Monday, December 29, 2008

If I Grow Up .... The VOYA review

A review of IF I GROW UP has arrived from VOYA. This YA novel is the American equivalent of GHETTO KIDZ, which was published in Germany last fall. IF I GROW UP is scheduled for publication here in February, 2009.

You are more nervous about this book than you’ve been about a book in quite a while. It is a story of a young African-American man growing up in an impoverished inner-city project, and of the forces that coerce him, and many young men like him, to leave school and join gangs.

Here is a highlight from the VOYA review:

“Strasser’s writing puts the reader in the midst of the projects and offers totally real characters…This reviewer found the superlative story riveting.”

So this is a source of some relief. Your editor had warned you that there might be people who would take exception to you writing such a story because you are not an African American.

You decided to write IF I GROW UP/GHETTO KIDZ after you were invited to speak at some inner city schools. You waived your normal fee because you knew that the schools couldn’t afford to pay what suburban and private schools could pay (Question: Why, in a alleged democracy like America, should who one becomes depend so much on where one is born and what schools one attends?)

You were shocked by the conditions in these schools. These were institutions of learning that could not afford full-time, and in some cases, even part-time librarians, music teachers, and art teachers. These were schools that could not afford the most rudimentary equipment and technology for teaching, or musical instruments, or adequate supplies for art classes.

Just as dismaying were the attitudes of the students. Many didn’t seem to care about your presentation. Some were absolutely determined to undermine your attempts to encourage and inspire them.** Were they testing you? Was this because you were white? Or a stranger? Or in some perceived position of authority? Some teachers helped to keep the students orderly, but other teachers stood by were no help at all. You wondered if they were thinking, “See? This is what I have to deal with every day. How do you like it?” Or perhaps even, “No one helps me. Why should I help you?”

You’ve been speaking before large audiences of students for more than 25 years, and have become reasonably adept at the tricks to keep students’ interest and attention, but these were some of the most challenging. You managed to complete the presentation, but it was painfully obvious that many in the audience had no interest in what you were saying.

And, perhaps they had a point. How much relevance do the messages “Keep trying and never give up,” and “be the best reader and writer you can be,” have in a world where more than half your classmates won’t even finish high school? Where a quarter of your friends will be dead by the age of 30, and another quarter will be in prison? Were the majority of kids not interested because they already knew that what you were saying would be utterly and completely irrelevant to their lives?

Right now, it seems, the answer is, tragically, yes. Ideally, the day will come when students everywhere will want to embrace the message that the better you can read and write, the more successful your life will be. But, as anyone who reads the newspapers knows, enormous changes must take place first. According to recent statistics, the only difference between 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act was instituted, and now, is that now even more children are being left behind.

* One of the most troubling, and poignantly sad, parts of the experience could be seen on the faces of those students sitting near the front, and scattered here and there in the crowd, who really did want to hear what you had to say, but were too intimated to hush their fellow students.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Tennis is a big part of your life. You started playing at a very early age. You father played with the same group of 6-8 guys every Saturday and Sunday morning for nearly 40 years. Your mother, who is 85 and suffered a stroke four years ago, still plays once a week.

When you were young, your father wanted you to be a great tennis player, but you were neither physically, nor mentally, cut out for that role. You liked playing, but did not enjoy the competition he insisted you participate in. When you raised your own children, you encouraged them to play, but never pressured them or insisted they play tournaments the way your father had. Now both of them like tennis, and, you hope, will play for the rest of their lives (your son’s main job this past summer was teaching tennis). But if they decide not to play later in life, that’s okay too.

When you were 14, it was cool for kids to not wear socks when they played. In those days the insides of tennis sneakers were very gross. Around the age of 16 you stopped playing entirely. This was one of the many ways in which you rebelled as a teenager. But somewhere around the age of 22 you started playing again and have not stopped since, except when injured.

These days you play an average of two or three times a week in the summer and once or twice a week in the winter. You play with a group of about 8 – 10 guys, but at the core of that group is The Fab Four - Ron, John, Mark, and you.

The Fab Four have as much fun laughing and kidding each other as they do playing tennis. Tennis with them is a crazy mixture of jibes, jokes, jests, and rejoinders. Now and then one of you gets injured and can’t play for a few days or even weeks. It’s always a relief when you reunite and can talk in the past tense about your sore knees, bad backs, aching elbows, and other injuries.

