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Archive for the ‘boys v. girls’ Category

The School Library Journal has a story about how a school library in Liberty, Missouri decided to entice more boy readers by building a “cave” space. There is a photo, but here is the description of The Cave from the article:

The space is outfitted with modest furnishings, including chairs made from milk crates and padding, designed by Rosheim, and a brand-new beanbag. Fabric is tacked to the ceiling to provide a cavelike aura. A life-sized Wimpy Kid poster, donated by Abrams Books, the series’ publisher, is personalized with a message that reads, “This Way To the Cave.” And, of course, there are books.

Fabric on the ceiling, milk crate seats, and a lone beanbag do not a cave make. Points for effort, and I can appreciate schools being tight on funds and all, but it misses the mark.

What makes a “cave” is that it has a feeling of isolation, a place where you can get away from outside world and hunker down. When grown men make their getaway caves they aren’t light, aerie spaces, they’re basements and garages, paneled in dark wood and full of comfortable furniture where the act of sitting can become a nap. They are permissive places, indulgent, and yes, a little clubby.

I’ve known teens to build their own rooms into caves: walls painted black or a dark color, furniture to a bare minimum, mattress on the floor, colorful print fabrics hanging like partitions against prying eyes and the outside world. It’s a claiming of space and a recognition of a need for sanctuary. Sometimes there are multiple media involved, a TV on while doing homework, or muted with music playing. Let the outside world criticize, but the space is user-created both as an experiment in and an expression of freedom.

In late 2007 author Sara Lewis Holmes posted something on her blog that generated a discussion about what the ideal space would be for teen readers. I wish I could find the original thread, but I remember clearly a number of us tossing around ideas and I threw in my two cents about a retail environment that was perhaps in a basement, with more floor space for lounging and reading, monitors showing movies of TV shows (sound muted), perhaps a cafe bar… basically a full-service cave. (I remember the discussion because out of it a number of us got together and created the review site Guys Lit Wire, dedicated to suggesting books for boys.) Since then I’ve seen stories like this one, of libraries actively looking to create spaces that are more inviting, less like a library. My own town library turned the periodical room into a teen room.

The problem isn’t necessarily that boys need to have their own space to entice them, it’s that the space needs to feel like something they can take ownership of, and by they I mean boys and girls. Input is great, but why stop there, why not let the kids design the space themselves? Build a scale model of the library and the furniture and have them push it all around until they have something they can all agree on. You do this with a committee of an equal number of boys and girls and I guarantee there will be not one but two and possibly many cave-like arrangements in the design. Just like on the playground where groups of kids will congregate on their own patch of territory, why not let them do the same in a library? Let there be five or six “cubicles” of space that different groups can claim (or sign up for, as they will become popular) and see if the library doesn’t start getting more use. They might even want to paint it black and hang Indian print fabric from the ceilings to create partitions that screen out the world. Do it.

But don’t perpetrate the hard gender classification of books. If a kid reads something they like they will go back to the well looking for more of the same. Diary of a Wimpy Kid isn’t a boy book, it’s an illustrated middle grade book (some would say a graphic novel, but I disagree) and should be shelved with similar books for browsing. I mean, really, are we going to start separating boy sci-fi from girl sci-fi? Who gets Harry Potter? Who gets The Hunger Games? When you start segregating the space in the library and organizing books by gender you reinforce the idea that “these books are good, those books aren’t” to the detriment of both reader and book.

But a cave, a cave is good for all. The more the better.

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A Hippie and an Anarchist walk into a Starbucks and ask the Barista…

Can you picture it? Birkenstocks and tie-dye, piercings and tattoos, a bored look and a smart phone. Counter-culture meets coffee-counter culture. The attitude and the edge, the anger and the disaffection. The sheer conflict of images.

Writers think about stereotypes more than any other people I know. In an effort to communicate with words it becomes necessary to show a reader who, what, and where these people are, and these descriptions require a writer to consider how many strokes of the brush it will take to render the image.

Factually, a reporter has no reason to point out details that have no bearing on a story — we may be told a fire victim’s age but not their weight or race, because these details tell us nothing about the scene. In news reporting we aren’t given extraneous details partially because we can see details that aren’t described and partially because the story itself must be believed because it is simply true, it actually happened. So if we are told a famous and wealthy business tycoon was found dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter we believe it, and begin to fill in unspoken details and questions that allow us to create a narrative in our mind about what we thought happened.

