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Archive for the ‘essay’ Category

Sports writer (it figures) cum YA author Robert Lipsyte rattled the cages of the kidlit community this past weekend with his essay in the NYT Book Review essentially lobbing the teen boy reading problem back across the net into the “more boy books” camp. This naturally, almost assuredly, possibly deliberately, raised the hackles of those who feel that the problem isn’t books (don’t blame the books!) but in the way society raises the boys (we need to raise boys as feminists!). Here’s the one line that resonated with me out of the whole essay, the one most true, the one ring to bind them:

“We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or ­offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become.”

Forget everything else Lipsyte said for a moment (especially if it bothered you) and think about everything this statement embraces.

First and foremost it recommends we need books. Define that how you will, I would love to hear someone argue the opposite side, that we don’t need books anymore.

Second, the modifier good is in there. We don’t just need more crap, we need quality, and again there’s a spectrum there.  Suffice to say we know good when we see it, what defines good isn’t at issue here.

Third, following the rule of threes, comes the type of good books that we need: realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels. Any naysayers out there? Anyone think we couldn’t use more quality nonfiction, solid realistic fiction, or good graphic novels? No? Let’s move on.

The next part is tricky: inviting boys. This gets tossed around and argued quite a bit, and it usually has to do either with cover designs or whether a girl is involved with the story. This is the “Ew, cooties!” argument, and the division is usually between “if it’s good, it shouldn’t matter” and “we need to teach boys to get over it.”  This is the point where I would think most pro-feminists would want to weigh in with just exactly how boys get to this stage of thinking. There’s an avalanche of advertising and marketing out there that is conditioning boys from a very early age to think of pink as a girly color and that stories featuring girls will contain content of no interest to them. There’s a ginormous world out there molding and shaping the ways boys approach their entertainment and free time, and you want to draw a line in the sand at books and dare boys to cross it? If we aren’t going to invite boys into books, if the stand is going to be pandering versus political, or if there’s just no desire to even bother, then how can we possibly imagine a world where boys even begin to come close to recognizing books as valuable?

Now comes the most interesting phrase out of the Lipsyte quote, to reflect. We don’t just want them to read for the sake of reading, we want them to find meaning and purpose in what they read, we want them to think. This is where I feel a lot more harm than good is done in the schools when there is a dramatic shift from reading for fun toward reading for meaning. I do think boys can and should be able to analyze texts and glean relevent meaning from a story, any story, but I don’t think books should be used to do this. This is where I get a little radical and run my post a little off a side track, but this is the crux of it:

Apply all the lessons taught about subtext and metaphor and literary devices via movies and television shows.

Why? Because we already know they spend more time with visual media than they do books. Because we need them to see that these lessons exist in the world outside the classroom. And because they will be better able to apply those lessons to books if we don’t remove them from the category of pleasurable pursuits. You can take any contemporary television sitcom and use it to teach racial and gender-based stereotypes for example – and there’s a LOT of examples out there, many of them hit shows, a lot of them negative – then have them read any work of fiction and they’ll spot them without effort. It doesn’t work the other way around however. Kids who are whipsmart at spotting literary devices in books view their favorite TV shows as somehow being separate or above all that.

Anyway, if we want our boy readers to be able to sincerely reflect on what they read in books we might have to actually teach them how to reflect somewhere else besides books first.

The last part of Lipsyte’s quote is a loaded gun: what kinds of men they want to become. You ask any boy what character from literature they would most like to be like, and what are the odds you’ll get a character from a fantasy novel, a hero with superpowers? Not very realistic. On the spot I can only think of one good example, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a boy wanting to be like Atticus Finch. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a guy (outside of fellow writers) who said they wanted to be like any male, author or character, connected with books. There are great men to emulate in the world, politicians and athletes and movie stars, but these are all men of action who give no appearance of having read any books.

So if we want to invite boys to reflect on the type of men they want to become, and we want them to do it through good, realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels – and there’s nothing in that restatement I find objectionable – then we need more books that allow this to take place. This isn’t an argument of pandering versus bootstrap feminism, it’s about saying, simply, let’s put out more books like this and give them time to find an audience.

Boys and reading are like a teen driver and his broke-down truck by the side of the road. You can either give them a lift to the next town and help them one step further along the road to reading, or you slow down long enough to smirk at their choice of vehicle before driving off and leaving them in the choking dust.

We can argue all we want, but there are boys all over the literary map who need lifts into town.

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I’m on assignment.  Sort of.  A friend who is a professor has asked me for the second year in a row to contribute to a blog based on one of her course subjects, Los Angeles.  I grew up there, and though I haven’t lived in the city or spent any significant time there in the last (mumble mumble) years or so, I still have some pretty vivid memories.

