I guess it’s true of most readers. We have these embarrassing gaps in our reading lives, all those books we didn’t get to, the awful holes we hope to one day fill. It’s an impossible task, a job (and a joy) that can never be completed.
To that end, I’m currently reading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.
I haven’t finished it yet, and I’m disinclined to offer up a review. But I wanted to share a few thoughts, beginning with this incredible illustration by Quentin Blake.
I keep returning to that page, staring at that picture. Just a few simple lines that capture such depth of feeling. There it all is, being a kid, looking up at a parent with love and wonder while snuggled up warm in bed. Two dots for eyes — two dots! — and yet they seem to express the essence of that relationship. The father registers only as a looming presence without detail, like a great tree in a forest. He is, simply, there. A force of nature and comfort. It’s amazing, I’m stunned by it, in awe of it. So that sums up an important part of today’s blog.
Wow: Quentin Blake.
Then there’s the storytelling of Mr. Dahl, which is a gift I’ll never have. The man tells stories. Whoppers. But here, today, I want to focus on Dahl’s writing style. I admire the clarity and directness. I’m also charmed by the Englishness — the strangeness to my American ears, the weird things they happily eat, the peculiar names of things — where every detail seems just a little other-worldly, even in a fairly straight-ahead, naturalistic novel such as this one. This is the distance of time and place. A different world, yet still familiar.
Here’s the paragraph that went before the illustration above. I keep reading it over and over again. Now I get to type it, feeling like a weekend musician at home with a guitar banging out a Beatles tune, channeling that great artistic beauty through my fingertips (I love typing out great passages from books):
I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. I loved it especially in the evenings when I was tucked up in my bunk and my father was telling stories. The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to be lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room. Most wonderful of all was the feeling that when I went to sleep, my father would still be there, very close to me, sitting in his chair by the fire, or lying in the bunk above my own.
That paragraph, to me, is absolutely perfect. The writing is direct, specific, concrete (not abstract), interesting (lumps of wood) and for the most part, quite plain. I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. Few would claim that as an example of great writing — except for the obvious fact that, wow, that’s great writing. The absence of flash. An arrow doing its swift work, slicing to the next sentence.
The only tricky moment in this paragraph, where the language uplifts and surprises us, giving the reader temporary pause, occurs in that more elaborate third sentence, which was perfectly set-up by the direct predicate-verb structure of the previous two sentences. I really loved, and, I loved. Which leads to this: The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to by lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room.
You heard that, right?
And wonderful it was.
Again, all I’ve got is wow. There’s so much there, the essence of being loved, of feeling secure, of being a child safe from harm, snug and warm. Can writing really do that? It feels like a small miracle. Is this why I love books?
It’s something I started doing in the Jigsaw Jones series, so it’s nearly a 20-year-old tradition. I make small references to real books in my fictional novels. There’s no great reason for it, and as far as I know, nobody cares one way or the other. It’s just something I do to please myself. A tip of the hat.
In Scary Tales #4: Nightmareland, I throw in a reference to an old favorite, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. It happens in the first chapter. A boy, Aaron, is about to make an ill-fated purchase at a video game store.
And here we go, from page 6:
A black-haired girl with dark eye makeup sat at the counter. She hunched forward with her feet tucked under her chair, reading from an old paperback calledThe Sirens of Titan.
“Is this game any good?” Aaron asked. “I never heard of it.”
The girl wore clunky bracelets and silver rings on most of her fingers. She glanced at Aaron and shrugged. “Sorry, I just work here. Those games are all the same to me.”
And that’s it. Aaron buys the video game and our plot soon thickens.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I have no childhood memory of my parents reading to me. And I mean, ever reading to me. It must have happened, surely, but just as surely, it could not have been too often. Or I’d remember.
I was the youngest of seven, my father worked a lot, all those mouths to feed, and I don’t think it was something we did. I’m not complaining. Things were different in those days, and seven kids is a handful. I got the book bug — at least those first bites that ultimately led to the more serious infection (or should I say, affliction) — simply by growing up surrounded by readers. My brothers read, my sisters read, particularly Jean, the 6th oldest and closest in age to me; Jean always, always had a book. I think of her reading Tom Robbins and Richard Brautigan, though of course she read everything, and voraciously.
