All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Transcript from an interview with

M.T. Anderson

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with M. T. Anderson, divided into the following sections:

Reading from Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware

Hi, I'm M.T. Anderson and I'm going to read a little patch from the beginning of my book, Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware.

When Lily Gefelty got out of bed on the morning of the big game, she looked out the window to see what kind of a day it was going to be. She discovered that it was the kind of day when a million beetles crawl out of the ground and swarm the streets, forecasting evil.

She didn't know about the evil yet, of course. She just saw the million beetles brown and restless, dropping from trees and mobbing fire hydrants. She was not usually disgusted by beetles or anything else, but these did not seem natural. She went to look up beetles online, her eyes narrowed. She blew her bangs off her face, no question it wasn't the time of year for beetles. No, not the time of year for beetles, but as it turned out, it was indeed the time of year for evil.

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Read Widely

There are some people who have written amazing, amazing novels without having read much. They just have, some how, the sort of the fire of their own voice within them and it just comes out in beautiful prose. I think that the more typical model, though, is that the more that you read varied material, the more you start to understand the ways that language can be used by different people and the way that language forms different worlds.

So another piece of advice I guess I have for young readers is to read as widely and as eccentrically as possible. So things like reading ancient epics or prayers for defunct religions or repair manuals for household appliances or trade manuals for pizza joints. Whatever it is, to read so widely that you start to realize how strange and various language is and how many ways there are to use language because that's going to be, what you're doing is you're creating a world through language in writing.

And to create a world that is as complicated as ours, you have to have a sense of a language that can be as changeable and plastic and various as ours is. And I think that the best way to find out about that is to read all kinds of crazy things and see where they take you. 'Cause they'll take you places you've never expected to be.

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The Story Inside

My teachers were always incredibly supportive and that was very important for me. There were times in my life when I was a little kid that I was writing stories and that kind of thing and I was a very lonely child at some points. At some points, I was having a great time, but there were particular years that were very difficult for me.

And I always found that there was a teacher who could recognize me as someone who just needed to occasionally have a word said to me, and oftentimes that word was about writing. It was about, "Oh, how nice. You write a story," and even that much really can change the way a child feels as opposed to feeling like their stories have to be locked inside them.

And I mean that not just for those who want to be writers, but obviously those who have stories perhaps of things that are going on in their lives or whatever else, that are horrible that can be addressed in most ways. Just the idea, the recognition that a child has a story going on inside them… Even if you never find out what it is, I think that can be very important to a child.

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A Day in the Life

In a typical day writing, I will probably only write in fact for about three hours or so. Most of the day is spent reading and then also getting a lot of exercise because I actually find that exercise is very important to kind of sharpen the imagination and the language skills and that kind of thing. So when I'm actually writing the first draft of something, I will very oftentimes spend most of the day doing something like hiking or cross country skiing, but it's very directed.

I know that that sounds like I lead the life of a playboy, though if only I had the income of a playboy, as a result. But in fact it's very directed because as I'm doing those activities, I'm specifically revolving over and over again in my head, the questions about what is it that I'm going to produce this evening? And that I oftentimes do the writing starting around ten or eleven at night and going until say one or two in the morning.

I know some lucky people who write first thing in the morning…six o'clock they get up, they do several hours of writing. And in some cases, they go to another job then at nine o'clock and work until six or whatever. That is great because it means that they feel like they've done what they need to. I would not recommend holding it 'til to the end of the day, but that just happens to be… I don't really wake up until nine at night, so this is the solution that I've unfortunately arrived at.

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Problems with Plotting

For many years, when I was beginning as a writer, I had a real hard time with plot. It was very hard to make them up. I knew what the characters would be like. I knew the feel for the world. I knew what kind of language I used, but I wouldn't know precisely how to make events feel like they were really happening. And it's been a slow process for me of learning how to create plots that are faster moving, but not just faster moving, but that move at the appropriate speed, I guess is what you could say.

