I wrote my debut novel Sometimes We Tell the Truth with a teen audience in mind. The premise seems innocent enough: a bunch of high school seniors on an all-day bus ride to Washington, DC, pass the time with a story-telling competition; the civics teacher offers an A in the class as the prize. But I was adapting Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, so the stories include a generous sprinkling of scandalous sex scenes, which really pop on the page when you are modernizing the tales. Besides sex, the novel contains the ubiquitous f-word, rape culture, alcohol, pot, etc.
I'd written a novel that you might call "edgy," even for teens. It's not really that I wanted to be edgy for edgy's sake. I wanted the book to be accessible to today's teens, but remain faithful to some of the mature content in Chaucer's original text. I didn't want to talk down to YA readers, any more than I talk down to my college students at Sacramento State when I teach medieval literature; that meant letting the sex scenes happen without a fade to black. I wanted the stories to entertain but also challenge readers, and maybe even inspire them to give Chaucer's original stories a chance. After all, readers of this novel would become familiar with all of Chaucer's basic plot elements, just modernized—so that (for instance) the icky groping scene in "The Summoner's Tale" happens in a modern massage parlor, and so on.
I just want to be clear that I didn't write this novel thinking this would be just the perfect reading material for my then-11-year-old son, Arthur. But read it he did. This is the story of our adventure in uncharted literary territory, as told in three acts.
Act I: Picture books
My son has grown up knowing that I'm really into books. When Arthur was a toddler, I published my first children's picture book Playful Bunny with Scholastic. I dedicated it to him. He didn't seem to think it was very extraordinary that my name was on the cover and that his was on the dedication page. It was apparently his natural inheritance. I'd love to tell you that Playful Bunny was his favorite picture book of all time, but it was just a book that we enjoyed sometimes together. Our favorites were still Mrs. Biddlebox, Bear Snores On, and Hairy Maclary's Bone—in other words, books by goddesses of rhyme.
Then in 2012, when he was in second grade, my second picture book came out. Really, The Helpful Puppy was my first picture book, because I wrote it years before Playful Bunny. Puppy was the book I'd always loved more, but couldn't seem to publish successfully. It had a long, long journey (12 years!), but at last, it was published by Holiday House and gorgeously illustrated by Caldecott-winner Emily Arnold McCully. It had a lovely, nostalgic feel to it, and the art at the ending? Simply perfect—hushed and full of love. I wrote that book before Arthur was born, and now, with his name on the dedication page, I could put this work of my heart into his hands.
The only problem was that his hands weren't the baby hands they used to be. He had become more of a Captain Underpants reader. He put it this way, patiently, his face embarrassed: "I don't read picture books anymore. I read novels. Could you write novels now?"
On the one hand, this was a very sweet request, and unknown to him, I had indeed been writing novels since before he was born, but just hadn't published any. On the other hand, it took 12 YEARS for this picture book to come out, and I had no idea when (if?) I'd ever have a book out again. But he saw it as my natural instinct to supply him with reading material. What else are mothers for?
Act II: Writing coach
Flash forward: now Arthur was eleven, and I was working on Sometimes We Tell the Truth. I already had a publisher, Simon & Schuster, lined up. Arthur was proud of me, but also a bit annoyed that I was writing for teenagers and not for his age group, missing the mark yet again. Still, better teenagers than toddlers, by his logic. He bragged to his friends that the book was meant for teenagers and inappropriate for elementary students.
Despite my son's bragging about inappropriate reading material, he is an innocent cuddlebug. Once, he stopped playing with his toys and affectionately checked in with me as I was cranking out "The Miller's Tale" for my Chaucer novel. I was proofreading the R-rated antics of Nicholas and Alison, two young lovers who have sex after tricking Alison's husband into laying low in a bathtub to protect himself against the coming apocalypse.
Arthur said, "You shouldn't use that word."
I had had no idea that he was looking over my shoulder at the computer screen.
He persisted. "You shouldn't use that word. You should use 'behind.'"
I confronted the word "ass" plainly in front of us. I was kind of relieved. There were worse things going on in that story, much worse things that he could pick up on. "Great idea. I'll fix it right now. Thank you."
Satisfied, he went away, and I put the word "ass" back in there. Then, a few days later, he made an offer: "I can help you write your novel."
"Really? How can you help?"
"I can read it over and mark where all the bad words are, so you can fix them."
"Well, I appreciate that, but actually, these teenage characters want to use bad language. So if I fixed those parts, they would sound more like me and less like themselves."
