“Today, I’m Going to Talk About Hope” | M.T. Anderson Accepts the 2019 Margaret A. Edwards Award

Author M.T. Anderson spoke about hope and much more as he accepted the 2019 Edwards Award, which recognizes an author as well as specific titles that have stood the test of time and made a “significant and lasting” contribution to young adult literature. ​​​"This is what I have wanted to say to my readers all along​," he told the audience at a ceremony held at ALA's annual conference.

Photo ©2019 Stephen Gosling

M.T. Anderson, recipient of the 2019 Margaret A. Edwards Award, delivered these words upon his acceptance of the honor at the annual conference of the American Library Association, which was held in Washington D.C. The annual Edwards Award (MAE), administered by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) and sponsored by School Library Journal, recognizes an author as well as specific titles that have stood the test of time and made a “significant and lasting” contribution to young adult literature.  

This is an incredible honor. I cannot thank you enough. At the age of 22, I started working in children’s books as an office assistant at Candlewick Press. I wish I could tell that depressive young photocopy jockey that standing here today, receiving this award, would eventually be the outcome of those first steps.

As I look back on what there is of my career so far—and I do hope it goes on for a few more years before I retreat to eating Oreos in a recliner—I want to say, first and foremost, that I feel lucky to have been writing for young people at this point in American literary history. When future scholars of literature look back on the 21st century, they’re going to see the first few decades of this millennium as a golden age of young adult literature, when books for teens went from being the unloved byproduct of picture-book publishing to becoming an art form of central importance to the culture as a whole. I have been incredibly privileged to work in this field at this time. And I’ve been incredibly privileged to have the colleagues I do, writers and librarians who care so passionately about the future of literature and the bright hopes of children. It’s an amazing time to be writing for the young.

I am not sure what lessons are to be learned from my career. The only common thread, I think, is that I consistently manage to miss every major trend by six years. My first novel, Thirsty, was a vampire novel published six years before the vampire craze. With Feed, I missed the dystopian wave by six years. My steampunk fantasy The Game of Sunken Places was published six years before the steampunk craze. And so on. My one true skill seems to be scrupulously avoiding any opportunity to monetize my success. For those of you wondering what to write next, I’ll just mention that in 2016 I published Symphony for the City of the Dead, a book about Dmitri Shostakovich, a microfilm delivery, and the Siege of Leningrad. If you’re in a betting frame of mind, I suspect that come 2021, we’re on track to welcome a big crop of nonfiction about Russian espionage. That’s advice you can take to the bank.

Today, I’m going to talk about hope.

On YA lit panels throughout my career, I’ve heard many answers to the question “What distinguishes YA books from books for adults?” The answer from other writers is often a single word, stark and moving: hope. They answer that leaving the reader with hope for tomorrow is the essential ingredient.

As a young man writing YA, I bridled at this to some extent. In several of my books, I was specifically aiming to leave the reader with a sense of urgency, perhaps panic. Sure, I wrote a lot of comic adventure novels. But when I worked on something substantial, my aim was to convey my own sense of neurotic anxiety and outrage. My aim was to say, “If we want things to be different in this world, we have to make them different.” As I know from the wonderful letters I’ve received over the years, many of my teen readers were looking for something that spoke to their own rising anger at the way we live and the way our world is run.

Since I began writing and speaking, my feelings about hope have changed, because the world has changed. Now, as our nation totters, I am filled with hope—hope and fury—and I think many of my readers are, too. So today I want to talk about hope, irony, despair, and the literary history of the last 20 years, the way I see my own work and that of some of my colleagues moving from fashionable despair to a new hope in action.

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, I noticed a new aesthetic that swept across this country, from picture books and YA novels to HBO series, popcorn movies, kids’ clothing design, webtoons, and manga art: I thought of it as the death of the cute.

