KidLitCon: A. S. King, on literacy

So, Amy S. King gave the keynote address at KidLitCon yesterday, an entertaining and at times moving talk that drew on memories of her own teen years and on her work with adult literacy in Ireland. I took notes, but certainly not enough to give a play-by-play recap, not that such a thing would make riveting reading anyway, probably.

King grew up in the midst of cornfields, and it sounds like her parents went to some trouble to create a safe bubble for her childhood, which is great, but of course didn’t spare her from all the typical issues that teens have to deal with — feelings of not fitting in and all the rest. She described how important contemporary YA novels were to her while she tried to figure out her own life — Pardon Me You’re Stepping on My Eyeball by Zindel, the rest of Zindel’s books.

Anyway, here are some of King’s comments:

Some of what we see as adult literacy problems is created in people who enjoyed reading as children but were turned off reading by the books they were assigned to read as teenagers. They stop reading at that point and lose some of their reading skills.

Teenagers don’t have time to read the books they care about because they’re so busy trying to figure out why they should care about the books that are assigned.

English teachers dismiss the contemporary novels that truly speak to teens in favor of classics that teens can’t relate to (such as The Scarlet Letter).

King wanted to write books that would help parents understand teens and teens understand parents — she wrote this comment to herself when she was fourteen. But her books were “too weird” and she had trouble finding interested publishers at first.


I remember Zindel’s books — I mean, I remember that they existed. I was so totally uninterested in contemporary at that time, I never read any of Zindel’s books myself and frankly feel no impulse to read them now. But for King, they were instrumental in shaping the kinds of books she writes today. I suspect this is true of most of us — that whatever novels we fell in love with as teenagers “set” our literary taste forever. (For me it was Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley and other fantasy authors.)

It’s interesting to me to hear from an author to whom contemporary YA was THE crucial influence. As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, I too found the assigned books in HS unappealing, but I wasn’t looking for stories that echoed contemporary life and everyday concerns. Definitely not! I went straight for secondary world fantasy, plus SF, historicals, and mysteries.

Two thoughts: a) fortunately there are stories to suit all tastes, especially now with the explosion of YA; and b) But on the other hand, I’m actually quite glad YA didn’t exist as a category when I was growing up, because most of the wide range of stories at the time was published as adult, including Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley. I continue to worry that YA is doing a disservice to teen readers by pushing them away from so-called adult novels that would actually suit them perfectly. Though YA is soooo huge now that this may be less of a problem (except for its constant message that teens shouldn’t be able to identify with older or younger protagonists, a message I really, really hate).

Anyway, I did pick up A S King’s latest, Still Life with Tornado. I do read some contemporary these days, though this one sounds a bit weird:

Sixteen-year-old Sarah can’t draw. This is a problem, because as long as she can remember, she has “done the art.” She thinks she’s having an existential crisis. And she might be right; she does keep running into past and future versions of herself as she wanders the urban ruins of Philadelphia. Or maybe she’s finally waking up to the tornado that is her family, the tornado that six years ago sent her once-beloved older brother flying across the country for a reason she can’t quite recall. After decades of staying together “for the kids” and building a family on a foundation of lies and domestic violence, Sarah’s parents have reached the end. Now Sarah must come to grips with years spent sleepwalking in the ruins of their toxic marriage. As Sarah herself often observes, nothing about her pain is remotely original—and yet it still hurts.

As a fantasy reader, I have trouble guessing whether this “running into past and future versions of herself” is meant to be taken literally. We’ll see!

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3 thoughts on “KidLitCon: A. S. King, on literacy”

  1. She started out writing straight up contemporary, but her more recent stuff verges on sf or fantasy. Her previous book involved someone getting the ability to look at another person and see visions of their future. These glimpses paint a picture of an Atwood-style dystopian future.

  2. I’m torn on the argument that teens should be assigned books they can relate to. Yeah, I generally hated the assigned books, too. But I’m not sorry I had to read them. Novels can seem so very long when you don’t like them, though. And if you’re not a fast reader, well.. you won’t become one that way.

    I think the ideal would be a classic followed by a more or less modern… at least, more approachable, take on the same basic story. Romeo & Juliet then West Side Story (although I hear that isn’t as approachable as us adults might think, these days). But something like that. Lord of the Flies (which was boring!) followed by Verne’s The Long Vacation, or something similar. . stuff like that. With Verne you’d want a modern translation, though.

  3. I would vote for, ideally, a choice of two classics, at least one of which is NOT GRIM, followed by something more contemporary. I like the idea of a contemporary that plays off the classic.

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