It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything to this website. Overall, 2015 has been much quieter than 2014 in terms of my writing career. It’s not that things aren’t happening — The Scar Boys came out in paperback, the sequel (Scar Girl) publishes next spring, and I’m under contract to write two unrelated books — but at the moment, most of my writing life is behind the scenes. And that’s good, as the rest of my life has taken some wild turns this year (more on that below)…In other words, I’ve been neglecting the ol’ blog.
But I shall be silent no more, which, as it turns out, is an appropriate theme for this evening’s post. I’m here to write a five star book review of the forthcoming young adult novel, All American Boys. The book, co-authored by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, unapologetically takes on the issues of police brutality and race, and does so in a way that makes you sit up and pay attention. It’s rare to find a book that is not only timely and important, but that is also a literary treasure. All American Boys fits that bill.
Full disclosure. I know both Jason and Brendan personally. All three of our debut novels were published at roughly the same time (winter 2014). The Scar Boys for me, When I Was the Greatest for Jason, and The Gospel of Winter for Brendan (both of their books are outstanding reads). Jason and Brendan toured together (with John Corey Whaley, no less!), and I crossed paths with them a number of times on the road, happily developing a friendship with each along the way. They are really good guys, and really good writers. I aspire to write as well, and to tell stories as compelling, as these two gentlemen. But I know a lot of authors, and I like a lot of books. Sometimes I’ll give a shout out on Facebook or Instagram, but it’s rare for me to write something like I’m writing tonight. In other words, this review is not borne of friendship, but of my sincere assessment as a reader.
Fuller disclosure. As noted elsewhere on this blog, my wife, Kristen, and I are the incoming owners of the Tattered Cover family of bookstores in and around Denver, Colorado. We sold our house, moved our two kids and all our stuff from Connecticut, and settled in the Mile High City’s southern suburbs. I am now a bookseller. This means it is literally my job to sell books. This presents a bit of a conundrum.
As a writer, I have no interest in being critical of other writers’ work. But as a bookseller, I feel obligated to present honest, thoughtful reviews. What to do? First, I will not write disparaging reviews of books. It doesn’t mean I won’t read books that I don’t enjoy…it means that I won’t discuss those books. Not every book is a good fit for every reader; just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t find it’s audience. But if I am recommending a book, I will do my best to give a balanced, sincere assessment of why I want you to read it.
I will take great care in selecting books to review. Not every book I read will get the level of attention I’m giving to All American Boys in this post. In the past year or two, I can think of a few that I probably should have reviewed on this blog — Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley, and Noggin by Corey Whaley, not to mention the aforementioned books by Jason and Brendan. So yes, I’m a bookseller who sells books, but I only handsell the books I truly love. (That’s a promise.)
Fullest disclosure. Two of my favorite people in the world are Kristen’s cousin and his wife, both of whom shall remain nameless for this post. (I haven’t checked with them ahead of time, and don’t wantt to call anyone out who may wish to remain anonymous.) You see, Kristen’s cousin in a cop. Actually, a police captain. When I first met him, he was an undercover narcotics detective who had seen no shortage of horrors on the job. He also spent a year working internal affairs, investigating allegedly dishonest cops.
The cousin is a patient, thoughtful, and gentle man, who only wants to do good for his family and community. He and his wife are more religious than Kristen and I, and are probably a bit more conservative, too. But we think so highly of them that if anything bad ever happened to us, we’d want them – the cousin and his wife — to raise our children. I can’t think of a bigger statement of support or faith in another human being than that. They are, simply put, really, really, really good people. (We love their kids, too.)
My exposure to Kristen’s cousin has allowed me to see the world through the eyes of a policeman. I’ve watched Ferguson, Staten Island, and other stories unfold not only with African American friends in mind, but the police, too. Not all cops are bad. Some are, yes. But many, like Kristen’s cousin, are exceptionally good.
Okay, now that the air is cleared with all my disclosures, let’s get back to the book.
All American Boys is the story of two teens, one white, one black, and their reactions to an incident of racially motivated, mindless, and senseless police brutality. Through an unfortunate circumstance of bad timing, Rashad is mistaken for a thief by a white policeman, and is badly beaten as he tries to defend and explain himself. Quinn, a family friend of the cop, witnesses the attack and has to come to grips with what he sees, and what it means for his own view of the world.
The writing matches the work done by both Jason and Brendan in the past — the dialogue and narrative flow with ease, the two voices complement one another, and the desecriptions are original and intoxicating. But as good as the writing is, that’s not what makes this book so special. What works so well here is the story’s inherent honesty.