In story after story, in cartoons for kids and pistol-dramas for adults alike, the sweet were destroyed, unless they turned out themselves to be killers. We see a butterfly wafting through the forest. It is dreamy and beautiful. Then it is comically vaporized by gouts of ion fire as a spaceship lands. Or elsewhere in the woods skips a little fantasy fluffette with wide, blinking eyes. When threatened, it turns out to have giant teeth as well and bloodily gorges on its prey. Nothing was allowed to be innocent, and indeed, the idea of innocence itself was embarrassing, shameful. As the graphic novel took off as an art form, moving into fascinating new areas of expression, it always dragged behind in its wake the impedimenta of comics past, now obsessively corrupted—the Family Circus mowed down by Squeaky Fromme, Mickey taking off the white gloves and getting handsy with Minnie—as if my generation was still sniveling, having discovered that the world fell short of our own childhood comic-book ideals.

As I wrote my own yearning, dyspeptic fantasies, my eight-year-old cousin, no Goth at all, wore a pink skull shirt and carried a doll with the eyes pre-gouged and the mouth sewed shut. The sweet had to bear the wound for the rest of us, like an inoculation of brutality.

Consider this bleak Darwinian concoction, from a character who finds the idea of families sticking together “a bunch of crap”: “People look out for themselves. It’s biology. It’s what animals do. . . . Call it whatever you want. . . . It’s true.” This desolate, Nietzschean summation is not Cormac McCarthy or Werner Herzog, but is from Alvin and the Chipmunks, either The Squeakquel or The Road Chip, I don’t remember which, as I’ve been trying to forget them both. Our high-pitched heroes and their sing-along antics confronted the question of whether even their bellowing mentor Dave’s love was a mirage in the mire of evolutionary anomie.

The picture-book market was regularly dominated by point-of-purchase board books written for parents about drinking games you could play with a daiquiri and a Tickle Me Elmo. In a roundup for the New Yorker, a brittle mommy rasped sarcasms about good bedtime reads as if the best use for a picture book would be to whap a bawling kid into insensitivity. On cable dramas, the ruination of innocence became a tiresome nervous tic: to solve a hipster mystery and find your murderer, just note which character seems particularly generous, particularly kind. There’s your villain. Vulnerability was not allowed. Heroism was out of fashion. “And everywhere,” as Yeats would say, “the ceremony of innocence was drowned.”

I thought of it as the Age of Spoliation, an age where there was an aesthetic of the spoiled, tarnished, curdled, cruel, and corrupted. My generation, having grown up in Reagan’s America, the America of the Moral Majority, was engorged with disillusionment. We were eager to show we were not duped.

Of course, like any broad cultural movement, it meant different things to different people. Some of us wrote with such savagery because our hearts were too tender. Bitter cynicism is often the sign of an idealist. But in many cases, the spoliation was just a tantrum by creators of my generation, frustrated to find adulthood wasn’t all we had expected.

The white liberals of my generation took what we’d learned in college about ambiguity in art and decided that ethics were too drab for literature. The white conservatives of my generation (let alone the saurian conservatives in the generation above mine) decided that ethics were a game played by rubes, people too weak and too stupid to realize that the winner and the stronger are always right. Somehow, the party that had demanded Christian whitewashing in my youth, the party of the Moral Majority, was the one that, in 2010, growled that life was a fierce and unpitying contest. The party that denied the science of Darwinism had become the party of Social Darwinism, of the survival of the fittest.

One of the first public appearances I ever did as an author, around 2001, was on a panel about “edgy” YA. That was the catchword for the season. Everything was “edgy” and “dark” back in 2001. I talked on that panel about the fine line between the edgy—designed to show us something tough we need to see—and the wedgy—where the author just gathers the fabric in their fist and twists until it hurts in a display of overbearing strength and mastery.

I hope, in retrospect, that my grimmer work of this period, like the work of colleagues whom I most admire, does distinguish itself from this by its compassion. I wrote about what I cared about: growing inequalities, environmental depredations, the brutal ethnic acts of war that first allowed this nation to flourish and which still lie encoded in the American DNA, or, on a more personal scale, even just the impossibility of being a boy trying to navigate the contradictory rules of what it means to be a man. These are the things that matter to me, because in each case, these are life-and-death issues. And it’s my hope that I never wrote anything simply to shock.

