Author Tom Leveen: The brave new world of young-adult media

Arizona author Tom Leveen talks about helping kids navigate young-adult media.

The world can be a scary place. As parents, our job is to keep our kids safe and teach them to live in it successfully. This requires us to perform a dance not taught at Arthur Murray.

It’s one we learn as we go, and it involves a lot of fancy footwork — a complicated tango of leading and following, pushing and pulling, holding close and letting go. Some of the trickiest steps involve when and how much of the scary stuff to share. Does information encourage or inhibit behavior?

In spring 2017, Netflix released its dramatization of “13 Reasons Why,” a series based on Jay Asher’s award-winning 2007 young-adult novel about the people and events involved in a high school girl’s suicide. Hannah Baker takes her life and leaves behind audio tapes detailing her struggles with lies, betrayal, bullying and rape.

The series is built on the solid bones of the book, but it adds muscle by greatly expanding the book’s timeline and backstory, and sprouts a few new appendages by seriously ratcheting up the drama and adding several new plot elements. The production (since extended for another season) was both praised and criticized.

I thought it would be helpful to discuss the issue — and the often dark themes of today’s YA literature — with someone who has tremendous experience in and perspective on it. A native Arizonan, Tom Leveen wrote his first story in second grade and has been writing and telling stories ever since. A frequent guest speaker and teacher, he is the author of eight highly praised young adult novels.

Leveen is a dad (to a 6-year-son and infant daughter), a former actor and theater director, and currently an early literacy specialist with Phoenix Public Library. He also writes “Spawn,” the comic book series, with Todd McFarlane, and has published adult fiction and nonfiction. His next YA novel, “Mercy Rule,” is being released by Sky Pony Press on Jan. 9, 2018.

Young adult literature is intended for ages 13-18, and is characterized by the primacy of emotion as opposed to experience in confronting and solving problems. How did you come to write for this age group?
I write YA because I am fascinated by origin stories: How did Peter Parker become Spider-Man? How did Bruce Wayne become Batman? And high school is exactly that. It’s the crucible that our culture puts young people through that will, for better or worse, often determine who they really are. Who asked whom to prom and why is a lot more interesting to me than “adulting.” Everything matters so much at that age; getting a certain grade or winning a certain award or asking a certain person out. Remember how vital and critical it all seemed? I argue that adults ought not dismiss those things.

Give us your take on YA lit as an author and a parent. In your writing, do you feel like you have to take sides: kids vs. adults? I do not feel a need to take sides in my novels. I write about good parents and bad parents, great adults and terrible adults, super kids and awful kids. That’s all part of crafting any story. I do often portray adults — and parents in particular — in distress. The parents I write about? Those are largely true stories. Some of [the conversations] are verbatim. Some of the parents in my books have issues ranging from clinical depression to just a simple “I do not know what to do with my kid” sort of attitude. Certainly they are not all villains, and I do find as I get older and my kids get older, I probably give adults and parents a little more sympathy.

Outside the novels, though, at school visits and such, I find myself frequently on the side of kids. I have met too many who have stories too similar to mine or those of my friends, who are being largely abandoned, neglected or outright forgotten by the adults in their lives, notably their parents. It’s frustrating and maddening every time I hear another horror story by a kid who would rather stay on campus all day than go home and face what’s happening there: drug addiction, alcohol abuse or sheer loneliness.
Now that I’m a parent of two, and most of my friends I grew up with are parents, we say, “I’m not going to do what was done to me.” A big part of changing how we raise our own kids will be passing down those books we read that made such a difference. I guarantee it.

My friends and I were deeply impacted by two teachers in high school who introduced us to all sorts of great literature, great theater — and trusted us with responsibilities. Many of us likely avoided jail time or worse as a result of two adults who cared, who listened and who let us express ourselves in writing, onstage, and backstage in the drama department.

Many YA books contain profanity, drugs, drinking, sex and other forms of rebellion. What do you say to parents who think YA lit will corrupt their kids? They need to read more YA. But they have to step into their own teenage shoes first. Take a phenomenal book like “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson, which critics wrongly said is “about date rape.” It’s not; it is about depression as a result of rape. No teen is going to read that book and go, “Hey, I should date-rape girls!” Not possible. No one will read “The Outsiders” and say, “Gangs are cool! I should stab someone!” YA authors and editors are fierce defenders of teenagers — with our time, our words, our money, everything. That’s more than many parents can say, I’m afraid.

RELATED: RAK stories about children’s books

Have you read or viewed “13 Reasons Why”? Are parents right to worry? Does it glamorize suicide? I read “13 Reasons Why” when it first came out and thought it was a very good book. And no, parents are not right to be worried about any book their teen reads. YA saves lives, it does not take them. The sheer volume of emails, social media posts, and handwritten letters that YA authors have received in the past 20 years saying “This book saved my life” would flood a house floor to ceiling. “You saved my life” is not exaggeration; these books have impact, real-life impact, and I have yet to hear of a YA novel that led to someone’s death.