We do this because we have deeply embedded stereotypes that inform our ability to construct an image that is true to us.

That tycoon in the alley, he doesn’t belong there, because that’s not where tycoons should be found. We picture him in a suit, crumpled near a dumpster, face down maybe, pockets turned out where he has been robbed, shoes missing. The location, behind a homeless shelter, sets us thinking who might have done this to him.

Him? When did I decide our tycoon was male? Is male my stereotype default for a tycoon? Are my assumptions based on stereotypes or the preponderance of examples? Does placing a tycoon dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter automatically trip the default that assumes foul play is involved? These images that we construct are a function of our individual experience, but I doubt that from the short description above that a reader would draw the same conclusion further details would provide.

Sally Hemmings, noted real estate tycoon, was found in the alley behind the homeless shelter she founded, dead from a ruptured appendix.

Details, in this case, help us not only see the scene more clearly but also counter any stereotypes we otherwise would have affixed to the story without them. In short, in the absence of the concrete, our thinking would tend toward the stereotype.

In fiction the writer treads delicately between being “true” and giving the reader a chance to properly visualize the characters and settings. News images from South Central LA during the Rodney King Riots would have us imagine a rundown neighborhood full of poverty and crime, and yet one of the wealthiest universities, USC, was mere blocks away to the north. This contradiction in expectations actually provides an opportunity for context and comparison, just as it can with character stereotypes. The problem, in fact and fiction, is that we rely on the stereotypes to become rather than inform the reality.

Far too often in fiction for middle grade and young adults I find that stereotypes, or behavior that has become stereotypical, is nothing more than a cynical way to either deliver on a reader’s expectations or a guarantee to fulfill a marketing category. A middle grade mystery, with a well-intentioned boy detective and a hiding-her-light-under-a-bushel girl sidekick, always reads flat to me. It trades on the stereotypes of a boy with grandiose ideas and the smart girl who helps the boy achieve those goals with a wink to the reader that the boy would be nowhere without her aid. One could argue this being the flip side to the helpless girl who requires a boy savior but neither is revolutionary. Is it possible to have the boy and girl be equal partners? And without an undertone of romance? And for them both to be true to their nature, a boyish boy and a girly girl?

No.

Because our expectations about the characters requires that they correspond to something we recognize in real life, or at the very least within our experiences. And beyond that, the characters themselves must have stereotypical expectations in order for there to be resonance. There is nothing more unrealistic in American fiction (with few exceptions) than a story with 100% caucasian characters, just as there is nothing realistic about a collection of mixed race characters where those differences aren’t noted by the characters themselves. Kids especially are keen on making these distinctions as they are still forming their own thoughts about what behaviors are of a particular character and which are stereotypical.

Every writer who doesn’t feel that writing for children and teens should include a political or social agenda is missing the truth: all writing includes the writer’s agenda. They either rely on and perpetrate stereotypes, for better or worse, or they fight stereotypes in an attempt to get readers to think beyond their own prejudices and expectations. Every detail about character and setting becomes a deliberate choice to either expose or support a stereotype.

What, exactly, is a stereotype is a question for another time.

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In my neighborhood growing up families came and went. The long block of apartments was where families came to save enough to buy a home, or as a place to stay before jobs whisked them away. The block was one long weigh station, some came and went so fast we never learned their names, others never left and the less said about it the better.

David C. was my first best friend. He came during the middle of the year and moved away before the start of the next school year. He is like a ghost because he was there, people remembered him, but he missed photo day and so no physical memory of him exists. Almost.

