Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dear Wall Street Journal - My YA is for your kids, not you

Serious talk for a second guys. I wrote this post yesterday, and have gone back and forth about a thousand times on whether or not to post it. It's not something I ever expected to talk about publicly at this stage in my (as yet) non-career. But the more I think about it, the more I burn and simmer over the casual ignorance in the Wall Street Journal review that blew up twitter yesterday, and how dangerous that ignorance and brand of thinking can be - I realize that because I am me, and because I can not just NOT respond to it, I will be talking about this publicly at some point in my career. So - why not now?

For those of you unaware of what all the fuss about, the article at the Wall Street Journal is HERE. There are a lot of things wrong with this article - my anger first started to rear its ugly head when the writer talked about the rape, prostitution and suicide in GO ASK ALICE - and then a paragraph later says stuff like that pales in comparison to the YA of today, and describes a book where the EXACT SAME STUFF HAPPENS, except its a male character, who's ALMOST raped by another man.....dear writer, please be careful, I think your prejudices are showing.

As I said, there are too many things wrong with this article to respond to them on a point by point basis. But the gist of the ignorance here stems from the reviewer overlooking one very crucial thing in YA:


As adults, we have a wealth of life experiences and education to guide us past certain elements of 'darkness'. It's our responsibility to try and share those experiences and education with teenagers, to protect and guide them in turn - but too many adults forget its not as simple as do this or don't do that. Mandates are meaningless. You can shout certain warnings until you're blue in the face, and teens will go right ahead and do them, because vague ominous declarations of Here There Be Dragons sometimes only intrigue, rather than forewarn. There are certain things in life that can not be avoided, that you can not protect kids from. Things they have to experience and learn to avoid on their own.

No matter how many times you tell a baby not to touch the pan on the stove because it's hot and it will burn, given the opportunity, curiosity will still drive that baby to touch and find out for itself - because it has no context for pain, no frame of reference to understand that it is something to be avoided. Until it experiences it firsthand.

This is what YA does. This is what YA is. It's context. It's a frame of reference for things beyond kids' immediate circle of understanding. It's a support system when your real life, person to person support system fails. Books connect us to places and people and experiences we will never encounter in our real lives. They put us inside the minds of people both less and more fortunate than us, and let us see for ourselves if the grass is truly greener on the other side. Books - whether books about the darkness around us or about the light - teach us empathy, and what it is like to walk in another person's shoes, in ways that no teacher, no parent, can ever impart.

Drugs are bad, we say. But without the personal anecdotes, without the actual experiences, fictional or otherwise, without the perspective of one who has been there and made those choices and experienced them firsthand, we might as well say fire hot. Don't touch.

And so, because I am pissed off, and because I often do things I might regret when I'm pissed off, I want to provide some context that the writer of this article overlooked. I'm going to talk about two books in particular, and my reasons for writing them - one the first novel I wrote, and one I haven't written yet.

'Shades of Adrian Gray' is the story of two closeted high school teenagers who develop a hidden relationship - and of the one of them left behind to cope and deal with his grief on his own when his boyfriend is killed in a car accident. It's about coming of age and coming to terms with one's sexuality, sure, but more than that, its about being isolated from the friends and family around you, of feeling you HAVE to be isolated to protect yourself. It's about convincing yourself you have no one to turn to, and no one who can understand, and how secrets eat away at you and wear you down and make you do stupid, stupid things you'll regret.

It's based on elements of real life. I grew up in a very conservative, old money part of San Diego. I was only in high school a little over a decade ago, but being out - whether as gay or bi - was not an option. To this day, I don't know of a single other out person from my high school. I'm sure there are a couple, but I'm not aware of them personally.

And yes, its also based on my losing someone very close to me when I was in college, because we were both young and stupid and thought we could be careless with each other's lives and feelings and hearts because we were still learning and working things out, and we thought we'd have time to fix all the mistakes we made along the way. We didn't know that the universe has its own timetable, and what we want or assume isn't a factor in its calculations.

And it has cursing in it and sex and violence and depression and all the things that happen when you take a teenager who's convinced the world won't accept him if he's not straight and macho and full of anger and repressed emotions - and cut him off from everyone who wants to help him, but just doesn't know how.

I was that teenage boy. I was that angry at the world in general. And I made stupid, stupid mistakes because of it.

What that reviewer overlooks, and what the woman she speaks of in the bookstore at the opening of her article is blithely blind to - is that teenage boy could also be their sons or daughters. Standing facing a wall of books you consider too dark for your child, you fail to realize - its not about what you want for them. They're making their own choices, living their own lives. You can only guide them so far, but eventually, they're going to start down roads you can't help them traverse - BECAUSE YOU'VE NEVER BEEN THERE YOURSELF.

When I was younger, due to circumstances and mistakes all around, I had very big issues with my parents - but let me be clear. It was not because they are horrible people. But the best parents in the world can not provide directions back from places on the map that they've never ventured themselves. And as teenagers, we know the difference between meaningless platitudes and advice based on what is proper or normal or right - and advice that comes from relatibility, from having been in the same boat. And we are very picky about what advice we choose to accept.

