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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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!
I’ve enjoyed doing this semi-organized, possibly-ongoing series of interviews, especially when it comes to meeting important voices in the kidlitosphere. I hope you agree that it’s nice to get to know the people behind some of our more frequently-visited blogs. One such destination is the oft-entertaining, 100 Scope Notes. Travis has a lively mind, he’s young and insightful, and — to be perfectly honest — it seemed like it would be cool to hang out with him. I mean to say: If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. I’m like a Roman Emperor that way, sort of a cross between Tiberius, Caligula, and Herod Agrippa, but with typing skills. But let’s move along, folks . . . because here comes Travis, hauling around a pile of books.
Greetings, Travis. It’s nice to finally meet you. Thanks for stopping by.
Well, it’s an honor. Sorry I’m late — I was away for a week visiting family.
How’d that go?
Great, but very filling. You ever have it happen where a trip back home all of a sudden becomes an eating tour? It’s like all decisions were based around food. I found myself saying things like, “Well, we can’t go to the ‘60s-style drive-in tonight, because I really wanted to get to the Italian restaurant with the moose head on the wall. And let’s not forget about the homemade cookie shop for dessert.” You can see how things can get out of hand pretty quickly.
Oh, I get it. You’re here for the cheese log.
You have one of those? If you’ve got a box of Toasteds crackers, it’s on.
You’ll be putting it on the Ritz, my friend. As the 1950’s ad campaign so truly proclaimed: “Nothing tastes as good as Ritz . . . but Ritz!”
So, tell me. You became a librarian in 2005, and started blogging back in the halcyon days of late 2007. That officially makes you a grizzled veteran of the blogosphere. Did you have a plan when you started?
Let me begin by saying I have played a lot of soccer in my day, and have thus taken many, many soccer balls to the head. I’ve always had a hard time remembering which books I’ve read and why I liked them or didn’t like them. My memory not what it should be, I began 100 Scope Notes mainly to record my thoughts and feelings about books I was reading. I also like the idea of making book reviews entertaining in their own right, so I’m always trying to accomplish that.
So it really began as a classic “web log” without any great ambitions. Did you think anyone would read it?
Hmm. Yes, I suppose I figured I could dupe a few shut-ins into reading my opinions, but I didn’t expect much more than that.
It’s very impressive what you’ve accomplished. (Listen to me, I sound like Yoda: “Lost a planet, Obi Wan has.”) Congratulations.
Thanks. Fun, it has been.
Grow up, where did you?
Northern Michigan. Are you familiar with the Mackinaw Bridge? Close to that.
A great place to grow up and very picturesque. I love it. Pretty far up there, however. Let’s just say that there were times in elementary school where I was slightly embarrassed to admit that I didn’t snowmobile for fear of getting shunned by my peers.
I find your blog very inspiring. I mean, authors tend to blog out of necessity, some sense of self-promotion. Other folks blog because it’s part of their job. But your blog, and others like yours, either by teachers or librarians or enthusiastic parents, comes from what appears to be a purer place, an abiding love of children’s books.
I definitely want the focus to be on books. Self-promotion isn’t really my bag. I have this completely unreasonable desire to Google my name and have it say “I’m sorry, that person must not exist, for we can find no evidence saying so”. I’ve been doing pretty well at that so far, although I guess this interview may hurt the pursuit of that goal. I’m a school librarian, so the blog is mostly for others in my profession. I use blogs I trust for finding great books, so I want to do the same for others.
So why children’s books? How did you get here?
That direction was not always clear. Roald Dahl was the first author I loved back in elementary school. In middle school I was huge into comics and then I went through a serious periodicals phase in high school . . .
Travis, hey, it’s perfectly natural for boys of a certain age. Bodies mature, maybe you discover your father’s (cough, cough) “periodicals,” as you prefer to call them, and . . .
Wow, I really walked right into that one.
I guess you did.
I had an agreement with the high school library aide where I could go behind the counter and grab the latest magazine issues before they went on the shelves. Thus I have perused more issues of Entertainment Weekly than I care to mention. When I went to college, I knew I wanted to work with the elementary school crowd. Getting back into children’s books stemmed from that. There are so many great books for kids that it was easy to get sucked back in. After I picked up my elementary teaching certification, I went back to school for library/media. Now I work in a school district with four elementary schools that I split time between.
You have an eye for book covers. I enjoy it when you highlight “Unfortunate Book Covers.” It pains you when a good book has a bad cover. Tell us a little bit about that. Do you think there are common mistakes?