On the day he was to move away our moms pulled us together to take a few pictures, photos that stayed in the camera for months and eventually appeared out of the blue. We couldn’t be bothered to take the moment seriously because we lived in the moment and never imagined a future different from the present. We were, what, ten years old? What did we know?

we were going to
build a three-wheeled bike
from a shopping cart, miscellaneous parts
and a giant egg from a pantyhose display

we were going to
build a treehouse on a wall
so that our parents wouldn’t see us
sneak out the back side and go to the store
for candy

we were going to
race our bike so fast down the street
that when we hit the driveways we would fly
across the mostly-dead lawn
and skid a cloud of dust

and we’d call it “bosso”
and “bosso-keeno”
and “coolomatic”

we were going to
dig up treasure we were sure was buried
under the bushes in the park
because we kept finding loose change in the dirt
where invisible-to-us teen lovers
made out at night

we were going to
become champion four-square players
because we had secret moves
for getting other kids “out”
before they realized it

we were going to
make enough money helping old ladies
load their groceries into their cars
that at the end of the day we could buy
a remote-controlled helicopter

and we’d slap each other five
and slap each other ten
and say “right on!”

we were going to
spend the rest of our lives
telling each other the funniest jokes
that we could make up
whether or not the made any sense

we were going to
never get married and have kids
because then we’d have to work
and wouldn’t have time to spend
afternoons at the library

we were always going to
be those two boys in white jeans and striped shirts
smiling and flashing peace signs
and hanging all over each other
when our moms wanted serious photos

and we’d say good-bye
and we’d promise to write
and we didn’t understand anything

but our crying mothers understood

Poetry Friday. You know you want to. Check out the roundup this week at Picture Book of the Day.

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In a new study that hardly qualifies as news, The New York Times reported that there is gender bias in children’s literature.

Shocking, maybe, if this were 1971.

The argument over and over is that girls will read about boy characters but boys won’t read girl characters. Publishers don’t want to eliminate 50% of their audience, but isn’t that a self-fulfilling prophecy?  All the usual complaints.

When these gender studies are done, has anyone bothered to parse out content to see if maybe there isn’t some negative gender reinforcement there? You want a boy to read a picture book with a girl protagonist, fine, stop making the story be about a Purple Plastic Purse or getting dressed up Fancy and going out to dinner. You want books to appeal to boys, then appeal to what boys want.

As an emerging reader I read Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, but I didn’t read any of the sequels.  Why?  Because walking in straight lines and being led around town by a nun did not appeal to me. It wasn’t that it was about a girl character, it’s because it was about character behavior I couldn’t identify with.  If the story had been about a boy named Montague and a dozen other orphan boys being lead around Paris in two straight lines I wouldn’t have been any more interested.

That lack of interest extended to male characters as well. Babar the Elephant was a ba-boring simp.  Stone Soup… really? A soldier tricking a town into feeding itself?  And if I’m being honest, I never understood the fuss about Peter Pan. If you don’t grow up, how can you be a fireman or policeman or, as was my case, a swimming pool builder?  These characters didn’t appeal because of who they were, not their gender.

Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand appealed to me because there was chaos and character and action. Despite his pacifist ways, which might be seen as anti-boy, the fact is that there are bulls and bull fighting and the idea of finding identity.  Similarly one might look at Leo Lionni’s Frederick as a soft male character, a poetry collecting mouse who nourishes the soul, but here’s a secret: boys actually like poetry, until they get the joy of it killed out of them through education.

In David Shannon’s No, David! we have a boy behaving badly.  Or rather, we see a boy behaving like a boy. If we were to gender swap this story and only change the name and the appearance of the main character, would the book work?  Probably not, because the mischief David gets into is the personality of a boy who is curious to the point of destruction and it would read odd if what we were seeing was No, Doris.  The argument could be made that there’s a gold mine to be made in simply taking successful and award-winning books with male characters and creating new versions with female characters, but if it were as easy as that wouldn’t someone have done it already? If gender were truly the key to formula then girls would have their own Curious Georgina.

Dr. Seuss didn’t seem to have very many female characters, but one that sticks out for me is The Lorax.  Sort of a humanoid creature, he does nonetheless have a rather prominent mustache. Does the gender of the Lorax make any difference?  Not at all, which is interesting because I think if Seuss had feminized the Lorax there wouldn’t be any change in the message and I don’t believe it would be any less popular among boys.

Even when the story features a character without gender, say a garbage truck as in Kate and Jim McMullen’s I Stink, the appeal of that book is generated by the attitude and language.  Boys like reading about trucks, and things that stink, and the unashamed tone of the garbage truck simply calls out for boys to imitate it.  Is it biased to appeal to boys this way?  Does it reinforce gender stereotypes to not have a similar book where a garbage truck is behaving with more decorum and etiquette?

