I Was That Boy

This week, author Shannon Hale shared the heartbreaking story of a recent school visit which the middle school boys were not allowed to attend because Shannon's books were judged by the administrators to be "for girls." Younger boys did get to hear her presentation, and one boy lingered after her signing, clearly shy and even embarrassed, to ask if she had a copy of her wonderful The Princess in Black that he could have.

Reading her post, and reading the dialogue that followed, I was overcome with a swell of old emotions because, in a lot ways, I was that boy.

To give you a picture: You know that family movie trope about the father who has big dreams for his son that don't line up with the son's big dreams for himself? Well, in my experience, it's a trope for a reason. My dad liked football, but I wanted to take dance. When Billy Elliot came out, I thought, yes! I'm just like Billy, minus any innate talent!

I was never allowed to take dance--it was "for girls"--and I did play football for all of one season. I was terrible beyond terrible, in part because I never wanted to tackle anybody. I remember during one game, I was standing on the sidelines and staring at the other team's cheerleaders when one of our coaches smacked my helmet and asked if I wanted to join them. Well actually, coach...

Flashback to elementary school. I was already an avid reader, devouring Goosebumps and Redwall and many other "gender neutral" series that my life-shaping local bookseller pointed out to me (I put "gender neutral" in quotes because of course these books are by male authors). My sisters liked Angelina Ballerina and the Babysitters Club, which intrigued me, but were clearly not supposed to be for me. The Judy Blume books went in my older sister's room; the Hardy Boys books went into mine. I'm sure all of the adults in my life making this bifurcation happen meant well. I know now that my parents specifically made decisions because they didn't want me to get made fun of for liking "girly" things. That's the thing about the patriarchy--it subsists on fear.

I did manage to find books like the Hardy Boys-Nancy Drew crossovers, that had enough "boy" in the title to look like they were for me but that inside were all about which Hardy brother was cuter (the only mystery that had ever interested me in the original Hardy Boys series).

Flash forward to high school, when the girl in my grade who was known for reading everything (seriously--she read Anna Karenina at thirteen) was reading a book before class that immediately caught my eye. There was a girl on the cover, awash in red light. It was clear that this light was from some kind of magic. That was the second book in the Daughters of the Moon series, and I furtively asked my classmate if she owned the books and if I could borrow the first one. I was instantly hooked. Each day, I would slip my classmate the book I'd just finished, and she would slip me the next one. I remember one day defending the books to another classmate who saw this exchange happening. They're all about magical battles, I said. These girls are fighters! Violence! Something else boys like! I didn't mention how the books pushed lines of gender and sexuality. I didn't mention Stanton, the tortured but sexy villain.

Flash forward to now, one month after the release of my first book for young readers, The Spider Ring. I can see in it the influence of both Goosebumps and Daughters of the Moon, along with all the other millions of influences that make up a person. I'll admit, when Scholastic first sent me the cover, I was nervous to see what felt like a very scary image for what in my head was a very sensitive book. I don't know what I'd been picturing--maybe something like a poster for Wicked or Frozen? I worried I was getting the cover I was getting because I was a guy author, which meant it needed to appeal to boy readers and hide the fact that inside the book, a girl was using magical jewelry to command spiders to make her dresses. I asked whether the cover could have more magical sparkles, at least. I have always loved anything with magical sparkles.

A few weeks ago, I had my first school visits, in New Jersey, and met with groups of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, all of whom had read my book. I talked to them about Frozen and Wicked and the Lord of the Rings, and how I wanted to write a book about a girl who got the kind of power you'd associate with a villain--a girl who for many reasons felt like she was a villain.

I was so excited to see that boys and girls alike had read and (apparently!) enjoyed the book. Except for a few questions about why I'd dedicated the book to my sisters, no one asked why I was writing a book about a girl. I thought, I'm glad Scholastic gave this such a "gender neutral" cover (but of course, I put "gender neutral" in quotes because I am a male author, and my name is part of the cover).

My point is that when I read a story like Shannon Hale's, it reminds me how lucky I was to find the books I needed in my life. It reminds me of how panicked I truly felt to hand something like a Hardy Boys-Nancy Drew crossover to my mom to buy, knowing that if she started reading it, she would instantly know it was a romance book, not for boys. It reminds me that I probably wouldn't have been brave enough to stick around and ask Shannon Hale for a copy of The Princess in Black, knowing that even my teachers and coaches would have been judging that decision. It reminds me of how grateful I am to the classmate who sneaked me Daughters of the Moon without judgment.

It reminds me what a powerful thing it really is, handing a kid a book without judgment. It really will stay with him for the rest of his life.



