If you think young adult fiction is something to be looked down upon, or that the people who write young adult fiction are to be condescended to, I invite you to match wits, or sentences, with Blythe Woolston.
Woolston is a Billings author, a late-bloomer whose first book, “The Freak Observer,” was published six years ago, when she was 53. She has published three other books since then and she is almost done with another.
Before I tell you what awards she has won and what other people think of her work, it might be best to encounter her prose directly, as in this sliver of a scene from the opening pages of “The Freak Observer.” In it, a school counselor tells the narrator, Lola Lindgren, that she heard Lola was friends with a girl by the name of Esther.
That triggers a long passage of recollection, including an account of Lola’s first meeting with Esther, when Lola and her father drove up to Esther’s family’s place to acquire a puppy:
My dad told me to stay in the car while he got out. He went in the house to talk to Esther’s dad. In a little while, the kids had all come out to stare at me in the car. I was staring back. Then one of the girls went into the house and came out with a can of creamed corn. She poured it on the dirt. A whole bunch of puppies came tumbling out from under the porch and started licking up the yellow mess. Then a pig came around the corner and headed for the corn. Before he could get there, a little tiny girl picked up a stick of firewood and whacked that pig as hard as she could right in the head. The other kids started laughing, but that little girl just stood her ground. She wouldn’t let that pig get close to that creamed corn. That little tiny girl was Esther.
Then my dad came out of the house. Esther’s dad pointed at a couple of the puppies. My dad reached down and scooped one up.
Next thing I knew, I was the happiest kid in the world and that puppy was giving me a tongue bath like crazy. He smelled a little like creamed corn.
Esther is dead now. She was a defender of puppies and a whacker of pigs, and now she is dead.
Does that read like young adult fiction to you, or just fine writing? The quality of her writing and the uncondescending seriousness of her plots have earned Woolston’s books a good reception from the start.
“The Freak Observer”—described on the book jacket as a story about “death, life, astrophysics, and finding beauty in chaos”—won the gold medal in the 2010 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, part of the Independent Publisher Book Awards.
Then, in 2011, the same book won the William C. Morris Young Adult Debut Award from the American Library Association, an award that had only been established two years earlier.
“That came as such a terrible shock to me,” Woolston said. It was “life-changing,” she said, to have a “body of librarians who found this book and said, ‘This book matters.’”
The plaudits have continued to come in. Kirkus Reviews called “Catch & Release,” her 2012 book, “heartbreakingly honest,” and it called “Black Helicopters,” in 2013, “harrowing and unforgettable.” That book also won High Plains Book award for young adult fiction in 2014. “MARTians,” published last year, was named by both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly as one of the best young adult novels of the year.
Woolston said she gravitated toward YA fiction because young adulthood is such a fraught time, when “you’re trying to figure out who you are. Isn’t that the same as a mid-life crisis?” The difference is that older people have decades of experience and knowledge they can use to deal with a mid-life crisis.
“The truth is,” Woolston said, “we are always struggling with those initial experiences that we have to move through between the ages, I would say, of 11 to 22.”
Her books make no attempt to sugarcoat those difficult years, and the books often deal with uncomfortable subjects. In “The Freak Observer,” Lola has terrifying nightmares and sadistic flashbacks. In “Black Helicopters,” a teenage girl in the Montana hinterlands is trained by her fundamentalist, conspiracy-obsessed father to be a suicide bomber.
“Catch & Release” is about a girl who lost an eye and had one side of her face distorted by flesh-eating bacteria, and “MARTians” is a dystopian vision of a consumerist society in which a teen’s high school education is unceremoniously ended and she is forced to work for either AllMART or Q-MART.
In all her books, Woolston said, “I’m trying to understand what happens to the students who aren’t perfect, who feel they have no purpose. … Nobody wants to stay in an uncomfortable, horrible position. But a novel makes you live there for a while. I believe that kind of extended, hard engagement is what we need.”
