Archive for the ‘teen’ Category

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?


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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I was seventeen and working my first job at Mann’s Village Theatre in Westwood, California.  My friend Carlos had put in a good word for me and I was hired after a brief five-minute interview in the lobby.  Minimum wage as (as it is now) about the price of a bargain matinée ticket and without revealing how much that was let’s just say that my first week I worked 28 hours and made $65 before taxes.

It was an awesome experience, that first paycheck, that heady allure of money coming in a steady stream.  I had no bills, no sense of saving money, no financial responsibilities except to keep putting gas in the car.  I had that brass ring of capitalistic happiness, disposable income, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

Well, I did.  I mean, now I could eat out anywhere or anytime I wanted.  I could stop borrowing friends records and recording them and start buying my own vinyl.  I could hang out at the mall and buy cookies the size of my head – 3 for a dollar – or hang out with friends after school and eat pizzas.

Then I discovered bookstores.

There were the big bookstores around Westwood which made perfect places to hang out during breaks at work.  You could use a fifteen minute break to wolf down a falafel or softball-sized carrot cake muffin and spend your entire meal break later at the bookstore looking at all those books piled everywhere. I discovered so many books that were important to me in those early days of reckless spending, a dozen or so I still own several decades later, but the oddest in retrospect was the first book of poetry I ever bought for myself.

I have to clarify, because I did own a collection of Edward Lear’s work, and I know there were other books that were either gifts or books that entered the house that I assumed as my own, but there was one distinct book that I consciously picked up, read parts of, and purchased with little more going for it than a random page test reading.

It was Charles Bukowski’s Play The Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin To Bleed a Little.

Bukowski is either the best or the worst poet to put into a teen boy’s hands.  This was in the late 1970s and his reputation was only starting to bubble to the surface of the mainstream, so I found very few people I could talk to about Bukowski’s poems.  I had a sense there were some who would be put off by his crudeness, his portraits of lowlife and barlife, people who found little they liked in poetry because they thought poetry was hard, or was like a secret society where you had to know to rules to “get” what was on the page.  I’m talking about my teenage peers here, not the adults who (then and now) really wouldn’t have appreciated a teen reading this stuff.

The poems didn’t speak to me so much as they spoke with a single-minded clarity I hadn’t been exposed to before.  They rang with a sort of ugly truth that felt more relevant than the Beat poetry I had recently been exposed to.  Kerouac and Ginsberg were noodling jazz, all filigree word salad, Bukowski was a bell buoy in choppy seas.

I’ve read more Bukowski but I only own one other book by him, the biographical novel Ham on Rye.  Sometimes I feel like I should own more but I find that out of every collection there are only a couple poems that work for me and the rest I could live without.  Also, I’m slightly afraid that owning other collections of his poems would diminish the impact of this one book, my first, in a way that would take away its specialness.

Specialness.  What makes it special?  Was it that I bought the book with my own money, or the fact that buying poetry felt like a sophisticated act?  I certainly didn’t brag about it, about owning a book of poetry, though I’m sure my teenage self did casually mention to people about this “weird poet” I’d “heard about.”  I do think there is something to be said about its first-ness and I wonder if the cumulative effect wasn’t what kept me tangentially attached to poetry all these years.

I’m curious: what was your first book of poetry that you purchased for yourself?  How old were you?  Do you still own it?

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For a century now we’ve been running this great experiment called adolescence.  With the rise of theories on social development, we’ve come to refine the compartmentalization of childhood into such neat little slices of experience and expectation that I’m wondering if maybe it isn’t time to step back and ask ourselves if we’re doing right by the adolescents in our midst or if we aren’t doing more damage than good.

And for once, instead of my usual rants against education, I’m going to pose this question to writers of Young Adult fiction.

Time was, we used to have a ceremony for children as they reached puberty and called them adults.  We’d send them on walkabouts, or give them bar (or bat) mitzvahs, administer confirmations, hold sunrise ceremonies… whatever name they are given, many cultures seemed to have in place a ritual recognition separating childhood from adulthood with nothing in between.

