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Her Pen is Her Superpower: Meet A. S. King, my hero

Her pen is her superpower, A. S. King

I told you yesterday, this week is heroes and villains week.  So let me introduce you to one of my heroes: author A. S. King.  King is a phenomenal writer.  And she wrote a book that changed me; made me really exam what I thought about an issue and changed the way I choose to love.  That story is here.  Today she is talking to us about her new book, Reality Boy.

Reality Boy is the story of an angry teen, Gerald.  The anger started when he was 5 and his family starred on a reality TV show, a type of Supernanny.  It is years later, and people are still judging him by the lies that were told and the way his family was edited to appear on the show.  Reality Boy is a book about looking underneath the surface to see the truth.  It is a book about families and the lies we tell each other.  And it is the story about Gerald’s attempts to go beyond his anger and find himself.  It is, in a word, amazing.  

So let’s talk to one of my heroes, shall we.  

Karen: How do you feel about reality TV and how did it influence Reality Boy?

King: I do not watch TV. Not reality TV. Not the news…though I will turn on the weather if a snowstorm is due. And lately, I’ve been watching a few baseball games. I don’t have a real opinion of reality TV, but I do know it’s not real. Even the show my husband worked on in the early 90s—a furniture restoration show—would make it look like the two stars of the show did the restoring, but my husband really did that part, step-by-step, behind the scenes.

REALITY BOY was more influenced by the statistic that one in four children are suffering abuse of some sort or have suffered some sort of trauma. I’m not sure why I was thinking of reality TV at that point, but I may have seen something on Twitter about a kid on reality TV and I wondered how many of these kids we watch for entertainment are dealing with other things behind the scenes.

I know that’s probably not the answer most people expect, but it’s the truth, so it’s all I got!

Karen: If you were going to cast yourself in a reality show – and it can be real or one you make up – what show would it be and why?

King: Oh. Wow. I’d be in a show called Where’s Amy? and it would be about how no one can find me anywhere and it would star someone else because there is no way I would be on reality TV. I used to say I’d do Survivor, because my husband and I would kick ass as a team considering we met teaching survival skills and spent 10 years self sufficient, but yeah…no. I wouldn’t.

Karen: Many writers refer to you as their inspiration, who are some of your writing inspirations?

King: I just got to see one of my writing inspirations live at Philly Free Library last week. Salman Rushdie—Hoo boy, do his books inspire me. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Marge Piercy. Tom Robbins. Steinbeck, Rumi, Walt Whitman. Good gods, Karen. I could go on for days.

Karen: When they are writing your obituary, how do you hope you will be remembered?

King: BONUS POINTS for the most morbid question I’ve ever been asked.

I guess I’d want to be remembered as someone who was nice and who tried to help other people be nice, too.

I know that’s short and sweet, but really, once you’re dead, I think that’s probably the nicest thing that can be said about a person.
Some final thoughts from Karen:  A. S. King is one of the kindest people I have ever met, and she truly does write in part because she wants to help give voice to those that need it.  She writes about truth, all the glorious, messy, uncomfortable truth of our lives. Gah, I was going to try and write this post without being supergushy.  But I love her; her skill and what she brings to the literature.  Go people, read her.  Read all the books. 
P.S., Every time I pass a yellow flower, I still think of her.
Reality Boy by A. S. King comes out tomorrow, October 22nd, from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
This is what people are saying about it:

“Heart-pounding and heartbreaking…This is no fairy-tale romance, but a compulsively readable portrait of two imperfect teens learning to trust each other.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“This is a story about healing, and although Gerald stumbles as he takes his first steps, his candor invites sympathy from the first page.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred)

“King’s trademarks–attuned first-person narrative, convincing dialogue, realistic language, and fitting quirkiness–connect effectively in this disturbing, yet hopeful novel.”—SLJ (starred)

“We all know at least one teen who needs a book like this; I didn’t know I needed it until I turned the last page.”

“The TMZ-level draw of the premise will definitely pull readers in, but they’ll find a surprising amount to relate to in this smart and sympathetic story about breaking free from the world’s expectations.” —The Bulletin

“Reality Boy showcases King’s talent, telling a story that is as much about parental depression and denial as it is about teen rage. It’s also about first love, celebrity, therapy and finding your own narrative despite the story your family–and sometimes the world–tells about you.”—Shelf Awareness

“A.S. King at her best, and maybe then some. This book is tough and funny and smart as hell.”
—Chris Crutcher, author of Period 8 and Whale Talk

“Fearless and brilliant, a seething pressure cooker of a masterpiece.”
—Andrew Smith, author of Winger and The Marbury Lens

“REALITY BOY is a powerhouse of insight and empathy toward the people who cruise the fringes of acceptable behavior. A.S. King takes all kinds of risks and every single one pays off. Highly recommended.”
—Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of ROT & RUIN and FIRE & ASH

“Reality Boy is A.S. King’s best work to date. Touching and teeth-clenchingly emotional, this story is an important reminder that behind every reality show…may be a totally different reality.”
—Jennifer Brown, author of Hate List and Thousand Words

(I totally copied and pasted all these gushing reviews from the book page, because they are right and say exactly the things I want to say about the book.)

