Tag Archive for Dav Pilkey

Getting Boys to Read: Two Authors Chat About It (part 2)

A while back, author Kurtis Scaletta and I shared on this blog an online chat we had on the wide-ranging topic of “the reading gender gap.” Specifically, we discussed an Associated Press article, written by Leanne Italie: “How to get boys to read? Try a book on farts.”

If you missed it the first time around, click here to read that conversation.

Today we’re back at it again, this time responding to a provocative piece written by Thomas Spence for The Wall Street Journal back in late September. I really encourage you to read it, and you can do so by banging on this link.

Here’s a few paragraphs from Spence’s article to set the stage:

One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.

The other problem is that pandering doesn’t address the real reason boys won’t read. My own experience with six sons is that even the squirmiest boy does not require lurid or vulgar material to sustain his interest in a book.

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

JP: Kurtis!

KS: Hey, how’s the weather in Albany? It’s damned cold here.

JP: Nice, sunny. It’s December, so it’s all about sunshine. We can go grim stretches of gray without it.

KS: Yeah, I have to remember to take walks or I don’t see the sun. Dark on the way in, dark on the way home. Windowless cube.

JP: I’m typing from a windowless basement, so I feel your pain. Anyway, do you remember your first gut-reaction to Spence’s article?

KS: Yes, but every time I go back to it I feel differently. My gut reaction was to feel the same outrage and disgust as the author. Now I’m not sure it’s a fair piece.

JP: I agree. But let’s stay with the positive for a moment.

KS: The gist of his point was nicely summarized in one sentence: “If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.” That’s my philosophy as an author of children’s books. I want to set high expectations for children. My experience as a child who loved reading and as a book club facilitator is that kids who love reading are reading a bit ahead of themselves, if that makes sense. I think of books as grappling hooks. Kids throw the hook up and then climb up to it. They deal with issues through literature, then confront them personally. And the truth is that books like Sweet Farts — which is about science project — might do that. But the treatment in the popular press is that boys can only be saved if we dumb down their books. It’s that message that worries me, not the books.

JP: Backing up a bit, Spence was reacting against — and at times, churlishly over-reacting –- to the AP article we discussed a month ago. This lazy idea that boys are somehow primitive creatures.

KS: I guess that’s it. Boys are dumb, you need to give them dumb books. Don’t bother giving them anything else, they won’t enjoy it because they’re all video-game-crazed and have the attention spans of gnats.

JP: Right, this sweeping negative caricature of boys.

KS: Like I’ve said before (even on your blog), to an extent when you say what boys like you are telling them what they like. You set expectations. Kids are always looking to adults to know who they are and how they’re supposed to behave. Man, I see myself doing it now that I have a kid, and he’s only a baby. Trucks on his sheets, sports themed jammies.

JP: I was reading an article the other day, and it focused on how boys influence the reading of other boys, this peer-checking system where, in groups, maybe it’s not so cool to admit to liking certain kinds of books. So the boys do it to themselves, too — to the point where some boys don’t even want to admit to liking books.

KS: Oh yeah. I remember as a boy that some books had to stay at home. Betsy Byars, Judy Blume.

JP: Right, bring one of those books to the lunch table and here comes the “Are you gay?” comment.

KS: Heh. But parents and teachers shouldn’t encourage that by creating “boy book” sections that are all farts and firetrucks. So we’ve been over this and I guess the question is, in the words of Boss Tweed, what are you going to do about it?

JP: Which is why we come back to the critical importance of male role models — of men reading, sending the powerful message that reading is a guy thing.

Art by Edward Gorey.

KS: And reading all kinds of stuff. But I think there has to be some kind of message sent to teachers and libraries and parents as well. “Stop selling boys short.”

JP: As of today, 15,024 Facebook users “liked” The Wall Street Journal article and it generated almost 200 comments. So it obviously touched a nerve.

KS: Wow.

JP: He is awfully unfair though. These broad swipes at R.L. Stine, for example, whom I see as a sincere, talented man with an uncanny gift for plot who writes lively, fast-paced thrillers that many kids (girls, too) genuinely enjoy.

KS: Yes, and I saw an interview with Raymond Bean that made me reconsider his book, Sweet Farts. I guess I’m jealous of the instant success of it based on a scatological theme, but it’s just about a kid’s science project. If you said, “Kurtis, a book about a science project for middle school readers is a big hit,” I’d think that was cool.

