'Making Up Megaboy': Fiction or Fact?
Jennifer M. Brown -- 8/24/98
A recent novel about a teenage killer eerily parallels real events
When author Virginia Walter sat down to write about -- and try to make sense of -- a teenager's slaying of a bicycle shop proprietor about 10 years ago in her suburban Los Angeles community, she had no idea the crime would be the beginning of a string of such incidents involving teen killers. Walter said that what moved her to begin her novel Making Up Megaboy (DK Ink/Jackson, Apr.) were the haunting words of the boy's mother on the television news: "I don't know why he did this."
The question "Why?" also resonates throughout Walter's novel, which describes Robbie Jones who, on his 13th birthday, takes his father's gun and kills a Korean liquor store owner. Using a series of first-person accounts from 18 people, Walter emulates interviews conducted in television and other media coverage. Yet despite all of these accounts -- including those from Robbie's parents, teacher, preacher, principal, fellow classmates and his best friend -- no one can offer an answer.
Now people all across America, from Jonesboro, Ark., where two boys (aged 11 and 13) have been charged with opening fire outside of a middle school, to Springfield, Ore., where a 15-year-old allegedly killed his parents and fired 50 rounds with a semiautomatic rifle at a high school, are also looking for answers; they, too, are asking "Why?"
As in these real-life situations, readers of Making Up Megaboy never hear from the alleged perpetrator directly, nor is Robbie sentenced in the novel, leaving the ending wide open to conjecture about both motive and punishment for the crime. When Walter describes the reactions people have had to her novel, she says it's not the children who have difficulty with its inconclusive nature so much as adults. "It's the moral ambivalence in the book that troubles adults," the author explained, citing one librarian who said, "[Robbie's] got to take responsibility." But, as Walter contends, "We all have a responsibility."
The author specifically chose a teenage offender who could be anyone's child. Neither a gang member nor from a broken home, Robbie is a boy characterized by his teacher as doing his homework on time, coming to class regularly and "one of the better math students"-a boy not unlike those appearing in recent news headlines. Walter experienced this phenomenon first-hand: while working as a librarian in East Los Angeles in the early 1970s, she befriended a 12-year-old who later killed a boy and was placed in a juvenile home; she'd found herself trying to "reconcile this sweet, gentle boy with a murderer."
A Complex Theme in an Unusual Format
Making Up Megaboy is a departure for Walter. Before penning this darker, harder-edged novel, she had written cheerful, even uplifting books for children. "I've never had an experience like this before," Walter said. She described the process of creating this book like "automatic writing. I heard the voices in my head and they appeared on the computer screen." Not only did she distinctly hear the words of her characters, she also had a very clear sense of what the book should look like.
When editor Dick Jackson made an offer to publish the novel, Walter sent him a copy of Wired magazine, as an example of the visual approach she wanted to use. Together Jackson, illustrator Katrina R ckelein and Walter came up with the graphics that would portray Robbie's "inner life." She added that it was Jackson's idea to give the book a small trim size, so that readers could "grasp the ungraspable."
While much of the novel may read like media coverage, Walter has added one element to her book that news accounts lack -- a brief sojourn into Robbie's mind via the comic-strip character he created: Megaboy. "The Megaboy adventures are meant to give you a glimpse of Robbie," she said. "He's living in fantasy more than in real life. In adolescence this is common, but luckily what's uncommon is that teenagers don't all have the lack of understanding the consequences [that Robbie has]."
Walter's assertion bears up under the reactions she has had from teen readers, who have told her, "It made me think"; "It's real"; and "I know how he feels, but I'm lucky I can talk to my parents." One librarian remarked to Walter that the novel prompted "the largest talk with her son in years"; her son wanted the book's outcome to have been better, and she asked him, "What would `better' have looked like?" Walter believes that reading about such events in a novel allows teenagers to be one step removed from the actual situation. The book also gives adults a frame of reference to discuss topics like death, injustice and evil.
Realistic Fiction vs. Reality
When the recent rash of reports about teenage killers began breaking, after Megaboy was published, Walter said she "feared the connection that might be made to my book, that people might use [the connection] to sensationalize the book." But even before she wrote the story, when she would learn of a teenager who had committed murder, she said, "I was just devastated. It was like being kicked in the stomach. It felt personal somehow, as if I knew about these kids."
Walter, unfortunately, sees many parallels between the fictional Robbie and the all too real teenagers on the front pages of newspapers. For one thing, many of them act alone. "To be a teenager is to feel like a loner," she said. "Maybe that's why so many go around in little packs." Walter opposes sentencing 14-year-olds as adults because she believes "it's not a deterrent. Fourteen-year-olds think they're immortal." She finds California's adult sentencing of accused criminals at 25 to be much more appropriate.
Walter observed that while adolescents have felt lonely and isolated for generations, murderous tendencies are a new development. "The fact that they're [killing] instead of doing other things says something about society," she said. "If [these kids] are going to take responsibility [for their acts], we have to help them do that in a meaningful way."
There are preventative measures adults can take with young people, Walter pointed out, and communication is the key to helping teens understand the consequence of their actions. "Once [a killing] has happened it's too late. Start talking now. Establish a habit of communicating early on; then you can get through the bump of adolescence. You must walk a fine line between respecting a child's privacy and opening some kind of channel for talking."
One catalyst to this kind of open conversation, Walter suggested, is through literature. "Reading books from early on allows kids to try on roles that are good for developing positive values." She cited authors like Katherine Paterson, Lois Lowry, Gary Paulsen and Theresa Nelson, and recommended prompting kids with questions in the context of reading a novel, such as, "Could I have done that?" Books allow readers to stand in the sh s of others and "offer more meat than movies or television," Walter said. "All Robbie had were superher s."
Making Up Megaboy has already inspired and will likely continue to stimulate conversation. Walter's approach allows readers to try on the sh s of a full range of people from Robbie's community, none of whom had an inkling that the boy could or would commit murder. Perhaps the novel will serve as a catalyst to get teens and adults talking, and to be ever more aware of the early signs of trouble for the Robbie Joneses in their own neighborhoods.
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