As part of my graduate residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts I gave a lecture entitled “The Boy Book Manifesto: A Six Point Plan Toward Making Books More Boy-Friendly (and why we, as writers, should care).” Originally delivered on January 12, 2010, I was only allowed 45 minutes to speak, but a two-year collection of research yielded more material than could fit, so I decided to rework the material into a series of blog posts entitled Building Better Boy Books.
This is the entire series complied as a single post.
BUILDING BETTER BOY BOOKS
by David Elzey
While I’ll be writing here on behalf of boy books, and boy readers, I freely admit that aside from the biological definition of what constitutes a boy, I don’t know that the terms “boy book” and “boy reader” can even be adequately defined. You know a boy reader when you encounter one. You may have seen the species in action in your own homes or classrooms. Some of you might be surprised to discover that you’re married to one.
Despite this lack of concrete definition I still think it’s a vitally important topic of discussion. Boys have this knack for negatively demanding our attentions. They do so by insisting they hate books. They call attention to themselves with lowered test scores and decreased literacy. They behave in ways that almost seem calculated to goad writers and publishers into either dismissing them as an audience, or pandering to them in an attempt to win them over.
But they need us, desperately. They need our help in understanding that reading can and should be a vital and important part of their lives.
To be fair, authors need them just as much. If for no other reason than the fact that they represent potentially fifty percent of their reading audience. I sincerely believe authors write partially to reach the widest possible audience that their books deserve. How finite that audience is unknown, but there’s no reason to arbitrarily limit the possibilities by not taking into account the boy side of the equation.
There is currently a wave of “boyhood studies” that attempt to “correct” the seeming imbalances between raising boys and girls in Western culture. It isn’t my intention to reignite the gender wars here, I mention it simply to point out that these recent studies have given us quite a wealth of observations and data about boys. Out of this emerging research, some interesting information has come from observing the sort of things boys like to write. In research done by Ralph Fletcher in his book Boy Writers, Reclaiming Their Voices, it is noted that when boys write stories:
- Fiction tends to concern freedoms and powers the boy writer doesn’t possess in real life.
- The narrative is quick, but it does include reflection, primarily in how protagonists handle situations but not how the experience has affected them.
- The dialog is snappy, full of slang and pop culture references.
- The writing is cinematic, with the pace of an action movie or a cartoon, and full of sound effects.
- The work celebrates and solidifies friendship groups.
- And stories tend to be exaggerated, extreme, absurd, slapstick and silly.
But let’s be brutally honest for a moment: boys are a pain in the ass.
They’ll say they hate books and reading, and the next thing you know they’re driving books like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series onto the bestsellers list.
They’ll ask for something exactly like what they just finished reading, a beginning reader series like the Time Warp Trio or Geronimo Stilton, and then quickly lose interest because they’ve discovered and become bored with the formula.
They’ll read a page of grade-level text aloud in a halting stammer, then read the sports section of the newspaper as smoothly as professional television announcers.
The conundrum that is a boy reader is enough to drive any adult mad. Fortunately, boys aren’t so mysterious. There is enough information available about their preferences and predilections that we are able to put together a list of elements that boys respond positively toward in fiction that might help us understand them better. Some of these areas overlap, or have common intersections that might seem inseparable, but this sort of organized confusion is what we can expect when discussing boys and reading.
So let’s take a closer look at that wedge of the pie called “boy readers” and see what sort of things entice, engage, and retain this particular demographic. Or to put it another way, let’s take a look at what it takes to build a better, more boy-friendly book.
I’ve broken down my research into ten general areas and, in trying to organize them, discovered they break down into two categories. One category I call the NONS will come later, but first I’d like to discuss the group that is best organized as an acronym that is easy to remember.
I call them The HEAVES.
The letters H–E–A–V–E–S represent six common things boys tend to look for in their reading. No book should (though it isn’t impossible) contain all six of these elements, but any combination of these six areas when worked into a narrative can help draw in and retain boy readers.
We’ll begin with the one area that can grab a boy faster than almost any other in fiction, which is H, for Humor.
To many people, humor is one of those slippery areas like art – you know it when you see or hear it, and too much explanation ruins it. But there are subtleties to some forms of humor that boys respond to above others that can be incorporated into fiction. Knowing these elements might help explain what makes many boys – both readers and characters – tick.
Professor Thomas Newkirk at the University of New Hampshire, author of Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture, notes that boy humor consists of two types: physical and verbal. Boys are either saying funny things, or doing funny things. This counters the feeling boys tend to have that school is about reading and writing – fairly static activities – while humor is active, and dynamic, and something seen as generally outside of the classroom.
Boy humor is not cerebral. This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of what boys find funny, because so many books that try to be funny tend toward the cerebral. Especially in YA fiction which has a greater tendency toward the first person point-of-view, this idea that a boy is constantly thinking funny thoughts or coming up with witty comebacks is the most unrealistic form of boy humor. Fictional boys are too clever and witty to be real, and as a result their cerebral humor is annoying to a boy reader.
Parody, on the other hand, becomes a tool boys like to use when they are feeling subordinate. It is a form of catharsis, it is their weapon against the bully and other authority figures that make them feel small and insignificant. It is also a way of maintaining social standing among their peers while at the same time distancing themselves from “sincere” behavior (Wouldn’t want to come off looking sincere in front of our peers, now, would we?). Making fun of others, which is often how parody and satire are viewed, provides an outlet for frustrations while allowing for temporary empowerment sharing.
The longevity of such television shows like The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and South Park owe a debt to the boys (and boys posing as grown men) that have kept them on the air. As adults we may view these popular shows as juvenile or immature in their humor, but what keeps bringing the boys back is that they take on politics, pop culture, and authority figures, through verbal and physical comedy – occasionally dolloped with a generous helping of bodily functions.
More on those bodily functions in a moment.
Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp Trio features three boys who find themselves learning history the hard way through the aid of a book that transports them into different eras. In Tut, Tut our trio has found themselves in what they presume to be the Tomb of Tutankhamun when they spy a High Priest named Hatsnat brandishing a whip and ordering his ancient Egyptian henchmen around. Like most clichéd villains, the High Priest isn’t beyond monologuing, the fine art of gloating over his evil plans. Here, while the boys attempt to contain themselves, he is trying out the new names he will be called once he assumes the throne.
