Archive for September, 2009

feeling socratic

Why do we assume that all technology is good, and that our failure to provide children with that technology will doom them to a future where they are left behind?

When we insist on computers being introduced in the classroom, why is it used as a tool in support of other subjects – research and reports – and not a study unto itself?  Why is a foreign language more important than understanding binary and programming languages?  English is already the language of international business, as are computer programming languages, so why are we not teaching kids how to program in the elementary schools when their brains are more open to new forms of communication?

And why don’t we teach any cultural history, particularly music?  Shouldn’t kids know about the different forms of music from the 20th century without having to rely on their parents?  Shouldn’t American children learn about the origins of jazz in their own country, or how the blues are linked to slavery?  Don’t they deserve to understand the roots of folk music, and protest music, and about rock and roll?  Are these the sorts of things that we trust are generally tossed in contextually alongside all the other history, that we assume are given weight and meaning equal with other forms of culture?

Why do we continue to teach world history from an American point of view, rather than a world point of view?  If we’re always so right, so good, then why would we fear dissenting opinions?  Can’t we trust the conclusions people will draw on their own?

We once had classes where school-aged citizens were taught about propaganda, about the evils of government-generated attempts to undermine our values and worth as individuals, so why has this been removed from our education and left to the media punditry?  Couldn’t we include some media awareness, an examination of how commercials and advertising work to our disadvantage?  Shouldn’t we know, as citizens, when we are being manipulated into accepting policies and lies that are not in our best interests?  Isn’t this the best way to keep our democracy from being abused by corporate and political powers?

Or should we just accept things the way they have been trudging along for the last 80 years, keep our educational system as rigidly in place as it was when designed to train fodder for the military and factory work, and insist we are the model nation for all others to follow on this earth?

What are we so afraid of?

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calling all boy readers!

I sincerely there are few (if any) male readers between the ages of 8 and 19 years old, but perhaps some of you out there know some boys in this age range who might be able to help a graduate student with a little informal research for a lecture he is planning to give in January.

Without unduly influencing the answers, the questions I am curious to hear answers to are as follows:

* What plots or types of stories are you tired of seeing in fiction?  Any good examples?

* What’s the most recent book that made you want to close a book within the first three pages?  Why?

* Have you ever read a book that felt “fake,” like the author was trying too hard to achieve something but failed?  What was the book, and did you finish it anyway?

There is a hidden irony in that the readers I really want to hear answer these questions are non-readers and reluctant readers who might not be as aware of their reading preferences.  Boys who are turned off to reading usually aren’t turned off by the books themselves; the issues that drive most boys away from reading tend to be social.  But I’ve read enough books aimed at middle grade and young adult readers that I strongly feel miscalculate the desires of the intended audience.  But I want to hear it from the boys to know for sure, I need to know what they’re thinking.

So how about it?  Know any boys?  Know any boys who’d be willing to answer these questions?  I don’t need names, all confidentially will be maintained, the freedom to speak is greatly encouraged. What I do not need are any more studies and surveys and research that discusses preferences in reading subjects, or general trends in reading.  I got those a-plenty and almost NONE of them actually provided their subjects open questions.  How can you tell what a boy is thinking by having him check off boxes and categories?  (As if we can ever really tell what a boy is thinking, no matter how articulate!)

Teachers?  Librarians?  Parents?  Feel free to get in touch with me directly.

(Note: the three questions above were changed slightly on 1 November 2009 to more accurately reflect my curiosities.)

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achieven like stephen

It came to me while I was moving a bookcase across the room in my younger daughter’s room: what I want to be is the Stephen King of children’s and young adult books.  But without writing horror, or the roadside accident, or living in Maine.  Oh, and I’ll need a time machine to go back about thirty years because I’ve gotten kind of a late start on this.

I’ve looked at the literary side of writing and, while I would long to see myself among the shelves of classics in the field, I just don’t think I can wrap my mind around the twinned ability of crafting a good story and telling it artfully.  I want to, desperately, I do.  I want to write that book that people go “Wow, how the hell did anyone ever think of that?!”  but I’m afraid all I’m going to muster is “Yeah, that was pretty good.”

I consider this an improvement in my mental health.  I have supplanted the fears that I cannot write, that I don’t deserve to be published, and that I’ll never make it with a reluctance acceptance that I may never achieve a masterpiece.

