A risky, heartbreaking debut in the vein of The Outsiders, following a group of unmoored teens in suburban New Jersey as they blaze destructive paths and wrestle with burgeoning adolescence, ultimately committing one disastrous error that changes their lives forever.
We all knew about Cullen Hickson.
Siblings Brielle and Ray O’Dell are lost. Anxious. Restless. Bullied at his Catholic school for being small and timid, Ray wants to be someone people respect or, even better, someone people fear. Meanwhile, Brielle—whose “popular” status feels tenuous at best—knows that something is off about her friendship with the shiny, happy, sophisticated blond girls on her field hockey team. They don’t really understand Bri, and if Bri is being totally honest, she doesn’t really understand them either.
When storied delinquent Cullen Hickson enters the orbit of the O’Dell siblings, though, everything changes. Brielle and Ray find an alluring, addictive outlet in Cullen, who opens their eyes to a world they didn’t know existed. For Ray, that means experiencing the singular thrill of small-time crime—from breaking and entering to grand theft auto—while Brielle quickly dives into an all-consuming romance with the enigmatic upperclassman.
But as Brielle and Ray find themselves more and more entwined with Cullen’s antics, the once-thrilling experiences begin to feel increasingly dangerous, culminating in a life-changing event that shakes the teens to their core.
Who or what was your inspiration for writing Us Kids Know?
The earliest flickering of inspiration (if I can remember back that far )was a desire to write about the feeling of being a teenager and being angry for reasons that are almost too complex and deeply-buried to understand and then, as a result of this anger—and despite being an otherwise totally rational, smart, seemingly “normal” kid—doing some really, really, really, really stupid stuff.
What lesson were you trying to incorporate in your book?
None! I don’t think fiction should teach moral lessons. Lessons will be gleaned by fiction readers, sure, but those lessons will—and should—vary according to readers’ responses to the work. The goal of fiction should be to represent the emotional truth of its characters and, in doing so, expose a small bit of insight into the human experience. Hopefully such truths and insights are nuanced and complex enough that they can’t be distilled into platitudes.
BUT, okay, if you twist my arm, if you absolutely FORCE me to pry at least one incontestable, universally important truth that I believe is present in the book—which isn’t to say this is in any way “The Lesson” of the book—I can say that if you are in crisis, and there are people in your life willing and able to help you, you should not under any circumstances hesitate to allow—or ask, or implore, or even beg—those people to do so. And if you don’t have people like that in your life, just keep looking and believe that they’re out there.
What was the hardest part of writing Us Kids Know?
I had to do a fair amount of research on 9/11: watching news footage from that morning, reading about first responders, etc. It was hard to revisit a lot of that stuff and it was even harder to then stay in that headspace in order to write about it. There were definitely some mornings where I would do the research, have a good cry, and then come back to write.
If you were to give your 10-year-old self any advice, what would it be?
What an interesting question! So many people ask about giving advice to your teenage self, but 10-years old is a new one. I think at that age your life is right on the cusp of getting really complicated, with adolescence and the awkward horrors of puberty just around the corner. So I’d be hesitant about giving any advice that revealed to my young self too much about the thorny years to come. Instead, I’d just tell that kid to go outside and run wild with his friends every night until his mom called him in for dinner and also, if at all possible, to get his hands on a magical elixir that would prevent him from ever having to grow up.
Who among Ray, Brielle, and Cullen was the hardest to write?
Probably Cullen because, of the three, his personality is the least like mine. I think an introvert’s version of an extrovert can pretty easily become a cliché, so I wanted to make sure to give Cullen a rich inner-life even as he projects a super-cool tough guy exterior.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another YA novel about a girl who gets knocked unconscious during an earthquake and wakes up in an alternate reality where she’s wanted for the murder of her swim team coach.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JJ Strong received a creative writing degree from the University of Southern California, and a B.A. in English from Georgetown University. His writing has appeared in Fifth Wednesday, the Santa Monica Review, and LA Weekly. He taught for many years in the undergraduate writing program at USC, before moving to the Washington, D.C. area with his wife and son.