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>Go Rimbaud and Go Johnny Go

>I’m reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, her reminiscence of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and she writes a lot about her adolescent passions in reading, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to Rimbaud and Verlaine. It’s making me wonder what the disaffected youth of today are reading. Born in 1946, Smith is pre-YA era, but do her literary descendants find anything of value in the books we publish for teens today? Or does their self-defined outlaw status keep them away from anything adults decree to be “for” them?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. GraceAnne LadyHawk says:

    >Indeed, Roger. Allow me to say that Patti Smith's Just Kids is one of the best books I have read in the past five years: elegant, deeply thoughtful, powerful, wielding her words just so.

  2. >It's a good question. I'm going to point my author Liz Hand this way. Her upcoming book for Viking is Illyria, which I think would definitely appeal, and she reviewed the Smith for the Washington Post.

  3. Anonymous says:

    >I recently read JUST KIDS too. I was born in the 60's, somehow missed most 70's YA, and was also reading Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire etc as a young person. I never had YA assigned in school, and all I apparently noticed for teen readers outside of school seemed to be either books like Nancy Drew or Go Ask Alice, which drove me to go adult. I think if I had only realized more of what YA had to offer, I'd have pursued it more then, and with what is out these days – I know I would have personally been in YA reading heaven.

    So, my guess is that current rebel readers could supplement their Rimbaud nicely with some YA.

  4. >Hi — this is Liz Hand, mentioned above by my editor, sdn. I reviewed the Smith memoir for the Washington Post and adored it. I was reading the galleys over Christmas, when my mother (78), brother, (52) and daughter (19) all clamored for a copy. I gave them each one when it was published and they all loved it. My daughter read it twice, and said it got her through a difficult time at college. I believe she recommended to some of her friends, so some young adults, at least, are reading Patti Smith. She and her 18-year-old brother are both big readers, and their parents & stepfather are all writers, so they're not exactly a random sample.
    She trends toward chick lit & memoirs; he reads some SF/F but also loves Herman Hesse and likes Hunter Thompson.

    The younger teens I know love the Twilight books (which I read, reviewed, and loathed), and there does seem to be a pack mentality in their reading choices. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, or a new one — I recall back in the 1960s when 'everyone' was reading The Lord of the Rings and Siddhartha and Catch 22 and Vonnegut.

    But I do think it's a bit different now, for a generation that grew up experiencing each new Harry Potter book as an event and not just as a private reading experience. I think that's carried over, not just to the way books are published and marketed, but in the way that young people now read them en masse, and then blog (or tweet, or whatever) about the experience. Readers also seem to want to identify more with characters — they like protagonists who in real life might be BFF, or ideal boyfriends, or frenemies. Not something I ever recall thinking about when I was a younger reader (except when I was Cathy with Heathcliff).

    I'm very interested in all this because I'm grappling with it in my own work. Next year Viking will publish my novel Wonderwall, a timeslip story in which a contemporary 17-year-old girl has a numinous encounter with the 16-year-old Arthur Rimbaud. While writing it I was constantly thinking, Will contemporary teens pick up on this? Because of course Rimbaud was just a kid himself, but I wonder how many American teenagers are aware of him or his work. I first read him when I was about 17, in the 1970s, when the whole romantic/rebel/rocker/Rimbaud image was quite prevalent in music and pop culture. Though I must say, after researching this novel, and raising two teenagers of my own, I have a LOT more sympathy for the much-maligned Mme Rimbaud.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >Liz, I don't think Patti (and Robert) would have been reading Twilight, and the "everyone" reading it is different from the "everyone" who read Siddhartha. Kids read Siddhartha, in part, because it makes me feel different from the herd. Of course, it just puts them in a different herd, but the point of all the 60s books you reference is that their young readers felt like nonconformists. What do young nonconformists read now?

    Anon, while there surely are YA books that speak to self-styled outsiders, I still wonder if the fact that these books are published with an implicit "approved for teen usage" stamp makes them relatively uncool. But even as I type I think of John Green's Nerdfighters, so maybe the prejudice doesn't exist.

  6. Margaret Willey says:

    >Two Patti Smith Quotes:

    "First of all, anyone who lasted 30years and went through the 60's is a survivor."

    "Artists are traditionally resistant to labels."

  7. Anonymous says:

    >"Anon, while there surely are YA books that speak to self-styled outsiders, I still wonder if the fact that these books are published with an implicit "approved for teen usage" stamp makes them relatively uncool. But even as I type I think of John Green's Nerdfighters, so maybe the prejudice doesn't exist."