JP: Likewise, I think it’s easy to under-estimate the “Captain Underpants” series. In the hands of a lesser writer, those books might be awful. But I found them genuinely funny. It doesn’t read like pandering to me. My oldest son, Nick, now 17, loved them. He even wrote a piece of fan mail to Dav Pilkey. And Nick is still a reader today and a great student. I think we’re agreed: It’s not about the books — there are so many, many great books out there — it’s about the collective perception of boys and what they are capable of, what they may one day become.

KS: Exactly. All I can do is write the books I want to write and hope they’ll catch on.

JP: I’ve come to intensely dislike lists of “books for boys,” because they are so dependent upon limited (and limiting!) stereotypes. These lists are almost part of the problem, I think, because they seem to inevitably lead to the lowest common denominator — i.e., all boys love gross-out books!

KS: The problem with a boys book list that isn’t diverse is really two-fold. First, it sells boys short. Second, it makes boys who have different tastes feel like they aren’t proper boys. It’s something serious to think about. There’s so much emphasis on getting boys to read at all that we lose sight of the big picture. Books shape us. That’s why they’re important. It’s not just about doing well on the SAT. But that’s just the mainstream media. I’ve learned that scholars and teachers are having a completely different conversation.

JP: Previously you talked about books that are game-changers, those singular reading experiences that can turn kids into life-long readers.

KS: Yeah, the conversations I mean are at a much deeper level. They aren’t looking for ways to “trick” kids into reading. They’re looking at those books that Stephen Krashen calls “home run” books — single books that turn kids on to reading because they affect them in profound ways.

JP: Reading is such a private experience. Alone with a book. It’s when readers can be most authentically themselves — at a time in their lives, for these boys, when they are really uncertain about who that “self” is or might become. Great literature has done that for me. It’s helped shaped my thoughts, my feelings. When we say we want boys to read, those are the experiences we are hoping they’ll have.

KS: And William Brozo’s work has probably given me more thought about my own work than anybody else. He has written about the male archetypes in books.

JP: I read Brozo’s book on your recommendation.

KS: I haven’t figured it all out yet, but Krashen and Brozo have made me really thoughtful about my own work.

JP: How so?

KS: I mean that when I write books I’ll be thinking about the men my boy characters are becoming. It’s done instinctively in Mudville, but for the most part I don’t think more than a month ahead in the lives of my characters.

JP: Interesting. When I wrote Bystander, I clearly saw the character of Griffin very likely ending up in prison some day. On a somewhat-related note, when my son was very sick, it really put parenting issues to a test. It was so tempting to spoil a kid with cancer. Here, have whatever you want! But we’d remind ourselves, “We’re not raising a sick boy, we’re trying to raise a healthy adult.”

KS: I love that statement, Jim. I remember it from your blog. I was repeating it to everyone for a week at least . . . of course your wife gets the credit.

JP: She’s a great mother.

KS: Well, I’ve got to head off to work. Maybe we can pick this up in a future conversation. It’s a great topic. And one that writers might find useful.

JP: Thanks, I learn something every time we talk. And by the way, I’m really looking forward to your upcoming book, Tanglewood Terror. Is it a book for boys? Ha!

KS: Tanglewood Terror has some definite influence of Brozo, which I read while I was writing it. There’s a really rough-and-tumble boy, a football player, but he’s also sensitive. He cares a lot about home, family, wildlife. It was tricky to communicate that in his voice, since it’s a first person story. I wanted to show that there was no paradox there.

Gavin and me

JP: Quick story: My 6th-grade son, Gavin, is a pretty good athlete, and reasonably competitive. He wants to do well. This week in intramurals they are just now self-selecting teams for a four-on-four tournament. So last night one of his longtime friends called to see if he could team up with Gavin. However, his friend is not very good, to put it mildly. Now Gavin is conflicted and has to navigate some tricky issues. And I thought to myself, that’s exactly what Along Came Spider was about. It’s what being a human being is about, pulled in different directions. How do you do the right thing . . . and still win? And what is the right thing? And how important is winning? It’s not always clear.

KS: I can sympathize with his friend. I guess I’d say, in ten years you won’t remember who won this tournament, but the kid who gets dumped will remember it. But maybe that’s just my perspective as someone who was a liability on every team I was ever on . . . I guess I write about kids who are good at sports to get over it.

JP: True, but I can sympathize. He wants to compete, not get crushed by his peers. There’s a pecking order, and status in the pack to be considered. It’s hard for a young boy to willfully surrender that, at a time when athletic skill is the currency of the playground. My point is that in the final analysis — actually, I believe it’s our point — is that “boy” cannot easily be reduced to a handful of cliches. Each lad is vast and full of conflicting impulses and contradictions. Walt Whitman’s, I am large. I contain multitudes.”

