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Archive for February, 2010

This time we finish up the HEAVES

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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.

Not.

Last fall 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.

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This was where my original lecture concluded due to time limitations, but I had four more elements that spoke to what boys were attracted to in reading.  As a group I called them The Nons because I was able to force the elements into starting with “non” but they are probably better called “Three Nons and an Un.”  Despite the negative connotation of the prefixes, these four elements are, I think, perhaps the most unique ideas about what boys are drawn toward.

I’ll be slowing down with these final four sections of Building Better Boy Books, posting them here on the next four Thursdays.  And as always, past installments are collected under the “@ boy books” tab at the top.

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Humor, Emotions, Actions, Violence… so far what boys look for in their reading has provided us with some ideas about what they expect from the content of what they read.  The last two elements in the HEAVES this week will focus a little more on the sort of structural elements a writer might consider when hoping to reach a boy audience.

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Engaging.

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 is 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 last year – 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, and an epic battle that threatens to wipe out 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.

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Next time, I’ll wind up the HEAVES section with a notion that seems to run counter to current trends in books for children and young adults.  That’ll be the day after tomorrow, on Thursday.  To catch up on the entire series on Building Better Boy Books, visit the @ boy books tab at the top of this blog.

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This week Publisher’s Weekly did some nice coverage on all the dystopian novels out there for teens. In their search for “why now?” they throw down the following:

Newspaper headlines about swine flu, terrorism, global warming, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are inspiring authors—and making kids feel uneasy. Some publishers also point to publicity surrounding December 21, 2012, the end of the 5,126-year Mayan calendar—supposedly an apocalyptic sign.

Still, most editors and authors credit lingering unease from the World Trade Center attacks. “After 9/11, it seemed people started thinking about the destruction of the world,” says Karen Grove, who edited Susan Beth Pfeffer’s This World We Live In, the April 2010 release that will end the trilogy that started in 2006 with Life As We Knew It. “Then we got hit with New Orleans and earthquakes.”

Uncertainty plays a role, too. “There’s so much mystery about what the future will hold,” says Lauri Hornik, president and publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers and Dutton Children’s Books…

Well, that’s some interesting thinking.  But this isn’t the first wave of dystopia we’ve seen hit popular culture.  I am reminded of the dystopian future that was predicted in those backward yesteryears of long ago, when the year 2001 seemed an unimaginable date and the lingering promise of a 1950s utopian vision of robots still seemed plausible.

When I was a teen I watched more movies than I read books.  There are plenty of reasons and no shame in this choice.  Back in the ancient days of the 1970s, when books targeted for YA weren’t even a glimmer in the eye of marketing departments, we were often left to forage in the wilds of culture on our own, wandering the adult sections of libraries and watching movies aimed at an adult audience before Hollywood figured out that their true cash cow was a much younger demographic.

As many a teen who grew up in Southern California I harbored a hope of working in Hollywood.  I went to college with that goal in mind but… well, life has funny ways of suggesting alternate paths.  Before all that I would stake out the repertory theatres, art houses, and film festivals trying to absorb as much as I could about film and the movie world.  It was a glorious education, occasionally about film, but more often about the horrible days that awaited my future according to the movies.

And I ate it up with a spoon, just like kids do now with dystopian fiction.

So I’m going off-book today to work up a sort of fantasy film festival of dystopian movies that I think still have enough appeal for end-of-the-world-hungry teens today.  If I were running a film festival like the one I grew up with, Filmex, I would actually make the following list the basis of a larger 50 hour movie marathon that included the great dystopian movies of the last 30 years.  But what I like about this list is how they address issues that are still with us today, that are still concerns we have for the future: overpopulation, health epidemics, technology gone wrong, climate problems, and energy crises.  Everything old and horrible is new again.

Omega Man (1971)

The second version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, this is Charlton Heston as the last man standing in the future of 1975 when biological warfare (in the book it’s plague) has turned society into homicidal mutants.  None of the terror of the recent Will Smith version, and at times looking like nothing more than a TV movie shot on rundown back lot sets, it still retains some of its creepiness factor.

recommended movie snack: ham (for Heston) and eggs (for the omegas!)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Based on the 1963 book by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote Bridge on the River Kwai) Astronauts from Earth crash land on a distant planet that is a lot like their home, except that it’s run by Apes and the humans are little more than animals.  This is the Darwinian question of evolution turned on its ear and contains some classic lines and images. Charlton Heston’s (again?) best, surliest 1970s performance (yes, I realize it’s late 60s, and I actually read the MAD magazine parody before I actually saw the movie… so this is an honorary title on the list).

recommended movie snack: grilled meat (or meat substitute) on a stick, maybe some bananas.  freeze dried astronaut ice cream if you have it.

