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The Kids Are Not Alright

To research his novel about culture’s young pop star obsession, Teddy Wayne learned from a few icons’ coming-of-age tales

When blistering heat strikes, there are few things better to do than heading inside, parking yourself in an intensely air-conditioned space and taking in some form of undemanding summer entertainment, like a double bill of Pacific Rim and White House Down, a season of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, or Selena Gomez on repeat.

But if you’d rather consume something that won’t make you dislike yourself in the morning and will be intelligent as well as engaging, pick up a copy of the poignant, funny, pop-culture-tinged novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. Released several months ago in the U.S. (and on sale today in the U.K.), this book is told from the point-of-view of an 11-year-old pop star (who resembles a certain young Canuck who has trouble keeping his pants up).

Author Teddy Wayne came up with the idea when he was tutoring kids in Brooklyn and saw a student reading Miley Cyrus’ Miles to Go one day. At first he thought about writing a parody, but upon reflection, he realized a fictional exploration might be the way to go. To immerse himself in that world, he watched some early Bieber videos and the documentary Never Say Never, and he also devoured a stack of books about other young’ uns who hit it big before they hit puberty.

Here’s his list and his commentary on the books:

Little Girl Lost by Drew Barrymore
“Barrymore’s memoir of her precocious movie celebrity and substance abuse provides an illuminating portrait of ‘80s Hollywood excess. The ET actress’s relationship with her mother, who lived out her own dreams of acting stardom through her daughter, provided fodder for Jonny Valentine’s hedonistic (though loving) momager, Jane.”

A Paper Life by Tatum O’Neal
“O’Neal, too, rose to prominence at a young age, becoming the youngest Oscar winner ever when she starred opposite her father in Paper Moon. But, like with Jonny Valentine’s father, Ryan O’Neal was more absent than present. (As was reported several years later, at his ex-girlfriend Farrah Fawcett’s funeral, he even drunkenly hit on Tatum without recognizing her.)”

On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson
“Michael Jackson may have been the person most warped by childhood fame in modern history—yet Jonny sees only the musical glory of his idol, whom he refers to as MJ, and not the cautionary tale. Jefferson’s book is less a straightforward biography and more a critical study of the King of Pop’s fractured, complex identity.”

The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star by Diana Serra Cary
“While many of us think that the first child star in America was Shirley Temple, Jackie Coogan beat her to the punch, starring alongside Charlie Chaplin in a variety of films in the 1920s. But when Coogan turned 21, he discovered his parents had squandered his millions in earnings. The law that now safeguards a percentage of child performers’ income is named after him. After a difficult mid-career slump, the actor found success again later in life playing Uncle Fester on TV’s The Addams Family.”

The Cultural Significance of the Child Star by Jane O’Connor
“O’Connor’s academic text proved hugely valuable in helping me form my thoughts on how the culture exploits child celebrities—and, in a related way, generally “gifted” children. One of her main arguments is that child stars occupy a nether region between child and adult: They’re not quite either one, a no-man’s-land Jonny traverses throughout the novel in his dealings with kids and industry professionals.”