QUESTION: Alton, you walked away from an abusive, poverty-stricken home and spent years as a foster child and at a boys ranch. The name of your debut YA nonfiction book is The Boy Who Carried Bricks. What do you mean by “carrying bricks”?
ALTON: Part of it is literal—one of the punishments at the boys ranch where I lived for awhile as a teen was to pick up, carry, and stack bricks over and over again. We once did it for seven hours straight. But it also is a metaphor for all the issues I carried around as a kid that were causing me self-esteem and relationships problems.
QUESTION: How did you finally set the bricks down?
ALTON: A whole lot of people along the way showed me I was bigger than my problems and that I had value. I had a lot of help. I didn’t do it by myself; I had a lot of encouragement. Looking back, maybe I didn’t set the bricks down instantly, but people helped me carry them until eventually I could set them down.
QUESTION: Knowing most people had no idea what you were going through as a child or what made you act like you did, what would you have each of us know?
ALTON: I would ask people to be genuine, to be yourself, to accept people for who they are, and not to judge. I think lot of times we see people acting or behaving a certain way and we’re quick to react without having the whole story. If we get to know people, we often can understand where they are coming from—it might not be right or wrong but we can understand them better.
QUESTION: You work with teens and you have two of your own. Yet so many adults—parents, teachers, adults in general—seem to dislike or even be scared of teen-agers. What’s the secret to teens?
ALTON: To me, I think most teens are just trying to figure things out. And even myself, I have to be careful not to be so eager to point out when they are wrong. They are hungry for authenticity. They want us as adults to admit it when we have got it wrong or when we make mistakes. Lots of times, even if teens are not on right path, they want to tell us what they think. Sometimes, society we don’t want to listen to teen-agers, and, I’ll admit, sometimes it’s a struggle for me as a dad. I need to keep my two sons safe and protected but for the most part they need to be able to talk through things with me . . . and I need to be able to stay calm and let them say what they need to say. Teens act like they know it all, but they’re just trying to discover and find their way. For some reason, that makes adults uncomfortable.
QUESTION: What has been most surprising about having your book published?
ALTON: I’ve been completely blown away at how may people could relate to something in it—to the child abuse I suffered or being raised by a single parent or watching someone in the family be addicted to drug or alcohol. So many people, even people I’ve known or thought I knew well, have come and shared some story about themselves in relation to the book. It has been amazing.
— Jeanne Devlin