Archive for March, 2010

The end is neigh!  Today, the last of the NONs, the final element in what boys are typically drawn to in their reading…


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.


Which brings us to the end of the material I originally prepared for a lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts a few months back.  Almost.  I do have some stray bits I want to share next week as a sort of summary and clearinghouse for things that didn’t fit.  Also, if there were any lingering questions out there I’m opening up the floor.  Otherwise, until next week on Building Better Boy Books, if you missed previous installments they’re all collected in one mammoth page at the top under the tab called “@ boy books.”

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I would like to propose a moratorium on the following topics and methods being used or included in books for children and young adults.  Indefinitely.

Capers, as opposed to true mysteries that follow the conventions. The caper might seem clever to adults but I have never felt that a caper read like anything but an adult’s idea of what they imagine a kid would write.

True mysteries that are solved by kids without adult assistance. Mind you, not an adult to the rescue, but also not a kid possessing the ability to solve a crime that adults could not.  Kids will enjoy trying to figure out the mystery, and seeing the main character in peril, but you lose them the minute the become unbelievable supersleuths.

And speaking of super, no more superheroes. Not until there are more stories of real, grounded heroes.  If the idea of stories about true heroes sounds like repulsive morality plays, then superhero stories should viewed as super morality plays. And doubly repulsive.

Opposite-gender sidekick. It’s both an insult to the main character and the reader.  The fact that the sidekick either is there to round out the dynamic, help solve the problem the main character cannot, or more shamelessly appeal to a wider audience suggests that the writer does not trust their story to retain readers without this narrative “crutch.”

Defining new vocabulary words within the text, especially with the explanation about how the word was learned in a class, from an eccentric relative, or obscure book.  Kids love words, and are intoxicated by slang and the sounds of new words, but there’s a line – often crossed – where the intrusion feels like a teacher butting into the narrative.  Either let the context clue a reader in or let the reader learn how to use a dictionary or ditch the word altogether.

Boys who get the girl – or any girl – in the end, and vice versa. I realize there are no new stories in the world, but this convention is so old and creaky that readers who want this sort of story have an entirely separate genre at their disposal: it’s called romance.

Adult buffoons. In broad comedies, sure, you can sometimes use an adult buffoon to heighten the humor, but to a young reader the adult world is a mystery, and everything adults do makes no sense to them.  Real adults making real decisions and saying real things can be played to all kids for effect.  If books show nothing but a world full of adult clowns then why are we surprised they don’t take adults seriously?

Star football players, or any star athlete, either pro- or antagonist.  Tired, overplayed.

Cheerleaders, good, bad or otherwise.

Nerds, geeks, stereotypical drama cliques and their ilk, empowered or otherwise.

Underwear for humorous purposes, believing its inclusion automatically makes a story funny and gives it boy appeal.  For Captain Underpants, yes; everyone else, no, you missed the boat.

“White” as the default.  If you have multiple races, identify them all.  If you don’t have multiple races, you’ve got a problem.  Kids might be colorblind when it comes to making friends but that doesn’t make them see the world as all one fleshy hue.  Let’s show them books that accurately represent the diverse world they live in and recognize.

The color pink on the cover.  I don’t care if it is a book intended for girls, why do we need to keep reinforcing the stereotype of color?  There’s an entire spectrum of colors out there that aren’t pink; you want me to believe girls will only respond to one color?  Sheer design laziness.

Dogs, dead or otherwise.  Find another animal.  If it doesn’t work with another animal, do we really need another dog book?  Seriously?

The phrase ‘graphic novel’ to describe books that aren’t graphic novels. Word balloons don’t make it a graphic novel.  Illustrations in sequential panels don’t make it a graphic novel.  Information in a cartoon format doesn’t make it a graphic novel.  With books intended for children, the same rigorous standards for any novel should apply: character, conflict, rising action, complex narratives.  If the story alone without pictures would be considered a short story, biographical outline, or historical reinactment, then call it something else; call it what it is: a short story with illustrations, a biography, an illustrated history, etc.

