The Significant Burden of Being a Grownup by Andrew Smith
In the summer of 2011, an awful lot of terrible things happened to me. It was kind of like the end of the world in many ways (cue apocalypse inspiration). My son, who was only 16, was getting ready to leave home and go away to college, and then one of those predictable and periodic internet/social media firestorms erupted over an opinion piece published by the Wall Street Journal describing the harm inflicted on young people by the dark and negative content in Young Adult literature.
You know the piece, I’m sure. The author happened to name me first, quoting from my novel The Marbury Lens, as though I were some sort of apex predator in the Axis of Child-Damaging Literary Evil.
I take things like that really personally. I know I shouldn’t, but as a parent, and as someone who is very involved with young people, being labeled as a danger to kids was something that I actually lost sleep over. The WSJ piece became the last straw to me, and during that summer of 2011, I decided I was going to quit writing for publication.
And I know—if I were only more of a grownup, I could probably handle mean-spirited comments and criticisms more effectively (I should show you the gallery of screen shots I have of terribly painful and mean personal comments people have made online about me and my work).
After making that decision to quit, I went to work writing a novel called Grasshopper Jungle, which I NEVER was going to allow anyone to read, but also in which I felt free to spew out all the frustrations I’d internalized about so many bad ideas—things like war, the rigidity of gender expectations in society today, genetically modified food crops, the vacuous lack of compassion America has toward the poor and unfortunate, and censorship and book-banning.
But, trust me, it’s funny.
When I quit being an author dude, I also severed my relationship with my first literary agent. I was, after all, actually going to quit. And if you’re choosing unemployment, you don’t need a math degree to know that fifteen percent of nothing is eighty-five percent less than nothing.
Well, I had become friends with this other agent dude named Michael Bourret, who managed to convince me that Grasshopper Jungle was a good—if not tremendously gross—idea (even though I want to make this endlessly clear that I was convinced that nobody in their right mind would EVER want to publish it).
Okay. Well, I have no problem admitting that I was wrong there.
The thing is, I wrote Grasshopper Jungle exclusively for myself (which, to be quite honest, is pretty much how I wrote all my books).
I suppose this is a really lengthy introduction to what I wanted to talk about today, which involves one of the more recent predictable and periodic internet/social media firestorms criticizing Young Adult literature, the gist of it being that adults who read YA should be ashamed of themselves, being that they’re grownups and stuff, and YA is just for dumb kids.
So, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak at Ellen Hopkins’ Greater Carson City Literature Festival, and a member of the audience raised his hand and asked the beginning of a question.
His question, because I cut him off, started like this:
“How do you feel about some of the issues you raise in your novels in light of the fact that you write for kids…”
Well, to be honest, that was a fairly complete question, but I launched into an answer before his virtual question mark could materialize, saying this:
I do not write for kids; I write for readers.
People who think what I do is kid-lit are people who think YA is an age level, which it is not. YA is a genre that has truly been defining itself as such, particularly in the last decade or so, which accounts for its broad readership across so many age brackets. What defines YA as a genre, as opposed to an age level, is its careful examination of essential adolescent experiences, things that people who are decades beyond that age level still revisit on a daily basis. Those experiences in adolescence profoundly shaped who I am today, but the swirling chaos of the adolescent mind is generally incapable of stepping back and taking a sober examination of what is really going on. And the curiosity—the wondering why is this happening to me, could I have done something differently?—never actually diminishes over time.
And this is why people who can vote, hire accountants and gardeners, purchase alcohol legally, or start their own LLC (whatever that is), love to read YA.
I’m not even going to get into the pointless discussion about age floors and ceilings for what I write; I’m too busy trying to figure out if I need a living will and whether or not I should charter my own LLC.
Because I am such a grownup.
Andrew Smith is a native-born Californian who spent most of his formative years traveling the world. His university studies focused on Political Science, Journalism, and Literature. He has published numerous short stories and articles. Grasshopper Jungle is his seventh novel. He lives in Southern California.