And for many decades we did not have a Young Adult fiction category for the same reason.  At one point a child was no longer expected to need coddling literature and it was time for them to venture out into the world and learn from the “adult” side of the library.

Since then it seems we’ve created a sort of limbo where people we call teenagers or “young adults” are permitted to exist in a protective cocoon that, presumably, exists to allow for a smoother transition into adulthood.  In this protective envelope we find teens yearning for the experiences of adulthood but disinterested in the responsibilities of same.  We let them drive cars, but they are still carried under an adult’s insurance coverage and responsibility.  We let them have jobs but don’t require they share any of the expenses that adult wage earners are beholden to.

And come graduation from high school there is another four years for them to remain fully out of adulthood, and even then we find many returning home to the roost.

My charge today is to ask: how much does YA literature foster a retardation of maturity?

I know there is the thorny issue of deciding whether fiction reflects or mirrors a culture, and whether it should.  This is the uneasy territory  find myself considering over and over.  Should my stories mirror those experiences most teens are having, or should they, somehow, suggest that there is more to life than grades and proms and dating and shopping and dueling with adults?  I look at the teen characters I create, and their stories, and I wonder “Are you nothing more than the result of too many freedoms and not enough responsibilities?”

I wonder if adolescences has created a class of entitlement.

And I wonder if YA literature can do anything about it.

In prepping for my pending residency at school (this weekend!) I am finding I wish I had more time to read.  I want more time not only to digest the required reading but to delve further into the issues these books bring up.  I want to brush up on my Bettleheim and explore Erik Erikson.  I want to read and know more about why we think, as a culture, adolescence as a classification is such a good thing.

I have a full six months between now and graduation from school, between this moment and the one where I have to lecture on something substantive within the field of children’s literature.  I have more ideas and more questions than can be answered, much less expounded on, in a half year’s time.  I feel like I’m about to be told I can go into the world and build jet planes having only worked on plastic models.

This is it.  There is no “adolescence” for me as a writer.  My ritual is on the horizon.

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It’s sad, but not totally surprising.

Over at Comic Book Resources they’re reporting that the DC imprint of graphic novels for girls, Minx, is no more.  From the announced launch the element that struck me oddest was DC.  I think DC comics and I don’t immediately think “girls” or “graphic novels” really, I think Batman.  I think Superman.  I think of a publisher that made their name as the chief competitor to Marvel for the better part of half a century.  Guy stuff.

Also, anytime you start a subdivision aimed at a specific core market you’re acknowledging (a) that you have been neglecting that market, which connotes a sort of guilt, and (b) you’re attempting to correct the problem through a form of market segregation.  DC started Minx because the noted there were a lot of teen girls reading manga.  Imagine if they took similar steps back in the 60s by starting an imprint of comics aimed at black children by giving them their own imprint, a sort of separate but equal for the comic book world.

The problem is that what girls — or any consumer for that matter — wants isn’t their own culturally specific art, media, or entertainment as determined by a single entity, what they want is true integration across the board.  If the observation is that girls are reading more manga the conclusion isn’t that they want their own comics brand but they want comics with female characters in them.  DC sort of got that part right. Castellucci’s Janes books, Good As Lily, The Re-Gifters, all of them featuring female characters.  If that was all it took wouldn’t everyone be beating down the door for that untapped market?

Recently I caught a talk given by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of the TV show Lost, talking about what he calls the mystery box.  It’s about wanting to know what’s inside that drives dramas, their secret heart, what makes them tick.  During the talk he shows a clip from Jaws.  I’m not going to recount the whole thing here, so if you want the full experience jump over here and give it a look and then come back.  The thing he identifies though, what he says the film is about, it isn’t what we think of with Jaws.  It isn’t the shark, it isn’t the totentanz for three men in a boat, it’s about one man in personal crisis, a crisis of the heart.  This is the core of the film and the essential secret, the mystery within the box, because without this the film is dead.

