Remember that They’re Kids

UPDATE: A response to some critiques of the piece below lives here.

Recent events have caused me to think a little more than usual about the nature of the fandom my friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and I accrue to ourselves. And I realize that much of what I’m going to say here and now is self-evident, but…the problem seems to be that it isn’t. Not for a lot of people.

Of course, I’m kidding myself that the people who really need to hear this message will come to The BLog. Or take me seriously. But what the hell: I’m going to say it anyway.

Guys. Come on.

They’re kids.

In YA, we are so proud of ourselves for treating our young readers with respect and assuming a level of intelligence and maturity in them that I guess some people forget that — at the end of the day — those intelligent, mature readers are still kids. And we aren’t.

A very wise friend once told me that in any relationship between a child and an adult, the adult bears all of the responsibility. The context of our conversation was about intra-family relationships, specifically with regard to grown relatives just having to deal with the fact that their minor relatives can sometimes be assholes. You’re the grown-up; deal with it.

But it’s true no matter the nature of the relationship. And I feel like such an idiot even writing this because it’s so goddamn obvious, but — like I said above — apparently it isn’t. Apparently some people need a refresher course.

Last week, I attended a fun event in Washington state. After one of my presentations, a bunch of kids came up to talk to me. One them — a girl — said with good cheer and boisterous enthusiasm, “Can I hug you?”

Obviously, she wanted a moment of connection to someone whose work she admired. To someone, perhaps, she admired. And I understand that. And I’m sympathetic to that. But I said no.

I didn’t say it cruelly (I don’t think), but I said it in such a way that left absolutely no room for interpretation, that made very clear that this just wasn’t going to happen.

“Oh, come on, Barry,” some of you may be saying. “It’s a hug, for Christ’s sake. In a public place, a safe space, surrounded by people. It’s not a big deal.”

To which I reply: It very much is a big deal. I am a grown-ass man. Grown-ass men do not put their arms around underage girls to whom they are not related. Period.1 If you just follow this simple rule, you will not only never accidentally do something you might later regret, you will also never give anyone ammunition for later saying that you did something wrong, even if you didn’t.2

I’m very sensitive to this for a couple of reasons. One of which is that — duh — I think it’s obscenely wrong. Another of which is that it’s so easy for what appears to be innocent to be misinterpreted…or to turn out not to be so innocent after all.

But another reason is two experiences I’ve had, one of them very, very early in my career.

First, let’s go back just a couple of years, to a different writing event. Lots of authors in attendance. Roughly ten billion fans. Great time. For the day, I was assigned a college student and two high school students as my caretakers. They made sure I knew where to go and when, where the bathrooms were, when to get lunch, stuff like that. Great kids all, and we had a blast together that day.

At the end of the day came the big signing. Thirty authors, screaming fans, awesomeness all around. As I was signing, someone behind me came close and wrapped me in their arms.

I thought it was an author buddy goofing around. I chuckled and kept signing books. Eventually, I turned to see who was hugging me (the joke was going on a bit too long), and realized, to my dismay, that it was one of my caretakers.

A fifteen-year-old girl.

I immediately told her to let go and told her that she shouldn’t do what she’d just done. “I do that with all my friends,” she said. “I don’t care what people think of me.”

I explained to her that it was fine for her not to care what people think of her, but that I cared very much what people think of me. And that I do not want them to think that I’m the kind of man who allows underage girls to drape themselves over him. Because…gross. And also because…ew.

Maybe you think I’m a hardass. Maybe you think I need to loosen up. Okay, fine. Whatever. I take this very, very seriously. When an author is something of an arrested adolescent him or herself (as so many YA authors self-admittedly are) and the fans seem so mature and smart and cool, it’s too easy to let barriers down. And while slippery slope arguments in our culture are often facile and overblown, this is one hill I want to stay the hell away from.

When I was just starting out — maybe a month or so after the publication of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl  — I was scheduled for a signing at a bookstore near my hometown. I announced this on MySpace (remember MySpace?), including the information that I would be giving out temporary tattoos to people who came to see me. Someone responded, telling me how excited she was and how she couldn’t wait to get the tattoo.

The event came and went, and I received a new message from the MySpacer. She was bummed that she’d missed the event and the chance to get a tattoo.

Now, I felt bad about this and I still had plenty of tattoos and I love my readers, so I did the most natural thing in the world: I replied to her message, telling her to shoot me her address so that I could mail her the tattoo.

Easy, right?

Her next message included her address and this: “LOL my mom would be pissed if she knew I sent you this.”

And holy shit, my brain exploded. I had just asked a teenage girl for her address over the Internet…and she gave it to me. What the hell had I done?

Were my intentions pure? Absolutely. Had I done anything to harm this girl? Hell, no.

