February 19th, 2008

Hey! Isn't that Andy Sherrod?

Lots of parents, scientists, educators and librarians, not to mention publishers, are concerned about boy’s falling interest in books and reading. For the last couple of years Jon Scieszka has promoted books for boys at guysread.com but that site focuses on the consumer end of things rather than the act of producing boy friendly books. Until recently writers and students of children’s literature hadn’t tackled the creation of books for boys in a systematic way.
 Anyone who knows me knows I believe the Vermont College Writing for Children and Young Adults program 

is the center of the universe as far as training top children’s writers, and studying issues related to children’s writing in a scholarly but dynamic way. 

Lately some writers at Vermont College have focused very keenly on boys and books. Fourth semester student Andy Sherrod wrote a fine critical thesis on boy’s “aliteracy” or disinterest in reading. Naturally, when I considered the special issues involved in books for boys I invited Andy to come talk to us.

Here's Andy now...

Andy, tell us a bit about yourself and what brought about your interest in boys, books and reading.
I grew up aliterate. That is, I knew how to read I just didn’t find the time, or take the time, to pick up books and read them on my own on a regular basis. 
Oddly enough, I began writing novels in 1999, (that’s another story entirely) and realized that all my protagonists were middle grade boys. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. 
Although I didn’t read much as a boy, I do remember My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. My Side of the Mountain
 It was my favorite book in the whole world, that is until I read Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet about five years ago. Paulsen whisked me away to the North Woods and I lived the adventure right along with Brian. 
I said, “I want to write like that.” So I enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing For Children and Young Adults. It remains to be seen whether I can whisk readers away like Paulsen, but that’s my goal. So I guess I have sort of a soft spot for middle grade boys who haven’t yet discovered the wonder of books.

Interesting... I remember being blown away by My Side of the Mountain too. I hadn't thought about that book for years, but now that you mention it,  I think it influenced my writing in a big way. It was a school assignment and as a girl reader I probably never would have picked it up on my own...but that's another topic. 
Back to boys and books. 
Is it true that there's such a thing as a "boy book"? If so, what does it look like?
There are indeed “boy books”. This is not to say that girls don’t read them. They do. But where a girl will gladly read a so called “boy book”, a boy will not necessarily be attracted to a “girl book”. 
Some believe that a boy book is one with a lot of crude humor involving bodily noises and non-stop action. Yes, boys are attracted to books like that, but there is a much deeper common thread. 
To greatly oversimplify, the key is in the conflict. It is true; a story isn’t a story unless there is conflict. But boys are more interested in stories where the conflict is external and focuses on a quest whereas girls are attracted to stories where the conflict is internal and focuses on the characters’ relationships. 
This would be a good time to point out that such conclusions about boys and their reading preferences hold true for the majority of boys. All of us can cite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but as a general rule, boys shy away from introspective stories.

We often hear that boys won't read books with a female protagonist. Is this true? If so, why? Are there exceptions?
A cursory evaluation of the research data indicates that, for the most part, boys are attracted to stories with male protagonists. However, upon closer examination, it is not the gender of the main character per se that attracts boys’ interest. The attraction between male reader and protagonist is more a function of how the protagonist acts and reacts to situations in the story. As long as the protagonist acts in ways typically associated with male behavior, boys will be attracted to them whether they are male or female. 
A good example is Richard Peck’s A Long Way From Chicago and the sequel, A Year Down Yonder. Even though the point of view character is a young boy, the main character is, without a doubt, Grandma Dowdel. She is a real boy’s kind of grandma. Also, Here Lies the Librarian, by Peck, has a fourteen year old female protagonist, but the reader does not learn this until the end of chapter two. By that time, the reader is attracted to Peewee, Eleanor McGrath, and willing to buy in to the story because Peewee is very much a tomboy. 
On the other hand, in Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers, eighteen year old male protagonist, Aquila “drove his face down into his forearm against the whippy roughness of the brushwood bundles, and cried as he had never cried before and would never cry again.” Shortly after that Aquila is said to be “spent and empty as though he had cried his heart away.”  
Any boy reading that would think, “how embarrassing,” and I would agree. Yet, Sutcliff does an admirable job portraying her gladiator protagonist in The Mark of the Horse Lord. So yes, boys are attracted to male protagonists because most of them act like boys, but girl protagonists get a fair shake, as long as they are somewhat tomboyish.

Will boys read books written by women authors? (We all know the story of Jo Rowling changing her pen name to J. K. to attract boy readers.) What does a woman writer (or a man, for that matter) need to consider when writing for boys?
I do not believe that young readers choose books based upon the gender of the author. So the answer to your question is an emphatic, “yes”. Boys will read books written by women if the protagonist is someone the boys can relate to. 
Taking Sutcliff’s, The Lantern Bearers as an example, Aquila is portrayed in a physically masculine way. He is a muscular military man fighting the Vikings who invade England. But Sutcliff misses the boat when she portrays Aquila’s feelings in a feminine manner. 
Not that boys lack feelings. They have deep feelings, but the portrayal of them is critical. J.R.R. Tolkien hits the mark in Lord Of The Rings. There are many close male relationships that don’t come off feminine. Frodo and Sam’s friendship is portrayed in an intimate yet masculine way. Legolas the elf and Gemli the dwarf develop a deep friendship but in each case, the feelings of the protagonists are inferred by the reader rather than the reader being told outright as Sutcliff has done in The Lantern Bearers. Two other books worth studying are Michele Torrey’s Voyage of Midnight and Voyage of Plunder. She has portrayed a boy protagonist in a very believable fashion.
This is great stuff, Andy! Fabulous depth and so many good reading suggestions. Action plot, conflict…hmmm. And portraying boy’s emotions in an authentic way is tricky, but obviously something a writer must get right. 
This gives me lots to think about.
Let’s continue our conversation tomorrow, with more tips for those of us writing for boys, and some predictions for the future of boys and reading.

Thanks for dropping by the Tollbooth!

By the way, Andy will be hanging around the ‘booth this week. If you have any questions for him write them in the comments below and I’ll be sure he sees them.