Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pete Hautman is the Mr. that Was (Why YA? Mr. Was as discussed by Pete Hautman)

When you read a lot, you can lose track of some of the books that you read.  And then, there are those titles that stay with you in one way or another.  Mr. Was by Pete Hautman is one of those titles; I read it years ago and it has really stayed with me.  It has a great concept and deals with an issue that too many teens have to deal with - domestic violence.  Well, that and time travel.  Not that too many teens are having to deal with time travel.  So I approached Pete Hautman and asked him to write a Why YA? post and was very surprised when he said yes.  And I was even more surprised when he wrote about Mr. Was.  I had just mentioned it earlier in my book review of Hourglass.  So it is with great honor and pleasure that I bring  you this Why YA? post by Mr. Pete Hautman.


Seventeen years ago I had made a good, solid start in my career as a novelist.  I had published two successful crime novels for adults, with three more under contract. I was about as interested in writing for teens as I was in learning to play the accordion. I was a grown-up guy with grown-up concerns. I had written a few dozen nonfiction kid’s books because I needed the money, but I certainly didn’t read such things.


But people change.


For some years I had been playing around with an idea for a book based on a recurring dream that had haunted me for years: I discover a small door at the back of a large, cluttered closet in my grandparents’ home. The door leads to forgotten rooms and spaces where I would encounter old friends, lost toys, or dead pets come to life.  Most often the dreams were pleasant, but sometimes I would wake up with my heart hammering.


I wanted to tell the story of a man who passes through the door and finds himself transported—a serious adult sci-fi/fantasy epic. But for some reason, the story wasn’t working.  I expanded it, I cut it back, I rewrote, I added and deleted characters, but the tale would not ring true. I kept going back to the dream, trying to recapture some of its magic. Finally, it hit me that the magic I was seeking was magic seen through adolescent eyes. I changed my protagonist, Jack Lund, from a 30-year old man into a teenager, wished him the best of luck, and sent him through the doorway.


Jack’s story, I soon learned, was the story of a boy who is thrust into quasi-adulthood by the sudden and brutal death of his mother.  It was unlike anything I had written previously.

Several writer friends advised me that the resulting book, Mr. Was, was too complex and scary for younger readers. But I used to be a younger reader, and the way I remembered it, complexity was not an issue, and the scarier the better. I’d pick up any book that promised to take me someplace new. I knew there were plenty of kids out there who were not afraid to me challenged, confused, and frightened for the sake of a good story. 

Shortly after Mr. Was was published, I started reading young adult novels. For research, I told myself. Most of them were pretty bad—just like most novels, period. But the good ones were…good. Amazingly good. Before I knew what was happening, I was hooked on YA.

The YA novel is often defined as a coming-of-age story. But most novels written for younger readers are simple adventure stories, or mysteries, or horror stories, or protracted jokes.  (This includes virtually all of the series books, because how many times can the same characters come of age?) The truly memorable stories, however—the ones that stick with you for years (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Chocolate War, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)—all tell us about a young person crossing a bridge from one set of challenges to another even more difficult set of problems. They address the greatest mystery of our adolescence: What does it mean to be an adult?

Teens read, in part, to find out what is waiting for them in the larger world. Every book has the potential to contain revelations that might change their world-view. Some of the books I read as a teen helped me become a more empathic, giving, thoughtful, and knowledgeable person. Others had a less salubrious effect—Ayn Rand led me into a philosophical morass where I wallowed for half a decade. The James Bond novels convinced me that cigarettes and martinis were essential to becoming an adult. The point is, the books we read as teens matter.

We adults have mostly settled into our lives. Our politics, religion, social status, tastes in food, fashion, music, and so forth is pretty much a done deal. We tend to read novels for validation, for escape, for relaxation. These days I don’t read as many young adult books as I used to—probably no more than a half dozen a year—not because I don’t enjoy them, but because there is only so much time to read, and YA is a very small (albeit important) part of the literary universe.

When I do read teen books, I do so because they are a reliable source of quality entertainment. As one blogger put it, “the plots move a lot faster, for the most part, and you're not required to participate in the Thought Olympics to understand what's going on in the book.” Reading YA is relatively easy, and it’s fun. If a teen book contains a dose of revelation (and many do), so much the better!

Time Magazine’s Joel Stein, with a few remarks that I believe were deliberately inflammatory and obtuse, managed recently to create a media bonanza for himself by dissing adult readers of teen fiction. A month ago I didn’t know who he was. Now I do, so I plan to run to my local bookstore and not buy his new book. Because when I see a fifty-something person at Starbucks reading Suzanne Collins, or John Green, or even Stephanie Meyer, I do not feel pity or disdain, as does Mr. Stein. I see someone quietly amusing themselves to the detriment of no one. After all, it’s quite likely that I am looking at my own reflection in the window.


Pete Hautman is the author of The Big Crunch, What Boys Really Want, Rash, Blank Confession, Invisible, Godless and more.  He is also the author of The Obsidian Blade, the first book in the Klaatu Diskus trilogy.  There is a teacher's guide for Mr. Was at his website, so go check it out.  You should also go read his bio on his website because it's funny and features a picture of him smoking and driving a car at age 3.  Seriously.

You can share a YA book you love and here's the information how.

2 comments:

  1. Mr. Was has always been in my top five favorite books (not favorite YA books, but favorite books) for years. I am so happy to see an accomplished, popular author discuss his take on writing AND writing for teens. Most especially, I'll be in line with Mr. Hautman to NOT buy Stein's new book (just as I no longer read his articles!).

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  2. Anonymous6/06/2012

    Great article from a fantastic author!

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