And I tried all kinds of things. I would make up a plot before I wrote the book. I'd make up every single scene and then all I would do everyday is sit down and write the scene that I had kind of allotted for that day. And at other times I've tried to just sit down and without knowing a plot at all, just to head straight into the thing. So I've tried all these different methods and have gradually come to find things that work for me. I think that for many beginning writers, plot is one of the real problems that many people have.

And the trick is this thing of trying to make sure that not only as E.M. Forster or someone said, should A happen and then B happen and then C happen, but to have all those things connected.

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Glimpse the Person

I do base characters on other people that I know, but not in any direct way. I mean I think the thing is that you just observe and you take in, but some of the trick I think of writing and one of the things that is kind of one of these holy grails that many people chase after as writer, is what you're trying to do is to observe people who you've seen from the outside and to try to understand them from the inside.

So though you may pick up a mannerism or whatever else that you see someone using on the street, at the same time, one's goal in many cases is not to portray that from the outside, but to get inside of that person to imagine what is the world like for them? And if you do it well enough, if you do it well enough, then the reader will also feel transformed into that person as well. They'll get a glimpse into that person.

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The Music of Language

I did for a time, when I was young and foolish, write music reviews — reviews of classical music around Boston and that kind of thing — and CD reviews, that kind of thing. And what I always found my purpose was in writing the articles that I wrote was to bring to the attention of readers things that they obviously might specifically be interested in.

And one of the interesting things about being a classical music reviewer in, this was in the '90s, is that you know already that there's no danger that anyone is going to attend a concert if you don't publicize it. It's not like the throngs of classical music goers are so huge that there's danger of people going to a bad, bad, bad concert if you don't stop them as a reviewer.

If you don't say, "Whoa! Don't go see this guy play his solo Viola di Giamba Suites because if you do you know you're going to have a very sorry evening." You know that the best way, if something is actually not going to work out well or has not worked out well, the best way to actually move on is to simply not talk about it.

And I think that that meant that I actually tended to write positive reviews of things that I liked rather then writing negative reviews of things I didn't like because there was no sense in writing a negative review; you're already dealing with a very fragile art form in many ways. So why kick it when it's down? Why not, instead, celebrate the things that are actually working out? So that was sort of an interesting time to be writing music reviews in a sense.

So music has always been really important to me, I think because it is especially classical music in many cases, in most cases is non-verbal. Classical music that is verbal like opera tends to drive me up a wall — it's just a lot of shrieking. But I think that classical music, symphonic forms or string quartets, that kind of thing… I was really attracted to it because it is intensely emotional and intensely visceral, but at the same time the weird thing is, at the same time there's no language to it that is like the language that we're used to speaking in.

There is a story to say a good string quartet in many cases, but it is not a story that can be told in words. If you tell it in words, it becomes abstract and irritating like, "Well, the first theme then modulates into the minor, creating a darker mood." That's intensely boring whereas the event itself is beyond language and so that was always very attractive to me.

In my writing, in all kinds of ways that are really not worth boring anyone with, I have actually tried to… I mean I feel like I've learned things from the music I listen to and I've tried to replicate some of the things of the music I love in my writing. The problem is that by in large, it is, if I do it well, it's something that people won't recognize. and honestly it's just far too…

It's one of those kinds of little games that I think many writers play with themselves at certain points. I will think to myself, "Okay. I'm going to try to do something almost quasi-musical in this section, but it's not something I really want people to pickup on." A good example of how I would conceive of it would be at the end of Feed or toward the end of Feed, this satirical science fiction novel of mine in which language is falling apart and degenerating.

I actually have a group of kids sitting around and playing a game of…I think it's spin the bottle or something. And as they do, I actually decided that what I was going to do is kind of like embed an old poetic form in there, which is a sestina. And the idea was a sestina is a poem which repeats words over and over again in a different arrangement each time.

And what I wanted to do was create to use this form, not only to entertain myself in some kind of weird crossword puzzle-y kind of way on a slow Saturday morning, but also I wanted to give the sense of how barren these kids' language really is. Every sentence ends with one of those same seven words, just in rotation in different ways. That's what a sestina does and so I did this very formally so the idea is that all these words just cycle through again and again, all these idiotic words like fun and good and dress. So all these people of the future have been so kind of boiled that all they can come up with are these very bland terms that are used in rotation again and again.

