In the introduction to Wars Are Dumb, the new book released by Orlando literacy nonprofit Page 15, programs director Ryan Rivas opens with a telling story of his own. In February, the organization put out a call for entries to Orange County public high school students for stories that answered two questions: What do adults do wrong? How would you do it right? The goal was to gather the best responses, work with the students to develop and edit them, and collect them in a book that would be professionally illustrated, designed and published.
“We had yet to do a sort of real, perfect-bound published book,” Rivas says. “We've done some cool handmade things, but we had yet to do a printing run. Chris [Heavener, publisher of literary magazine Annalemma] came to us with the idea of doing an anthology, and we had an itch to do something like it. So we got together and we decided to do a contest.”
Rivas says they wanted to avoid doing something precious or trite. Though Page 15's mission is to work with kids on reading and writing projects, Rivas says he didn't want this to feel so much like a kids' project – rather, Project 15 and Annalemma wanted to create a book with broader appeal to both adults and young people. The goal, he says, was to recognize the fact that kids (particularly high-school-age kids) have formed opinions about the world they're growing up in. Those opinions are often marginalized by adults, who either think teenagers don't have enough life experience to have valid points of view, or simply believe that teenagers are self-absorbed and immature.
And right after they put out the call for entries, Rivas writes in his intro, Page 15 got a comment on its website from an adult that drove that point home. Hard.
“Teens, for the most part, are insolent, want more material things, want freedom to party and that, in many instances, includes the right to stay out late, do drugs, have sex and drink,” the message from a woman identified only as Karen insisted. “And naturally their private bedrooms must be adorned with all things electronic and beautifully furnished. And so of course, how dare adults challenge them that right? I would love to enter that contest so I could tell teens what I think they are doing wrong, but that would not be politically correct. Shame on you for this insensitive contest.”
Karen might be pleasantly surprised – or perhaps disappointed? – to read the submissions that make up this anthology, which is being released at a launch party at Urban ReThink on May 18. They ended up with a “crazy range” of stories, Rivas says, and none of the ones that were published reflect the obsessions that Karen seems to think consume the teenage mind. They range from essays about struggling with chronic illness to living in foster care to dealing with alcoholic parents to the importance of voting. There are references to drinking, drugs and sex in some of these essays, but they're the kind of anxious references that anyone who remembers what it's like to be 16 and isolated inside your own head will immediately recognize. On the outside, you may be brash, insensitive and shallow, but inside you feel pressured, worried and lonely. In these stories, those things that kids think about – but rarely share out loud, with adults or even with one another – are released.
But more importantly, they're treated with the same professional courtesy the words of any up-and-coming writer would receive from a publishing house. Winter Park artist Brandon Rapert illustrated each piece with deceptively simple drawings that capture the essence of each story in black-and-red line art.
“Brandon is one of those people who just doodles in a sketchbook all day, every day,” Heavener says. “That was the thing we wanted to summon the feel of for the anthology, too. There's sort of a loose and free-flowing feeling to it, but at the same time it has a real urgency and potency to it. I think that reflected well, that that's how one feels in high school.”
Local designer Jen O'Malley, who works on Annalemma and volunteers with Page 15, designed the book – she says her goal was to create a design that gave weight to the words without distracting from them. “I thought Brandon's drawings were really great and gave it an edginess,” she says, “and I wanted to pair them with something sophisticated, so the kids don't look back and think, ‘Oh, I was in this high school book once.' It has a young, edgy kind of tone, but it's also timeless.”
The result is something not unlike an anthology that could have been released by indie publishing house McSweeney's (which has its own national youth literacy organization) – though the stories bear some of the self-consciousness of youth, they are anything but conventional, and the design and illustration makes the product feel whole, weighty and a bit tense. Which is exactly what Heavener and Rivas were going for. Heavener says that when he was young, he remembers looking for “something to latch onto” that was about more than celebrity culture and teen-pop pursuits. “When I was that age, I was really hungering for something,” he says. “I was looking for something like this when I went to Borders. Like, ‘Here's a book from an indie publisher that I've never even heard of.'”
This book, he says, could be more than just a diversion for kids – it could become a point of entry for kids who want to touch base with “forms of culture happening outside of the mainstream.”
The mainstream for kids these days, of course, is the Internet – all the more reason to publish Wars Are Dumb as a bona fide hold-it-in-your-hands, paper-and-ink publication. The written word, Heavener points out, is thousands of years old, something that's been cultivated and refined through the ages. Though its perceived relevance seems to have diminished over time, its permanence and significance has not.
“We could have released this online, and we probably will do something like that too, eventually,” Heavener says. “But I think that there is a permanence to print and a sort of weight when you see it on the page, in a really nice font, laid out really well. It really has an effect on you.”