Tag Archive for Kurtis Scaletta

The Next Big Thing Blog Tour

My apologies, I usually don’t stoop to these lows, but I was tagged by my pal, Kurtis Scaletta, for the “Next Big Thing” Blog Tour.

Essentially, a bunch of authors make up a game of “tag” as an excuse to promote an upcoming book. I really find this kind of thing unbecoming of an author but — owwww, that hurts! — Kurtis is twisting my arm so very, very painfully.

I surrender, Scaletta. I’ll answer your stinking questions!

1. What is the working title of your next book?

SCARY TALES: Home Sweet Horror.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

As always in these cases, a variety of factors provided the impulse. First, I was looking to get back to writing for a readership that I hadn’t focused on since my “Jigsaw Jones” series. From discussions with librarians and teachers, I knew that ages 7-10 were under-served when it came to age-appropriate “scary” material. But mostly, I was eager to loosen up, write what I think of as “an Entertainment” — something purely fun that I knew even reluctant readers would happily devour.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Though the series is called SCARY TALES, the books fit into a variety of genre. This first title is pretty straightforward, filed under “Ghost” or “Horror” or “Supernatural.” The second in the series, I Scream, You Scream, seems like more of a “Thriller” to me, with “Fantasy” aspects. The third one, Good Night, Zombie, features a mob of zombies, so it’s “Horror-Thriller” combined. Fourth in the series, Nightmareland, is more of a “Fantasy” — a boy enters into a video game and must be rescued by his sister. The fifth book, which I’m currently writing, is set in the future on a distant planet, so I guess that makes it “Science Fiction.” In the coming year if I’m lucky, I’d like to write one that could be considered “Historic Fiction.” A ghost story set in a real place. Obviously, this question has confused me. Ultimately, again, I think of each book as an “Entertainment.”

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Next question!

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Family moves into haunted house . . . and the house is not pleased.

6. Who is publishing your book?

Feiwel & Friends, Macmillan.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Eight weeks.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I guess R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” is an obvious comparison, as well as the Scary Stories collections by Alvin Schwartz. Hopefully this series falls somewhere in the middle, and offers readers something new.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was very much inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” television series. Each story was unique — new characters, new setting, a variety of genre — but at the same time, each story delivered on the Twilight Zone promise. Viewers always got that Twilight Zone experience. Cool weirdness, the sense of intellectual rigor, of the bizarre and the unexpected. So no matter where the story went, you were happy to go along because you knew it would be a journey worth taking, often with a twist at the end.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

My daughter taught me about the popular legend of “Bloody Mary,” the kids game where they try to summon a ghost to the bathroom mirror by turning around 13 times and repeating the words “Bloody Mary.” So I figured, why not? It was the hook I needed. Bloody Mary factors large in this story.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno.

Now it my turn to tag someone. I immediately thought of a local author whose career is just lifting off, Mr. Eric Luper, the author of these books and more.

Here is Eric’s most recent book. I am linking to his website so you can click through and see his answers to the questions above… look for it next week!

Eric Luper‘s next book is in progress, as yet untitled, and due out in 2014. Eric promises that he’s working on it. Really, for true!

Alan Silberberg Interview . . . Part Two

If you missed Part One of the Alan Silberberg Interview, it’s absurd for you to be here. I mean, really. Please follow the link to catch up.

Don’t worry, we’ll wait . . .

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Late in the book, Milo gathers together a number of objects that remind him of his mother, that press the memory of her into his consciousness. Where’d you get the idea for that?

I think that comes from the fact that I really don’t have anything from my mother. Things did get thrown away or given away and it really was like she died and then she was erased. When I was writing the book I started to think hard about my mom and tried remembering objects that evoked her to me. That became a cartoon called “Memories Lost” which were all real objects from my childhood that connected me to her. After making that cartoon, it struck me that Milo would want to go out and replace those objects somehow and that’s why he and his friends hit up the yard sales.