I think folks who work in the book world can identify with this. You love a particular book and put it face out on the shelf, assuming that it will get snatched up right away. Most do, but occasionally there is one that seems to have been coated with child repellent. I’m glad that my hurt comes through, because it’s truly painful to see a great book sit just because its cover has seen better days.
Two of the books I’ve featured, Boy and Danny the Champion of the World, were especially difficult to call out, because I really, really love those books. I think sticking with a cover for too long is the most common mistake. I understand that there are lots of reasons why every book can’t get a makeover every ten years, but there are plenty of books that get passed over because they don’t look current. Really, there is an endless supply of these, so I see that feature popping up for quite a while.
I wonder if Jigsaw Jones falls into that category. He’s about that age.
Naw, I don’t find that that’s the case in the schools where I work. Actually, it’s pretty rare for series books to fall into the Unfortunate Covers territory. Readers get familiar with the characters and continue checking out books in the series, so a bad cover doesn’t have as much of a negative effect.
I enjoy your “cover controversy” posts, where you highlight look-alike covers. Do you have a larger point about imitation, or are you simply pointing out coincidences and trends just for the fun of it?
My whole motivation for pointing out similar covers boils down to something along the lines of, “Hey, look at that!” I would imagine that creating appealing covers is a difficult job, so I don’t get too frustrated that popular trends emerge. Although there are two cover types that I think have to go:
1. Girls in Victorian-era costumes.
I think I speak for everyone when I say that we appreciate your courageous vow to keep us “updated with any new sock-related cover art developments.” You strike me as a talented writer. Intelligent, inquisitive, and funny. Do you write fiction? And I’m really hoping that your answer is, “Yes.”
Do nonsensical ramblings count as fiction? If so, then yes, I write fiction almost daily. If that description doesn’t cut it, then the answer is no.
You’re in –- “nonsensical ramblings” definitely qualifies. It’s probably how most writers get started.
While I once toyed with the idea of writing a collection of “inspired by real life” short stories, all I have to show for it is a list of chapter titles that I lost a few years back. I have been getting some encouragements lately, however (and I’m counting this question as one), including some from an author/illustrator whom I really respect. So a commitment of pen to paper may be in the cards at some point.
What have you gotten out of the blogging experience? I’m sure a lot of people look at it and think, “Oh dear, that seems like a lot of work.” What’s the payback?
I like the fact that the work I do on 100 Scope Notes makes me better at my job. I’m able to make better decisions in terms of book purchasing and recommending because I’m reading and writing about these things all the time. I also like the creative aspect of it, coming up with different ways of talking about children’s lit.
What makes a good blog?
I have a prepared statement for this. Here goes. Ahem:
1. Authority. How well do you know your stuff? Can you explain why you liked/didn’t like a book? (Note: Writing in all caps is not a good way to show authority).
2. Voice. Do I feel like I can connect and identify with you? Do you like Frisbee? Me too – we can hang out.
3. Opinions. Dude, you gotta take a stand. Did you like a book or not? Don’t be shy. Do you seem like a reasonable person who makes sound judgments? Did you like the song, “We Built This City”? If so, then your opinions are suspect.
4. Updates. There are exceptions, but as a general rule, if you only post once a month, I’m going to lose interest.
Well said. And for the record, I can say with 100% conviction that I hate the song, “We Built This City.”
What about author blogs. What do you like about them? And what don’t you like?
I like the behind the scenes stuff. It’s also a plus if they have an opinion of some of the book-related topics of the day. Also, it helps when they don’t do that “click here to read more!” thing, which really cramps the style of anyone checking out the site from Google Reader.
I find some of them fall into the trap of being too relentlessly self-promotional. Like, I know you are a big success and everything, but I’m kind of getting turned off here.
You’ve gotta have a good balance — talk about your books, but talk about not your books too.
You seem really exited about going to ALA in Chicago. Why is that? Don’t get out much?
The short answer is no. Here’s the long response: I’m excited because it sounds like cool things happen there. I’ve always wanted to attend the ALA conferences, but could never swing it. This time there is no excuse, as the conference site is just a couple hours away. I’m going to write some posts for 100 Scope Notes and the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) blog while I’m there, so that should be fun. I’m expecting a good time. I got a little too excited and made up some business cards. Currently, I’m busy planning out my food schedule for the trip. So far I’ve got Ann Sather for breakfast, Shaw’s Crab House for dinner, and — wait, this is sounding familiar.
I hear that Matthew Cordell likes cupcakes. You should try to meet him.
Say no more. I just added a chance meeting with Mr. Cordell to my itinerary.
