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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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Every time there is an award ceremony someone is always upset their favorite book/movie/president didn’t win and then whines about how it’s unfair, how the real winner was robbed, or how, clearly, the judges wouldn’t know a winner if it bit them in the ass.

This isn’t gonna be like that.

The ALA 2009 Youth Media Awards wew announced this morning at the ALA mid-winter conference in Denver, an event akin to the Academy Awards for the kidlit world, though nowhere near as brash.  In a simple ceremony that lasted under an hour (Motion Picture Academy, are you listening?) the American Library Association doled out its annual awards for the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery, and all the others people may (or may not) have heard of.  As always, there was buzz and speculation leading up to the event where the winning and honorable mentions are announced in breathless anticipation to a room full of librarians and an internet full of interested parites.  And as always there were surprises among the expected.

I’m not going to recount the winners here, nor is this going to become a political discussion about what did, didn’t, or should have won.  After a trip to my local indie bookstore, some careful consideration, and a shower I have come to see as clear as the morning air how these awards need to be fixed. Fixed implies there’s something broken, and there is.

When the awards are announced there are very few people who know in advance which books are even under consideration.  Publishers may get an inkling that something is up when calls are placed the day before on behalf of the committees asking for the contact information of an author so they can be, uh, contacted.  So outside of the committee members the first notion that a book is about to win trickles through less that 24 hours in advance.  That means that even the most ambitious of publishers isn’t really going to get a head start on priming warehouses for demand and sending books back to press.

This is key, because what happens is that on the day the awards are announced few booksellers have a majority of the winners on the shelves, much less in quantity.  There then comes the mad scramble to secure books from distributors, or calls placed on print runs, and a fickle buying public becomes too impatient to wait for something they want right then.  Interest in books wane, and then a book buying public just assumes to wait until a paperback edition with a little foil emblem appears or their local library finally gets a copy.

But there are solutions.

1.  Announce the shortlist a month in advance

Hollywood doesn’t get a lot right, but they understand how to make Awards work for them.  They announce their shortlist a month in advance of their ceremony, which gives studios time to flood movies back into theatres and wring some more money out of them.  They create interest, and people like to feel as informed as the Academy in these things.  Then, when the winner is announced, they can argue the merits, agree or disagree, and generally feel like they were part of the experience.

If the ALA were to toss out a shortlist of TEN titles for each category six weeks in advance of their mid-winter conference, publishers would have a heads-up AND the opportunity to reposition these books for holiday sales.  What’s key here is that by announcing the titles up front they generate interest in titles for time on both sides of the award, where now they only score that interest after the fact.  Publishers, librarians, distributors, and booksellers would then be able to help guide readers (and buyers) toward titles that have been pre-selected as possibly the best in the field.  This isn’t as easy to do after the fact.

With books in stock up to the day of the announcement, booksellers are then able to best capitalize on the awards and keep customers happy, rather than sending them away feeling like a book that wasn’t available was too obscure to be on hand.  This perception cannot be underscored enough, because if a consumer goes into a store unsure of an unfamiliar title to begin with and they discover it is not available they will be less inclined to seek it out.  Conversely, studies have shown that if a person puts an item in their hand (or has one put there for them by a bookseller) they will be something like 70% more likely to purchase it.  Say what you will about the noble art of reading, books and publishing is also still a business and anything that encourages sales encourages reading and vice versa.

The reason for ten titles is so that the ALA can still award a winner and three or four (or five) honor titles and still maintain some mystery around which book will win.  It also generates controversy about those that don’t, because controversy is still talk, and talk is like advertising, and books could use all the PR they can get.

2. Drag the president into the fray

Why do the winners of the Super Bowl and the World Series get to meet the president and book award winners do not?  Why can’t the president make a public acknowledgment of the shortlist in advance and then meet personally with the winners in a public ceremony with the press as part of his platform on literacy?  I don’t have the pull or the president’s ear, but someone has to, and for a guy who featured families reading to their kids at least three times in his paid political announcement it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities for this Obama guy.  Seriously, what’s the cost of something like this?  Nothing?  And what does it do for reading and publishing to have a president give the same amount of face time to writers of children’s books as he will for overpaid sports “heroes?”

3. Oprah

No, I’m not kidding.  I was working in a bookstore when Oprah’s magazine debuted and there was a small, one-paragraph article about a book called The Four Agreements among all the ads and fluff.  That mention in her magazine generated over half a million sales of that book in one week following that mention.  Prior to that the book hadn’t sold fifty-thousand copies in its previous two years.  That kind of power can be scary in the wrong hands but so far the big O has used her powers for good and not evil.

So why not a Oprah Book Club for kids, an O Jr.?  She could give some kidlit authors the same coverage she gives to jokers like James Frey and be promoting literacy at the same time.  Once a month she throws out some quality fiction for middle grade, YA, and picture book readers.  Then in the early part of the new year she does a show (or magazine feature) on the books nominated for the pending awards.  Instant interest, books flying off shelves, and more importantly, young people reading.

Ten years ago if I could have traveled into the future of today I would have slapped myself for saying such a thing, but Oprah cannot be ignored.  She has proven herself to be a champion of books and despite what anyone might think of the person, the advocate for reading that is Oprah cannot be denied.

It doesn’t seem likely that any of these three fixes will be put into place, but any one alone would be almost enough to send a seismic ripple through the publishing world in a good way.  Set aside the question about whether or not books or ebooks are the future of publishing, there will be no future without readers and the place to generate that interest should come from those most passionately concerned about literacy.

For those intersted in the results of today’s announcement you can go to the ALA’s unfriendly site and sort through the individual winners here, or sit through the entire webcast, or just wait a few months until the  books finally arive at your local bookstore with their little foil medallions attached.  If you still care.

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