by Andrew Smith
Today, I would like to write about boxes.
There are all kinds of boxes. I can kind of chart my life’s journey by the boxes I’ve had to check off that map my progression through marital status, owning vs. renting, number of children, income levels, and so on.
I recently did an interview with a magazine, and I was asked the following question:
Are publishers selling or promoting books with LGBTQ characters in the right way?
I must be a frustrating subject to interview. Often, my answers are grumpy or begin with the three words interviewers tend to hate. Those three words are, “I don’t know.”
Because I don’t really know how to answer that question about promoting books with LGBTQ characters, unless to say that the wrong way to promote books with LGBTQ characters is to call them LGBTQ books—to put those books in a box.
To me, that’s nonsense.
As Austin, the narrator in Grasshopper Jungle, says, “All good books are about everything.” Books that wrap themselves around a solitary identifiable feature are flat and boring. This is, after all, a great big jar we live in, and everything is ultimately connected.
In the past ten years or so of my writing career, I have been frustrated by all the boxes people hold up to categorize the canon of Young Adult literature. Here are the worst ones, the boxes I’d like to set fire to:
- Boy books/ Girl books
- Age level (This book is for grades 10 and up! Squee!)
- Male author/ Female author
- LGBTQ books/ Straight (“normal” kid) books
I know, I know… Boxes make things easy for people. They are soothing. Boxing makes peoples’ minds not so electrified with wonder and perplexity. But boxes make things difficult for people, too.
I get a lot of stuff delivered to my house in boxes. Boxes are hard to throw away for a couple of reasons: First, I always think to myself, hey, this box could be very convenient for putting stuff in at some point in the future, and second, because boxes are, well… boxy, and they don’t easily fit inside garbage cans. They hog up lots of space.
One thing I got recently—and I still have no idea who the heck sent it to me—was a box of homeopathic supplements, which, if you took them every day, are supposed to boost your awareness and make you focus more clearly. My wife begged me not to take those homeopathic brain-boosters. She said if I focused more clearly and increased my awareness that I would probably begin to see individual molecules in things.
She worries a lot.
Austin Szerba, the narrator of Grasshopper Jungle, is a 16-year-old boy who is hyperaware (maybe he took some of those homeopathic brain-boosters) of the roles society assigns to boys and girls. He becomes confused to the point of being tormented as he gradually realizes he does not fit perfectly into the constraints of society’s “boy box.”
The “boy box” is full of shit.
So I was fascinated by this character, and working to really develop this kid, Austin, who has been so heavily programmed by outside influences (his school, community, and church) which demand his conformity to all those heavy expectations that come along with the “boy box.” But Austin can’t do it, so he suffers, and sometimes questions and maybe even hates himself.
We do that to our kids an awful lot, don’t we?
Part of Austin’s difficulty comes from the fact that he is madly in love with his girlfriend, Shann, but he also truly loves his best friend, Robby, who also happens to be gay. Here, the boys have a chat one night in the parking lot of an Iowa strip mall:
“Do you think I’m queer, Rob?” I asked.
“I don’t care if you’re queer,” Robby said. “Queer is just a word. Like orange. I know who you are. There’s no one word for that.”
I believed him.
“I know I’m not orange,” I said.
“Kind of oatmealy,” Robby said.
So Austin decides to talk to his father about his confused feelings. It’s a very awkward scene that makes me uncomfortable every time I revisit it.
The difficult thing about the scene between father and son is that Austin’s father, who obviously is a member of the Church of the Box, knows full well what Austin is trying to say, but Austin’s nervousness causes him to fumble with the specifics. And here is a father presented with his one and only chance to talk to his teenage son about sexuality, love, and just being okay with who you are. But he takes advantage of Austin’s fumbling and manages (to dad’s tremendous relief) to change the subject to chemistry class.
And, once again, the box can’t be destroyed.
I have often been asked what I’d like to be the “take-away” for readers of Grasshopper Jungle. I usually say those three words that interviewers hate. I don’t know. Because there’s an awful lot in there for any reader to get from Grasshopper Jungle. As a dad to two teenagers, though, I’d be happy if that one painfully awkward scene between Austin and his father resonates with some of the men out there (especially ones with teenage sons) and makes them more afraid of doing what Austin’s dad does than actually having that conversation about boxes with their boys.
Andrew Smith is the award-winning author of several Young Adult novels, including the critically acclaimed Winger and The Marbury Lens. He is a native-born Californian who spent most of his formative years traveling the world. His university studies focused on Political Science, Journalism, and Literature. He has published numerous short stories and articles. Grasshopper Jungle (Feb. 11, 2014) is his seventh novel, followed by 100 Sideways Miles, his eighth, coming in September 2014. He lives in Southern California.