Archive for September, 2010

Ewwww, Gross!

September 28, 2010

Thomas Spence, of Spence Publishing Company (Dallas) has some thoughts on what explains the widening literacy gap between boys and girls.  Since 1992, the disparity has grown, to as much as ten percentage points.  In his article on the subject in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Spence proposes a simple solution: pull the plug.  In other words, severely restrict your son’s access to video games, or eliminate them altogether.

Anecdotally, I can say this works.  Our son was so fascinated with electronic games he was continually asking to play the primitive version of chess that came with the ancient Toshiba laptop my husband used for his job.  We didn’t own a PC until 1990, and we bought one game to go with it (called Mad Marbles, or something like that).  The world of shareware knock-offs opened up further possibilities, but Tielman was limited to one hour on weekdays and two/day on weekends.  We also homeschooled (Mr. Spence says there is no gender literacy gap among homeschoolers, but cites no stats), making that kind of control possible.  Tielman saved his money to buy SuperMario and Sonic the Hedgehog but still suffered our one-hour limit.  In between times he read a lot, and he read all kinds of stuff: Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys, fantasy, historical and realistic fiction, action-adventure. 

Now he can play all the games he has time for, but he still reads.  If he were in public school now and lagging in his literacy, he might have joined the drift toward post-literacy.  As an antidote, he might be subjected to books like The Day My Butt Went Psycho, because gross-out humor is now prescribed as a gateway to more serious works.  That’s what preadolescent boys are interested in, right?  I recently read The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade teacher in Keller, Texas (not far from Spence Publishing).  She claims to have converted boys in her class to reading by judicial application of books like The Day My Butt Went Psycho; does that mean that from butts to brains is a natural progression for boys?

Maybe not for boys only.  I remember being amused by gross-out humor (actually rolling on the floor at the thought of certain bodily functions), at the age of eight.  We all know it’s common, though the reason why is an interesting question.  I might get to that later.  More to the point, we all know it’s a base form of humor that we eventually outgrow.  Even though the popularity of movies by Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers suggests we might not be outgrowing it soon enough.  I admire Donalyn Miller and appreciated The Book Whisperer very much.  I don’t doubt that she’s sprouted readers in her classroom by the application of some slightly gross, er, fertilizer.  Today Captain Underpants, tomorrow Atlas Shrugged?  Maybe.  But if you can swing it, Thomas Spencer’s recommendation seems more fruitful.  As he writes, “If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.”

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I Can’t Keep Up With Them!

September 25, 2010

Another day, another book challenge.  Wes Scoggins of Republic, MO has claimed that three books should be banned from the school curriculum because they are “soft-pornography” (I think he means “soft-core” pornography?)  The books in question are Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson), Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler), and Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut).  I’ve only read Speak, which I would not classify as soft-core anything.  Twenty Boy Summer I somehow missed in the continual flood of YA books published every year and Vonnegut is one of those dense literary geniuses encountered in one’s academic career, who flowered after my academic career was over.

I have to wonder if Mr. Scoggins is jumping on the bandwagon after the dust-up in Stockton (see below), but apparently not.  He has other concerns about the district curriculum and isn’t afraid to express himself.  My opinion doesn’t change.  It’s his right to speak up and the school’s right to consider his objections and decide in any way they think best.  Ms. Anderson and Ms. Ockler will enjoy a little bump in books sales and Mr. Vonnegut will keep on doing whatever he does.  (Is he still alive?  Better check on that.)  No bonfires will be lit and no child will be turned off reading who wasn’t already.  It’s a great country–everybody chill.

Here We Go Again

September 15, 2010

Just in time for Banned Books Week, another censorship case, this time close to home.  The school board of Stockton, MO recently voted 7-0 to uphold the restriction of a single book: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.  I’ve read the book, which has won numerous awards including the National Book Award for Children’s fiction.  (The NBA really needs to divide the award into children’s and YA divisions.)  Frankly I don’t remember a lot of it, which is my fault, not Mr. Alexie’s–I should have taken a few notes.  The main character is a Native American teenager who escapes the reservation to attend a white school–the narrative concerns his struggles to adjust and reconcile his native culture with the life he wants to live.  Practically everyone in his family dies, mostly from problems related to alcohol.  This closely reflects the author’s own experience and might have been his fate if he’d stayed on the Rez.