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Dark & Serious / Fun & Light

I have written books that have been very dark and serious. I've written other books that are very light and comic and are just light adventures, like spoofs of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, that kind of thing. And I feel like the books complement each other, though they may seem like they are completely disparate and you know, that it's a crazy difference between them.

In fact for me, the light books are in a way…they're the vacation I take in between all of the difficult things that I might be doing. So I worked for several years on a historical novel, or it's actually in two volumes. But this big historical novel that took me a long time to do and it took me a lot of research. And every once in awhile while I wrote that thing, what I would do is I would say, "Okay. I'm in-between stages for that. What I'm going to do is have just a complete fun, like vacation fun." And I would write part of this series which is now called Pals in Peril.

These are books that are very, very fun and light. They're fun for me to write and I just love the fact that when I'm writing them, my whole job is just to kind of sit around for hours a day making up jokes that entertain me and a 10-year-old. That really provides relief from the much more intensive work of doing something like a historical novel or a satirical novel even where you're trying to kind of juggle a bunch of different very complicated elements. So to me, all of the books, in a sense, they complement each other because after I write one kind of thing, I feel the need to write something that is very, very different after it.

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Why Read Historical Fiction?

The benefits for younger readers of historical fiction, I think, and this is for any kind of reader, I think that the benefit is that the past is an alien way of life and reading historical fiction novel that's well-written, I think, suddenly allows you to glimpse the strangeness of that past and to also see elements of ourselves in that strangeness.

I guess all of literature, I think, is about reintroducing ourselves to our own circumstances, saying, "I'm going to take you to someplace very, very foreign…very unfamiliar so that we can come back to the beginning and so you can see yourself in way that you haven't seen yourself."

And I think historical fiction is very beautifully positioned to do that because, of course, there are all kinds of ways that it can be in dialogue with how you see yourself and the way that you live your life. So I think the real benefit of historical fiction for teens and for anyone else is that taking a period that seems very alien and strange and saying, "Let's see the parts of our lives that are in common with this."

And also in some cases, to take something which they thought they knew, in my case the Revolutionary War, and to say, "Okay. Do we really knew what this felt like to those people? Or are we instead invested in various sort of myths about it and with the truth being really much more exciting and much more bizarre then we had anticipated?"

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Researching Octavian Nothing

The idea of these books, Octavian Nothing — it's two volumes that make up a single story — is that they investigate a side of the Revolution that hasn't necessarily been seen before. And I should say that everything that happens in those books is in some ways a reflection of something which did happen. I didn't make anything up really.

I rearranged a lot of events very early on that are about the main character, Octavian, privately, but certainly so far as the Revolution goes, I was absolutely strict with keeping to the historical record. The way I did the research for that book, it was very intense, the research that it took. It took me about six years to write those two books from start to finish.

And during that time, I really tried to immerse myself in the period entirely. So I only would read books that were written in the 18th century or books about the 18th century or occasionally books they would have read in the 18th century like Greek and Roman books which, of course, I would read in translation since I can't in reality read either of those two languages. It was a very long and intense period and the idea was I was trying to read so heavily within the period that their way of thinking and their way of expressing themselves was actually more native to me by the end of that than what I saw around me.

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Beware the Internet

One of the interesting things about the research for that book is that in the course of the time it took me to write it, which is from 2002 I guess up until 2008, is that the whole method of research changed. At the beginning of that period, I was very hard pressed to find some of the 18th century books I wanted to read.

And now of course, by the last year or two, everything was online. I could access it all for free, any of these 18th century novels that I ended up completely loving that I had never heard of at the beginning of the process and would have been very hard to find in a library — it was great. I just went to Project Gutenberg or something and there they were.

And I could be up in rural Maine writing and as long as I had an internet connection, suddenly I could get any book that I wanted to from that period immediately and for free within a seconds. And that's really kind of extraordinary. All kinds of research skills which we previously needed have to some extent fallen by the way side.