You call these discussions “organ recitals.”

Tennis is not just a game for you and your pals. It is a chance to bond and escape (Oddly, tennis is so much a part of your life that when you go on vacation, you prefer not to play). It often feels like a separate part of your existence. You and your pals go out of your way to avoid talking about mundane or serious issues. Work is rarely mentioned, wives slightly less rarely, and children only somewhat more often.

Over the years, a number of guys in your group have come and gone. Most of them you liked a lot. Some had to stop because of injuries. Some turned to golf. But it is hard for you to imagine life without the Fab Four.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Angel Dust Blues and Ferdinand Monjo

Between 1973 and 1977, while in college and then working as a newspaper reporter, you wrote a novel called “Angel Dust Blues” about a teenager on Long Island who is arrested for selling drugs. Not even aware that there was genre called Young Adult, you were concerned that your story about teenagers lacked the components necessary to catapult it onto the best seller list.

At that moment in literary history, according to a then current issue of “Writer’s Digest,” those components included Nazism and cocaine. So you created a character, a Nazi, who escaped from Germany in a submarine at the end of World War II and sailed it to Colombia, South America. From there he smuggled cocaine, via his submarine, to Long Island, New York. And, to tie it into the story, you made him the uncle of one of your protagonist’s friends.

You wish you could say that you’re kidding, but you’re not.

An agent started to submit the manuscript and rejections quickly piled up from the first dozen publishers who read it. It was a tough time for you. Other than working as a part-time fact checker for Esquire Magazine, you had no income, nor any real hope of making a career for yourself as a writer. You’d even given yourself a deadline. If you couldn’t publish a book by the time you were 32, you’d chuck the whole deal and start over at something new, although you couldn’t imagine what that would be.

One day your agent called and said an editor named Ferdinand Monjo wished to have lunch with you. Were you interested? At the time you were working your way through a case of tuna fish, purchased in bulk, to save money. You probably would have gone to lunch with Charles Manson if he’d asked (and promised to come unarmed).

Mr. Monjo and his assistant, Jim Bruce, met you in the restaurant of a small, elegant East Side hotel. The editor was a refined, dapper man dressed in a sport jacket and tie. His wavy silver gray hair was combed back, his wire-rim glasses sparkled, and he smoked cigarettes in a long gold cigarette holder reminiscent of that well-known photo of a jaunty Franklin Roosevelt riding in the back of a car.

After graciously thanking you for agreeing to come to lunch, you sat down at a table covered with linens, crystal, and silver. During the conversation that followed, Mr. Monjo consumed two vodka gimlets while discussing theater, classical music, and opera with Jim (Clearly the least cultured person at the table, you mostly listened and sipped a Coke).

Later, having consumed a red caviar omelet, as well as a third vodka gimlet, Mr. Monjo got down to business. Would you, he asked, possibly consider rewriting your book? Your agent had already told you that this would be at the crux of the lunch, so you had an answer prepared. You would, you said. And did he have any suggestions?

Mr. Monjo seemed pleased that you had asked. “Yes,” he said. “In this business it is important to write about what you know. It is obvious that you know a great deal about being a teenager in the suburbs.” He paused to clear his throat. “I regret to also point out that it is equally obvious that you know very little about Nazis, submarines, and cocaine smuggling.”

Lunch ended. In the months that followed you would take Mr. Monjo’s suggestion to heart, and eventually produce a book that was driven much more by character, and much less by plot.

Like the editors at the other publishing houses, Mr. Monjo had found in your book a story that was neither plausible nor interesting. But unlike the others, he (perhaps because he himself was also a writer) had detected a potential which, given an opportunity, might eventually produce something decent. He offered $3,000 to see if his hunch was correct. While small by today’s standards, in 1978 this was not an inconsequential amount to pay on an unproven first-time novelist with only the promise of a story.

Today there are still many lovely and erudite editors, but you wonder how many would be allowed to gamble on a brand new author the way Mr. Monjo did.* The impression you have is that today’s editors are rarely allowed (or are even given the time) to speculate on what a manuscript might become, and must instead base their decisions on the manuscript they have in hand (provided the marketing and sales departments give them the green light. Many books today are purchased by committee. You cannot imagine any marketing or sales department approving of the manuscript Ferdinand Monjo read.).

