I'm always trying to figure out why certain books about kids are YA books and others are published in the adult market. When The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1953, there was no such thing as young adult literature as we know it now. Would it be a YA if it were published today? What about other so-called adult books with teen protagonists--A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies?
My own career as a YA author began by accident. That is, I'd published one quasi-literary, well-reviewed adult novel that quickly sank into oblivion, as most books like that do; then I'd written a couple more that made the rounds with complimentary but firm rejections. I was the writer-in-residence at a high school for the humanities and performing arts at the time, having my heart broken pretty much on a daily basis by so many of my young writers who were grieving on the pages of their journals and stories about the never-ending wreck of their families caused by divorce. My first YA novel, Wish You Were Here, was born of those years and has at its crux a quote from the journal of one of my best-ever writers: "You can start over, Mom. My parents will always be divorced." Reading it always slices right through my heart and brings that student's deep, paralyzing sadness back to me full-force.
But back to my accidental career as a YA novelist. I never think about an audience when I'm writing, but write from my heart. I wouldn't know how to do it any other way. But writing Wish You Were Here, I felt like I was writing directly to the parents of my students. "Hello out there," I wanted to say. "Step inside the skin of your teenagers and find out what your divorce feels like to them." I have to admit I was shocked--and, okay, full disclosure: crushed--when my agent suggested marketing it as a YA. I mean, were YA books...serious?
Yeah, I found out. They are.
Which brings me to why, after procrastinating about starting up a blog ever since attending Robin Brande's Kidlitosphere Conference in October, here I am...blogging:
Peter Cameron's new novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You.
The cool thing is, I've been a fan of Peter Cameron's for years. Andorra is one of my favorite novels, ever, so I was surprised and really happy to find out that he'd written a book for young adults.
Cameron is a wonderfully original writer, and his narrator James Sveck puts a whole new spin on the identity crisis that is at the core of every good YA novel. James is gay. He knows it, but circles around it endlessly--not because he has a problem with being gay, he's okay, with that, but because he can't bear to imagine being intimate with another person. "I could barely talk to people," he says, so how was I supposed to have sex with them?
There's no easy arc here, this is not the predictable boy realizes he's gay, struggles, comes to terms with it, moves forward with his life kind of story. James is way more interesting than that. The son of divorced, self-absorbed New Yorkers, with a know-it-all sister, a Barnard co-ed who's dating her married linguistics professor, he's spending the summer "working" at his mom's trendy art gallery, where his main responsibility is to be at the ready to make cappuccino and salad runs for the hip young curator there. His idea of a social life is having cocktails with his grandmother. He dreads going to college and spends hours on the internet looking at real estate in the Midwest, dreaming of buying a spacious old home in a small town. He'd live in it all alone and read Trollope without the agony of having to sit in a college classroom and talk about it with people his own age.
I know James Sveck, I've taught dozens of kids exactly like him. He's show-offy with his precocious intelligence, dead-set on being the most ironic person in any room, maddeningly immature in the absurd, circuitous arguments he picks with anyone who tries to talk with him about anything that matters--and so wrecked, so clueless about how to be human, so utterly vulnerable that you want to draw him into your arms and keep him safe at the same time you'd like to throttle him. All the while laughing your head off, because he's really, really funny.
James narrates the events of a few weeks in the summer between graduating from high school and enrolling in Brown University in the fall, from his mother's early return, alone, from her (third) honeymoon through the consequences of a thoughtless mistake that threatens his relationship with one of the few people he actually likes. Along the way, he tells his shrink the story of his disastrous experience at the American Classroom, a national smart-kid seminar he was forced to attend in Washington D.C. as the inadvertent winner of a school essay contest. Throughout the book, he comes just to the edge of thinking about his sexual identity--then feints away. Ultimately, it's about that. But like all good literature, no matter its audience, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is really about...everything.
Right off the top of my head, I can think of ten kids who need this book. Funny, though, most of them are at least thirty--still high school kids in my mind and probably in their own, as so many of us are. Still trying to make sense of what adolescence was.