Andrew Smith almost gave up writing for teens in 2011, when an article in The Wall Street Journal blasted his work as being too dark for teen readers. But fans of his previous novels (including the 2015 Printz Honor-winning Grasshopper Jungle)—and those who pick up his latest offering, The Alex Crow—will be glad that he stuck to his craft.
And “craft” is the right word here, because all of Smith’s books, especially the four intersecting narratives of The Alex Crow, grow out of a unique and detailed writing process. “I write differently from anyone else I know,” Smith tells BookPage from his home in Washington, D.C. “I don’t outline. I wanted to start in all of these different places that seemingly were absolutely disjointed and impossible to connect, and have them all come together into a really small point at the end. It’s kind of like solving a puzzle, kind of working my way out of a maze.”
“To lump all 14-year-old boys into this narrowly defined expectation of what they’re capable of doing and what they’re capable of expressing, feeling and thinking about, is exactly the problem.”
Speaking of mazes, The Alex Crow opens with a violent scene in which teenager Ariel survives a terrorist attack in an unspecified war zone. Ariel’s narrative then breaks into two pieces—one in the present as he and his adoptive brother Max laugh their way through a technology-detox summer camp for boys, and one in the recent past, describing how Ariel came to be adopted by Max’s family. Both narratives are interrupted by two additional tales: An increasingly insane trucker makes what may be the world’s strangest road trip, and a stranded 19th-century sailor records some startling discoveries in his journals. These four threads gradually knot their way into one larger story in a strange way that only Smith could weave.
Scenes in The Alex Crow are a mix of profound, grotesque, violent and hilarious, with some moments following directly on the heels of another. “That’s kind of how I see the world,” Smith says. “One minute you can be completely horrified by something that’s taking place in front of you, and then within a few moments or so you’re laughing at something that’s just absolutely absurd.”
The multidimensional plot may be the most notable aspect of The Alex Crow, but arguably the most interesting elements are its characters, especially 14-year-old Ariel. Smith aims to write characters that stand out as individuals rather than relying on archetypical characters and cookie-cutter expectations of adolescence. “To lump all 14-year-old boys into this narrowly defined expectation of what they’re capable of doing and what they’re capable of expressing, feeling and thinking about, is exactly the problem.”
With characters that are so intensely relatable, a further issue bubbles to the surface: Smith has been called sexist or worse for articulating the thoughts of a 14-year-old boy. But as Smith points out, no one would accuse Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs, of being a cannibal.
“The emotional distance that readers feel when they’re reading young adult [literature] is so, so narrow compared to the emotional distance that readers feel when they’re reading what would be called ‘adult literary fiction,’ ” Smith explains. “They sometimes kind of blur the line between the author and the characters in the story. . . . But a young adult author is very often targeted or accredited with the actions and the attitudes of what are, generally speaking, pretty immature and impulsive characters.”
For all these characters’ flaws, they’ll resonate with boy readers, but will The Alex Crow appeal to girls? “I’m definitely very strongly outspoken against the idea of genderizing books,” Smith says. “I don’t believe there are such things as ‘girl’ books and ‘boy’ books.” Teenage girls are just as mystified by teenage boys as boys are by girls, so reading Smith’s books—even as an adult—gives female readers a glance into the minds of these foreign-seeming creatures.
Smith’s books have been described as boundary-pushing, and his thoughts on this label extend to YA lit in general. YA, says Smith, isn’t limited to 12- to 18-year-old readers. Instead, “it’s a genre that deals with essential adolescent experiences, which I think is the most significant period in a human being’s life.”
For this reason, adult readers can appreciate YA on a different level. “When we get beyond that period in our lives, and we can distance ourselves emotionally from the immediacy of the turmoil of adolescence, the ability to go back and read something that examines those sorts of pressures and issues and problems . . . helps to clarify that experience.”
Smith goes on, “We’re definitely seeing a big change in young adult. . . . I think that publishers are more eager to take risks and to break away from the rut [that] YA has been in the last 20 years. And so we’re seeing a lot of delightful new offerings that break the mold, getting out of the constraints of what has been a preconceived, very formulaic category of fiction.”
In the end, Smith’s writing goals are as simple as they are profound. “I just try to put as much honesty as I can, and entertainment, on the pages, and by doing that maybe give somebody a glimpse into some perspective that they hadn’t been that accustomed to seeing.”
Jill Ratzan teaches research rudiments in central New Jersey. She learned most of what she knows about YA lit from her terrific grad students.