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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #230: On School Uniforms & Other Items

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Hey, look here, a bunch of letters from Alabama! Let me reach my hand into the big barrel and pull out a sample.

It’s from Patrick:

 Scan

I replied (because I usually do!):

 

Dear Patrick,

Thank you for your letter. Writing can be lonely work. For example, right this minute I am alone in a room in an empty house, plucking away at the computer keyboard. Just me, by my lonesome, trying to write.

Letters like yours make me smile, and make me feel connected to my readers. I write a book . . . and somebody out there . . . a boy named Patrick . . . reads it. The job wouldn’t be nearly as fun without you. So, again, truly and sincerely: thank you.

I suppose, yes, that Jigsaw is a little like me. We are both the youngest in large families (I am the youngest of seven), and we share the same sense of humor. I was never a detective, however; though I did love to spy on my brothers and sisters. I was sneaky.

You are lucky about the uniforms. I wore a uniform in Catholic school when I was a kid. Purple polka-dotted pants, striped shirt, red suspenders and a big yellow bow tie.

No, just kidding. Green pants, white shirt, green tie. Day after day, week after week, year after year. Sigh.

I just wrote a new “Jigsaw Jones” titled The Case from Outer Space. It will be out in the Spring of 2017. I hope you check it out –- there’s some really funny parts. And since you mentioned ghosts, you might enjoy my “Scary Tales” books. They aren’t hard to read, but they will make your heart go thump, thump, thump.

Stay cool and have a great summer!

That's me, top row, fifth from the left. Big class, huh?

That’s me, top row, fifth from the left. Big class, huh?

Your friend,

James Preller

 

Excerpt from New Short Story Collection for YA Readers, I SEE REALITY

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About 18 months ago I was invited to contribute a short story to an “edgy” YA compilation, tentatively titled I See Reality. It would ultimately include twelve short stories by a range of writers. I was interested, but did not exactly have one waiting in my file cabinet. So I said, “Give me a few days and let’s see if anything bubbles to the surface.” After some thought, I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I knew the format in which I wanted to present it.

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” that had always captivated me. I admired its fragmentary nature, the way the text moves from perspective to perspective to create an almost cubist mosaic. Of course my story, “The Mistake,” did not come close to achieving anything of the sort. But that was the starting point, the push. I decided to play around with that idea. The final story included twenty-two brief sections.

What I wanted to say, what I was moved to address: I wanted to write a story that touched upon teenage pregnancy and the important role that Planned Parenthood plays in the lives of so many young women and men. We live in a challenging time when women’s reproductive rights are under almost daily attack. When the very existence of Planned Parenthood is under political and violent assault. This is a health organization that supplies people — often young women from low income groups — with birth control, pap smears, and cancer screening. According to The New England Journal of Medicine: “The contraception services that Planned Parenthood delivers may be the single greatest effort to prevent the unwanted pregnancies that result in abortions.”

Most importantly for this story, Planned Parenthood provides abortions as part of its array of services, a procedure that is legal in the United States of America. Abortion has long been debated, discussed, argued, and decided in the Supreme Court. As divisive as it may be, abortion has been declared a legal right in this country. And it touches young lives in profound ways.

Anyway, yes, I know that I risk offending people. Maybe I should just shut up. But when my thoughts bend this way, when I start to worry what people might think, I remind myself of this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I stand with Planned Parenthood.

Here’s the first two brief sections from my story, plus another quick scene, followed by review quotes about the entire collection from the major journals:

 

THE MISTAKE

 

By James Preller

 

 

1

 

     “What do you think we should we do?” Angela asked.

     “I don’t know.” Malcolm shook his head. “What do you want?”

     It was, he thought, the right thing to ask. A reasonable question. Her choice. Besides, the truth was, he didn’t want to say it out loud.

     So he said the thing he said.

     “What do I want?” Angela said, as if shocked, as if hearing the ridiculous words for the first time. She stared at her skinny, dark-haired boyfriend and spat out words like lightning bolts, like thunder. “What’s that got to do with anything, Mal? What I want? How can you even ask me that?”

     “I’m sorry,” he said.

     “I’m sorry, too,” she replied stiffly, but Angela’s “sorry” seemed different than his. Malcolm was sorry for the mistake they made. Their carelessness. And in all honesty, his “sorry” in this conversation was also a strategy to silence her, a word that acted like a spigot to turn off the anger. Angela’s “sorry” encompassed the whole wide world that now rested on her slender shoulders. Malcolm understood that she was sorry for all of it, all the world’s weary sorrows, and most especially for the baby that was growing inside her belly.