Which is not to say that Stephen King hasn’t written masterworks and achieved a popularity even literary writers who would like to look down their noses at him would envy.

It was never the goal to be like any one writer, or to achieve a certain level of status (and sales), it was and is simply the desire to tell stories that people like.  For someone with my general level of impatience, I guess I wish I’d realized what I wanted to do much sooner.

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The word came back on my most recent revision that, yes, I’m getting there, but I’m not there yet.

The story arc is fine, the tension appropriately taught, the characters in place, but it appears I need to give the antagonists narrative arcs as well.  Actually, they do have their narrative arcs, I simply haven’t illuminated them all yet.  And as characters ebb further from the main character it becomes crucial that these narratives be seen and observed in a way that both the reader and the main character can draw their conclusions together.

I’ll admit, despite working until the last minute on this packet deadline, I secretly hoped the story could be closer to being finished.  Hoped, but not realistically.  There was a time – maybe six months ago? – when I wasn’t sure if this would ever be finished, if these goofy middle grade boys I had created were simply too elusive for a novice writer like myself.  As recently as July I was still considering abandoning them if I had even the faintest hint that their story was beyond my reach.  And mind you, this isn’t a complicated or particularly challenging story, but its shape and tone had been elusive to me.

But only a few months later and it keeps feeling closer to being done.  The way the horizon keeps moving ahead of you as you walk toward it is a little how this feels.  A year ago I would have said, with the completion of the first very rough draft, that I had reached the mountain top, could see the end destination across the valley below though the path was obscured by dense foliage.  The analogy works on another level for me because I remember, hiking the Sierra’s as a Boy Scout, how many times we reached a peak or a pass and could see our destination ahead of us but there always seemed to be one more peak perpetually in the way.  Finally, we would reach our camp for the day and be surprised because we hadn’t seen it coming, there was no “one last peak” to measure it by.

So that’s where I am right now.  Somewhere in between that last peak and the final destination, somewhere in the valley foliage unable to see how close I am to the end.  The light is shifting, I can tell progress has been made, and it all seems easier than when I first was getting my mountain legs, but I have no idea where camp is.

My chief antagonist is waiting for some scenes of her own to chew on.

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It’s in the air.

Everywhere I turn these days I keep stumbling into discussions about boys and books and reading and literacy.  Either this is one of those situations where the universe is suddenly focused a sharp light in one direction and everyone is looking, or I’m seeing what’s always been there with the eyes of the newly awakened.

Just yesterday I got the go-ahead on my lecture topic for my January residency.  As part of fulfilling my graduation requirements I need to give a 45 minute lecture on the topic of my choosing to my fellow students and faculty at Vermont College.  This has caused me no end of anxiety because while most people are willing, content, and even excited to craft lectures from their Critical Theses,  am not one of those people.  As much as I learned and can share about the topic of accuracy in picture book biographies, the thesis was a personal exploration for me, a way of picking apart the sub-genre in order to not only understand it but to one day, eventually, write a few of my own.  One day.

But then one of my classmates asked a pretty basic question and it hit me like a tonne of soggy peat: what are you passionate about?


Before I entered the program, while I was still mulling over unformed ideas about children’s literature, I considered pursuing a radical idea I had about non-linear non-fiction.  It was founded on the idea that boys are naturally drawn to non-fiction and the idea of a recombined narrative that came from a snippet of and article in the New York Times explaining how one can read and re/mis/interpret the Koran.  Yeah, I know, a little out there.  But it really came down to boys and reading.

And since then everything seems to circle back around to boys and reading.  Whenever people asked what sort of books I wrote the answer would generally be middle grade and young adult.  After a while that wasn’t good enough.  At residency a couple July’s back Louise Hawes had us do an exercise where our adult selves had a conversation with our younger selves, and in that exercise I was torn between wanting to talk to the 11 year old me and the 17 year old me.

And that, it turned out, was my audience.

So now when people ask I’m just as likely to say I write middle grade and YA books for boys, because that is ultimately who I envision as my audience when I write.  But how does one write for a boy?  Are their types and tropes and plotlines specific to boys?  Is it all action and no feeling?  What exactly is a boy boy book, and what can we as writers do to retain and encourage boys to read and keep reading?

And thus my lecture topic was born.

