Saturday, July 31, 2010

things from my books (5)

One more thing from my book Ghost Medicine, and tomorrow, I'll move on to a different work. This is a hawk feather, which I've also held onto for many years. The boys find it in one of the final scenes in the story, and Troy, who has this unrestrained compulsion to explain things, tries to find meaning in the discovery.

One thing, I think, that is a common idea in my writing (as different as the stories, characters, and voices are) is that my characters frequently, in a very Jungian manner, look for connections in coincidental occurrences that are not obviously related. If that makes sense.

So, in Ghost Medicine, Troy decides that nothing happens in a vacuum, that all events and things are somehow connected in the "universe," even if there are no easy explanations for why events -- good and bad -- take place.

The hawk feather.

Friday, July 30, 2010

things from my books (4)

Please don't let me be misunderstood.

This is tobacco. Some kids call it chew, or dip. The boys in Ghost Medicine like it, too -- this particular brand, which shall be nameless. Some people got a little ticked-off with me about teenage boys using tobacco and drinking alcohol in my first two books. I guess teenagers don't really ever do that kind of stuff in the real world.

One of the kids in In the Path of Falling Objects even smokes pot, but I don't have any joints in my house to take a picture of. I know. What a loser. There are actually writers who don't have weed.

But I don't use tobacco, either. I used to like a good cigar now and then, but haven't had one in years. And when I was a kid, like the boys in Ghost Medicine, I did chew tobacco, but I don't do that any more, either, even though I do have this ancient can of it sitting here from way back when I wrote the book.

And here's a story about tobacco and the book: I was very fortunate to be invited to a meeting of this super-cool book club (called Book 'em Danno) after Ghost Medicine came out. All the members had read the book, and they really go all-out on their meetings: special food, the house was made up like a ranch with all kinds of horse-stuff, and they also had a special display of fresh cans of chewing tobacco, which I very politely declined to test.

But having been a tobacco addict in my youth gave me the ability, I think, to write about it in the book. The funny thing was, however, that writing about it did kind of trigger those old nicotine-soaked receptors in my brain and made me want to do it again. But I don't do it. But don't misunderstand me, it's not like I would completely turn it down under the right circumstances and just the right setting, either.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

things from my books (3)

Here's something from my first book, Ghost Medicine. In that book, Troy wears a flat-rimmed black Stetson that was a gift. Not coincidentally, I've had this hat for many years... since before I started writing that novel.

And, like Troy's Stetson in Ghost Medicine, this one happens to be 4X Beaver, which, in hat language, means it's a pretty decent hat that will last a long time -- maybe forever.

Also, like Troy, I prefer flatter brims. But I haven't worn this one in years, so it's starting to curl a bit. I'll have to get it straightened out this winter, when I may wear it again.

But 4X Beaver also means (sorry animal people) that the felt used for making the hat consists of about 15% Beaver fur and 85% Rabbit fur.

That's just how cowboy hats are made. Used to be, in the old days, that 4X was about the best-quality hat you could get, but those marks meant different things 100 years ago. Now, you can find 100X hats, but you could spend four or five thousand dollars on one, too.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

things from my books (2)

One more thing from my last book, In the Path of Falling Objects, and then I will move on to other "things" tomorrow: This is the wooden skeleton, a Day of the Dead decoration, that Lilly sees on the first page (a kind of disturbing one-page opener) of the book.

And, yes, as described in the book, his arms are freakishly and disproportionately long, but when I saw this guy on a trip through Mexico several years ago, I had to have him. He hangs on the wall in my office. He used to be right over my desk, and I can remember looking at him when I wrote that opening page of the novel a few years back.

Sadly, he only makes that one cameo appearance in the book, never to pop up again.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

things from my books (1)

I'm pretty sure that most novelists do this: that we have "things" from our books that become part of the story. I know nonfiction writers do, but they kind of have to, unless you're writing a book about The Wonderful World of Maggots or something.

I'm just guessing that someone has written a book about maggots, too.

I know nonfiction writers.

They're creepy.

So, anyway, I thought I'd run a few posts with pictures of things that I have that pop up in my books (published and forthcoming -- ooh!), and, yes, I do have "stuff" from all of them, even the ultra-disturbing The Marbury Lens.

So to start things off, here is a picture of a meteorite I have. It's a little smaller than the one Simon finds in my last book, In the Path of Falling Objects, but, like that one, it is an iron meteorite -- my favorite kind. These meteorites are usually melted, burned-up bits from the center of asteroids, and they're generally thought to take over a billion years or so on their journey to the earth.