Naturally I became accustomed to the idea that reading was a source of pleasure. It was my destiny; someday I’d get a crack at those same books. My brother Billy, whom I worshipped at that time, favored science fiction. He read the “Dune” series, and Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and, of course, Vonnegut. I think all my brothers read Vonnegut in the 70′s.
Strangely, I never got around to Sirens until I was in college, taking a class in American Literature while I was attending school in — wait for it — Nottingham, England. Because that made no sense at all! I even wrote a paper about it. I doubt the paper was any good. If you are going to spend time abroad, the last thing you want to do is waste it by studying. There was too much to learn, too many people to meet, too much wild fun to pursue.
But I did read Sirens while I was in England. And today I’m glad to tell you that I gave that book a nod in Nightmareland.
I finally got around to reading Sherman Alexie’s bestseller, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. There’s just times in your life when you’ve got to rectify old wrongs, and this was one of them. I had to read that book.
I’d heard that it was a great book from many sources, including some trusted friends. (A curious phrase, by the way, “trusted friends.” As opposed to all those other friends we have, with crappy taste, the friends we can’t possibly trust.)
So I took Alexie’s book out of the library and read it. Now I am a member of the club and say without hesitation: Stop wasting your life and read it already! Today I’m not looking to review a book that’s already been reviewed hundreds of times. My focus is on the book’s final two paragraphs. To me, those six sentences felt exactly right, forming a poignant, understated conclusion.
I don’t think that reproducing it here involves any spoilers, or anything that could diminish your enjoyment of the book, so here goes:
Rowdy and I played one-on-one for hours. We played until dark. We played until the streetlights lit up the court. We played until the bats swooped down at our heads. We played until the moon was huge and golden and perfect in the dark sky.
We didn’t keep score.
I love the repetition of “we played,” repeated four times, the rhythmic, accumulative power of that device, the simplicity of the word choice, the interplay between light and dark, and that great, four-word conclusion. We didn’t keep score. Perfection.
Back four years ago, I wrote a decent post titled “Best Last Lines from Books,” and I think you might enjoy it. So click away, folks. It’s absolutely free.
I was recently contacted by a journalist for a national newspaper who wanted me to name a book I read as a child that left a lasting impression.
That’s a tough question for me, because I sense that my answer is never exactly what the questioner is seeking. I don’t have a poignant story about Charlotte’s Web or Harriet the Spy, that glorious day when I suddenly knew that reading was for me, and forever.I can’t describe in loving detail the book I encountered as a fresh-faced welp. (Though I do recall loving Splish, Splash, and Splush.)
Nonetheless I did somehow grow up to become an author, and therefore my answer is, I guess, legitimate. It’s the only story I’ve got.
Here’s how I replied, limited to 150 words:
Born in 1961, I have no memory of my parents reading to me. That’s not a complaint, by the way. I grew up surrounded by six older siblings and they were (mostly) all readers. I guess I got the message by sheer proximity. As a baseball-mad boy in a world without ESPN, I devoured the sports pages in the daily newspaper. Those were the first writers I desperately needed. By age 13, I encountered Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” It was funny and easy to read. There was no YA back then, my generation naturally graduated to Steinbeck, Bradbury, Brautigan, Vonnegut, Plath, whomever. “Breakfast” blew me away. Here was something as devilish as the kid in the back row, irreverent, rebellious, hilarious, wild. In a word, subversive. In those pages I first recognized the possibility that a book could be supremely cool. Thanks, Kurt.
No offense to any librarians out there, but I prefer to own books, not borrow them. I realize there’s a financial downside to my predilection, but what can I say? It feels good to support the industry, the book stores, the publishers, the authors themselves. If I can manage it, I don’t mind spending the money on books.
For starters, I like having them around, living in my rooms. Books make great furniture and, in a way, furnaces: they warm homes.
Secondly, I usually read with a pen in my hand. I underline passages, write comments, exclamation points, stars, notes and complaints. It is the dying art of marginalia, a direct reader-response. I can’t do that with library books, and Post-It Notes simply do not satisfy.
