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Every once in a while I find myself writing a short story. It starts as a lark, a seed of an idea that suddenly sprouts and FOOM! there it is. I have a stable of characters I like to write about which allows for this sort of thing to happen, and they’re a lot of fun to write because the seem to come from that part of my brain that still remembers how writing is supposed to be fun. Supposed to be, as opposed to writing novel-length stories that require plotting and thinking about craft and a time commitment. I find these short stories, when they come, are over before my brain has finished sharpening the pencils and filling out the forms necessary for a larger undertaking.

Okay, so the story is done, and I read it over. They tend to be humorous stories, so I laugh, which is a good thing. Not laughing at my own jokes, but still liking what I’ve written enough to be amused. Then I frown. I’ve just written another humorous story with solid boy appeal and don’t have anything I can do with it.

And I’m left wondering: where do boys go to find stories?

I start thinking, What sort of stories are like the one I just wrote? The first thing that came to mind is the story Gordie tells in Stephen King’s novella The Body about the kid Lard Ass and the pie eating contest. It’s a revenge story, simply put like a campfire tale, and the type of story boys like. But suddenly it occurs to me that even the mighty Stephen King knows that the only way he’s going to get a story like that published is by including it within the context of another, more traditional story.

Because you just know there isn’t a magazine alive aimed at a kid audience that would touch that story with a ten foot pole.

Anthologies exist that cater to humorous boy stories – the Guys Read series of course, and the David Luber Campfire Weenies books – but when a boy is in the mood for some light reading (okay, let’s be honest, bathroom reading) where does he go?

Where did I go?

Eventually I ended up reading National Lampoon, which might not have been the best literature around, but it feed my hunger for funny stories. Occasionally, rarely, I would come across some humorous fiction in The New Yorker, but when it came to finding something short to read I was at a loss. There had to be something more sophisticated than Boy’s Life, less obnoxious than National Lampoon, and not as stiff as The New Yorker, but if there was, I couldn’t find it.

Last fall I was riding public transit and there were three high school boys talking. One of them was telling the other two about this “wicked, sick” story he’d read, and as he went on I realized he was recounting a story by George Saunders from the recent issue of The New Yorker. His friends were attentive, but I could see in their eyes that once they’d heard the story from their friend they wouldn’t hunt it down and read it. It might have been the story itself, or the way the boy told it, but what I think really dulled the fire in the listening-boy’s eyes was when the teller admitted where it came from. Unspoken in those looks was the fact that the story had come from a magazine lying around the house that his parents subscribed to. Very uncool. If he’d lied and said he read the story in FHM or Details it’d be a different story, but then the conversation would veer into fashion or the latest tech gadget or, most likely, the cover model.

Because I thought I was missing something obvious I went to the library to check out the various writer’s market books. One of them (which I won’t name) had a subject index in back and under ‘humor’ there were a couple dozen magazines listed. When I went to check them out almost without exception they stated ‘no juvenile’ in their listings; the exceptions, and there were four listings with this problem, explicitly stated ‘no humor’ which doesn’t speak so well of the copyediting or indexing skills for that title. Almost all of the juvie titles listed were for younger ages than I write for, whose idea of humor most decidedly wouldn’t include pranks, bodily functions, or subversive behavior.

I’ll keep looking for the perfect home for these stories, but I suspect they’re just going to collect over the years until I’ve published several other “real” books and a publisher is willing to humor me by putting out a collection. Perhaps this is one of those “if I won the lottery” situations where I say that if I had the money I’d start a new digital and in-print magazine of humor. Old school thinking, I know, but a boy can still dream, can’t he?

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First, I want to thank everyone for dropping by last week when I was hosting Poetry Friday. It was a bit of a crazy weekend, and it turned out that the computer problems I was having behind the scenes were, indeed, part of a very real and very large problem. Anyway, that was fun!

So last week I shared my tale of woe as a kid in a computer costume that just. didn’t. work. A few years later my friend Marc and I hatched a plot to come away with the largest Halloween haul in the history of trick-or-treating. No false modesty here, we pulled it off, much to the horror of our parents. Two pillow cases, full to the point they nearly didn’t close, each.

red and orange
leaves of fall

two boys scheming
candy haul

making costumes
planning route

counting houses
lotsa loot

right at sunset
halloween

house to house
two boys careen

pillow cases
weighted down

“we musta hit
half the town!”

kitchen table
piled high

candy mountain
year’s supply

picking favorites
making trades

parents tossing
things homemade

tightly rationed
(sneak a lot)

mid-november
candy? naught!

“next year we won’t
mess around,

next year we take
the WHOLE town!”

I think the worst part is when you’ve already eaten all the “good” candy and all that’s left are banana taffies and waxy hard butterscotch wrapped in cellophane. Question for you commenters: what is your least favorite candy? Or what candy do you like that no one else does that guarantees no one will try to take it from you? For me, I can’t stand sour candies, and I’ll eat the Necco wafers. Bonus if it’s an all-chocolate Necco pack. They aren’t my favorite, but I don’t have the same problems other people seem to have with them.

Want more treats that won’t ruin your teeth (at least I hope they don’t!)? Head on over to Jama’s Alphabet Soup where this week’s Poetry Friday is congregating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but our crying mothers understood

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

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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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The end is neigh!  Today, the last of the NONs, the final element in what boys are typically drawn to in their reading…

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Non the Fourth: Nonsense

Boys love nonsense. They love wordplay and the fun of saying things just to hear them out loud. They actually love language so much – as opposed to talking – I’m almost certain they love it over girls. As a result, when it’s not flowery, boys do love poetry.