When I was initially asked to contribute to last year’s blog I wrestled with some mixed emotions.  On the one hand, having not lived in a city that changes as radically within a given ten-year period I didn’t feel I had anything to contribute.  On the other hand, at what point does one’s history become an invalid point of departure for reportage?  Distance is a physical thing, but memory is as close as the memory is strong.  Why shouldn’t I be able to talk about the city of my formative years?

My current assignment involves the memories of streets.  I have a few I’m sorting through in my mind to determine which will speak the loudest to me.  At the same time those old doubts come creeping in. Do I have anything relevent to say?  Are my memories of streets that have long since seen cosmetic surgery even really the same streets?

It was while perusing a book on screenwriting this past weekend that I stumbled on a quote by Willa Cather.

I became an artist when I stopped admiring and started remembering.

Setting aside that I’ve never like Cather’s books, or that I find her use of the word “artist” pretentious and a bit insecure on her part, I found this quote to be remarkably well-timed for discovery.  In the beginning we learn by studying those who inspire us. In 8th grade I wrote an unbelievably ridiculous story based on people I knew in the style of Kurt Vonnegut.  Since then I’ve studied, and aped, films and radio plays and painters and photographers I admired.  While I find some of the work done in homage to be relatively successful, it wasn’t until I learned how to mine my memories that I understood these various arts and crafts better.

What “works” in my writing are those moments that tap into the rich vein of what I remember.  About childhood, about cities, about creating, about everything.  I can see the clear, clean architectural lines of a building but cannot capture it until I can tap into my memories of wonder at first seeing such things.  Standing in front of an abstract painting may mean nothing at first, but then comes a memory of color or pattern, where describing it becomes an attempt to locate the hidden vocabularies of experience.

Why do certain colors and scents move us?  What makes a particular time of day feel brighter or melancholy?  Everyone admires an exquisite sunset; it’s how you remember it that renders the memory valuable.  We attach emotions to these things we admire and experience, and rendering these feelings transforms the work.

So I’ve stopped questioning whether or not there’s validity to my memories of the streets of Los Angeles. The only question now is to settle on which ones are the most evocative.  We can tussle over whether or not it’s art later.

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I’ve been debating for some time about whether (and how much) of my Critical Thesis to blog about.  I can’t imagine a large enough segment of the world to be as interested in my exploration concerning picture book biographies, but at the same time I recognized some areas where current trends indicate a need to examine them further.

So instead I think I’ll pull out specific sections that might be of interest and treat them a little less clinically than I did in my thesis.  Today, let’s take a look at the clunky word storyography.

The term storyography came up early in my research and it seemed to explain a certain phenomena specific to picture book biographies.  In a 1998 article for School Library Journal Julie Cummins proposes the word storyography as a way of differentiating whole-life biographies from those that choose to focus only on a section of the subject’s life.  More specifically, the storyography builds a narrative around an incident in a subject’s life that is story first, biography second, and not merely a simplified biography.

The important distinction between the storyographies and traditional biographies is summed up in this idea of “story first.”  This notion that the narrative arc supersedes the older thinking that a subject’s greatness comes from an accumulation of life events. Which is not to say that earlier events in a subject’s life don’t shape the individual, but their relevance to the story at hand is paramount.  In the Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature the elements of storyography are refined further as being:

in picture book format
incident-focused
possessing child appeal, or from a child’s perspective
is not part of a series
shaped by traditional story components

A book that fits the definition is Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian.  The focus of the story is on a period of Bentley’s life when he came to record snowflakes, we do not learn anything about his life that doesn’t in some way feed into the story-focused narrative.  Similarly, Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum by author and illustrator Robert Andrew Parker covers Tatum’s life experiences from birth to young adulthood, and only those elements that pertain to Tatum’s development as a musician.

The idea of zooming in on a particular time in a subject’s life in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem.  This notion that a person’s achievements are somehow the culmination of a life’s work and growth appears to have come into vogue in the early part of the 20th century with the help of Freud.  Rather than saying “this is a life” biographies had evolved into “these are the underlying events that shaped this life” which, in the end, put the biographer into the role of analyst as opposed to simply a biographer.

There are two problems, however, that manifest in storyographies in ways that often go unnoticed.  The first comes from the necessity of omission; it simply isn’t possible to tell a person’s entire life story in the space of a picture book and so some material must be excluded.  The second problem, which may or may not be the result of the first, is accuracy.  Nowhere in the definition of storyography is there any mention of the accuracy of the details.  I don’t believe this is simply a case of assumption because the idea that the storyography is shaped by traditional story elements implies a conscious effort to mold the material to fit a purpose.  Accuracy, it appears, would tend to get in the way.

