The "Questionable" Parts of ASHFALL

I’m touring the Midwest this fall, visiting schools, libraries, and booksellers to promote my debut novel, ASHFALL. Normally, libraries and schools pay for author visits, but since ASHFALL is my first novel and Tanglewood Press is helping with my travel expenses, I’m offering free author visits to schools within driving distance. I’ve got reading, writing, and geology themed talks ready to fit whatever curriculum each school wants to emphasize.

So I was a bit surprised when a request came from one of the high schools I planned to visit–the principal wanted a list of all the “questionable” parts of ASHFALL, so he could “evaluate” the book without having to read it. Right then I knew I was in trouble. Here’s what I wrote back (it’s third-person because this whole exchange was happening via my publicist):
“Ashfall is a serious apocalyptic novel in which debut author Mike Mullin forthrightly portrays the results of a cataclysmic supervolcano. Considerable effort went into making it realistic—Mullin modeled the reactions of the society and characters on past natural disasters, including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. Research into other societies in collapse, such as the Mayans and Easter Islanders, informed the sections dealing with the general breakdown of law and order in the wake of the disaster.
“As a realistic disaster novel, Ashfall depicts humanity at its sublime best and craven worst. Tanglewood Press recommends it for teens ages 14 and up, although younger children have read and enjoyed the novel with guidance from their parents. Any teen who is allowed to watch prime-time television or play video games will have no problem with Ashfall. There is absolutely no content in the novel that is not routinely presented on television shows such as CSI or games such as Call of Duty in far more graphic and disturbing form.
“Reading portions of the novel out of context will present a distorted picture of the work. Unlike in television or video games, the violence in Ashfall has a purpose, context, and result with realistic lingering physical and psychological effects that a reader won’t perceive in excerpts.”

The result: I’ll be visiting another school in that time slot. The only people affected negatively are the students, and neither they nor their parents will ever know about the opportunity they missed. So if there is a lesson from this, I guess it’s to know the administrators at your schools. Are they readers? Do you know what content they’re comfortable with, and do you agree? If not, you may never even know what opportunities you’ve missed.

11 thoughts on “The "Questionable" Parts of ASHFALL

  1. Great post. I hear ya. But as a former administrator, I get it. That’s why I put the caveat on my review. Ashfall is actually one of my 2011 best debut picks, but if I was still in the classroom in my state, I’d have to be careful. I think it does depend on the community. No matter how well something is written or handled, I’ve seen things mild go viral. I’m thankful to be out of the constraints I was previously in, but don’t take it personally. It’s more about their every day and what they deal with than you or your book.

  2. Fair enough. But if an administrator carefully protects her students from every objectionable viewpoint–from every idea that might rile up some parents, is she still an educator?

  3. Is the administrator protecting her students or simply choosing not to be the one to introduce it because of possible fall-out (no pun intended)? Kinda like the malpractice mentality that hangs over doctors these days. Too bad, though, because the students will find it regardless, but now it will be on their own without the benefit of an educational discussion.

    Good luck on the tour!

  4. It never fails to amaze me how stupid some things in the education system are, particularly when it comes to members of the administration. I’m glad you were able to find a different high school for that date. In the meantime, might I suggest a direct mailing campaign to that school district to inform the kids/parents about Ashfall? A small direct market campaign would actually be pretty easy…

  5. I hope they find it. One of the problems we face is that depictions of violence as consequence-free actions in video games, movies and on television are heavily marketed and easy to find. Books are barely marketed at all, and much lower profile, but generally contain more sophisticated and thoughtful treatments of violent content.

    I might test out some direct mail at some point, but I don’t want to target this particular school, which is why I make a point of not mentioning them by name.

  6. Sorry to hear that, Mike, but I agree with Kai and Tale. I doubt it is a personal choice about the content, but one based on the reaction and trouble the community may cause.

    It’s sad, but educators know that school boards have no problem making teachers and administrators scapegoats rather than fight. And these days, school boards are often loaded with people who have agendas.

    One of the things I learned while teaching was that it was one thing if parents allowed kids to read/watch/listen to certain materials; it was another thing if I, their teacher and NOT their parent, did.

    As to your quote “But if an administrator carefully protects her students from every objectionable viewpoint–from every idea that might rile up some parents, is she still an educator?” Most teachers will agree, we stopped being educators when NCLB came into effect. We have even had schools turn down free author visits because the contents of their books were not covered on the state tests.

    See you GLiBA.

  7. Yep, the assault on teaching is one of the saddest and most worrying aspects of our current political environment. We need to repeal NCLB, but that will never happen because it’s so profitable for the testing companies. Guess who spends more on lobbying: the “education” industry or the defense industry? If you guessed defense, you’re wrong.

  8. It’s horrible that the *prospective threat from a single vocal person who may object to something in somebody’s book somewhere sometime* is being used as a standard to select books and authors for classrooms.

    It’s one more reason censorship is so dangerous. Because even the fear of it controls our educational system.

    Are these the lessons we really what we want to teach our kids?:
    Censor yourself before anyone else can.
    Stifle your voice and the voice of others.
    Worry constantly about what other people think.
    Let the loudest person have his way.
    Let other people’s fears and tastes be your guide.
    Don’t think for yourself.
    Cave in to pressure, even if you don’t agree.

  9. The hard thing for me is to put aside the criticism as I’m editing the sequel. If anything, it’s even darker than ASHFALL, and I think it needs to be that way–another six months of winter with dwindling food isn’t going to make the human race sit around, hold hands, and sing kumbaya. I keep reminding myself that I’m writing for the smart teens who can handle the truth, not the minority of gatekeepers who can’t. I hope it gets easier with book three.

  10. Sadly this is an all too often occurrence in schools. I have been very lucky at my high school. Our principal trusts the judgement of his librarians to chose materials for the library and to schedule events regarding authors and books presented to the students.
    I was lucky enough to read an ARC of Ashfall and loved every minute. I have recommended it to the students in the library and it is on the scheduled to be one of our featured books. Just the description of the initial event has sparked discussions about the impact of the a natural disaster on human nature. Our students are much smarter than they are given credit for and they prefer the truth. Thank you for writing Ashfall. I am looking forward to the next in the series.

  11. Thanks so much for that comment, Pat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked (not by Tanglewood Press) to dumb down my writing in some way for teens. Some of the things I’ve been told: “Malodorous” is too sophisticated for a YA novel. No 15-year-old could be as good at taekwondo as Alex. Teens can’t handle the frank depiction of violence or sex. Etc. Etc. I refuse. I know teens whose vocabularies surpass my own. Every time I go to Friday night sparring at my dojang I get kicked in the head by several teens who are better martial artists than I’ll ever be. I’ll continue to write up to teens, and rely on dedicated librarians like you to help my books find their audience. Thank you, Pat.

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