I have been blessed in the last two weeks to spend a lot of time with two groups of wonderful teens, speaking to them as a guest author. These were both very different and wonderful experiences; any time I get to work as an author with young people, that is a treasured day.
Here are a few photos and stories from recent events in Atlanta, GA and Niwot, CO:
In Alpharetta, Georgia — a beautiful town outside Atlanta (very green!) and near the filming of AMC’s The Walking Dead, there is an academy for troubled youth. The owner, Rommys Beltran, and her sister Iris are fans of my work and invited me out to speak to the teens. With the help of my Patreon members, I sent a box of copies of What Our Eyes Have Witnessed to the school over the winter, and my publisher 47North generously matched the gift with a box of their own. Iris had shared with me (anonymously, without names attached) some stories of the teens that near broke my heart. These are good teens trying to turn their lives around after being in some bad places. Some have been involved in drugs; one young girl was prostituted by her brother. Heart-wrenching stories. When I visited, I could see in their faces — some of these kids don’t believe they have the right to have dreams.
So I sent them What Our Eyes Have Witnessed, which is about people in intense poverty in the ancient world’s most awful ghetto — the Subura in Rome — who choose to live lives of unstoppable hope. It is a powerful story and I chose it carefully; the main characters include an apostle running a soup kitchen, a rescued sex slave, and a rich kid who is overwhelmed by the poverty he sees and who tries to get involved. The story is also full of zombies. The teens of the AYA (Advancing Youth’s Academy) love zombie stories. Atlanta, GA is zombie fandom central: the home of The Walking Dead and the home, too, of a paintball battlefield whose owners hire actors to play the part of zombies out to get the paintgun-wielding patrons.
It is hard not to love Georgia!
I started by reading a scene where Father Polycarp faces the dead; the teens were riveted. I’m told that I’m a very performative reader; I’m very, very into it. Iris and Rommys, for their part, told me how good it was to see their kids engaged and into something.
Afterward, the teens and I talked for quite a while. We talked about zombies, about being an author, about what it’s like growing up, about being brave and having dreams. I met wonderful kids here in Atlanta — young people like Camilo, who wants to be a writer, and Jocelyn and Isaiah and Jarred and Maily—good kids, who just need someone to believe in them.
One of the teens asked me, “Are you from Atlanta?”
“No.” I explained that I live in Colorado.
“Are you here just to talk to us?” He looked baffled.
“Yes,” I said. “I came out here just to talk with you. That is the one reason I’m in Atlanta.”
The message: I value you. I believe in you.
That, I hope, is a powerful message.
When I signed books for them, the school’s owner told me that many of these teens don’t have much of anything that is theirs. To have this book by an author they’ve met is meaningful.
Camilo saw my email address in the book. He asked if he could email me. “You can,” I said.
I hope he will.
And this morning, I heard that one of the teens had told Iris that What Our Eyes Have Witnessed was the first book he had ever read through.
I told the school’s owner, Rommys Beltran, and her sister Iris, that this visit to AYA that they were thanking me for was a gift they had made to me. To see an entire room of teens who were so into one of my stories, who had been moved and puzzled and then motivated by it, to know that for a few of them at least, the story had made a difference, to see their eyes light up in considering new possibilities, that is a powerful gift. When I explained how much I love reading to people, and how I read to my wife each night to distract her from her chronic pain so that she can sleep, one of the young women, her eyes lit up. When I said that you just have to find that one thing you really enjoy and pursue it and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t, one of the young men grew excited.
That touches my heart. I hope some of these teens will live lives of unstoppable hope. I believe in them.
I spent last weekend in Niwot, Colorado, very near the mountains — a beautiful town. At the Grange, the Grey Havens Group came together for their second Real Myth and Mithril symposium (I attended the first as a guest of honor in 2013). The Grey Havens Group is a nonprofit that is part Tolkien fan club, part community of scholars, and part literacy program for Boulder County, CO. They are wonderful people, and I am greatly fortunate to know them. This year, they brought with them their sister branch, Grey Havens YA. This is a program that brings together teens who love to read, gives them an opportunity to celebrate being nerds and bookish. They cosplay. They share stories. And they participate in “Geek Philosophy,” which has to be seen to be believed. At Real Myth and Mithril, I watched Kelly Cowling, the founder of Grey Havens, use a clip from Bladerunner to spark a wide-ranging epistemological and existential discussion with kids aged 11 to 17, who all participated vigorously in conversation about why human beings fear death. That was a powerful thing to witness. Powerful, too, listening to a panel of teens discuss how meeting a community of fellow nerds changed their lives, and how some of them are doing outreach to kids at their schools who feel isolated and alone.