The bete noire here would be Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick.  Ryan has chosen to tell of a visit Amelia Earhart made to the White House in 1934 where, at a dinner party, Earhart discusses the beauty of flying a plane at night.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, an amateur pilot, is so taken with this that she immediately decides they must take a flight over the capitol.  And they do, with the two women as pilot and co-pilot taking in the National Mall from above.  Back on the ground the two women slip away so that Roosevelt can return the favor by driving Earhart around the capitol streets at high speeds, something she was known to do.

The story here is of two head-strong women, fearless and daring, who in a single evening share each other’s passions for adventure.  If only it were true.  Or rather, if only if weren’t partially true.

In shaping the story elements Ryan omits some details that change the story radically.  While Ryan mentions that the Secret Service objected to an unscheduled flight she neglects to point out that the women actually weren’t permitted to pilot the plane.  Ryan does make note of this in the end notes but not in the text itself.  Worse, there is an illustration showing the two women in the cockpit which would lead a reader to believe they were flying the plane rather than inspecting the controls pre-flight.  Additionally, there is some question as to the veracity of the late-night drive through the capitol ever taking place at all.  In focusing on the intersection of these two lives (which Ryan admits in the end notes to having based on a photo she saw of the two women in a plane together… as passengers) Ryan has concocted a storyography that sounds good but isn’t accurate.

This idea of omitting details or reshaping the story makes it easier for the picture book biographer to approach a subject as entertainment, as a story to be told, and to the reader it takes on the veracity of truth because (as the subtitle for Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride attests on its title page) it is “Based on a True Story.” We have come to view that phrase as a stand-in for the word “accurate” in movies and television, and with the caveat “based on” we assume the liberties taken are minor and don’t affect the overall outcome of the story at hand.

This is dangerous territory for books aimed at children, especially younger children whose first exposure to a subject may be through a picture book.

Storyographies are everywhere these days.  And despite their bibliographies and the clarification of facts in the author’s notes at the end of the book, I am noticing that many either contain minor  inaccuracies or omissions that would seem crucial to understanding the subject’s lives.

Though the term storeography is clunky it does accurately convey the essence of these books, a hybrid of a story book and a biography.  In the past (and in my thesis) I thought of storyographies as a subset of biography but on further reflection I’m going to have to come down on the side of calling them a subset of fiction.  Because they are story first I think they should be treated as stories first and foremost and shelved accordingly.  If that sounds harsh consider that I have found Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride shelved in children’s libraries among the biographies when the crucial, central, and titular event of the book did not happen as it is depicted.

Look for yourself.  Go to a bookstore or library and check out some recent picture book biographies.  While reading these titles study the text carefully and ask what’s being left out, where did this conclusion come from, what is the source?  It is far too easy to get caught up in the story than to question it, which is what’s most troubling.

Biographies are nonfiction.  Storyographies are semi-nonfiction.  And since there’s no limbo section in the library, and because we teach children that books fall either into these two categories of either fiction or nonfiction, there is no room among the “true life” stories for those books that may be “mostly true.”

Until we can find a word that differentiates between those picture books that accurately tell a slice-of-life narrative of a subject’s life and those that are not entirely accurate, I think we need to vet these books carefully and not automatically shelve them among the biographies unless we can be certain they do not mislead the reader, intentionally or otherwise.  Simply telling the story of a real person does not and should not  automatically bestow a book with an unimpeachable air of truth.

_________________________

sources cited:

Cummins, Julie. “Storyographies: A New Genre.” School Library Journal August (1998): 42-3.

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs, illustrated by Mary Azarian . Snowflake Bentley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Parker, Robert Andrew.  Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum. New York City: Schwartz & Wade, 2008.

Ryan, Pam Munoz, illustrated by Brian Selznick. Amelia And Eleanor Go For A Ride. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.

“Storyographies: Picture-Book Biographies.” Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. London: Continuum, 2005.

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Things were running slow on the old computer today, and realizing I’d had it up and running for several days I decided to shut it down and restart it.

Uh oh.

It wouldn’t kick over, its chrome apple stared at me like a lobotomized hedgehog, the little bar clock spinning and spinning and chasing its tail like the old Warner Bros. Tasmanian devil.  I did the time-honored tech support maneuver – shut it down, count to thirty, start again – but no dice.  Suze suggested I go about my day for a bit, shop for groceries and take a shower, then try again.  So I did.

Zip.

I knew there had to be a way to do this, to jump-start it and make sure it was okay.  There had to be.  I hadn’t backed-up my thesis externally and didn’t even want to consider a life of recreating my thesis from scratch.  Brainiac that I am, I realized there were other computers in the house and did a quick Internet search for that thing I used to know but had forgotten: the safe start mode.  Shift + start.  And there it was, all in one piece.  A quick disk check revealed nothing broken so I saved my important thesis docs to a thumb drive, shut it down, crossed my fingers and fired it up again.