I respect Mr. Alexie and the value of his struggle and his right in a free society to write any book he chooses.  At the same time, I timidly suggest that there’s no need to assume we’re on the fast track to Nazi book bonfires every time a volume is booted from a school library.  A few points:

a. Parents have rights, too.  Maybe the ‘rents are hopelessly provincial and square, but that in itself does not prohibit them from exercising some judgment over their children’s input.  Anyone who’s been a parent knows the anxiety, uncertainty, and often heartbreak of raising a child.  And every parent makes mistakes.  Restricting certain media may be a mistake, but it’s one of small consequence, more often than not.  Given the toll taken by parental abdication in our society, I’m a lot more tolerant of parental overreach–if that’s what this is.

b. Testimonials to the contrary, I don’t think a teen is going to be damaged by not reading Sherman Alexie’s book.  I do not presume to know what inspires everybody, but I do know that if you miss the first bus to Inspiration there’s likely to be another coming along soon.  During the community meeting this week a high school student stood up to say, “This book is my hope.  It’s about not giving up.  It’s about not letting people tell you you’re not worth it.”  I don’t disagree; I only suggest that The Absolutely True Diary is not the only book out there with that theme.  “This book expresses my hope” is a reasonable statement.  “This book is my hope” is an overstatement, unless Mr. Alexie is in the running for the next Messiah.

c. Kids who want to read this book can read it.  Especially high school kids, most of whom have a driver’s license.  Or have a friend with a driver’s license.  I’ll bet they go to Springfield occasionally.  The Greene County library has a few copies of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian; that’s where I got mine.  The Cedar County Library can get it through inter-library loan if it’s not in their collection.  Ask.  Be resourceful.  Use some initiative.  Stockton is not an armed camp.

d. Some YA books can be damaging to some readers.  We writers assert the power of the written word.  But if the written word has so much power, can we not ascribe negative effects as well as positive?  The Absolutely True Diary expresses a generally positive theme in an extremely negative milieu.  While the protagonist’s story will be encouraging to some teens, there are other who feel like they’re stuck on the Rez even though their lives aren’t all that bad; they don’t need to be encouraged to feel sorry for themselves.  And those who are already depressed may not need any more.  For, in spite of some laughs and a “hopeful” ending, the novel is depressing overall.  This is a trend in YA books, so pronounced I’m wondering what kind of view kids are getting of the world they will soon inherit.  Do we notice a lot of optimism out there?  Time will tell, but I’d like to see a little sunshine in the YA world.

e. Book bans generally don’t work, especially if they’re publicized: the book gains more readers than it would otherwise.  Still, I can’t quite blame folks for trying to hold the line against more and more explicit material.  (This book is certainly not the worst YA I’ve ever read, but yes, it has its moments.)  And every time they do, the knives come out–not against the book or its author, but against the line-holders.  They’re yahoos, control freaks, philistines; they’re stupid, backward, narrow.   But maybe they’re just ordinary parents and grandparents trying to protect their kids and maintain some kind of community standard.  I don’t think this is a particularly effective way to do it; at the same time I can’t help sympathizing with the “where will it end?” mentality.

I believe that artists–writers, painters, movie-makers–are mentors to the public.  Children’s authors should never preach to their audience, but they shouldn’t pander either.  “We’re just meeting our readers where they are–kids today hear this kind of language, deal with these kinds of issues all the time.”  If they are–and I don’t disagree–how much does mass media contribute to that?  A lot, I think.  Media, including novels, helps drag the standards down, then points to the standards as evidence that it’s just being realistic.  There’s no easy solution.  For myself, I’m trying to be realistic but not graphic when it comes to writing for kids.  Now back to that manuscript I’m trying to finish up.

So You Think You Can Write A Children’s Book…

September 15, 2010

Maybe he can; I don’t know.  Don’t have time to read it or fulminate too much either.  This guy is taking it a little too personally, but I can sympathize . . .