Four months.  That’s the amount of time I have to work this thing out.  I am finding new information and resources every day, but if you have a particular piece of wisdom, insight, or research to share, please, or if you know a professional who could be of assistance – teacher, librarian, bookseller, scholar –by all means, get in touch.

Boys, boy books, and boy-friendly reading.  Boys.  We’re gonna represent come Jaunary.

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I know I’ve mulled over the idea of summer reading before – and recently the issue of reading has cropped up again in a different guise in the New York Times – but as we enter the last days of summer the girls are going through the dreaded ritual of fighting us over the last of the summer reading and homework.  You know the drill: the bargaining to do X number of pages before lunch so they can spend the afternoon with friends, to read Y chapters after dinner.  And when the goals go unmet, and the unfinished work compounds, there’s the renegotiation, and the yelling, the promising, the anxiety, the tears that it’s impossible, that it’s stupid…

And you know what?  It is stupid.

I have been fighting this internally for a good deal of time, trying to balance what I know is right with wanting to be a good upstanding parent, and it’s been a disaster.  Forcing kids to read is wrong, forcing them to read from lists is doubly wrong, and forcing them to read over the summer is wrong times a brazillion.

The ideal is to be fighting kids to put books down so they go outside to play.  Kids should be calling each other up when they finish a book they love and trading them with each other like… whatever kids trade these days.  They should be begging us for book suggestions, and we should be able to supply them with titles to check out from the library, if not from our own shelves.

That this isn’t the way things are is a colossal failure both of our education system and our jobs as parents.

If schools didn’t kill the joy of reading from kids they would still want to read with the same excitement they had when they first learned how to read.  Reading doesn’t one day become uncool, adults MAKE it uncool.  They take something fun and make it work.  They use books designed specifically for classrooms that kill the joy of reading.  These neutron bombs of the written word kill the brain but leave the shell of the child alive and teach them to hate reading.  Then they turn around and say “Now THIS is an excellent work of fiction, and if you do not agree then you don’t know what’s good for you.”  In essence, further destroying any remaining joy in the process.

Parents fail kids by condoning this activity, by failing to model reading, and by showing a disdain for the books that do interest their children. Many parents don’t know what their children are reading if it isn’t on the news or featured in a magazine article, and few could name a book that won a Newbery or Caldecott medal (or can even tell the difference between the awards).  Then because the school says children must do their summer reading, and sends home a big list of books to choose from or in some cases assigns specific books, we parents march dutifully in step and break out the whip to make sure it gets done.

We fool ourselves into believing that it keeps their minds active to do so, and that reading is important, but it’s lip service and kids know it.  They know it and they lose respect for us because for once they can see that we aren’t truly serving as their advocates.  That’s why they fight it.

I say this now, knowing I’m only half the parental unit in this household and that I’m likely to wimp out: I will no longer support, encourage, or insist that summer reading be done as per the dictates of the schools.  Our girls read just as many – if not more – books on their own then the number required, year round, and I am no longer interested in attempts to kill their joy of reading.

Likewise with summer homework.  Studies about the efficacy of summer homework are still being debated and anecdotally I can see that it does more harm than good.  It sends my older daughter into fits of hysterics that she cannot do it, that it’s frustrating, and she walks around saying she hates math as a result.  This is exactly how we kill kids off math and science and anything else we force them to do without providing them an internal incentive.  It doesn’t accomplish anything to have a child do any sort of educational work in a state of duress, and any advantages claimed by the pro-homework crowd are completely obliterated by the anxiety produced.

Last I checked, a child could not be failed or kept from social promotion in the schools for failure to do extracurricular activities which, technically, these are.  Extracurricular.  As in outside the curriculum.

I think I am prepared to go case by case, year by year, teacher by teacher to fight this.  Schools, if you cannot accomplish your stated educational goals within the confines of a school year, you are not permitted to extend your failure into my child’s summer vacation.  You either extend the school year or admit that your educational practices are failures if they cannot be retained or refreshed after a short break.

Furthermore, you may request that my children keep reading over the summer for their own pleasure, but you must honor and accept the books they choose to read.  What you have them read inside your classrooms I leave to you, but outside is no longer any of your business.

It’s taken me all summer to work this out but I now have nine months to prepare myself to execute it.  Maybe I’ll see if I can get anyone else to go along with me.

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