YA books are not the darkness, they're the light in the darkness that says here, follow me, let me show you what it's like, what the road ahead looks like, and you can see how to pick your path and place your feet a little more carefully.

I wrote 'Shades of Adrian Gray' because there was nothing like it for me to read when I was growing up, and because having a book like it could have changed EVERYTHING. Because knowing that someone else is out there who's felt the same way, who's faced the same decisions - sometimes that's enough.

As for the book I haven't written yet:

That's why, despite countless times of sitting down at the computer and trying to write it, only to get up, nauseated and tell myself that I don't need to write THIS story, that someone else can do it for me, I know now - after reading this article, and the reactions to it, and the #YAsaves hashtag, that someday, when I'm brave enough, I will write 'Confessions of a Craigslist Hooker.'

Or perhaps 'Hustle'. I go back and forth on what the title should be.

I will write it - no matter how much tearing the bandage I've plastered over that part of my life hurts, no matter how sick it makes me to remember how stupid and careless and self-destructive I was - because there was nothing like it when I needed it. Because thousands of kids just like me do the same things, convincing themselves they have no other options and nobody could possibly understand. Because even now, I go on craigslist sometimes just to look, and I see smug, self-righteous entitled assholes posting comments and ads about lazy hookers and telling them to go get a job or go to school or a thousand careless, oblivious dagger-shaped words and I just want to SCREAM its not that simple. That you can have a job and be in school and still be desperate.

I will write it because I didn't understand how one small, seemingly insignificant decision in the face of overwhelming desperation can snowball. How easily one isolated event turns into another. And because society told me that there are some things too dark and too shameful to ever confess to another person. That there are sins that can't be forgiven and not everyone deserves redemption. I will write it because there was no person and no book I could find to tell me that THESE THINGS ARE NOT TRUE.

I will write it because its not actually what people think it is, not what you see on TV. Because nothing can prepare you for how addicting it is - after years of being overlooked and lost in the crowd, to have people falling all over themselves telling you how gorgeous you are and buying you expensive presents and flying you to Vegas for the weekend. How you get hooked, even as you tell yourself at least you're too smart to get hooked on drugs.

I will write it because there are kids out there, who even right now, at this very moment - their parents are standing in bookstores, trying to find the least offensive title for their son, completely oblivious to what he really wants or needs and a year from now, two years from now, he'll be walking the same road I was. Without anyone to warn him to at least look out for the young, good looking guys - they're the worst ones, because they're the ones who only pay because they enjoy your desperation. Because someone needs to prepare him for the look on the sweet old man's face as he tries to convince you to let him be your Richard Gere and save you from it all, when you're still too proud or too stupid to know you need saving. To tell him about the stuff you can't wash off in the shower, and how you'll just stand there, soaking, thinking about the guy who asked you point blank, why are you doing this - and the fact that you couldn't find an answer. And that all the 'friends' you make, the kindred spirits, the other loud, bravado-shouting boys with their swagger and dreams and secret hopes and fears confessed to each other while the john who paid you both to come over is in the bathroom - they'll all be dead in a few years. That being one of the lucky ones, the ones who get out disease free and all body parts intact, just means that all your scars are on the inside.

And it won't be enough. It'll never be enough. But it'll be something.

It will make me want to yell and break things, I can tell you now. It'll hurt to write, and it'll hurt every step of the way as I fight to get it published, and it won't be easy. Because it will have violence and sex and swearing and drugs. And it will not be pretty, because you can't make it pretty. And some people will praise it for being edgy and racy and controversial and I'll want to hit them. And other people will fight their hardest to keep it from the ones who need it most and I'll want to hit them too. And still others will label it heavy handed and preachy and that's okay, because I can assure you there is no way in hell I can write this book without pouring DO NOT DO THESE THINGS into the words with every fiber of my being.

Because what the Wall Street Journal really failed to grasp, at the end of the day, is that YA is about paying it forward. That it's not even about the kids who read it. It's about the kids who write it - or at least, the adults they grew up to be. When I write it, I will not write it for the faceless teens in San Diego and Chicago and Tinytown, Idaho. I will write it for me, and will simultaneously pray to the universe for a warp in the space/time continuum that lets nineteen year old me find it on a shelf in the bookstore while I'm waiting for my 'date'. So that I know, that even when things are at their worst, that it can get better. That I will be happy again. And that I deserve it, no matter what choices I've made to bring me that far.

I'm not quite ready to write this book. I've tried, and I've even come close a time or two, but it still hurts too much. Someday I'll be able to power through it though, and when I do, because I am a vindictive fuck the dedication will read:

To Ms. Megan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal -

This one is not for you


  1. I've got tears in my eyes, Kalen. You're brave and honest and exactly what the writing world needs. I'll buy that book. Hugs.

  2. I don't think that twit deserves a dedication.

  3. A very powerful post. WOW. Still shocked into incoherent thoughts. But thank you for sharing this. Your story and many others like it NEED to be told. As you said, YA lit is about paying it forward. We should all be lucky enough to keep that in mind.