KS: I love that line.

JP: So let’s stop here while we’re behind. I leave you with a look at Walt’s amazing face.

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Sneaker Sneak

When I speak to students, I remind them that I’m an ex-kid myself. It’s not as obvious as it used to be. I was a boy who loved boy things, with no burning interest in books or writing. I make that point only because it’s true.

When I was a kid, some of my friends began a tradition that we came to refer to as, “The Turkey Bowl,” where we played a loose, informal game of tackle football on Thanksgiving morning. And there I see it on the first page of my 3/1/01 manuscript: The Case of the Turkey Bowl, a title that would not last.

I played so much tackle football as a kid. Usually at Beech Street School in Wantagh, Long Island, with boys named Pat Sweeney and Jimmy Bradshaw, Michael Rose and Gary Francke, and whoever else was around that day. Nowadays I’m involved in youth sports from the adult perspective. And I make the same sour observation: “Kids these days, they don’t know how to play unless there’s five grown-ups standing around looking bored.”

It’s something that we’ve lost over the years — dis-organized ball — and I think it was something important. Kids today don’t have the freedom, or possibly the wherewithal, to play self-regulated sports. It just doesn’t seem to happen much. And maybe that explains to a degree why I like living in upstate New York. It feels about 30 years behind the times, in a good way.

The first chapter of this book is based on my memory of those days, those great games we used to play. I remembered one of my greatest triumphs: the day I tackled Michael Lenninger. He was an older kid, bigger, stronger, but somehow he joined our game. Every neighborhood had a Michael Lenninger, and on this day the guy was killing us, a punishing runner who left would-be tacklers scattered like bowling pins. Well, during that game I became determined to take down Michael Lenninger. I knew it would hurt. But the next  time he charged up the middle, I held my ground, wrapped my arms around his churning legs, and dragged that big bull to the turf. I remember that moment vividly, across almost 40 years, even though it was a big deal to exactly no one else. Why? Because it mattered to me, it was important. I showed courage and resolution on the proving grounds of Beech Street School; I proved something to myself.

In the book, Jigsaw tackles Bigs Maloney — or at least attempts to:

Bigs pawed the ground, snorted, and charged.

Where was a red cape when I needed one?

Aaaaaaargh!

Whap, kersplish, oof, splaaaaaatt!

The next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back. Dizzy, I stared at the spinning sky. A few clouds floated past. They were white and fluffy. One even looked like a wittle, itty-bitty bunny wabbit. Off in the distance — far, far away — I heard Bigs Maloney rumble into the end zone. Or maybe it was a herd of rhinos tap-dancing on my skull. I wasn’t sure.

Joey knelt beside me. He poked at me with his finger. “Jigsaw? Are you okay?”

I blinked. At least my eyelids weren’t broken. “Anybody get the license plate of that marching band? I think I was just trampled by a tuba.”

—–

In most of the books in the series, I try to reference a real book — usually one that I admire. So in Chapter Three, we find Jigsaw and his father reading Skinnybones by Barbara Park. I’d probably just read that book with my son, Nick, and we both enjoyed it very much. I once got to interview Barbara Park, in fact, and she was wonderful, alive and warm and funny.

My boys refused to read her Junie B. Jones books, since like many boys they were repulsed by the idea of a female protagonist. For some reason, Maggie never really got hooked, though she read several. As for me, I admired Mick Harte Was Here, and was happy to show a little love for Barbara in this book. Also, I think it’s one of those things that helps make the stories realistic for readers. “Hey, I read that book!” Just another way of connecting their world to Jigsaw’s.

—–

Another writer I’ve always respected is Dick Francis. I recently loaned one of his books to a literary friend, and he sort of sniffed at it, unimpressed, and returned it to me unread. Probably in a hurry to read more Margaret Atwood. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyway, Francis writes mysteries, thrillers, suspense novels set in the world of horse racing. The books aren’t wildly ambitious. He just writes bestsellers that people like to read. A little adventure, a little love interest, a strong main character, an unfolding mystery: voila!

I had a friend in high school whose mother was an avid reader and a huge Dick Francis fan. She turned me onto him. I remember her complaint about many “literary” books by flashy writers: “Too many words, too many words,” she’d sneer. She liked writers who got to the point; who didn’t show off; who told a story and got out of the way. Her tastes would not have gone down well at the Academies of Higher Learning. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but Mrs. Flynn had given me a lesson that would stick with me, and grow inside me, for years to come. The value of restraint.