The Age of Spoliation, in some ways, was a useful cultural moment. In the warts-and-all biographies of public heroes, as in cartoon tropes (the uneven eyes, the trailing mouths), there was an acceptance finally that no one is perfect. No one is symmetrical. As I learned at my prom, those who are symmetrical can’t be trusted.

My own reaction to the work of this period was varied. I worried what it meant about us as a culture, even while I found the mass production of snark and Edward Gorey melancholia congenial. When I objected, it was for two reasons: First, the spoliation became a cable cliché or, even worse, a narrative compulsion. Writers’ rooms couldn’t introduce charity without lunging at it and stomping, and this made plots and character arcs predictable. Second, I worried about children and their sense of wonder. I want children to know why life can be good. I want them to know that there can be joy, and that at times, happiness is unalloyed.

Isn’t this why people have kids? For those moments of transcendence? Don’t look at me; I’m childless and single. Look up at the stars. Watch the fireflies with those you love. This is actually important. I say this not as a gauzy-eyed romantic, but as a nihilist. If none of this has any intrinsic meaning, then we need to make meaning. And the meaning I choose—rationally, I believe—is that we can make each other happy. We can love some and have respect for others and recognize that joy itself is the highest profit. Occasionally I would watch the crushing of a kid’s unselfconscious exhilaration by the hipster aesthetic of irony—how clever to have kids who are world-weary and adult!—and I would find myself disgusted. My series books for younger kids (the Pals in Peril books, the Norumbegan Quartet), which are, by and large, comic romps, were written with the idea that I wanted readers to find a place of pure enjoyment, for I believe that a training in happiness is as important as a training in crisis.

But as adults, we need that training in crisis. That has been clear even to the white middle class since the turn of the millennium, though until a couple of years ago we tried to deny it. This, then, was at the dark heart of the Age of Spoliation: we knew things were wrong, but we were too terrified to admit it fully and act. And this changed the way we wrote about right and wrong.

Since around the year 2000, everyone has started to feel that our society is living on borrowed time. Even those who have denied the real causes of the rising crisis have been infected with the growing sense of panic.

We tried not to think about crisis. But we Americans knew that we were no longer the world’s great superpower. We knew that our wealth was based on a global economy that no longer favored us. We knew that our luxuries were made in unbearable conditions in countries that, for good reason, would no longer remain quiescent.

Globally, we were worried like never before about resources and who controlled them.

We were trying to forget that the Earth is in the first convulsions of a violent shift in weather patterns; we knew this and tried not to think about it too much, whether we were on the Left or the Right, whether we believed that extreme weather conditions were caused by man-made carbon emissions or by God’s fury at adultery in Miami.

Whites knew that justice was not equal for all Americans, that the scales were tipped based on race, but many tried to tell themselves not to worry, that things slowly were getting better.

We watched as Congress mused about whether it is the government’s role to help us when we are weak or to promote the battle royale where we all fight from birth to death for some security.

We all were secretly worried that kindness and generosity were nothing but a sucker’s weakness.

We were aware that wages and salaries have stagnated for decades while the rich make more in a single day than we make in our lives.

We knew that in our own nation, once believed to be a beacon of hope, a shining city upon a hill, one in six children regularly did not have enough to eat.

As a culture, we tried to avert our eyes. We responded to crisis by trading Rumsfeld memes. We knew things were wrong, so we bought ironic Dick Cheney mugs. We were afraid of directly confronting the world we were building for our children. It was easier to teach them that nothing was good, that nothing was helpful, than to be heroes ourselves.

Is it any wonder that for the last unlucky 13 years, postapocalyptic literature has been so popular? These novels serve a social purpose: they allow us to say the things we’re all thinking about this world but can’t confront. They are the return of the repressed. They are the images of need and violence we wish our children never had to confront. They are our guilty conscience.

(I know Suzanne Collins, for example, cares about this deeply. In one of the stranger incidents in my career, we got into a shouting match about ethics and the future at a black-tie dinner at the Library of Congress. Even worse, they wouldn’t let us eat until one of us won.)

