William Sleator is a writer who mainly writes for teens. His books fall in the science fiction or fantasy category, and they’re consistently imaginative, surprising, sometimes frightening, and thought-provoking.
Most of Sleator’s heroes are boys, which might be troubling to those who worry about a lack of positive role models for girls, but there’s an equally disturbing trend to consider. In addition to competing with television and the Internet, books are losing because reading isn’t considered a “guy thing”, and boys are consistently falling behind girls in school. Young women now outnumber young men in college admissions. I’m all for breaking traditional gender barriers, but I believe in creating a balance, not shifting the disparity. Sleator may not be as much of a household name as J.K. Rowling, but his books are popular with both boys and girls who discover them. And he’s one of several male writers who contributed to the recent anthology Guys Write For Guys Read (2005), which includes stories in all genres by writers as diverse as Stephen King, Robert Siegel, Daniel Pinkwater, and Daniel Handler.
Sleator started as a writer with The Angry Moon (1970), a retelling of a Tlingit legend with illustrations by Blair Lent, but it’s with the more mature Blackbriar (1972), about a boy who tries to understand strange events going on around him after moving into an old cottage, that Sleator found a model that’s served him well. His recent books include The Last Universe and Hell Phone for teenage readers, and also Among The Dolls, recommended for readers as young as ten, which shows the breadth of his audience. For now I’ll limit myself to a broad overview of just three of Sleator’s books.
The Boxes (1998), about a fifteen-year old named Annie, delivers some genuine shocks and thrills and some classic Sleator strangeness. This helps draw attention away from some of its other weaknesses since, unlike some of Sleator’s better books, it tends to be heavy-handed. Annie’s neighborhood is being threatened by developers, and her aunt is happy to sell as soon as the price is right. When her uncle, who goes on long, mysterious trips, gives Annie two large boxes to take care of and warns her not to open them, she, like Bluebeard’s wife, opens them as soon as he’s gone.
The book has its high points: Annie is a strong-willed, interesting character, and what’s inside the boxes is an interesting twist on a science fiction idea that can, at the very least, be traced back to Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “Microcosmic God”. Unfortunately the book also has its minuses: the adults tend to be cartoonish, either saintly or evil, and for Annie there are no real consequences to opening the boxes. She loves and respects her uncle more than any other adult, and even though she breaks her promise to him, this doesn’t destroy or even harm their relationship. In fact it sets off a chain of events that lead to an everything’s-all-right conclusion that’s a little hard to swallow. In spite of this it’s a gripping story.
Singularity (1985) is one of Sleator’s best books. The mother of sixteen-year old twins Harry and Barry decide not to let the death of her Uncle Ambrose keep her from her vacation, so she sends the boys to stay in his house. How many parents would do that? It doesn’t matter, especially since, as Harry tells us on the first page, “Barry knew how to get what he wanted”, and Barry wants to go to the house. Although the alteration of time appears in The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as in other stories, “Singularity” is not a twist on an old idea; it’s a seriously twisted story. Harry and Barry are twins, but deeply competitive and their relationship is as claustrophobic as the “playhouse” behind Uncle Ambrose’s house. Harry is introverted and bookish while Barry is daring and athletic. That Harry really is more courageous, more mature, and, by the book’s end, a year older than his brother, is a positive message to nerds everywhere. Harry spends that year alone, and thanks to the playhouse’s warped physics is only absent from the rest of the world for a single night, but that doesn’t diminish the metaphor’s power. The life of a teenager may be long and solitary, but it will pass.
Interstellar Pig (1982) may well be Sleator’s masterpiece, and is his most popular book, giving rise to a sequel, Parasite Pig (2002). Again we have a solitary hero, but in this case it’s Barney, a red-haired, pale-skinned teenager, whose parents unintentionally torture him by taking him to a New England beach cottage for a summer vacation. Barney, like Harry, is bookish and solitary; he’s a science fiction fan. The fact that the three hip, young people taking a summer break in the cottage next door are real aliens may seem a little coincidental, like Agent Mulder finding aliens and psychics in every government file he opens, but sometimes logic shouldn’t get in the way of a good story. Besides, Barney’s discovering, among other things, that the cottage room he’s staying in was inhabited by a 19th Century sailor driven insane by his encounter with an alien, casts a dark and believable shadow over the story. Barney is at first thrilled to be accepted by three people who are older than he, but in the end he’s little more than a toy to them. The board game Interstellar Pig, which gives the book its title, also hints at bigger things: a playing field where aliens fight to the death for control of a single innocuous item with no special powers. Even though they draw Barney into their game, they’re genuinely surprised at how well he’s able to play. If aliens from distant worlds underestimate teenagers, what chance do regular adults have?
It could be argued that Sleator’s books are escapist fantasy, but, in addition to powerful metaphors and thought-provoking ideas disguised as science fiction and fantasy, a little escapism isn’t a bad thing. Teenagers are growing up in a sex-saturated world, which is why it’s nice that there is no sex in Sleator’s books. His characters aren’t as foul-mouthed as the kids of South Park, or as sex-obsessed as the high schoolers of American Pie. This isn’t to say that Sleator avoids sex, or at least attraction, altogether. Annie feels the beginnings of attraction to a boy named Henry, Barney notices next door neighbor Zena in her bathing suit, and, in a powerful scene in Singularity, Barry takes off his shirt in front of a girl their own age. Harry is self-conscious enough about his own body’s inadquacies, but it’s even worse next to his physically superior brother:
“I could tell by the way Lucy watched him that she was impressed by his body. Barry knew it too.”
This isn’t just classic sexual triangulation. Harry is alone with his brother, but he’s even more alone when they’re around other teenagers. This is what made Sleator’s books interesting when I first discovered them as a teenager: I recognized myself in his characters. Hopefully teens haven’t changed that much, in spite of the fact that my only computer had a monochrome amber monitor and most of my music was on cassettes. That Sleator’s books continue to attract new readers, is reassuring. Singularity and Interstellar Pig are still being printed two decades later because they’re still in demand, which means the underlying messages are still relevant. And while his books are mainly aimed at younger readers, Interstellar Pig contains a powerful warning for us adults: we abuse, neglect, or even underestimate teenagers at our own peril. Doing so puts not just us, but our future and the future of our planet in danger. Our future depends on us teaching each successive generation to learn from, and hopefully correct, our mistakes. With writers like Sleator in hand the kids, and the future, just might turn out all right.