NYU Alumni Magazine Fall 2007

young-adult fiction

Weird, Dude

Blake Nelson makes the teen years even more complicated

by Amy Rosenberg

Novelist Blake Nelson (WSUC '84) remembers high school: curfews, cliques, zits, prom dates, virginity—and the loss thereof. For years, the award-winning young-adult author has garnered critical praise for his humorous representations of ordinary, middle-class teenagers, from Max, protagonist of The New Rules of High School, who has it all—the grades, the friends, the girl—until he's not sure he wants it, to Chloe in Prom Anonymous (both Viking), a Sylvia Plath-idolizing outsider who, surprising even herself, decides to go to the prom.


But recently, Nelson has forced his typical adolescent characters into rather atypical scenarios—ranging from life-threatening to just plain bizarre. In They Came From Below (Tor), his most recent book, two friends summering with their families on Cape Cod meet a couple of cute boys—who turn out to be aliens displaced from their home at the bottom of the ocean when a nuclear missile is mistakenly fired from a U.S. Navy submarine. In Paranoid Park (Viking), set in Nelson's native Portland, Oregon, an unnamed protagonist with skater-dude aspirations accidentally, without witnesses, kills a security guard and must choose between turning himself in or living with guilt and anxiety. The movie version, directed by Gus Van Sant, was an official selection at this year's Cannes Film Festival ahead of its worldwide release in September.

"I have never accidentally killed anyone," Nelson says, laughing, "and I've never run into aliens on the beach." Nevertheless, after years of writing about everyday issues, he felt it was time to branch out. "Prom Anonymous was a study of social worlds," he explains. "After you write something like that, you have to do stuff that radically shifts your brain."

Even in his more conventional tales, Nelson manages to dig beneath his characters' seemingly superficial concerns to explore the ways in which adolescents learn real-life lessons, such as navigating peer groups and moral ambiguity. These themes first appeared in his 1994 debut novel, Girl, a coming-of-age tale about the fearful—and sometimes joyful—high school realities of sex, self-confidence, and peer pressure. Erotic scenes and imagery, however, relegated it to an adult-only market. Praised by reviewers, the book was made into a film and, this October, Simon Pulse is re-launching it—as a young-adult novel.

"When I was first getting published, I didn't want to be a young-adult writer," says Nelson, who got his start in the underground New York arts scene, performing short stories, manifestos, and poetry on open-mike nights at the renowned art collective ABC No Rio after he graduated from NYU with a degree in European history. "At the time, young-adult fiction was a ghetto. But then it became a good avenue for storytelling, and that's what I wanted to do, write about every possible thing that could happen to people. And I've always known I was good with kids."

This talent has also been noted in many a starred review by the arbiters of young-adult fiction: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal. With nine published books under his belt, Nelson is hard at work on the next one. About? A boy who returns from a camping trip to find himself the last person on Earth—of course.

Photo © Beth Rosenberg

Nelson forces typical adolescent characters into rather atypical scenarios—
ranging from life-threatening to just plain bizarre.