Rashad and Quinn are real characters caught in a very real, but also surreal, situation. Each boy’s journey twists and turns from a place of "this can’t be happening to me" to a place of "I have no choice but to confront this thing head on." And each does so in a way that is at times uplifting, and at times (intentionally) uncomfortable.
About halfway through the book I started to worry that this was going to be to one-sided, a heavy handed commentary on racism without trying to understand what it really means. That worry turned out to be completely unfounded. I will not offer a spoiler other than to say that the authors found a way to make me think about how young black men are viewed in America, and how complicated a proposition that is. One of the most powerful scenes is when Rashad and his friends and family recount personal incidents of having been stopped by police simply because they (Rashad et al) were black.
That said, I did want to know more about Paul, the bad cop in question. The very real monsters in our world, I believe, almost never start out that way…they pretty much always have a backstory; I was curious to know more of Paul’s. But truthfully that’s a minor quibble. The story packs a wallop all the way through, and delivers an important message at the end. The book isn’t really about Paul, it’s about the two teens.
I did wonder what Kristen’s cousin, the cop, would think of the book. Would he agree with the thesis? Would he want to defend the police? My guess is that he’d take at least some issue with the story, that he’d worry its characterization of police was trying to draw general conclusions from specific events. And from his perspective, it would be a fair concern. But I also know he’d want his own kids to read All American Boys so they could discuss it as a family.
And that, right there, is the real power of this novel. This isn’t the end of the conversation, it’s the beginning. Jason and Brendan have succeeded (wildly, I might add) in providing a jumping off point for a conversation that is long overdue in America. (Kristen read the book, too, and she and I talked about it for hours.) Like so many great conversations throughout history, this one begins with a book, this book.
Bravo guys, bravo.
(And, of course, this book can be pre-ordered at TatteredCover.com.)
The following press release went out a few minutes ago. Yes, life really is this good.
Tattered Cover Owner Chooses Successor
Joyce Meskis to retire from business in two years
March 26, 2015 (Denver, CO) – Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover, Inc., announced today that she reached an agreement with long-time book industry veterans Len Vlahos and his wife, Kristen Gilligan to assume control of the business over a two-year time frame. Mr. Vlahos and Ms. Gilligan will join the senior management team of the Tattered Cover on July 1, 2015, and acquire a controlling interest in the business on July 1, 2017. At that point Ms. Meskis will retire and thereafter be available on an as needed basis. More specific terms of the deal were not made public.
“Len and Kristen are exceptionally well-qualified and well-suited to guide the Tattered Cover through the opportunities and challenges of the future,” said Ms. Meskis. “Their energy, passion, philosophical faith in the importance of the role bookselling plays in the community and solid commitment to the strength of its future, ensures my confidence in the longevity of the Tattered Cover in their hands.”
“To become part of the fabric of Tattered Cover is literally a dream come true,” Vlahos said. “The important role bookstores play—as conduits for the free flow of ideas and as stewards of the culture—is essential to the health and well being of our communities. There is no better example of what an indie bookstore can and should be than Tattered Cover. I’m deeply honored that Joyce has confidence in Kristen and me to join the team and lead the business into the future.”
When Joyce Meskis purchased Tattered Cover in 1974, it was a small, struggling 950-square foot shop in the Cherry Creek North neighborhood of Denver. Over the next forty-one years she and the booksellers who joined her built an internationally-recognized store known for exceptional service and loyalty to the greater Denver community.
Tattered Cover now owns and operates four retail stores in and around the city, including on Colfax Avenue, in Lower Downtown, in the newly refurbished Denver Union Station, and soon to open in the Aspen Grove Shopping Center in Littleton the store formerly located in Highlands Ranch. There are also three licensed store locations at Denver International airport with one more to follow.
The business has weathered a series of economic challenges: the boom and bust years in Colorado; the roll out of chain superstores; the advent of e-commerce and the rise of digital books; as well as the recent great recession. Yet, Tattered Cover has persevered and remained one of Denver’s most cherished literary and cultural institutions.
Ms. Meskis, 73, is a former president of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and has been honored by numerous organizations for her lifelong and steadfast commitment to free speech and First Amendment rights, including the American Library Association’s (ALA) Award for Free Expression. She was also the recipient of the distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Achievement and Exceptional Service to the Denver Metropolitan Area from the University of Colorado, and served seven years as the Director of the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. Several Authors’ Associations have honored the Tattered Cover for its support. Over the years the store has hosted thousands of author events celebrating first timer and veteran, the controversial to the beloved, all as a community service.