I would implore you at this point to reconsider the meaning of the word nonsense, as “trifling or insignificant,” and how often seemingly trifling or insignificant details are key elements to mysteries requiring a solution. What is fiction if not a collection of seemingly insignificant details that come to hold so much more meaning as the narrative unfolds?  Boys love puzzles and problem-solving, and it is this recognition of something that is out of place or not making sense that draws them in. Detective and genre fiction excel at presenting information that appears on its face as either foolish or absurd only to have it become hugely significant.

To those who insist that nonsense is folly and frivolity I need only point to Exhibit A: Lewis Carroll.  His two Alice adventures contain more nonsense than anything by Dav Pilkey or Daniel Pinkwater, and they are treasured stories boys enjoy despite having a female main characters.  I’ll address gender in my summary, but the fact remains that what draws boys into this book is precisely the nonsense of it all, the wordsmithery, the punning and poetry and gamesmanship.  And if you’ve been following this series along you might have guessed a few other elements that boys have latched onto.

While Carroll’s works can be dismissed as an anomaly – a classic that has slipped through the cracks – I’d like to linger a bit on this particular story a little longer to examine its lack of sense and what it tells us about boy readers.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a mathematician and logician (among other things) with a love of poetry and puzzles, often one contained within the other. All you have to do is take a look at the Alice in Wonderland of The Hunting of the Snark, both annotated by modern logician Martin Gardner, to learn just how deep Carroll’s nonsense really went. Riddles and puns are enjoined by acrostic and secret messages and work on whatever level the reader finds accessible. But even stripped of all this, the stories and words themselves have a style and tone that engages readers, they revel in portmanteau words (a term coined by Carroll) to explain the words he invented for Jabberwocky. Kids today memorize and enjoy Jabberwocky to this day, some voluntarily, and they do so because nonsense contains a very crucial element:

The joy of words.

A lot of modern education seems to beat a lot of joy out of childhood, mostly unintentionally, but I think losing the joy of words is part of what sends boys packing when it comes to reading. Because nonsense verse is viewed as a frivolity, once poetry units become formalized it becomes necessary to teach to the curriculum, which tends to mean teaching meaning and structure and form and content via serious poems. When we teach Kipling’s “If” or Poe’s “The Raven” we trade away some of the joy previously found in Edward Lear or Ogden Nash or even Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss because… well, that the nature of things. We take out time to set aside childish things very seriously, and in doing so send the message that those nonsense verses are lesser poems. Every time the message is sent that what is enjoyed is somehow inferior it shouldn’t be a surprise that interest drops.

And it isn’t just poetry. Captain Underpants and Flat Stanley are tolerated because they are intended for emerging readers, but as elementary school trudges on books become more serious, and by young adulthood humor is merely entertainment.

Until I began to think about these issues with boy readers I hadn’t considered how one teacher’s allowance for nonsense in the classroom might have saved me from becoming a nonreader. In fifth and sixth grade I was part of a multi-grade open classroom (ah, the 70s) and we reported to different teachers for different units. For my Language Arts unit Don Mack had weekly packets that began with dictation that contained spelling, vocabulary, and grammar. The week began with him reading something aloud and us kids copying it down, later to correct and identify errors and for use throughout the unit. Sometimes the dictation was nonfiction, sometimes a timely news event, but my memory was that half the time it was poetry. At least that’s what he called it. Lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” came up against Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” and Shel Silverstien’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout.”

I can still remember the subversive joy of hearing my teacher read this nonsense and legitimizing it as classroom instruction. In doing so I suddenly felt more comfortable checking out The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear from the library to the point of memorizing it. I became so familiar with the rhythms of the Limerick that I began writing my own. Three years later I was so comfortable with poetry that I was writing parodies of classic poems for class assignments (and to this day I wish I had my lost-homework epic “Turn It In” based on Kipling’s “Gunga Din”). The point being that without having that spirit of nonsense honored and nurtured I probably would have lost interest in the so-serious literature presented in school.

And lets not forget puns. Groan all you want, but boys love puns. They love the duplicity of meaning and the commradery of the in-joke. Malapropisms and neologisms also feed their daily conversations outside of class, where they suddenly feel freed to speak their minds, free of the confines of what is “proper.”

This I think is key: nonsense is a doorway to subversion of authority, a way boys establish, maintain, or reclaim their sense of worth. Certainly among peers, where a revelie of clever nonsense can garner certain standing among friends.  But also we so often look at boys as not being expressive enough, and then when they are we dismiss their nonsense as a lack of seriousness.  But I would argue that we’re ever to have boys express themselves seriously they may need to get the nonsense out of their system first; if it’s never given a proper airing I don’t think we should expect boys to be better at communication when their sole “practice” is limited to what is proper, polite, and serious.

In books, then, I would advocate for more nonsense. It doesn’t have to be complete and utter – it could be a single character that behaves nonsensically, or nonsense slang – but it should be a component to the story. Beyond humor, a touch of nonsense adds an unpredictable air to the story, provides the reader with a curve ball that catches them off guard. Give the reader context and let other characters (especially girls) react accordingly.

I promise you, boys will love it.  Let them revel in the joy of words.

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Which brings us to the end of the material I originally prepared for a lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts a few months back.  Almost.  I do have some stray bits I want to share next week as a sort of summary and clearinghouse for things that didn’t fit.  Also, if there were any lingering questions out there I’m opening up the floor.  Otherwise, until next week on Building Better Boy Books, if you missed previous installments they’re all collected in one mammoth page at the top under the tab called “@ boy books.”

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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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