Why "YA?" A Burlington author targets teens
Last spring, Houghton Mifflin published Erik Esckilsen's first book, The Last Mall Rat, based on his experiences as a 16-year-old working in a shoe store at the University Mall. He says he started with a "what if" question: "What if the other mall salesmen and I decided we just weren't going to take it anymore?" "It" being the rude treatment they endured at the hands of their customers.
The Last Mall Rat is a young adult novel -- the kind that aims to entertain teenage readers while injecting a tolerable dose of moral and ethical guidance. The 15-year-old hero of the book doesn't work at the mall; he's too young. But at the urging of the disgruntled mall salesmen, Mitch Grant follows obnoxious shoppers to their cars and intimidates them. He becomes their psychological hit man. Before long, the enterprise spirals out of control. To stop the madness, and repair the damage he's caused to the town and his friends, Mitch must 'fess up. But will he?
Writing books for young adults allows Esckilsen to combine his love of storytelling and his interest in teaching. Upon graduation from St. Lawrence University with a degree in English literature, Esckilsen says he knew he would either work in publishing or become a teacher. After a few years working for magazines in Boston and New York, he traded his cubicle for a classroom. He's currently an adjunct writing professor at Champlain and Burlington colleges.
"YA books are valuable for the questions they generate outside the text," Esckilsen says. "While they have to be good stories first and foremost, if they raise real questions, then I think they can be an important part of a young person's education."
Though Mitch's parents offer advice, it's ultimately up to him to straighten out the mess in The Last Mall Rat. The lesson here, Esckilsen explains, is that young people can and should solve their own ethical dilemmas. "I try to show teenagers providing role models for each other in setting things right," he says. "I'm convinced that
a young person's guidance really must come from within youth culture."
Esckilsen talks about his own youthful adventures over coffee at Muddy Waters. The 39-year-old native Vermonter grew up in South Burlington. His parents divorced when he was young; he and his four older siblings stayed with their mother. "I had a lot of autonomy as a teenager," he says, explaining how his mother gave him space to make mistakes and fix them.
Though his parents' divorce was amicable, his adolescence was somewhat turbulent -- he was suspended twice from South Burlington High School. "I had a very strong mischievous streak," he admits.
It's a characteristic he hasn't entirely outgrown. Though his hair is tinged with gray, Esckilsen is still in command of a smart-alecky smirk. And he sees through bullshit the way teenagers often do, though mostly he points it out at his own expense. After he delivers a perfectly fine answer to a question about why he writes for teens, he laughs at himself. "Oh, God!" he says. "I think that's the most pretentious thing I've ever said to anyone!"
Esckilsen spent his first year out of college teaching English in Japan. Then he moved to Boston, where he worked as an editor for a health magazine publishing company. He returned to Vermont in 1992 and spent "a dark year" cobbling together freelance writing jobs to pay the bills -- including a short-lived stint composing labels for bottles of horse vitamins. He got his big break in 1993, when he moved to New York and took a job as an associate editor at the celebrity fluff-rag Entertainment Weekly.
Esckilsen says he learned a lot about journalism there, though he admits he was always more interested in the craft of writing than in the celebrity scandal du jour. "When I was talking to some movie star," he says, "I wanted to ask about their creative process or their inspiration, whereas the editors wanted to know how much the movie cost to make, or whether so and so is really gay, and is seeing such and such."
After two years, he called it quits. "As much fun as I had there," he says, "there were days when I'd come home and wonder what I'd spent my time for, prying into the personal lives of celebrities, writing some puns. It just didn't seem the best use of my time."
Esckilsen then moved to San Francisco, where he got a master's in English lit at San Francisco State. His subsequent return to Vermont was more practical than nostalgic. He notes dryly, "I realized that I could live the impoverished life of the adjunct professor with more dignity here than in a major city."
He's been trying to find a balance between teaching, journalism and fiction-writing ever since. In addition to his class load, he's written for the Boston Globe and worked as a theater critic for Seven Days. Esckilsen is also a playwright -- he wrote for an off-off Broadway theater company while he lived in New York. And he's working with a local film crew on a documentary about small-town Jewish life.
But the YA writing projects take up most of Esckilsen's time these days. He's finishing the revisions on Iron Rain, his second YA book for Houghton Mifflin, and will only say it's inspired by the extracurricular life of homeschoolers and the Mohawk iron-working tradition in upstate New York.
He points out that writing YA books is not easier than writing for grown-ups. "Some would say that writing for young adults is somehow less challenging, less literary," he says, "and to them I would say, When is it so easy to communicate with teenagers?'"
He's still promoting The Last Mall Rat -- mainly through visits to schools. In the last few months, he's been to West Seattle High School in Washington, Mt. Graylock Regional High School in Massachusetts, and the American School in Japan, which he visited while on a trip to see a Japanese friend.
Esckilsen was particularly talkative about the visit to Japan -- the students were American children of diplomats and CEOs stationed in Tokyo. They're used to moving around, and rarely develop the sense of place that Esckilsen knew growing up. These global nomad children fascinate him. "They're wicked-smart kids," he says. "They were receptive to everything I threw at them, which is good because they're going to run the world, like their parents are running the world."
Esckilsen also has a few kind words for his Vermont college students, though he jokes he'd probably have more if it weren't the end of the semester. He cites one recent encounter as an educational "aha!" moment. A student who wrote poetry and fiction stopped him to say he had enjoyed a journalism assignment. "He told me he had discovered a new kind of writing exhilaration, of chasing down a source, and hammering at a story on a tight deadline," recalls Esckilsen. "He discovered the excitement of throwing himself headlong into a task that required him to be resourceful, to think critically and write effectively and creatively."
It was a transformative experience, and Esckilsen is delighted to have made it possible. "He learned something about himself, and something about the world we live in at the same time," he says. "That's education."