“Great Hatsnat. Most Awesome Hatsnat. The Wonder of All Hatsnat.” That little bald guy paced around the room, trying out all his different names. Fred, Sam and I bit our lips, trying not to burst out laughing.He walked to the doorway and turned for one last look at the treasure. We were almost safe. Then he said, “The Grand, Glorious Most Awesome Wonder of All… Hatsnat.”
That did it. Fred snorted out a laugh.
Hatsnat jumped three feet in the air.
Sam and I couldn’t hold it in any longer. We fell on the floor laughing. We had just barely managed to stop howling, when Hatsnat held his torch toward us. “Thieves. How dare you defile the temple of Hatsnat.”
Have you ever been someplace where you’re not supposed to laugh, but you just can’t help it? That’s exactly where we were.
“Hot Snot?” I laughed.
“Cold boogers,” laughed Fred.
“Not robbers,” laughed Sam.
We laughed so hard we could hardly breathe.
Hatsnat did not look amused. In fact, he looked mad enough to kill.
Boys are always stepping in it, digging themselves in deeper. They know a pompous authority figure when they see one, and Scieszka knows that the best way to subvert that authority is by giving him a name worthy of ridicule: Hot Snot. As bodily secretions go, mucus is fairly tame, but its enough to set off these boys and heighten the tension of the story at the same time. The fact that their lives are potentially in danger doesn’t make boys any more able to contain themselves, or be any less “boy.”
Scenes like this not only make the characters real, they make the book relevant to the reader’s lives because they can see something of themselves in it. It isn’t just a punchline to a joke or convenient bit of cleverness inserted by the author, it’s a safety zone for feeling something that when blended with humor becomes a release valve for conflicting emotions.
Adult authority figures, naturally, can come under attack, and can be made to bear the brunt of some boyish prankstering. As can the captain of the football team, the local bully, or an antagonistic mean girl. Anyone who assumes a mantle of authority can become a power figure subject to ridicule by a boy.
And it doesn’t have to be deserved ridicule. Conflict with boys often comes from pulling a prank, making a joke, or humiliating someone and having it backfire tremendously. This goes back to the idea that what boys find funny tends to be physical or verbal, perhaps impulsive, and occasionally politically incorrect. The repercussions can be as dangerous or as benign as necessary to the story in question, so long as they remain true to boys. Even the most serious of boy books needs a bit of humor, otherwise, no matter how edgy, gritty, or violent, it just isn’t realistic to a boy reader.
I promise you, if you find a story with a boy protagonist that doesn’t seem to be “working,” where something about the story just doesn’t click, chances are good the author’s inner censor has blinded them to a very real boy lurking in the wings. You know, the one who’s just off to the side setting a paper bag full of dog feces on fire on someone’s porch. And where a book is trying to be funny but it falls flat, see if it isn’t that the humor isn’t too cerebral.
My advice to writers of books with male characters, whether protagonist or supporting – Whenever possible: Make. It. Funny.
This Time With Feeling
Let’s turn now to an excerpt from Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Thirteen-year-old Brian is on his way to visit his father when the only other person on board the plane, the pilot, suffers a fatal heart attack. The plane is flying mostly on its own, but soon Brian will need to take action and he has to decide how to proceed.
He repeated the radio call seventeen times at the ten-minute intervals, working on what he would do between transmissions. Once more he reached over to the pilot and touched him on the face, but the skin was cold, hard cold, death cold, and Brian turned back to the dashboard. He did what he could, tightened his seatbelt, positioned himself, rehearsed mentally again and again what his procedure should be.
When the plane ran out of gas he should hold the nose down and head for the nearest lake and try to fly the plane kind of onto the water. That’s how he thought of it. Kind of fly the plane onto the water. And just before it hit he should pull back on the wheel and slow the plane down to reduce the impact.
Over and over in his mind ran the picture of how it would go. The plane running out of gas, flying the plane into the water, the crash––from pictures he’d seen on television. He tried to visualize it. He tried to be ready.
But between the seventeenth and eighteenth radio transmissions, without a warning, the engine coughed, roared violently for a second and died. There was a sudden silence, cut only by the sound of the windmilling propellor and the wind past the cockpit.
Brian pushed the nose of the plane down and threw up.
The E here is for Emotion.
Emotions are another misunderstood element in what boys want from their reading. Simply put, boys want to feel what the protagonist is feeling, but they don’t want to be told what to feel or how to feel it. Boys want to experience these emotions viscerally and vicariously without having the emotion defined for them.
In the example from Hatchet, Paulsen puts the reader in the seat alongside Brian, and often right behind Brian’s eyes. Finding oneself suddenly flying a plane in the wilderness without radio contact stirs up a great deal of emotion but the reader isn’t told why Brian tightens his seat belt just then, how Brian feels about touching the dead pilot, or what other concerns he has while running through his crash-landing checklist. In fact, Paulsen gives us no real clues about what or how to feel this scene until the final two words of the chapter – threw up – which actually serves as a sort of release for all the emotional tension the scene has been building.
And as with the embarrassment of inadvertent humor, it doesn’t hurt if the emotional investment is slightly uncomfortable to the reader. It is these precise moments of discomfort that boys look for. They want to know they aren’t alone in these feelings, but they also want to be able to feel good about it when its all over.
A common complaint about boys, fictional or otherwise, is that they don’t express themselves, emotionally or otherwise. This can be tricky for a writer who is trying to feed a boy’s desire for emotion by creating a realistic character who is equally closed off. Ironically, one of the best ways a writer can convey this is through dialog.
Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now manages this through the use of elision, the technique where what’s left unsaid is filled in by the reader. The main character, Sutter, is an unrepentant teen alcoholic who idolizes Dean Martin, proudly and stubbornly remaining true to his dead-end life while his friends are all transitioning to the possibilities that await them after graduation. His “pretend girlfriend” Aimee is planning to move away, his old girlfriend Cassidy has found a new boyfriend named Marcus, and Sutter insists he’s fine with it all. So when he calls Cassidy on a whim while she’s off with Marcus visiting colleges and discovers she’s actually planning to change schools he steadfastly tries to hold his emotional neutral ground while clearly he is pining for her.
“But you’ve been all set to go to OU for months.”
“I was, but I have the right to change my mind if I want to.”
“But surely it’s too late to get enrolled somewhere else now.”
“No, it’s not. The application deadline isn’t until June 15. I checked.”
“What about your parents?”
“They’re the ones who encouraged me to come out here and look it over. You know how they always thought I should go to school out of state and get a chance to see more of the world and everything. Besides, they absolutely love Marcus.”