So, if you didn't know, when In the Path of Falling Objects is honored next fall with an award from the Southern California Children's Literature Council, I'll be wearing this guy around my neck.

Monday, July 26, 2010

plot mapping

I just got back from a five-mile run.

One of the reasons I run every day is that I do not outline when I write. I know, that's a strange justification for running, but it happens to be true.

Maybe it's a consequence of having lived as long as I have, but from time to time I can't help but wonder how different my life would be today if I had made different choices when I had to make decisions about my direction. I definitely am not talking about regret -- I just wonder, sometimes, how different my planet would be if i didn't do some of the things I did, or if I did things I chose not to do.

Since I live up in the mountains, running here is a very quiet and isolated thing. I don't have to worry so much about traffic and crossing streets as I do rattlesnakes and stuff like that. So when I run, I usually map out all the things that will happen if my characters make different choices.

It's kind of like being a good chess player (which I am not) -- seeing not just the move you have to take, but seeing the next three or four moves down the line. So, when I write my books, I suppose that, in reality, I am writing several books at the same time because I'm always plotting out all the things that will happen down the line if my characters choose A over B.

But I never outline.

And I never really know how my books are going to end until I've put enough miles in on the trails.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

messages on sunday

I'm not going to say anything today. I just wanted to share a couple of links to other blogs that are pretty damn good.

The first one is Wandering Librarians, who posted a review of my upcoming November 9 release, The Marbury Lens, while I was out of the country a few days ago. I just saw the post yesterday, but I think the reviewer definitely "gets" the point of the book. Very nice words there.

And the second is an interview I did for a kid named Charlie who writes the blog Boyintree. I've been reading Charlie's blog for a while now. I wish he'd be a bit more prolific with his posts, because he's a very good writer, and I'm not just saying that because he happens to like my book, Ghost Medicine. He has some very intelligent readers who comment there, too.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

run-on fragments

I had a chance this week to answer some questions on my favorite blog by a kid who is a terrific writer and reader of books. I'll naturally link it here and say more about it when or if he runs the stuff.

I enjoyed answering the questions because he asked ones that you never really see on YA blogs. You know, those ten or so questions that every blogger asks every writer and they drive me crazy and make me want to throw my keyboard out the window (and the kids who came over the other day and wanted to see the "magic office" where the writing is done will attest to the fact that I have an abundance of windows there and the drop is a substantial distance). Well... he didn't ask those questions.

But one of the last questions he asked made me think of something else last evening, after I had finished for the day and was satisfied with where I'd left off in my current project (and I'll digress here for just a moment and say that I am a HUGE believer in Hemingway's philosophy that you should stop writing for the day when you're in the middle of something and you're going good).

The question had to do with why I write. Now, I could be all holier-than-thou and talk about the calling or the obligation of the artist, but I think that's a bunch of crap that shouldn't be talked about because it doesn't matter (it's like one of those predictable ten bloggers' questions).

One of the things I like about writing books is this: You know that feeling that you have when you're reading a really good story and you find yourself turning page after page, but you're holding this finite thing in your hands (hopefully, a real, paper, book) and you can actually feel the very end of it under the tips of the fingers in your right (unless you're reading Hebrew) hand?

Well, writing gives you that same in-the-moment rush, but there is no predetermined ending. You have no idea how long the ride will last and what kinds of drops and turns are ahead of you. This is all assuming, of course, that you like what you write; that YOU are your first, most important audience -- and I am convinced that there are plenty of successful writers out there who don't particularly like what they write, but have car payments to make and such.

But that's another topic entirely.

Like run-on sentences.

And fragments.

Friday, July 23, 2010

how it gets said

True story.

So, yesterday, I had a surprise pop-in visit from three former students (all 18-year-old boys on their way off to college and stuff like that) who sat in my living room for a couple hours and talked about teenagers' use of the word fuck.


First of all, they did all agree that the word is relatively meaningless the way that boys commonly use it. As I said, it's not really a word at all. One of them said something that I found really interesting, though, and I will paraphrase it here.

He said that since teenage boys are really discouraged from showing emotions or talking about feelings, they homogenize everything into one universal word -- fuck -- because it can mean anything, it often means nothing, and it doesn't force boys to be specific about things like how they really feel.

Yeah. I know some pretty smart kids.