Keep a cupcake in your pocket just in case. Why did you pick the name, “100 Scope Notes”?
It wasn’t a moniker that I’ve always had in my back pocket. When I knew I was going to start a blog, I wanted the title to be a library term. I cracked open my Dewey decimal classification guide and started looking around for something. In true librarian form, I always have Dewey nearby –- even in the car, where I keep a travel-sized reference in the glove compartment. Just kidding, but that would probably be a big hit if someone published that. Anyway, when I came to the term “scope note” I figured that would be a good choice. A scope note helps to clarify or define, which I thought was appropriate. I added the 100 because I thought it would be easier for people to remember and find if they were doing a search for it.
With today’s changing delivery systems, this age of New Media, are you concerned about the future of “the book”?
You know that section in Popular Science where they look back at an article that appeared in the magazine 60 years ago that says something like, “In 1996, civilization will rely on invisible, fudge-powered trains for travel,” and we all say. “ha-ha, look how silly we were”? I think making a prediction about where books are heading might come off a bit like that. But if I had to make one it would be this: In the year 2012 we will have invisible books that will somehow be fudge-powered.
You also review books for the School Library Journal. Lately there’s been some blog chatter about blog reviews, the quality or lack of quality, etcetera. Is there a difference when you post a review on your blog compared to the reviews you do for SLJ?
I have been keeping up on that blog vs. journal discussion and it makes for some interesting reading. There is definitely a difference between my reviews for SLJ and 100 Scope Notes. In SLJ I do my best to stick to a more professional format. The length guidelines really force you to make every word count. Writing this type of review has definitely made me more conscious of getting to the point and has made me a better writer overall. Then I write a blog review and it’s like, “Hey, I can do anything I want here!” I like having the opportunity to do both styles. While some of my blog reviews are nontraditional, I still hold myself responsible for giving my honest opinion with information to back it up. I would like to think that the quality, while delivered in a different way, remains the same.
What do you think of negative reviews?
They’re essential. I don’t delight in writing negative reviews, but people need to know the truth.
But what if they CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH? (Um, sorry. That was my Jack Nicholson impression. Pretty intimidating, right?)
I have yet to upgrade my VHS version of “A Few Good Men”, but I would say that’s pretty accurate. The rub is that I’m always looking to read books that I think I’ll enjoy, thus you’re likely to find more positive reviews on 100 Scope Notes. This fact makes professional journal reviews so vital as they review everything: good, bad, ugly, unreadable, and ridiculous.
If you could meet any author, who would that be? I mean, besides me.
Well, my other number one would have to be Jon Scieszka. Although now that he’s the Children’s Lit Ambassador, a meeting might be tough to pull off. Security detail, helicopters, body doubles, armored cars, you know how it goes. I also have some mixed feelings when it comes to meeting authors. I never really know how to chat them up. Do I steer down the “undying affection” road and just talk about the author’s books, or should I go with the more difficult to pull off, “You’re famous but I’m cool so I’m going to talk to you about other things” approach? It’s a tough choice so I usually just hedge my bets and remain uncomfortably silent. Any suggestions?
I think you treat them the way you treat anybody else, from the waitress at TGI Fridays to your neighbor to the high-powered executive. As equals, you know. At the same time, if he or she has written something that has touched you in some way, that means something to you, that’s always a nice thing to hear.
Ah, the old, “Imagine you’re at T.G.I. Fridays” approach. Very crafty, Preller. I will attempt this technique.
Oh, please, Travis. You can call me, “Mr. Preller, Sir.” Lightning round: Five websites you can’t live without?
Yes, yes this music site has sort of gotten a bad rap lately due to large doses of hipster backlash, but I’ve been reading it for years and when they like an album, I often like it too. I also completely borrowed some of their ideas for my site.
A Fuse #8 Production
A great childrens lit blog: informative, funny, thought-provoking. This one was starting back when I was beginning my library career, and it’s been fun to follow ever since.
While I probably read every Entertainment Weekly from 1996-2004, I no longer have easy access to that magazine. BuzzFeed fills some of the gap. Slightly gossipy for my tastes, but they seem to have a thing for kid’s books, which I appreciate.
No description needed
Question: I’m 48, so I know what I’m doing on Facebook, i.e., misguided nostalgia, reconnecting with people who didn’t like me the first time around. But a young fellow like yourself, what are you doing? Connecting with old preschool buddies?
No, no, of course not. Elementary school buddies.