So far so good.

The week of my last deadline  I dropped the laptop and got a nice little dent where it landed on the power cord connector.  I spent two days holding my breath that I could get the last of my first draft finished before the internal organs bled to death.  I suppose having a full week to get a full diagnostic repair wouldn’t have been so bad – I probably could have pulled files between computers and worked at the library or something – but I’m beginning to wonder if I’m allowing the stress of this thing to cause me to screw things up.  I can’t  figure out how I managed to mess up the reboot but I won’t write off a crazy errant keystroke combination.

I’ll be glad when this is over and I can work on something nice and sane.  Like fiction.

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essay on the fly

So earlier this week I began working on the essay I had wanted to work on since residency.  I mean, I was all fired up over this thing.  It was about the intersection of montage theory in film and elison in graphic novel panels and how it applies to writing and…

Okay, so when I got back from rez and found the book I discovered that I remembered it sort of wrong.  There was the example of building scene details and guiding the reader/viewer, and that was still good and usable, but it wasn’t all I thought it was.  Okay, so my memory was 18 years stale and there’s a lot I’ve probably fogotten since then.  So sue me.

But, hey, I can work with this.  I can talk about recombining the narrative and the rule of three in building details and all that.  But it wasn’t coming easy so I set it aside to work on my second essay. That took me three days to wrangle, but I’m at a point where I feel I can make my points.  All I need to do now is edit it down.  I always overwrite these damn things.  I can make these ten pages into a solid seven.  Six on a good day.

Today was not a good day.  Nothing to do with that second essay, oh no, today I decided to go back to the first essay and start tightening up those quotes and…

Damn!  Where’s the book?

Yup, since I last had that book in my hand I’ve been able to unload four dozen boxes of books into our new shelving system.  The shelves look great, and all the kidlit is going to be in one place and organized by genre/age groups and…

Where’s that book!

It’s okay.  It’s okay.  It’s okay.  I can do this.  I’ve done this before.  My entire creative life has been about adapting.  There was that film, my senior project, where we ran out of film with only 40% of the script shot.  I worked around it.  That time I made a giant bee for a theatre marquee using Fed-Ex mailing tubes, papier mache, and chicken wire.  Yeah, that worked.  That end-o-year wrap-up show for the film review program where I couldn’t transfer the mix and wound up editing eight hours of tape with a raxor blade over the course of three straight days.  Uh huh.

I’m going to have to write a different essay.  I’m going to have to dip into the well and pull something else out of nowhere.  I can do this.  Three days?  No sweat.

I’m good.

Really.

Just.

Seriously.

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Looks like things are getting a little warm over at Guys Lit Wire with regards to a recent segment aired on CNN’s Glenn Beck show. First, if you haven’t checked it out, go there now and read through the post and the comments. There’s no way I can summarize what’s going on, but it’s a fairly interesting discussion that concerns the idea of boys’ books and the need to return to what one of my high school English teachers once referred to as books “in the Hemingway tradition of the rugged individual.”

Among he comments you will note I mentioned writing an essay this semester providently focusing on three books that featured boys in the roles of protector over female characters. It was a difficult essay for me at the time — written under a deadline and not as organized as I would have liked — which is my lame-o way of saying that I probably should have gone back and edited it before doing what I’m about to do.

I’m posting it here.

So, adding a distant aside to the din on protective boys in teen fiction, here is the essay I wrote a few months ago. Warts and all. And it’s long.  And I have some follow-up comments at the end.  If you make it.

To The Rescue:
Three Portraits of Boys Protecting Girls in Young Adult Fiction

c. 2008 David Elzey

For this essay I had intended to examine the voice of boys, and was determined at the very least to come to some understanding, some grounding in what “works” with some writers. After searching through my recent reading I settled on three books that presented three different boys whose voices were strong and, in their own ways, unique.

Eric Calhoune in Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes presents us with a senior on a mission to save a fellow outcast who has lapsed into a catatonic state. Eric’s voice is has the bitter edge of the underdog, the fat kid who has learned how to channel his anger into subtle forms of revenge and self-deprecating humor. In Neal Shusterman’s Unwind we meet Conner Lassiter, a runaway boy put up for retroactive abortion by his parents at the age of seventeen. Conner’s is a voice in hormonal rage, a boy with a strong sense of justice but he’s too quick to anger when strategy would suffice. An it-could-happen future is the setting for the dead and the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer, where a natural cataclysm forces Alex Morales to assume responsibility for his younger sisters. Alex’s voice is one bound by duty, tradition, and a strong undercurrent of faith; all other emotions are held at bay as survival becomes the driving force. All three boys are moved to act by external forces, all three challenged to question what they know, or were taught to believe, all three struggling to make the right decisions for those they care about.