I’ve been on nice reading streak lately — have picked out some good ones. I just finished THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir. Fabulously entertaining, and a celebration of science and the intelligence of man. A geek-hero who survives through his attitude, his determination, and his brilliant mind.
Before that, I read THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich. I loved it, every word. What a great writer. Seamless sentences, never a crack showing, and such human insight. A writer with soul. But I’ve got a problem and you can probably guess it: I borrowed the book from my local library and it’s past due.
I’ve been reluctant to return it, to drop it into the slot and hear the dull thunk as it hits the bin. Gone, gone, gone. My book no more.
One first-world problem is that I’ve been rereading, almost daily, the book’s perfect last paragraph. Over and over I return to it, stunned and speechless. That penultimate sentence, especially. What a beautiful evocation of lost innocence, the crossing over into something harder, more brutal and cold, adulthood and loss, “when we all realized we were old.”
I really didn’t want to let the book go, and maybe I’ll buy a copy for myself one day. In the meantime, I’ll type out that last paragraph here, so I’ll have it safely tucked away in the white, high-ceilinged halls of cyberspace. I don’t think there’s any spoilers revealed, it’s not that kind of book. A 13-year-old boy and his parents return home after a long drive.
Quick aside: I don’t play a musical instrument, but I love music. One of the things I’ve always envied about musicians is that they can play all these great songs, have those enduring melodies and fat riffs run through the fingers as they channel greatness.
That’s how I feel typing this passage from Louise Erdrich. Like I’m playing the guitar part from “And Your Bird Can Sing.”
How I wish that I could write as simply, as beautifully.
- – - – -
IN ALL THOSE miles, in all those hours, in all that air rushing by and sky coming at us, blending into the next horizon, then the one after that, in all that time there was nothing to be said. I cannot remember speaking and I cannot remember my mother or my father speaking. I knew that they knew everything. The sentence was to endure. Nobody shed tears and there was no anger. My mother or my father drove, gripping the wheel with neutral concentration. I don’t remember that they even looked at me or I at them after the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old. I do remember, though, the familiar side of the roadside cafe just before we would cross the reservation line. On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie. It was always what my father called the last leg of the journey. But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.
I was recently invited for an interview by Brittney Breakey over at AUTHOR TURF. Brittney has really accomplished a lot with her site. It’s worth checking out. She’s recently interviewed Holly Goldberg Sloan, Sally Nicholls, Gennifer Choldenko, Jo Knowles, Kathryn Erskine . . . and my great pal, Lewis Buzbee.
For me, that’s a double-edged sword. I’ll be honest, I’ve always hoped to be the kind of person who somebody wanted to interview. It’s an incredible compliment. And a true honor.
In my career, some of the first work I ever did was interviews of authors for promotional brochures. I think Ann McGovern was my first interview, back when I worked as a junior copywriter for Scholastic. Or it might have been Johanna Hurwitz. I don’t think I saved them. This would have been in 1985, I guess. Life went on and I’ve interviewed some talented authors and illustrators over the years.
You’d think I’d have learned some things along the line, but my basic feeling is usually one of disorientation, a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing, most likely saying the wrong things, awkwardly. Oh well.
I do have lucid moments, times when I think, “Okay, not terrible.” But in general I can’t read things like this without wincing, without twitching and blinking too often. I don’t know, it’s weird. I try to be honest, authentic, and hope for the best.
It’s interesting you ask this, because I recently wrote about it in my journal. A theme that I’m exploring in the book I currently writing (or should be writing), which is a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I have superstitions about talking about books before they are finished, but I’ll say this: In the summer between 7th and 8th grade, a girl in my homeroom died unexpectedly. I didn’t know her well, and wouldn’t call her a friend. When I first heard about Barbara’s death, I was with a bunch of friends –- I can picture it vividly, a bunch of us lounging around — and I said something dumb, snarky, immature. Of course, the death of a peer was completely new to me, a big deal, and I didn’t know how to react. I still feel a sense of shame about it, across these forty years, that one dumb thing I said that no one else even noticed. I’ve been reflecting a lot about identity lately, the idea of self not as a revelation, but as a made thing. Something you earn. Bryan Stevenson gave an incredible presentation for TED Talks -– everyone in America should Youtube it -– and he said, “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” That’s a huge, complicated, controversial idea –- and it speaks directly to the topic of my next book. [NOTE: I've embedded Stevenson's talk, below.]
Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?
Yes, I’ve wanted to quit. Absolutely. Mostly because it’s hard, and because I’ve felt (and still feel, though less so) insecure about my own ability –- that I was a pretender, a self-deceiver, a fake. Also, it’s a bunny-eat-bunny business that can crush your soul at times. As a husband and father, I’ve worried about my ability to provide for my family, to keep paying the bills. But that’s life, right? You have to keep getting up. You can’t just lie there on the canvas. That said: Every day I feel blessed that I can do this for a living. The hard is what makes the good.
What’s your favorite writing quote?
It’s not a quote, so much as an attitude about doing the work, a sort of blue collar distrust of pretentiousness. In a phrase, shut up, sit down, and write. Or not! But either way, shut up. It’s hard, writers are told that we need to promote ourselves, we need to “have a presence” on the web, we need to “get out there.” And I just keep thinking, we need to write great books. That’s all that matters.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?
The whole thing is a challenge. One thing about having published a bunch of things over a long period of time is that I’ve come to understand that each book is its own, self-contained thing. You write the story that’s in front of you. Then you write the next one. And the next. You don’t control what happens after that and, on good days, you accept that plain fact.
“I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value
if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two.
It’s perfectly okay to take a book, read it, have a good time,
giggle and laugh — and turn off the TV. I love that.”
– Barbara Park (1947-2013)
I was surprised and saddened to read that Barbara Park passed away on November 15th at the young age of 66. I never met Barbara in person, but I certainly got a strong sense of Barbara through her books. Every reader knows and feels this experience. When we read the best books, when we feel that electric connection, there is a communion that endures beyond time and space and even death.
In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to interview more than a hundred authors and illustrators. One of them was Barbara Park, who was genuine in every way. We spoke sometime in the late ’90s, and a bunch of those interviews were later compiled in a Scholastic Professional Book called, rather klunkily: The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators.
Good luck finding it. The book is long out of print (big sigh), but there are treasures within. It’s worth seeking out on eBay or wherever. I seriously wish I could write another someday.
I enjoyed memorable, lively conversations with so many great artists. A few of my favorites were Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Ashley Bryan, Barbara Cooney, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, Karla Kuskin, James Marshall, Bill Martin, Patricia Polacco, Jack Prelutsky, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Vera B. Williams, Charlotte Zolotow . . . and, of course, Barbara Park.
Barbara was warm, and kind, and modest, and funny, and absolutely genuine, just as you’d expect.
Here’s what ended up in the book, which was intended to be shared with students:
Best-selling author Barbara Park did not take the usual path to becoming a writer. “As a kid, I didn’t even read much,” Barbara confesses. “I bought books from the school book club because I liked the smell of them. It was nice to have this pile of new books. But I really had no great desire to read them!”
Barbara was a lively, active child with a motormouth and a sharp sense of humor. She had a great many interests, but writing was not one of them. “To me, writing was an assignment, period. I was no particularly imaginative. I didn’t sit around and make up stories to entertain my friends. But I was always the class clown. In high school I was voted ‘Wittiest,’ which, let’s be honest, is just a nice way of saying ‘Goofy!’”
It wasn’t until after college, marriage, and the birth of two children, that Barbara began to think seriously about writing. “I wanted to see if I could put my sense of humor to work. Because, sad to say, it was the only thing for which I’d ever got any recognition. I thought, Maybe I can write funny.”
Working at home while her two boys were in school, Barbara concentrated on books for middle-grade readers. Barbara lists The Kid in the Red Jacket, My Mother Got Married (and Other Disasters), and Mike Harte Was Here as personal favorites. She considers her best work to be Mike Harte Was Here. Many readers agree. In a stunning achievement, Barbara addresses a boy’s tragic, accidental death with writing that is at once deeply heartfelt and — amazingly — joyously funny.
