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?