Reluctant readers.  The term, the marketing, and the type of books that are specifically written and occasionally referred to as “hi-lo” for their high interest and low reading level.  To a lot of kids, these books are just another way of stigmatizing reading as an activity that marks them as somehow lesser – both as readers and as books – from more “standard” or “regular.”  This is a can of worms, I realize, but I think the term is used too casually these days (not unlike the way people are quick to label and treat students as ADHD without actually testing them) and fails to address real issues regarding reading and the way books are used.  Especially true with “graphic novels.”

Testimonials. Those little quotes from other authors telling you how great the book is?  Yeah, kids don’t care.  They’ve either never heard of the authors quoted, don’t like those author’s books (and thus negatively taint the touted book in question AND books by the testifying author), or are skeptical that no one thinks the book is any good without someone else saying so.  Kids turn to the back of the book to find out something about the book they didn’t learn from the cover.  Testimonials read like low budget ads on TV with actors pretending to be users of the product.  If you really want testimonials that work (and I’m exactly not advocating for this) you might have a better chance getting famous non-authors (movie stars, comedians, pop stars, star athletes) touting a book… rather than writing them.

Am I missing anything?  Suggestions and digressions?

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Today we approach the NON in the four NONs that is really an UN.


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.


Next week, the last of the NONs as this series on Building Better Boy Books winds to a close.

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What is wrong with us?

We take PE away from kids in the schools because they aren’t part of the “basics” of education.  Then we either over-program their lives outside of school so they don’t have time to expand and explore the world on their own, or we leave them in the loving care of the television and video games.  We allow kids to spend, on average, more hours “socializing” on the computer than in the classroom every day.  And then we’re surprised that they are physically uncoordinated and don’t know how to interact socially during recess, so we have to hire “playground coaches” that turn recess into a regimented practice of all the things kids used to do on their own?


From the perspective of writing children’s literature I am always mindful of the fact that a story has to move.  Doing this means keeping characters in motion, which in turn prohibits me from writing scenes where kids are sitting around communicating through the internet or talking on cell phones.  But does this mean that I am writing unrealistically for the audience?  If so many kids would rather spend a good portion of their day doing something other than read a book, when they did read a book would they want to read about the alien experience of a bunch of kids who are actively exploring their worlds?

In a word, yes.  My feeling is that kids crave action and activity, but that we (that is to say the adult world) have been so quick to adopt technology into our consumerist lives that kids today aren’t so much lost as they are adrift. And worse: we don’t give them any inspiration to do anything beyond sitting around and staring at a computer screen.

We can look at the recent spate of books extolling the virtues of old-fashioned activities like The Dangerous Book For Boys and their ilk as part nostalgia and part course-correction.  While I have my doubts as to how many of these old activities will actually appeal to modern readers, I do think there is a need to suggest that there is a world beyond the monitor screen.

Which is not to suggest that it’s either/or when it comes to technology and activities.  MAKE magazine, a Popular Mechanics of our day, is full of projects (known as hacks) that incorporate such old school shop skills such as soldering, drilling, and machining but often for projects that are meant to be used outdoors — the building of rockets, or long-pole camera tripod extensions, or even an electric motorbike powered by a cordless drill.  These are definitely more complicated than anything I ever attempted as a kid, but not for lack of trying.  Older guys taught us young twerps how to make mini rockets out of matches, foil and a paperclip.  In junior high we used to try and sit on each other’s shoulders to get candid yearbook shots from unusual perspectives.  And once there was this kid who had me convinced that as soon as we figured out how to connect to motor to the wheels, our lawn mower-powered shopping cart go-cart was going to be rad.

But here’s the thing.  When I read kids books today, I don’t see either of these kids.  I don’t see the hackers who are looking to bend the rules and make the world their own.  Unless it’s played for a laugh, I don’t see younger characters trying to invent some new gadget and learning from those failures.  I don’t see a lot of creative thinking, and I think there is a direct correlation between kids not having the time or space to explore and this inability to know what to do with themselves out in the world socially.