 

2

 

     Angela on her cell, punching keys, scrolling, reading, clicking furiously.

     At Planned Parenthood, there was a number she could text. She sent a question. Then another. And another.

     She was trying to be brave.

     Trying so hard.

     It wasn’t working out so well.

 

 <<snip>>

14

 

     “Angela?” A nurse appeared holding a clipboard, looking expectantly into the waiting room.

     Angela rose too quickly, as if yanked by a puppeteer’s string.

     The nurse offered a tight smile, a nod, gestured with a hand. This way.     

     Her balance regained, Angela stepped forward. As an afterthought, she gave a quick, quizzical look back at Malcolm.

     “Love you,” the words stumbled from his throat. But if she heard, Angela didn’t show it. She was on her own now. And so she walked through the door, down the hallway, and into another room. Simple as that.

     Malcolm sat and stared at the empty space where, only moments before, his Angela had been.

———

 

Contributing authors include Jay Clark , Kristin Clark , Heather Demetrios , Stephen Emond , Patrick Flores-Scott , Faith Hicks , Trisha Leaver , Kekla Magoon , Marcella Pixley , James Preller , Jason Schmidt , and Jordan Sonnenblick .

 


Review by Booklist Review

“The hottest trend in YA literature is the renaissance of realistic fiction. Here, as further evidence, is a collection of 12 stories rooted in realism. Well, one of the stories, Stephen Emond’s illustrated tale The Night of the Living Creeper is narrated by a cat, but, otherwise, here are some examples: Jason Schmidt’s visceral story of a school shooting; Kekla Magoon’s tale of a mixed-race girl trying to find a place she belongs; Marcella Pixley’s operatic entry of a mother’s mental illness; and Patrick Flores-Scott’s haunting take on a brother’s life-changing sacrifice. Happily, not all of the stories portray reality as grim. Some, like Kristin Elizabeth Clark’s gay-themed coming-out story, Jordan Sonnenblick’s older-but-wiser romance, and Faith Erin Hicks’ graphic-novel offering about gay teens, are refreshingly lighthearted and sweet spirited. Many of the authors in this fine collection are emerging talents and their stories are, for the most part, successful. One of their characters laments how some don’t want to know about what goes on in the real world. This collection shows them.”


Review by School Library Journal Review

“Gr 10 Up-Tackling feelings-from grief to joy, from sorrow to hope, and from loss to love-this short story collection portrays real emotions of teenagers in real-life situations. Included in this volume are the conversation a girl has with herself while preparing to break up with an emotionally manipulative boyfriend, the story of a survivor of a high school shooting, an illustrated vignette told from the perspective of a family’s cat about a creeper at a Halloween party, and a short work in comic book format about the surprising secret of a high school’s golden couple. . . . With authors as diverse as Heather Demetrios, Trisha Leaver, Kekla Magoon, and Jordan Sonnenblick, this collection unflinchingly addresses subjects such as sexuality, abortion, addiction, school shootings, and abuse. VERDICT From beginning to end, this is a compelling work that looks at the reality teens are faced with today.”

——

My thanks to editors Grace Kendall and Joy Peskin of Farrar Straus Giroux/Macmillan for inviting me to take part in this refreshing collection of stories. My editor at Feiwel & Friends, Liz Szabla, helped make the connection possible.

12728003My two books that might have the most appeal to YA readers would be Before You Go and The Fall.

Charlotte Zolotow Remembered: “Books for Boys.”

“All of my books are based on an adult emotion that connects

with a similar emotion that I had as a child. I like each of my books

for a different reason, because each comes out of a different emotion.

If a book succeeds in bringing an emotion into focus,

then I like that book very much.” — Charlotte Zolotow.

“Emeralds,’ said the rabbit.

‘Emeralds make a lovely gift.”

Charlotte Zolotow, from Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present.

And so in this sad week another one of my favorite children’s book writers has passed, the great Charlotte Zolotow, whom I’ve admired so much and for so long. I’ve written about Charlotte a few times over the course of this blog. Here’s a past entry from 3 1/2 years ago . . .

“William wanted a doll.”

And so begins Charlotte Zolotow’s classic picture book, William’s Doll, illustrated by William Pene Du Bois. Published 38 years ago, and dedicated to Billy and Nancy, it is still relevant today — and very possibly moreso.