No big surprise. I’m sure her parents figure Marcus is an enormous step up from me. I don’t mention that though.
“How about the cost?” I ask. “won’t it be a lot more expensive, out-of-state-tuition and everything?”
“I’ll get a job. Anything’s worth working for if you want it enough.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“It’s like a whole new era in my life is unfolding, Sutter.”
“Well, that’s great,” I say, “That’s very cool.”
What’s the point of arguing? I should be happy for her. We’re just friends, after all.
“So, what were you calling about?”
For a second I completely forgot why I called. “Nothing,” I say. “It’s just been a while since we talked.”
There’s not much to say after that. She tells me she’ll email me some stuff about the college, pictures and all. She’ll fill me in about the whole excursion when she gets back.
I’m like, “That’s great. That’s great.” Somehow just about my whole vocabulary has frozen up, except for the word great.
A second later, she’s gone, vanished into the enchanted New Mexican night. She’s gone, Aimee’s soon to be gone, and me, all of a sudden, I’m hit with this absolutely incredible thirst.
Though he never says it outright, Sutter’s questions about Cassidy’s new school – the costs, the application deadline – aren’t concerns for her as much as they are his attempt to articulate his fear of her moving away. And Cassidy’s line about anything be worth working for is a less-than-subtle dig at the fact that Sutter never really worked to keep their relationship together. At this point Sutter emotionally freezes behind the word great and, as he has done throughout the entire book, he turns to alcohol at the end to deaden his emotional pain.
Here again, the boy reader gets the benefit of calculating the emotion themselves. They can put themselves in the uncomfortable phone call with a girl and feel the mental block that makes them inarticulate, all without having to suffer the embarrassment or turn to booze.
The trick in presenting emotion to boys is finding a way to make the reader reach in and grab the visceral heart of the scene. Let the character dance around the emotion so the reader can see it from all sides and name it for themselves. Just because boys don’t like to express their own feelings doesn’t mean they don’t have them or want to acknowledge them.
Everybody Wants a Piece of the A…
Let’s see what this next passage can tell us about the letter A in The HEAVES.
…Rich rounded another corner into a narrow alley.
The alley was empty. There was no sign of Darrow.
Rich swore under his breath and ran to the end of the alley. He looked one way, then then the other. Still no sign of Darrow. In fact there was no sign of anyone. Just another narrow passage between two red brick buildings.
How could that happen? Rich looked around in bewilderment. He checked both ways again. The distance was just too great. There was no way Darrow could have sprinted to the end of the passage that fast. The walls were flat and unbroken––no doorways or even windows.
It was just impossible. There was nowhere at all to hide, even if Darrow had spotted he was being followed. The passageway was only about a meter and a half wide. If Rich spread his arms, they’d touch the sides. He could probably brace himself between the two walls and climb up between them.
“Oh…” Rich felt suddenly cold as the possibility occurred to him.
He looked up.
Just in time to see Darrow braced between the two walls above his head. Just in time for him to pull his feet away from one wall and drop toward Rich with the force of a sledgehammer.
A is for Action. Or rather, Actions, because it isn’t simply a question of making things and people move, its about how the action informs the character as well as the story.
This excerpt from Jack Higgins Sharp Shot is typical of ninety percent of the book, the third in a series that follows the adventures of twin teen siblings of British special agent John Chance. It is one, long protracted chase scene with an occasional break to explain a key piece of background information. In fact, it takes nearly forty pages just to figure out who they’re running from, much less why. These books are not necessarily great literature, but there is something to be gained in studying these action-movies disguised as novels.
William Pollack, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Centers for Men and Young Men, writes in his book Real Boys that boys tend to communicate through action. They are also more likely to express empathy and affection through an activity, like sports. For both the boy reader and the boy character, action is a way of exploring and expressing ideas. In the example I just read, it is through physically exploring the narrow alley at the end of the chase where Rich is able to realize where his quarry has escaped to. He doesn’t “think” or “realize” the information, he uses his body to process and physically puzzle it out.
Boys physically puzzling out their environment should come as no surprise to parents of young men. Whenever they take apart a bicycle or a car or a toaster or an old cell phone they are physically exploring the world and learning the mechanics of how things are constructed. And they like the same things in their reading, watching the main characters explore and puzzle out their world, their emotions, their ideas. They like having the pieces laid out in front of them and trying to figure out how they go together again. It is what draws boys toward genre fiction where as much of the story is piecing plot together as it is exploring emotions and conflict.
Language and communication are also physical activities that boys and boy characters utilize, which is why dialog works particularly well in moving a story along. But we need to be careful that the dialog does more than simply define the action.
Put another way, when a character is confronting a situation a writer shouldn’t simply have the character wonder “How do I respond?” which is passive, but rather “What must I do?” which can only be answered with action. Consider also that some boys, younger readers in particular, have a tendency to reenact the stories they have read when they tell them to others, so knowing what the character must do informs their actions and better helps them comprehend what they are reading. This element of retelling a story shouldn’t be taken lightly; it is actually a key component of another point I’ll be making later on.
Dialog is a form of action that has the added advantage of giving the page a welcoming openness with all that glorious white space around it. The impatient reader is going to start flipping ahead to see where the chapter breaks if a book is page after page of inky blackness.
Writers shouldn’t give boys a reason to fan those pages. They need to keep things active, and more importantly, keep protagonists moving.
V for… empathy?
This next excerpt comes from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
Ralph heard the great rock before he saw it. He was aware of a jolt in the earth that came to him through the soles of his feet, and the breaking sound of stones at the top of the cliff. Then the monstrous red thing bounded across the neck and he flung himself flat while the tribe shrieked.
The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, traveled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.
This time the silence was complete. Ralph’s lips formed a word but no sound came out.
The letter V can represent a few things. It can stand for Visuals – like a conch shattering on impact the way bones might when encountering a bolder – or it can stand for Visceral – that moment when an instinctive reaction tugs at the internal organs and leaves a person speechless in the face of such images. But the V I’d like to talk about is Violence.
I have to step aside for a second here and make it clear that I am not an advocate for gratuitous violence. However, we do not live in a violence-free world and to ignore the role violence plays in our lives, in our world, and in the lives of our readers – especially in a boy’s life – sends a very clear message to all our readers: this story is unrealistic.
Golding understands this is in the nature of boys and that how they deal with this violence says a lot about character and society. He doesn’t dwell on the gorier aspects of Piggy’s death but is nonetheless vivid in description and visceral in the reactions the boys have to the incident. There is emotion but it is only described and not explained. And while none of the characters do so willingly, they experience the force of the action physically – Ralph doesn’t just see the rock fall, he hears it and feels it, to say nothing of what it does to Piggy.
