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AB4T First Encounters: Stephen King
Over on my personal blog, my mom, co-blogger, and Adult Books 4 Teens reviewer, Sarah Flowers, has a post up about a workshop on YA servives she’s teaching. As an icebreaker, she asked participants what books they were reading when they were 15. My response is somewhat muddled, because I don’t remember my reading from that particular year, but it got me thinking about the idea of when it is that teens first encounter adult books, and when they do, what books they are.
Starting around 3rd grade, I was obsessed with horror–I read all the books in my library’s children’s section about werewolves, zombies, and especially vampires. In terms of fiction, I read Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, RL Stine (the Fear Street books – this was long before Goosebumps), and Christopher Pike, but I very quickly graduated to adult authors. I have a vivid memory of being around 10 years old, reading Edgard Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” late at night (in my memory it was midnight, in reality it was probably 9:30), and just about scaring myself to death. I also definitely read Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because I was a devoted fan of the Spencer Tracy film of that book. But those were short stories and a novella. The first full length adult novels I read were by Stephen King.
Sometime in 6th grade, when I was 11, my mom, seeing that I was reading Stine and Pike and (bless her heart) knowing what better books awaited me, handed me three books: Misery, Firestarter, and The Dead Zone. I read Misery first, and from that day, until I was 15, I read virtually every full length King novel (for some reason, it never occurred to me to read the books he published as Richard Bachman, or the short story collections), and then abruptly stopped. I haven’t read a single King book published after 1996, and I’ve never gone back to reread any of them. Something about King spoke very deeply to my early teen (and even preteen) self, that I no longer needed as I got older.
Angela just talked how horror can be important for teens, and I think she is absolutely right–Pet Semetary, in particular, remains one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, and I remember the last line of it with perfect clarity. But there was always something more for me about King’s books.
First and foremost, he is a tremendously talented storyteller. There is a reason that directors with such diametrically opposed talents as Brian DePalma (Carrie), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), and Rob Reiner (Misery) were all able to create absolute classic films out of the raw materials of Stephen King plots (and that’s not to mention minor films like Firestarter, Dolores Claiborne, Needful Things, and the miniseries of The Stand, all of which basically survive on the basis of King’s storytelling talents alone).
Beyond plot and chills, King writes fabulously interesting and well developed characters, and the horror in his novels is usually based deeply in those characters and their psychologies. It’s one thing to be frightened of a town full of vampires (‘Salem’s Lot is a fine book, but certainly one of his lesser novels), quite another to encounter someone like Annie Bates in Misery, and believe completely that someone like her could exist in real life (and cut off your feet with an axe), or the simple but almost evolutionarily ingrained horror of an out of control rabid dog (Cujo). Similarly, the more supernaturally based novels are often quite subtle–in Firestarter, Carrie, and The Dead Zone there is just a single person with a supernatural power (unlike, for example, so many modern YA books in which there are so many people with supernatural skills that whole schools are built to train them), and though I would never have been able to articulate it at the time, the powers in Firestarter and Carrie are pretty obviously metaphors for (specifically female) pubertal changes. Indeed, the telekinesis could be completely removed from Carrie and you’d be left with a tremendously powerful book about puberty and high school bullying. The ultimate example of the psychological underpinnings of King’s horror is The Dark Half (always a particular favorite of mine), in which the main character (a novelist, natch) is confronted with a doppelganger who may or may not be a projection of his own evil impulses. A similar game is afoot in Needful Things, in which the proprietor of the eponymous store obviously has supernatural abilities (and is hinted to be the devil), but the real horror is the lengths to which the people of the town will go to have their deepest needs fulfilled.
Of course none of this occurred to me when I was 14. I remember reading or hearing that a lot of people thought King was shallow or trashy and bristling against the idea. But my idea of his depth was the incredibly cliched question of The Dead Zone–“if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?” I actually think The Dead Zone is a fabulous book for other reasons, but the point is that at the time I was reading King, I had no way of properly articulating what was so interesting about his ideas.
There’s a hilarious article on Cracked.com called 4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading. Anyone interested in how we teach literature should read the whole thing, but here’s the introduction:
I can’t be the only one who feels like the schools pulled a sort of bait-and-switch job on us when it came to reading. When I was in elementary school, they went to a lot of trouble to make sure we thought reading was fun, with bookmobiles and read-a-thons and tons of fun books about mice and motorcycles and phantom tollbooths. I had confidence that I could go to the library and pull anything off the shelf except a Baby-Sitters Club book and I wouldn’t be disappointed.
That was the bait. In junior high and high school, they made the switch. I guess they heard about how drug dealers give you free doses of the good stuff until you are addicted, and then once you are hooked, they start cutting it with 50 percent baby powder or something. Actually, junkies notice when you do this. And kids notice when you swap their fun books for boring crap.
So one summer you are reading A Wrinkle in Time or Fantastic Mr. Fox or whatever, and then you show up for your first day of school and BAM, The Scarlet Letter. And get on that pronto, kid, because we are going to talk about metaphors and symbolism in Chapter 1 tomorrow.
I actually happened to be one of the few high schoolers who loved talking about “metaphors and symbolism in Chapter 1” and reading the “boring” books, but I think the sentiment here is exactly right: that reading goes from being encouraged as something fun to being pushed on you as something you have to do, like eating your vegetables. And unfortunately, this coincides, almost precisely, with the switch in school from reading children’s books to reading adult books, which is one of the many reasons that I think encounters like mine with Stephen King are so deeply important: I was able to learn how to love adult books, and even internalize the metaphors and symbolism so deeply that I can still analyze them now, almost 20 years later, without having them beaten into submission by having to write a five paragraph essay about them. So, over the next few weeks, we’ll look at some of our other bloggers, and their experiences with adult book as teens and preteens. Feel free to let us know in the comments about your own experiences.
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About Mark Flowers
Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark
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