Three boys struggling to make the right decisions for those they care about.

Until I’d made note of that fact I hadn’t realized how strong a link this was between these three books. For all three, the force that binds them and drives them is the desire to protect people they love, and all of those in need of protection are female. Is it possible that this desire to protect is something uniquely masculine, something boys struggle to acquire on their path towards discovering who they are as young men? Since strong female characters in literature are no longer considered rare or unusual, are contemporary boy characters still wrestling with the complex societal expectations of being the protectors of the weak? To varying degrees, the answer in these three recent Young Adult titles appears to be yes.

Pfeffer’s the dead and the gone is a parallel sequel to her previous book Life As We Knew It, taking place in the same months that follow when an asteroid knocks the moon from its orbit. The sequel is set in New York City where events are viewed from the perspective of seventeen year old Alex Morales. Alex’s father has just left for a funeral in Puerto Rico, his mother has reported for late duty at the hospital where she is a nurse, and his older brother Carlos is a Marine deployed to Texas. The initial effects of the moon’s orbital shift cause tidal waves and flooding that Alex will quickly learn have taken his parents.

In the initial hour of the blackout, before Alex completely understands how bad things are, he returns home from his after school job and immediately assumes assumes his role as the head of the family. His younger sisters, Bri and Julie, have already found a flashlight but he instructs them to use it to find the radio so they can learn about blackout. Failing that, his older sister Bri defers to Alex asking “Do you think everything is okay?” “I’m sure it is,” Alex said (5). Alex has already taken control of the situation and the parental role of the soother. Later, when his sisters wonder about their brother Carlos, and whether their parents are okay, Alex doesn’t hesitate to answer “We’re all fine. By Monday everything will be back in order” (11). In the initial moments of a calamity it is easy to hope for the best, but the full weight of responsibility is placed on him by Carlos when he gets a moment to call in before being deployed: “Look, Alex, you’re in charge now until Papi gets home. Mami’s going to be depending on you” (16). Alex’s sisters not only accept his leadership, they defer to him when they ask if they are safe. “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. I promise” (17). Mighty big words, and responsibility, for a seventeen year old boy.

Alex is constantly reasserting his role, or being reminded of it by others: “Because I’m trying to protect you” (33); “Who died and made you boss?” (69 and 88); “It’s for the best, he told himself” (87); “I’m in charge… Until Papi comes home, and you’ll respect me like you respect him” (99-100); “I’m going to do what’s best for you… You’re my responsibility” (100); “…I have sisters to watch out for” (142); “Julie doesn’t talk about it, but you’re responsible for her now” (164); “…you’re thirteen years old and you can’t look out for yourself” (211). Though it isn’t stated outright, there is an undercurrent that Alex’s role as protector is cultural. A Puerto Rican boy going to a private Catholic high school would carry with him the traditions and expectations of both cultures. And the girls would likewise expect Alex’s protection as well.

Beyond his initial scrounging for food, securing their apartment, and making sure his sisters continue their schooling, Alex protects the girls in other ways. When he discovers that bodies of the reclaimed dead are on display he doesn’t tell the girls he has an appointment to make an identification because, if their mother wasn’t among the dead, “They could keep on hoping then, but he hadn’t figured out whether that was a good thing or not” (56). Later, when he has a chance to send his older sister Bri away to a convent farm in upstate New York, he not only makes the arrangements but doesn’t tell her until a few hours before the bus is to take her away (92-98). During a food riot Alex is forced to walk over other people and ignore a fallen infant in the street in order to protect Julie(128). And in two separate incidents Alex protects Julie from being assaulted on the streets (216), and from being traded in exchange for safe passage out of the city (225).

Alex’s stoicism is consistent throughout — “I can manage on my own, especially if I know Bri and Julie are safe” (230). Only after he is felled by flu (275) and loses Bri in a fatal elevator mishap (295) does Alex finally feel the full weight of what he has taken on. Early on he allowed himself a moment to grieve “when his sisters couldn’t see him” (40), and then nothing more until he is confessing to his priest about Bri’s death to relieve the guilt he felt so they could see “how inadequate he was” (303), for failing to protect her as he promised.

The severity of events, and the constant reinforcement of expectations, forced Alex to exist almost entirely as a protector. Bri, the older but weaker sister, and Julie, the stronger but naïve one, clearly would not have survived without Alex’s efforts. His every waking moment is driven toward finding ways to assure Bri and Julie’s survival. Alex’s position is never seriously challenged or questioned by his sisters, he doesn’t even question his role until the very end. The book’s message isn’t necessarily that in times of crisis all boys revert to a mere protector-of-the-weak authority figure, but for Alex, in this book, that’s all he’s allowed to be.