You also wonder how many editors still have the luxury of time that would allow them to take a writer out to lunch merely to ask if he or she would consider rewriting a book.

Mr. Monjo (his full name was Ferdinand Nicolas Monjo III) was a well-known author himself, and was born into an old and well-to-do Connecticut fur trading family that, in the 1800s, had sailing ships all over the world. In 1974 one of his books won the National Book Award – a tremendous achievement for any writer. Sadly, he died in October of 1979. Angel Dust Blues was a few months later.

* Among the other YA authors who got their start thanks to Mr. Monjo is Robert Lipsyte, whose wonderful book, The Contender, came about when the editor wrote to him out of the blue and asked if he’d consider writing a novel about a teenage boxer. Before that, Mr. Lipsyte, a sports reporter for the New York Times, had never written fiction.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Lieber Kursteilnehmer,

Each year I receive many e-mails with questions about my books. It is difficult for me to answer each question individually. Since questions often repeat from student to student and e-mail to e-mail, I have decided to list the common questions and answers here.

If you cannot find the answer to your question here, please e-mail me again so that I can answer it.


Why do you use the penname Morton Rhue and not your real name?

In 1981 I had two books coming out at the same time and my publisher asked that one be under a pen name. Todd in German is similar to the word for dead. Strasser in German means street. Dead Street in French is ..... Mort Rue.

Why do you write books specially for young people?

I have written books for people of all ages, but the ones I’ve written for middle-graders and young adults have been the best received.

Did you read some literature before writing these books? What kind of books?

If you mean, books related to the subjects I wrote about, the answer is yes. I also tend to do a lot of reading of other media as well, such a newspaper reports, magazine articles, on information on the Web.

Do you think that some of your books may still be some kind of risk, for example, to unstable kids who cannot talk to their parents about their problems? Thus, they may like and adopt the idea of living on the street or dealing violently with someone else.

I hope that my books would not be a risk. The messages should not encourage
students to do these things.

Do you think that these prefaces are sufficient to prevent or do you think that it´s better to read the books accompanied by teachers or parents?

I try to write the books so that they can stand alone. However, reading them with a teacher or parent would certainly enrich the experience.

You visited schools in Alaska, Iowa, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado. Pretend that this fictitious project becomes reality: Could you imagine visiting a school in Germany?

I have visited many schools in Germany.

What do you intend to be the most important thing that the teenagers shall learn from your books, such as Asphalt Tribe and Give a boy a gun - for example: moral
education, foreign understanding, identity development, responsibility, aspects of literature - and in which way?

That's a very big question. I think one of the most difficult parts of being
a young person these days is being faced with choices that they have not
developed the judgment or had the experience to understand. In my books, I
try to present young people facing these choices, and then show what making
certain decision might lead to.

I read that you were a street musician to earn money. Is that right?

Yes, for a while when I lived in Copenhagen I was a street musician.


Why did you write a book about street kids?

They interest me. I often write about the plight of outsiders

What inspired you to write the novel?

I was out in Colorado speaking and my host asked if I'd mind stopping at a homeless shelter while she dropped off some food. I was surprised that it was a shelter for teens.

How did you come up with the names of the characters?

Some names were made up. Some were inspired by research

You seem to know a lot about New York City. Did you grow up in New York City?

I grew up nearby, and lived there in my 20s and 30s

Were you ever homeless or did you know any homeless people?

No, although I did spend some time hitch hiking around the US and met some homeless kids that way.

Wherefrom did you take the idea/experience of how the children (or the street kids from Asphalt Tribe) in your books talk, behave and 'live'. Did you study them or did you visit some organizations?

Yes, I both studied them and visited a homeless shelter for teens. I also found some websites with narratives by homeless teens. These were very helpful.

What message did you want to send with this book?

Living on the streets is dangerous and not cool

How long did it take you to write this book?

About 10 months, including research

Is the history of the book a pure fiction or reality?

This book is a work of fiction, based on reality

Do you fear that kids could adopt the language used in the book Asphalt

If you are referring to the German-language version, I can't answer, as I do
not read German.


