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Careening with our youth culture: the daring nature of Dare Me (a guest post by Eric Devine and GIVEAWAY)

I spent a lot of time as a teenager risking my life. And not in some symbolic sense. I put myself in harm’s way on so many occasions that when I tell stories of my youth, someone always says, “I cannot believe you’re still alive.”

Neither can I. And I blame the Internet.
Really, the lack of it. When I was a senior in high school (’96) our library got its first computer with Internet. At home, the same happened. But in its infancy, PCs with Internet connection weren’t that alluring, so I had to find entertainment elsewhere.
The problems my friends and I faced were classic: boundless energy, lack of supervision, devil-may-care attitudes and “stupid creativity”. I use that term because had we channeled our energy into anything positive, who knows what we could have achieved? Instead, we were all fortunate to simply maintain our lives, but not without scars and not without stories.
Like the one time we jumped off the ledges at this local abandoned quarry:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYDhnOnA_s8 (this is not us, but the location).
My friend jumped, but for some reason believed in cartoon physics–that if she just stepped back she’d defy gravity. Instead, she belly flopped from that height, came up, gasped for air, and went right back under.
I was a lifeguard, so I swam under and rescued her, dragging her to the ledge where she vomited a gallon of water.
We kept jumping.

And that is one of the tamest events on my resume.
These times provided me–to a degree–the psychological backdrop for my characters within Dare Me. I was once young and invincible, but I also wanted to push the limit, to eradicate the fear every teenager has. I failed and I succeeded. Fear is intrepid like that.
Today, my students have these same stories, but they also have the Internet. For them the same problems as my friends apply, but now they have guidance on their stupidly creative endeavors. It comes in the form of Jackass (and all the offshoots like it), as well as Tosh.O (and all the impersonators) and viral videos of teenagers doing what we’ve come to accept as “teenage” things.
Except they’re not. I was fueled by death-defying stupidity and a lot of these kids are as well, but in addition is a desire for fame or infamy, whichever brings in the most money. I believe that is a trickle-down effect of youth chasing the goals of adults.
However, if I possessed a smartphone and YouTube then, the chances of you having seen me injured, or worse, are pretty high. Because when money is a real potential, your audience is vast and they chime in looking for more–albeit from the comfort of the keyboard–something in the teen brain screams, “All right, let’s do this!” I would have been no exception.
This is why Dare Me moves away form being solely a story about “teens doing stupid dares, which they post online” to a commentary about how our youth have become pawns in this culture that seeks entertainment at whatever the cost.
When I first envisioned Dare Me, the bulk was about the dares. Which ones should I choose? Would they be intense enough? Would someone copy them?
I then moved into wondering about the implications of such a story. What message was I going to send? Certainly I wasn’t intending to offer a pass for such behavior, but how to express that without preaching, without being a hypocrite? That became the real challenge.
It’s one I believe I have executed. As a reader wrote to me, “This story is analogous to a fireworks display that builds to a grand finale, but leaves you in suspense as to the aftermath.” It is in that aftermath, as is so often the case when dares go wrong, that the lesson is learned. No one needs to come onstage and say anything, the consequences are so evident.
That is the purpose of Dare Me, to provide a safe, voyeuristic look into the lives of teens who are willing to risk it all, not only to watch them do so, but to examine why, and at what cost. Because there is always a cost, and often it far outweighs the sought after gain. Which is why the dedication for my novel is as follows:
For those with the will to dare and the courage to accept the consequences
I’ve accepted what I have done and respect whatever force has kept me here, if only so I can continue to exist with the frame of mind: that could be me, and to then tell the story, so the brutality of firsthand knowledge isn’t a requirement of learning.
P.S. This is the bridge high above the waters within the quarry. A glance at my cover should be enough to connect the dots, but reading the second dare within Dare Me will solidify it.
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 by Eric Devine is in stores now.  Dare Me will be released in October of 2013, also by Running Press Teens.  Eric Devine is also the author of one of my favorite guest posts where he discusses boys and reading
Dare Me on Goodreads: “When Ben Candido and his friends, Ricky and John, decide to post a YouTube video of themselves surfing on top of a car, they finally feel like the somebodies they are meant to be instead of the social nobodies that they are. Overnight, the video becomes the talk of the school, and the boys are sure that their self-appointed senior year of dares will live in infamy. Every dare brings an increased risk of bodily harm, but Ben cannot deny the thrill and sense of swagger that come with it. The stakes become even more complex when a mysterious donor bankrolls their dares in exchange for a cut in the online revenue the videos generate. But at what point do the risk and the reward come at too high of a price? What does it take to stay true to one’s self in the face of relentless pressure.”

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?”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0gQNxQ4kjw] 

 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).