Would it help if we called the subject conflict? That’s a nice, pretty little word for it. Struggle is another good word to hide behind. We can talk freely in reviews and on blogs about inner conflicts or character struggles. No one ever says: “How jolly! Let’s discuss the violence of this scene!” because it somehow feels wrong to use the words “violence” and “children” in the same sentence, much less in discussions about writing for children.
But since we’re talking about boys, we need to consider the role of violence among their reading preferences.
Boys don’t talk openly or easily about their personal issues, and short of rewiring culture, we need to give them avenues to examine and explore violence in an articulate and, yes, entertaining way. Otherwise, we doom them to learning all their interpersonal skills from video games and action movies.
And, yes, violence is a form of entertainment. Consider the gladiator battles in the Colosseum and backwoods cockfights. Or the original stories collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the stock and trade of fairy tales. The Grimm stories live up to their name in their original recording but we have seen a whitewashing of the violence from these stories over the past decades. Many refer to this as the “Disneyfication” of the classics, but I promise you there are more spayed and neutered retellings of fairy tales in picture books published every year to dwarf Disney’s efforts seven times, over.
If you’ve ever looked at the men in your life, young and old, and wondered what they saw in that form of theater known as professional wrestling, what the attraction is to professional sports, combat-based video games, and movies with graphic violence, understand that it isn’t the violence that they connect with so much as the characters involved in life-or-death situations. In these violent confrontations what we tend to find is either an attractive villain or an underdog to root for – often both – someone who must literally fight his or her way toward some understanding and resolution.
In Reading Don’t Fix No Chevy’s: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men, authors Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm discovered in talking with boys that they relate strongly to these villains and underdogs. They want to root for the underdog because they understand those feelings, and they admire villains for their freedom and their ability to stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable. It is what draws boys to watch the testosterone infused fake wrestling on television, and in following the narratives of favorite professional sports teams. Understanding violence, which is another form of Action, is how boys come to learn empathy.
We can see this clearly in Lord of the Flies, with prep school boys breaking off into separate tribes, one of self-appointed Savages and another of law-abiding underdogs. Within the framework of Golding’s story a boy reader can flip back and forth between sides and effectively “try out” violent situations as proxies that help them better understand the roles and repercussions of violence. They don’t want a message spelled out for them – just as they don’t want to be told how to feel an emotion – they want to see a problem in action and and sort it out for themselves before the characters do.
Because of this, violence is only successfully employed when both sides are equally matched. It isn’t enough to have a force of evil for the main character to take action against, there has to be a compelling reason for the antagonist to behave as they do. Sadistic, evil villains who wish to control the world do not provide a reader with an opportunity to understand their violence or rage, don’t show them how to empathize with their circumstance, and don’t gain anything from the violence they create as a result. The violence, and those perpetrating the violence, has to have a distinct purpose both in developing character as well as driving the plot.
It is also difficult to ignore that in physical comedy there is usually a lot of violence. The appeal of the physical comedy stylings of The Three Stooges comes from that tradition of Vaudeville (another V word) known as slapstick, which itself goes back to old Punch and Judy plays and the Italian Commedia delle Arte. There is often hostility at the base of a lot of boy humor and, right or wrong, boys look for it as a sign of realism.
In preparation for this article I revisited Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, with it’s prep school setting and confrontations between boys that results in a bout of fisticuffs. While my memory of Cormier as a masterful writer hadn’t changed in the 20 years since I last read this book, I found the fight scene to be wordy, almost too cerebral, in its attempt to convey the sense of the violence without glorifying it. Sentences like the pedestrian
Janza let his fists fly in a flurry of violence…
left me flat. And then there’s this rather leaden sentence:
He had never struck anyone like that before, in fury, premeditated, and he’d enjoyed catapulting all his power toward the target, the release of all his frustrations, hitting back at last, lashing out, getting revenge finally, revenge not only against Janza but all that he represented.
Passages like this kept pushing me out of the scene right when I should have been getting sucked in. I get that Cormier was trying to present the character’s emotional state of mind, but were he to write that story today, with modern audiences culturally more accustomed to violence – at least more so than when he originally wrote the book in 1974 – he’d have to ratchet up the tension and tighten his language in order to hold the reader’s interest.
For better or worse, young readers today are culturally accustomed to level of violence that increases their expectations for their reading to provide the same level of intensity. If writers pull their punches, so to speak, when it comes to violence readers will do more than dodge these stories, they’ll walk away. And, again, if books skirt the issues surrounding violence and don’t show boys a different way of processing and dealing with violence, then we doom them to learning these lessons from perhaps less conscientious sources of popular culture.
Moments That Beg To Be Shared
This is something I suspect all writers aim for when writing, and not only for boy readers but for all readers. I admit, the word Engaging is a bit of a catch-all for everything from holding ta reader’s attention to simply keeping them entertained. But perhaps there’s more to this idea of engagement that boys are looking for in books.
Boys repeatedly have told researchers that they expected to be engaged and absorbed by the story quickly. One conversation from Reading Don’t Fix No Chevy’s demonstrates just how quickly. The boy begins by saying:
‘If it’s interesting, I’ll read it’
The researcher follows up:
‘How long does it take you to decide if something is interesting? You know, you get a story and the teacher says “Read it.” How long does it take you to decide whether you’re going to like it or not?’
And the boy replies:
‘I’ll start reading. I’ll start reading two or three paragraphs. That’s the way I see it.’
Please note, the boy said two or three paragraphs, not pages. As we used to say when I was a teen: Harsh!
To meet that sort of expectation, a scene needs to hit the ground running. One sentence to set the scene and – boom! – plot in motion, people talking and doing things. If a book can start with dialog, even better. Details can back-filled along the way, added as beats that fill the spaces in conversation, as thoughts that filter bits and pieces of the narrative.
The prose should remain visual but with caution: visual doesn’t necessarily mean lots of description. Whether or not the perception is reality, boys complain about a lot of description getting in the way of the story. One of the phrases I picked up from teens long ago is “mental picture,” the phrase or bit of information that paints a very vivid image in the head of the reader or listener. Writers could spend a lot of time describing how something looks but boys are better served by a precise mental picture quickly imprinted on the boy reader’s brain.