This title has been on my mind a lot lately, and comes to mind whenever the discussion turns to “books for boys.” Somehow the collective thinking about boys and reading has become muddled, to the point where “boys” has become a code word for “reluctant readers.”

I’ve talked about this before, here and here and here and elsewhere, and I don’t wish to repeat myself endlessly. Except to paraphrase Walt Whitman: Boys are large and contain multitudes. I find it unsettling, even disturbing, when I come across lists of “books for boys” that offer all the usual standbys: bodily humor, nonstop action, cars and trucks, sports, violence, and so on. You know, the kinds of stuff all boys like.

Imagine such a list for girls. Would it offend you?

And now imagine all the great books, and important thoughts, that would be missing from such a list. Because the nature of such lists is reductionist and simplistic and full of stereotypes, a narrowing of what children are and what children can become. Girls and boys.

Yes, for sure, I am strongly on the side of a teacher or parent who longs to turn a reluctant reader onto books. I can understand the desire for something sure-fire, a book that will turn the trick, unlock the door, open up the world of reading. But once that door has been pushed open, let’s not forget that boys can be sensitive, thoughtful, dreamy, mild, frightened, lonely, tender, loving, sad, and a thousand more things. It’s not just farts and firetrucks.

When my oldest son, Nick, was sick with leukemia, we struggled as parents. It was tempting to give him things, do things for him, make the experience easier and more enjoyable. In short: spoil him. After a spinal tap, how do you not buy that kid a lollipop? And a DVD of whatever he wants. So we did. But not always. My wife Lisa once said one of the most profound things about parenting I ever heard. Talking about this subject, she reminded me: “We’re not only trying to take care of a sick boy — we’re trying to raise a healthy adult.”

I think that applies to boys and reading.

So let’s look at this book, William’s Doll. To me, the best illustration is on the first page, before even the title page. You know, the page we hurry past on our way to the story. It’s a picture, we will learn, of William and Nancy from next door. Nancy is holding a doll. But if you glance quickly at that illustration, look at it from a distance, it is a portrait of every young family in the world. Father, mother, and child.

“He wanted to hug it

and cradle it in his arms

and give it a bottle

and take it to the park

and push it in the swing

and bring it back home

and undress it

and put it to bed . . .”

His brother and the boy next door did not approve.

William’s father brought home a basketball instead.

He practiced a lot

and got good at it

but it had nothing to do

with a doll.

William still wanted one.

So his father brought home an electric train. With similar results.

One day his grandmother visited. William proudly showed her the basketball and his new train. He also expressed his desire for a doll, explaining, “My brother says it will make me a creep and the boy next door says I’m a sissy and my father brings me other things instead.”

His grandmother listened attentively.

“Nonsense,” she said.

She bought him a doll. I love the detail in this description, the clicking of the eyes. It reminds me of my mother’s Shirley Temple doll (not that I ever played with it!).

The doll had blue eyes

and when they closed

they made a clicking sound

and William loved it

right away.

William’s father was upset. “He’s a boy!” he said.

And so the grandmother must patiently explain to her son:

“He needs it,” she said,

“to hug

and to cradle

and to take to the park

so that

when he’s a father

like you,

he’ll know how to

take care of his baby

and feed him

and love him

and bring him

the things he wants,

like a doll

so that he can

practice being

a father.”

I highly doubt you’ll find this book on a list of “books for boys.” It’s probably too sissyish. No, instead we’ll give them books about trains and basketball.

ENDNOTE: A song based on the story, with lyrics by Mary Rodgers and music by Sheldon Harnick, was included in the bestselling album, “Free to Be . . . You and Me.” In 1974, it was turned into a television special. According to producer Marlo Thomas, ABC fought to have the song dropped from the show. She recalled: “They wanted William’s Doll cut, because it would turn every boy into a homosexual.”

True to her ideals, and (importantly) armed with enough marketable power to win this battle, Ms. Thomas refused to comply, and the song remained. Somehow civilization was not destroyed — by this show, at least.

Click here for more on the sources of Charlotte Zolotow’s inspiration for this story, which was based on personal experience as a mother and wife. Commented Zolotow: “I wrote it out of direct emotional sorrow.”

Author Insight Series: On the Value of Social Media

My legion of stalkers may remember that I recently participated in the (ongoing!) Author Insight Series over at the legendary Wastepaper Prose blog.