I think if we’re going to dredge up the old gender question in children’s books we need to look at what those main characters are doing and question the stereotypes they portray. Boys and girls behaving like boys and girls, both fictional and in real life, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And if there’s truly a problem with gender inequity it doesn’t appear that having fewer female characters has had an effect on girl readership.

So seriously, what’s the big deal here?

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It’s a totally different city, two totally different dudes, and yet it appears that these conversations keep popping up everywhere as if part of the collective unconsciousness.  I was downtown in Vermont’s capitol city getting some quarters and Nutella (can’t properly do laundry in a dorm without both) and as I was passing I caught just this snippet from a couple of local Joe’s.

Joe Rock: Am I an ass to who?

Joe Paper: That’s not what I said.  I said Are you an ass-man, not Are you an ass, man.

Joe Rock: Oh!

Isn’t it a wonderful thing what punctuation and intonation can do with the English language?

Once again, twice in less than a week, twenty-something guys engaged publicly in conversation over the most sublime of topics.  And, again, without any sense of shame or embarrassment that others can hear them, or that perhaps they might find themselves judged accordingly.

Okay, listen, I’m a guy.  I’m not saying I didn’t participate in my share of conversations like this.  In fact, I recall having this very same tits-or-ass conversation with some friends of mine… when we were 12 years old and hanging out at Boy Scout camp safely several hundred miles away from anyone who could hear us.  Twelve would be an appropriate age for hormonally-challenged males to be considering the deeper issues of life.  Twelve would make sense of mermaids and the first blush of body fascination.  But to still be having these conversations in your twenties strikes me a type of social retardation, or perhaps a prolonged state of immaturity. And pathetic.

Can I blame this on vapid entertainment, on television shows that sexualize the world and make it okay at the same time to remain in a state of suspended maturity?

Joe Rock, Joe Paper: you’re both asses. And hardly men.

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It’s as simple as that sometimes, a single word.  I’m reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing and he talks about his writing journey and how he’d been sitting his butt down and writing every day for a decade before he sold his first story at 22.  It’s called showing up.  Not by him but by others, and it’s instructive to realize not only the truth of this idea of sitting down and dedicating time to what you do, but that over time it really is the only way to get anything done.

So brother Ray has 20+ years on me figuring this out.  But does he stop there?  No, he rubs my face in it with another simple exercise that he also happened to chance upon.  After he’d written a number of published stories he wrote the titles down as a list and discovered they were all nouns, all based on things that he was curious about as a kid, all general enough that they could be about anything but for him they were specific triggers for memories.

In unpacking things into my new office space I finally had almost all (there’s one missing!) my screenplays in one place on a shelf.  Spine out, with their titles handwritten on the bluntly bound pages, I stacked them in order of when they were written and studied them from my reading chair.

The Resort.
Pumpkin Thieves.
The Death of Chris and Jenny.
The Book of Isabel.
(the missing Helena would go here).
Peace of Mind.
Come and Gone.
Tips for the Dating Impaired.
Whim.
Undesireables.

What did these titles tell me about my writing?  They begin as concept stories, a mad dreamscape about a movie being made in the space between this world and another, between life and death, followed by a pseudo-political story concerning government-controlled and -funded criminals.  Next come a trio of character studies that explore (or attempt to) the underground youth culture.  These are followed by a weak attempt to write a Hitchcockian thriller, that actually was read by an agent who was kind at pointing out that I was still having problems with grammar.  Two autobiographical stories follow, then a What-If fantasy based on an idea tossed away by a film director in an interview (“What if I pretended to be the interviewer and you pretended to be the filmmaker and we see how many people we can fool…”), and lastly my epic homage to Victor Hugo concerning the professional street people who occupy our urban centers.

And those were the finished ones.

Many of these stories were built off ideas, or collected observations, but not around those ideas and observations.  I wasn’t telling stories as much as I was trying to stitch ideas with tenuous narrative threads and borrowed styles.  Even the biographical stories seemed to be missing the target emotionally, and that’s why they failed.  It’s why they all failed.  The titles don’t do what they’re supposed to — trigger memories — because the stories they represent come from the head.

