Sunday, February 17, 2019

GRATEFUL DEAD OR CREAM?

       One afternoon in the spring of 1967 I stood in the record department of Korvettes with the Grateful Dead's first album in one hand and Fresh Cream in the other. I had about $3. Enough for one album only. Before me lay a weighty decision: British Power Rock Trio or San Francisco Sound? I probably stood there for twenty minutes, pondering the covers, absorbing the liner notes, trying to make a decision. Finally, I choose Cream. I went home and put it on my mono record player and loved it. But somewhere in the back of my mind, a nagging particle of doubt lingered. Weeks passed. Every time I listened to Cream, that tiny question reemerged. Should I have gotten the Dead album instead? Finally, no longer able to stand it, I went back to Korvettes and bought it. My life, for the moment, was complete.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Summer of '69

My newest novel, Summer of ’69 is set 50 years ago, and -- despite being labelled a novel -- is almost entirely autobiographical account of that trippy summer revolving around Led Zeppelin, Free Love, the first manned moon landing, a cornucopia of illegal substances, Vietnam, and Woodstock. In the first chapter, that’s me in a somewhat “compromised” state at the wheel of my psychedelically-painted microbus driving down the Mass Pike. That was at the beginning of the summer , and things would only get weirder from there, ending with the Woodstock music festival and a funeral for someone dear to me who died much too young.

Writing Summer of ’69 was quite possibly the most profound creative experience of my life.  It’s a book I never imagined penning. And were it not for an extraordinary editor, Kaylan Adair, and an equally extraordinary publishing house, Candlewick, I wonder if this novel ever would have seen ink on a printed page.

Not only did Kaylan compose several long and insightful single-spaced editorial letters, but during the three years in which this book came to life, she and I exchanged nearly 500 emails shaping it. As a result of her steady but gentle coaxing I’ve written about painful memories and experiences that I’d never expected or imagined I would ever want to confront or reveal.

There came a moment somewhere near the end of the project, or perhaps just after I finished, when I experienced a sensation unlike any I have ever felt upon completing a novel. It was akin to a sense of closure, of clearing the air, of tying up loose ends -- not regarding a single book, but pertaining to a life-long mission that I’m not even sure I was aware I’d been on. At least not until the moment I felt it. It felt as if I’d not just told another story, but had finally told The Story. The one that had always been deep inside, the one that may have been part of the motivation for why I became a writer in the first place.

Ironically, when we (because as I said, it couldn’t have happened without Kaylan) finally got to the end, I discovered that it wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d feared/imagined. Instead, it felt like a huge relief. As I said earlier, it felt like closure. As if unresolved issues that I’d avoided thinking about for the past 50 years took a huge step toward getting sorted out. There are some books one writes for an audience (ie., to save others' lives), and some written to exorcise demons (to save our own lives).

This is the one I wrote for myself. I hope you'll read it and enjoy it.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Children Die in Wars

CHILDREN DIE IN WARS

As we celebrate this International Day of Peace, I hope we keep in mind that among the many reasons to be against war is that children die in them. They die either as a direct result of being shot or blown up, or indirectly due to the starvation and disease that are always the byproducts of war. They died by the tens of thousands in World War One, World War Two, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam. They continue to die in the current the Forever Wars of the Middle East and Africa. 

 
(One Family’s Toll on a Cruel Day: 7 Children with Amputated Legs https://nyti.ms/2leRxdc)

The following is part of an article published by UNICEF in 1996.  “Children have, of course, always been caught up in warfare. They usually have little choice but to experience, at minimum, the same horrors as their parents—as casualties or even combatants. And children have always been particularly exposed. When food supplies have run short, it is children who have been hardest hit, since their growing bodies need steady supplies of essential nutrients. When water supplies have been contaminated, it is children who have had the least resistance to the dangers of disease. And the trauma of exposure to violence and brutal death has emotionally affected generations of young people for the rest of their lives.”

