Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banned Books!

Banned Books Week is coming to a close.

I’m not going to go into a philosophical rant here about how important this week is (if you want that, read my POST from last year).  What I will do is give you a few links to some information about the week (and about banned/challenged books in general). And check THIS out. Just happened last week, right here in Minnesota. Timely, no? See also THIS MPR story from yesterday about the same incident/book in question. Sounds like a wonderful book. But apparently it teaches teens to swear! 

Now, go out and read something subversive, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Seriously. You'll find it on most lists of books that are frequently challenged. We'd definitely be better off without ever having read anything by that Twain rascal. Right?


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Well, this is pretty cool...

Last week, James Patterson, author of several best-selling thrillers (including the Alex Cross books) as well as some popular young adult fiction (like the Maximum Ride series), pledged $1 million dollars to struggling--but "viable--independent bookstores. They MUST, however, have a childrens section, as Patterson feels these booksellers are among the most important places for fostering a love of literature in kids.  I heard about this story from my cousin, who read it in the most recent issue of The Week. But if you don't subscibe to that fine periodical, you can read about it on the LA Times website (among other places). 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Real Boy

Out this week (September 24)!

Magic can be both awesome and awful. And young Oscar, hand to Caleb, the first magician for generations in the Barrow, despite his knowledge of and respect for all the things magic can do, begins to wonder if perhaps magic doesn’t serve humans after all. Maybe it’s the other way around.  

This is a fantasy story in which magic is kind of a fearful thing.  This is a fantasy story with an unconventional (and not-too-obvious) villain. This is a fantasy story with frequent (if subtle and well-integrated) fairy tale allusions.  This is a fantasy story that is lyrical and lovely and can be read as a modern parable about economic and environmental responsibility—and the stumbly, difficult journey through childhood (and life in general) for a person with autism.  This is a fantasy story that invites the reader to enter a fully-rendered magical world with empathy and to see things a bit differently.

Seriously, the world-building here is phenomenal. I feel like I’ve been to the villages, the city, and the Barrow, right along with Oscar and his new friend Callie (the healer’s apprentice).  Details describing what someone might see or hear or smell abound as do particulars about the rules that govern behavior between those who peddle magic and those who purchase it—and all of it has been woven subtly into the fabric of the text.

It’s a world I almost actually want to inhabit—at least, until things start going wrong.

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
Walden Pond Press, 2013
Illustrations by Erin Mcguire
The Shining People of Asteri (the purchasers) believe they are blessed. Only good things will come to them. Fear and pain and sadness will stay far away. Magic is like their religion, and it keeps them safe. But something is wrong with several children in Asteri. They suffer from different symptoms. No cause can be pinpointed. And the adult magic smiths (including Callie’s master, the healer, and Oscar’s master, the magician), who are normally called on to help in such situations, are off selling their goods and services on the mainland. Oscar and Callie fear that perhaps the plague has returned—the plague that 100 years before ravaged the community and ended the wizarding era.  

And something monstrous is terrorizing the Barrow, tearing down trees, ripping up storefronts, and attacking residents.  

Oscar and Callie do their best, on their own, to solve the mystery and help those who are suffering. But Oscar struggles daily, even moment-to-moment, with loneliness and confusion and anxiety about how “different” he is and how difficult it is to figure out how he should act or what he should say in every social situation he encounters. Ursu captures this all so beautifully. We all have moments we want to retreat to the cellar, as Oscar does, believing it’s the only place we’re of any use (or simply to hide from the big, confusing, and sometimes angry world). We’ve all felt odd, unwanted, or misunderstood some of the time.  But Ursu challenges us to think about what it might be like to feel out-of-place all of the time. We are asked to step out of our comfort zones, just as Oscar must, to see things from a different perspective, to allow our preconceptions to be challenged, and to act.

Some final thoughts:

I am not a cat person, but this book almost makes me want to be.  Really.

 I love so many lines from this novel—these are two of my favorites:

“There is something in the magic we have that is greater than the magic we can do.”

 “It was a beautiful lie that they had all been telling themselves—that you could have magic without monsters.”

 Happy reading!

Recommended for ages 9+.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Boys and Reading

Nothing new. But it reminds me what wonderful and important work Jon Scieszka does. I also think it's important not to take for granted how crucial a MALE reader role model can be. Even the librarian in this video is female. Don't get me wrong; I'm sure she's AWESOME at her job (it seems like it from the video!), but how many male librarians are there in elementary schools? How many male TEACHERS are there in elementary schools, for that matter? And how many dads read at home? And I'm not just talking about reading TO your children (which is of course super-important, too), but reading IN FRONT OF your children, for yourself. Books. Newspapers. Magazines. Whatever. Reading is perceived as work, as learning, as uncool. And it is the former two, but it is NOT the latter. Reading is important for both boys and girls, but that SUCH a chasm in literacy has developed between them, and has continued to grow, is disheartening and alarming--and I think it has more to do with social perception than it does anything else. Stepping off soapbox now...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Banned Books

Why do we have a Banned Books Week? Why is it important to highlight books that have been deemed at some time or another (or are still considered) inappropriate for bookstore or library shelves?