More: Behind the Scenes of Reality TV

Behind the Scenes of Reality TV

Take a moment and sit in front of your TV and flip channels.  Notice a pattern?  The channels are full of shows called “Reality TV”.  Dance Moms, which makes my skin crawl and I can’t figure out why children’s services isn’t involved.  Supernanny.  Wife Swap (seriously, who would do that?).  Honey Boo Boo.

If this is a slice of reality, I think we should be afraid.  Be very afraid.  Of course, most of us have figured out that it is NOT in fact reality.  These shows are edited, sometimes partially scripted, and manipulated in ways to meet standard formulas.  There must be drama.  And tears, tears are good (apparently).

I recently had a conversation with a dance instructor at a Dallas dance studio who gave me some inside scoop on Dance Moms.  The studio she works at was the first dance studio scouted to be on the Dance Moms program.  The owner met with the teachers and producers and discussed what kinds of roles they wanted to fill.  In the end, this particular dance studio chose not to be involved because they didn’t want their friends and neighbors seeing them act like that on TV, even though they knew it would be fake.  Their reputations were more important to them then the money, fame and face time on TV.

Many of our kids, however, don’t know how fake so called reality TV is.  But guess what, there is a book for that.  More than one, actually.

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

Chomp is a middle grade fiction title about Wahoo (named after the wrestler, not the fish) who lives in Florida with his father, who is an animal wrangler.  There are monkeys, snakes, and a large alligator (oh my!) named Alice.  They are in serious financial trouble when they are offered the job that might save them: providing animals for the “reality” show Expedition Survival.  It stars Derek Badger (not his real name) who is forced to find ways to survive in a variety of perilous adventures (that are not at all actually perilous).  Along the way they meet Tuna, a young girl with a black eye from her father.  She joins them on the shoot in the Everglades.  Soon her father shows up with a gun and everyone is now trying to survive – for real.

I just finished listening to this on audio and it is one of my favorite audios to date.  I was surprised to find that it was narrated by Mr Dawson himself, James Van Der Beek, and he did a pretty good job.  It helps that he had excellent material to work with; Chomp is funny, heartwarming, adventurous, and teeming with great, rich characters.  I loved how clearly it showed the contrast between who Derek Badger was onscreen and what a spoiled, worthless tool he was behind the scenes.  I also loved how clearly it demonstrated how the screen product was manipulated, from showing the scripts to discussing how scenes actually occurred and how they could edit them to make it appear that something completely different had happened.

I think this is a must read for all Tweens so that they can better understand how entertainment is manipulated, and it helps that it is a brilliantly fun read.

Reality Boy by A. S. King

The reality boy in Reality Boy by A. S. King is one Gerald Faust, a very angry young man.  The anger started when his family began to appear on a television show that is basically a version of Supernanny.  Twelve years later he can’t escape the perception people have of him, or his nickname “The Crapper”.  That’s right folks, he would crap on things as an expression of his anger.  People are still judging him and teasing him for something he did when he was 5 years old.

Reality Boy is a brilliant and moving look at one young man’s anger that simmers just below the surface and his attempts to control it.  If you didn’t know Gerald it would be easy to hate him; distant, angry, withdrawn.  But we do get to know Gerald, what goes on inside his head and the behind the scenes things that led to his barely controlled rage, and you love him.  He is a broken young man, and the realization of why exactly that is makes for a profound and moving read.  What goes on in this young man’s house when the cameras aren’t rolling and how it is all manipulated for TV will blow your mind, break your heart, and then make you swear off reality TV for eternity (which you should probably do any way.)

Reality Boy doesn’t come out until October, but YOU MUST READ IT. Why?

1) Because it is A. S. King book and she is brilliant. She does not pay me to say that.  In fact, I am probably on her personal watch list somewhere for my stalkerish ways.

2) Because we all know a lot of angry young men, and she gives them voice and soft edges underneath and it is important that we remember that something happened in their lives to make them that way.  Their something is probably not being screwed on a reality TV show, but they have their own something.

3) Because it gives keen insight into the behind the scenes of TV production and it is so important that our teens understand what is happening, how the scenes – and the audience – are being manipulated.  There is a great ethical discussion to be had about what we put on TV, how we put it out there, and how we respond to it – especially if it involves children.  Children can’t really consent to what is happening, they don’t have the legal rights, they don’t have the intellectual capacity to understand the short and long term ramifications.  I basically already did, but after reading this book I refuse to ever watch a so-called reality show that involves children (though I don’t reality watch much reality TV to begin with, I’m more of a Buffy/Firefly/Doctor Who kind of girl).

Tweens and teens of any age can read Chomp, it is safe and delightful while being eye-opening.  King writes for an older audience and her main character is an angry teen boy, so there is language.  Though very different in approach and tone, they are both 5 star books that need to be read.  Reality Boy is powerful, thought provoking, and compelling.  Chomp is fun, but the second act does have a little meat to it as it discusses how Tuna lives in an abusive home and her daddy chases them around the Everglades with a gun.

Go further: As a hands on activity, I think you could use your smart phone or tablet to have tweens and teens shoot some of the classroom discussion on these titles, then use editing software to show how they can be edited to make it look like something completely different happened.  They would get a real life look at the behind the scenes process and learn some tech skills in the process.