Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Making It As a Modern Male: YA Novels and the Teen Boy

Many social commentators have lamented the "lost" generation of American boys, growing up in a time in which girls have garnered a lot of attention in the public mind. Although teenage boys are considered a hard sell for fiction writers, guys probably stand in greater need of the vicarious experience offered in novels than do girls, since boys often find their life experience in riskier behaviors and since they are thought to be less comfortable with sharing personal events and feelings with each other.

Despite a resistant market, novelists are drawn to go where angels fear to tread. In this post and in others that follow, I will feature some remarkable young adult novels (roughly for ages 13-17) which show modern teenaged males coping with their own coming of age.

For anyone for whom, in the words of the main character Tom Henderson (alias “Chi-Mo,”) “life is (or has ever been) a “wince-a-thon”, Frank Portman's King Dork will bring it all back–and possibly make navigating high school a bit more meaningful-in real time or in retrospect.

Tom is a skinny, awkward sophomore with only one ally, Sam Hellerman, who becomes his friend in elementary school mainly because of that law of nature, alphabetical order. The main plot line turns on Tom and Sam’s dream of becoming rock stars and attracting hot girls, a quest which is frustrated by their obvious dorkiness, the outright physical and psychological bullying of their “normal” classmates, their generally useless parents and school, and, chiefly, their lack of instruments and the ability to play a note. Undaunted, Tom daily dreams up names and album titles for once and future bands, while Sam uses his considerable intellect to make things happen in real time.

The secondary plot line involves Tom’s search for the cause of his father’s death (suicide vs. murder), beginning with his dad's cryptic codes and code keys scribbled in those bibles of 1970's adolescent angst – Siddartha, A Separate Peace, and, of course, A Catcher in the Rye. Tom intuits that the key to his search lies in a encrypted note from an friend of his father who calls himself “tit.” The working out of this mystery and the uncovering of Sam’s machinations, along with Tom’s first sexual encounters with the illusory “Fiona” and her doppelganger Deanna Schumacher, round out the action in this up-to-the-moment bildungsroman.

Like that more notorious coming-of-age hero, Harry Potter, Tom is a sympathetic stranger in a strange land whose basic sweetness protects him from the sheer meanness of the “normals” and the depraved administration at Hillmont High. Tom and his trusty sidekick Sam manage to put together a band and get a gig at the Hillmont “Festival of Light” (a.k.a. Battle of the Bands). Wielding their hard-won guitars like wands, Tom and Sam manage to overcome the Death Eaters, (in the persons of bully Matt Lynch and the Vice-Principal Mr. Teone, the two-faced Voldemort of this piece) with Tom’s incantation of “We’re the Chi-Mos!”, the last and most transforming of his band names. (Read the whole thing to find out how!)

King Dork is a mystifying, moving, appalling, thought-provoking, sometimes convoluted, funny, and utterly absorbing novel for a reader at any stage of maturation. After all, as long as we live we’re still coming of age, and life remains a bit of a “wince-a-thon” for us all.

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  • "since boys ... are thought to be less comfortable with sharing personal events and feelings with each other"

    This way of thinking is based on a misunderstanding.

    Once when I was in graduate school I was having lunch with two women. We were talking about the usual trivia of life. One of the women made a comment similar to the one quoted above. A minute later the conversation ran on to the subject of one of the professors in our department and his girlfriend. One of the women mentioned that the girlfriend often made her feel uncomfortable by telling her very personal and private information about the professor.

    To me it was obvious that there was a relationship between these two topics of conversation, but this somehow escapted my lunch companions:

    1) Males are careful about giving personal information to some people.

    2) Some people blab all the personal information they have about other people all over town.

    So now that this situation has been explained we can stop incorrectly stereotyping and judging males for reasonably keeping private information from becoming public.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:59 PM  

  • Amen...

    The majority of Men are still respest privacy to some degree. That is fading among women.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:11 PM  

  • Some recommendations for slightly younger boys:

    The Deltora Quest series by Emily Rodda

    The Gregor the Overlander Series by Suzanne Collins

    Both the above were written by women who don't belittle the male characters, and still feature strong female characters too. My XY and XX kids love both series.

