Truth Teller: A Conversation with Margaret A. Edwards Award Winner A.S. King

A.S. King, winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award, speaks to SLJ about reckoning with trauma, censors, and the need to stop bullying teens.


Photos by Tom Roe


In January 24, A.S. King won the Margaret A. Edwards Award for “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” Given annually by the Young Adult Library Association, a subdivision of the American Library Association, and sponsored by SLJ, this is an award that recognizes an author’s body of work. It honors a career that has produced a wide variety of transformative YA literature in service to teen readers.

In honoring King and her books Ask the PassengersGlory O’Brien’s History of the Future, and Please Ignore Vera Dietz, the committee noted that “King has continually crafted stories about the daily struggles and obstacles faced by teens on a regular basis through discussion of tough topics.”

King’s writing dream began somewhere in the eighth grade, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Consistently, King has put pen to paper in ways that tap into the rich emotional lives of teen readers. Her first YA book published in 2009. The Dust of 100 Dogs, about a 17th-century teenage pirate who was cursed to live 100 lives as a dog before returning to human form as a contemporary teen, set the stage for what would become a long list of profound, often surrealist titles that tackle identity, family, mental health, school pressures, and grief. Her next book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, about a teen grappling with the death of a friend who had betrayed her, received a Michael L. Printz Honor.

Ask the Passengers, the story of a teenage girl who imagines conversations with the passengers of planes flying overhead, won the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 2014, King released Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, about a girl coping with loss who develops the power to see a person’s infinite past and future; I Crawl Through It, released in 2015, is a surrealist story of four teenagers navigating a world of testing pressure and bomb threats. King took home the 2020 Printz Medal for Dig, about five cousins reckoning with white supremacy and privilege in their family’s history.

King recently spoke with teen librarian Karen Jensen and Karen’s teenage daughter Riley Jensen about what this award means to her and her journey as a writer. These transcripts have been edited for length and clarity.

Karen and Riley Jensen: Are you excited about winning this award? What does it mean to you?
A.S. King: I was definitely surprised and excited. It certainly means a lot to me. Now that a few months have passed, I can say that as a writer, it’s made me feel like I can branch out a bit more. I’ll never stop writing young adult work. I love it, and it’s where I belong. But I’ve been working on an early reader series and a graphic memoir, as well as a short story anthology—things I always wanted to try, but I didn’t have the head space to pursue. So, the award gave me a feeling of freedom, I think.

Does your process change for each different type of book?
My process pretty much stays the same. It’s trial and error. It’s terrifying, it’s terrible, and it’s wonderful, all at the same time. I’m not trying to write different types of books, though, if that makes sense. All of my books are about the truth. Whether it’s a memoir, a poem, a novel, an early reader, they’re all about the truth.

And a lot of those truths can be really hard to read sometimes. Which ones were the most difficult for you to write?
Dig took me the longest to write—and right up until like a two-and-a-half-year mark, I kept asking myself these seemingly dim questions in my own margins like “Who’s the Freak anyway?” The subject matter was hard, too. But it is with all of my books. So the answer is: all of them, for different reasons.

Which of your books do you get the most feedback about?
I get the most feedback about Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Ask the Passengers, I Crawl Through It, and Dig. Most of the feedback I get is positive, and a lot of times it’s connected to trauma. I get letters from readers who tell me difficult stories but indicate that somehow reading my book helped to validate their trauma. That’s an honor, to be able to be a part of anybody’s healing journey, is an honor.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and what advice would you give to teens who are aspiring to be writers?
I was a voracious reader standing in the eighth grade lunch line when I thought: “I want to write novels.” I specifically wanted to write books that helped adults understand teenagers and that helped teenagers understand adults. I wanted to somehow close the gap. Still do.

The advice I give to young writers is: Read a lot, write a lot, and volunteer. The third thing usually gets a “Why?” and the answer is: You will never meet the people anywhere else that you meet while you’re volunteering. The bonus: giving back to your community.

You’ve been speaking out about censorship lately, and some of your books are on banned and challenged book lists. Can you talk to us about how you feel about censorship?
I think censorship is ridiculous. When book banners say they want to protect children, they need to remember that the word children is a plural that specifically refers to all of the children who are occupying a school building in a day: every religion, every sexuality, every gender, every nationality, every race, every everything. They need to consider everyone in that school building. When one removes a book to “protect” a child, they are also harming the child who can identify with the content that the book banner feels is inappropriate. Which means they are OK with hurting children, as long as it’s the children they do not care about. And there is a lot wrong with that idea.

When it comes to books about American history, no matter how many books they ban, the truth is still the truth. They can’t make it not the truth, no matter how much they gaslight us. I am very tired of people trying to reverse engineer history and make decisions about it for everyone, as if we would all agree. And when I say “we” here, I am absolutely talking about white people. I don’t think we should skirt around this. White people have been trying to make themselves the heroes in our history books forever, while skipping the more unsavory parts of that history. But heroes tell the truth to children. Full stop. If one is too fragile to tell the whole truth, stand down and let someone who is not as scared do it. In the meantime, please stop calling the police on school librarians for doing their job, OK?

Tell us about writing specifically for teens.
Teenagers are bullied by our culture. It’s a sort of national pastime that’s become normalized over the last 50-plus years. I see my job as someone to counter that and call it out.

I have a theory. I believe there’s trauma in the soil of this country—from genocide, slavery, serial systems of oppression, serial exclusion and devaluation—and it’s seeping into us, and into the children. I think we’ve walked with it through each generation who chose to lie about real history, and eventually we will have to face it.

Books can help validate the teen experience, but they can’t work miracles. If we can start telling the truth consistently as a nation about our history, then we can do it individually, about the history of our families and of ourselves. If we can’t do that, it’s going to get uglier and uglier up in here. And the canary in our culture’s coal mine are teenagers.

Hear me. The number one disease killing teenagers in the U.S. is mental illness. And yet 70 percent of teen mental illness goes untreated. Why? Because few people take them seriously. Why? Because we’re all engaged in a sort of adult one-upmanship that we inherited along with the other lies. If we don’t disassemble this system now, we will only lose more young people for the sake of our comfort. For that, we should be ashamed.

I write for teens to help them get through this national hazing at the hands of the adults who should be caring for them, and because I prefer to write for the segment of society that is most honest with emotion, gets excited about stuff, and knows how to do algebra.

You’re getting an award for lifetime achievement. What would you now tell eighth grade Amy, who is standing there thinking, I want to be a writer?
I would tell her she’s right about the fact that her emotions and opinions matter. I would tell her that creative writing, her favorite thing, is going to be the skill that’s going to save her life and keep her sane during some of the hardest things anybody could ever experience. And that it will help her connect with like-minded souls who want to lift young people up—which is who she’s been looking for her whole life. I would tell her that her dream from the lunch line will come true. She’d never believe me. I know that because I still find it hard to believe that any of this is happening. I’m so grateful for anyone who ever read one of my books.

Karen Jensen created the blog “Teen Librarian Toolbox” ( Riley Jensen is a college freshman studying forensic chemistry.

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