There is a scene toward the end in one of my books, Six Innings (a book that similarly includes a biographical element of cancer), that I can’t read aloud to a group because I know I’ll start to slobber. It’s just too raw, too personal for me. And I suspect that might be true of you with certain parts of this book. I’m asking: Are there any moments that get to you every time?

I think there are two specific parts of the book that choke me up, though lots of little places make me reach for tissues. The chapter where Milo goes to the yard sale and finds a blanket that reminds him of the one his mom had will always get to me. My mom had that blanket, the “pea patch blanket” in the book — so as Milo wraps himself in it and remembers her getting sick — I am always transported to the image of my mom and her blanket. The second place in the book happens in cartoon form, when Milo remembers the last time he saw his mother, which was when she was already under anesthesia being prepped for surgery and she has had her head shaved and he can see the lines for the surgery drawn on her head like a tic tac toe board. That image is directly from my memory of my last time seeing my mother. It’s pretty heavy stuff.

And so powerfully authentic. Milo describes that period after his mother died as “the fog.” Was that your memory of it?

I think trauma at any age creates a disconnect inside us. I think the fog settled in for me slowly. As the initial shock of my mom’s death wore off a sort of numbness rolled in over me. It was a survival technique to cover all that hurt stuff with an emotional buffer and I think that’s what I mean about “the fog”. It’s like I knew there was a pain in me but I didn’t want to touch it or think about. It was just always there as a dull feeling deep inside. The Fog.

Speaking of fog, you watched a lot of TV as a kid.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Ha! My two sisters called me “the walking, talking TV guide” because I always knew what was on and what channel. I’d never be able to do that today with all the satellite and cable channels — but back then, I was an authority on the network TV schedule!

We never got it at my house, but I remember being jealous of families who had subscriptions to TV Guide.

Absolutely! We didn’t have a subscription either but I would read the one at my friend’s house up the street and just soak it all up so I could be the authority for the upcoming week back home! Even before my mom’s death I loved TV — but after she died it really became a safe place to get absorbed into the fiction of other people’s lives. I loved cartoons and comedies the most back then.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

You’ve written for television in the past. In what way do you think that helped when it came time for you attempt a novel?

The best thing about being a reformed TV writer is I already knew how to structure a story and more importantly, thanks to my animation writing especially, I was already really good at setting the scene and making sure to also describe the action. Scripts rely on good dialogue so that was a skill I’d already started to hone. When I started Pond Scum (my first book) I thought of it as a long episode of a great TV show and I let the chapters drive the story as if it was a script.

When I talk to students on school visits, I’ll sometimes do a quickie “show, don’t tell” lesson, and I’ll describe it as creating a movie in the reader’s mind — in part because my skin crawls when I hear it described by authors as “painting pictures with words.”

Yeah, the writer as painter image doesn’t quite skew in my head either. And I bet the kids really relate to your idea of imagining a movie in their mind. That’s nice.

I wonder, what did the novel format allow you to do that, perhaps, you couldn’t achieve while writing for television?

TV is dictated by the time of each episode, whether it’s 30 minutes or 60 minutes the writer is being told how many pages to write and where the commercial act breaks appear. There are producer notes and network notes and it really is a bit of writing by committee. I am really thankful for my TV writing experience — but I so appreciate the freedom of writing a novel where I can do whatever I want and am not restricted by time issues or rules of what my characters can and can’t do. I am so much happier being in control of the world I create when I write a novel. Of course there are notes that must be worked with from the editor at the publishing house — but I have always found that to be a collaborative experience to make the book better. In TV — notes were usually a headache and lots of times they never even made sense! My book editors, Donna Bray on Pond Scum and Liesa Abrams on Milo — have made me a better writer and I am so thankful to them for that.

Can you think of anything specifically that they taught you?

I think one of the best lessons I’ve gotten was to stay true to the kid voice of the story. Sometimes I let my characters talk the way I’m thinking and the situation is all kid, but the language comes out too adult. Maintaining the kid POV is always in the back of my head thanks to my editors.

Yeah, I have that struggle, too. Once I created a second-grade character with rheumatoid arthritis who had a fondness for lemon cakes, Jay Leno, and bargain-priced resort wear. I had to rethink it. Question: How do you know when something’s funny?