In all of her books, no matter the seriousness of the theme, Barbara’s humor spontaneously bubbles to the surface. In fact, Barbara has made something of a career out of focusing on funny, irreverent, wisecracking kids who, like her, just can’t walk away from a punch line.
Though Barbara’s books are moral in the truest sense of the word, she steers clear of heavy messages and “life lessons.” Says Barbara, “I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two. It’s perfectly okay to take a book, read it, have a good time, giggle and laugh — and turn off the TV. I love that.”
In the early 1990s, Barbara was approached by Random House with the idea of writing a series for younger readers. It scared her half to death. Barbara admits, “There was some question as to whether or not my dry sense of humor would be picked up by younger kids.”
In the end Barbara decided that she’d have to write to please herself, to be true to her own sensibilities. “I can’t change my sense of humor,” Barbara explains. “If I did, it wouldn’t even be me trying to write this book. It would be me trying to write like somebody who didn’t think like me!”
Barbara soon created the irrepressible character Junie B. Jones. This best-selling children’s character, who often said and did all the wrong things, elbowed her way into the spotlight. Barbara didn’t have to look far for inspiration. “Junie B. is me in an exaggerated form,” Barbara admits. “I think the core of most of my characters is me. I mean, where else is it going to come from? It’s got to be from you.”
Though Junie B. is in kindergarten (with a move to first grade coming soon), Barbara has an uncanny knack for inhabiting her world. She says, “I’ve never had a problem becoming five years old in my head. I really think that you basically stay the same person all your life. I fell the essence of me hasn’t changed.”
Junie B. is by no means perfect. She acts out in class, she’s not always respectful, and she tends to massacre the English language whenever she opens her mouth (which is often). An ideal role model? Forget about it. Junie B. is much more than that — with her foibles and mistakes, she is as genuine as her readers. Junie B. is a pretty terrific kid doing her best to get it right — and happily succeeding most of the time.
I was not exactly confident that we would make it out alive.
The hordes kept shuffling toward us out of the darkness, closer and closer they crept . . .
Art by Iacopo Bruno, from Good Night Zombie (Scary Tales #3), by James Preller.
Let’s backtrack a minute.
I was in Austin, Texas, on a Saturday night, scheduled for a reading in the Texas State Cemetery with R.L. Stine. A creepy literature crawl in a graveyard. What mad genius, I wondered, devises such things?
I met Bob in his 15th-floor hotel room — yes, he lets me call him “Bob,” a name that no one under the age of seven actually bears anymore, they’re all named “Brendan” and “Colby” and “Luke.” We sat and chatted for half an hour or so, the old days at Scholastic, our experiences with school visits, this and that and whatnot. Time passed amiably. At seven, we crept to the cemetery, where we quickly learned that Austin was more than good beer, righteous food, and great live music.
It’s a town that loves books.
Forty-five minutes ahead of schedule, hundreds of R.L. Stine fans had already gathered amidst a sea of tombstones. It was an incredible vision. Many sat under the high flood lights, but others sat on the edges, and waited patiently in the graveyard’s deeper, darker, gloomier pastures.
My task was to serve as the opening act, like a lone slice of cucumber on a plate. Bon appetit! Bob was the hearty main course and the reason they came, so ravenous. By 8:00, it was time to get the show started. I spoke, elicited a laugh or two, told them that the scariest thing I ever encountered was kids who didn’t like books (because they grew up and voted, and sometimes even got elected to Congress). I read the “Bloody Mary” section from Home Sweet Horror, the creepiest part of the first book in my SCARY TALES series. I had the sense to keep it brief, with no intention of messing with Texas. Next I had the pleasure, the honor, to introduce the beloved author, R.L. Stine.
Beloved? Revered? Idolized? Worshipped? Words fail me. What I witnessed was that deep connection between reader and book. I saw what it was all about. The power of the word.
The crowd, I mean to say, went a little bananas.
They love him, you see. On a deep and profound level, the books of R.L. Stine had impacted these people — and they were there to see the man, to shake his hand, to thank him, to tell him what those stories meant to their lives.