    The Bartimeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud is great, and is at a higher reading level than those first two.

    Other kids' fantasy series I have picked up contain too much sex for my kids' ages.

    Scott O'Dell's The King's Fifth is great too (oldie but goodie I guess).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:48 PM  

  • Yes, good point. My first girlfriend (when I was young and stupid. Now I am just stupid.) would keep blabbing tons of personal details about her exes. I was too stupid to realize that once she and I broke up, she would end up blabbing tons of personal details about me to the whole world. Ack!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:03 PM  

  • The Mad Scientists Club collections from the '60s have been revived. 2 previously unpublished full length novels have been found and released postumously - The Big Kerplop and The Big Chunk of Ice.

    My 11 yo boy loves them. One amusing thing - much of the gadgetry described in the book was Bondish sci-fi when they were written. Now, they can be bought on Amazon.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:46 PM  

  • First off, all my generalities are just that, generalities, with lots of exceptions. And my perspective is as a male, in my late 50's.

    Anonymous 3:59 seems to assume an intellectual line of thought that (I don't think) is primary in a boy's mindset. Yes, males are more careful about sharing personal information, but I think it is more innate than intellectually deliberate.

    Women (I am, of course, speaking of that which I do not understand) seem to have a great deal of interest in, and spend a great deal of time in talking with their friends about their feelings, and hashing out emotional issues and situations.

    Many men don't. When men deal with other men as friends we don't talk about such things. We work together ("Help me cut this tree down"), we fix things and solve problems together ("What's wrong with this car?"), we "do things" together ("Let's go bowling."). There is little overt sharing of private feelings, much less trying to define and understand them. When such feelings are (rarely) shared it is considered a serious breaking of a trust to spread it around.

    Can men gossip? Of course, but it is not about how someone felt in some situation, or what some behavior meant. Most such "men gossip" contains the words "What a dumbass."

    Some books, incidentally, that are big favorites with boy teens (according to a friend who works with 'em professionally):

    Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
    Skellig by David Almond
    The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (yeah, it is written by a woman (and that is noticed by boys) and has a strong female character too, but it is a good book)
    Loser by Jerry Spinelli
    Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:20 PM  

  • Dear "anonymous,"
    Please notice that in the line you quoted, I used the qualifier (you might call it a weasel-word) "thought" in the statement you quote. I'm not saying all boys are unwilling to talk about themselves. It is likely that some boys are less likely to reveal their feelings to their friends, and they may see something of themselves in this character, which would be valuable vicarious experience. I'm not advocating blabbing everything to anyone!

    By Blogger GTC, at 9:21 PM  

  • I'd like to make a negative recommendation if it's all right.

    I was a boy that loved reading until the 6th grade. At that age I was reading relatively complex books - everything ever written by Tolkien, White and Heinlein. I read Fitzgerald, HG Wells, Steinbeck, Updike - I can't begin to list them. I'd read a couple of books a week for fun, in addition to whatever school work I had.

    Then I had a 6th grade "reading class" where we had to read the complete works of SE Hinton. That was then, This is now, Rumble Fish, Tex and The Outsiders. After that I didn't read for recreation until I was out of college.

    Whatever the recommendation, if your kid doesn't like that particular author or book - don't force it on him.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:24 AM  

  • To "anonymous" 3:24 A.M.,
    Amen to that! Outside the occasional required novel study, I agree wholeheartedly. (I feel that the whole reason for having libraries in the first place is to offer freedom of choice.) There's a place for a guided novel study to discuss the structure (plot, setting, theme, etc.) of a the novel per se, but there should be a wide range of types of novels even there. I'm glad your bad experience didn't ruin reading for life!
    Thanks for your comment,

    By Blogger GTC, at 4:53 PM  

  • I forget where I heard or read it, but the following observation rings true to me... women bond with each other face to face, talking things out: men bond with each other shoulder to shoulder, tackling some challenge together.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:31 AM  

  • In re-reading the comments of the various anonymous writers (3:59, 4:11, 6:03, 9:20, and 12:31), I'm reminded of the old saw "All generalizations are false, including this one." Except for "anonymous 3:59," the rest of you seem to agree that men talk about their problems less than women do, but that's no proof that conclusion is correct either.
    Interestingly, among the three male teen novels I've just written about, the one written by a man (KING DORK) has a male character who emotes more than the two by women authors, whose characters don't communicate enough for their own good!