And, of course, I would add that the danger of that is that we end up trusting too much in an internet which will definitely fail us because I will also say that I found many, many historical sites about the Revolution where I found egregious errors. And who knows, they could have been posted by a 13-year-old, a crazy 60-year-old, a 45-year-old with an axe to grind and he's never left his basement.

All of those sources look equally reliable at first on the internet, and so that's of course the drawback to that kind of research and that is I think the printed books with their feeling of accountability— There still is that kind of force behind them. I will add, however, that when I looked at children's books about, for example, the Revolution or what it was like to be alive in Colonial times, I found horrible errors in books occasionally.

And in fact, I sent one of them to a historian who was helping me with this and he did a bunch of blog posts on this children's book and all of the egregious errors it had made in talking about the colonial period. So we should remember that even as we fear the oncoming tide of the internet, at the same time, the print medium is not flawless either.

So I think that it's very important for both adults and children to be more critical readers because I certainly was lead astray by a bunch of stuff and had to kind of unwork preconceptions I'd had after having read something either online or in a book that turned out not to be true.

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Writing for Teens

One of the things that always irritates me is this idea that somehow books for teens have to be simpler then books for adults, that the whole idea of the plot, the cause and effect, the way the character's depicted, that all of these things have to be boiled down in someway for teens or else it seems…some people feel that teens will be wandering around like kind of bruised fawns during a forest fire; sort of dazing, shocked into the blazing underbrush with no idea where to go.

Look, I mean the idea is, as teens many of us especially as people who identify as readers, which actually is a, a pretty large percentage of kids. What did we read as teens? Well, in many cases especially in school, we were reading books that were written for adults.

Many of us turned at age 14 or 15 or even younger, to books that were written for adults, whether it by The Lord of the Rings, or mystery novels, science fiction novels or The Great Gatsby, which I think for many people is a great kind of entrance into both what adult life might be like and also it's one of those books that I think a lot of kids have that experience — I know I did — of reading that book and saying, "Wow! This is a classic but it's not a kind of a weird, pallid thing like a statue on the side of a building. It's about actual people doing upsetting, weird things."

And so I think that there are those moments for teens that actually come about precisely because they're reading things that are complicated and sophisticated. And I don't understand why it is that many people who themselves read complicated material as a teenager, then somehow turn around and want to suggest that the next generation is not as smart as they are.

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So I have a satirical science fiction novel called Feed and it's about a future in which everyone has a chip implanted in their head which gives them instant internet access. In some ways that's a really great thing. It means that they can chat to each other without actually typing anything or of course speaking.

They can order things without the use of a computer, just right through the chip. They order it. It's deducted from their credit card or actually their parent's credit card. And it's this world of the future that seems in some respects to be Utopian. And oftentimes when I tell kids about the premise of the book, their first reaction is, "Cool!" And many of them are really ready to go and sign up for their feed right now.

But what is happening in the book and what I actually think if this technology were ever produced would happen in the real world, is that because of the way that the whole thing has worked out, there's this continual flood also of internet advertising all the time, in these kids' heads and in everyone's heads. So as a result, the population of the earth has become slightly moronic because they all are a little bit dazed as their brains are flooded by these images of what they should be and what they should want to be and what they can buy to become that and that kind of thing.

Even as a teenager, I was irate and I think a lot of teens are mad about this, mad about the way that the whole media and the advertising world try to demand that kids be a certain kind of thing. And the fact that they take our own images of ourselves and they mold those images, but also kind of use them like a voodoo doll, like sticking pins in and sort of demanding — the pain will stop once you buy this thing.

"If you get the right kind of shoes, you'll actually be cool and then someone will love you. You may feel like you're on the edge of things, but you're only on the edge of things because you don't listen to their right music. So buy this and then you will feel accepted. Oh, and don't just buy that, but now you have to buy this. And if you have that you really need to get this and everyone who has those has this."