Soylent Green (1973)

A totally ruined adaptation of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! mashes up a typical police procedural story with overpopulation, food shortages and climate changes for a film with a closing line that is the ultimate movie spoiler.  The problem is, once you’ve heard Chuck Heston (again!) rail against humanity it’s impossible for teens to not run around repeating him, especially at meals in the cafeteria when Mystery Meat is served.

recommended movie snack: an assortment of flavored rice cakes (you’ll forever think of them as soylent products)

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Forget that modern piece of junk, the original is a campy, low-budget horror-humor-dsytopian hybrid full of odd characters racing around the US (circa the year 2000, obviously) trying to rack up points by getting across the country first and by mowing people down.  As cynical as it may sound, it’s a guilty pleasure of a movie.  My kids can’t believe there was once a video game made from this, back in the old monochrome screen arcade days. Based on a short story by Ib Melchior

recommended movie snack: corn dogs

Silent Running (1972)

A giant hot house floats through space, a veritable ark of flora and fauna looking for a new home now that Earth can no longer sustain life.  Then word comes that the freighter ships are needed and the greenhouses are to be dumped and Bruce Dern decides to save the rainforest on his own by escaping through Saturn’s rings.  Ultimately this is the dullest film of the bunch, but was apparently one of the films that influenced the makers of WALL-E and the recent movie Moon.

recommended movie snack: green salad

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Anthony Burgess’s dystopian British future saw the old Empire swallowed by a fascist republic full of apathetic citizens and ultra-violent teen gangs.  Kubrick’s adaptation takes this meditation on violence and politics and shows us as ugly a future as ever existed without space ships.  Burgess has dismissed the film as misrepresenting his intentions, but both are equally bleak.  You’ll have to be careful if exposing this one to teens: the original version (banned in Britain until recent times) included a sped up sex scene that is far from titillating but nonetheless there.  In the movie business they would call this a “hard R rating” more for the violence than anything else.

recommended movie snack: flavored milk (turn your home into a drug-free milk bar!)

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Again, the original, not the remake.  Ira Levin’s book provides the fodder for a story that is either a commentary about submissive housewives (and the men who prefer them) or a reaction to the then-growing feminist movement.  In the town of Stepford all the women seem to be… robots.  Are the women of Stepford being replaced by their husbands, or is Katherine Ross losing her mind?

recommended movie snack: comfort foods

Zardoz (1974)

You might get some pretty strange looks from the kids on this one, and you might pull a few faces yourself once you’ve seen Sean Connery running around in an outfit he stole from Barbarella.  Then there’s the convoluted plot, which is about a post-apocalyptic group of humans who have become immortal and in their eternal boredom set about to kill off the mortal humans?  I think?  I remember this being laughable even when I was a teen so, really, this might only work for kids who want to see the first James Bond embarrass himself in a red diaper and ponytail.

recommended movie snack:  grilled cheese (for Connery’s performance)

Westworld (1973)

Two words: Yul Brynner.  Two more words: fantasy vacation.  Three words: murderous robot rampage.  Picking up on the idea that robots would help us lead a life of leisure, humans come to an amusement park of fantasy worlds – the Roman Empire, Medieval times, the American Frontier – where they can live out adventures amid a community of life-like robots.  But one bad-ass robot gunslinger goes haywire and is out for revenge and the humans are no longer safe.  In a future where “nothing can go wrong” it’s interesting to see robots essentially infected with a computer virus long before such a thing really existed.

recommended movie snack: nachos, turkey leg, pasta (depending on which world you prefer)

Rollerball (1975)

It’s the future of 2018 and the world is run by a large corporation. Hmm.  For entertainment, teams from various cities participate in a game called Rollerball, a cross between hockey, roller derby, and hand-to-hand combat. The point of the game was to show the failure of individualism – keep the people at bay by showing them a “sport” that has no heroes – but the rise of Jimmy Caan as the ultimate rollerballer has changed that and now the corporation wants him dead.  Dystopian blood sport; Hunger Games, anyone? Not exactly the same, but in the family.