That’s the million dollar question! I wish I knew that answer. I think I have a good sense of humor so if something strikes me as being funny — it usually is at least amusing. I’m not too big on dissecting jokes or looking for rules of comedy (with the exception of “the rule of three” and “words with a “k” sound”).

Yes, the classic scene from Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” with George Burns and Walter Matthau. I can’t find the exact quote, but the basic idea: Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber’s funny. Cab is funny. Taxi, not so much.

I saw the play version on Broadway and wish I could remember the cast but my mind is a blank. But it was funny. Very funny. As far as knowing when something is funny or not — I also like to run things by my wife and son — if they don’t at least crack a smile I know I am way off base!

I have this memory from college. This guy Dave used to introduce me to people, saying, “This is Jimmy. He’s really funny.” And I hated that. I finally had to say, like, Dave, dude, you’re killing me here. First, the pressure was ridiculous, and secondly, I didn’t want to play the clown. I can be funny at times, but it has to come in naturally. That’s how I feel about writing, too. I think I’m in trouble when I try to be funny.

Yeah, I was that guy at times but thankfully I can’t tell jokes so no one puts me on the spot anymore. I’m more of the guy who stands in the back of a group listening and then I add a zinger to the conversation — I’m a punch line guy who then shrinks back into the shadows!

Well, then feel free to say something funny, Alan. I’ve been waiting pretty patiently. Zing away. I sense that my Goofball Devotees are becoming restless.

No, really. This is when I bomb. The pressure to be funny will always result in the most un-funny thing possible, which I think I just proved with this last sentence.

No, that was hysterical, I laughed just watching the sweat pore off your head as you tried to think of something funny. Like the great scene with Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”

There’s a great line by one of the camera crew in that scene: “Nixon didn’t sweat this much.”

Back to Milo, did you worry that maybe you’d be blowing the appeal of your funny story by including the grief aspect. I mean, did some voice whisper in your ear, “Man, this is not the way to sell books to boys.”

Yes! As I mentioned, the initial goal was to just write a “funny book.” But once I realized what Milo’s story was — that he was the boy whose mom had died — it became a challenge to tell the story in a way that was both touching and funny. I stopped thinking about whether it would sell or not and concentrated on telling the story from a true place inside me. I had some deep seated confidence that this book would find its place and it was meant to find its way to Liesa Abrams at Aladdin. She embraced Milo immediately from her heart. I think that trying to write a “commercial” book is the worst way to go about it anyway.

So you think I should scrap the Geek Supernatural Romance I’ve been trying to write?

What? No vampires or zombies in it?

NOTE TO SELF: More vampires, jump on zombie craze.

Now, where were we? Oh yes, Alan Silberberg! Haven’t you gone home yet? How important are the illustrations to the book’s appeal?

I think it was important for me to add my cartoons to this story, in other words, be able to write and illustrate a book. Though I think the story could stand just fine as a text-only book, it’s clear that cartoons help get the book into certain young hands. But apart from that, I really felt the cartoons could add a dimension of story-telling to the book (not just funny eye candy).

You’ve said elsewhere that the words usually come first, that you are truly illustrating the story. But how does it affect you as a writer, knowing that you’ll have those illustrations? I’d think it would help with, say, a joke or funny moment. You’d be delivering the punch-line two different ways.

Exactly. I find that when I know there can be a cartoon anytime I feel like it — the writer part of my brain and the cartooning part kind of team up. I get a voice inside my head telling me, “Hey, you could punctuate that joke with a great doodle!” Certainly I found with Milo that there are parts of the book where I was having a hard time writing until I imagined how a cartoon would help the chapter be lighter or in some cases the opposite, where a cartoon could tell the sadness of the story in a visual way. I guess the writing was a little easier because I always had my cartoons to fallback on if I got stuck.

Any new books from you on the horizon? Or have you gotten up the courage to finally pursue that career as a catwalk model?

