Richfield librarian and author pushes the boundaries of teen fiction
The guy knocked the books out of the teenage girl’s hands, then kicked the calculus, chemistry and Latin texts down the hallway. That was disturbing enough.
But then the girl approached the guy and gave him a kiss. And it blew Patrick Jones’ mind.
“I was like, ‘What the (heck)?’” Jones recalled. He was, in fact, using a different four-letter word, one that would not be acceptable while at his job as a local youth librarian.
He witnessed the display of aggression and then affection in 1987, and Jones’ writing career was born. He went home and typed a manuscript on the back of some old folk music festival flyers. It was a story of a girl — a smart girl because of those chemistry and calculus textbooks — in an abusive relationship.
Jones called it “Things Change,” keeping it on the shelf for the next 18 years before it was published as his first novel.
Today, which falls in the middle of the official Teen Read Week, according to the Young Adult Librarian Services Association, Jones is a Richfield resident and a full-fledged author of teen fiction. But we are not talking about “Sweet Valley High.”
Jones, winner of the 2006 Scholastic Library Publishing award, which serves as a kind of lifetime achievement award from the American Library Association, is nationally revered in youth librarian circles and literally wrote the book on youth librarianship, a text that became standard for those learning the job. Since his writing career took off with his well-received debut release, Jones has switched gears from traveling the country as a library consultant and educator, to focusing on crafting his gritty, reality-based brand of teen fiction, although he still works as a youth librarian and makes regular school visits.
Jones viewed the more realistic approach as an antidote to “all these terrible teen novels” he had to read for his job as a youth librarian in the late 1980s. “These books are for teens, yet no one swears. Everyone’s parents are successful, and no one’s horny,” he observed, conjuring the exasperation he showed an editor during a conversation about 10 years ago.
“Is this science-fiction? This is not how the teen world works.”
The editor asked, Jones recalls, “You’re so smart. Why don’t you read a book?”
That book was already contained within a tattered stack of folk music flyers.
That editor, Emily Easton, bought the novel, which Jones changed drastically from his original version before publication, and has edited five more of Jones’ books.
To this point, “Things Change” has marked the height of Jones’ commercial success, generating enough interest to warrant an upcoming re-issue from the publisher. The author admits his work has become darker in the ensuing years, a deeper shade than his already dark first novel.
With that trajectory, the popularity of his work has dwindled. While the quality of writing is still there, “the road he’s gone down, the path — it just doesn’t have that broad commercial appeal,” Easton said.
She rejected one of Jones’ more recent works, the still-unpublished “Clicked,” which opens with a high school boy surfing the Internet for porn, and stumbling across a photo of his run-away sister. It was the only book of Jones’ that Easton has rejected.
“It just went a little too far,” she said.
Rebelling against the Pollyanna-ish standard that was once de rigueur for teen fiction, Jones said, “I’m still trying to push the envelope.”
He paints his characters to inhabit an unpredictable world, one more like reality and less like some other teen fiction in which Jones says authors write with an “agenda.”
Unlike the after-school-special flavor of those works, “’Things Change’ has a teenage girl who has sex and doesn’t get pregnant or a venereal disease, and that’s not supposed to happen,” Jones said, before describing a more recent novel.
“’Chasing Tail Lights’ has two girls that spend most of the book getting high — just, you know, smoking marijuana, and nothing bad happens to them because of it.”
Jones eschews obvious moral lessons in favor of stories that teens — especially those coming from adverse circumstances — can relate to.
“Clicked” looks even harder at that world, which may at least currently hurt its marketability. “There’s one where the envelope isn’t ready yet,” Jones surmised.
The banned book club?
Jones may not think people are ready for “Clicked,” but an editor in Colorado Springs, Colo., says bring it on.
“I want it. I want it so bad, and he knows that,” said Spring Lea Henry, who runs a small publishing house called Grumpy Dragon.
She said she hasn’t yet read the book, which Jones believes may be his first to end up on “banned” lists, but has reason to know what she would be getting into. And she should, because Henry has already edited another of Jones’ latest novels, a sequel to “The Tear Collector,” which was a spin on the vampire genre — instead of blood, vampires need tears to survive.
The sequel, entitled “Cassandra’s Turn,” marks another step in Jones’ evolution as a teen novelist, one that Henry believes may beat “Clicked” to the punch for banned book status, a distinction she says invites as a staunch advocate for free speech.