Len Vlahos is currently the Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group—a national, member-based non-profit devoted to facilitating innovation and shared solutions on behalf of the book publishing industry. Prior to that he had a twenty-year career at the American Booksellers Association, leaving as the Chief Operating Officer in 2011. Before ABA, Vlahos was a bookseller in independent, university, and chain bookstores. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed The Scar Boys (Egmont USA)—a finalist for ALA’s William C. Morris Award for best debut teen fiction of 2014—along with the forthcoming sequel, Scar Girl. He recently signed a two-book deal with Bloomsbury publishers for two new works of young adult fiction.
Kristen Gilligan—a book industry veteran as well—had a decade-long career at the American Booksellers Association, leaving as the Director of Meetings and Events. Before ABA, Gilligan was a bookseller and managed an independent bookstore in Chappaqua, New York. She currently works on special projects for the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) and prior to that for the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE). Gilligan is also a former resident of Boulder, Colorado. Vlahos, Gilligan, and their two young sons are relocating to Denver from Stamford, Connecticut.
“I’ve experienced first hand how the profession of bookselling changes lives,” Gilligan said. “There’s a magic and a magnetism in seeing the right book find its way to the right customer. I am thrilled beyond belief that I will have the opportunity to help Tattered Cover continue and grow its great tradition of bookselling in Denver.”
Tattered Cover’s General Manager Matt Miller, who has worked with Ms. Meskis at the store for over 36 years, has served on both the Board of Directors of the ABA as well as ABFFE, and has also worked directly with Mr. Vlahos and Ms. Gillian in that capacity, said the following:
“It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to work with Joyce these many years, building a business that is so rewarding and so important to the community. Having known and worked with Len and Kristen over the years, I can think of no better scenario for the future of the store than for them to take reins as Joyce transitions toward retirement. I am confident that they will bring continuity and vitality to the Tattered Cover through their commitment, talent, and vision for decades to come. I am looking forward to working with them toward that goal.”
“Joyce Meskis helped create the modern independent bookstore,” said Oren Teicher. ABA’s Chief Executive Officer. “She served our organization with great distinction as a Board Member and President, and her leadership on First Amendment and free expression issues is legendary. That Tattered Cover will continue under the expert leadership of Kristen Gilligan and Len Vlahos reinforces the good news surrounding indie bookstores of late. I can say with complete confidence that all of us associated with indie bookstores are smiling broadly with this announcement.”
Time for truth telling.
I have had high anxiety that, as an author, I would be a one-note song. That the Scar Boys and Scar Girl — which are really one long, quasi-autobiographical story — were the only good things I would ever write.
As my agent shopped a new manuscript (tentatively called House of Stone) — unconnected to The Scar Boys or to music or to the 1980s, and not drawn from personal experience — I watched as one editor after another rejected the book.
“It’s too adult to publish as YA.”
“It’s too young to publish as adult.”
“The third person narrative and ensemble cast won’t connect with readers.”
“You’re a loser and you should die.” Okay, no one actually said that, but I think maybe that’s what they meant, right? There’s nothing like rejection to breed self doubt.
But writing is nothing if not an exercise in perseverance. I decided not to edit the manuscript based on the rejections I was receiving (as some confidants were advising). I guess I just believed in the book enough to hope it would find a home.
My patience paid off. I’m thrilled to say that I accepted an offer from Cindy Loh, editor extraordinaire and publisher at Bloomsbury Kids, to publish House of Stone. You can see the announcement, here.
Scar Girl will publish in Spring 2016 (from my other new publisher, Lerner), House of Stone in spring 2017 from Bloomsbury, and the book to be named later, well, later.
Much more to come about all of this, but for now, while I still have plenty of anxiety, I am one insanely, incredibly happy, and very lucky dude.
Thank you Bloomsbury!!!!!!
I was completely and totally blown away to learn that The Scar Boys is a finalist for the American Library Association’s William C. Morris Award. The Award “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.” I mean, holy cow!!!!
Here, including The Scar Boys, are the five finalist books:
The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley (Elephant Rock Books)
The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim written by E.K. Johnston, published by Carolrhoda Lab™, an imprint of Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group.
Gabi, a Girl in Pieces written by Isabel Quintero, published by Cinco Puntos Press.
The Scar Boys written by Len Vlahos, published by Egmont Publishing.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender written by Leslye Walton, published by Candlewick Press.
I’ve already purchased the other four books from WORD Bookstores (Jersey City and Brooklyn) and am looking forward to reading them and to getting them signed at the Awards Ceremony on February 2 in Chicago.