I can’t tell you how this pisses me off, because lately everyone’s been talking about emotion in writing.  Emotion this and emotion that, and what are these characters feeling, and, crap! Why don’t I know?

Well, according to brother Ray, it’s because I’m not stepping on my own landmines.  I need to blow myself up, tear myself apart and find out what everything’s really all about.  And then there’s my advisor, Margaret, who’s pointing out that I’m not letting the boys in my story get into enough danger, that I’m protecting them too much.

Why.  It’s a no-question-mark question, the kind where the answers are questions in and of themselves.  Why am i protecting my characters?  Why won’t I let them feel?  What part of the world that I’m a part of am I protecting them from…

Ah.  The world.  I’m trying to protect them from the world that didn’t protect me.  Is that a statement or a question?  Do I really feel like the world didn’t protect me?  Or is it because I never learned the langauge of the emotions, that I can’t pass them along to my characters because, like passing on bad genes, I don’t have them to pass along?

Freakin’ Ray Bradbury.

So I sat down and wrote out a lit of nouns, titles to future stories, triggers for ideas that I may or may not write about one day.  Each one of those nouns has more intrinsic meaning than any of those titles above.  Some have stronger emotional centers than others, and some strange things came out of the exercise — like the eerie early memory that links cult-like religious indoctrination with soccer.  But as personal stories they underscore moments where I (the main character) encountered a strong emotional experience that I don’t think I ever really understood.

Nouns.  Word association.  Emotion.  It reads like therapy.

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well, the month of july began with a holiday, a rush to get the kids off for the summer, my residency for school, and then a relocation to a (much) larger home just a few blocks away from the place we’d been sequestered to for the last four years.

a lot has happened, and there’s no real way to address it all at once, so it’s just going to come as it bubble back up to the surface.

during the residency louise hawes had us do an exercise during her lecture (you’ll forgive me for not expounding on the lecture, the notebook is still in a box somewhere in the office) where we imagined a number.  not any old number like a conjurer’s trick, but the age of ourselves back at a specific point in time where we can go back and assure our younger selves that everything will be alright.

now before i go any further, just to show how perverse the universe is, when i came home i was catching up on some reading and i realized i hadn’t finished reading a new twilight zone graphic novel coming out this fall that i hope to co-review (sort of) with little willow over at guys lit wire. but the point of the tz story was a man goes back in time to his younger self to tell him that these are the best days of his life, that as an adult he can see that.  but his father (!) ends up telling him (in all his fatherly wisdom) that you can’t tell your younger self things like that, it’s something you have to learn.  well, duh.

but for the purpose of louise’s exercise we’re all picking numbers and i first write sixteen then cross it out and write eleven.  we spend a few minutes writing to ourselves and i find telling my eleven year old self things is sort of silly.  i mean, i don’t want to scare him that in five years the family goes through some major upheavals, and that school and whatnot are going to get a little crazy and that he’ll finally have a real girlfriend and…

five years.  eleven plus five is sixteen.  and then it hits me that all the stories i want to write feature protagonists or are aimed at kids, mostly boys, either eleven or sixteen-ish.  and the stories i want to tell for each are appropriate to the sort of things i would tell my younger selves, both of them.  i’d be telling the eleven year old me to keep having fun and not be afraid to do all the things i think about, and i’d be telling the sixteen year old that, yes, it’s all crazy, and then i’d lay out a scary fake future to make me do things differently and change the fabric of the universe.

but, whoa.  louise sprinkled some pixie dust and all of a sudden it’s as clear as day who i’m writing to and why.

i’ve always known i was writing for myself, and not just the “for the pleasure of it” writing for myself but the actual writing to the younger me.  or the both of me.  i’m not writing period (because, honestly, the 70’s have been made cliche) but it doesn’t matter because the issues i’m dealing with are pretty much unchanged.  boys behaving like boys and learning their lessons the hardest way possible, because they can be stubborn and have some pretty confused priorities.  that’s basically the difference between boys and girls, everything else is just detail.

so the settling in will still take some time, but the boxes are in the right place and slowly each is getting opened and finding a new home within a new home.  the writing is happened apace, each page like a box being opened, words finding their homes, a story settling in to become a new version of an old me in a new location.

and it feels good to be back at the keyboard.

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