Ten years ago, I would have laughed if you’d told me I’d be writing young adult novels. I barely read young adult novels when I was a young adult. Other than reading seemingly every single Three Investigators book, A Wrinkle in Time, that Tripod trilogy and a few I’m sure I’ve forgotten, I basically skipped from Mouse and the Motorcycle and Ramona books straight into It and The Stand and every single Anne Rice vampire novel in print. One of my friends in junior high had already jumped to cool, edgy adult books, you see, and peer pressure dragged me along.
It took a misunderstanding to change things. For someone who hated every English and Literature class he took in high school, filling a humanities requirement feels like signing up to fight Tarmon Gai’don. They’re all different flavors of excruciating pain and humiliation, and the best for which you can hope is that you get to read a good book or two (that they’ll ruin with inane analytical essays) and a final grade that won’t kill your GPA. Scanning the list of available classes, one caught my eye as more interesting than the rest. It must have been because it sounded different. Not another review of 18th century European romanticism or examination of mid-20th century American depresso-lit. The subject? Coming of Age Literature.
Hey, I loved Catcher in the Rye. It would be more stuff like that, right? Vast swaths of fantasy are basically sword-and-sorcery enhanced coming of age tales. This would be cool!
On the first day of class, I got the reading list. It started with The Hobbit. The excitement stopped there. What the hell was this list of books? Catherine Called Birdie? Hatchet? The Chocolate War? These were frakking kids’ books! I didn’t go to college to read kids’ books! This was an offense, a travesty, an insult to every functional brain cell in my noggin. This. Would. Not. Stand.
But if I change classes, I’d have to do…oh…never mind. You know what? Griping will be way easier than taking a stand.
Things did not start well. I loathed Catherine Called Birdie with every fiber of my being. It was every bit the simpering kiddy crap I was certain this class was passing off as real fiction. The next two were better, but still kids’ books.
Something was happening, despite the parade of insults the professor had marching over my refined taste. I was starting to like the stuff. Maybe it was because, unlike so many literature teachers, she didn’t bristle when I wrote scathing essays about the books. Maybe it was because there was a real passion for what she had us reading, a passion that couldn’t be there simply to mask laziness or bad taste. She cared about this stuff. It took a while, but I started to get why. The books got better, my indignation faded, and I started looking forward to the next book.
That class? It changed my life. I did my final project on Madeleine L’Engle. I read every one of her Kairos books, not like they were an assignment, but like a ravenous fan that couldn’t stop. These weren’t books for children. They were books about growing up. Sure, like every genre, there’s a pile of pandering garbage, but this wasn’t a lesser genre. God, I had been treating it the way people treated Science Fiction and Fantasy. I was an elitist jerk. And I was wrong.
It depresses me that I can’t remember the name of that professor. She was incredible, and she conned me into see things her way by letting me tell her how silly and wrong her way was without failing me for my effort. I left the class no longer seeing young adult books as something less than other books. They were just stories from a different perspective, that’s all. The name of the class hadn’t been a lie, or a misdirection. Calling it young adult fiction minimized it. This was coming of age literature.
I still wasn’t going to write the stuff, though. That came later, after a book called Speak.
Part 2 is available here.