I’ve always sort of known this about Jaws, but what I realized while listening to Abrams is that when some cultural phenomenon like Jaws — or a graphic novel like Watchmen, or a TV show like Lost, or the Harry Potter books — garners attention what follows is the parade of imitators desperately hoping to cash in through imitation.  But what they see, what they copy, isn’t what makes the original resonate with people.  What is copied is the artifice, the exterior, and not the core or the mystery.  Sequels to Jaws weren’t about a man in crisis, they were about the shock of the shark, and as such became pale (and laughable) imitators.  The core of the Harry Potter books is no different than a Cinderella story with a bit more Grimm added to it, but the immitators only saw wizards and magic and dragons that adorned the outside of it.

Back to Minx.  DC saw girls reading manga and said “hey, we can do that!”  But what they created were comics, not manga.  The stories were more decidedly Western when perhaps it was a Japanese cultural perspective that was the draw.  DC/Minx saw the shark, they never tapped the mystery box, at least that’s my take on it.  But get this explanation:

Multiple sources close to the situation agree Bond and DC aren’t to blame for MINX’s cancellation, and that this development should be seen as a depressing indication that a market for alternative young adult comics does not exist in the capacity to support an initiative of this kind, if at all.

Are they kidding?  Yeah, well, we saw that girls liked comics so we started an imprint just for them, but no one really bought them and so we have to conclude the market really isn’t there. No, Minx, from my perspective the alternative young adult comic market does exist, you just didn’t really bother to understand what that market wanted.

You want to know what I think is the most telling part of the news release?

Nevertheless, CBR News was told that Random House, DC’s book trade distributor, has not been able to successfully place MINX titles in the coveted young adult sections of bookstores like Barnes & Noble.

That’s the killer.  Barnes and Noble decided the books should be buried among the bound collections of guys with tights and the girls don’t like going there.  I worked there, I know.  Reason?  That aisle is full of grown men leering through the manga and teen boys acting like jerkworms arguing over alternate Batman universes.  Everyone knows that what B&N says, goes. And if Minx was even going to have a chance at the market they knew they needed better placement than Fanboy Alley.  I bet a face-out in YA of Minx titles might have told a different story then the one we’re hearing about now.

So long, Minx.

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I got asked “What’s a quintessential boy book?’ yesterday from someone.  Quintessential, meaning he perfect example, the pure embodiment of something or someone.  It’s almost like asking “Who invented jazz” because everyone has that point on the groove that they mark with a big letter A and it might not be where everyone else drops the needle.

But in attempting to untangle what I thought were the typical elements that made one book be a “boy” book as opposed to a “girl” book (and if we have “chick lit” for girls does that mean we have “dick lit” for boys?), and in searching for authors who I think cut close to the bone of what boys like to read, I finally had to conclude that it came down to one thing.

Every boy book is another attempt to rewrite The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry FInn. If I’m late to the party on this observation, please forgive me, and if you would be so kind as to cite some sources so that I may continue my education I’d be most grateful.

I went on (and oh how I can go on) that Harry Potter is another version of Twain’s adolescent trio (Tom, Huck and Becky = Harry, Ron and Hermione), and how boys prefer action to exposition, and how every book we tend to think of as being for boys pits its main character against a stream of events to which they must react.  That great divide in movie dates is the boy movie versus the girl movie, the movie where things happen versus the movie where people talk.  It isn’t that boys don’t like dialog, because they do, but what they don’t tend to like is dialog about emotions.  Thinking, logic, reasoning, facts, analysis… these are topics for discussion.

You know where there are a lot of these quintessential boy books?  In genre fiction.  Mysteries and Sci-fi and Westerns, all about heroes (and they can be female) who have to reason and puzzle their way through their environment.  This is what the boys do, they tear apart their world the same way they tear apart a toaster to see what’s inside, then put it all back together until it makes some sort of sense.  But then why do we place these books in the ghetto of a thematic genre instead if with what is otherwise known as Fiction and Literature, as the chains tend to break things out?  Is there really a difference in quality between these books?