Gaming the Book

September 8, 2010

Forget reading Dante–now you can be Dante! For the investment of a few dollars you, too, can descend into hell as a hunky Florentine hacking and scything your way through all Nine Circles to rescue Beatrice. Dante’s Inferno, brought to you by Visceral Games, will familiarize you with hell’s topography (you never know when that might come in handy) as well as plant some choice quotes in your brain, for Virgil will be your voice-over guide.

It sounds like fun. So does The Great Gatsby game, though more sedate. In this one, players progress from the rooms of Gatsby’s fabulous East Egg house and his terraced yard to Wilson’s garage, pointing and clicking and collecting enough points to decorate your own fabulous house while working through the plot. What, no kick-boxing or first-person shooting? Who hasn’t felt like knocking off Tom Buchanan, or at least knocking him in the head?

Classic literature is rich with gaming possibilities, I suppose: several years ago my son had an idea for a To Kill A Mockingbird, where the object is (if I remember correctly) to find Boo Radley or else make him come out of his house. The Middle of Somewhere (that’s my latest book) would work perfectly as a video game: as the player progresses through Kansas, he has to prevent Gee from killing himself in various ways. If Gee hits the pavement, then SPLAT!–it’s back to Partly, MO and starting all over again with the squirrel in the toilet.

As for Dante: imagine the scores of college sophomores who can now pass their world lit course by skimming The Inferno’s expanded table of contents and reaching level 9 of the game. Imagine the possibilities for Beowulf (already a game, I’ll bet), Canterbury Tales and Macbeth!

I really have nothing against a video game based on The Inferno, as long as no one confuses it with The Inferno. Games based on novels may not be that different from the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular in the eighties and I hear are making a comeback. We checked out a few of those from the library years ago, but their appeal faded quickly. CYOA is to literature as chicken nuggets are to coq au vin. What does bother me a bit is talk of “interactive” literature, which sounds like an electronic version of CYOA. Choosing between fleeing or fighting has no relevance in a universe that consists only of choice. In the real world (ahem), we make choices, but choices also make us. That’s one value of reading good fiction: seeing the consequences of a character’s choices, and how they affect other characters.

 Such decisions are not interchangeable. Good characters sink their roots into the narrative–to jerk them around rips up the story. Good characters have to be themselves–if the reader barges in and starts rearranging their lives, they start being something else. Like props. The eventual consequences for real life are dismal to contemplate.

No Other Name

September 2, 2010

If we think of Young Adult fiction as a burgeoning universe (expanding rapidly from a singularity known as Twilight), “Christian YA” is a robust galaxy within it.  Like Christian fiction in general, it’s improving: more realistic, stronger characters, believable conclusions (i.e., no mass conversions of all sympathetic characters by the end).  But in the process of becoming better fiction, it may be becoming less “Christian.”  By that I mean, in some Christian YA at least, the name of Jesus is barely mentioned.  God is certainly a major theme, and since many of these stories have some references to church, and are published by Thomas Nelson or Zondervan, we may assume it’s the God of the Bible.  But the salvation reached is often generic (like an ill-defined homecoming or inner “peace”) or potential (characters deciding to give God another chance or more thought after an outright rejection).  I haven’t read the entire subgenre so I wouldn’t say they’re all this way, but that seems to be a trend.

Meanwhile, another trend.  In secular YA fiction, the use of Jesus’s name is increasing.  A lot.  Just in the last five years or so: if you want to be considered serious, important, or edgy, you swear by the Lord.  This is true in almost any genre, from a seventies contemporary award-winner like Tales From the Madman Underground (which I had to stop reading because the profanity was so extreme) to dystopian fiction like Chaos Rising trilogy, whose setting is a planet outside our solar system.  It’s not enough to say Oh my God anymore; the swearing must be specific.  But nobody says Oh my Buddha! or Holy Krishna! or Sweet Allah!  No other name has the same impact.  Or can it be that no other name has the same power, whether for blessing or curse?

It’s very curious: Christian YA novels downplay the name of Jesus in order to be taken more seriously.  Secular YA novels play up the name of Jesus for the same reason.  How odd is that?