In brief, more than a dozen authors answer the same series of questions — and somehow it’s not nearly as tedious as that sounds.

Here’s today’s question: “Social Media can be a distraction for writers, but what’s its biggest benefit?”

Confession: When I do these things, I try to be quick, honest, without a great deal of think. But for this question, I had to go back and revise my answer — because my first reply was too grumpy, even for me, and maybe a little pretentious there at the end, a trait I dislike in others and loathe in myself. I had to cut that last bit out.

Here’s my initial response, which I softened:

“I don’t see the great benefit. Write a great book and they will come. If not, all the marketing in the world won’t make a difference. But, okay, maybe I’m just being contrary. I think you have to be yourself, figure out what feels right for you, and act accordingly. If you are a networker, go for it. For me, writing is about sustained concentration, focused effort, and distraction is my siren and my enemy.”

I cleaned that up to:

“Social media does not help the actual writing, and I think that’s where our energy should go. That said, I think you have to be yourself, figure out what feels right for you, and act accordingly. If you are a networker, go for it.

Anyway, click here (and for more, click again here) to read all of the answers, from an interesting variety of authors, including: Lauren Morrill, Margo Lanagan, Dan Krokos, Martha Brockenbrough, Joy Peble, Greg Leitich Smith, Kirsten Hubbard, Cyn Balog, Dayna Lorentz, Katie McGarry, Sarah Tregay, Stacey Kramer & Valerie Thomas, Barry Lyga, Huntley Fitzpatrick, C.J. Redwine, Lissa Price, Janette Rallison, Sarah Maas, Leigh Bardugo, Kevin Emerson, Jessi Kirby, Jennifer Hubbard, Elizabeth Eulberg, Cara and Lynn Shultz.

It’s interesting how I can totally relate to some of these answers — Barry Lyga, I’m with you 100%; Dan Krokos, you too! — and how others seem like they come from a faraway (maybe better, certainly friendlier) planet. I wonder if it’s more of a gender divide than generational? We are all so different, and I think this series exposes and celebrates that (happy) fact.

Getting Boys to Read: Two Authors Chat About It (Part 1)

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had numerous discussions under the broad subject of “books for boys” with fellow author Kurtis Scaletta. We’re both ex-boys, you see, and we care. So we’ve talked about the gender gap in reading, looked at the typical remedies, passed on book suggestions (Kurtis tells me I have to read this book by William Brozo), discussed the primary importance of modeling in the home, and more.

Recently we’ve encounted several mainstream articles on the subject. And rather than talk amongst ourselves, we decided to continue the discussion in the context of an online chat.

Please: feel free to comment, react, complain, applaud, question. We know that we don’t have the answers. But we also know that there’s something fundamentally unsettling to us as men about the tone and tenor of the entire conversation.

To set the stage, let’s look at a recent Associated Press article, written by Leanne Italie: “How to get boys to read? Try a book on farts.”

You can read the entire article by clicking on the link above. But here’s a few snippets for context:

Can fart jokes save the reading souls of boys?

You better hope so.

Boys have lagged behind girls in reading achievement for more than 20 years, but the gender gap now exists in nearly every state and has widened to mammoth proportions — as much as 10 percentage points in some, according to the Center on Education Policy.

“It certainly should set off alarm bells,” said the center’s director, Jack Jennings. “It’s a significant separation.”

Parents of reluctant readers complain that boys are forced to stick to stuffy required school lists that exclude nonfiction or silly subjects, or have teachers who cater to higher achievers and girls. They’re hoping books that exploit boys’ love of bodily functions and gross-out humor can close the gap.

<snip>

‘Just get ’em reading’

Butts, farts. Whatever, said Amelia Yunker, a children’s librarian in Farmington Hills, Mich. She hosted a grossology party with slime and an armpit noise demonstration. “Just get ’em reading. Worry about what they’re reading later.”

Again, please read the entire article — which quotes parents, librarians, and bestselling authors such as James Patterson, Jon Scieszka, Ray Sabini (who writes under the name, Raymond Bean), and Patrick Carman.

And now for the chat portion of today’s program:

JP: You can’t see me, but I’m slumped in my chair. It’s hard to respond to this article without sounding like a whining ninny.

KS: I see a story like that about once a month in the mainstream press, touting books like SweetFarts as the simple solution to this really complex problem.

JP: I just get sick and tired of seeing the same types of books listed in these discussions. Very lowest common denominator.