During the 20th century, the numbers of children, and of all innocent civilians, who died in wars steadily increased. According to UNICEF, this was partly due to “advances” in technology. “Aerial bombardment has extended the potential battle zone to entire national territories. World War II saw a massive increase in indiscriminate killings, with the bombings of Coventry and Dresden, for example, and the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And this pattern was repeated in the Vietnam war, which is estimated to have cost 2.5 million lives.”

The UNICEF report goes on to say, “A further cause of the rising death toll for civilians is that most contemporary conflicts are not between States, but within them. Rather than being set-piece battles between contending armies, these are much more complex affairs—struggles between the military and civilians, or between contending groups of armed civilians. They are as likely to be fought in villages and suburban streets as anywhere else.”

“Families and children are not just getting caught in the crossfire, they are also likely to be specific targets. This is because many contemporary struggles are between different ethnic groups in the same country or in former States. When ethnic loyalties prevail, a perilous logic clicks in. The escalation from ethnic superiority to ethnic cleansing to genocide, as we have seen, can become an irresistible process. Killing adults is then not enough; future generations of the enemy—their children—must also be eliminated. As one political commentator ex-pressed it in a 1994 radio broadcast before violence erupted in Rwanda, "To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats."*

A much more recent example of this is what is currently happening in the Syrian civil war, where researchers have found significant evidence that bombs were targeting civilians, including women and children. According to a recent report, “In the past seven years, barrel bombs have killed [Syrian] civilians almost exclusively, an international team of scientists report Wednesday. Civilians comprised 97 percent of the deaths from these bombs.”

(A barrel bomb is essentially a large metal container filled with explosives and shrapnel. These bombs can be incredibly powerful, decimating entire city blocks. They are very imprecise weapons. Often, they are dropped from low-flying helicopters onto densely populated parts of cities.)

In addition, “The study also finds a dramatic rise in the number of children killed as the war [in Syria] has progressed. Children represented a small proportion of deaths, about 9 percent, in the first two years of the war. But since 2013, that proportion has more than doubled. Now nearly 1 in 4 civilian deaths are children. So far, at least 14,000 children have been killed in Syria by snipers, machine guns, missiles, grenades, roadside bombs and aerial bombs. About a thousand children have been executed. And more than a hundred were tortured and then executed.”

Nearly a million civilians have died in wars and conflicts since 2001. A significant percentage of them have been children.

*For the record, this line of thought has been used many times before. In Vietnam, the United States believed that a victory over the Vietcong was to be achieved by quantifiable “kill ratios,” to reach that elusive tipping point where the insurgency could no longer replenish its troops. This approach hard-wired incentives to secure a high “body count” down the chain of command, with the result that U.S. soldiers often shot civilians dead to pad their tallies and thereby move up the ranks. It is estimated that more than 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed in that war.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Interview From Adventures in YA Publishing

We're thrilled to have Todd Strasser stop by to share more about his latest novel, PRICE OF DUTY.

Todd, what was your inspiration for writing PRICE OF DUTY?

As a teenager in the 1960s I was deeply moved by the anti-Vietnam War movement, and by many of the anti-war folk songs of the time. Certainly, by Dylan’s Masters of War (“You hide in your mansion while young people's blood flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud.”) And Phil Och’s I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore (“It's always the old to lead us to the war. It's always the young to fall.”) The idea of writing about young people and the military was probably spawned close to a decade ago, but for many years I couldn’t find the storyline. Finally, about four years ago, I was doing a Skype about my book, The Wave, with a class from Mississippi, and I noticed that five or six of the students were wearing uniforms that looked somewhat military in nature. I asked them why and they told me they were members of the school’s JROTC unit. No sooner did the Skype end than I finally had the storyline I’d been searching for.

What did this book teach you about writing or about yourself?