recommended movie snack: fried calamari rings, seared skate, or maybe meatballs

Logan’s Run (1976)

Logan’s a carefree chap who spends his days chasing down folks who are running from their duty at Carousel – that moment when they turn 30 and are vaporized for the entertainment of others, all part of enforced euthanasia.  When Logan’s number is up, well, that’s a different story, and with some help manages to escape to a land full of old people and cats.  Okay, glibness aside, the idea of an enforced population control echos Soylent Green‘s concerns about resources and a sort of unspoken idea of a post-apocalyptic world.  It’s good to a point but has a fairly anticlimactic ending – there are no real bad guys to root against.

recommended movie snack: a massive appetizer plate, but no more than 30 pieces.

Mad Max (1979)

It’s a post-nuclear world, and gas is the most precious commodity around.  Gangs of apocalypi-punks terrorize folks in their hopped up cars.  Former policeman Mel Gibson (his first starring role) is on the road as a rogue warrior against the marauders.  It’s a film that shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is because, honestly, it’s about the glory of petroleum products, but it’s just so much goofy fun.  In a dystopian-without-a-heavy-message way, of course.  I don’t know if the dubbed and subtitled versions are still out there – people initially worried American’s wouldn’t respond well to the thick Ausie accents – but I didn’t have any problems as a teen with the original.

recommended movie snack: anything that gives you gas

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

This adaptation of Michael Crichton’s book expands on one of the fears from the early days of space exploration: what if a returning space ship brought home a deadly orgnaism?  So basically a germ (or something) from space that has the potential to wipe out the planet is contained in a facility deep underground in the desert.  While it’s being studied and analyzed it mutates and escapes, taking out the scientists one-by-one and evading containment as it spreads closer and closer to the outside world. You can read a lot into this – zenophobia, biological adaptation, plague allegories – but it’s quiet, leisurely-paced creepiness wins out.

recommended movie snack:  stuffed mushroom caps

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You may have noticed that many of these were based on novels, most of which are still available and are quite readable for teens today.  They would make perfectly acceptable follow-ups for most YA dystopian fiction for what is apparently a very hungry market.

Any two or three of these movies would also make for an awesome mini-marathon, and all of them would fill an entire weekend.  If I’m missing anything (from the 1970s mind you) please feel free to let me know in the comments.

Finally, a lot of these tend to take place in deserts or otherwise water-deprived locations.  Have plenty of liquids on hand and stay hydrated!

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While Action seems like a fairly straightforward element in the HEAVES, what follows might not seem so obvious, though it is something of a logical (if controversial) extension…

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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 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 confrontation 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 when it comes to violence, so to speak, 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.

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Next week, the final two elements of the HEAVES and maybe a hint of what’s coming next with the NONS.  Previous parts of Building Better Boy Books is being compiled as I go into a single post permanently located as a page at the top called “@ boy books.”

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The story so far… In covering some of the basic elements boys look for in their reading I’ve discussed Humor and Emotion as part of group called the HEAVES.  This week we’ll take a look at the middle letters in the acronym, the A and the V, and pry the lid off a couple of elements that are perhaps known but not discussed much.  If you’re new here, previous parts are being collected as we go into the tab above titled “@ boy books.”

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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.

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On Thursday I’ll contradict what I’ve just said by opening with a large block of dense description that, nonetheless, is full of Action and Emotion but speaks more to a topic that is often little-discussed in children’s literature. The V in building better boy books…

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Continuing with the HEAVES, the elements that boys respond positively toward in their reading, we switch gears and take a look at the first E…

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Let’s begin with 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 might be the most misunderstood element of 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 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 despite pining for Cassidy now and then. So when he calls her 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.

“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 ‘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 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.

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Next week we’ll look at the letters A and V in HEAVES and see how character empathy comes into play from an unusual direction.  That’ll be next Tuesday and Thursday.

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Last week in Part 1 I suggested that the elements of “boy books” could be broken down into two categories, The “Nons” and the acronym I coined called HEAVES…

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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 understood 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.

Next time we’ll go from one extreme to another and find out what puts that first E in HEAVES…

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Those of you who caught my brief appearance in last weeks Twitter chat #genderinYA probably have a pretty good idea what this E stands for, but I trust you’ll be as surprised as I was by what I discovered about this particular element that boys respond to in fiction. Part 3 appears this coming Thursday.

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