But I realized in that moment how easy it was to go tripping and belly-flopping down that slippery slope. How easy it would be to form a relationship with a fan that could easily get out of control. Not on my end, mind you — I have no interest in underage girls.3 But think of how volatile you were as a teenager. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a reader fantasizing that a relationship is more than it actually is. Forget for a moment the danger of a pedophile. Imagine instead a kid who becomes seriously invested in a relationship that is unbalanced both because of age and also because it’s just not as big a deal to the adult. That can be devastating, and it can be bad for everyone involved.

And it’s not the kid’s fault because you’re the adult. It’s your job to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place.

I never should have asked that girl for her address. I wasn’t thinking. It was stupid of me. I apologized immediately and told her that I was wrong to do it and that she was wrong to send it to me. Because God forbid she think, Wow, Mom gets all bent out of shape about the Internet, but I sent my address to that Barry Lyga guy and it was fine. And then she sends her address to the next guy who asks, only he’s not a befuddled YA author. He’s someone worse. Much worse.

We form relationships with our fans, but we have to be responsible in those relationships. We have to build some walls. We have to have some rules. It’s a powerful ego-stroke when a kid tells you that your book saved his life or that your story made her stop cutting herself. But you can’t wallow in that ego-stroke and let it fool you into thinking that you’re buddies with that kid.

You’re an adult.

No matter how cool or smart or mature or “together” or “amazing” they are, they’re still kids.



  1. Unless you’re pulling her out of a burning building or sweeping her out of the path of an out-of-control bus. In which case: Grab away.
  2. Just to be clear, before the pile-on begins: I’m not saying that this is the case in the current DFTBA Records contretemps. Nor am I saying that this is frequently the case. It happens exceedingly rarely, but why the hell would you want to roll the dice on something like this?
  3. Well, other than writing about them.

Comments

  1. Good post, Barry.

    We don’t necessarily think that no authors can hug their teenage fans, BUT we respect you for making a thoughtful decision about how you want to behave.

    The address thing is something we run into as well… We occasionally host giveaways, and obviously to send the books, we need addresses. Obviously WE know we are not going to do anything untoward with that information — but we wish we didn’t have to ask, and we wonder about the teens who readily supply, and we wish there were a better way. Did you come up with an alternative solution, or do you simply not mail things to fans anymore? Genuinely curious, because we too want to be conscientious of this issue.

    • I generally don’t do much in the way of contests any more. Previously, I’ve tried to aim them at a more adult audience of teachers, librarians, and book bloggers.

  2. Great post. This is something teachers need to think about too all the time.

  3. You’re dead-on. My previous in-real-life job had me interacting a lot with teens, and I can tell you that even as a woman you have to draw those lines in order to protect yourself and the teens you encounter.

    Thanks for a thoughtful discussion post that has more potential for cross-application than people would expect.

  4. Huge respect for this. Huge. Boundaries are so important, and when we’re coming from a place of innocent motives, it’s hard to remember that there are still pitfalls we need to beware of. As a YA writer and as a mom of teens, I appreciate every single word of this post. Thanks for being a man with integrity.

  5. Thank you for this post – it’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I’d love to hear more about how fans react when you explain that they can’t hug you, send you their addresses, etc. Have they been mature and respectful? Defensive and embarrassed? All of the above.

    I’ve also wondered how authors who write for an adult audience relate to their inevitable teen/YA fan bases.

    • Nicola,

      I usually don’t explain. I make a joke about it or something like that. I don’t want to make a kid feel bad. “I just wanted a hug, but it could have made people think he was a child molester!”

      I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the situation and finding a way to back out gracefully.

  6. I think everything about this post is spot on with one exception. There are reasons for a man to hug a girl he’s not related to. Namely that while he has no blood relationship to her he is treated like a part of her family and they have a familial like relationship (most of my “uncles” aren’t blood relatives or related by marriage and there was nothing inappropriate about them hugging me before I turned eighteen because despite this lack of formal relationship they are family).

  7. The biggest problem with this post isn’t that it’s sexist, since it is and I’m pretty sure the author admits as such. The biggest problem is that by saying “men” shouldn’t put their arms around kids it is suggesting that all men are pedophiles and no woman is a pedophile. Of course the problem with that is that it’s just not true. I know this since I was molested by one growing up. Repeatedly. Over the span of years. But because society ingrained in me that only men are pedophiles I never recognized the abuse at her hands until adulthood. Even then I told no one.

    Frankly, I think if anyone feels like they can’t hug a child without it being something sexual, then it reflects more on themselves and not the rest of society. The fact that you feel that a man coming in contact with minors is “obscene” only propagates sexism and prejudice against all men. And, as I suggested, a false sense of security is formed around women.

    There was a good video on this issue on YouTube. (put this string into the search box, uyOZWyoTb8s )

    We’re faced with a troubling issue here. If, as the author suggests, we shouldn’t be hugging kids we are not related to, then that should apply to ALL adults. Yet if we do that, what are we saying to our children? That every adult is a possible pedophile that wants to rape them? Do we want our kids being raised in abject fear of anyone that is not a relative?