Because it's important to protect not only freedom of expression, but freedom of thought.

Books are often banned in knee-jerk reactions by parents or school board members who didn't actually read (or, at least, didn't understand) the material.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned for its derogatory references to African Americans, despite the fact that Twain deliberately used such language to illustrate how demeaning and horrifying slavery (and, more generally, whites views of blacks) was. To Kill A Mockingbird was often banned for pretty much the same reason.

The Harry Potter series is frequently scrutinized for its "magical" content, never mind that it's a story about good triumphing over evil, love winning over fear and hate. 

And then there's the especially ironic bans. Fahrenheit 451 is about a society that outlaws (and actually destroys) all books, yet it is frequently censored.  1984 was considered sympathetic to Communism.  Have you read it?  It's not.  In fact, Eric Blair (George Orwell) was vehemently anti-Communist, and more than just 1984 suggest that. Animal Farm, any one?

The list goes on: The Diary of Anne Frank, Catcher in the Rye, The Giver, Where's Waldo? (It's true! Where's. Waldo.)

Pete Hautman offered some great thoughts on the topic of banned books (and the sort-of covert--or preemptive--banning that's still taking place) on his BLOG today. Pete is the author of the National Book Award winner Godless--which, itself, has been the target of concerned parent and educational groups that obviously haven't read the book, as it's not nearly as provocative as its title implies. It's a story about a boy's complicated relationship with his parents, his friend, and religion. And it's a story about a boy's search for meaning.

But I guess my point isn't only that books that aren't offensive get banned just because people assume they are. My point is that regardless of whether or not books are offensive, they shouldn't be censored.  If a parent doesn't want his or her child to read a particular book--that's a discussion for that family.  But to deny access of that book to everyone else--just because it makes you uncomfortable--is unacceptable.  Even un-American.  Because suppression of literature is suppression of thought. Living in a free society means that people are free to say and write things that are sometimes objectionable, and it's not for the government (or anyone else) to decide what is and isn't appropriate for the masses. There are plenty of things out there that I would never read or watch or listen to because I think they're in poor taste, but I'm not going to push for censorship of those things--just as I expect others to do (or not do) the same for me. 

Living in a free society, to me, means that we have the freedom to think and live how we want (so long as it doesn't infringe upon the freedoms of others). It is NOT the freedom to force our own "brand" of freedom on everyone else.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Monday, September 24, 2012

New(ish) Book Review

Edited by Jon Scieszka (Guys Read, The Time Warp Trio) and illustrated by Dan Santat (Time Out Kids, The Replacements), Guys Read:The Sports Pages is the third volume in the Guys Read Library of Great Reading (preceded by Guys Read: Funny Business and Guys Read: Thriller). Like the previous installments, GR:TSP is a collection of works by a number of popular writers for young readers, including Chris Crutcher, Tim Green, Gordan Korman, and Anne Ursu. The pieces are united by a common theme—in this case, sports—but written in a variety of styles.

Anne Ursu’s “Max Swings for the Fences” is an amusing short story about a tennis player who moves to a baseball town and tells a little lie that rapidly spins out of control. Gordan Korman’s “The Trophy” is a fun tale about an elementary basketball team that sets out on a quest to find its stolen championship trophy. Dan Gutman’s “How I Won the World Series” is a clever creative non-fiction piece about favorite teams and sports superstitions.  And both Dustin Brown’s “Against All Odds” and James Brown’s “The Choice” are autobiographical, but Dustin recounts his journey to the NHL in a sort of snap-shot essay (I’m defining that as an essay with various topic headings), while James tells his life in basketball as a narrative.

And for a volume with just ten entries, Scieszka has “covered his bases” well, representing baseball, basketball, football, track, mixed martial arts, and (at least a mention of) tennis. I guess it could have been more inclusive, but the stories told are more important than the sports that serve as their settings. And at any rate, baseball, basketball, football, track, and MMA are probably the most popular sports among boys 8-12, anyway.

Guys Read: The Sports Pages
Edited by Jon Scieszka
Walden Pond Press, 2012
Illustrations by Dan Santat
What I’ve liked most about this series (thus far) is that the writers selected manage to craft intelligent, character-centered stories that demonstrate a meaningful change in their protagonists (while still being fun and interesting and page-turnery).  The stories in this collection are no exception.  Sure, at times, some characters' actions are certainly more in service to plot than to character development, but there are also shining examples of interesting protagonists with complex problems that drive the stories forward.  In Tim Green’s “Find Your Fire,” Jake is confronted with a life-changing situation that actually pits him (and his new selfish, angry motivation) against his best friend. The title character in Anne Ursu’s “Max Swings for the Fences” is 100 percent responsible for the mess he gets himself in, and we squirm uncomfortably along with him as he struggles to clean it up. And in Chris Crutcher’s “Meat Grinder,” we see the impact a single peer in his corner has on young, suffering Mack.

It’s not without its (minor) faults, but the clear language, swift pace, and solid variety in Guys Read: The Sports Pages makes it a perfect pick for boy readers—especially reluctant ones.

Recommended for ages 9+.