own path through literature, it’s more likely to feel like an adventure to them and they may just, with a little luck, become readers for life.
Moore is talking to grown-ass adults about grown-ass adults, comic book readers mostly, who have a propensity for reading stories containing those dreaded tights and fights. He’s encouraging the writers of comics to throw out the three-act structure and plots based around whose super power can overcome whose and to replace it all with gritty social commentary, gussied up in yellow, cyan, magenta, and black to make the more difficult messages simultaneously ironic and easier on the eye.
I write for teens. You work with teens. And they’re nestled right in between these two quotes—their excitement about literature fragile and their propensity to tackle challenging material tenuous. And who can blame them? The prospect of seeing Rachel and Monica make out is a drop in the ocean of the intrigues available today.
If we push too hard, teens may abandon books for a dopamine-gushing electronic world that never ceases to satisfy—if only on a surface level. If we let them read whatever they want, they may never challenge themselves to venture outside their comfort zones, and their brains will be caught in a creaky hamster wheel of stagnation and manga.
But these are surface efforts. You and I must venture deeper.
So how do we delicately guide reluctant readers toward crackling literature that will awaken empathy and allow their brains to fill in the spaces between the words and to slowly realize as Gaiman puts it, that everyone else is another me?
Well, it depends on which part of the factory line you’re on, doesn’t it? My job is different than an editor’s job, which is different than a cover designer’s job, which is different than your job as librarians. Some of our solutions are quite simple when addressing the problem of competing with attention-grabbing apps and technologies. I have been told to make my chapters shorter because teens like short chapters. Editors have started making titles shorter and more attention grabbing while some advertisers have even gone so far as to pepper swear words into the titles so they scream for attention. Cover designers have the slightly more difficult job of catching the eye without talking down to teens.
Here’s what this process is like from one author’s perspective.
On the one hand, I want to create readers for life, to write something as sticky as the greatest bestsellers so that if a reader picks up my book, real life will melt around them, until the chapter or better yet the entire book is finished. I want my work to act as kindling that will light a fire in their eyes that will burn through the library stacks—a furnace that can only be fed by ink and new ideas. On the other hand, I don’t want to write fluff. I want the material to be new and challenging, and I want to knock down walls in their lives.
(This is the part of the talk where I discuss my book. Don’t worry. I’m as allergic to self-promotion as you are sick of hearing it. It just feels relevant.)
My first effort in YA, Cure for the Common Universe, is about a kid who’s committed to video game rehab ten minutes after he gets the first date of his life. Fortunately for him, “V-hab” is a gamified recovery center where patients (or “players”) can earn points by learning real life skills like playing the ukulele or cooking a tofu scramble or winning a Four Square tournament. The main character, Jaxon, is trying to earn one million points in four days so he can be released and make it back to his date, which he thinks (operative word) will cure him of his gaming addiction.
Most people who hear this synopsis or read the book think I’m a gamer. A hardcore gamer at that. And I’m not. I don’t even own a console and didn’t when I sold the book. The truth is much less romantic. After failing to sell three other books, I sent a list of story ideas to my agent, John Cusick, including this one about a rehab for video game addicts, and he chose the one that was most commercially viable—the one that just might get gamers to look away from the screen and pick up a book.
I approached a book about video game addiction from an anthropological perspective, locking myself in my room for months with game consoles of all kinds and trying to get myself addicted. After my eyes began to glow a pale blue and I had ones and zeroes pumping through my bloodstream, I went cold turkey on caffeine and sugar and alcohol and all electronics (including my computer and phone)—and for a solid month committed myself to a recovery center of my own making, learning the play the ukulele and becoming slightly better at Four Square in order to write the book.
The writing was hugely rewarding. It allowed me to explore all of the itchy tendencies I had as a sixteen-year-old when I wanted everything to taste sweet and to have all good things fall into my lap with minimal effort. I recharted the course I’d taken as a teenager when I learned that life doesn’t operate like a video game. After high school, there’s nothing in life as straightforward as There! Dragon! Kill! and women were not waiting for me to flirt with them as they seemed to be in Friends.
Despite its deeper questions about desire and addiction and how we all seek to cure our loneliness, I tried to write something a younger me would have found delightful and easy to read. I tried to make the prose simple and electric with lots of white space and jokes and Easter eggs hidden throughout. I read the book out loud over and over again until I had that feeling that the reading was as easy as falling. Maybe even as easy as guiding a joystick.
I enjoyed writing Cure—it turned parts of me inside out—but if I’m being honest, it was born of a formula: I pitched a plot with a hook, an agent selected it, and it sold. Was approaching a book this way a smashing success? I have no idea. It’s actually much more difficult for authors to tell if we’ve done our jobs well or not. I do have one story to share with you though. (B&N story)
Here’s the thing. It isn’t my job to get good books into kids’ hands. That would be creepy. Especially with this beard. It’s my job to create good stories, but when it comes to actually getting the kids to read, that is the job of schools, advertisers, booksellers, and of course, yours.