So that kind of thing made me very, very angry as a teenage and, of course, I'm talking, when I say teenager, I'm talking about the '80s and things have progressed hugely, hugely since then. Things have become much more integrated so that all forms of entertainment are very directly linked to other forms of advertising and consumption. And I frankly think that one of the most important things teachers can teach at the moment is the part of the literacy of images — and I don't mean just visual images, but I also mean I guess the literacy of this new world of information that we have created because that's the environment that your kids are going to be living in.

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Banned Books

So Feed, my science fiction, satirical novel, has been banned a few times in…Iowa and that kind of thing. I feel a couple of different ways. One is that I think oftentimes the people who ban the book have not read the book and have not realized that in a weird way, Feed is a book in which the extreme left meets the extreme right. It actually is quite a puritanical book in many ways; it just arrives that Puritanism by a slightly bizarre route.

But honestly, it's a book which is about a horror at what the culture is becoming. And so in a strange way I think that oftentimes the people who wish to ban it would be the people who would agree with me most about the content of it.I would say that the other thing, though, when I first was going to write that book, so we're talking around the year 2000 A.D. if you may call that to memory, it was a strange period in that we had not yet had the acceptance widely of books for teens that had a lot of profanity in them, especially profanity that was just casual.

The idea was there was occasionally a bad word when something really huge happened. If you needed it for impact but the idea that you would replicate the way that a lot of teenagers even then were speaking, which is very, very causal use of profanity — that was still very, very edgy. And in my previous books I had been very, very careful about if I used any of those words because it would keep books out of libraries.

And I went to a librarian's luncheon and I said to them, "Well, look. I'm going to be writing this book, which is specifically about the degeneration of language in this country and the way the language is falling apart and it's going to use a lot of profanity for that reason. What do you think about that?" And they gave me what I thought was actually a very, very fair response.

What they said was, "Well, if we have a choice between buying a book that is wonderful and is going to be problematic and contested and buying a book which is equally wonderful but has no problem at all and is not going to be contested, we only have a limited budget," I mean we're talking about school librarians with a very restricted budget.

"Clearly, we're going to buy the book that is not going to bring us additional problems." And you know what — I frankly completely understand that. I mean, that makes to me sound fiscal and professional sense. And all I would ask is, I think that it makes sense if the people who are going to argue against a thing, have tried to read it and understand it before they make that argument.

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Literacy & Citizenship & Enjoyment

The N.C.B.L.A. is the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and I am part of that because I believe very strongly in the importance of literacy in the future of this country. I think that not only is there the question of citizenship, which I think is absolutely important. I mean, founders of this country were very, very proud of the fact that they wanted to have a literate citizenry that could therefore participate in this new form of the republic.

And this is why, in fact, we are the first nation in the world to have, or at least to aim at, universal schooling and literacy. There was a very brief experiment in Prussia, but we are the first ones who aimed for that and stuck with it. So I believe very firmly in the idea of literacy as being part of a citizenship. You have got to, as a citizen, inform yourself about the matters of the day and how those matters relate to you so that you can make a good choice when it comes to those moments, those critically important moments that when we all make decisions together about what our future is going to be.

It's terrifying, those moments, when you see misinformation swaying public opinion, where things that everyone basically knows are untrue, suddenly they become the word on the street and weirdly enough, the ship of state kind of drifts to the side suddenly. And so I think it's very important that we all be informed, that we all be asking questions of the media.

The media is at once the conduit for the information that guides us in our decisions, but it's also it's own form with its own constraints and reason for being. They're trying to make a buck. So it's also important that we be very aware of who is saying this to us? Why are they saying it to us? And I think that literacy is central in that process of questioning.

And of being a participant in this amazing democracy. The NCBLA therefore, that is one of the main reasons that I feel like this organization is important and this organization's cause. I think also beyond that, I believe in literacy as and literature, narrative literature providing a kind of a deep human pleasure also that is its own important thing.

Narrative pleasure, whether we're talking about movies or videos or video games, that narrative pleasure is centrally important to us in many ways I think, regardless of how it is that we get at it. And so that also is something that I believe in fostering is a love of narrative, which is a thing that teaches us about ourselves and that causes that us to really appreciate the fact that we are alive.

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