Why I'm Writing About Spiders, Anyway

As a kid reader, I was obsessed with two series, Goosebumps and Redwall. I read plenty of other books besides, but those two series I read to completion; I even made little note cards to track the patterns from one book to the next, and I wrote Redwall fanfiction that is, mercifully, no longer online.

By the time I got to high school, I had moved on to Edgar Allan Poe and the Lord of the Rings, but the facts remained: I loved high fantasy, and I loved horror. In both genres, there was something about what magic and monsters had to say about the real world that deeply resonated with me. These stories challenged and reaffirmed my feelings of powerlessness as an offbeat kid in small-town Georgia. They met me where I was and helped take me somewhere else. They made me feel a little less strange.

All these years later, I got to combine my favorite elements of fantasy and my favorite elements of horror to write a novel for kid me, The Spider Ring. In it, twelve-year-old Maria inherits a magical ring, but it’s not clear whether it will make her a hero or the kind of revenge-seeking anti-hero you’d find in Poe. That’s because—and maybe I should have mentioned this first—Maria's ring gives her the power to control something very anti-heroic: spiders.

The thing about spiders in fantasy is, they're often inter-generational villains. In the Lord of the Rings, Shelob has been around even longer than Sauron has, biding her time in Cirith Ungol. In Harry Potter, Aragog was raised by Hagrid back when Voldemort was still Tom Riddle. So when Frodo and Sam encounter Shelob, and when Harry and Ron encounter Aragog, you get this sense that the spiders are connecting the web between past evils and present ones. And while our heroes escape these villains alive, both Shelob and Aragog survive as well, ready to play the villain in a new generation’s story, almost as if the story were being passed down—a recurring obstacle, a dark inheritance.

In writing The Spider Ring, I was thinking a lot about how stories are passed down in this way. Stories aren’t just passed down by villains, of course; they are also passed down by communities, by families. Just this Christmas, I was given a letter written by former President Jimmy Carter to my late uncle—an uncle, I’ve always been told, who was a lot like me. And how many of us have had a parent say, “You got that habit from me?” Such traditions are important, and sometimes even good, but what about the family stories we’d rather not inherit? What about the family stories that start to make us feel trapped?  

In The Spider Ring, Maria, feels alienated in her family. She thinks the only relative who truly understands her is her grandma Esme, who is strange in the ways Maria herself feels strange. So when Grandma Esme dies and leaves Maria with her spider ring—a ring that, like Shelob or Aragog, comes with a dangerous past, a recurring obstacle—Maria is torn between wanting to keep her grandma's memory close and wanting to escape to a new story altogether.

In the end, whether Maria’s experience with the ring is a hero’s quest or a horror story is a question you’ll have to unravel for yourself when you read the book. Stories are tangled webs, after all.

Goodreads Giveaway and Bookmarks

From now until December 1st, you can enter to win one of five signed advance reader copies of my book on Goodreads. The best part is, I've just gotten in these beautiful, blue bookmarks, which I'll be including for the winners. If you don't win, just come see me at an event next year--I'll give you one of the bookmarks to go with your book!

Books Best Read in the Dark

I have very fond memories of reading Goosebumps as a fourth grader. On Fridays after school, my best friend and I would go to Scott's Bookstore and run straight back to the corner where the Goosebumps were. He'd buy three and I'd buy three, and then we'd stay up all night, each reading all six (and each getting all eighteen accelerated reader points come Monday). I especially remember reading A Night in Terror Tower while listening to Oasis's "Wonderwall" on repeat; to nine-year-old me, the song and the book seemed to be sad in the same way.

In 2010, I fulfilled a lifelong dream by working with R.L. Stine on a collection of horror stories called Fear. I asked him about A Night in Terror Tower, and he was instantly able to recall all the details of that book, along with the research process. Truly. Now, this page from the October 2014 Scholastic Book Clubs catalog for fourth graders fulfills another lifelong dream--my own book is right there in the corner with the Goosebumps. Happy up-all-night reading.

Advance Reader Copies

Advance reader copies for The Spider Ring have arrived! I'm such a design nerd; I love all the spidery details that went into the cover and interior art. And in the top-left image, you get a sneak peek at the mysterious poems that begin each of the three parts of the book. What is the Order of Anansi, you ask? You'll just have to read and find out...

Dreams, Stories, and Spiderwebs

Joan Didion once said that while no one really wants to hear your dream, good or bad, a writer is someone who "is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream."

I thought a lot about Ms. Didion's charge while I was writing my middle grade novel, The Spider Ring. The book's heroine, Maria, is a girl who gets tricked into listening to someone else's story, until she's so caught up in it that she has no choice but to see the story through to the end.

I hope you'll feel the same way reading my book. But I'm afraid it doesn't come out until January 27, 2015. So for now, perhaps I can trick you into finding out more...