It’s said that the author’s purpose is to persuade, to inform, and to entertain (PIE). But I believe there is a fourth purpose as well – that is for the writer to learn about, and explore, his or her own feelings about a topic. Often when I begin a book, I’m not entirely sure what my ultimate point or message will be. For me, revisions don’t just hone the writing, but sharpen the focus and thrust of the story as well. Among the many things I learned while writing this book was about the enormous number of civilian deaths that have accompanied modern wars. It is a fact that since the First World War, far more civilians have died than soldiers. And even while this makes me feel more opposed to war than ever, through creating this book I also came to realize that we must have a military and we must be prepared to go to war.

What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc?

Writing is the default activity of my life. I’ve been doing it for more than 50 years. I’ve never had to make myself write. Instead, I have to make myself find other things to do so that I don’t wind up writing all the time. To that end, I read, play tennis, surf, and play the guitar badly. I’ve never been much of a TV watcher, but recently I discovered some shows that are beautifully written. My current favorite is The Wire. It turns out that a number of very accomplished crime novelists – Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, among them – have written for that show. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s so good. Finally, one aspect of “my ritual” that does surprise me is what my brain does while the rest of me is asleep. We’ve all heard authors say that creating a novel is like putting together a puzzle. I often wake in the middle of the night to the realization that another piece has been put in place while I slept.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Price of Duty
by Todd Strasser
Hardcover
Simon & Schuster Books for Yo
Released 7/17/2018

Jake Liddell is a hero.

At least, that’s what everyone says he is. The military is even awarding him a Silver Star for his heroic achievements—a huge honor for the son of a military family. Now he’s home, recovering from an injury, but it seems the war has followed him back. He needs pills to get any sleep, a young woman is trying to persuade him into speaking out against military recruitment tactics, and his grandfather is already urging him back onto the battlefield. He doesn’t know what to do; nothing makes sense anymore.

There is only one thing that Jake knows for certain: he is no hero.

Purchase Price of Duty at Amazon
Purchase Price of Duty at IndieBound
View Price of Duty on Goodreads

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shortly after Todd was born in New York City his parents moved to Roslyn Heights, New York (Long Island). Todd went to the I.U. Willets Elementary school and then attended the Wheatley School for junior high and high school. His best subject was science. He also liked to read, but had difficulty with spelling and grammar, and struggled in English. His favorite sports were tennis, skiing, and fishing.

Todd went to college at New York University for a few years, and then dropped out. He lived on a commune, then lived in Europe where he was a street musician. All the while, he wrote songs and poems and lots of letters to his friends back home.

After returning to the United States he studied literature and writing at Beloit College. After college, Todd worked as a reporter at the Middletown Times Herald-Record newspaper in Middletown, New York, and later at Compton Advertising in New York City.

In 1978, he sold his first novel, Angel Dust Blues, and used the money to start the Dr. Wing Tip Shoo fortune cookie company. For the next 12 years, Todd sold many more fortune cookies than books.

In 1990, Todd moved with his family to Westchester County, N.Y. He is the author of more than 140 books for teens and middle graders including the best-selling Help! I’m Trapped In series, and numerous award-winning YA novels including The Wave, Give A Boy A Gun, The Accident, Can’t Get There From Here, Boot Camp, If I Grow Up and Fallout.   

Todd (right) with news photographer
at West Point in 1975 
Several of his books have been adapted for television and his novels The Wave and How I Created My Perfect Prom Date became feature films. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he has also written for television, newspapers such as The New York Times, and magazines such as The New Yorker and Esquire.

Todd now divides his time between Westchester and Montauk, NY. He likes to read and watch movies, spend time with his grown children, play tennis and ski, but his favorite new sport is surfing.

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Price of Duty Pubs Tomorrow. More On Why I Wrote It

With the book officially pubbing tomorrow, I was asked again today why I feel it's an important subject to address, given that it doesn't feel like we're at war at the moment. The first thought that comes to mind is that the United States is indeed at war, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. I suspect we don't hear much about these conflicts because they are dangerous to cover, and because the American news-consuming public isn't particularly interested in them. 