The interest boys have in comics and graphic novels comes from their interest in the visual. They like decoding imagery and meaning and are quite capable, in this way, of taking in very deep subjects such as the cat-and-mouse symbolism of Nazi Germany in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, or the cross-cultural, multiple-narrative aspects of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. But while I think that graphic novels are a great addition to the literature available to children and young adults I sometimes feel like it is viewed as a panacea for reluctant readers, as opposed to actually taking what works from graphic novels and applying them to fiction. It is almost as if adults have thrown up their hands and said “Well, boys like these comics things, so lets just keep giving them more of the same” without really understanding what is going on.
So I’m going to cheat a bit here, because what I think the true meaning of Engaging for boy readers really comes down to another E word, Exportability. This includes those elements within a story boys can take away and export into their daily conversations. Not unlike that idea I mentioned earlier in the section on Actions about boys reenacting the story to their friends. It is the idea of exportability that comes from movies and video games and graphic novels that boys are looking for, and not finding as often, in their reading.
The sort of texts that can be exported easily tend to be reductive; a joke or short skit from a TV show, box scores from the sports section, the “cool parts” of books and movies. The value in taking exportability into consideration isn’t limited to retaining a certain type of reader: easily exportable elements make stronger talking points for any word-of-mouth transmission. In a world full of kids sending text messages and Twittering, posting videos of their lives to YouTube and blogging and other social media, opportunities to easily share parts of a books’ story as part of their lives becomes part of a book’s promotion. And by promotion I’m not simply talking about sales and advertising, but the idea of promoting stories and storytelling, about the value of stories as a vital part of our culture. Exportability is what keeps the oral tradition alive.
In my original lecture I stepped aside from the podium at this moment to engage in a demonstration of how exportability works. I picked up a favorite book from 2009 – Tim, Defender of Earth by Sam Enthoven – and proceeded to summarize the story by highlighting the most exportable moments in the story. In doing so I attempted to capture my inner 14 year old self and summarize what I thought was great about the book. If you can imagine a teen boy telling his friends about a book that had a talking kraken, a T-Rex, a mad professor in the form of a killer nanobot swarm, and an epic battle that threatens to wipe out modern-day London you get the gist of what I was up to.
I realize that in relating this book it sounds a bit “high concept,” that is, it throws out some pretty huge and reductive “what if’s” to build a story around. Sort of like Jurassic Park meets Godzilla with a bit of Pirates of the Caribbean thrown in for good measure. So while those elements might seem a bit over the top – a mad scientist who can reconstitute himself through the use of nanobots, or a sentient 6,000-year-old kraken giving advice via telepathy to an adolescent T-Rex – these elements and the way they are mixed into the story are what give it exportability to an enthusiastic boy reader who will most definitely engage with the book and then turn around and share that with anyone who will listen.
Think about the stories that have had the greatest impact on you. In sharing those stories with others, what sort of elements have you found yourself “exporting” to others? Where adults can often talk about mood or setting what boys gravitate toward are the scenes of action, those elements that are unlike anything they have ever encountered before. What actions within the story would be the kind of thing a boy would share with his friends on the playground at recess? Not plot elements but exportable moments make a story truly stand out. That’s what boys want. It doesn’t take an endless series of exportable moments, but their potency will determine how many are necessary – either lots of smaller moments that keep readers engaged, or larger set pieces that will carry the readers along from one to the next.
With boys, when considering what is engaging, think Exportability.
It’s taken a while to get to the letter S, but that’s what makes this next point ironic.
S is for short.
And that’s all I need to say.
Roger Sutton, editor of Horn Book magazine, noted on his blog that young adult novels seemed to be increasing in page counts by as much as 200%. He later admitted this was a flawed method of measure as font size and page layout have a lot to do with the size of a book, and that word count would be a better rule of measure. The fact remains clear even to the casual observer, books have gotten larger and their word count has definitely increased.
There are readers, many of them boys, who will pick up that book and judge it by its girth, by its font size, by the amount of white on the page. As a former bookseller, if I had a dollar for every boy I ever witnessed fan a book’s pages as a method for deciding whether or not to read it, I’d have enough money today to buy a small publishing house.
Thomas Newkirk in Misreading Masculinity notes that, for many boy readers, “unless you are reading fluently in late elementary school, getting an assignment to read a two-hundred page book will just defeat you.”
Mind you, that’s not two-hundred manuscript pages, that’s two hundred final printed pages. With middle grade boys that means hewing closer to the 20,000 word range as opposed to the 30,000 or 40,000 words that has been typical for middle grade books.
Another reason for keeping things short: boys like to reread. Smith and Wilhelm in Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys found that boys read the first time for plot and pleasure, and subsequent times to understand the mechanics of what is going on. This fits in with that whole phenomenon you may have observed of boys tearing things apart and putting them back together. For boys, a narrative is a puzzle that rewards their repeated efforts.
This is tricky because rereading is rarely done or encouraged in schools, where boys get a lot of their exposure to books. And parents will often discourage boys from rereading the same book over and over out of a fear that, somehow, rereading is bad for them (while at the same time complaining about the cost of purchasing a book that “will only be read once”). There is little authors can do about this problem beyond writing books so irresistible – and short – that boy readers will want to reread them no matter what anyone else tells them.
Consider finally that reading is a silent, immobile, passive activity. If you were to pick three traits to describe boys, silent, immobile and passive would not spring to the top of the list, and in fact are the polar opposite of boys. Many boys have even come to equate reading as a form of punishment, so they shouldn’t be tortured any more than necessary.
Short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters, short books.
Short is punchy and inviting.
Short is good.
Humor, Emotion, Actions, Violence, Exportability, Shortness. Ladies and gentleman, the HEAVES of books that are more boy-friendly.
While it’s easy to see the sort of elements within fiction that make books more “boy friendly” there is another group, the NONS, that deal more with the types of books boys are interested in. As a result these interests tend to speak more toward genre and style, and they incorporate many of the previously mentioned HEAVES as well.
Non the First: Nonfiction
Boys, in general, come to a point where they begin to prefer nonfiction to fiction. Some eventually return to fiction, some read fiction and nonfiction concurrently, and others never return to fiction. For many years when surveys were done of boys and their reading habits the only reading that was recognized was fiction; newspapers, magazines, and informational texts were not included as “legitimate” reading, and this message was telegraphed to boys who felt their interests were invalidated. But we’ve emerged from those dark days (we have, haven’t we?) and now solidly recognize that all reading is good.