I think writers of books for children should look at the stories they want to tell, step back, and ask themselves: outside of the story, what are readers going to be able to take away from this?  Will they see that it’s okay to be a free-thinking individual, or will they get told once again how to be a polite  member of society?  Will they be taught that to be an individual is a lonely, invisible, outsider-ish thing to be, with all the moralizing lessons that come with that story, or will they see that the unique path is the one with more options in the future?

Will they be inspired to finish the book and then go out into the world and want to do something?  From what I can tell, it’s a far harder thing to inspire young minds than it is to write or tell a good story.

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Shortly before entering the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts a few years ago I came across an article in the New York Times that pried open a door in my brain and showed me a different way of thinking about boy readers. The article had nothing to do with boy readers but more to do tangentially with how some readers, who happened to be male, approached text. This led to ore thinking, more reading, more articles that eventually prodded me into lecturing about addressing the needs of boy readers for my graduate lecture delivered this past January.

The following excerpt never made the lecture’s final cut due to time and other constraints but in some way I wished I’d based my entire lecture on this particular topic, one in the family of NONs…


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.


Next week in Building Better Boy Books I’m going to attempt to make sense out of the NON that is actually an UN.  Cryptic to be sure, but it’s also the section that has caused me the most grief because, as with many of these elements in boys books, it brings several previous ideas into its fold. And, as always, previous installments in this series have been collected above under “@ boy books.”

Just out of curiosity, does anyone have any other recommendations for books that contain some sort of non-linearity that you feel don’t work for boys?

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Hmm.  I began this series a long time ago and never got around to the third part.  In Part One I talked about the magic of maps, and Part Two was about reincarnation and past life resonance.  Part three is a little slipperier and probably why I had put it off saved it for now.  It concerns nostalgia and why we crave it the same ways we do fiction.

Nostalgia is an ugly concept for some people as it tends to represent a fair amount of wistfulness, a sentimentality, a yearning, often of a time and place that in all reality was never as golden as memory portrays it. This the fallacy of back-to-basics thinking, that somehow if we could go back to simpler times that everything would be better. It may be a much deeper psychological desire to break from our current reality in an effort to feel more in control of our lives. And for those who see themselves more pragmatically, more as realists, the nostalgic is nothing short of turning out backs on past in an attempt to ignore the hard truths learned from it. Nostalgia is, to some, nothing less that mindless escapism.

Memory is fiction, a professor once told me in the context of a class on the memoir. Or to quote pop songwriter Harry Nilsson “You see what you wanna see, and you hear what you wanna hear. Dig?” But we tend to view memory and nostalgia as a personal viewpoint. Where one’s memory of events might differ from another’s we see discord, each view colored through the lens of individual perspective. But what if – and ‘what if’ being the key component in storytelling – what if we could visit the past in a way that was physically approximate yet general enough to include all? What could be learned from a backward-looking utopia that can be applied to our current lives, that could tell us something about ourselves?

This is the Disneyland Theory writ large.

Walt Disney unabashedly embraced nostalgia for entertainment purposes, for business purposes, but also as a way of creating a utopic vision of the past that could be experienced the way it might have been. He was clear that he wasn’t attempting to whitewash the past so much as he was trying to capture the essence of it. In this way his amusement park is the visual equivalent of igniting the imagination the same way a smell can rekindle specific memories of time and place. There are some smells that can instantly remove me from the moment and take me back forty years and instantly unlock moments I haven’t thought of since they first happened.

One of Disney’s early visions for the park included a big top circus that would have smelled like sawdust and cotton candy and been void of the rank carnies and drunken clowns. This circus tent never happened for practical reasons but it can’t be ignored that Disney was attempting to actually distort the experience of a big top circus rather than create an inviting fantasy. His personal memory as a child was not of a circus as it might have been but how it really was – full of scary, ugly adults that intruded upon his experience. There was no blind nostalgia, and his attempt to recreate an ideal circus based only on selective details would not have worked. And he had to know this on some level because he didn’t attempt to let his personal nostalgia enter into the design for the rest of the park.

