By DAVID GREEN
Ned Vizzini is standing in front of Morenci’s eighth grade class, with a sprinkling of high school students off to one side.
It Friday morning in the middle school library and the 21-year-old author is reading from his book, Teen Angst? Naaaah….
He’s in Morenci at the invitation of middle school teacher Sally Kruger and he has three presentations to make.
Ned rocks back and forth from one foot to the other. He grabs his chin, he waves an arm through the air, then he’s back to his chin. The rocking never ceases.
He finishes reading the introduction to the book, closes it up and looks at the crowd.
“I love reading that one because it’s short and people don’t know whether or not they should applaud,” he says.
“I like awkward silences,” he adds.
Finally, one person claps and applause quickly spreads across the room.
Ned raises his hands in triumph, his book held high.
He explains that his writing came on the heels of an incident involving “a bright teal, super dorky backpack” that he used as a freshman in high school. People would give him looks that said, “What kind of idiot would wear that kind of accessory?”
An incident with the backpack led to the writing of a short story and he followed that up with others. Several were printed in a free newspaper in his home town of New York City, and eventually one appeared in the New York Times Magazine.
That was when it happened. A publisher in Minneapolis read the story and liked Ned’s style. The publisher suggested writing a book, but Ned thought, why bother with that? He had already written a collection of essays that could be turned into a book. After a year of reworking and polishing, the book rolled off the press.
Ned describes it this way: “It’s just a book of stupid, funny stuff that happened to me in high school.”
That’s precisely why young readers love it. Everyone has funny and stupid stuff in their lives, but it takes a storyteller like Ned Vizzini to make it sing. And laugh. And scream.
When he’s reading, his face is as expressive as his words, and he launches into a tale about a protest he and a friend organized against Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
When he finishes, he wonders if Morenci has such a day.
“Does it still exist?” he asks.
“Now it’s Take Your Kids to Work Day,” a student tells him.
“We won!” he yells, again raising his arms high. “When I wrote this, I thought it was a stupid story, but now I realize it’s a political statement.”
“Don’t you think it was just a coincidence?” asks a seventh grader later in the day.
Ned shoves the suggestion aside with a smile and moves on to his story about the band he and buddy started when they were 13 years old. They called themselves WormWhole and recorded two songs.
He added a few solo pieces and created what he calls his demo tape, “Crap, and Lots of It.” The tunes are now available on his web site, nedvizzini.com.
“I’ve gotten a lot of e-mail about those songs,” he tells the audience. “Universally I’ve heard that it’s the worst music they’ve ever listened to.”
That’s fine with Ned, and he says the best letter came from a girl who wrote: “I was listening to that when my dad walked in the room and he said, ‘What kind of crap are you listening to?’”
Perfect. In Ned’s world, he scored another victory.
It’s time for the question-and-answer period and Ned asks how many students are interested in writing.
“Raise your hands high,” he urges. “You’re preserving Western thought if you do.”
A few hands go up. Ned says it was hard to write his book, but not impossibly difficult.
“You have a lot more power to observe things and write about them than you think.
“You don’t just have to be a consumer of culture. You can be a shaper. You can tell stories and make money off them.”
“Could you write a story about me?” asks a seventh grader, “Because I’ve done a lot of stupid things.”
“The key is you have to write it yourself,” Ned says. “Write it down now so you remember what it’s like.”
Do stupid things happen to the cool kids, too?
Probably, but Ned has spent his days with the nerds, the kooks, the gamers, the skaters and a host of other outcasts. That’s where his allegiance lies.
“A lot of people talk about how the moral fabric of America is crumbling,” he says after the program. “I don’t worry about that. I worry about the kids who aren’t in on the crumbling.”
Ned Vizzini fields questions
Q: What is fish punching?
A: It’s just like it sounds. It was from summer camp. You lean over a dock and try to punch fish.
Q: Do you have to give in to an editor or can you argue?
A: You can argue and you’ll be allowed to keep some things, but you have to pick your battles carefully [since you can’t win them all]. But it’s good to listen to your editor.
Q: Are you thinking about writing any new books?
A: Yeah, I just finished a book. It’s about a boy who eats a pill and it tells him how to be cool.
Q: Are you still going to school?
A: I’m getting out of college this spring if I don’t mess up. [Hunter College in New York City]
Q: Who influenced your writing?
A: Michael Crichton who wrote Jurassic Park. There’s nothing better than Jurassic Park. That’s the Great American Novel.
I also like George Orwell. 1984, Animal Farm.
Q: Did you like high school?
A: I didn’t like it a lot when I was there, but it gave me the chance to meet a lot of interesting people.
Q: Did you play sports in school?
A: No, but I did a lot of karate. You don’t believe I know karate? [He launches into a demonstration].
Q: I would have worried about you if you were my kid. Did your parents worry about you?
A: They did. I would say, “Mom, I got another story published,” and she would say, “I don’t want to read about those disgusting things you do.”