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.”