My local teen librarian, Bri Johnson, directed me to an article written by well-known YA author, Robert Lipsyte. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/books/review/boys-and-reading-is-there-any-hope.html?scp=1&sq=Boys%20and%20Reading:%20Is%20There%20Any%20Hope?&st=cse)
Like me, Lipsyte thinks we aren’t challenging boys, and that they’re not being exposed to good books. He also sees a discrepancy between what boys may want to read and what they are made or encouraged to read, and he mentions how many of the decisions are made by women. He comically describes a panel he was on with four other male YA writers. They all found themselves feeling confrontational (or maybe defensive is a better word) when faced with a sea of X chromosomes. I understand his plight, though I’ve learned that many, many woman editors feel the same way he does about the dearth of good fiction for boys, and I see them more as allies. Unfortunately, the books they’d like to publish don’t sell, and if you keep accepting books your marketing department won’t support, chances are you won’t be employed for very long. It follows, then, if these books are sitting dormant on some writer’s desk, they aren’t there for teachers and librarians to scrutinize.
But I’m more interested in another point Lipsyte makes. He writes that he prefers the “kind of reading that will prick [boys’] dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.” He further bemoans the absence of “realism” in fiction, not the simple moralistic problem novel, but the kind of book that resonates deeply within boys, that makes them think about their lives and life in general in some profound way. Certainly, fantasies and vampire books can accomplish this (there are many great ones), but most are poorly written, poorly thought out, and poorly edited, put out as quickly as possible to make money.
A lot of the problem is that, for some reason, we don’t want boys to “feel.” We also don’t want them be aware of their aggressive instincts or their sexuality. Books like Lord of the Flies or The Chocolate War wouldn’t be publishable today. Sometimes I think we’re afraid of boys, afraid that if we make them aware they are boys, something bad will happen. I’ll leave you with this anecdote. Last spring I was at a luncheon with about eight other writers, all of whom were women. Our audience was made up of local teachers and librarians, also women, except for about three guys. Author after author read from books about girls in crisis, and as each one read I could see every woman in the audience nodding her head in sympathy. Finally, one woman read from her novel-in-poems about a girl whose best friend doesn’t want to see her anymore. The cause of this distancing is made clear later when the narrator realizes that, previously unknown to her, her brother had assaulted her friend. When the author read this line, there was a collective gasp in the audience.
I was saddened, embarrassed, and envious, all at the same time: saddened to suddenly realize these very nice women had probably been harassed or worse by some guy in their lifetimes; embarrassed because I was a guy; and envious because of the real, genuine sisterhood I was witnessing. I asked myself: where are books like these for boys, and why aren’t editors interested in them.
When it was my turn I read the opening of my forthcoming middle-grade novel, which is very comic. As I scanned the audience I was pleased to see everyone laughing, truly enjoying this great kid tell his story. In short, I was nine years old again, performing for the teacher, being funny, being a wise guy, being what I was supposed to be. Because that’s what guys do. As far as I was concerned, at least in my book, there was nothing wrong with being funny, as long as I gave my character depth, so I could watch him grow as a young man during the course of the book. But my experience at this luncheon was a real eye-opener for me, and I’ll be interested to see how it influences my writing in the future.
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