Back to Dick Francis: One of his things was there’s always a strong nonfiction element to his stories. He’d research a topic and integrate it into the story. So you’d read one of his mysteries and in the process learn about photography, or the brewing process of a single-malt scotch, or horse breeding, or whatever. I loved that about Francis, and have tried to emulate that aspect in my Jigsaw Jones books.

I’m wondering: Is emulate a fancy substitute for steal?

In this book I do a bit about turkeys, the wild compared to the tame, and so on. Just a little content in the book, so maybe somebody learns a little something along the way — and I always do it knowing that I owe the concept to Dick Francis. Now you know it, too. Hopefully, again, it also reflects the lessons that typically go on in real schools, another connection to the reader’s world.

—–

Oh, hey, look at Chapter Six, “The Kid in the Hall.” Here’s a combined reference to my beloved New York Mets and Dav Pilkey. In terms of plot, Jigsaw is looking for a witness, and who better than the biggest troublemaker in school, the kid who is perpetually sent outside to sit in the halls. His name is George Seaver (Tom Seaver’s birth name) . . .

. . . and his teacher is Mrs. Koosman, named after probably my favorite southpaw of all time.

I modeled the character of George Seaver on what I imagined a young Dav Pilkey to be like, a kid making his own comic books in the hall, dreaming up adventures, talented and a little weird. I’m sure that Pilkey talked about this in an interview somewhere. From my book, The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators:

This outrageous behavior did not endear Dav to his teachers. “When I was in second grade, I got in trouble a lot. To punish me, my teacher would send me out into the hallway. Before long, I was spending so much time in the hall that my teacher moved a desk out there for me.”

Dav seized the opportunity by stuffing the desk with art supplies and paper. To keep himself busy, he drew pictures and made up stories. Dav didn’t realize it then, but he was preparing himself for his future career. “I used to staple sheets of paper together and write my own comic books,” he remembers. “I had invented a whole slew of amazing superheroes, including Captain Underpants, who flew around the city in his underwear giving wedgies to all the bad guys.”

Thus inspired, I wrote this scene:

George was drawing a picture and giggling to himself. Without looking up, he said, “Jigsaw, Mila. What’s what?”

“More like who’s who,” I said. “We’re working on a case. We’re wondering if you might have seen anything.”

George finished the picture. It showed a boy flying happily above the clouds. I looked closer. The boy in the picture looked exactly like George. He shoved the page under a stack of papers.

“What are you drawing, George?” Mila inquired.

“Comics,” George replied. “I’m going to publish graphic novels someday.”

“But in the meantime,” I said, “you’ll be happy making Mrs. Koosman bonkers.”

George smiled. “Hey, it’s a living.”

—–

I stole a joke from Woody Allen in Chapter Eight.

Somebody stole Bigs Maloney’s sneakers, forcing a cancellation of the game, and Jigsaw has to confront the prime suspect,  Lydia Zuckerman, the notorious Brown Street Bruiser. But before I get to the joke — and you’ll recognize it when it comes — I have to say that I’m happy with how Jigsaw stands up to Lydia in this scene. And also, how it was foreshadowed in the football game. Jigsaw’s character is consistent, even if his results may vary. The guy has got guts, and we see that in the very first chapter.

Lydia is big and tough, and she’s in the middle of her exercise routine:

“Not now,” Lydia said.

“I’ve only got a few questions,” I offered.

“I’m busy,” Lydia retorted. “Get out.”

Lydia grabbed a towel and ran it across her face. She started on a set of push-ups.

I stood beside her, arms on my hips. “I don’t want trouble,” I said. “But a witness saw you at the scene of a crime. I’m not leaving until you give me answers.”

“What crime?” Lydia grunted.

“Bigs Maloney’s sneakers took a walk,” I told her. “Thing is, Bigs’s feet weren’t in them at the time.”

<snip>

I turned to leave.

Lydia looked me up and down. “Hey, detective. You ever think about exercising?”

“I tried lifting weights once,” I answered. “But they were too heavy.” [Thanks, Woody!]

Lydia smiled. “You’re funny, Jones.”

“Yeah, a regular laugh riot,” I mumbled.

——

Thanks for listening! From what I can tell, this book is out-of-print and unavailable in stores. I can’t tell you how that feels.

POSTSCRIPT, 5/3/16: I originally wrote the above about seven years ago. Today I’m happy to announce that “Sneaker Sneak” will be brought back into print in the Spring of 2017. The title may be changed to The Case of the Smelly Sneaker.