We also talked about other things that teenagers talk about quite a bit: drugs, sex, drinking, smoking, getting in trouble, going to college -- you know, normal stuff like that.

I'm always willing to listen to kids. I think if you're going to ever try to write books that connect with "Young Adult" (I hate that term) readers, you have to know what they talk about, and, more importantly HOW they talk about those things.

Thanks for the visit, guys.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

having a sense

Attention: This may be a lengthy and convoluted post for reasons that will eventually, hopefully, become clear. It may also contain an expletive or two, but they will be necessary and not gratuitous.

One of the things I like to work on with young writers is the use of dialogue as character development. When kids write, they frequently have a tendency to omit dialogue and just "tell" the story. To get around this with the young writers I coach, I use an exercise that is pretty simple and quick, and can sometimes lead into interesting story arcs.

Here's how it works: As a group, we pick some random object, a place, or a situation. They can be anything at all, and actually, the more ordinary they are, the better (sunglasses, at a frozen yogurt stand, watching someone get a traffic ticket, etc.). Then I have the kids write four lines of dialogue. They don't have to use dialogue tags (not a big fan of them), but they can. To make it even easier, they can even write in script format. In their dialogue exercises, they have to write four lines based on the following three situations:

1. Boy talking to boy.

2. Boy talking to girl.

3. Girl talking to girl.

Okay. That's all.

The reason I mention this exercise has nothing to do with teaching kids how to write, or how to think about dialogue. It's more about what I do, and what my great big giant problem is. I have no problems with 1 and 2 (above), but I can not pull off a number 3. Don't even want to try.

Oh sure, I'll do it for the kids in my class, but it's the big reason why I don't write books with female protagonists. I'm deeply afraid that if I ever did, I would descend into stereotypical presumptions about the need to shop, getting nails done, or talking about how fat (fill in the name blank) looks when she wears that (fill in the article of clothing).

Now I know plenty of writers (male and female) who do absolutely rocking opposite-gender POVs, but not me. I can't do it. Mostly, I think, because I just don't want to do it.

The reason I make this long confession has to do with my forthcoming novel, The Marbury Lens (November 9, Feiwel and Friends), and the personal struggle I had with certain elements in the book. It's why I got a lot of wonderful advice last year from other writers, kids, bloggers, booksellers, and librarians, and ran their essays on this blog.

The thing about Marbury was that to really pull it off, I had to make the "real" parts seem really real (three uses of the root "real" there), so that the scary parts would be especially jarring. So, there are lots of disturbing "issues" with the book (and I'm barely scratching the surface here... I may come back to some of those issues eventually. Or not.).

This is a book where boys (realistically) talk to boys. Sixteen-year-olds, Californians, to be more precise. So I put this out to you as a question (and please don't respond unless you happen to actually BE a teenage boy, preferably in California -- and, by the way, I talked to hundreds of them when writing this book): How frequently, would you estimate, does a sixteen-year-old boy use cusswords when he talks, unobserved, not in the presence of mom, dad, or teacher, to another sixteen-year-old boy?

My research in writing this book pointed to the fact that, to a sixteen-year-old boy (especially when in conversation with another sixteen-year-old boy), the word fuck, in all its forms and conjugations, is not a word at all.

It's a punctuation mark.

Like a comma with balls, I guess.

Now I know there are people out there who are going to say things like you should use a better word. What word is better? And besides, it's not a word to a sixteen-year-old boy. It's a punctuation mark.

People who know me (there are a couple) know I do not cuss when I talk. But, when I write, I write whatever comes out.

I'll continue this discussion of the use of the word fuck tomorrow. Feel free to express your concern, as one reader has, about my being "rife with expletives."

Who uses the word rife, anyway?

You could use a better word than that.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

the way down

Well, before I start writing about writing and stuff again, I thought I'd post some pictures here that we took this past week on our trip to Canada, which does happen to be one of my favorite places on the planet -- right up there with The Prince of Wales, but that's something I'll talk about later.

This is probably one of the most photographed scenes in Canada -- Lake Louise on a perfect morning.

We hiked up to these glaciers. Below them is an area called "The Death Trap" because of frequent avalanches. There were avalanches all afternoon -- they sounded like bombs going off.

A view near the top of the glacier.

The kids at the top. They said this was the scariest thing they ever did in their lives. The final pitch was very steep and dangerous. Here, they were sitting next to a waterfall from one of the melting glaciers.

