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.
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.
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.