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City type

Teen angst, captured in words

By Ellen Steinbaum
March 22, 2009
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Remember high school? OMG who doesn't, complete with what Steven Goldman terms its "acceptable level of abuse" of anyone who was "different."

I talked recently with Goldman, of Jamaica Plain, the author of "Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film About 'The Grapes of Wrath.' " The book is a young adult novel, a genre that probably exists specifically because it's not easy being in high school. Not now and not in 1980s North Carolina.

"The world has changed from when I grew up in a very conservative part of the Bible Belt," says Goldman. He recalls that, as one of very few Jews in his community, he felt that abuse, alongside the people who embodied the other two taboos of differentness - being gay and being black. Those memories led him to write a book in which an 11th-grader reacts to finding out that his best friend is gay.

"It's about how the world changes for the straight person. Mitchell [the protagonist] is narcissistic. He doesn't get it that it's not all about him.

"I was interested in how it might be different today compared with the way it was for someone being gay in North Carolina in the '80s," says Goldman.

"The book is about how groups accept and reject people. My interest is in how that happens. I like to inhabit a character and see it from that perspective."

Despite the serious underlying circumstance, the book is disarmingly funny, filled with the nerdy dialogue and deadpan interior musings of adolescent boys trying to sort out their place in the world. For example, Mitchell, who, at 17 considers himself "the single biggest loser on the face of the planet," admits that, aside from going on one date, his "entire romantic life has consisted of kissing exactly two females who are unrelated to me.

"[T]he two kisses occurred at a party in seventh grade. The two females in question kissed practically everyone at the party. It was some sort of dare thing. My active involvement was basically happening to stand in the right room. Given the speed of the lip action, I was lucky to escape unbruised."

Goldman had not set out to write a young adult, or YA, novel. After teaching middle school, he assumed that a younger age group would be his target audience. But, while studying at Emerson College for a master's in creative writing, he found himself drawn to the YA genre.

"I was writing a novel that just happens to be for that age group," he says. "There was a lot of emotional resonance with that time period in my life. I tried to ground it in some emotional experience I understand. This is a novel I'd like to have had to read when I was that age."

Which brings us to the big YA problem.

"I didn't read Salinger until around my late 20s," says Goldman, who spent his teen years reading more challenging adult books. "By that time, I was kind of late for it.

"When I was 17 I wouldn't have been caught dead reading a YA novel," he admits. And he knows he's not alone, especially here in the Athens of America and beyond, where credential-gathering and what looks good on a college application often drive the criteria for selecting reading material.

Goldman makes the case that YA novels speak directly to their readers' experience. He puts in a good word for reading at grade level, in the emotional sense. Sure, high school students can read "War and Peace" just as parents can tuck their children in with Shakespearean sonnets, but in books, as in many other things, there is a time that's right.

And this is the time to say this is my final column for City Weekly. For the past seven years it has been fun to think about who might be turning to this page on a Sunday morning. To everyone who read my words, to everyone who shared their thoughts with me and my readers, and to the editors who helped me get those words right, my thanks.

Visit www.ellensteinbaum.com to join in her blog conversation about reading and writing.

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