The book already appears to have another distinction. Jones and Henry believe that for the first time for a to-be published novel, teens had a direct hand in the editing process itself — so much so that the group of five girls virtually wrote the book’s final chapter in a daylong session with Jones.
“When I read the last scene of the book, I wept,” Henry said.
Despite Jones’ past work with teenagers, he had much to learn from the group of young editors, some of whom Henry got to know through a writing workshop she teaches. Among their other pieces of input, they insisted Jones develop a mythological back-story for his “tear collectors.”
They also advised him on language. Jones, in his increasingly gritty style, incorporated a four-letter word into some dialog, the word commonly accepted as the most slanderous possible epithet toward a female.
But in his pursuit of realistic teenage dialog, Jones had gone too far. Even in actual teen usage of the word, the young editors decided, that one went overboard.
“That is like the nuclear weapon of words,” Henry said. The teens told Jones they felt like the word was just “there to be there,” she remembers.
“Cassandra’s Turn,” in which the group of teen editors will get credit as the “Ellsinore Quills,” right beside Jones’ name, is set to come out in April.
Reaching ‘reluctant readers’
Jones will take the Quills’ constructive criticism if it leads to a meaningful piece of work that teens will actually pick up. “That’s my real interest, is kids who don’t like to read,” he said.
His target audience is like the characters in his novels. Jones tells the story of one girl who got so angry with “Things Change” that she threw a copy of the book at him. “She says, ‘I’m mad at you because you stole my life,’” he recalls.
The girl, like the protagonist in the novel, was a high-schooler dating an abusive 21-year-old. Jones said she showed him her forearms, unveiling a series of cigarette burns.
The two talked. “This girl, probably for the first time ever, she told an adult what she was going through,” Jones said.
He recalls telling her to get counseling and making her promise to leave the boyfriend, and speaks of a profound impact from the book and the conversation it sparked: “She so saw herself in one of my books that it led to her changing her life.”
They kept in touch for a while until the girl joined the Army, Jones said, but in the meantime, the author was again inspired.
“I just left and I said,” Jones pauses, smiles and claps, “that’s a book!”
He knows his work draws from the well of others’ hard times.
“During school visits I’ll wonder, what kind of monster lives off of tears,” he said.
“And then I look in the mirror.”
Jones’ world of wrestling
But as an author, Jones lives off more than tears for inspiration. The sweat and sometimes blood that soaks a springy canvass in a 20,000-seat arena can also do the trick.
It may seem incongruous for a serious author to find inspiration in the low-brow world of professional wrestling, but Jones has never lost his passion for the “sport,” not since The Mighty Igor became his boyhood favorite. In keeping with that passion, Jones’ most recent release, “The Main Event: The moves and Muscle of Pro Wrestling,” dives into the world of suplexes, knocked-out referees and venomous trash talk.
“People think it’s just two grown men in their underwear trying to hurt each other, but it’s not,” Jones maintains. “It’s great story telling.”
He sees all the same elements: the antagonist and protagonist, the rising action, the climax and the fallout. For Jones, the comic-like world of pro wrestling seems to scratch a certain itch that his literature doesn’t always address.
“As much as I say my books are realistic, part of me wants a world where the ‘heel,’ the bad guy, ultimately faces justice, and where the good guy — the Stone Cold (Steve Austin), the Rock, the John Cena — always win,” Jones explained, although he later admitted that even in pro wrestling the good guys don’t even always win.
One thing his stories do always have in common with wrestling is the rising “heat,” when the good guy, the “face,” is getting beaten down while fans get behind him for the inevitable comeback. Jones, at one time the self-described “world’s worst high school wrestler,” calls it “hulking up.”
“They want to see the girl break up with the abusive boyfriend or the guy stand up to the bully,” he said.
Jones’ interest in wrestling extends far beyond any mere detached, intellectual sense. “He’s so genuinely enthusiastic about wrestling, it’s infectious,” said Carol Hinz, the editor of “The Main Event.”
He knows it’s fake, but like with a good book, he can suspend his disbelief, a practice hardcore fans describe as “marking out,” which is the same thing that happens with a good book.
“You know it’s not real,” Jones said, “and yet I’m thinking, this has to be.”