If that all sounds rather bleak, you should know that her books are leavened by humor, and her conversations by fits of laughing. After delivering that last statement, for instance, Woolston shrugged, laughed and said, “But the world, as I’ve noticed, does not necessarily consult me.”
A few more details
If you want to read more young adult fiction, you might try Tim Wynne-Jones’ “The Emperor of Anyplace.”
“It blew the top of my head off when I read it because I got to the end and I thought, ‘This book had made me believe things,’” Blythe Woolston said. “I’m shocked at what it led me to believe.”
Woolston said she is good at coming up with ideas for books, or at least the start of books.
“That’s the big payoff for being a disorganized writer,” she said. “There are no spoilers because I don’t know what is going to happen.”
She also has a list of titles she likes, including “Envy Hill,” “Cold Hands” and “Nagasaki Rocket Donkey,” with no plot attached to any of them.
And though I did not broach this subject with Woolston and have no idea whether she’d be interested, it strikes me that she would be a fascinating guest author for a local book club. Her novels are thought provoking enough; to talk with her about them is a rare treat.
Woolston was born near Potomac, on the Blackfoot River east of Missoula. “It was never Yaak-remote,” she said, but it was a long bus ride to Missoula, where she went to high school.
After high school, she said, “I lived in Arlee (north of Missoula). I had no job and I milked goats and had a baby. It was the late ’70s. That’s what I was doing: I was living the late ’70s.”
Mostly to escape a bad situation, she eventually enrolled at Montana State University, where she thought of going into nursing but settled on English at the last moment. After earning a bachelor’s degree and working in MSU libraries for a time, she earned a master’s in education and worked as an adjunct professor for 10 years.
She credits a library science teacher with forcing her to really learn the English language, to master the basics.
“I took a grammar class and it was so cool because it’s all mechanical, it’s the machinery, the engine of language. … It was very exciting to me because I got to tinker with the gears. And then I could explain it to people. I was good at explaining things like how a semicolon worked because I’d only just learned it.”
By the time her husband, Chris Woolston, now a freelance science and travel writer, got his first journalism job, she had quit teaching and had learned book indexing through an online course offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
She copyedited computer manuals for a time, then started doing index work. Some of her steady clients were historical society presses in Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin, and then she found work with academic presses, including those at Princeton and Cambridge—“places where I could never walk in.” (This accompanied by another peal of laughter.)
And then came the books. Her first, unpublished novel was a useful disaster.
“I call it a three-legged mongrel,” she said. “I wanted it to be ‘Vanity Fair’ written by Terry Pratchett. It was none of those things.” But it had some good lines and good characters, she said, and it taught her a lot about writing.
Her four published books have all done well, Woolston said, but she acknowledges, in her deadpan, deprecating way, that her success has been somewhat limited.
“I’m not really popular. What can I say? If you’re one of those not-popular people at 11, chances are good that you’re going to be one of those not-popular 59-year-olds.”
Once, when she was feeling some doubts about herself, she wondered aloud, in talking to her agent, if her publisher was just carrying her books to help her out. She said her agent replied, “Editors, publishers—they don’t give money to keep people alive.”
Her favorite feedback comes during the annual conference of the American Library Association, which always features a panel of young readers, avid library users chosen by the librarians in the host city. Those “hard-core local teen readers” have consistently said good things about her books.
“Those are the ones,” she said. “When I hear what they say, I go, ‘Hallelujah!’ That feeds me a lot in terms of getting my shit together to reach the next person out there.”
She and Chris have two sons, one 23 and the other nearly 15. The older boy is a reader now and recently switched his major from computer science to English, but the younger son isn’t really a reader.
Woolston is fine with that, saying that in the world we live in, there is no “moral superiority” to getting information through reading as opposed to other means. There are advantages and disadvantages to reading, just as there are to playing computer games or watching television, she said. The trick is to be careful and to know what you’re doing.
“I’m absolutely opposed to censorship,” Woolston said, “but I think everyone needs to know that the act of reading, or even the act of watching a film, even the act of listening to a symphony—you are giving over control of your brain, sometimes to an astonishing degree, to someone else.”