The Bad Boys of YA: Chris Lynch and Adam Rapp
Both write rock star edgy. Like great rockers, they're scrappy poets, a little bit philosophical and lots of bad boy attitude. And while Chris Lynch and Adam Rapp take readers through relentless trials in unforgiving lands, writing about guns, rape, alcohol, neglect, drugs, fights, friends, and even love lost, their novels usually end with hope.
It isn't just the good guys versus the bad guys when you pick up one of their novels. Readers confront integrity of character locked in battle with easier but often brutal choices. Both authors set their stories in worlds lacking in adult supervision, places where young adults evade adult scrutiny while exercising personal power. These are worlds adolescents know well - playgrounds and parks, clubhouses, camps, boarding schools, and even detention centers.
Perhaps the biggest distinction between the two authors is that, while Lynch usually writes about adolescents coached in violence, Rapp writes about naively innocent adolescents caught in violent and emotionally isolated places. Both authors consistently explore what it takes to walk away from brutality and survive with dignity.
With this shared interest in exploring how adolescents transcend violent surroundings, it should be no surprise that the two authors became quick friends in 1998 while promoting Gypsy Davey and The Buffalo Tree, two novels Harpex Collins had just reissued for the adult market.
The authors have been known to provoke each other to deeper levels wit their banter, and have even been found chatting in bookstore netcafes about the stuff that makes their books some of the most controversial and loved books ever.
They continue to explore gritty, tough topics. And both have agreed to talk about why controversial characters and stories should be invited into classrooms and communities during NCTE 2000 in Milwaukee (Sat., Nov. 20, at 3:30 pm). The informal conversation, entitled, "Teaching Peace Through Literature," coincides with the ALAN workshops, which will be kicked off Saturday morning with a breakfast and award ceremony honoring another controversial author, M.E. Kerr.
No one should fear that these novelists teach violence simply because they portray violent acts. Rapp points out, "I am not interested in romanticizing or sensationalizing violence. I am interested in honoring what I know to be true. I've seen and lived through certain things that no one should be exposed to. As an adolescent I was in and out of reform school, military academy, and as an adult I've played basketball in some of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City. I've seen children no older than twelve selling drugs and carrying guns."
Rapp doesn't think there is any place in young adult literature for the censorship of violence, no matter how extreme. He admits, "I think violence can become gratuitous when it's not serving the story. I try and steer clear of this as much as possible. In general I feel that my responsibility as an artist is to tell the truth, and it's as simple as that."
Rapp believes kids are resilient and can handle just about anything, especially when it's coming to them in the form of a novel. "I actually think that it's their right to know about these things."
Lynch speaks of violence portrayed in his own work when he says, "I am firm in the belief that if you portray violence in its raw and ugly form it will not be attractive to most people. This may be why some people may think I don't hold back enough in evoking violent images. But if you hedge when you describe awfulness, what have you done? You have made it less awful. You have let awfulness off the hook, given it a reprieve, and possibly even made it more acceptable."
He remains confident that, "most readers out there can recognize the distinction between endorsing violence and being repulsed by it."
Although both authors believe that readers can come away from reading about violence with a message of peace, neither Lynch nor Rapp sets out to do any more than tell a character's story, while composing. And good story is what they hope readers come away with first and foremost. "I hope that they feel they have spent time with somebody special " says Rapp. "And that they might close the book and want to know what happens to the protagonist. Like the way one perhaps feels when a good friend moves away. A yearning to know more."
If there is one sort of recurring experience Lynch would like to see readers have with his books, it's the experience of experiencing. "I'm happy to think that through the rough bits and the funny ones, through the broken hearts and broken heads of my characters' lives, readers get a chance to live elsewhere for a while, through this they can slightly better visualize who they do and do not want to be," says Lynch. He adds, "We as adults sometimes forget that we weren't born with all the tools necessary to growing up, and that passing on stories can be a great way to give a hand up to those behind us in the line."
Lynch cautiously believes there are the rare occasions when a book of his should be steered away from the youngest adolescents. "I'm not certain what the definition of Young Adult is," says Lynch, "but I'm pretty clear on the distinction between a 12-year-old and a 17-year-old. The book jacket may lump them into the same category, but I can't. There have been books of mine that I think travel comfortably across a broad age spectrum, but there are others that I deliberately slant older, because I tend to get very strong cusp-of-adult-hood story ideas."
Beyond that there's a more profound issue of power and control involved in challenges to books, Lynch believes. "I think the `challengers' get nervous whenever you are speaking directly to the kids on issues that might get them fired up and thinking on their own. It's a small number of people attempting to corral a large number of minds. And frankly I think they go harder on issues like sex and religion than they do on violence because those things are even harder to control once they get loose."
While Rapp's novels have never been formally challenged, Lynch's most recent young adult work, Whitechurch, helped to earn him the distinction of being one of the country's most challenged authors for two years running (1998 and 1999).
Whitechurch pushes the edge of confrontation. But with a subtle twist. While Lynch's earlier novels explore how adolescents coached in violence might choose nonviolence, this novel, about three small town teens, studies the spiraling consequences of choosing to let violence happen, rather than taking a stand to stop it.