Furthermore, every YA author I have ever met — and I’ve met a bunch — takes [his/her] job very seriously when it comes to how teens will relate to their books. It is at once an honor, privilege, and responsibility, and every author I know takes it seriously. The book did not glamorize suicide. I have not seen the series, so I can’t comment [specifically], but I somehow doubt it. I just can’t imagine a producer, writer, director, and entire cast and crew getting together and saying, “Say, you know what’s cool? Suicide.” I read the book, then viewed the series. I agree the book did not glamorize suicide. The series did drastically turn up the emotional heat by changing and showing the act. Should parents differentiate between YA books and videos?

By and large, I say let them read anything, eventually. Censoring our kids’ reading isn’t helping them, but only each family can determine what’s appropriate and what’s not. But this idea of keeping books away from kids is unforgivable, utter nonsense! Why would a parent waste this golden opportunity to read a book with (or before) their kid and see what conversations come out of it? As a parent, why toss away one single tool in your parenting toolkit? It makes no sense. Take them to bookstores! Ask them which books look like they’d be interesting reads. Talk to the booksellers. They know their stuff. Take your teen to Changing Hands; they’ll sort it out for you.

Video is another thing entirely, though, because video — anything on a screen — impacts us differently than the written word. Anything happening to us from about kindergarten through high school is going to be in our heads for the rest of our lives.
I do tend to think that policing our kids’ screen time is important, as well as what is on those screens. Back off the bad examples until later. Much later, if possible. Instead, cram those brains full of books. But having said that, if watching “13 Reasons Why” together opens doors to talk, then do it!

And even having said that, if a parent wants to veto, let’s say, my novel, “Zero,” because of the sexual content, that’s fine. I 100 percent support a parent’s right to do that. But the sheer act of vetoing [any book] should itself open up a conversation; every time you say no, you have to be honest, authentic, and loving as you explain your reasons and concerns. Talk to your kids! Because if you don’t, someone else will. Someone, somewhere, is going to put things into their head. Do you want to gamble on who that will be?

YA lit covers lots of territory in terms of genre and maturity level. Is there good and bad YA, or just a lot of variety? There is “bad” YA in terms of quality of writing, perhaps, but that is so, so, so subjective as to be rendered a meaningless discussion. Some of my books are viscerally hated by some readers, and some readers have re-read those same books until the pages fell out. There’s simply no accounting for taste and opinion. But in terms of good and bad for kids, I don’t think so; there really is just that much variety. Dr. James Blasingame at Arizona State University, who I think of as the Yoda of YA literature, says there is a book for every teenager, and I believe that. This is why we need trained librarians (and, you know, libraries) in our schools and communities. They make a huge, positive difference in the lives of teens.

It’s also important, I think, to understand the author’s intent when choosing a book. One of my YA author friends writes very, shall we say, “fluffy” romances. Those books are well-written, well-plotted, and a lot of fun to read. They are just different from a book like “Zero” or “Random,” where my style is to come out swinging and not pull any punches. I’m chasing a different theme than my friend is, and our styles reflect that. Sometimes you need a fluffy romance, sometimes you need zombies invading your high school.

RELATED: “The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage” debuts

Tom Leveen’s books include:

“Hellworld,” Simon Pulse, 2017. Two teens return to the Arizona cave where each lost a parent five years before to look for clues.

“Shackled,” Simon Pulse, 2015. Teen sees her kidnapped and presumed-dead friend, but no one believes her.

“Violent Ends,” Simon Pulse, 2015. Seventeen YA authors write on a single theme — a high school shooter as remembered by his classmates/victims — in this collection edited by Shaun David Hutchinson.

“Random,” Simon Pulse, 2014. A girl awaiting a court date for involvement in a cyberbullying death gets an unusual opportunity.

“Sick,” Abrams, 2013. Winner of the Westchester Fiction Award and the Grand Canyon Reader Award. High school misfits are pitted against a suddenly zombified student body.

“manicpixiedreamgirl,” Random House, 2013. A teen falls hard for an enigmatic girl who is way out of his league, but not in the way he imagines.

“Zero,” Random House, 2012. With her scholarship and best friend gone, and her parents melting down, artist Zero feels like one until she meets a punk-rock musician. An American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association Best Book of 2013.

“Party,” Random House, 2011. Eleven teen lives intersect dramatically at the big end-of-the-school-year party.

Leveen’s YA recommendations:

“Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli. A teen is celebrated then suddenly shunned for everything that makes her different.

“Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson. A teen’s girl’s depression as a result of rape.

“Cut” by Patricia McCormick. Believing she is responsible for her brother’s illness, 15-year-old Callie begins a course of self-destruction.

Anything written by Judy Blume.

The “Redwall” series by Brian Jacques. Peace-loving mice of Redwall Abbey defend themselves against Cluny the Scourge and his battle-seasoned army of rats.

Any of Christopher Pike’s YA horror novels.

“I would love to include all of my author friends here in Arizona, but there are far too many of them, and all are good, so please ask your librarian about YA authors who live in Arizona!” Leveen adds. “ If parents would like additional information on YA literature, I highly recommend checking out “Books That Don’t Bore ‘Em” by ASU English professor James Blasingame.”