My legs are my best asset! Actually, I am almost done with the first draft of a new book for Aladdin. It’s another book that will include my cartoons but it is much more of a silly book than Milo. It’s a buddy story about two friends who want to be the school cartoonists and get more than they bargained for when their wishes come true.

Lightning round: Adam Sandler or Chris Farley?

Gonna have to go with Sandler.

Ouch. Okay, chin up: Ali or Frazier?

I’ll go with the Kelsey Grammer guy. Never liked Ali McBeal.

Separated at birth?

I think that’s Ally but . . . let’s move right along. The Halloween treat that makes you go back to the house a second time?

Has to be Nestles Crunch!

Top of your head, five favorite books?

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy, Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (any and all), Half Magic by Edward Eager and N.M. Bodecker (it was the first book I remember loving as a kid), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.

Five favorite movies?

The Big Lebowski, Memento, Back To The Future, Monsters Inc, Defending Your Life.

First album you ever bought as a kid?

The Who’s Quadraphenia.

Five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.

“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” Talking Heads, “I’ve Had It” Aimee Mann, “New York City Serenade” Bruce Springsteen, “Generator (Second Floor)” Freelance Whales, “Into The Woods” Soundtrack.

Nice list. It’s often a surprise what floats up to the top. Full disclosure, my five most played includes four  Dylan tunes (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”) and Van Morrison’s, “And It Stoned Me.” So: you live in Montreal, which surprisingly is still in Canada. Five favorite places in the city?

1) Schwartz’s has the best smoked meat sandwiches on the planet. 2) Westmount Library lets me fall asleep in their cozy chairs. 3) The Old Port of Montreal for the relaxed tourist ambiance of Europe with a Canadian twist 4) Shaika Café, where I like to write and watch the other people write while they watch me 5) This chair in my house. Love it!

Alan, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad we got a chance to meet. I’ll be watching your career and rooting for your success. Please accept this set of bamboo flatware as a parting gift. You’ll love giving your meals a tropical twist with real bamboo-like handles! The complete set serves one (and might be missing a fork). Shipping not included.

Some links to more interviews conducted by yours truly:

* Kurtis Scaletta

* Lewis Buzbee

* Carmen Deedy

* Deborah Kovacs

* Matthew Cordell

* Jack Rightmyer

* Travis Jonker (100 Scope Notes)

* Betsy Bird (Fuse #8)

* Bill & Karen (Literate Lives)

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.

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!

This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever: Around the Horn

Just thought I’d share some recent enthusiasms:

* Greg Ruth, illustrator of A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, is selling and autographing and shipping copies of the book. Pretty sure he’s licking the stamps, too.

* I have to say it: Maggie with her summer freckles is a hoot in her new hat.

* Maria is a teacher I met on a school visit to Ohio. With more than 20 years of teaching as her guide, she recently took the plunge and started a new blog, Teaching in the 21st Century. Be sure to bookmark it. She’s everything a veteran teacher should be — still learning, still open, still eager to meet new challenges.

* Is Joe Posnanski the best baseball writer on the planet? Maybe.

* Every once in a while, a blogger steps out of his comfort zone to get real — and hits one out of the park. Nicely done, Bill.

* Speaking of fathers and their children, congratulations to Kurtis Scaletta, proud papa. This is a writer who should be on everybody’s radar. The author of Mudville and Mamba Point, he’s just beginning to let his freak flag fly. I can’t wait for what’s next.

* For my money, Arcade Fire’s new disk, “The Suburbs,” sounds like the best of 2010. Check out this innovative, interactive new video, where you need to “enter the address of the home where you grew up” for full effect. Mind-blowing.

* A short discussion guide for Bystander is now available as a FREE PDF DOWNLOAD. Scroll down and you’ll find it.

* Can’t explain exactly why, but I got choked up by this “Pink Glove Dance” video — a joyful dance to promote breast cancer awareness. Seriously, just tears rolling down my face. I think maybe it’s accumulation — all those talented, caring people dedicated to saving lives, making a difference, showing such zest for life, for making the broken whole again.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video