KS: It is lowest common denominator.

JP: I find it stultifying when I come across lists of “books for boys” that begin and end with all the usual standbys: bodily humor, nonstop action, cars and trucks, sports, violence, and so on.

KS: I think you give boys those books and you aren’t communicating that you value that boy’s mind very much or that you value reading. It seems to trivialize the whole thing.

JP: And let’s not forget that there are many kinds of boys, or that boys can be many things: sensitive, caring, troubled, dreamy, mild, lonely.

KS: Those lists and assumptions don’t do very well by boys or by books. They have such low expectations for both. That’s what bugs me the most.

JP: As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not just farts and firetrucks. It can’t be.

KS: You give a boy a fart book and I wonder where it comes in that he understands reading is important and that you believe he is capable of high intellectual pursuits.

JP: Is it merely THE ACT of reading we value? I don’t think so.

KS: The real reasons boys become passionate readers is because they do find those books that make a real difference to them. “Home Run” books they are called. ONE book is proven to turn a reluctant reader into an avid reader. IF it is the right book. So you have to ask, “Is this likely to be that book?”

JP: But couldn’t it be argued that they need to begin with any kind of positive reading experience?

KS: Yeah, but I don’t really buy the story that teachers are brutalizing boys with all these terrible boring books. Mostly they read books that have had a huge kid response already. Books like The Outsiders or Maniac Magee or some other book that millions of boys have read and loved. So I don’t know where the negative experiences come in.

JP: I think it’s kind of intellectually lazy — and degrading — for teachers and librarians to hand boys some of these books. Though I have to add, that’s not been my observation of the teachers and librarians I’ve met over the years.

KS: That’s ultimately my complaint. My problem isn’t with the books. I think they should be out there and kids can read them if they want to. I just don’t like the message that boys are terrible readers and our only hope is to lower the bar.

JP: Amen.

KS: And I agree, it’s not teachers and librarians touting these simplistic solutions. It’s more mainstream press, reporters trying to find the funny lead to a complex story.

JP: Exactly. In the process, boys get reduced to primitive creatures capable only of banging on rocks and grunting. It’s condescending. And let’s not ignore the fact that, in this article at least, many of the advocates quoted here are the authors themselves. Their POV seems to be, “Buy my book; problem solved.”

KS: Ha. Yes, I admire Scieszka a lot for what he’s done, but of course he has a product line too and it’s hard to ignore that. Now James Patterson has his own “reading for boys” site, and of course he’s making fistfuls of cash off of his kids books line. It sounds bitter and jealous to mention it, but there it is. The handful of guys who are actually making a living at writing for boys are also pitched as the only hope to get boys to read and get to be the experts quoted in those articles. No room for a Preller or a Scaletta in that kind of story. So I guess I do take it personally.

JP: To be clear, in case I haven’t been: It’s not about the books. There are many, many great books out there for a wide variety of boy readers. So, yes, I think the media focus on grossology, etc., is completely misguided. We need to look at how we respond to boys in school and the messages we send. Most of all, I want to see fathers reading — that could make the single most powerful difference of all. When the focus shifts to the books, it all begins to feel like cynical marketing. I have no problem with “butt books” or whatever you want to call them, but let’s not begin to pretend they arrive riding on white horses, looking to save the day.

KS: Yes, I agree. And that’s what Sciezka says and Ray Bean says — that boys need male role models to read. The more I think about it, I just think those newspaper stories are lazy and half-assed. They want a compelling headline and don’t really care about the issue or the solution. We’re letting them frame the story and we shouldn’t.

JP: Word, Kurtis. But you know, I wish we had somebody really smart, like author Lewis Buzbee, to put it all in perspective for us. He’s so good at astute summation.

KS: Yeah, that would be great.

JP: Hey, look. Here comes Lewis now. What a coincidence!

LB: The problem that I have with such thinking is that it supposes that boys are all the same — farts and butts and such. Oh, a lot of boys like such stuff, I know I did. but that wasn’t all I liked. I hate to see any reader reduced to such a cynical — your word, JP, and a good one — description. In a way, such single-minded publishing may actually turn boys off reading. I mean, is that all books are; I can get that from my friends. Books are very intimate places, where one reader with one book can feel and think about the world in ways that are different than they might otherwise think and feel. I know that’s why I like reading.

JP: Thanks for stopping by, Lewis. We are not worthy!