In another speculative future, Neal Shusterman give us an America following a second civil war fought between pro-life and pro-choice forces. The result of these “Homeland Wars” was an accord meant to appease both sides, a compromise that outlawed abortion on moral grounds but permitted parents to have children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen “unwound,” essentially allowed to be harvested for their body parts.

Into this world, teens who know they are scheduled for unwind many attempt to runaway, including Conner Lassiter, a boy with a temper and a strong sense of social justice. After a double escape from authorities, Conner finds himself on the run with two other unwinds – Risa, a ward of the state who has outlived her usefulness, and Lev, a boy whose unwinding is part of his family’s religious tithing. Shusterman tells the story from multiple perspectives with each of these main characters telling their stories as they cross and join paths.

Risa isn’t initially in need of saving, as Connor himself notes that kids from state homes “have to learn to take care of themselves real young, or their lives are not very pleasant” (46). It’s Risa who actually takes care of Connor and Lev when they are first on the run by suggesting they change their clothes and identities (45), then schemes to make it happen (55). What changes their relationship is when, in a moment of combined weakness and rage, Conner saves an unwanted infant from being “storked,” the term for an infant dumped anonymously on a doorstep (62). It’s a foolish move for kids on the run to slow themselves down with an infant, but it provides them with the unexpected benefit of looking like a young family. Later, as Risa assumes duties as a surrogate mother, they discover the baby is a girl, becoming the first girl Conner saves (66).

Posing as a young family brings out the first glimpse of Conner’s concern toward Risa. “You okay about the baby?” Conner asks after it has been taken up for adoption (116). And when they begin the first leg of their journey in an underground railroad for runaways he puts his arm around her. “I’m cold too,” he says. “Body heat, right?” and she doesn’t rebuff his advance (117). As Conner’s concerns toward Risa blossom her hardness towards him softens, and the stage is set for him to protect her.

Warehoused in an airport hangar, where the runaways await the final trip toward a sanctuary called The Graveyard, Risa and Conner become aware of the manipulative behavior of Roland, a hulking military reject who see Connor as a threat to his perceived role as leader (146). It takes some convincing but Risa helps Conner see “A kid like Roland doesn’t want to fight you, he wants to kill you” (147). Cornering Risa in order to assault her is Roland’s ploy to draw Conner into a fight, playing on the idea that Conner would naturally come to her rescue. Using reverse psychology Conner not only avoids the fight but saves Risa as well (151). “(E)ven with all his troubles, she sees Conner as a hero” (152). What began as a shared interest in preservation has backed Conner into the masculine position of defending Risa against an almost biological predatory male encroachment battle. It’s a cold world that has a variety of names for dealing with children as objects but no mention of the emotion love. It’s no wonder unwanted teens like Risa and Conner can’t recognize their mutual attraction toward one another, but equally odd that they naturally revert to traditional gender roles.

At The Graveyard, Risa, Conner, and Roland are separated into job camps, though they occasionally have contact with one another. The roles they assume follow traditional gender lines. While Roland is amassing an army of followers to overtake the operation (soldier), and Risa is busy becoming a medic (nurse), Conner finds himself becoming the eyes and ears of The Graveyard’s leader, a man known as The Admiral (leader/politician). Conner passes along his suspicions about Roland (222) but lacking proof The Admiral cannot take action. Preparing to confront Roland himself, Conner cryptically warns Risa to avoid The Admiral to avoid becoming a target if his interrogation of Roland goes awry (233). Then he leans in and kisses her “in case something happens and I don’t see you again,” and she returns the kiss “…in case I do see you again” (234).

Their romance solidified, Conner is still unable to protect her when Roland manages to turn all three of them into the authorities. The police promise to have them all unwound for events surrounding Conner’s original escape, but Conner insists Risa “had nothing to do with it! Let her go!” (261). Shipped off to a body harvesting center Conner is received as a hero among other kids who have tried to escape, a legendary figure among fellow unwinds, one who might be their savior. Reflecting on his short life Conner considers how “The whole day weighs heavily on him – the way the kids think he can somehow save them, when he knows he can’t even save himself…. His one joy is knowing that Risa is safe, at least for now” (276).

A terrorist group, that includes Lev who has become hardened by his experiences on the run, sets off an explosion at the facility that knocks Conner unconscious and sends Risa to the hospital (309). Emerging from a two-week coma Conner’s first thoughts are of Risa (317). In an odd twist, it was Lev who pulled Risa from the wreckage and saved her life. Once they recuperate, Conner and Risa return to The Graveyard where Conner assumes operation of the facility following the Admiral’s departure: Conner can finally channel his outrage against the system to protect and save as many unwinds as he can (332).