The American public wasn't very interested in war on Sept. 10, 2001. But that changed dramatically the next day. I pray nothing like that ever happens again, but history does have a way of repeating itself, and the United States rarely seems to go very long without becoming involved in a war somewhere.

I wrote Price of Duty to ask what I felt were important questions about the military and young people that have not been previously addressed in any depth in YA literature. Questions such as: At what age should high school (and in some cases, even middle school) students be encouraged to select a track that will lead to military service? 

There are more than 3,000 JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps) units in high schools around the country. Are students in 9th and 10th grade mature enough to make decisions that will affect the entire course of their lives? Currently, military recruitment is allowed in many high schools. Should that continue? If the answer is yes, does the military have an obligation to present an honest assessment of the risks and dangers? 

The issue is not whether we need a military. Sadly, given the world we live in, we must maintain the ability to protect ourselves. To me, the issue is, if young people are going to be enticed into the military with financial bonuses and promises of advancement and heroism, shouldn't they be made thoroughly aware of the potential dangers?

As Bertrand Russell wrote, "War does not determine who is right, only who is left."

Friday, June 29, 2018

How I Learned to Write What I Knew

      In a few weeks, my new YA novel, Price of Duty, will be published. To the best of my knowledge, it will be my 103rd novel. I guess I’ve learned a few things about writing over a career that’s spanned more than forty years, but perhaps the most important lesson I ever learned was the one that came from writing my first novel. 
      This goes back to 1977. I’d just completed a semi-autobiographical story about a teenager on Long Island who, among other indiscretions, is arrested for selling drugs. Not aware of the budding new genre of literature called young adult, I found myself concerned that my story about teenagers falling in love and getting in trouble lacked the international scope, adult appeal, and historical perspective necessary to catapult it onto the best seller lists. 
      My solution to this problem was to purchase a copy of Writer’s Digest, from which I learned that at that moment in literary history the two essential ingredients necessary to insure vast commercial success were Nazism and cocaine. 
      Having failed to include either in my fledgling first novel, I immediately got busy creating a Nazi submarine commander who escapes in his submarine at the end of World War II and sails it to Colombia, South America. From there he regularly smuggles cocaine, via his submarine, all the way to the north shore of Long Island, New York (as opposed, say, to Florida). And, to tie it into my story, I made this Nazi the uncle of one of my protagonist’s best friends. 
      Thanks to an unrelated stroke of luck, I was able to secure the services of a reputable literary agent who began to submit the manuscript to publishers. A dozen rejections quickly piled up and the future for my first novel began to feel grim. Then came fantastic news: an editor named Ferdinand Monjo at a publisher called Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, wished to have lunch with me. A week later we met in the restaurant of a small, elegant East Side hotel. Mr. Monjo was a refined, dapper man who smoked cigarettes in a long gold cigarette holder. 
      We chatted amiably through lunch (his: three vodka gimlets and a salmon-egg omelet; mine: a hamburger and a Coke). Finally, over coffee and dessert, Mr. Monjo got down to business. Would I, he asked in a most genteel manner, possibly consider rewriting my story? The question was not unexpected. My agent had already warned me that this query would be the crux of the lunch. I replied that I’d be glad to. And did Mr. Monjo have any suggestions as to how he thought the story could be improved? 
      “Yes,” he replied, appearing pleased and relieved. He then launched into the small speech he had clearly prepared for the occasion.
      “In this business it is important to write about what you know, Todd. And it is obvious that you know a great deal about being a teenager in the suburbs.” At this point he paused to clear his throat and take another sip of his vodka gimlet. “However, I hope you will not be offended if I add that it is equally obvious that you know very little about Nazis who steal submarines and smuggle cocaine.” 
      Like the editors at the publishing houses that had rejected my manuscript, Mr. Monjo had found the original story I’d created neither plausible nor interesting. But unlike the others, he had detected a glimmer of potential which, given an opportunity, might eventually develop into something decent. 
      These days there are still many devoted and erudite editors around, but I wonder how many would be allowed to gamble on a brand-new author and an unmarketable manuscript the way Mr. Monjo did. The impression I have is that nowadays editors are rarely allowed to speculate on what a manuscript might become, and must instead base their decisions on what they have in hand (provided the marketing and sales departments give them the green light. I cannot imagine any marketing or sales department approving the manuscript Ferdinand Monjo read.). 
      Mr. Monjo offered a $3,000 advance to see if his hunch was correct. While small by today’s standards, in 1978 this was not an inconsequential amount to pay an unproven first-time novelist with only the promise of a story. In the months that followed I took his advice to heart, tossed Uncle Nazi and his submarine, revised extensively, and eventually produced a book that was driven much more by character, and much less by plot. 
      Sadly, Ferdinand Monjo died in October of 1979, just a few months before Angel Dust Blues was published, and never got to see the fruits of his sage advice (very good reviews and an auction for the paperback rights). I consider myself very fortunate to have caught the tail end of the era when publishing was called a gentlemen’s occupation, and to have received from him perhaps the most important writing lesson I ever learned.