The first books they ever really, really loved.
Goosebumps. Fear Street. The most trusted name in book-learnin’: R.L. Stine.
After the reading, it was time for us to sign. They don’t really do lines in Texas, unless, I guess, it’s for dancing. Somebody should have brought a fiddle. Fortunately a couple of good-natured cops came by restore order (at the end, after thank you’s, they even asked us both to sign a few books for ‘em, which we gratefully did).
Of course, R.L. was the star attraction. I mostly sat nearby, making sure Bob had water, a Sharpie, a small flashlight to see, and, sure, I even signed a few books of my own, basking in that borrowed light. I took a few lousy snapshots, which you see here.
The entire night was a revelation and a confirmation. The power of story. The impact of books. And how lucky I was to do this job, to be in this place, to share in these moments.
Near 10:00, the last of the line had finally wound down. Time to go.
We headed to the car through the big iron gate, which swung shut behind us with a clang.
Bob smiled. “It was a good night,” he said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “It was.”
And I thanked R.L. Stine — Bob, my friend — for the gift of letting me share a small part of it. And to see again what it can mean to write a book, and for that book to be read, and for it to be loved by someone, by anyone, somewhere, anywhere.
It’s a beautiful thing. Even in a graveyard. Even at night. Especially with R.L. Stine.
NOTE: I’ve been blogging at this site since May, 2008, which is like 120 in Blogger’s Years. My strong suspicion is that a lot of the oldies-but-goodies have not been seen by my current readership, so I decided to give this one a new airing. I still often think of Mr. Newkirk’s great book and insights. This was originally posted on March 6, 2011.
I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.
Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?
I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers.It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.
I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.
One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.
Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.
You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?
But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.
At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.
Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.
As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?
There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.
Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”
Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?
I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.
I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.
As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.
Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.
At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?
School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.
It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!
I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.
You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?
I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.
I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?
One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.
Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?
I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”
I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow Reading. I posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”
My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”
Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book,Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.
Just passing along an article by the very kind Sally Lodge, who phoned me a couple of weeks back. We chatted for a while and the result of that conversation was this article that appeared in a special edition of Publishers Weekly for Book Expo America (BEA).
And yes, while I was in NYC, I stood next to R.L. Stine and tried to hug him. Thanks to Kathryn Little for the snap!
He might not have loved it, hard to say. But actually, we spoke amiably in front of a video camera, so maybe a cool clip will come of it at some point down the road. But I digress!
Here’s the article:
The author of the Jigsaw Jones Mysteries ventures onto chilling turf in his latest series, Scary Tales, which premieres in July with Home Sweet Horror. James Preller calls the project, published by Feiwel and Friends, a “massive departure for me. I’ve always really adhered to realistic fiction. If someone had said that I would be writing a novel about zombies outside of a school—that happens in the third book—I would have said, ‘That’s ridiculous!’ But what’s interesting to me is how the other characters, ordinary people, respond to and interact with those zombies. With this series, I’m giving myself new freedom, and I’m really having fun with it.”
Preller’s inspiration for Scary Tales had several sources. His most recent fiction has been geared to older readers, including middle-grade novels Six Innings and Bystander, and Before You Go, his debut YA. “I hadn’t written anything for the second- and third-grade audience for a while, and I wanted to get back to that,” he says. “I hear from teachers and librarians that kids love scary books and that there isn’t much that is fresh and new in that area.”
The author’s fondness for old Twilight Zone episodes also fueled his imagination. “I love that the show spans a number of genres, from science fiction to gangster stories,” he says. “I want to do something similar with Scary Tales. I see these books existing on a broader canvas than just being scary. The series is not going to be just one ghost story after another. Each will be different, though all will have an intellectual twist at the end that will blow readers’ minds a little.”
Preller is hopeful that Scary Tales will provide kids with “a positive, fun reading experience” and will snare reluctant readers. “To attract reluctant readers who might need an easier read, a book can’t look babyish,” he observes. “But if it looks cool, they’ll pick it up. I am hoping the series will reach those readers, especially boys. That is a very important readership for me — reaching them is something I feel passionate about.”