Conner has grown slowly into his role as protector, first out of a general concern borne of circumstance, then out of affection, finally with a sense of purpose. Risa doesn’t start out needing to be saved, but as Conner’s natural leadership becomes apparent she begins to trust him enough to allow herself to be protected. Protecting Risa is a very delicate dance, one that comes with her permission, but it is genuinely appreciated in the end.

From its title one might assume that Eric Calhoune deliberate attempt at Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes would constitute the oddest form of protection. While Eric does, indeed, spend a year trying to keep his weight up to prove to his best friend that he hasn’t changed (7), it isn’t until his friend Sarah disappears into a catatonic trance that he is moved to confront and protect her from the secret that has driven her to this state (138). The women surrounding Eric are not weak; his single mother is a respected newspaper writer who won’t stand for anyone manipulating her (164); his swim coach, Cynthia Lemry, runs a controversial class called Contemporary American Thought and has no qualms threatening administration from interfering with her instruction (213); and Sarah herself, badly disfigured by a burn incident when she was three, is easily the toughest character of all three books combined. That Eric must ignore Sarah’s direct instructions in order to protect her only proves that his desire to save her is stronger than any loyalty. “…I was her only friend. I’d rather have her hate my guts and be safe than love me and be alone” (180-1)

Sarah Byrnes is in a mental facility in a catatonic state, unable (or unwilling) to communicate with the outside world. The historical friendship between Eric and Sarah is seemingly uncomplicated as he initially presents his concerns to Lemry: “She’s my best friend and she’s dying. We became friends when I was as fat as she is ugly, and I promised her a long time ago that I would never turn away from her” (23). Unsure what put Sarah in the hospital, Eric is nonetheless determined to do anything he can to keep her from dying, to save her. This is tricky, as Sarah once made it clear to Eric that she considers outside help a weakness, especially help from adults (58). That Sarah will stand up to Dale Thornton, the school bully, and repeatedly take his physical abuse on principle is her object lesson to Eric in this matter (25-26) .

In junior high Dale accuses Sarah of lying when she claims her face was burned when a pot of spaghetti was spilled on her. In defending her against Dale, Eric initially misses a telling detail when he notes the rage these comments elicit (91). Sarah has never previously let anything people say about her looks have any effect on her. Sarah certainly doesn’t need Eric’s protection, or his defense, but in her anger and her inability to deny the accusation she opens a door for Eric to find a way to repay her unflagging friendship. As Eric begins to accept what is the truth – that her father inflicted Sarah’s burns – he becomes emboldened to action (99-102).

In order to save Sarah, Eric not only has to lull her into speaking to him in the hospital (138), and get her to confirm that her father is the one who burned her when she was young (142), he has to find a way to get Sarah safely away from her father (198). This proves difficult as Sarah’s father has threatened to kill Eric for his meddling (224). With the aid of his friend Steve, and through Lemry’s intervention, Eric is able to keep Sarah safe (201-204). But in a twist that echos Shusterman’s Unwind, it is another male character, the man Eric’s mom is dating, who subdues Sarah’s father and protects them all (284). Realistically, this makes sense because it would have been absurd to think a teenage boy could have taken on the homicidal maniac that is Sarah’s father, but to the extent that he could Eric did everything within his power to safeguard his best friend from harm.

Sarah isn’t the only girl Eric protects. For years he’s been mooning over Jody Muller, girlfriend of one of his swimming rivals Mark Brittain (78). When Mark and Jody move to drop Lemry’s class on moral grounds – Brittain is a holier-than-thou fundamentalist – Eric casually offers Jody liberation in the form a whispered joke: “If you ever want a boyfriend who encourages freedom of expression… dial 1-800-FAT-BOY” (104). The joke’s on Eric when Jody not only takes him up on the offer, but confesses that her unsupportive boyfriend got her pregnant in the past, forced her to have an abortion, and then denied it ever happened (147-153). It isn’t clear at first whether Jody is merely trying to deliberately hurt her former boyfriend by seeing Eric, but in the end Jody and Eric remain together. The simple promise of support is all it took to make Jody feel safe and protected enough to walk away from a bad relationship .

Though Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes is the most realistic story of the three it follows the least conventional path of boys protecting girls. Eric’s evolution from wimpy fat kid to protector of women comes from his friendship with Sarah, the toughest person in the story who cannot see how best to save herself. In the cold-hearted future of Unwind the awakening of Conner’s protective nature matures when he is able to replace the rage he feels toward the world with his affection toward Risa. Having been a ward of the state, Risa is willing to relinquish her defensive stance and allow herself to be cared about, if not completely cared for. And in the cataclysmic landscape of the dead and the gone Alex has no other choice but to become the protectorate of his younger sisters. Through duty, family honor, and religious acculturation, Alex has little choice but to dedicate himself to making sure his family remains safe and alive to the extent that he can.