Your novel is based on the teleplay by Johnny Dawkins (which is based on the article by Ron Jones from 1972). Was the movie already broadcasted when you started writing the novel?

No. I worked from the 45-page screenplay, the essay, and from my imagination.

Is the story of The Wave really true?

I have been asked this question many times. The answer is that I have no way of actually knowing, since I worked only from the essay by Ron Jones and from a short film about the experiment. I certainly believe that the experiment took place.

Do you know how to contact Ron Jones?

I have no contact info regarding Ron Jones. I believe he is the author of a book called The Acorn People. Whoever published that book might know how to find him.

Who engaged you to write the novel in 1981?

Delacorte Press

How long did it take you to write the novel?

4-5 months.

Can you provide a way to gain access to the article by Ron Jones that inspired the book?

Please go to There's a link to the original article on the home page near the bottom

What do you think of Ben Ross, the teacher, and of his idea ?

Given the memorable impact my book has had on so many millions of readers over the past 27 years, I have to be grateful that he had that idea!

Is this idea one of the best to make students understand what is Nazism ?

I can't judge where it stands compared to other ideas, but I do believe it is surely one good way.


Did you get the idea for this book from Columbine or another real life situation?

The book is based on a number of real school shootings that occurred in the 1990s.

What was your purpose for writing the book? We've considered it a cautionary tale, to open up discussions about important topics such as bullying and gun control.

That is certainly part of the reason I wrote the book.

What inspired you to write it?

Many things. One big reason was because my kids were in middle school at the time and I think it is insane when parents have to worry that their kids may be killed in school.

The book has been out for ten years. Are you aware of any similar situations, where a student has made a threat, and the family wanted to hold the availability of the book responsible for the student's actions? If so, has this happened often?

I've never heard of this happening. With all the violence in the media, I've always felt that any student who did something like this would have been motivated by something more
immediate and graphic. However, Millions of students are exposed to this type of media without resorting to threats. I believe that media alone cannot be responsible for these actions.

Are there any examples of positive outcomes from students reading the book that could be shared, to counter the argument that it promotes guns and school violence?

I do believe that one problem is that there are so many guns available in the US and around the world. To stop the violence children must be taught non-violent ways to settle problems at an early age.

Over the years I have received many, many e-mails and letters from students who found comfort in learning that they were not alone in being bullied, as well as a few e-mails from "bullying types" who,. after reading the book, expressed contrition for their actions.

Three things, I hope: 1) That we must continue to try to limit the number of guns that get into the hands of private citizens. 2) That we must make efforts to teach young people to separate the "pretend" violence of media entertainment from the reality of the lives we actually live. 3) That we must teach young people to respect human differences and try not to tease, taunt or bully those who are different or weaker.

By the way, my research for the book was entirely from secondary sources such as newspapers, news magazine, books and government studies and statistics. I realized very early that these rampage-shooting incidents were so sensational, and so well covered by the media, that any question I could have thought of had probably already been asked. Therefore I formulated a long list of questions I needed answers to, and hired a professional researcher to go through the existing stories to find these answers. Also
I believe my own experience as a picked-on and alienated teen helped me to understand what might drive a young man to such a desperate act. In that sense, there is no more direct research than experience.


Does Lake Harmony Boot Camp really exist?

I made it up, but it is based on real boot camps.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

How you became a newspaper reporter

You took six years to complete college -- with two years off to sell popcorn from a cart in midtown New York, then live on a commune in Virginia, then live for a longer period in Europe, and then hitchhike around the United States. After graduating in 1974 you decided you wanted to find a way to make a living as a writer.

Some choices that seem obvious now were not so apparent then. For instance, writing for television. Despite being 24 years old, you had yet to own a television set, and never watched TV. You did have a distant relative, Morrie Ryskind, who co-wrote many of the Marx Brother’s plays and movies, but it still did not occur to you to pursue screenwriting.

Instead, you believed the best path was a career in journalism. But finding a job as a reporter, you understood, would not be easy. The country had recently been captivated by the Watergate reporting exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Thus becoming a newspaper reporter was a popular goal among many college graduates.