Again and again, dystopian novels and the tired, staggering phalanxes of undead zombie franchises over the last 15 years have prepared Americans to ask: At what point do we leave someone outside the wall? Who will we keep in our community when only a few can survive? And the American answers have been grim. We have tried to build more walls. Right now, thousands of children fleeing violence are incarcerated in concentration camps along the border.

We don’t need to imagine a dystopian world. We live in one. It’s just that some of us happen to be the golden citizens in the shining capital.

We tried to hide from these realities, but hidden, they burst back out of the soil, zombielike, in images of brutality and corruption.

But now the wounds are open. It is a terrifying time. But at least no one—not even the privileged—can hide any longer.

Now we are ready to fight for our children. We are garbed for battle. This is why the culture of spoliation is dying. It was the cost of our inaction, the irony necessary to detach us from the harm we saw happening to our children’s future. To admit that sweetness, kindness, innocence were important was to admit that we were doing far too little to preserve them. As a result, we couldn’t trust sweetness unless it had grit intermixed.

Now the horrors are out in the open and everyone is discussing them. In the first years of this new century, there were a few of us YA authors speaking publicly about these things, and after we spoke, there were often complaints: Why so political? Why these jeremiads? And we had to argue again and again that all literature was political, that politics were about morality, that morality was about politics, and that literature was propelled by a sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, life and death.

Now these conversations are common. Authors who seemed eccentrically political in 2005 are swamped these days by a throng of new writers who take urgency for granted. It’s an incredibly exciting time.

And this is why my message today is actually one of hope. The age of spoliation is over. The age of action is beginning.

The generations that are rising are activist and outraged. The much-maligned Millennials, who in their college years were infamous for a sort of entitled gormlessness, have reached the brink of middle age. They are plunging into politics, standing for local elections, talking about change of a kind that hasn’t been on the table since the Great Depression. The generation of teens currently reading our books are deeply committed to transforming their world, saving this Earth. They know the stakes. Supportive public policies, sane policies that would help all Americans lead lives with more security and dignity—policies that seemed impossible in the bad old naughts—now, in the face of disaster, are flung around like firecrackers through the aetho-sphere. We are a nation galvanized and ready for revision. The young are right with us on the front lines.

Imagine how different we all would feel if each day in the news we read about nations actually addressing the apocalyptic crises we really face instead of the bizarre face-offs and tantrums that endanger us all. Imagine the lightness of working together for change.

This is what I have wanted to say to my readers all along: You’re standing here on this Earth for a little while. I’m standing beside you. Let me tell you about the world I see. You tell me about the world you see. And together, we’re going to make the world that you wish to inherit.

And this is how we will find again a literature of joy. This is how we will tell new stories of hope.

I believe that every parent should be able to look into a child’s eyes and say, without prevarication, “I brought you into this world because I believe you will be happy here.”

I believe the cute should be allowed to exist. I believe that the young should feel sheltered, should feel loved—should feel, even, unconditional love.

I do not argue that there is a meaning we are missing, that there is redemption, but rather that, because the world will offer us neither meaning nor redemption, we must produce both if we wish them to be here.

For those of us who watch the young awakening to their task, we have to accept our role in aiding them; we have to confront our own responsibility.

We have to start making sacrifices.

We have to start seeking answers outside our literature.

We have to convert cheap cynicism into compassionate watchfulness.

We have to start changing what we hate and what we fear.

We have to start fighting for our children and their world.

We need to fight so that children do not need to fight.

We need to fight so that safety and security are not ours alone. So that the dangerous imbalances are righted. So that justice and the rule of law is real. So that we are involved in easing the suffering of others.

Then we will have no grim and brooding return of the repressed, because we will not be avoiding our knowledge of what’s wrong. We’ll be confronting it.

And so we won’t shun the cute. We’ll fight for it. We’ll build it a garden for it to play in. We will never fully succeed in protecting what we love—but, my friends, we will at least succeed in loving.

And that in itself is something.


See also:

The Astonishing Achievements of M.T. Anderson, Recipient of the 2019 Margaret A. Edwards Award | School Library Journal

Walking and Talking with M.T. Anderson, a Comic by Steve Sheinkin | School Library Journal

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Posted : Aug 21, 2019 12:28



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