    I can only speak for myself but since I was actually truly disappointed not to like Nancy Drew, I am afraid reading coolness was not exactly a factor for me. I really did just want things to read and enjoy. One reason I didn't make an effort to search out more suitable YA was not fear of being uncool but mistrust, as if YA was going to be the book version of an afterschool special or health movie. And that was due to my lack of YA book experience. I suppose all these things and more led me down the slippery slope to the absinthe-fueled mayhem of Rimbaud. If I had had a real taste of good YA, I would have happily read more, which is why I am glad YA gets assigned in school now. Once I got to high school [late 70's], we were only assigned adult books seemingly chosen to make us hate literature, which may be why all my friends suddenly dropped independent reading. No one was talking books or sharing books anymore, unlike how we did in middle school, and I was considered odd for reading. I imagine the abundance of good YA and graphic novels now must make for a far different reading climate, and reading sensations like Harry Potter and Twilight have certainly revolutionized the stigma of teen readers being odd. I think the Nerdfighters phenomenon is one of many things that tapped into a large group that always existed, but pre-internet had no way connect, share info and self identify large scale.

    – anon

  8. Moira Manion says:

    >I've wondered as well, "do her literary descendants find anything of value in the books we publish for teens today?" Perhaps that depends on the definition of "value." Is just having a thumping good read value, even if you never reread the book, or is the value in story and characters who move you so deeply that they're never forgotten, and are revisited throughout the years? (Will teens who are "Twilight"-crazy now enjoy it as much or more if they reread it ten years from now? Does the answer have anything to do with the story's "value?")

    You give me too many things to think about, Mr. Sutton!

  9. >Hey Roger – I recently built the wishlists for two Native American schools for a big library building book event. One of them was Alchesay High in AZ and I spoke to the reading specialist a lot there about books they specifically wanted. Although they certainly had a level of vampire, etc. love there were two authors that had the widest possible appeal even with kids who hated all so-called popular books: Sherman Alexie and Neil Gaiman. Although they have written for teens (and Gaiman younger) the bulk of their books are for adults and they wanted EVERYTHING by them. Obviously as a Native American author Alexie would score high with this group but he was the only Native Americ author they specifically requested. I think both of these authors have serious outsider status appeal among teens (esp when you consider Gaiman's "Sandman" comics). Alexie in particular has opened up a whole new audience for his poetry with his big YA title (Alchesay specifically asked for his poetry) and I think Gaiman gets them now with his fairly intense MG titles and keeps them literally for life.

    They might not be Rimbaud but both can be fairly raw (esp Alexie).

  10. Roger Sutton says:

    >You're absolutely right, Colleen (and congrats on your very well-run book donation program). Both fantasy and SF, particularly have long attracted these "outsider" readers, who have also been no respecters of age level–think of all the cool kids who read Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, Sendak, etc. in high school.

    Moira, I think the cool kids can find plenty to interest them in YA; my question is, will they? I read Zindel, etc. in high school but it was on the sly, like Anthony Hopkins in Howard's End (forgive me, I only saw the movie).

  11. says:

    >I was young in the 50s and adult in the 60s, so much of what Patti Smith writes about in JUST KIDS (which I am loving)is a quarter generation behind me. But do read Janis Ian's autobiography at the same time.

    As to what I was reading growing up? Heavy Russian novels and Marjorie Morningstar. Joseph Conrad and Treasure Island. Little Women and Wuthering Heights.Emily Dickinson, W.B.Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and Edward Lear. YA books hadn't been invented yet, so I guess I invented them within my own reading.


  12. >I think that it depends on the teen (shocker, I know). I was in HS in the early 90s and was a part of that "other herd" reading Vonnegut, D.H. Lawrence, Salinger, Raymond Carver, playwrights like Ionesco and Beckett, and poetry out the wazoo. BUT I also found and fell in love with the Weetzie Bat series by Francesca Lia Block. And although I now realize much of what I read was a bit of intellectual posing, the Block books affected me deeply, and I reread them for comfort and fun throughout college. It wasn't until I was at Simmons getting my MLS that I started reading more YA lit, and I loved it! But by the time I was in my late 20s I was past wanting to look "cool" based on what I was reading.
    For a teen like me, most books labeled YA would have been a major turn-off. But I'm grateful a true YA book found its way into my hands somehow. (wish I could say it was a helpful librarian that made the connection, but I think it was a friend who clued me in.)

  13. >Patti Smith apparently mentioned in her conversation with Jonathan Letham last week that she would like to write for children. (Wouldn't we all, darling.) But Patti Smith is one – somehow celebrity seems the wrong word – artist, who I might well do something interesting interesting in the area.

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