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Posts Tagged ‘boy books’

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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It’s in the air.

Everywhere I turn these days I keep stumbling into discussions about boys and books and reading and literacy.  Either this is one of those situations where the universe is suddenly focused a sharp light in one direction and everyone is looking, or I’m seeing what’s always been there with the eyes of the newly awakened.

Just yesterday I got the go-ahead on my lecture topic for my January residency.  As part of fulfilling my graduation requirements I need to give a 45 minute lecture on the topic of my choosing to my fellow students and faculty at Vermont College.  This has caused me no end of anxiety because while most people are willing, content, and even excited to craft lectures from their Critical Theses,  am not one of those people.  As much as I learned and can share about the topic of accuracy in picture book biographies, the thesis was a personal exploration for me, a way of picking apart the sub-genre in order to not only understand it but to one day, eventually, write a few of my own.  One day.

But then one of my classmates asked a pretty basic question and it hit me like a tonne of soggy peat: what are you passionate about?

Huh.

Before I entered the program, while I was still mulling over unformed ideas about children’s literature, I considered pursuing a radical idea I had about non-linear non-fiction.  It was founded on the idea that boys are naturally drawn to non-fiction and the idea of a recombined narrative that came from a snippet of and article in the New York Times explaining how one can read and re/mis/interpret the Koran.  Yeah, I know, a little out there.  But it really came down to boys and reading.

And since then everything seems to circle back around to boys and reading.  Whenever people asked what sort of books I wrote the answer would generally be middle grade and young adult.  After a while that wasn’t good enough.  At residency a couple July’s back Louise Hawes had us do an exercise where our adult selves had a conversation with our younger selves, and in that exercise I was torn between wanting to talk to the 11 year old me and the 17 year old me.

And that, it turned out, was my audience.

So now when people ask I’m just as likely to say I write middle grade and YA books for boys, because that is ultimately who I envision as my audience when I write.  But how does one write for a boy?  Are their types and tropes and plotlines specific to boys?  Is it all action and no feeling?  What exactly is a boy boy book, and what can we as writers do to retain and encourage boys to read and keep reading?

And thus my lecture topic was born.

Four months.  That’s the amount of time I have to work this thing out.  I am finding new information and resources every day, but if you have a particular piece of wisdom, insight, or research to share, please, or if you know a professional who could be of assistance – teacher, librarian, bookseller, scholar –by all means, get in touch.

Boys, boy books, and boy-friendly reading.  Boys.  We’re gonna represent come Jaunary.

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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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