This is where my heart goes out to you, dear teen librarians. I can only imagine you earned degrees in library sciences to better lubricate the flow of ideas and information to the masses. Whether you became librarians for teens intentionally or you just stumbled into it like many people I know, you probably wouldn’t mind seeing more teen readers. And you probably wouldn’t mind seeing them read more challenging things—or at the very least dipping their toes in. And you don’t have the luxury of classrooms where you can force these kids to read the things you like.
As librarians, you can stoke a reader’s interests in a thousand ways, from creating engaging book displays to holding events like Elizabeth’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark during Halloween to filling the gaps between their burning interests, like video games, and reading contests, etc. I would actually love you to share some of those ideas with me.
You may be concerned that I’m about to tell you how to do your job. That I’ll suggest you gamify your library so kids earn points by reading books. But we all know kids can smell the intent beneath stuff like that. No, I’m only here to tell you about my approach to writing stories and to ask you about your approach and to point out where I think our current system is failing teens.
Classic has a dusty, crusty old feel to it. In cover design. In titles. In anticipation. And we don’t have the big five publishers dedicating their time and effort to gussying up older titles. Sure, they can update classics, slap a new coat of paint on it, pepper in some swears, cut down on the page count, and call them Saving Hamlet or Taming of the Drew or the Much Ado about Nothing manga, but it isn’t exactly Shakespeare, is it? Literally.
Here’s what I think is missing when it comes to classics on library or bookstore shelves: tantalizing spoilers.
Here’s a boring title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Even though I read a lot these days, that title still rankles the bored teenager inside me. “Oh, does a tree grow in Brooklyn? Does it really? Boy, I can’t wait to read about that. Tell me when they chop it down and turn it into a skate ramp.” But you can’t really rename this book ‘A mother addresses the upsides of one night stands with her daughter’ (an actual scene in that book) because it isn’t as catchy and it would probably result in more books burned, even though that would probably get a lot more people to read it.
I want to find what is in these books would snag a teen’s interest and get it outside of the book. What were the scenes in a text that nearly seared a hole straight through your heart? How do you put that front and center?
Here are some examples of books that have a very stale exterior and are absolutely exploding with life on the inside. See if you can tell me which books I’m talking about.
- To save her from slavery, a mother cuts open her baby’s throat and buries her, carving a name into a wooden headstone. Many years later, a full-grown woman shows up at her doorstep with a scar across her throat, claiming that same name.
- A girl’s mother puts down the nice picnic blanket before she cuts her own head off because even though she’s finished with this life and everything in it, she doesn’t want her family to have a big mess to clean up. Unfortunately for her sisters, she forgot that heads roll.
- It’s the 1860’s and a southern woman scolds a northern woman for returning to a black man using the ‘n’ word because they are only allowed to call each other that.
- Instructions on how to draw a realistic human anus and when that can come in handy.
- A girl whose father has punched her ears so many times they’ve turned cauliflowered, is convinced by a rat that the only way to become a princess is to kill the princess.
- In this book, you can tell who’s evil because their pupils are rectangular like that of a goat’s.
While trying to untangle this knot that binds teen readers, I called my agent, John Cusick, who is brilliant and lovely and thinks just as much about packaging and titling and sales as I do about writing. I started our conversation by fretting about some data that claimed that fifty percent of readers of young adult books were adults and I told him that to a writer this felt like being an engineer who designs baby change stations for men’s restrooms and discovering they’re being used to hold one old man’s dentures while he services a glory hole. It’s nice that the changing station is being used, but . . . that isn’t quite its intended purpose, is it?
John calmed me down by pointing out that this doesn’t mean that half of the sales of any YA book were to grown-ups. It means that so many adults decided to pick up Hunger Games and The Fault In Our Stars and Twilight that they seriously tipped the scales. So that’s nice to know. Teens are reading teen books.
John also, as is his wont, said something very wise, and he may have solved the entire problem in this speech. He pointed out that trying to decide what teens need or want without their input will always feel like proselytizing. And none of it will ever stick because we’re all going to have different book suggestions and we’re all going to wince at different stories. The same people who are offended by the reference to a threesome in Grasshopper Jungle may overlook the emotionally abusive relationship in Twilight.
We all know at the very leas that teens want to be treated like adults. They want to be part of the conversation, especially when it comes to their lives. And the marvelous thing about great literature is that it will never tell you what to do. Literature cannot tell a teen to have a particular type of sex or do a particular kind of drug or be a cog in systematic oppression. Great stories can only ask the consequences of these things. We are not in the business of pushing propaganda. We aren’t pushing rules. We’re pushing questions.
By turning the content of these books inside out we’re showing them that texts are alive things that structure conversations. We point out that no question is dangerous. And no question is stupid. Especially when you’re learning how the world operates. Some books ask more intricate questions than others, and that’s perfectly fine.
By giving teens the space and opportunity to screw up the answer to these vital questions as grandly as adults do, we may in fact discover that, like sixteen-year-old me, what they want and what they need end up being the exact same thing.