April 2007

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Stories for Boys

There are literally hundreds of YA books published every year for helping teenage girls navigate the twisty landscape of growing up. These titles tackle dating and sexuality, relationships with parents and friends, and the all-important problem of not quite fitting in. In plots that vary from mystery to urban fantasy to romance or heavy drama, the authors help girls find their way. I read a ton of them and many are very, very good (more on that in my June column), but almost all would not be enjoyed by male readers. The problem is that there are hardly any comparable books out there for boys to read instead.

I spend a crazy amount of time looking for new books with male protagonists. Even when just looking for an adventure or mystery, there are more involving girls than boys (and don’t even get me started on minority characters). Everyone wonders why girls read more than guys. To any sane children’s book reviewer (or librarian) the answer is obvious -- writers aren’t writing as much for boys, and so boys aren’t reading.

Now I know that there are some very good books out for boys (I will go to my grave demanding to know why Frank Portman’s King Dork was woefully unappreciated by all the recent award committees), but when you stack them up side by side, the boy books do not compare to the girl books. This frustrates me immensely. What I can do here at Bookslut is try to navigate these bright pink and lipstick laden girl-book filled waters and highlight the titles I do read and enjoy for other audiences. This month is about books that should give teenage boys an idea about how to become men; or how to move from boyhood to manhood in the best way. They run the gamut from mystery to sports to war, but all fit the single necessary criteria: the boys grow up in these books through their own actions and their own hard-fought wisdom. Here’s hoping they help a few readers accomplish the same thing.

Robert B. Parker is a much accomplished and appreciated author of adult mysteries, most notably those about Boston P.I. (and very cool guy) Spenser. I have been reading the Spenser mysteries for more than 20 years and consider them some of my favorite comfort reading. I was quite pleased then when Parker’s latest book, a YA mystery entitled Edenville Owls, showed up unexpectedly on my doorstep. I know because Parker is Parker the book will get a lot of coverage, but none of that really mattered to me -- I wanted to see if he could handle the YA setting and write a book that teenagers should be reading. From where I’m sitting, Parker did a pretty damn fine job.

Edenville Owls is about five boys and one girl, all in the eighth grade and enjoying small town life in post-WWII New England. The boys have recently formed a basketball team of their own, as the school has no JV team, and the five of them are hoping to win their way to a tournament at Boston Garden. This is the biggest thing Bobby, Russell, Nick, Manny and Billy have going on in their lives until one afternoon when Bobby and Billy happen to see a man accost their new teacher, Miss Delaney. When they ask her about it later, she tries to pretend it did not happen and then begs them not to tell anyone. It is clear to the boys, though, that she is in trouble.

One of the things Parker nails in Edenville is the camaraderie between the boys (which extends later as well to their female classmate, Joanie). When Bobby and Billy learn the full depth of Miss Delaney’s problem and bring it to the rest of the team, not one of them hesitates to help her. The early moments of the group working out plans together sets the reader up for the final confrontation with the mysterious stranger. It’s a great cheering moment in the text and an excellent way for teens to see that, when you stand together, you truly can make a change.

There are several moments in the story when Parker shows particular sensitivity toward teens trying to become adults. Consider this exchange between Bobby and Joanie early on:

"It’s hard being a kid," Joanie said. "Grown-ups tell you how easy it is. But it’s not."

"Kids' problems don’t seem serious to grown-ups," I said.

"But they are serious to kids," Joanie said. "Getting grades. Being popular. Having friends."

"Making a team," I said. "Being brave."

"Being brave?" Joanie asked.

"Yeah. Boys are supposed to be brave."

Later, the two have a tense moment when Bobby must break his promise to Miss Delaney and tell Joanie what is going on.

"But a man’s supposed to keep his word," I said. "You’re supposed to do what you said you’d do."

Joanie looked at me for a long time without saying anything.

"I think," she said finally, "that a man does what he thinks is the right thing to do, even if it means breaking his word."

This sort of thoughtful consideration of what kids think and why is wrapped around a plot-driven story that forces the characters to consider a lot about what is right and wrong and what a man should do when faced with someone they care about in trouble. In the end, the basketball is still played, Miss Delaney finds her heroes and the teens follow through with what they think is the right thing to do. It’s exciting (without car chases or sex) and a great way to get boys to catch a glimpse of what it means to stand up for yourself and the people you care about.