This gives you an idea of the steepness and the loose rocks beneath us. On the way up to the top.

But this was even a tougher climb -- up above Tower Lake to a place called Rockbound Lake. Not many people make it all the way up there. The last half-mile is nearly vertical. And all I can say about the final destination is Thank God for insect repellent. Also, it's one of the most amazing places you'll ever see.

Going up that last treacherous climb.

One of those perfect mornings. You can see an elk across the river if you look closely.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

weak off

Well, I've been out of the country for a week, but now I am back and working again. I will be starting up the blog tomorrow, Wednesday, with some pictures and a little bit about where I've been and what I'm up to.

See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

another meltdown

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 12

Well, Mr. Smith has had another meltdown about YA. I would tell you what he said to me during his long tirade yesterday, but you know I do not cuss.

Now, I am no longer allowed to use the term "YA" around him at all. It doesn't matter, he has left again. This time, he's out of the country, and he's given me specific instructions about what to do for him on his blog and website.

At first, he wanted me to dissolve them entirely, but he mellowed out just before we put him in the car for the airport.

Anyway, I should be here for a while. And, do not tell anyone, but I may be writing something about that topic which he has forbidden me to mention.

-- Nick S.

Monday, July 12, 2010

growing up

Some people need to grow up.

Not my kids. I asked them a long time ago if they wouldn't mind staying small forever, but they grew up.

Maybe I shouldn't have fed them.

Maybe I shouldn't have let them learn things and get experiences and develop a view of their own.

I think my writing has grown up. I know it has. Because I started writing books for my own son to read... and look at him now, he's six-foot-three.

Damned food.

But I can't keep running around the same track for him. He's growing up. He's a Young Adult. And he's six-foot-three. I think he would beat me up if I wrote a book for him about the last girl to get asked to the dance in junior high school.

And I would deserve it.

I say this because kids do grow up.

Some grownups get stuck, though. Some grownups who'd "discovered" YA way back in the day, and then decided that YA was the greatest thing on earth get stuck running around the same track. They think kids never grow up. They measure all YA against the yardstick of the first YA that really hooked them in -- the one about the lonely girl who's desperate for the cute boy to ask her to her first seventh-grade dance -- and they think that all YA equals exactly that.

That's another thing I hate about YA. The stuck-on-the-treadmill YA readers. You know who they are. They mostly act as fan-peeps for stuck-on-the-treadmill stories that always start off and end up at the same stations.

It makes things easy.

It makes life wonderful.

But kids grow up. Even kids who are only 16 years and 16 days old, like my son. He knows that not everything always works out. He knows that happy endings are passing moments. He knows that some things happen to you and you just aren't going to get over them in 375 pages or 16 years and 16 days. And he wants someone to tell him about those things.

And he's not even grown up yet.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

research on writing

I have been reading some interesting stuff lately about common practices and beliefs in teaching writing in our public schools, and some of the research kind of irks me a bit.

I'm hoping that we are moving into a trend away from all this "holistic" and "natural process" stuff that I really believe has gotten our kids into a heck of a lot of trouble with literacy in the past 30 years or so.

Here's something I came across: One of the principle foundational ideas supporting current practices in writing instruction was expressed by researcher Janet Emig in 1971. Emig studied what professional writers and students in school actually did when they wrote -- the "process" of writing. She emphasized the notion that ideas were more important than correctness. Her study showed (and let me tell you how much I disagree with this) that writers who concentrate on technique when drafting initial copy, do so at the expense of their creative ideas and their writing will suffer as a result.

I think this is kind of interesting in a couple ways. First, it clearly has a lot to do with the nothing-is-wrong-so-feel-good-about-yourself misguided philosophy underlying so much of public education in America in the last several decades.

Second, I just don't buy it. Emig said that "good writers" disregarded notions of accurate technique and correctness, and what she and her followers prescribed became the process that all writers should employ.

Well, that's not how I do it. In my world, ideas, creativity, and technical correctness do not compete for preeminence in the process, and none of those elements are inferior in their necessity. That will mess you up every time.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

or not

I was asked recently to discuss the "best advice" I'd ever received about writing or being a writer.

I have a really hard time deciding on "bests" of anything. I just can't do it. I don't have a "favorite" anything, either. Not color, food, animal, time of year... nothing.