"Still, I can show you where they all are, and you can decide what you want to do."
I gave him maternal side-eye. "Do you just want to read a book that is inappropriate for your age level?"
Reader, I did not take him up on his offer. To be honest, I didn't think he was ready.
Act III: Full steam ahead
Arthur had just turned 12 and entered sixth grade when Sometimes We Tell the Truth came out in September 2016. He wanted to read it, but I told him that it had a lot of bad language in it, including the f-word. He pointed out that he had heard the f-word when a boy named Max turned red and screamed it on the playground in fourth grade. I said that some of the stories might be okay to read, but others involved steamy scenes with young people rubbing up against each other. He made quite a face and decided he did not want to read those. He did want to read the non-steamy ones, though. So I got to work hunting for relatively clean stories. There weren't a whole lot of them. I found a dirty-yet-sexless tale I knew he'd like (the aforementioned "Summoner's Tale," which is full of ass-related humor) but applied sticky notes over the rampant f-bombs at the end. He happily read those anyway, so I quickly gave that practice up. Otherwise, he accepted my recommendations as to which stories were at his level. I thought we were all done.
But my son is an avid re-reader, and he re-read those stories so many times that he eventually wanted to read the whole thing in order, as if it were, you know, a novel. I invoked the steamy teenagers to scare him off, but this time, he didn't care. He just wanted to read the whole thing, steam and all. So at the tender age of 12, he did just that.
I was nervous, because it wasn't just me handing my kid what is easily the most adult novel he would ever have read. It was me handing my kid what is easily the most adult novel he would ever have read—and I wrote it. That could be psychologically harmful, right?
As it turned out, it wasn't that big a deal. The story I was most worried about was "The Wife of Bath's Prologue," because that character becomes sexually active at age 12 with an older man. Today we'd call that statutory rape, which I make central in my retelling. I believed (and still do) that I did the right thing. Many children have experiences like this character's experiences, but that reality is deemed "inappropriate" in literature for children—a problematic position, since such children aren't allowed to be represented in books that are written for them. And yet, handing the novel over, I could see why stories like this one don't reach many kids or even teenagers. A part of me wanted to protect my son from a tale about a girl his own age who had lost her childhood far too young.
The trauma of that loss went over his head, though, and I let him dictate the flow of our conversations. We talked about Pard, an openly gay character who isn't as masculine as the other guys. A football player makes fun of his high voice, and similar micro-aggressions recur throughout the book. We discussed how people can be born a certain way and be bullied horribly for it. We talked about the narrator and main character, Jeff Chaucer, who wants so badly to be popular, yet isn't really being true to himself. We talked about profanity and how much worse the r-word is than the f-word. (In one scene, a character gets in trouble for the f-word, but another uses the r-word gets away with it (not okay!)). My son laughed over Reeve's clipboard, the modern icon of this vengeful tattletale, and Arthur adored the sweet Parson with his cheery face and his pink Jesus shirt. "We need more Parsons in this world," Arthur said. And in the spring semester, when I knew his health class was covering, um, certain things, I asked if he needed me to explain what sex was. "I think I'm pretty sure what it is, from reading 'Bryce's Tale.'" "Bryce's Tale" is "The Merchant's Tale" (the pear tree story—you might remember how explicit that one gets). So that was actually an unexpected benefit, racing through the sixth-grade sex talk that way. Thank you, Chaucer!
Seriously, though, what I learned from this experience is that if you are going to hand young people a novel with mature themes, it's not a bad idea to give it to them while they are on the young side—i.e., when they still reach out and talk to you. As parents and teachers, we can help younger readers process mature themes rather than discourage interest and curiosity, which only sends the message, do not bring up these topics with adults. When my son learned about consent in seventh-grade health class, he already knew about it from "The Reeve's Tale," in which the concept is wildly violated, and we had already talked about deception as a tool for rape. We got comfortable talking about uncomfortable topics, which in turn has helped my son be more open about his own anxieties entering the teen years. So, if I had any worries that he would be scarred by reading such an adult book, I feel reassured that the opposite is true.
Pedagogy and parenting concerns aside, Arthur had fun reading Sometimes We Tell the Truth. Unlike Playful Bunny and The Helpful Puppy, this one really was and still is his favorite book. I have his sixth-grade book report, which testifies that Sometimes We Tell the Truth rates 100 out of 10. He has read it multiple times, and he knows all the characters by heart and refers to them often. It's kind of amazing that we can share this imaginative space together. I don't know if I'll write anything again that so captures him, but I'm glad this book did.