Yes, but the difference is that the genre books are often better written than some of what gets shelved alongside what we consider classics.  Seriously, is there a reason Dutch Leonard can’t be on the same shelf as Harper Lee?  Is Philip Pullman somehow less of a literary artist than Mario Puzo that they must be kept segregated?  I know this is getting away from the boy book idea, but the fact is that a lot of what would appeal to a boy is often at odds with what society (marketing? the publishing world in general?) considers “good”

So then that’s it, the essence of all YA for boys boils down to some variation of Tom Sawyer and Huch Finn. Boy on an adventure, figuring out their world, battling bad guys and hunting treasue, spelunking and prankstering, all in that unique first person voice full of character but ultimately not saying anything too deep.

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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 supposed to be my down time, my catch-up time. I’m supposed to finish with my semester busypaper work and get back to the middle grade novel. I need to get that sucker in line so that I can seriously start thinking about–

Scratch that. Gang way! New idea comin’ through!

Yup, the brain seriously hijacked me this afternoon and got to thinking about a whole new YA novel concerning a couple of doofuses who decide to… well, I never was too comfortable talking about things before they were written. I think it’s a really strong idea but I seriously need to finish one thing before pressing on with another. Seriously. Like I think my wife will go out and purchase a new Prius simply so she can use it to run me down if I don’t finish at least the middle grade novel I started this semester.

One thing I will talk about is titles. No matter how good an idea is, it’s never set to go until I have an appropriate title. If the title doesn’t work then I’ll never be able to focus on the the writing. Why? Because titles matter. They matter the same way a character’s name matters, the way smaller animals on the food chain need to know who the predators are matters.

Yes, it may be psychological, but titles serve as talismans to me. And so for this new YA novel I have it in my head that the title needs to be so absurd that it only has meaning within the context of the book, and yet echoes everything within. I’m thinking it needs to be a one-word title (just intuition, nothing more), either a piece of slang or the nickname of one of the characters. It’s about a couple of teen boys and I’m seriously thinking of having them swear like sailors, only to replace all their swear words with unexplained absurdities.

“Hey! Tinklewaxer!”
“Bite the lava, mon friar!”

And naturally, being boys, they would insult each other by making fun of each other’s names. Kids like to do that. In second grade we used to howl that there was a professional football player named Dick Butkus (we pronounced he last syllable as ‘kiss’). And our teacher’s name was Miss Bilkis. And if they got married she could be Mrs. Dick Bilkis-Butkis.

In a flash (not necessarily a brilliant one) I thought that one of these teen doofuses needed to have a last name that could be plundered, something like Fortinbras which would allow for many different bendings. But then there’s all the connotation with Hamlet, and I didn’t want to go there (see how my brain hijacks my ability to focus?), so then I thought Furtenbach.

Literally, from the German, fords the brook. Now maybe we’re getting somewhere.

So this doofus has a buddy and what does he call him? Fartinduck. Yeah, boy humor. Could that be the title of the book? Maybe if I made it less obvious, like Fartenduq? That’ll fool a lot of people.

So then later I’m describing all this to my eldest daughter and talking about how funny it would be for people to go into the store to ask for the book without realizing what the title means until the ask for it and say it out loud for the first time. “You got a copy of that book Fartin… oh.” Reminds me of when here was this indie movie out called Spanking the Monkey and just saying the title made people uncomfortable. Best of all, I think I must have called Moviefone a couple times a week to hear that guy say

Your selection… Spanking the Monkey… is now playing at…

because he really put some gusto into the way he said it. The memory of it cracks me up to this very day. What is that, 14 years now? Sheesh!

So, what got me started here? Oh, right, the meandering of my accursed brain. well, plenty of time to work on some more nicknames and insults while I’m finishing up that middle grader over there. Just, right over there.

Any day now.


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