Over the course of five books, A.S. King has established herself as a singular voice in today's young adult literature. She brings vivid life to realistic kids working through raw deals, from the death of a friend in Printz honor winner "Please Ignore Vera Dietz," to a girl coming to terms with her sexuality in the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner "Ask the Passengers." (Her pirate-flavored debut, "The Dust of 100 Dogs," is an exception, yet it establishes the magical realism that colors her work.)
King never writes the same book twice, moving easily between male and female narrators, and in her work, life in rural Pennsylvania is sometimes tough and sometimes funny, leading to surreal flights of creativity and palpable moments of grace.
Her new young adult novel, "Reality Boy" (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $18), is the story of 16-year-old Gerald Faust, a kid still living down his notorious past on reality TV. Starring in several episodes of a "SuperNanny"-esque reality TV show, 5-year-old Gerald was the “bad kid” in the Faust family, known as "The Crapper," as he expressed his anger the only way that he could.
Twelve years later, he's still angry and even more vulnerable, a target for school bullies and his own family. The book opens with a teenage Gerald chafing against expectations unfairly shaped by his time on reality TV.
Speaking by phone from her home in Berks County, Pa., King discusses the TLC reality series “Toddlers and Tiaras,” running away to the circus and her new novel.
What was your inspiration for “Reality Boy”?
It came backward. First, I thought about a statistic that's concrete, that one in four kids experience abuse of some sort, and I thought to myself, "Is that statistic realistic?"... When we look at children on television, how many of us are watching children who are suffering but we don't know this, while we're being entertained?
Do you watch reality TV?
I have a television and I use it to watch reruns of "M*A*S*H." For me, when I see children on TV it freaks me out. They can't sign their names yet and they're on shows where people are brought in to save the family or to help the family.
In Gerald's case, he was cast as the villain [on “Reality Boy's” reality show, "Network Nanny"] when he was dealing with a lot more behind the scenes. Outside of television, we're so much more than what one person sees and what neighbors see and what your teacher sees.
I saw people talking about "Toddlers and Tiaras"…. Grown people want to do whatever they do on TV, it's fantastic, but when they put children on TV … Now you have people who are arguing about reality TV and whether [a child’s] dress is pretty or whether this kid should've been disciplined this way, and suddenly you have people debating and ripping apart a child.
Running away to the circus features in the plot of "Reality Boy." Is that autobiographical?
Kind of. I met my husband when I was 17 and he was 19, and his best friend growing up is now the owner of Ireland's oldest circus.
When I left college, the first place I went to was Ireland…. I got on the back of this guy's motorcycle, and we drove up to meet Fossetts Circus. We kind of went away with them for a few days, close to a week. It wasn't like I was ever employed by the circus, but I did run away and go to the circus. It's the hardest work ever. It was Ireland, always raining, there'd be mud and it would be hard to pull out the trailers and tractors. You never sleep, you do the matinee, evening shows, pack up the tent, travel to the next show, and start the next show again and again.
What are you hoping people take away from the novel?
I think childhood is a precious thing. To take childhood now and put it out there and let people judge it and quip about it on Twitter like they’re nobody, it’s really time to stop and think about it and what we’re doing to children. What we’re doing to ourselves.
We are now happy to watch a show about whose kid behaves worse. I really don’t know why it’s come to this. Maybe it’s because our lives have become too easy.