But I could list my top three bits of advice people habitually give about writing that I think are terrible rules to live by... and here they are:

1. "You have to have a thick skin." I've said this before: Having a "thick skin" is exactly the opposite of what makes a writer. Being insensitive, unfeeling, insulated from things going on around you is the perfect step one to being a crappy writer. If, when the great big giant THEY, say that but mean that you have to let rejection and criticism slide off your back, well... that just can't be done. It's nice to think about, I suppose, but every writer feels criticism. There's just no getting around it.

2. “Show, don’t tell.” I think most people who say this don't really know what it means. It's one of those generic criticisms when someone reads something they know is crappy, but they can't precisely say why (or they want to avoid telling the truth). The bottom line is that all writers are storytellers, and, as such, there are going to be passages in any written prose that are more "telling" than "showing." Telling is sometimes absolutely necessary, and something that is pure "show" is going to be a wordless picture book. Don't even try arguing that point, because you'll be wrong. Now, a good writing coach will be able to talk about passages that "show" and those that "tell," and why one may be more effective, at times, than the other. But it's just like the "avoid passive verbs" mantra. Both of them are B.S. "talking points" memorized by hacks.

3. "Don’t quit your day job." Why not? Sometimes, putting yourself out there and experiencing the unpredictability of human beings and day-to-day experiences is something that can't be matched in terms of its ability to help shape a writer. You want to talk about writers who've done exactly that and the work they later produced? We could spend all day. Take a risk. Trust me. Quit your day job. Then tell us about it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

if i ever did

Well, it's Friday, right? Some days, I actually have to think about what day it is. It's been a very good week. Really cool things are happening, which I hope to be able to reveal here soon.

Next week, I'll be leaving the country, too... for a secret, undisclosed location. So, in honor of all that, I thought I'd do something I've never done before, but lots of bloggers do from time to time. I'm going to post a "Summer 2010" playlist of 10 great new music singles -- some of them from people you may have never listened to -- that were released in 2010. Here you go:

1. Go Outside -- Cults
2. Youth -- Beach Fossils
3. What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had To Go This Way) -- Wolf Parade
4. Heaven's On Fire -- The Radio Dept.
5. Chinatown -- Wild Nothing
6. Kings Of Animals -- Small Black
7. Post Acid -- Wavves
8. Pow Pow -- LCD Soundsystem
9. Odessa -- Caribou
10. Leave Everywhere -- Toro Y Moi

That's one hell of a playlist.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

the girls' club

I have author friends who believe that the publishing industry is anti-male, and I disagree with them that there is a gender bias as far as writing is concerned. Now it is true that there are an awful lot of women in the publishing industry -- agents, editors, marketing, and just about every other player you can name, but there's no agenda there -- to me, it's just a reflection of what our schools have subliminally -- and overtly -- told boys for the past 30 years.

In addition to the message that schools are delivering -- that reading is a feminine pursuit (see the Teacher Librarian report), and the way that boys are being "expected" to learn: through cooperation, collaboration, reflecting, and all kinds of other processes that are boy-hostile, there are other factors which predict significant declines in boys' achievement in education and the opportunities that arise from academic skills. I do worry that the decline of reading in the home, male role-models as readers, together with the combined effect of the innate attraction boys have to spatial, competitive, and physical modes of learning may, as Judith Kleinfeld suggests, push boys toward evolving into a social and economic underclass.

The reason boys are not writing as many books as girls is that boys, in general, have bought in to the idea that reading and writing are feminine pastimes. So we have a chicken/egg conundrum here. It's not because the grown-up girls who edit, agent, and publish YA won't let the boys over to play.

Studies by people like Michael Gurian, among others, show that girls enjoy reading books about boys... you know, boy stories... just as much as boys do. But boys don't enjoy reading what they perceive to be "girl stories" very much at all (as a general characteristic of the population).

But if there is a conspiracy afoot at all, it has far less to do with the publishing/writing business than it does with our public schools and the efforts that families need to be making: taking personal responsibility to help their own children -- boys and girls -- succeed.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

on making your bed

The journal Gender and Education (Sept. 2008) conducted a study that measured engagement in Language Arts by examining the differences between 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls in terms of the story elements they gravitated toward. The study showed that, when given the opportunity, boys and girls both wrote about pretty much the same things when crafting their own stories; and, surprisingly to some, that boys were no less likely to be introspective and examine feelings.