Working at four elementary schools, I place a lot of book orders. Follett’s Titlewave site is the best in the biz as far as I’m concerned. Wow, I really sound like a pitchman right now, don’t I? Moving right along…
This site is cool. Artists create works and they sell different sized prints beginning at 20 bucks.
What music are you listening to these days?
Music is a big thing for me dating back to my saxophone virtuosity in middle school band. I was the second to last chair, but then the last chair guy moved to another school, so I was demoted for the rest of my days. I also was a DJ for my college radio station where I did theme nights. As you can imagine, themes such as “Depressing Songs” and “Songs I Can’t Stand” made for uplifting listening.
Oh, you are one of those “mixed tape” guys. Confession: I make a new playlist on my iPod every month of the year. And Travis, I just have to say: Are you feeling this, too? Because I think we’re starting to bond.
I’m a bit obsessive with the iTunes –- I rate all the songs and make ridiculous smart playlists, like, “Please list songs that I have skipped less than 10 times, but have played more than 20. Move songs with artist names that contain the word ‘Cougar’ off the list.” Between iTunes, GoodReads.com, and 100 Scope Notes, I occasionally feel like I just rate things all day long.
What are your five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.
“This Must Be the Place,” Talking Heads. “No One Does It Like You,” Department of Eagles. “Karma Police (Live on David Letterman),” Radiohead. “Trains to Brazil,” Guillemots. “Soul to Squeeze,” Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Any recent favorites, discoveries?
I really could go on for awhile on this question, so I’ll just list a few things:
Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala
The song “A Postcard to Nina” is one of my all time favorites
Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
I’ve talked about them a little on 100 Scope Notes. I would hazard to guess that this band may have more librarian fans than any other. This album should come wrapped in a cardigan.
Pete and the Pirates, Little Death
This is sort of a pop rock group. Great songs, but I still have trouble telling each song apart – I guess that means they’re consistent?
I just got this after hearing them on NPR’s All Songs Considered. I’m glad I did. Fans of Arcade Fire would likely get into this.
Would you burn me a CD, some kind of Travis hipster pop-geek mix?
I’m already mulling over some picks. I’ll just need your mailing address.
Five favorite movies?
This seemed completely original when it came out. Memorable characters with dialogue that immediately draws you in.
Every year Pixar comes out with a new movie some critic declares that it’s their best yet. Don’t believe them –- this movie is the best they’ve ever done. Successful on so many levels and entertaining the whole way through.
2001: A Space Odyssey
This one is sort of the classic “attention everyone, I have good taste” pick, but I loved it, and I really think it changed the way people think about movies. I’m still fairly shocked that this was actually in movie theaters in 1968. Things move slowly, but the tension that builds is crazy.
Cool Hand Luke
This one started a whole older movie craze for me. I didn’t think that watching a chain gang build roads and engage in egg-eating contests would be entertaining, but I was wrong.
Classic quote: “What we got here . . . is a failure to communicate.”
School of Rock
There may have never been a role more tailor made for an actor than Dewey Finn for Jack Black. Hilarious.
“I pledge allegiance . . . to the band . . . of Mr. Schneebly.” I put that quote in my upcoming book, Bystander, partly because I love that movie so much.
Five favorite children’s books?
This book was like my reintroduction to children’s lit. In college I wasn’t reading many kids books. I picked this one up right as I was beginning my student teaching. Amazing. The storyline fits together so well. I thought, “Dang, this is what books for kids should be.” I’m actually kinda getting chills just thinking about how great that story is.
Where the Wild Things Are
Aught Nine is the year of the Wild Things. With the movie coming out, everyone is getting nostalgic for this classic. I have to say that of all the books I read as a kid, this one stuck with me the most.
What you said about Holes is true for me with Wild Things. I found that book soon after college and it totally changed my thinking about children’s books. Everything was suddenly possible. These books could have real emotional and psychological depth. Which is why, of course, I wrote Hiccups for Elephant.
The City of Ember
Sci-fi masterpiece. There is such a great buildup in this book. A serious page-turner.
Arnie the Doughnut
This picture book should be in every library. Funny, with a delightfully absurd ending that never fails to make kids smile. One of my all-time favorite read-alouds.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
As a kid, I was on a mission to hunt down every Roald Dahl book ever written (The Vicar of Nibbleswick was the most difficult to find back in those pre-internet days, by the way). “Charlie” was the one that sent me down that path.
Well, Travis, it looks like our time is up. Thanks for hanging out and eating my entire cheese log. I admire your alert, open, engaged mind — and for a skinny guy you’ve got quite an appetite. Enjoy ALA! Blog like there’s no tomorrow! And eat like a Roman Emperor!