Still, parents, teachers, and many adults seem surprised at how boys gravitate toward nonfiction, never questioning how they might have been driven there by what they find lacking in fiction. Does this mean we should simply give up on trying to sell boys on fiction, or can we look at what boys find appealing in non-fiction and see if it can be applied to fictional narratives?
The research on boys responses to school-based textbook narratives is interesting. Boys don’t seem to have a problem with textbooks but with the presentation of the material they find there. They prefer “storied texts” where information is part of the narrative, as one boy noted in Smith and Wilhelm’s Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys:
“There’s no emotion in textbooks. There has to be emotion if I’m going to care.”
Another boy said he looked for narratives that
“jump-start my brain”
I would think this would be good news for writers of historical fiction because it means they don’t necessarily alienate a boy audience with historical dramas, or with creative approaches to non-fiction, so long as it hits those emotional moments that boys like to feel without being told how to feel them.
It isn’t the content of the text that bothers them but the way it’s presented. Action is still the primary focus that boys look for, but they are more than willing to delve into serious historical stories provided they are given emotion and a solid story. Or as another boy in Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys warns: “not enough action, too much description” will kill a story for them.
Of course, there’s more to nonfiction than narratives like biography or historical accounts. What about the information dumps like the Guinness Book of World Records or anything in the Eyewitness series of books organized by subject? While I’ve met some adults who assume these sort of books are appealing because boys don’t have the attention span for traditional fiction the real appeal comes from a hunger for information and a desire to learn something new or “cool.” Now couple this with their desire to see more emotion and their inclination for stories full of action and you get…
A mess? Not necessarily. It is easy to see how biographies and textbook narratives could gain from incorporating action and emotions, but it’s hard for fiction to compete with books that are often in full color and very visual… unless the author were to include colorful scenes with the same sort of visual impact. Oh, and lots of nifty facts, awesome gadgets, crazy machines, all drawn from real life.
Or not. As part of “jump-starting” a boy’s brain, big ideas can include the fantastic. Ray Bradbury was once asked about the interest kids had in his work (and I believe it was college kids back in the early 60s) and he said it was all because science fiction posed the questions that allowed his readers to ponder big ideas. The recent interest in dystopian fiction certainly is full of things that jump-start young minds to consider big subjects in ways they might not have otherwise.
I’ve talked to adults who found Neal Shusterman’s Unwind to be a dark, horrifying vision of the future with characters that could have been better written. The teens I’ve talked to who have read it talk about the issues the book raises: abortion and the right to life, politics, religious fanaticism, terrorism, and the pressure kids feel in trying to please their parents. Shusterman’s book would appear to be the farthest one could get to nonfiction, and yet the themes and issues it raises are squarely the serious topics of nonfiction.
Stories are full of opportunities to include factual details that are either exportable moments to be recounted later, or as part of creating an authentic boy character. I haven’t encountered a boy yet who didn’t like “sharing” bits of factual information or bigger ideas no matter how tangentially connected to the conversation at hand. Granted, boys don’t go actively searching a narrative for factual tidbits, but they are likely to remain more engaged if their desire for information in fictional narratives – albiet without too much description – was incorporated into their reading experience.
But we’re still left with the question: What, exactly, are boys looking for in nonfiction? Is it simply a case of throwing together a bunch of random facts, statistics, and trivia with lots of visuals? That will work, but the question remains: why are they drawn to this material? What do they get from this sort of reading that feeds their hearts and minds? The answers are fairly complicated.
Non the Second: Non-linearity.
When I was working as a bookseller in a children’s bookstore there was a scene I could play out in its entirety the moment a mother and a son walked through the door. Their mission was as clear without a word spoken: the boy needed a book. Often the word “good” was attached to the front of the quest as in “We need to find him a good book to read.”
And by good what the mother was asking for was either something without pictures, meaning no graphic novels, or something with a narrative she could easily recognize as fiction. The reasons were varied. For some mothers – and it was always mothers, father rarely ever went book shopping with their boys – the idea that their son’s failing reading habits were somehow the failing of non-fiction, that literacy and fluency was somehow only accomplished through a story that followed Freitag’s pyramid. Indeed, most exams and research on fluency and literacy was, until a few years ago, based on studies done using only fiction, and boys suffered for it.
If you put a boy in a room with a table, a book at one end and a piece of dead electronics with a screwdriver at the other, I can almost guarantee you the book will not be the first thing touched. Because they love puzzles, and games, and they like sorting things out for themselves. The puzzle of what’s inside the box is a temptation nearly impossible to ignore. Eventually the book may be read, but to a boy the book doesn’t necessarily hold the same promise of a puzzle to be solved as that ultimate question: what’s inside the box.
A boy reader’s experience has taught them that the book contains an ordered beginning, middle and an end above all things; the box contains possibilities.
And this is where I suggest that if we’re looking to appeal to boy readers that we think outside the line, think non-linearly.
Am I suggesting that fiction needs to take on the shape of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure title, with multiple pathways and different outcomes? Certainly not, and in fact it could be argued that those books only pretend to be non-linear, because despite the reader getting to choose a path at any given juncture, the story still moves in a traditional straight-line narrative.
[And as an aside, in many of those books almost 60% of the choices a reader made would lead to death, which would seem to imply that at any juncture in our own lives these books would have us believe we have a better than 50% chance of dying. Imagine the odds of our being here, today, right now, if we had to face that sort of weighted dilemma at every juncture! Ever wonder what one of these books looks like mapped out? Check this out.]
But back to the boy in the bookstore with his exasperated mother for a moment. She knows he needs to read – his teacher may have suggested he get more practice in, or she may simply be concerned that he not fall behind – but cannot see the value in his desire to read, constantly, a two-inch thick book of baseball statistics or book on magic tricks he has no desire to perform. “What does he get out of it?” one mother once asked me, failing to understand what the fascination could be.
The question puzzled me as well because although I understood boys preferences for reading books of unconnected facts and statistics I couldn’t explain why. That was when I stumbled on an article in the New York Times that put it together for me.
In an article titled “Reading the Koran,” Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University, explained not only how the Koran is constructed but how it is designed to be read and interpreted. The text, having been revealed in sequences of varying length over a period of nearly two dozen years, is not assembled in either a chronological nor thematic order. Additionally, many of the Prophetic stories appear several times throughout the text. Then Ramadan said something that finally made it all click together for me.
“[T]he task of human intelligence is to recompose the narrative structure, to bring together all the elements, allowing us to grasp the facts.”
To recompose the narrative.
