To that end, I crafted a five-book series called The Children of the Knight Cycle that takes a fantasy concept – King Arthur resurrected in modern-day Los Angeles – and uses it to showcase a laundry list of crimes this society perpetrates against kids who don’t “fit the norm,” or won’t be shoehorned into the “one size fits all” mentality of public education, or don’t want to be a mini-me version of their parents. Virtually all the main characters in my series are teens of color, including Native Americans. Some of them are gay. But all are dynamic, memorable individuals that readers can relate to. Every day in America such kids are kicked to the curb. We don’t want them in our homes or classrooms or in our books. We’d rather they just disappear. In recent decades, we’ve decided we like putting them in prison. A staggering number of states arrest children aged ten (and younger) and charge them as adults for imitating the anti-social examples of adults, or for copying illicit behaviors popular media models every day.
I present these kids as real human beings with the same hopes, fears, needs, and wants as everyone else. My characters benefit from adults who choose to love them no matter what and who show them how to do what’s right, rather than what’s easy. The kids learn that every one of them can make a positive difference in this world, and that’s a message the students in my urban, working-class high school seldom got from the books I was forced to teach them. In those books, only “white” kids succeeded.
In my teen horror thriller, Spinner, I highlight the other forgotten kids I taught for many years – those with disabilities. These kids tend to be the most overlooked of all high schoolers because it is “assumed” by adults that they will never amount to much in life. Kids with physical or learning disabilities are no different from those without them – they can learn and achieve, but maybe not in the same cookie-cutter fashion teachers like to employ. I know what I’m talking about because I have a disability of my own – hearing loss. I’ve lived with a severe sensorineural hearing impairment my whole life, and did not even have access to hearing aids until I was in college.
I also didn’t know a single kid with hearing loss until after graduate school. I was one of a kind growing up, and that can be a very isolating feeling. Even though people don’t always mean to be insensitive, not a single day went by growing up when I wasn’t made to feel “different” because of my disability. On the plus side, my isolated childhood gave me true empathy for every youngster who is “different” in some way, and likely directed me to seek out such kids and work with them. After graduate school, I joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, wherein adults mentor kids with no father in the home. I was matched to a 14-year-old boy with hearing loss, and the experience was revelatory. Even as an adult, the relief that I felt to finally know someone who grew up with hearing loss was palpable. Imagine what it’s like for kids like me to see themselves in books they read, to understand that they aren’t alone or broken or crippled, to see hope for their lives because they see others like them achieving greatness. We all need to know that being different is not wrong. In fact, being apart from the norm is most often a net positive. My disability never defined me, and I want kids to see that theirs don’t define them, either.
Having said that, I would not change what I write to fit those molds or to make my books more “white,” assuming that is the goal with publishers. The main character in Spinner is Caucasian, but his friends are kids of color and they all have various disabilities. I took an interesting class last year about cover art on books for teens and children, and even if the main character in those books was a child of color, the cover had been whitewashed in some fashion so the race or ethnicity was obscured. That class opened my eyes to how the publishing industry works and maybe showed me that, just as in life, I might never fit into their predetermined “molds.”
One reviewer of my Children of the Knight series applauded me for breaking the teen hero mold by presenting a strong teen boy who is conflicted about his sexual orientation: “Lance is the hero around which the action pivots. Not many authors would have given such a character the heartthrob role. But Bowler takes a chance, fashioning something completely different by having such a key figure question his sexuality.”
I suspect a major publisher would have told me to “make him straight” like every other teen boy hero. I never had the chance to make such a choice, but I hope I would have said no. Lance is far more interesting and real for his inner turmoil, and for his desire to “fit in” the way society says he must in order to be a “real boy.”
We spend way too much time in this country focusing on what we perceive to be the weaknesses or differences in others. The teen characters in my books prove that our strengths always outweigh our weaknesses, and our diversity, i.e. our differentness, is to be celebrated, not hidden away. If more adults would focus on the natural talents and gifts of kids instead of always trying to make everyone “fit in,” then all children would have a real chance to soar. As a writer of teen lit, my goal is to empower every kid, not just the ones most Americans “look like” or even “act like.” Hopefully, other authors will do the same.
Michael J. Bowler is an award-winning author of eight novels––A Boy and His Dragon, A Matter of Time (Silver Medalist from Reader’s Favorite), and The Knight Cycle, comprised of five books: Children of the Knight (Gold Award Winner in the Wishing Shelf Book Awards), Running Through A Dark Place, There Is No Fear, And The Children Shall Lead, Once Upon A Time In America, and Spinner.
He grew up in San Rafael, California, and majored in English and Theatre at Santa Clara University. He went on to earn a master’s in film production from Loyola Marymount University, a teaching credential in English from LMU, and another master's in Special Education from Cal State University Dominguez Hills.
He taught high school in Hawthorne, California for twenty-five years, both in general education and to students with learning disabilities, in subjects ranging from English and Strength Training to Algebra, Biology, and Yearbook.
He has also been a volunteer Big Brother to eight different boys with the Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters program and a thirty-year volunteer within the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles.
He has been honored as Probation Volunteer of the Year, YMCA Volunteer of the Year, California Big Brother of the Year, and 2000 National Big Brother of the Year. The “National” honor allowed him and three of his Little Brothers to visit the White House and meet the president in the Oval Office.
He is currently working on a sequel to Spinner.His goal as a YA author is for teens to experience empowerment and hope; to see themselves in his diverse characters; to read about kids who face real-life challenges; and to see how kids like them can remain decent people in an indecent world.
* Spinner won Honorable Mention in Young Adult Books of 2015 from the San Francisco Book Festival.
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