Tim Tharp’s Knights of the Hill Country seems, at first, to be a standard story about a winning high school football team in an Oklahoma town where football sometimes comes before God and Country. Hampton Green is a star linebacker on the Kennisaw Knights, a team trying to duplicate a five-year undefeated record from a couple of decades earlier. Hampton is a likeable kid who doesn’t seem to have many deep thoughts off the field. He’s hoping to get to college on a football scholarship along with his best friend and teammate, Blaine, who has long been the star of the team. But things aren’t going so well for Blaine since he sustained a terrible injury to his knee the year before. He’s not telling anyone it hurts, but Hampton can see that Blaine is moving slower and, as the season progresses, so can everyone else.

Very slowly, Tharp leads us through Hampton’s days both on and off the field and reveals just how much is simmering beneath the surface of this hard-hitting ball player. His father is long gone and his mother spends too much of her time and energy dating a lot of different men -- and then dumping them before they have a chance to dump her first. Hampton is worried about his mother but unsure what to do, just as he doesn’t know how to respond to Blaine’s increasingly erratic behavior as his rage over his diminishing physical prowess pushes him into foolhardy and violent situations. Hampton has always been loyal to Blaine. But when he reaches out to his classmate Sara, he finds himself at odds with what Blaine both expects and demands from him. As Hampton moves into a bigger position on the field and Blaine finds himself fighting for a small portion of the attention he was always given in the past, it pushes them to the breaking point. The climax is not, as you would think, the big game, but rather what comes after between the two friends.

I am very impressed with Knight of the Hill Country; it’s a book that looks inside the lives of top-notch athletes -- the stars of the team, the school and town, and shows just how precarious their position is. I read a lot of books that show the kids who don’t fit in, the ones who aren’t popular and get bullied by others, and I certainly think those books are important and valuable. But Tharp has done something really unique with Knights; he makes the stars both vulnerable and sympathetic, and readers will feel an enormous amount of compassion for teenagers who carry all the hopes of a town on their shoulders. What happens when they can’t deliver, when, no matter how hard they try, their broken bodies just can’t do it anymore? And what if you have been on the athlete track all your life, it’s the only track you know, the only one you want to know and the only one anyone wants you to be on, and then you aren’t good enough for college, you are barely even good enough anymore to finish out your high school senior season?

Hampton has a lot of things to think about in Knights of the Hill Country and Tharp even throws in the events of that long-ago team and just what some of them sacrificed to go along with the Knights and set the original five-year record. He forces Hampton to question what makes him a better man and how that notion can collide with ideas of loyalty. In Kennesaw it is always and only about the Big Game (and every game is big), something the adults are just as guilty of perpetrating as the teenagers. In the end, Hampton has to make some hard choices as he blunders his way into what will come next. It’s a great story and perfect for sports-obsessed readers who might never have thought about the kind of all-too-common circumstances that make Knights such dramatic reading.

I was really conflicted over Nigel Hinton’s post-WWII drama, Time Bomb. When I first read it I thought it was maybe too harsh, too brutal, to recommend. I don’t mean to suggest that there are graphic scenes of violence described in the text, because that is certainly not the case, but the plot is very dark and sometimes it can be hard to take. By the end, when the four boy-heroes have gone through all kinds of disappointments and dangerous moments, the reader is fairly drained from all that has happened. As an adult reader I thought it was maybe just all too much. And then I realized that really, I need to get over myself.

Time Bomb is the story of the summer of 1949 in London and what happened after preteens Andy, Bob, Eddie and Manny find an unexploded bomb in their neighborhood. Finding such bombs was not uncommon in the post-war period, but what the four boys decide to do after the discovery makes for a very compelling look at what angry and frustrated kids will do when pushed to their limits. Interestingly, the bomb is not even the most dramatic moment in the story. The drama hits hard at the very beginning and involves the first of many adults who prove to be both arrogant and bullying and collectively push the boys over the edge.

One of the things I had to wrap my head around while reading Time Bomb is how common it is for adults not to believe children. It always bothered me when I was young (and still does today) that children have to address all adults with respect -- merely because their age awards them that courtesy. Hinton has a field day with just how little respect adults direct towards the children in their charge, and, from teachers to clergymen to parents, all of them let the boys down. Usually in young adult fiction there is someone who is there for the kids; someone who is on their side, come what may, and delivers critical support at a pivotal moment in the plot. Don’t look for that to happen here.

