"You Have to Meet Children Where They Are, Not Where You Think They Should Be."

by Deborah Copaken
Originally Published: 

Enter Soman Chainani, author of the wildly popular The School for Good and Evil series (soon to be a major motion picture with Universal), who gamely agreed to have my little guy come over to his apartment, in the middle of his writing day, to take a quiz which would determine the boy’s true level of evil, which I assumed would be close to nil, since he gets upset when we accidentally kill a bug.

© Deborah Copaken

Not so, warns Chainani. All kids, he maintains, have as much “evil” in them as adults. “I don’t see kids as kids, and I never have,” says the New York Times bestselling author and filmmaker who still has a thriving after-school tutoring business on the side just in case. “I’ve always approached them as if they have the same brain that I do, because I still think of myself as a kid trapped in an adult body.”

“I still think of myself as a kid trapped in an adult body.”

Chainani is convinced we severely overestimate children’s “goodness” to our and, more importantly, their own detriment. “It’s the way you talk to them,” he says. “I see the teachers, they put on that voice, they slow down the voice, it’s very chirpy and sing-songy. And if you open up some kids books that are written by teachers or librarians or parents, it has that same tone in it.” He originally wrote The School for Good and Evil as an adult book and only decided it was a kids book much later. “That tone, it’s not there. I always assumed I was talking to my peers.”

It is that tone, in fact, that draws kids into the narrative. In droves. When Chainani came to my son’s elementary school last spring to do a presentation in the auditorium, he may as well have been the Beatles coming to Shea Stadium in ’65. The kids went effing nuts. As they do at nearly every school he visits.

THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL Tour Sizzle Reel — Spring 2014 from Soman Chainani on Vimeo.

“Every sentence I write, I try to put in that weird covert sexual tension that comes with being a twelve or thirteen-year-old.”

Chainani, who is gay, also refuses to shy away from the latent eroticism of the tween set. “I think every writer,” he says, “has an idée fixe that they can’t get past. Mine is seventh grade in that moment when I started liking the boys that were my friends, and I felt that weird tension of being on high alert all the time. All that dopamine is going to your brain and you’re feeling everything too much. I felt like if I could get that in a book and make kids get all tense and insane and heated, that’s the goal. Every sentence I write, I try to put in that weird covert sexual tension that comes with being a twelve or thirteen year old. Not like a sixteen year old where you’re overtly…”

“Having sex?” I say.

© Deborah Copaken

“Yeah. Not that. But rather that earlier moment where you don’t know what the hell is going on, your body’s changing, your relationships are changing, but you haven’t identified it yet. In the books, there’s no gay and straight, there’s no boy and girl, there’s no young or old, it’s just what feels right in the moment. In the second book, there is a girl who changes into a boy, in her body. The change is described quite aggressively.”

“She grows a penis?” I say. I find it interesting that both in his books and in person, Chainani pauses at the moment he should be defining what it is, precisely, he’s taking about—having sex, growing a penis—in order to make his reader (and interviewer) do the mundane work of definition.

“Yes. We don’t describe that. We describe everything else about it, but we stay away from that.”

“You stay away from the genitalia,” I say, once again forced into clarifying what that “that” is.

“Yes,” says Chainani. “Because once you go there, the magic is gone.”

© Deborah Copaken

It is time for my son to take the test to determine his level of good and evil. He climbs into Chainani’s lap—the author is, if nothing else, exceedingly kind and approachable—and starts answering a series of questions, such as, “The pool in the Groom room is the most beautiful crystal blue lagoon you’ve ever seen. As soon as you jump in with your three friends, however, you have the urge to urinate. Do you:

1) Pretend to be swimming and pee secretly?

2) Pee freely and admit it to your friends?

3) Get out and make the five-minute walk to the tower to use the toilet?

4) Ask the lifeguard nymph if there’s a plant or cup you can pee in?”

I am sure my son will choose #3, but no, he chooses #1. Gleefully. Chainani laughs a little told-you-so laugh and continues. At the end of the quiz, the kid is 63 percent evil, 37 percent good.

This surprises me but not the boy, who seems to be secretly pleased to have so much darkness dwelling inside him.

“You have to meet children where they are,” says Chainani. “Not where you think they should be.”

Cover photo: Deborah Copaken

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