If there were any thematic differences in the study, it was that boys were more likely to deviate from their plot or leave an unresolved ending than the girls were, but that neither gender showed more or less effort or length in their work. Both genders wrote about death, but girls were more likely to write about grief. Boys were more likely to write about running away, fighting with enemies, or discovering riches and treasure (which none of the girls wrote about). Most boys wrote stories in third person with male protagonists, and most girls wrote stories in third person with female protagonists.

In other words, we can see that boys have about the same attitude toward reading and writing as girls do, but environmental pressures push boys away from the pursuit.

In 2003, writing in Education Journal, David Taylor examined a pair of studies on boys and writing – what kinds of impediments interfered with boys becoming engaged as writers, and what were some possible routes around these roadblocks.

An overwhelming volume of evidence shows that, by the time they get into high school, boys’ achievement in writing falls behind that of girls. It is an important issue to address, since success in any area of academic curriculum depends on good writing and a developed degree of literacy.

If you’ve had the chance to spend significant amounts of time at different schools, or if you’ve raised more than one child through the school system, you probably have noticed that schools vary immensely in terms of their “cultures.” Simply stated, some high schools are completely opposite one another in terms of the prevailing cultural attitude toward learning. Taylor points out that when schools develop a perceptible anti-learning culture, boys’ peers label academic achievement as being “uncool.” You’ve seen schools like this, I’m sure. They frequently worship as heroes their “winningest” coaches and sports teams, giving an occasional and minute fraction of attention and praise to their scholars or kids who achieve academically or in the arts.

As Taylor points out, boys achieve the most “when the ethos of the school permits them to work hard without appearing uncool.”

Boys work harder when they know they are being closely monitored. Sit in any classroom and you’ll see that, as a predictable trait of the gender, it’s the boys who want to be paid attention to. It's probably one of the biggest reason why, as the New York Times reported very recently, that boys are no longer being admitted to early-grade gifted programs: they act too much like boys. They aren't dumber. It's just schools no longer want to deal with behaviors that are traits of the gender that demonstrate different learning and processing styles. So, girl up, boys.

An interesting study showed how, throughout school, boys’ writing is often less attended to than girls’. This is frequently due to the fact that girls’ handwriting is neater and more easily read, and boys, even in later grades, require much more effort on the part of their teachers to decipher their penmanship; so their work is often discounted on aesthetics rather than content. So they get the message that writing -- their writing -- doesn’t really matter.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

day true

Back in 2005, the journal Teacher Librarian published a fascinating study that covered the spectrum of boys' attitudes toward reading, including why some boys read and others don't, and what can be done to get more boys into books and other forms of literacy. Here are just a few of the report's findings:

• Boys have a good attitude about reading: 45% consider it to be nerdy, 23% think that it is cool. I always though nerdy was cool, so that's a pretty sizable majority.

• Older boys who had lost interest in reading usually think it is no longer relevant to their lives, or, more importantly, not something they can share with their peers. The "sharing" with peers (and family) part plays a significant factor in most of the other data, too, and it's something that keeps coming up in study after study. It's one thing entirely for publishers to throw money and marketing behind name-brand authors who say things like "Boys should read because it's cool!!!" But if you aren't actually doing something about it, well, it just comes off as marketing and promotion. (And before you ask, let me anticipate your next question... and the answer is Yes, I do.)

• Another echo from yesterday's reports: Boys who do read are "more likely to have a father who reads at least sometimes." Um... yeah... that's exactly what I've been trying to tell Generation Dad out there. Remember... the future, the economy... if you don't think reading is going to give your sons a competitive edge, you've completely dropped off the planet. And if you don't care about it, well... you don't care about them.

• Boys who read are powerfully influenced by parental guidance and modeling. Translation: According to the Teacher Librarian study, boys who read tend to be good kids, which may make them "nerdy," but it definitely makes them "cool."

• The biggest difference between boy readers and boy non-readers appears in the proportion of those who have friends and parents who read. (This should probably be bold-faced, so I'll post it again) The biggest difference between boy readers and boy non-readers appears in the proportion of those who have friends and parents who read. Do the math, parents. Add up the information you see listed above. It's not rocket science, but the conclusions you should come to are reality-changing.

• And this one will be a big surprise to teachers and librarians who see “BOY” and point him to a particular stack of books… You know, the nonfiction titles about venomous animals and how to blow things up. In reality, boys and girls enjoy action and adventure, science fiction, and nonfiction similarly -- to the same degree. We have to admit that there are a lot of prejudicial, knee-jerk judgments that teachers and librarians can fall victim to when "summing up" the potential interest areas of their kids. You can't help it, and I'm guilty of it, too. Choice and access are the keys to developing a broad and well-supported base of literacy.