Nearly two and a half years ago my agent told me that Egmont USA, a small kids book publisher based in New York City, had acquired the rights to The Scar Boys. Since that moment, one cool thing after another has happened to me:
First and foremost, I’ve met an incredible array of readers. From the Teen Advisory Board at Hicklebee’s in San Jose (pictured here), to the amazing students in Ana Medina Fernandez’s library at Ronald Reagan High School in Doral (Miami) Florida, and everywhere in between, I’ve been inspired, edified, and humbled.
I’ve also been embraced by the community of young adult writers. Well-established authors like Elizbeth Eulberg, Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, Andrew Smith, David Levithan, Sara Darer Littman, Ellen Hopkins, Trent Reedy, Jandy Nelson — and the list goes on and on and on — have not only made me feel welcome among their ranks, but they’ve taught me so much. As a debut author, this has astounded and heartened me, and it has made my entry into this world a heck of a lot easier. These people are just freaking amazing.
My book was the happy benefactor of a starred review in School Library Journal, a #1 Indie Next pick, and a favorable review in the Sunday New York Times. (You can see a lot of media, here.)
I even got a second book deal out of the experience with a Scar Boys sequel (tentiavely called Scar Girl) slated for publication by Egmont in late summer/early fall 2015.
I know, I know… I sound like a gushing six year old at his first baseball game, awestruck by everything around him, but how else could I possibly feel? Pretty amazing stuff, right? But I don’t think anything can be cooler than this:
"I just wanted to write you an email stating that I was still very interested into turning The Scar Boys into a theatre piece. It speaks to me on several levels as a child growing up in the 80s and being so influenced by that music scene."
This was part of a note from Chad Edwards, the theater arts teacher at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I met Chad at the BookMarks festival where he initially pitched the idea to me. We’ve since confirmed all the details via email. He and his students will adapt The Scar Boys and produce it for the stage, with three live performances in Februrary. I will work with the kids via Skype, and I will make sure that Kristen and I are there for opening night.
Wow. I mean, wow!
I told Chad, and I believe this strongly, an adaptation is a distinct and unique work of art. Yes, it’s dervied from source material, but my hope is that these young writers and actors will take The Scar Boys and make it their own. I’m so excited to see what they do with it.
Stay tuned for updates on the process of adapting the book and of working with the students. This is going to be fun!
This week marks one of the most important anniversaries in American history, nay, in world history, nay again, in the history of our solar system. Of course I refer to the six month anniversary of the release of my debut novel, The Scar Boys.
What, you thought I was going to say the moon landing? Really? Okay, I’m kidding. The 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon IS the momentous occasion you should be celebrating. You should watch Apollo 13 (I did last night), you should go outside and look at the moon (preferably with a telescope), and you should eat moon pies (whatever the hell moon pies are). But don’t look to this blog for information on that momentous event; I was all of four years old when it happened. A quick Google Search on "Moon Landing", "Apollo 11," "Armstrong," or "Buzz," will tell you what you want to know. (I find it vexing that Buzzfeed now trumps Buzz Aldrin in search resutls. Ugh.).
While I’m not qualified to wax (or wane — a moon joke, get it?) on the Sea of Tranquility, I can talk all night about The Scar Boys. Fear not, I won’t. But six months (January 21 to July 21) is an interesting enough milestone to warrant a few words.
The lifecycle of a book is a weird thing. I spent the three months post-release visiting bookstores and high schools in support of The Scar Boys, and I loved every second of it. Now, the work of promoting the book is shifting to the festival-conference circuit. (I didn’t know such a circuit existed until recently, but it does.) I’m lucky enough to have received invitations to participate in no fewer than six festivals and cons this fall, and was foolish enough (I still have a day job and a family) to accept them all.I participated in one con this past spring, the Houston Teen Con, and it was a-m-a-z-i-n-g. Not only did I spend the day with 1500 enthusiastic teen readers — that’s right America, 1500 teens gave up a beautiful Saturday afternoon to come hear a bunch of authors talk about books! — but I got to meet and socialize with other people
Now I get to do it all over again, six times, this fall. The first two events — actually at the end of the summer — are right around the corner:
First up is the Decatur Book Festival. The part of the event aimed at kids is run by Diane Capriola, the wonderful owner of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta). On Friday, August 29, the festival is sending the talented, funny, and sometimes incendieary Laurn Myracle and I on school visits. The following day Lauren and I are joined by Terra Elan McVoy for a panel discussion titled "Just Do It" (I hope we don’t have to sell sneakers or anything like that), and later that same day, I get to moderate a panel titled "Guys and Girls Like Us," featuring Geoff Herbach, Ellen Hopkins, Jandy Nelson, and Andrew Smith. Are you shitting me? I mean how cool is that?
