Monday, September 24, 2012

Show Me How to Live: Guest blogger Eric Devine talks YA Lit with the boys in his class

Today, ya author of Tap Out and high school teacher Eric Devine presents a guest post on getting boys to read.  As you know, trying to turn teenage boys into readers can be a challenge.  So Eric sat down with the boys in his class and asked them what they wanted in the books that they read.  Here is that discussion.

Show Me How to Live

As a YA fiction writer, I write books that I hope teenage boys will read. As a high school English teacher, I try to foster readership for all my students. Based on my conversation with a mostly white, middle class group of sophomore boys, and my own inclinations as a writer and educator, I may be striving for the impossible.

The Questions

I asked my aforementioned boys the following:

1.     What do you like about Young Adult literature?

2.     What do you dislike about Young Adult literature?

3.     Do you read YA for pleasure? If so, why? If not, why?

 First off, the boys had a difficult time defining “Young Adult literature”. I narrowed the field to stories about anyone 14 to 17 years old. One of the girls said, “Like Hunger Games? Or Twilight?” I affirmed her response and that got the ball rolling. Sort of.

The Likes:

Excitement

Action

Violence

Zombies

Sci-Fi

Superheroes

Individuals with power (supernatural or otherwise)

Apocalypse

Romance (a small minority)

This makes sense to me. Boys are drawn to action and adventure, either by design or by upbringing. Even the most sensitive male teen will fall into a story that is fast-paced. I have also seen that boys like violence, especially in the form of vengeance by one of the powerful or superhero characters. This, to me, speaks of their comfort with the universal black and white, good versus evil archetype. They don’t see this violence as excessive or unnecessary. It’s part of the world when evil exists. More on this later. I can also appreciate the inclination toward the supernatural and Sci-Fi, because such genres are of “other” places, where events occur outside the realm of possibility, and are, therefore, not threatening, because they’re not about “real life”.

The Dislikes:

Events are not handled as they would be in real life

The characters act too immature

The time it takes to read

The title “Young Adult” itself

I was surprised by these answers to a degree. I’ve long seen boys choose video games over books, but the idea that conflicts and characters were not demonstrative of how life is was unnerving. And the last comment, the label, was something I had never considered. According to one boy, “Why would I want to be seen checking out a book for a young adult. I want to read adult things?”

 

 Why/Why Not?

The time it takes

More enjoyable to watch a movie than to read a book

Simply, “I do not read.”

There was nothing shocking here. Boys will be blunt. Reading is not their thing. It’s for girls. They have better ways to spend their time.

 My Conclusions

I already knew as a teacher that I’m in a staggering uphill battle. Therefore, this conversation only confirmed that I must continue to show the merit of reading and practice what I preach. Talk books, garner interest, bring them to the library.

As a writer I cannot shy away from the reluctance. I must use it as a challenge, which I’ve already done with Tap Out. I wrote a novel that meets all of the requirements on the “like” list, while refusing to succumb to a shallow representation of the good versus evil motif. I demonstrated that life is gray, muddled, and that who is good and just isn’t always clear. There aren’t always untarnished protagonists, who in the end are victorious.

And that act and this conversation have brought me to one conclusion: Boys want to be shown how to live.

I mean this in both the literal and figurative sense. Boys will read. They will read non-fiction, especially sports and military related stories. There’s comfort there, and no stigma. Same with the superheroes and supernatural, because really, aren’t our sports stars and military heroes the template for such? Or vice versa?

Boys want manuals for life, stories about how to get from A to B, and not with the safety nets that are sometimes present in YA, because they know they will never exist for them in the real world. Boys want to walk away from a story with a lesson that is valuable for what they deem is important in life. And by the “like” list we can see that they need some guidance.

If we follow my logic, they don’t like violence inherently, they read about it to avoid the scrape, or possibly to learn how to kick ass if the time comes. That’s not an endorsement, but a reality. Boys get this. They also want to see themselves in mythical status, the superhero of their story. And why shouldn’t they? That’s how you build confidence, which so many of my boys lack, or fail to present in any way beyond cockiness. Boys also seem to understand that the villain also sees himself as the hero of his own story, and that whoever has the most power dictates which narrative unfolds. Frightening, but true in a world of social media, instant rumor mill and the pervasive bully, who now lurks in corners, hangs out in the open, and strikes from all angles.