I think about all those boys I saw, and knew growing up, who would spend hours pouring over the sports sections of the newspapers, looking at the standings of various teams, taking in all that data and then turning around and explaining all the possible future scenarios for playoffs; Or those boys who obsessively carried the Guinness Book of World Records around and give a complete narrative of, say, human birth anomalies, building from the most benign to the most extreme the same way a writer would build toward a narrative climax. The information presented was not initially absorbed in a linear fashion by these boy readers but they were able to bring the various elements together, to grasp the facts as Ramadan has suggested, and recompose a narrative that made sense to them.
When you think about it, this isn’t any different than the investigator in a crime novel (another favorite genre of boy readers) who must piece together the evidence to best explain what has already happened. Taking this idea further, when you examine the structure of mysteries or crime dramas, the story is already out of sequence: there is a body in the morgue or some other mystery to be solved that requires piecing together the jumbled narrative bits in order to understand how this incident came to be. The story opens with post-mortem, the denouement, and must build backwards and sideways towards a cumulative narrative understanding.
That’s all well and good for mystery fiction, you might be thinking, but how does this work within other types of fiction?
Perhaps it would help to think of the narrative as a non-linear as a puzzle. Throughout we find the main characters of stories discovering facts, making new observations, and generally amassing a certain amount of information until they can make all the necessary connections. I would argue that the more nonlinear the story reveals its information the greater interest and enjoyment there will be for a boy reader. If a story doesn’t lend itself to an extreme non-linear narrative (and short of a time travel story or an experimental fiction few do) at least the details of character and motivation can be parceled out in a fashion that invites puzzle-solving.
From an author’s point of view we come to another one of those basic elements in differentiating boy and girl characters. What would seem plain and straightforward to a girl could be anything but for a boy, and capitalizing on these traits could be the source of a very realistic tension between boy and girl characters that adds realism and interest to your story that will retain both.
I think an excellent recent example of all of this is Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. Set in the late 1970s, we meet Miranda who appears to be exploring the subtle and intricate shift in friendships among her peers. But very quickly Stead begins playing with the narrative’s timeline by referencing events in the future and the past (to say nothing of the story being set in the past), buffeted by the arrival of mysterious notes that appear to be able to predict the future. Yes, she is telling a time travel story, and there is a mystery element involved, but while the pieces all add up to the climax that includes seemingly unrelated people they don’t build directly off each other.
For older boys a book like The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larson is another treasure trove of non-linearity. Packed with maps, illustrations, and all sorts of marginalia the book demands that a reader pull themselves from the text and explore the documentation that accompanies the story. Here, again, the reader is asked to sort through and interpret what is put before them and to recombine the narrative. Beyond being a fad, this sort of narrative could signal a harbinger of books to come. Ebooks, perhaps?
In this discussion on non-linear narratives it is impossible to ignore the influence of the internet and the possible connection of hyperlinked fiction of the future. It isn’t coincidence that this post includes links to source information; chances are good many of you checked out one of the links and then came back to finish reading. This idea of jumping away and back to a narrative is naturally appealing to boys, and whether or not this truly changes the way narratives are constructed in the future only time will tell.
When I initially began actively researching boys and their reading preferences one of the first ideas I was struck with came from Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys by Smith and Wilhelm. The question “What do boys really want from books?” seemed to have a fairly easy answer. Boys are hungry for the new, and they seek it out in texts as well as with technology. They’ll go out of their way to avoid routines. And when they look at texts they use words like “new” “different” or “surprising.” Novelty isn’t necessarily what they are looking for, but a narrative that isn’t like something they’ve seen before helps them see things in a new way.
Boys want novels that are, well, novel.
Non the Third: Non-predictable.
Admittedly, the term non-predictable is a bit of a cheat. Unpredictable is the better word here, but either way it is something boys repeatedly looked for. This includes everything from plot structure to characters. The moment a story looks exactly like something they’ve seen before, they’re uninterested, which can be a bit of a problem if we’re all clinging to the same story structures, plotlines, and character types: the rules of three, Freitag’s pyramid, the happy ending, the captain of the football team, the three act structure. The answer to the question “What makes a book non-predictable?” comes down to questioning and justifying the very elements we assume are necessary in what we consider “good” writing.
Satire and irony are as good as speculative fiction in helping boys see things fresh. It lets them see the story like an inside joke they are part of. The same thing that draws them to political cartoons, Gary Larson’s Far Side comics, or the absurd humor of Monty Python also brings them toward a classic mash-up like Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the more recent history-meets-monsters Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith. While both books play broadly within the confines of their genres (science fiction and horror, respectively) they do so in order to take a different approach to more serious topics: the philosophy of “Why are we here” in Hitchhiker’s and the question of historical accuracy in Lincoln. No, I don’t think either book is serious in this regard, only that they provoke interest in these areas by poking fun at them.
Similarly, the edgy and non-predictable are also strong pulls, but the sort of titles boys have called edgy and non-predictable might be surprising:
** Hamlet, because (the first time they hear the story) they have no idea what’s going to happen next. Aside from Hamlet’s declaration of avenging his father’s death there is nothing that foreshadows any of the revelations that take place. Feigned insanity? Pirates? Hamlet’s uncle and his mom? Ophelia’s suicide? Highest body count in English theatre, main characters dropping right and left? And all of it predicated on the word of a ghost?
** Into the Wild, because the narrator ignores the practical advice and he is given, goes off to explore his freedom and – whoa! – he dies! They have been so conditioned to believe that the main character sees the story through to the end that when he or she doesn’t it’s like a shock to they system. The fact that it is non-fiction may be seen as a bonus here, but I think is completely irrelevant compared to the idea that the hero’s journey goes awry.
What I find interesting about these two examples is that neither are the traditional stomping grounds for unpredictable storytelling: speculative fiction. When creating stories based in worlds that closely resemble our own it is easy to play the big “what if” game for novelty, but in the madness of Hamlet and the arrogance of Into the Wild we find to realistic stories that give no indication of how things will ultimately turn out.
The problem with getting around the predictable might come from the narrative structure itself, and how we teach writers to construct (and train readers to expect) stories in a specific format and style. We talk about the main character and their desires and goals, and out of these desires come a plot, and from the plot we can tease out threads of connection and themes. But what happens when this approach is turned on its head?