• And, finally, this is a very scary finding from the study: "Home and school see reading as an interest more appropriate for girls than for boys." Home. AND School. Okay. This was an extensive study. Thanks Teacher Librarian for illuminating this conclusion: schools tell boys that reading is for girls.


Monday, July 5, 2010

all when we were young

In the journal Gender Issues (June 2009), Judith Kleinfeld writes,

American boys are suffering serious problems. In education, these center in the areas of far lower literacy, lower school grades, lower engagement in school, higher dropout from school, higher rates of repeating a grade, higher rates of emotional disturbance and learning disabilities and placement in special education, higher rates of suspensions and expulsions, and lower rates of postsecondary enrollment and graduation... Young men are far less prepared than young women to succeed in the current knowledge-based economy, are more likely to suffer from substantial declines in real income, and are far more vulnerable to unemployment in times of economic recession.

That's quite a mess. And the problems start young. One study I looked at examined 5-year-old boys' attitudes toward reading by showing them pictures of kids engaged in all sorts of activities (including reading books). The study found that these emerging readers had already formed definite attitudes toward reading (ranging from hatred... yes, hatred, to enjoyment) that were strongly rooted in earlier experiences (mostly from day-care programs and household/family encounters with reading).

You might guess that the boys who fell more in the negative range frequently had experiences in their home or day-care environments that either did not model reading behaviors at all, or included messages (particularly from older male siblings, fathers, and other adults) that communicated to them that reading was "stupid," a "waste of time," and even "gay," while the boys who had the more positive perception read at home with their families and were able to choose and describe their favorite books (even if they couldn't recall the titles -- they knew what the books were about).

So... Dads... you know what this means, and you know which of those groups of boys mentioned above is headed toward crisis and which is headed toward college -- all at the age of five.

On the one hand, the thought that we have such an influence over kids to predetermine a significant predictor of life success at such an early age is frightening; on the other hand, it means we, as parents, have the opportunity to take the initiative and provide our sons with a set of values and skills that will tremendously affect their future economic and social success.

Because there is nothing our sons will ever be expected to do that they won't do better with higher skills in reading and writing. To sit back and simply observe the decline in literacy for boys as a population is to pave the way for a future in which males will become an economic, academic, and social underclass.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

fourth of july

Happy Independence Day. I'll be back tomorrow.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

the future of america

At the request of some of the audience members at last weekend's ALA Annual Conference, I am going to reprint a "cheat sheet" from some of the things I talked about in my speech (in multiple parts):

In this decade, boys have been referred to as "the new disadvantaged," for a number of reasons: There are plenty of studies that show how boys' reading and writing scores have increasingly declined relative to girls. Boys, compared to girls, are also much more likely to be labeled as "Learning Disabled," disciplinary problems (and significantly higher rates of suicide, too).

It's interesting to consider the nature/nurture perspective about boys and reading -- and why girls are more verbally inclined at an earlier age. A recent study showed that boys are more likely to have their own bedrooms and their own DVD players and computers, compared to girls. I think that's kind of telling in a number of ways.

If boys' achievement scores in reading and writing are declining, and they are reporting less time spent on reading and higher rates of discouragement, what can we do to help bring boys back as readers? Because I know it didn’t used to be this way, and declining scores indicate that we are definitely doing something wrong. I mean, you would think we could at the very least maintain stability in reading and writing levels.

Here are three ideas:

1. The male reader role-model. Studies reported in The Australian Journal of Education (April 2008) showed that boys' perception that reading is a feminine pursuit has a great deal to do with the over-representation of female reading role-models in schools and at home, particularly -- for American boys -- during grade school years, when boys are developing their sense of gender role identity.

Bottom line: we don't have enough guys teaching, especially teaching reading to kids under the age of 13. And we don't have enough DADS reading at home. A 2006 study conducted in the U.S. went on to show that boys at this age also perform and achieve better for same-sex teachers.

Be warned, too, as we see the American economy transforming before our eyes -- shifting away from a labor force that emphasizes brawn, to a smaller, more educated labor force that emphasizes brain -- there's nothing we can do about the shift itself. This phenomenon occurs in economies throughout history as resources and specialization -- the human division of labor -- become geographically confined. Dads, schools, teachers, mentors: we have a responsibility to our sons.