It’s not as if the adults are outrageous monsters -- they are actually all too normal in their faults and failures. Andy’s father burdens him with a secret about his marriage, which exerts all sorts of pressure on Andy to keep the secret, allow the lie, and thus contribute (albeit indirectly) to his mother’s unhappiness. Meanwhile, she is quietly desperate because she knows something is going on, and thus short-tempered, and Andy is the one who suffers because of that. As for the other parents, they are struggling with poverty, disappointment and the general striations that all Brits suffered after the war. But -- and it’s a big but -- to a person, every single adult fails to see the difficulties that these boys are suffering right in front of them. It is almost as if, because life is hard for the adults, they are determined to make sure it is hard for the children as well. As Andy and his friends find themselves wading deeper and deeper into dangerous territory with the bomb and other discoveries, there is no one to caution them to pull back; no one they respect anymore who could advise them to be careful.

So yes, Time Bomb is dark and intense and heavy with the sort of drama that is not common in young adult books. Perhaps what bothered me so much is that the violence in this book is so believable -- the tense situations read as very possible and thus not easy to dismiss as products of fiction. You can understand the frustration these boys feel because you would feel it as well -- you would be that angry if you were them. And knowing that is really the scariest bit of all. Every disaffected teenager out there is going to love it.

With The X-Indian Chronicles: The Book of Mausape, author Thomas M. Yeahpau has written a series of related stories about a group of Native American boys who slowly grow up and leave reservation life behind them. What makes the book particularly interesting is that Yeahpau has resisted relying strictly on realism to tell his tales; many of the stories depend upon surreal or fantastic plot points at critical junctures. It is taken as a given, for example, that young Mausape’s grandfather has spent his whole life keeping one step ahead of the vengeful Deer Lady, a murderously angry shape-shifter. It is equally understood that Grandma Spider is much more than she appears to be and that Kevin got what was coming to him when he killed the cow. You have to be willing to believe in a bit more than what you see to understand the world Yeahpau has created here.

Collectively, the stories in The X-Indian Chronicles are about young men who are all “X-Indians,” and thus belong to, “a race that was losing its culture and to a generation that was losing its mind.” Mausape’s grandfather was an “Indian,” one of those who, “still had their traditions, their beliefs and their medicine.” The younger generation is not so fortunate, and so they are flailing in the world they have been born into; they are drowning in their battle against “Al Cohol,” against drugs, against the unrepentant teenage demons of boredom and dissatisfaction. Basically, they don’t know who the fuck they are or who the fuck they want to be.

In stories that take place both in NDN city and the white man’s world, Yeahpau weaves elements of mythology and legend into tales that include drug arrests and street gang violence. The stories cover years in the lives of his characters, following some onto college and careers and others into doomed relationships and distorted dreams for the future. He gives his readers one story after another of how dangerous this business of growing up can be if it is not done carefully or well, if it is not done with some caution and foresight. And in each story, in each good ending and bad, he shows just how hard it can be to live as a lost generation, and how unforgiving the world can be to boys who do not become men.

The X-Indian Chronicles is notable, of course, because it even addresses the lives of young Native American men in America -- a group that is rarely ever present in young adult literature. But don’t read it seeking political correctness because Yeahpau is certainly not going to give you any of that. Read these stories for the rawness of anger and discontent that swells in the lives of so many teenagers today. Read it to see where some of that frustration is born and grows into the renewed violence of adulthood. You don’t have to live on a reservation to understand Thomas Yeahpau’s stories; you just have to know what it is like to be young and lost and desperately misunderstood.

While poetry might seem like an unlikely choice for teenage boys, Curtis Crisler’s Tough Boy Sonatas is not your mama’s poetry (or William Shakespeare’s, or Emily Dickinson’s or Robert Frost’s, or anyone else I learned in school). Crisler’s collection is told from the perspective of young African American men in the urban neighborhoods of Gary, Indiana, and it is rife with the harsh choices and confusions of life in a struggling city. He has an amazing capacity for name dropping on subjects that range from pop culture to high literature to sports. In “Confrontation,” he writes about a hold-up: “You and shorter cousin next to you put hands / in air like stupid perps on Starsky & Hutch,” while in “Day Dreamer” the subject is the wandering mind of a third grader who considers, “Outside classroom, away from crusades, treaties, English, and math I got / contact on H.R. Pufnstuf, The Banana Splits, and the New Zoo / Revue -- puppets and animals meant difference.” Later he recalls King Lear, Althea Gibson, Muhammed Ali and even winemakers Ernest and Julio Gallo, all the while talking up to his readers instead of down, never straying far from the world they know best. Consider this excerpt from “Burgers Homegrown”:

Not talking Mickey D’s and sesame seeds,
or burgers with royal lineage. Economics
for clowns and kings outside our budget.