Having no formal education, or training, in journalism, it appeared that the odds were against you. Especially when colleges were busy producing thousands of journalism majors. Plus, a significant number of young people were getting masters in journalism from schools like Columbia. The desks of newspaper editors were awash with job applications and resumes from candidates far more qualified than you.

Given those poor odds, you were told by someone wise (you can no longer remember who) that your best, and possibly only, chance for finding a job was to show up at newspapers in person and attempt to talk your way into the office of someone – a managing editor? A publisher? – who was in a position to hire you. You were warned not to call and announce your visit in advance, as that would give someone the opportunity to say no, don’t come.

In order to accomplish this task in a somewhat orderly fashion, you took a map of New York and drew concentric circles at ten mile intervals emanating from New York City (you skipped the newspapers in the city itself, since they only hired reporters with many years experience). Then you started driving. First to every newspaper within ten miles of the city, then 20 miles, then 30, and on and on.

Remarkably, once you arrived at a newspaper office, you were often able to get into see someone, if only for a few minutes. The security measures that today prevent most people from getting through the front door did not exist then. But alas, not a single newspaper had a job to offer.

You then tried newspapers in the 40-, 50-, and 60-mile radius. Finally the day came, approximately a month and a half into your search, when you walked into the office of Glen Doty, the managing editor of the Middletown Times Herald Record, 74 miles from New York City.

Mr. Doty’s door was open, but you knocked anyway. He looked up from a pile of papers on his desk and asked who you were. You explained that you were looking for a job as a reporter.

“Do you have any experience?” Mr. Doty asked.

“I wrote for my college newspaper and was editor of the literary magazine,” you said.

Mr. Doty tugged at his moustache thoughtfully for about three seconds and said, “Can you start a two-week tryout tomorrow?”

The next day you returned to the paper and sat down at your assigned desk, where a pad of mostly illegible notes lay next to an ashtray half-filled with cigarette butts. A half typed story was in the typewriter beside the desk. Clearly, someone else had recently been using this desk.

You turned to the reporter at the desk next to yours. He had a beard and was busy typing a story with two fingers.

“Is this another reporter’s desk?” I asked.

He glanced up at me for a second. “Not anymore,” he replied.


“It’s Gil’s desk,” the reporter said as he began to type again. “But Gil got shot two days ago.”

Timing is everything. You got the job.

(It turned out that Gil was shot point blank with a shotgun by his wife for reasons that were never completely divulged. Gil lived because he held his hand up in front of the barrel just before she pulled the trigger. Charges were never filed because Gil told the police it was an accident. Gil eventually returned to the newspaper and worked as an editor because it’s hard to be a reporter when you only have one hand.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Impact Zone, or the joys of vicarious living through fiction

Confession: you once wrote a three-book series knowing in advance that the chances of it being successful were less than remote. The series was called Impact Zone and it was about surfing. More precisely, it was about the friction between competitive surfing and what’s called “soul surfing,” (as compared to soul searching).

You had just taken up the sport of surfing and were in love with it. You daydreamed and night dreamed about it. You read surfing books and magazines and amassed a collection of surf videos. When you pitched the idea for a surfing series to your editor, you somehow failed to mention that you suspected there would be hardly any audience. The story didn’t have enough romance to interest girls, and most boys who surf may have many wonderful and endearing attributes, but, as a group, they are not known for their reading prowess (is the opposite of prowess prowless?).

But that wasn’t the point. It was winter and cold outside and you wanted to be surfing. So you wrote. Day after day you got to spend hours in a world where surfing was the only thing that mattered. And you loved it. In the pages of your books the sun always shined, the water was always 70 degrees, and you ripped up waves in ways you never could in real life. You had cool weird friends (pretty much like in real life), and were adored by many beautiful women (exactly like in real life!).

One amusing development came when the marketing department at the publishing company got hold of the manuscripts and realized what you already suspected -- that these books were simply not going to sell. In a desperate attempt to attract readership, they added sexy girls to the covers. Unfortunately, they added a girl wearing a bikini top to the book titled Take Off.

A “take off” is what surfers do when they catch a ride. They take off on the wave. Imagine your surprise a few months later when a school librarian told you she couldn’t put the book in her library because of the cover of the girl in the bikini and the title Take Off.

Mr. Bill says, “Now that REALLY took imagination. (Not the librarian, the part about Todd being adored by beautiful women).”