2. The use of technology. This is a perfect time for this. Remember the finding that showed that boys are more likely than girls to have their own computer? In schools, boys identify computers as "their" technology.

Dads with teenage sons and daughters (like me) know this is true.

Here's what studies regarding technology have shown:

  • Boys have a more positive attitude toward computers than girls, and their comprehension scores improve when reading stories from a computer as compared to reading stories from a book. (okay, that one kind of scares me).

  • Boys are three times more likely than girls to attend summer computer camps, and they view computers as being innately "male." Some educational theorists suggest that the consistent findings that boys' literacy scores improve with the use of technology makes boys "differently literate" from girls.
Think about what it means to be "differently literate."

And then, go get your kid an iPad and download some Macmillan books for your son to read.

3. What boys say they like. A study in the journal The Reading Teacher (November 2009) points out the sad truths about the global crisis as far as reading and boys are concerned, but went on to look at what boys "like" when it came to books.

First of all, I can't understate the importance of choice when it comes to encouraging boys to read. Boys need choice. Too many schools, as one study points out, actually discourage boys from reading by doing things like limiting the number of book reports they can do on certain genres of fiction, or making them choose titles from limited lists.

Here's what the boys in the study said they liked:

• Books that "looked good." Yep, boys liked books with cool covers. As a matter of fact, just a day after returning from ALA, I received an email from a boy whose parents brought home a stack of books from the conference. He told me that he chose to read The Marbury Lens first because of how much the cover grabbed his attention (He also said he loved the book).

• Boys like series books, or preferred to stick with a particular author (Star Wars books -- this was one of the titles mentioned where a boy was told he could only do two book reports -- so he quit reading).

• Boys like following a character through a number of situations, even over the course of years for series books. Boys said they preferred characters who weren't depicted as perfect, but had flaws.

• Boys respond positively to book discussions when they establish partnerships with other boy readers. Particularly, they like to respond to the question, "What do boys like to read?"

And... parents of boys, librarians, and teachers of boy readers really enjoyed taking part in this conversation.

Friday, July 2, 2010


This month is going to be busy in a very positive way.

First, I am really, truly, working again on another project. Although I'd started a couple things about two months ago, I decided to make myself stop working on them because I'd been going through this period of intense nothing-matters self-loathing.

Anyway, I know when I'm really, truly, working on something new because my desk gets really messy and I keep stacks of scrawled notes (in code) in red pen. I never leave notes lying around that anyone can understand except for me -- my notes use numbers, letters, and lots of Xs, and only I can understand them.

When I travel, I keep the same codes on Post-It notes stuck to the inside of my laptop.

Also, this month I am supposed to be getting my editorial letter for Stick -- my next book, due out in 2011, and to say that I am looking forward to getting back to work on that novel would be a colossal understatement. I really love that book.

And, there are some more exciting things happening with my November release, The Marbury Lens, that I'll be talking about here in a couple of weeks.

July has always been my favorite month for work.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

being the bad guy

All stories have bad guys. Well, antagonists don't necessarily have to be "guys." But I like my antagonists, because they provide some of the best, most escapist, refreshing diversion when slogging through the work of writing.

Like good guys, I think bad guys are also part of the internal psychology of the author. Some writers may bristle at that thought, and maybe that's why some authors choose to make their bad guys totally over-the-top in terms of their behavior; and totally shallow in terms of their personalities. That's a kind of defense mechanism, I think, because some writers write as though making their bad guys have identifiable human qualities will be personally compromising to the author.

I think the baddest bad guy I've ever made up was Chase, in Ghost Medicine. Chase is soulless, and he doesn't care about anything at all. I'll be honest that I kind of feel sorry for Mitch, from In the Path of Falling Objects, because, although he is very cruel, he has moments of compassion and we all know that he's genuinely ill. In fact, I've received a lot of comments from readers of that book telling me how strongly they identify with many of Mitch's quirks. And the bad guys in The Marbury Lens are a little more subtle, too, because most of the characters act as bad guys at times. Jack is frequently his own worst enemy, and even his best friend, Conner, betrays him at one point. And then there's Freddie -- a really nice guy, model citizen, good Samaritan -- on the outside, at least.

I was just thinking about this today because I've read recent efforts at novels where the bad guys are so disappointingly shallow and unconvincing, and I happen to be writing a new bad guy at the moment, who is one ton of fun.