This is ’bout Mama’s burgers, born on hot
stove in black cast-iron skillet, handed down
grandma to grandma, a kettle black -- talking

’bout White Wonder Bread, no buns and sweet
red tomatoes, greener-than-landscape-grass
lettuce, and yellow onions you bite like apples,

a trade with our fruit man -- some dark, old
scab grabbing economy in his hurt station
wagon, giving harvest from garden. The way

old folks did it -- reap and sow, reap and sow

There are poems on love and play, on parents and friends and who a boy wants to be. One of my favorites, “Lifted,” begins with a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “No one paid attention to him because his wings were not those of an angel.” It’s a lovely thought to transfer to the young men Crisler writes about with all of their complicated future dreams. In the end, accompanied by the intense and vibrantly alive illustrations of Floyd Cooper (the artwork is truly stunning), Tough Boy uses the kind of language and experiences that will resonate strongly with young men in similar situations and make them believe that poetry is not just for intellectuals but maybe, just possibly, for them as well. Can you imagine?

First Second Books received a lot of acclaim last year for its selection of graphic novels, most notably the National Book Award nominee and Michael Printz winner, American Born Chinese. This year they start off with the English translation of Italian writer and artist Gipi’s Garage Band. This story tells what it is like to be young, rocking, and struggling to be faithful to your music. The pictures are fluid and have the appearance of water colors, giving the text both a dreamlike and, appropriately enough, lyrical setting. It is the story that matters most here, though, and the way in which Giuliano, Stefano, Alberto and Alex acquire a garage and then, in a fit of arrogant insanity (as shown in illegal activity), lose it along with their hopes for fame and fortune. Basically, the guys have a shot at the big time (a tiny out of the way kinda shot, but a shot nonetheless), and so they throw caution to the wind in its pursuit. And then they get caught and pay big time for their hubris.

Garage Band is classic writing about guys and music. It’s the dream that countless teenagers follow and, all too often, give up for more acceptable career or college paths. The guys are determined to stay true to the band, but that is not so easy when they have parents to deal with, and even harder when loyalties start to fray. Gipi clearly knows what it is like to be a musician -- the guy simply must have some experience in a band to write this honestly -- and he tells a story that is both familiar and moving to anyone who has ever been there, trying to “keep it real” in the face of a world that is out to get them. This is the first book I have read in ages that addresses how serious music can be for young people, and for that feat alone it deserves a lot of notice. There’s nothing else like it out there; clearly First Second is determined to break new ground again.

As always you can keep up on other YA books as well as some polar exploration and whatever else catches my eye over at my personal site, chasingray.com.

Cool Read: I have always taken the hymn “Amazing Grace,” a song that transcends pretty much all religious and cultural boundaries, for granted. It’s like “May the Circle Be Unbroken” -- it’s been around forever and everybody knows it but who wrote it is sort of a mystery (for the record it was A.P. Carter of the Carter family who wrote “Circle,” thus making it a true American classic). Linda Granfield tackles the history of “Amazing Grace” in a picture book format that, because of its long written passages, is really far more suitable for children 10 and up than the very young set. Accompanied by Janet Wilson’s richly detailed paintings, Granfield explores how John Newton’s slave-trading experiences infused his later career with the Methodist Church and influenced his creation of a book of hymns with poet William Cowper. “Amazing Grace” was said to come from Newton’s long commitment to the abolishment of slavery, something he wrote about in his 1788 pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade: “I should have quitted it sooner, had I considered it as I now do, to be unlawful and wrong.”

A powerful story about redemption and learning to be brave enough to do what’s right, Amazing Grace shows that the song truly deserves to be as popular as it is. This is a great book for learning about all that is wrong about slavery, and also, all that is right about ending it around the world.