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I was 14 when a kid I knew walked up to me and said, “My brother’s burning a cross on the mountain tonight.” He pointed beyond the football stadium where we were sneaking cigarettes behind the concession stand. I knew he wasn’t kidding. I grew up in a place where things like this happen. Hate has always fascinated me. I don’t care what kind of hate. If you hate a certain race, religion, or a certain type of Cabbage Patch doll—even if you hate me, I’m interested in knowing why. I don’t laugh it off or think it’s funny. I take things like this very seriously.
I’ve been serious since primary school. I cared about politics and race and feminism and hate when my peers didn’t even know what I was talking about. I read Newsweek. I watched the world news. This is my normal.
In my career, I’ve heard comments about how serious my young adult books are. I’ve heard committee members say, The book skewed more adult than young adult. I’ve heard adult readers say, Your books are a bit heavy for teenagers, don’t you think? I’ve scored very poorly on the Forever Young Adult “swoonworthy scale” for a while now. In my rejection letters from 20 years ago, I was told women should be more romantic in their books. Don’t be so serious, dear. Oh, and smile while you’re at it.
Someone once told me I’d make more money if only I wrote something fun and kissy. I’d rather eat soup and get a third job. I’m here to explore the human condition, and I don’t plan on exploring it in a reduced way because I’m writing for young adults. I don’t know if an invisible helicopter and a walking digestive system and ants with tiny howitzers are fun or not. But I do know they’re not lies about the real world in which young readers live.
In real life, I play ping-pong at night and pee myself laughing. But in the pages of a book, I am dead serious because I am doing my most important job. I am sharing my humanness. I am speaking to youth who have seen and experienced things we adults want to pretend they haven’t, and that’s not a way forward. It’s gaslighting—rewriting their experience so we are more comfortable with it. When we tell a kid who watched his brother die that a book about it might be “too serious”; when we tell a kid who was raped the first time in primary school that a book about sexual assault is “inappropriate”; when we tell a kid who grew up in a violent home that a novel about domestic abuse is “too adult” we are sending these young people a very clear message. We are telling them to shut up for the sake of our comfort. And in so doing, we are negating the truths they’ve lived firsthand. We are, essentially, rejecting them.
If early childhood is a human’s foundation and teenhood is the framework, then by the time young adults are slapping the siding onto their home-for-life, the innards are already rotten from our all-knowing, entitled adult piss. Serious? Maybe. True? Definitely. Truth matters more to me and matters more to the teenagers I meet. But Amy, books are supposed to be entertainment! Whatever. The cross burned. Here I am.
My favorite books make me think and grow. And my books are here too, to help young people make sense of the often senseless world they are about to inherit while the adults in their lives treat the deep stuff like it happens somewhere else. Fact: someone within a square mile or two of you, reader, is getting beaten tonight. Is hungry tonight. Is hurting tonight. Is considering suicide tonight. Is hating tonight. If we ignore these things, they only get bigger.
Somewhere on a hill just beyond the football stadium, there’s smoke rising and the 14-year-olds sure as hell can see it. There will always be books that tell them to focus on the stadium. As long as I’m writing, my job will be to prepare them for the day they find the true source of the fire.
A. S. KING’S HONOR ROLL
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, v.1: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson (2006)
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills (2012)
Confessions of a Teenage Baboon, by Paul Zindel (1977)
I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Lives of Girls around the World, by Eve Ensler (2010)
The Marbury Lens, by Andrew Smith (2010)
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