On a personal level, I was touched to find several of the teens “fangirling” when they realized I was there. One of the young men had read a couple of my books; another wants to be a writer, and I gave him a copy of Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget. Talking with these teens who are fully embracing, unashamed, their love of the imagination — all I can say is that I would have given a great deal to be part of such a group when I was a teen. I have such respect for the work Kelly Cowling and Robyn Bosica are doing with these young people, and you can learn more about it here.
I also have great respect for the young people themselves. Judah, “Jayne,” and all the others — they are already doing bold, imaginative, and big things with their lives. You can see some of their art and fiction on the Grey Havens YA blog — stop by and cheer them on!
I also had the opportunity to reunite with a number of friends. In the photos above, you see me and fellow author TL Morganfield sharing deep thoughts about worldbuilding and the project of revisiting ancient myths. In the photo below, you see me and several science fiction mavens discussing representations of religion in science fiction, from Earthseed to the Fremen, in a very fun panel whimsically titled “Do You Have a Moment to Hear about the Kwisatz Haderach?”
It was a beautiful weekend, full of good conversation and good art and good music (much of it by the Grey Havens MInstrels themselves … besides being many, many other things, Grey Havens has its own band), and I signed many books.
But what I’ll remember most is the delight in the eyes of the young people, and the exuberant joy of sharing things they love with others who suspend judgment and enjoy their enjoyment. That is an incredibly healthy thing, and I am glad to have witnessed it. Young people give my brooding heart hope for the future!
SPEAKING OF HOPE...
Be on the lookout. One of the topics I spoke with young people about in both Atlanta and Niwot — living lives of unstoppable hope — is coming to a book near you, later this month: Update: This book is now available at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00X4UYW2A
Lives of Unstoppable Hope will share the story of my daughter Inara’s battle to survive, and it will also involve a deep-sea swim through the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, and through the story behind the stories I write. I think you will like it very much.
If you believe in my work and wish to support it, join me at Patreon, and help me fund not only more amazing stories but also more amazing encounters with teens. Grey Havens YA is thriving and celebratory; the teens I met in Atlanta are struggling but I realized, seeing their faces, that they just need someone to believe in them — as Polycarp believed in Regina in What Our Eyes Have Witnessed. Regina, a rescued sex slave, becomes the deaconness of an underground church in ancient Rome, the weaver together of many lives. Despite a past of suffering and misery, Regina lives a life of unstoppable hope in that book. I believe these teens can, too. They just need someone to tell them that no matter what happened yesterday or what their lives have been like, they’re allowed to live a life of hope, allowed to dream, and read, and believe that tomorrow will be different.
Meeting them has touched me, and I will not forget them.
A happy author.
P.S. As I write this blog, I am also full-bellied and very sleepy. My hosts in Atlanta, Debrra and Bryan Randolph, have taken generous care of me here, and have taught me how in the South, “feeding you means love.” I am definitely a happy author. Now posting this and awaiting my flight home with a bag full of surprises for my girls.
P.P.S. Even as I was about to hit ‘Publish’ on this blog, I received a message from a fan in California:
So — I work in a lockdown juvenile facility. These kids are voracious readers. I have them all hopped up to read your series as I finish the books!
Stories are one of the most powerful tools we have, and I believe they are one of the few things that can empower us to turn a life around. This makes stories especially critical to youth.
My own fiction is not “young adult fiction,” but when I was a young adult, I read whatever “spoke” to me, whether it was “young adult” or not. I first read Dune in fourth grade — hardly “age-appropriate.” But how it lit my imagination on fire!
May you all live lives of unstoppable hope, and may each of you reading this live a powerful story.