Netherworld of the young adult

Anyway* author Arthur Salm talks about the delights and difficulties of writing for young readers

Arthur Salm spent twenty years as the book critic at the Union-Tribune, interviewing authors and writing about the works they created. To hear him tell it, he would have been perfectly happy spending the rest of his life there, living the dream as the luckiest guy in the world. But then he got the bug to write a book and ended up with Anyway*, recently out in paperback. It’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy named Max and his coming of age during one summer, when he tries on a bad-boy attitude but doesn’t entirely like where it gets him.

Salm never set out to write a book for young readers. It just happened that way when his novel grew out of a short story he wrote for his daughter’s amusement. There was an “ah-ha” moment for him then, and the author realized his first novel would be written for younger kids. Still, he doesn’t even have a history of reading children’s lit, never mind writing it.

According to the former newsman, “When I was a book critic at the U-T, I would throw children’s books in a big box and call someone when the box was full. I had no time for it. When I found myself accidentally writing a children’s book, I had no idea about the market. You could look at it as a big disadvantage, but I felt like I had a better chance of doing something different. I think I had an advantage because I have no experience in this field. I had not read in the genre at all. Even now, my reading is literary fiction and non-fiction. I’m wandering through this territory blind.”

Arthur Salm

Arthur Salm

And it’s challenging territory. Children’s lit resists intrusions. Instructors at writing workshops warn aspiring writers against entering the fray, citing the difficulties of a market closed to newcomers.

Books for kids are also difficult because authors have to resist the temptation to “write down” to their audience. Ten-year-olds may not have the vocabulary of adult readers, but they’re equally averse to preachiness, bad narratives, and inferior prose. When he set out to write Anyway*, Salm had to walk that line from the beginning.

Salm says, “The first thing I did was say, ‘OK, I’m gonna try to just write this story. Max is a twelve-year-old boy, so I sort of have to keep an eye on my vocabulary.’

“Max is a smart kid, but he doesn’t have an adult’s vocabulary. I didn’t have to stifle myself, but I did have to use words that Max would use. I tend to use long sentences with subordinate clauses, dashes, and parentheses. These rhetorical devices work well for me in an essay, but they don’t sound right coming from a twelve-year-old. It wasn’t very long before I felt like I fell into the cadence of Max’s speech.”

The ten- to fourteen-year-olds for whom Salm originally intended the book are able to comprehend fairly advanced literature. “They read Lord of the Flies in school,” the author explains. Writing something too simplistic would be a turn-off for those readers. Interestingly, it turns out that slightly younger kids have been reading Anyway*. 9-11 is the common age range. After, say, age 13, kids won’t read about younger kids.

“The other group of readers I have is adults,” says Salm. “A lot of adults read younger fiction now...I’ve had a lot of feedback from parents who bought the books for their kids.”

Adult readership of young fiction serves as evidence that the story isn’t too simplistic.

“I certainly wanted to write something that I would want to read,” Salm says, evoking a common mantra of creative writers. “I was writing a little bit for myself. I wanted to read the book and see what was going to happen with Max.

“One of the main things I’m getting across in this book is that Max is about the age where he realizes adults start to not have the answers. That starts to dawn on you at around that age, and I think that’s a big part of what the book is about. It’s about the feeling of what it’s like to be that age. A slim netherworld between being a little kid and being a grownup. It’s almost like a timeout on maturity. Generally, he is in a pretty good spot. A magical little spot where you can pause and think about your life for a little while, more than just what you’re going to get for dessert.”

The author also describes the book as “intensely realistic.” Max and his parents get into stupid little fights, but also have a normal, otherwise healthy dialogue with each other. The young protagonist doesn’t really understand his own parents half the time, particularly his quirky father who shares off-the-cuff conspiracy theories with Max.

The book downplays much drama, which contributes to its sense of realism. Instead of raging against unreal conflicts in the service of a centralized plot (“I find strong plots inherently unrealistic,” Salm says), Max ends up learning a quiet lesson about life.

“Max actually gets out of a lot of bad stuff happening,” says Salm. “[At various parts of the book] he could have killed his dog, badly hurt another kid, or got into a bad situation at camp, but none of those things happened to him. Max becomes aware that an awful lot of life is random. Bad things can happen at anytime, so tread softly and beware.

[That moral] was a difficult part of the book for me to write. I wanted to get that part across. Just being a good person, you’ll still cause damage. You hurt enough people without even trying. Being a bad person just makes it even worse. That was tough, because I didn’t want to sound preachy. I tried hard not to make it seem like Max was getting on a soapbox.”

Propelled by the experience of Anyway*, Salm is working on another novel for young readers.

“The book I’m working on right now, which I hope to finish by the end of January, is for the same age group. It’s a different sort of book, but there’s still not much of a plot. I think it’s going to work. For me, it’s all about what’s happening right now, not what’s on the next page.”

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