What we do find in Disneyland is a general nostalgia, a composite of ideas from the past presented into a seamless pastiche that allows the South Pacific to merge with Old West which fades into New Orleans. There are details that suggest these different parts of the world, at different times in history, but rather than being sanitized they are simply an armature upon which park guests use their own experiences to complete the imagery. Rather than remain a passive observer of this nostalgia, as with the circus, guests move around and place themselves within the settings. Sitting in a small boat between a galleon and a walled city one doesn’t observe pirates at siege so much as one is caught in the middle of the experience: cannons roar, cannon balls splash the water (and park guests in the boats), the smell of water mingles with the mineral oil smoke in the air. There is no way any park guest could be reliving the personal nostalgia of events from 150 years previous. This is all part of the collective nostalgia.

We call on this collective nostalgia all the time in fiction. We rely on details of time and place to paint a picture in the minds of a reader as a way of gaining entrance to the story. Books that fail to provide enough details are viewed as inferior, books that are inaccurate to our knowledge and sense of setting are dismissed. But fiction is more than a collection of details and facts, it includes emotion evoked through words and actions. We take out own experiences and emotions and insert them freely as surrogates into the fictional characters we read about and, in turn, come to see through the character’s eyes.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest by using details to tease out our own personal memories and experiences that Disneyland employs the elements fiction to allow us to view the past through a lens of our creation.

Every time I go to the park I have a strange dissociative moment at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. As the boat leaves the dock and drifts through the faux bayou, with the LED fireflies on wires just above the surface of the water, drifting past the concrete banyan trees, I can’t help but feel like I’m floating though someplace I used to visit as a boy. But I never grew up in the south, never spent any days in my childhood floating in a boat on calm waters at night, never saw a banyan tree or fireflies until I was nearly 30 years old… but I had seen and done all these things before in fiction. The nostalgia of place that the ride provided was built on a base buried deep in stories, and together the fiction of literature and the fiction of place fused to become something that was at once very real and totally imaginary. But I had experienced it, felt it, and it churned up an emotion that was not at all unpleasant.

The memory is fiction, the fiction, memory. The nostalgia becomes the real, and vice versa. And what we learn is the value that can be gleaned from nostalgia is no less “true” as the resonant details of fiction. Nostalgia doesn’t ignore or rewrite history, people do by trying to manipulate nostalgia for their own purposes.

Yes, I know there are plenty of people who hate Disney, Disneyland, and everything the corporate Disney empire touches. Admittedly, I am at times conflicted because I think Disney and Co. get five things wrong for every one thing they get right. Maybe the ratio is higher than that. But where Walt Disney himself was involved the decisions were a little more personal, more intuitive, less calculated, which I think is why the park works on a number of levels for visitors. Granted, cultural mistakes have been made, history seemingly subverted, but not to the point of revisionism. Not initially at least. I’m not a Disney apologist, both the man and the organization have committed grave mistakes in the past. My point is only that, as an idea, using nostalgia as a lens through which people can revisit and experience the emotional truth within the fiction is not a misguided or evil approach. It is simply another way of looking at story.

Disney, the man, was a storyteller, and he knew how to churn up the emotional elements better than most. He understood this in animation and film, and he understood this to the core in designing the park that bears his name. The lasting success of Disneyland comes from a recognition that providing people with a physical location on which guests can overlay their own narratives – or even invent new ones – is a thing that feeds the soul. Stories, connection, memories, sensations, experiences… they are the things we actively seek out, and in doing so we build upon a certain level of nostalgia that is both personal and universal.

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Having covered the HEAVES of boy books it time to turn our attention to the four final points from my original “manifesto” toward making books more boy-friendly.  Where the HEAVES were a bit more focused on narrative elements, the NONS are broader in that they address genre, style, structure, and language that often incorporate the previous elements in the HEAVES. So without any further ado…


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, and while I might make a hash of it, that’s the subject of my next post.