  4. Didn't think it was possible to respect you even more. What an honest and frank post.

    Kids need someone to relate to. In fact, a character in a book is so much safer a route than looking to someone real who's every bit as mixed up as they are. This way, they can relate from a safe distance, and maybe find their own way through the character's mistakes and growth.

    Kalen, your bravery, wisdom, and discernment astound me. Thank you.

  5. One thing more ... I'm so proud to call you my friend. And yes, I will support your book, when you one day find the strength to write it.

  6. You are a beautiful soul, Kalen.

  7. Someday when you're famous for whatever reason--when all is said and done--, and people Google your name at dawn or twilight, they will come across this article and find hope.

    I bow to you. What you did here today is a feat only a true hero can accomplish.

  8. You said everything I've been thinking. Everyone has to grow up at some point and the world isn't all 'Little House on the Prairie' anymore. Teens don't need to be protected from gore, sexuality, and 'adult situations'. They need to be prepared for them and understand that there IS a light at the end of their tunnel-of-problems.

  9. @Gen - Thank you Gen. You're awesome.

    @Amy - Probably true. Hmm.

    @emdanzer - Thank you. And that's exactly right - you can't fight a problem like this with ignorance, with everyone suffering from it thinking their alone.

    @Anita - Thank you Anita - you're a great friend, and always know what to say. And you're right, characters are a lot safer to learn from, because you don't have to face the similarities head on.

    @cherie - As are you, my friend. Thank you.

    @TD - haha, you were born to tell superhero stories with your way with words. But thank you.

    @Eli - exactly right. all we can do is arm them with knowledge and trust them to look out for themselves.

  10. Dude, you know I'm there. Just--preach it, man. PREACH IT.

    <3 you.

  11. This is a very brave and candid post, my friend. I'm so proud of you.

    I am convinced that part of our responsibility as adults is to share our experiences with the younger generations. How else do we learn?!

  12. Question.
    Should books have ratings/guidelines like movies and video games do? I don't pay attention to them now but *shrug*

    Bottom line, it is the parent's responsibility to be aware of what their kid's reading/watching/playing.

  13. Wow, Kalen. Just, wow. This definitely sounds like a book that needs to get written someday, for you as much as for all the potential readers out there. I'm glad you did decide to post this in the end. Really, thank you for sharing.
    - Sophia.

  14. When it hurts to write and scares you, it's got to be good. Yes, Kalen. WRITE THAT BOOK!

  15. Beautifully stated. I agree with Jenny: Writer, Write That book!

  16. @Katey - I know you're there, and thanks as always for making that so.

    @Bethany - thank you friend. And yes, I agree completely.

    @Huntress - Honestly, I'm opposed to ratings, AS LONG AS the contents of the book are adequately expressed on the back cover/dust jacket. As you said, bottom line, its the parents responsibility to know what their child is reading, IF they wish to. And that means taking the time to see what the story is about, not just going off some publisher-dictated rating - because there are plenty of PG-13 movies that while they toed the line properly, still messed with my head far more than their R counterparts.

    @Sophia - Thank you for listening, as always. You're a rockstar.

    @Jenny - Well I hope so. And I will. Thanks.

    @Callie - Aye aye, cap'n!

  17. I can't believe I haven't found your blog before this...all I can say is...yes. I agree. Wholeheartedly.

  18. Wow. I literally have tears in my eyes right now. This is one of the bravest things I have ever read, and you have truly moved me into stunned silence. I am SO proud of you for your honesty, integrity and grit, and your books WILL be amazing. And they WILL change lives. And that's such a beautiful outcome to so many years of struggle that I am humbled and honored to know you.

  19. Just found you and I am so gkad I did. Your post should be read by everyone who is old enough to comprehend it. You write so powerfully brought tears to my eyes. Thank you Kalen for being on Twitter tonight so i could read such awesomeness. Keep up the wonderful work. :)

  20. Hey, it's me. (3fixedhearts - which is exactly what my family and I are: three of us have had our hearts fixed...) I love this because you get deep and raw and that's what I like to read and how I like to write. When I write about my children's surgeries, it's painful and somehow, beautiful. When I write about moving to the streets of San Francisco and experiencing quite a few of the above mentioned ... it is painful and cathartic at the same time. And yes, there are young adults who can relate and some who should relate. If I write about sex as a young adult, it does not - NOT - send the reader off into the arms of another in a hormonal rage. If I write about drugs, I have found that my readers don't run out to find the nearest syringe. In fact, I usually manage to slip some type of advice into my writing because I, unlike the naive young reader, I have made the mistake and I have learned the lesson and I have worked my way through it and I have had to get back up on my feet. I like to think of YA novels (the contemporaries) as sort of Cliff Notes for growing up. No, they are not GPS - one does not follow them exactly as directed. That's ridiculous to believe. A book about a YA who committed suicide certainly never made me go kill myself, but I did realize that it was not a solution by any means - no matter how low things got. I wish I had a book about a teen girl with heart problems when I was young - for that reason, I am writing it. I lived it. It is difficult and tragic to be diagnosed with a major illness during your teen years and to suck it up and try to be normal. I would have loved a book TO RELATE TO - not to turn me into a non-thinking robot - but just to relate to. I whole-heartedly agree with your last statement...