I believe the zombies and romance elements are rooted in the same concern: love. This is a giant untouchable for boys. They don’t talk about love. They don’t talk about feelings much, period (at least in a class). Men don’t either. Not stereotypically or theoretically, but in the majority. So why should boys buck the trend? Because they’re still naive enough, still hopeful enough, and still vulnerable enough to learn.

Zombies are the manifestation of death of the human spirit. They exist, but have no emotion, just pure desire for the ultimate taboo. Romance is on the other end of the spectrum, the pining, the swooning, the tears—all of which gets made fun of during Romeo and Juliet, but in reality hits home when it’s delivered correctly in YA. Boys stumble, are inarticulate, are overwhelmed by hormones. They need a character to be there, too, but somehow still manage to go out with the girl. Not because possession of the girl is the goal, but love is. Feeling. Not being a zombie.

Teachers, find stories that address the criteria of the “like” list for your boys. Ignore the dislikes. Enough good reading and they may forget they disliked books in the first place. Read with them. Talk to them about what they’re reading. Encourage. We have enough non-readers as is, and as Twain said, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

Writers, be brave, and if writing for boys, just go for it. Don’t be afraid to be politically correct or feel compelled to follow some stock template for your protagonist. Believe that you are filling a fundamental need, and that is to teach our youth something vital. That’s what storytelling is all about, anyway. Your characters should be flawed and genuine, and if you care enough to bring them through conflicts that alter their perceptions, challenge their biases and beliefs, stretch their mettle beyond what they assume reasonable, guess what? You’ll have done the same for our boys. You will have shown them how to live. For that, we can all thank you.
 
 Eric Devine is a teacher and author of the new young adult novel Tap Out, published by Running Press Kids.  You can read more about it at his webpage or at Goodreads.  Tap Out is the contemporary story of 17-year-old Tony, growing up in a trailer park where a string of abusive men come in and out of his and his mother's life.  Tony may have found a way out when he joins a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) class, but there are so many elements - including local gangs - that can be hard to escape in the neighborhood.  The Mr. read Tap Out and gave it a thumbs up.  It is gritty and raw and real, but so our the lives that some of our teens are living.  The language can be rough, but it reflects the environment that Tony is growing up in.  For some teens, they will see themselves reflected in this book.  For others, they will get a glimpse into a life that can't imagine but is sadly all to real for some of our teenage boys.  Tap Out by Eric Devine is in stores now (ISBN 9780762445691).
 
 

4 comments:

  1. "Your characters should be flawed and genuine." Yes, yes, yes!!

    I think if my husband (much older than a teen--heh) would have read books that focused on that as a kid, he'd be a bigger reader today.

    Great post!

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  2. Wow a great post about a young teen who's trying to read. And plus I also read a essay about a young teen named Anthony Tuner called "What's Worng with Reading?"

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  3. Great post!

    A lot seems to hinge on this line:

    "Boys want to be shown how to live."

    We wonder if (starting at a young age) kids were exposed to the idea of heroes and heroines who were more bookish, they would be more engaged and comfortable with the idea of that for themselves.

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  4. Bethany, Telia and S.I.S.K.,
    Great points, and thanks for taking the time to read. I think the characters need to be as real as possible or teens just won't relate. And who can blame them? We as adults do the same. However, for teens this creation amounts to quite a balancing act when trying to develop an important theme, yet keep the audience engaged. But that's our job as writers.

    And I think the title speaks to it all. Don't we all read to vicariously learn something, whether to reinforce a belief or to shed new light on it? Teens aren't savvy enough to know that's what they want, but the desire is still there. I think there's validity in characters that make reading chic, but it is also teachers and librarians and parents and aunts and unless that need to lead teens by the hand and say, "Hey, check this out. Read one chapter. Who knows?"

    Eric Devine

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