Comic book creator Alan Moore, who wrote The Watchmen and V for Vendetta among others, explains in his book Writing for Comics that the way he likes to structure a story is to first decide on the social idea, then work a framework for it, the write it. That’s pretty nuts-and-bolts, but I think what’s important here is that he’s thinking about the social message first, not tacking it on to a story idea like a theme. His characters aren’t goal-driven in the sense that we understand story structure from Aristotle, but are caught up in the driving forces of life that are more like building blocks that create a different kind of narrative pyramid.
I find myself coming back to something New York playwright Sarah Ruhl said in a profile by John Lahr in The New Yorker about her own approach to storytelling.
“Aristotle has held sway for many centuries, but I feel our culture is hungry for Ovid’s way of telling stories,” she said, describing Ovid’s narrative strategy as “one thing transforming into another.”
Aristotle is dead, we just haven’t acknowledged it yet. There, I said it.
This collection of transformations Ruhl suggests not only describes how we tend to view our own lives – not as a goal-driven collection of narratives – but is also the best way to describe the narrative of Hamlet and The Hitchhiker’s Guide and many of the works of teen-friendly novelist Kurt Vonnegut. This Ovidian approach can provide an alternative basis for building stories that create a new reading experiences for an audience of boys hungry for the unpredictable.
Non the Fourth: Nonsense
Boys love nonsense. They love wordplay and the fun of saying things just to hear them out loud. They actually love language so much – as opposed to talking – I’m almost certain they love it over girls. As a result, when it’s not flowery, boys do love poetry.
I would implore you at this point to reconsider the meaning of the word nonsense, as “trifling or insignificant,” and how often seemingly trifling or insignificant details are key elements to mysteries requiring a solution. What is fiction if not a collection of seemingly insignificant details that come to hold so much more meaning as the narrative unfolds? Boys love puzzles and problem-solving, and it is this recognition of something that is out of place or not making sense that draws them in. Detective and genre fiction excel at presenting information that appears on its face as either foolish or absurd only to have it become hugely significant.
To those who insist that nonsense is folly and frivolity I need only point to Exhibit A: Lewis Carroll. His two Alice adventures contain more nonsense than anything by Dav Pilkey or Daniel Pinkwater, and they are treasured stories boys enjoy despite having a female main characters. I’ll address gender in my summary, but the fact remains that what draws boys into this book is precisely the nonsense of it all, the wordsmithery, the punning and poetry and gamesmanship. And if you’ve been following this series along you might have guessed a few other elements that boys have latched onto.
While Carroll’s works can be dismissed as an anomaly – a classic that has slipped through the cracks – I’d like to linger a bit on this particular story a little longer to examine its lack of sense and what it tells us about boy readers.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a mathematician and logician (among other things) with a love of poetry and puzzles, often one contained within the other. All you have to do is take a look at the Alice in Wonderland of The Hunting of the Snark, both annotated by modern logician Martin Gardner, to learn just how deep Carroll’s nonsense really went. Riddles and puns are enjoined by acrostic and secret messages and work on whatever level the reader finds accessible. But even stripped of all this, the stories and words themselves have a style and tone that engages readers, they revel in portmanteau words (a term coined by Carroll) to explain the words he invented for Jabberwocky. Kids today memorize and enjoy Jabberwocky to this day, some voluntarily, and they do so because nonsense contains a very crucial element:
The joy of words.
A lot of modern education seems to beat a lot of joy out of childhood, mostly unintentionally, but I think losing the joy of words is part of what sends boys packing when it comes to reading. Because nonsense verse is viewed as a frivolity, once poetry units become formalized it becomes necessary to teach to the curriculum, which tends to mean teaching meaning and structure and form and content via serious poems. When we teach Kipling’s “If” or Poe’s “The Raven” we trade away some of the joy previously found in Edward Lear or Ogden Nash or even Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss because… well, that the nature of things. We take out time to set aside childish things very seriously, and in doing so send the message that those nonsense verses are lesser poems. Every time the message is sent that what is enjoyed is somehow inferior it shouldn’t be a surprise that interest drops.
And it isn’t just poetry. Captain Underpants and Flat Stanley are tolerated because they are intended for emerging readers, but as elementary school trudges on books become more serious, and by young adulthood humor is merely entertainment.
Until I began to think about these issues with boy readers I hadn’t considered how one teacher’s allowance for nonsense in the classroom might have saved me from becoming a nonreader. In fifth and sixth grade I was part of a multi-grade open classroom (ah, the 70s) and we reported to different teachers for different units. For my Language Arts unit Don Mack had weekly packets that began with dictation that contained spelling, vocabulary, and grammar. The week began with him reading something aloud and us kids copying it down, later to correct and identify errors and for use throughout the unit. Sometimes the dictation was nonfiction, sometimes a timely news event, but my memory was that half the time it was poetry. At least that’s what he called it. Lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” came up against Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” and Shel Silverstien’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout.”
I can still remember the subversive joy of hearing my teacher read this nonsense and legitimizing it as classroom instruction. In doing so I suddenly felt more comfortable checking out The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear from the library to the point of memorizing it. I became so familiar with the rhythms of the Limerick that I began writing my own. Three years later I was so comfortable with poetry that I was writing parodies of classic poems for class assignments (and to this day I wish I had my lost-homework epic “Turn It In” based on Kipling’s “Gunga Din”). The point being that without having that spirit of nonsense honored and nurtured I probably would have lost interest in the so-serious literature presented in school.
And lets not forget puns. Groan all you want, but boys love puns. They love the duplicity of meaning and the commradery of the in-joke. Malapropisms and neologisms also feed their daily conversations outside of class, where they suddenly feel freed to speak their minds, free of the confines of what is “proper.”
This I think is key: nonsense is a doorway to subversion of authority, a way boys establish, maintain, or reclaim their sense of worth. Certainly among peers, where a revelie of clever nonsense can garner certain standing among friends. But also we so often look at boys as not being expressive enough, and then when they are we dismiss their nonsense as a lack of seriousness. But I would argue that we’re ever to have boys express themselves seriously they may need to get the nonsense out of their system first; if it’s never given a proper airing I don’t think we should expect boys to be better at communication when their sole “practice” is limited to what is proper, polite, and serious.
In books, then, I would advocate for more nonsense. It doesn’t have to be complete and utter – it could be a single character that behaves nonsensically, or nonsense slang – but it should be a component to the story. Beyond humor, a touch of nonsense adds an unpredictable air to the story, provides the reader with a curve ball that catches them off guard. Give the reader context and let other characters (especially girls) react accordingly.
I promise you, boys will love it. Let them revel in the joy of words.
to be continued….
contents of this article c. 2010 david elzey