One week and a couple of hundred miles later, I head to Winston-Salem for the Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors. (I love Wintson-Salem if for no other reason than it has a hyphenated name. It was like Winston and Salem got married and decided to combine names rather than simply take the name of the husband. Well done, W-S, well done.) The Assistant Director of the festival is one Jamie Rogers.
During my twenty year tenure at the American Booksellers Association, the trade group representing the interests of independently owned bookstores, I had the honor and pleasure of working with Jamie. I know her well enough to tell you that anything she touches turns to gold, including this event. The lineup is incredible. For my part, I’m on a bullying panel with Meg Medina (we are not bullying each other or the audience, but rather, talking about how our books and characters address bullying), I’m doing my own presentation, and I’m participating in a panel on the future of the book. Wow!
Between Decatur and Winston-Salem, I cannot think of a better way to end the summer, and to enter the second phase in the life of The Scar Boys. (Phase three comes in February with the release of the paperback, and phase four several months later with the sequel, Scar Girl.)
In the meantime, I will tear my eyes away from the moon long enough to wish Harry, Johnny, Cheyenne, and Richie — The Scar Boys — a happy anniversary. Like all six month olds, they allow me little sleep, they are always hungry to be fed, and they are full of promise. Thanks to everyone who has made the first half a year the incredible ride it has been.
The Scar Boys “Win an Electric Guitar Contest” is a wrap. For those of you who entered but did not receive an email from me saying that you won, well, thank you for taking the time to enter, but sorry, you didn’t win. For the two of you who did receive that email from me, congrats! (More on our winners below.)
I was thrilled that dozens of you knew the mystery song was actually the tune from the classic movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
That tune has been stuck in my head for decades.
Two winners were chosen at random from among all the correct entries. I’m thrilled to introduce you to:
Ben from San Lorenzo Valley High School in Northern California.
"People always say that working hard for something makes it more dear, and it’s probably true, but so does serendipity. The electric guitar is gorgeous. As soon as I got home I took the case onto my bed, unzipped it from neck to base, and lay the guitar on my lap. Sixty years of design has made the shape of an electric guitar not only practical and comfortable, but remarkably sensual."
I’m so excited for Ben and Jessica, and am happy that The Scar Boys gave me an opportunity to help spread the gift of music a little further. (Farther? I’m a writer, I should probably know that. I also probably shouldn’t end my sentences with the word "that." But I digress.)
The contest also helped raise $400 for Library for All, a wonderful nonprofit building digital libraries in communities where people have no access to books. It’s not a huge sum of money, but every little bit helps. This is me delivering the check to Nicole, Isabel and Jessica at LFA.
I encourage you to get involved. Visit their website to find out how.
Thanks again to everyone who entered, and congrats again Ben and Jessica!
I received the following email yesterday:
I’m Ella. You probably remember me, but I met you at Hicklebee’s and introduced you for the event.
I wanted to share with you a song by one of my favorite artists that has been my musical and emotional inspiration lately.
Also, the song’s title has something to do with The Scar Boys.
I love this email. It was short, sweet, and so thoughtful of Ella to send. (She also did a kick-butt introduction at the Hicklebee’s event, which was one of my favorite events on the book tour.) But best of all was the song, Lightning Bolt by Jake Bugg. To paraphrase one of the YouTube comments, I don’t know how I haven’t heard of this guy. (The video and lyrics are below.)
In so many ways, this is the perfect song for Harbinger Jones. I kind of wish he’d written it!
Thank you Ella!!!
Lightning Bolt, written by Iain Archer and Jake Bugg
Morning, its another pure grey morning
Dont know what the day is holding
When I get uptight
And I walk right into the path of a lightning bolt
Sirens of an ambulance comes howling
Right through the centre of town and
No one blinks an eye
And I look up to the sky in the path of a lighting bolt
Met her as the angels parted for her
But she only brought me touture
But thats what happens
When its you whos standing in the path of a ligthning bolt
Everyone I see just wants to walk with gritted teeth
But I just stand by and I wait my time
They say you gotta toe the line they want the water not the wine
But when I see the signs I jump on that lightning bolt
Chances, people tell you not to take chances
When they tell you there arent any answers
And I was starting to agree
But I awoke suddenly in the path of a lightning bolt
Fortune, people talking all about fortune
Do you make it or does it just call you.
In the blinking of an eye
Just another passerby in the path of a lightning bolt
Everyone I see just wants to walk with gritted teeth
But I just stand by and I wait my time
They say you gotta toe the line they want the water not the wine
But when I see the signs I jump on that lightning bolt
It was silent, I was lying back gazing skyward
When the moment got shattered
I remembered what she said
And then she fled in the path of a lightning