    Furthermore, the sad reality is that strangers are NOT the biggest threat to children. In fact over 85% of all child abuse is perpetrated by parents and relatives. Strangers aren’t the ones harming the most kids, in fact they represent less than one in ten abusers.

    The key to protecting kids isn’t to warn them away from adults – since that’s impossible – but instead to teach them how to recognize ‘bad touch’. I was never taught that as a kid, but I know how I felt as a kid. Had I been taught to recognize those unsettled feelings of “this isn’t right” when I was being molested by her then it wouldn’t have lasted years.

    If you feel that you can’t come into contact with a minor without it feeling sexual to you, then by all means you can make that personal choice to keep an arms-length away from minors. But we should be moving away from unfairly and unjustly vilifying all men as pedophiles and all women as saints since it’s not true and it only gives minors a false sense of security. I speak from experience.

    So instead of warning minors away from “strangers”, warn them away from ACTIONS. Teach them that it’s not a hug that is a problem, but it’s when that hug lasts too long, or when it is a hug that you didn’t want to receive, or when the person hugging you makes you feel uncomfortable etc. That way these minors are protected from their relatives as well. Help these kids recognize their gut instincts, since those gut instincts are what will protect them as adults too.

    Better yet, write a story that explores the issue in a way that kids can relate to. Instead of telling them to fear anyone over 18; teach them critical thinking skills they can use to recognize threats – since those threats typically come from friends and family members.

    We’re not helping anyone by vilifying all men as pedophiles and all women as saints, and the reality is that it’s just not true.

    • As an added aside, just this week there was an interesting social experiment broadcast in the UK. Here is a quote from the article describing the documentary:
      =====
      “For an hour, a little girl, clutching her doll, stands in a crowded shopping centre, clearly lost and appealing for help. But none of the adults stops. Hundreds ignore her until a kindly grandmother, who had already walked past, turns round and asks the seven-year-old if she is all right.

      This is the scene to be witnessed on Little Girl Lost, a Channel Five documentary that purports to demonstrate how we have become a “walk-on-by” nation cowed by paedophile hysteria, suffocating criminal records checks and an irrational suspicion of all adult males. ”
      =====
      I’m not sure if links work here, but I’ll post it anyway…
      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/relationships/10719274/Would-you-help-a-lost-girl-or-just-walk-on-by.html

      There is a clip on YouTube here:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5aIpUVAwZs

      My dear friends, **THIS** is what a culture of fear does to our children. Still think we should avoid coming into contact with non-familial children? I defy anyone that doesn’t have a heart of stone to watch that video and not be moved.

      Is this the world we want to live in? It’s not for me.

  8. Allyson Lyga says:

    Teachers do think about this topic a lot. After meeting and hearing the award-winning high school teacher and author, Hal Urban, I greeted my students at the door with the choice of a hug or a handshake. Hal said that he did this with every high school student he taught. A wonderful thing happened that changed the school climate so much so that the parents were starting to ask for hugs as well.
    My students loved the choice and some came to me to share their troubles because I made that additional connection.
    It is proven that a hug raises the seratonin levels and promotes happiness. We need to do the most as adults to enrich and cherish our children and give them a hug or handshake of their choice to let them know “you matter.”

    I’m starting to really rebel against all the negative connotations, druggies, and evil in the world. I have to show my license to buy cold medicine; people can’t get access to pain meds in the ER because of the druggies. An author hugs a fan and perverted thoughts abound. This is sad and pathetic! As a society, hell, the whole world, we need to take back our humanity and promote a world family where we look out for each other and lift each other up. Why allow the small percentage of pedophiles in this world dictate whether or not you give a fan a hug? Offer a hug (maybe side hug) or a handshake to the book fan.
    You might be the only one that child has received attention from and stopped to say, “I hear you. You are valuable in this world.” The hug is worth their life and that defense.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I have a problem. Someone retweeted this post from Barry Lyga into my feed earlier. It’s titled “Remember that They’re […]

  2. […] EDIT: Barry Lyga has a good post on working with teens from an author’s perspective: Remember that they’re kids […]

  3. […] Barry Lyga is wise. Adults should not have relationships with teenagers. I don’t care how mature the teenager […]

  4. […] his blog this week, on establishing boundaries in relationships with teen fans. The first post is here and there’s a follow up here. They are both worth a […]

  5. […] Barry Lyga wrote a thoughtful post about author-fan (and adult-teen) interaction; there have also been equally thoughtful responses, like this one by author Jessie Devine on the […]

  6. […] being in the sort of position where he’s regularly interacting with teenagers. The first, which you should read here, set off a lot of questions and discussion. Was he being too strict in having a “no […]

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