Proving his mettle, Lynch asserts, "I don't know of a single `challenged' or `controversial' author who has responded by knuckling under. Honestly. So I hope there's a message in there somewhere. Yo, censorious types, if you're reading this, just pack it in, why don't you, because it's not ever going to shut people up. When I first found myself hitting the list, what happened was the occasion helped crystallize my understanding of my profile as a writer. As in, "Oh, is that what I am, then? Okay."
About being challenged, Lynch says he doesn't much mind finding out that some people are offend by his work. He recognizes that everything he writes w' bother some people and please others, just as "every utterance" out of his mouth probably does. "If I'm speaking and everybody at the table totally agrees, I get a wee pang disappointment because I assume folks are just being polite.
"But at the end of the day," Lynch says, "the response being challenged has to be that it reinforces the writer's determination. If I wrote something that stirred things up, don't think that I necessarily said something brilliant groundbreaking, subversive, clever or even right. All it mea to me is that, well, I've stirred something up." He feels go when he learns his books prompt discussion: "I frankly believe my books are better things when they are used in classrooms or discussion groups than they are on there own. Because I don't provide a lot of answers in my work. I do provide opportunity to kick issues around."
He cautions that in too many situations the violent option is the easiest option. "It requires the least though the least character," he says. "I believe there is some value to watching others in books, movies, whatever-playing out these situations, and thinking about them. Making the reasoned choice and reaping the benefits, or making the knee-jerk response and suffering those consequences. It's a sort mental-emotional exercise when we travel with fictional characters through real-life situations. Like military war game Unfortunately too many times, particularly in sports an movies, our heroes are shown making the violent and emotional decisions, and reaping glory for it. I think that picture is way out of balance, and damaging, particularly to you males."
Lynch's newest book, released in August, 2000, is a surprisingly quiet novel about the dangers of silence. The shi was intentional. With Gold Dust, he says, "I felt it was about time I centered a story on the far more pervasive issue passive racism, of the hatred and violence that is nurtured b the silent collaboration of the `good guys.' Guys like Richard, who don't have the heart to really harbor animosity to ward anybody, but who do endless damage all the same by ducking. This kind of character walks through his life saying, `Well your life might not be perfect, but mine's pretty much the way I like it, so don't make too much trouble, okay?' And by way of solution he adds, `Everything will be better, life will be better, for everybody, when you just learn to be more like me."'
Lynch clearly believes there's a real benefit to communities if these issues are talked about. "The single greatest hope I have for each book as it leaves my hands is that it gets kicked around in as many schools and libraries as possible," he says. "I don't think I've entirely closed the door on a story once I pass it on. My book is a better book when people are talking about it. Because that's what it's built for."
Rapp, whose first novel was set in a boarding school, and whose second novel was set in a juvenile detention center, believes change can occur in communities from reading and discussing controversial books. "One of the things that concerns me is the lack of adult supervision, and more specifically, caring adult supervision at various reform schools and juvenile detention centers. I think there's a kind of Darwinian brutality that can run rampant when kids are given power, and if you're on the wrong end of the pecking order things can be very scary. I would hope that the staffs at juvenile detention centers and reform schools are carefully chosen so that there is a community of support and hope."
Although Rapp wants discussion, he is keenly aware that his subject matter makes this a difficult possibility with more conservative schools and libraries. He is not aware of any direct challenges by would-be censors to date.
And Lynch yields to caution when suggesting what can be taken away from his work. "I wouldn't dare to suggest what communities could learn to change from reading my books," he says. "The closest I come to that is just in trying to portray communities-their strengths and weaknesses-as well as I understand them. I believe clannishness, insularity and suspicion are poisonous, while a strong sense of identity and unity are wonderful. Communities too often get these qualities muddled, I think, and that's the kind of issue a novel can explore probably as well as any other medium." Communication between people, rather than distance between them is what Lynch hopes people come away with.
Rapp says, with hope, that he likes to think that the violence in his work would act as "a kind of inoculation; that the reader might ingest the harder stuff and somehow be protected or released from performing similar acts." He believes that a kind of peace can come out of this.
Lynch speaks for both authors, saying he believes it is possible to follow characters through violence and come away with a message of peace. "From my own point of view I sometimes have a hard time imagining any other message coming through. Take the Blue-Eyed Son books for example. I believe the hate-fueled, blood-soaked existence of many of the characters in that story is so profoundly ugly that one can't help but feel polluted by exposure to it. I know I did. I found the series increasingly difficult to write, and by the end I needed to be out of there. But I feel strongly that this was the way it had to be written. If I hadn't bothered myself so much, then I wasn't getting it right."
Photograph of Chris Lynch by Ray Warren
Ann Angel has taught journalism and writing courses and supervised the student newspaper for over fourteen years at Mount Mary College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing Program, where Chris Lynch was her advisor, Ann also teaches Writing for Children through the Vermont College Distance Learning program and is writing young adult novels.
Reference Citation: Angel, Ann. (2000) "The Bad Boys of YA: Chris Lynch and Adam Rapp." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 1, p. 7-9.