For two of these stories the boys in question – Conner and Eric – do not set out to protect girls who are clearly not weak, and in fact the boys have to work hard to gain enough of the girl’s trust in order to protect them. For Alex, his single-minded determination reads almost like a character flaw, an immaturity and weakness that prevents him from seeing little beyond his sense of preservation. Alex’s story almost becomes a game of trying to guess how and when he’s going to fail in his duties; for Conner and Eric it’s a only a question of how they will succeed.

In looking at the voice of boys what became clear in these books was a strong undercurrent of characters driven to protect the girls they cared about. Their voices, their thoughts and actions, are driven by a something that seems less like character and more biological in origin. Whether culturally influenced, bound by loyalty, or vaulted by circumstance, the boys in these books are pressed into service as heroes to the rescue.

Works Cited
Crutcher, Chris. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. New York: HarperTeen, 2003.

Pfeffer, Susan Beth. the dead and the gone. New York: Harcourt Children’s Books, 2008.

Shusterman, Neal. Unwind. New York: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2007.

If you have read this far, I salute you, you rock. If you feel that in my essay I managed to leave out my opinions in the matter then you will have noticed the fundamental problem at the heart of what still bothers me about it.

Where I fail to draw a conclusion about the meaning or importance of this particular phenomena of (over)protective boys let me say that a very large part of me hates this portrayal of boys as saviors I can totally see where some boys might enjoy this. The idea of saving someone you love or are in love with may be the closest boys get to the kind of stuff that appears in traditional romance novels. We don’t expect that women who read romance novels expect to be whisked of their feet by some ripped Scotsman on a horse; likewise, boy readers might night see these male protagonists rescuers as anything more than a fantasy image.

But the question remains: has our culture really emasculated boys, and can it be corrected through reading, or have we finally pried the pendulum from the patriarchal extreme and brought it closer to center where it belongs? If books really had as much power as Glenn Beck and his ilk believe to alter an entire gender, then what’s his excuse?

Oh yeah, he probably didn’t read much as a boy. That would explain a lot of his inanities.

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This is insane. I’m a week out from deadline and I haven’t got an angle. I’ve got these three books with male protagonists, each wrestling with their place in the world: Susan Beth Pfeffer’s the dead and the gone, Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes, and Neal Shusterman’s Unwind. Two of them deal with a not-too-distant future turned upside down, two of them are in the third person, two of them are by male authors, two of them feature main characters without adult figures in their lives… there’s no one thing that binds them together.

Except voice, this elusive thing I am looking for, the key to authenticity in a teen voice in literature. Yeah, I bit off more than I can chew.

This would be a perfect topic to tackle for my thesis a year from now when I can stretch out and take the historical view. I’d love to drag a line from Twain to the present, through scenic stops along Salinger and Burgess, and talk about how the exaggeration of authenticity itself creates an authentic voice. It’s a wisp of an idea, but I think it’ll hold water once I pull quotes and citations. The problem is that paper if something like 50 pages and I only need to pull together something like 8 to 10 right not.

And I mean, right now.

We all talk about voice — authorial voice, character voice, the tone of voice, the quirky, the dull, the obedient servant at the heart of a story — but what is it, I wonder, that makes a voice particularly boyish. How do boys talk, and how is it different than girls? Would we know a boy is speaking because of an implication of action in what they say? Is there a difference in what they say versus what they do? Can we point to specific characteristics or traits and say, definitively, that is a boy speaking?

This is the problem I’ve set up for myself. I ant to examine what it means to portray a boys voice but the commonalities, the markers, all appear superficial to me. Can it really be as simple as amplifying stereotypes? Is it that boys think differently than they speak, speak differently than they act? Sure, I could support these statements, but to do so requires time, it requires rereading the books and hunting down relevant passages. Maybe this is stupid of me, but I don’t go into a book (or a set of books) with a critical agenda looking for things I can cull later for an essay. I’m also not the fastest reader – I’ve never enjoyed a book I couldn’t savor – so doing it under the gun of a deadline makes me sloppy.

I can’t let these things rip me up. The critical requirement is helpful, useful, and informative to my goal as a writer, but if I have to start planning for it, giving it more time each packet, then I’m cutting into the heart of my creative work, which I already feel suffers from neglect. The part of me that wants to b a good writer won’t let me toss out a crappy essay. The part of me that wants to write a good essay doesn’t want to have to cram it into super-tight deadlines that don’t allow me to properly address the ideas involved.

*sigh*

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