Todd writing at Beloit College in 1973

PRICE OF DUTY COMING JULY 2018 

“Compact and suspenseful, the novel raises important questions about war.” – Kirkus Reviews. 

“This thought-provoking book is both welcome and imperative.” – Booklist * (starred review). 

"Rather than attempting to sway the reader, it offers awareness." - VOYA 

“A tightly wound and compelling story... appropriate for an older middle school and high school audience. VERDICT: Highly recommended.” – School Library Journal 

“A timely, relevant critique of the American war machine and its dependence on idealistic and impressionable young people.” -- The Horn Book 

"A hard-hitting, thought-provoking, page turner that could change the lives of young readers. Encourage them to put down their video game controllers and pick up this book." - Richie's Picks 

"Although readers may be divided on [Jake's] final choice, they will respect the ethical struggle that led him there."--Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books (Recommended)

"War does not determine who is right -- only who is left." - Bertrand Russell

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Why I Wrote Price of Duty


Several years ago, while doing a Skype session about my book, The Wave, with a 9th grade class in Mississippi, I noticed that among the students sitting at their desks, half a dozen were wearing uniforms comprised of a light blue shirt and dark slacks.  I asked the students about their uniforms, and they told me that they members of their high school’s unit of the U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC). 

I was not familiar with the JROTC but it struck me as curious that an organization sponsored by the United States Military would be allowed in a public school to solicit members who were 14 and 15 years old. That is, students who were still basically children.

It raised questions in my mind: At what age should the US military be allowed to begin the indoctrination of young people? Is someone at the age of 14 or 15 mature enough to comprehend the life and death implications of a career track that might eventually lead to going to war? 

I began to do research and quickly learned a number of facts that I found personally disturbing, including the discovery that I was wrong to think that military indoctrination in schools begins as young as 14 years old. Thanks to a program called the National Middle School Cadet Corps (NMSCC), there are nearly 100 middle schools in this country that allow indoctrination to begin at the age of 11, or younger if the student has an older sibling already in the program.[1] The majority of these middle school programs are located in the states of Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Texas.
Here’s some more information about JROTC:

1)    There are roughly 3,000 JROTC units in high schools in the United States. These units represent all branches of the military.

2)    Most schools that offer JROTC allow students to substitute it for their physical education classes. Furthermore, here’s a National Institute of Health article[2] that found that participants in JROTC were required to do significantly less physical activity than those in a typical high school PE class. 

3)    In any given year, somewhere between 30% and 50% of JROTC enrollees enlist in the armed services after high school.

4)    The JROTC and the National Rifle Association (NRA) enjoy a cozy relationship. While weapons training is not allowed in most schools, JROTC units frequently receive NRA grants for air rifles, spotting scopes, and pellets.  In addition, JROTC members are encouraged to participate in NRA shooting matches. (Air rifles have come a long way from the BB guns we shot as kids. Today’s air rifles are often designed to look very similar to the various models of M16s currently in use in the military).