    Does this mean women authors perpetuate the myth that men don't talk about emotional issues? (I know that three novels isn't a fair sample; I know that Shakespeare wrote a lot of emo dialogue.) But this is an interesting ongoing question. All of us have only two sources of data on this: what we experience personally and what we experience vicariously (hearsay and literature, mainly).
    Any thoughts?

    By Blogger GTC, at 9:01 AM  

  • I teach Children's Literature, and one thing I stress to my students is to have a personal classroom library and let the kids pick something to read that THEY want to read. I know another teacher who stresses that children need to read "quality literature" and I agree. But you have to catch them first.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:48 AM  

  • I agree mostly with you on the question of free reading vs. only reading "quality literature." I sank to the level of buying comic books for my second son between first and second grade just to make sure that he actually read something during the summer. Once you learn the basic decoding skills, it just takes practice, practice, practice to read fluently, and you can't read "quality" until you can read easily and with comprehension.

    Secondly, teachers can mix "quality" (subjective term anyway) with popular books and let nature takes its course. Read the good stuff aloud and use student recommendations to snare the reluctant readers.

    Finally, I don't want my public librarians following me around and saying "No, no, no more Spenser novels for you. Read War and Peace! Read Stephen Hawking! It's good for you!" Yeah, yeah, I know, but some reading should be fun! Geez!

    By Blogger GTC, at 10:52 AM  

  • (reply from anon 3:24)

    I actually had the opposite problem. I loved Stephen Hawking. I was getting deep into GB Shaw, Tom Stoppard and Eugene O'Neill.

    The problem was a well meaning teacher that wanted to give us books that we poor, confused adolesents could "relate" to. After the first (awful) Hinton book I begged to be assigned ANYTHING else - I even suggested War and Peace, thinking it's sheer size would impress the teacher. But no, we had to read about PonyBoy and his awful life.

    After years away from recreational reading, I was in an MBA program when I picked up the first Harry Potter book. It brought me back. I'd spent 20 years thinking popular novels were all about how awful life was.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:44 AM  

  • Well, anonymous, you were "unfortunate" enough to come into reading during the "problem novel" phase of children's literature, where there was a good bit of writing about "how awful life is" in the best books. I feel that there were some great books written in that genre, but I was an adult librarian when I read those books, so they probably hit me differently. And, I must say, O'Neill and Tolstoy talk about how awful life is, too, so that probably wasn't what you didn't like about the Hinton books.
    It looks like the compulsory aspect of the reading was the problem. Your teacher should have had you read "The Outsiders," write a critique of her style, theme, or whatever you hated about them, and then move on to another author of your choice.
    I know how you feel, though. I had an eighth-grade teacher that I still hold a grudge against. Her methods managed to teach me a lot, but the psychological pressure turned me off and filled me with fear of learning!!
    Oh, well--open hearts, open minds!

    By Blogger GTC, at 8:24 AM  

  • As a boy from 5th grade through high school, I loved to read coming of age type novels with male characters who were working through real-life issues. It is disheartening to see that the publishing industry is so seemingly one-sided on the issue of it being a hard-sell to have young adult novels with male protagonists.

    I have just written a young adult mystery/suspense novel with a male teen of 18 years and am continuously told that they don't feel they could pitch it to a publisher, however, if I could change the character to a female they might consider it... because girl read books and teenage boys don't!

    Does you know of any agents that would embrace a good solid novel with a teenage male protagonist?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:52 PM  

  • King Dork is a great book that any teen can relate to and enjoy. Frank Portman really knows how a teen's mind work.

    By Anonymous, at 9:25 PM  

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