Next week I’ll get to the topic that opened up the can of worms that eventually became Building Better Boy Books.  That’s next Thursday, though I’m sure I’ll have something else to post here sometime between now and then. And as always, previous posts in this series are in the “Previously” section to the right and added to the page titles “@ boy books” at the top.

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In a recent Newsweek article entitled “Are Biopics History,” critic Ramin Setoodeh proposes that when Hollywood makes a filmed biography of a known historical character – Amelia Earhart, Tolstoy, Darwin – the box office results are dismal.  However, when Hollywood makes a biopic out of someone unfamiliar, like Erin Brockovitch, it’s box office gold.  Setoodeh goes on to mention that Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee in Infamous was left in the dust while The Blind Side has raked in millions; Will Smith did something similar with his take on Ali while The Pursuit of Happyness went blockbuster.

As a general rule, my wife hate biopics, except for those she doesn’t realize are biographies.  Somehow knowing it’s based on a true story ruins the experience for her, makes her impatient.  Thinking about this, and the Newsweek article, I started to wonder about children’s biographies, and the subjects that are chosen, and why certain people are profiled again and again and again.

I understand the business end of things when a dozen books come out, as they did last year, on the Lincoln Bicentennial, but is there really anything new to say about the sixteenth president?  The man already shares a holiday with another president (and why isn’t President’s Day a celebration of them all?) and gets plenty of coverage anytime history comes within range of the War Between the States. But it feels like Lincoln is a tired subject even for kids.  And how do you show that Lincoln (or any subject of weight) was a “great” man if kids don’t have anyone else to measure him up against?

This also reminds me of the recent interest in Phillip Hooses’s Claudette Colvin and her role in the early Civil Rights movement.  I have to admit, while reading it I was stunned that my knowledge and history of the bus boycotts included Rosa Parks but nothing of Claudette. And I can see why, because a teen girl who was pregnant would not have made for good enough political and legal theatre – or rather, they might have had negative effects – but understanding how all of this was carefully organized opened my eyes to history in a way that I have long felt should be the way we teach kids history.

History is ugly.  The lives of humans are messy. Presenting children, young readers, and teens with sanitized histories and biographies borders dangerously on propaganda, and worse: it makes these people and their accomplishments boring.  Ben Franklin played with electricity and invented bifocals, yes yes, and signed the Declaration of Independence, uh huh… but where’s the stuff about his running away from home, his hypocritical thinking on vegetarianism, his year abroad as a young man getting drunk and trying to make it with his best friends’ girlfriend behind his back?  This Franklin, this very human Franklin, has so much more to teach a young reader about how we learn to make our way through the world, how nothing is easy or given, and that people of history aren’t gifted with fame the way many people feel artists are born with their skills.

Which circles back to movies, and how people seem to hunger more for the story of the unheralded average Jane and Joe, the people who in the course of their normal lives achieve incredible things.  It isn’t the fame and notoriety that makes for a good biography, it’s the story, the human element.

Something else that comes to mind is that far too often, biographies are books that are used in classrooms and not something children turn to for their own pleasure reading. I think we telegraph this notion far too early in kids, that non-fiction is school-based, and as a bi-product biographies tend to suffer most from the stigma of being “boring school reading.”  By tying these books to educational units don’t we risk cutting off reader’s interest by suggesting there is a type of book linked to education and not something to be sought outside the classroom?

Though my voice caries little weight in this world, I’d like to see a ten-year moratorium on biographies for children on any subject for whom there is already adequate coverage in print.  More books like The Day Glo Brothers and Mermaid Queen, stories of people readers never heard of, and fewer books about the usual faces that populate history.   Fewer “brand” names and more obscure ones.  I know that children’s authors are doing what they can to bring more obscure characters to light, what I’d like to see is more of a push by publishers to get these stories out there.

More diversity, more biographical surprises, and perhaps even the bold step of rounding out these people so they don’t take on unnecessary mythic status.  Let’s see a biography of a more obscure individual on the top ten list, start a Harry Potter-type trend of the nonfiction variety.  I think it’s possible.


(For those of you who may have come looking for the next installment of “Building Better Boy Books” please drop in on Thursday!)

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