I clearly remember my first foray into the realms of literary criticism. It was the late 1950s and I was sitting at the kitchen table devising ever more gruesome ways to slaughter Noddy and his simpering friends from Enid Blyton’s Toytown books. Memory has, probably mercifully, obliterated some of my wilder ideas, but I do recall that shooting, stabbing, decapitation and the subtle placement of cunningly hidden, viciously spiked traps figured prominently. As Noddy and Big Ears screamed and bled beside the charred wreckage of the little red and yellow car and Mister Plod the Policeman struggled to understand a horror far outside his ken, maniacal laughter rang around the room. It was a negative review.
While in some ways I was ahead of my time—serial killers were not popular back then—in others I was average. I was a nine-year-old boy, busily growing up in post-Second World War Scotland. My heroes were fighter pilots sending Messerschmitts to a flaming doom, commandoes silently knifing Nazi guards and spies being brutally tortured by the Gestapo. For entertainment, my friends and I would place lit firecrackers in model airplanes and try to time our throw so that they exploded in the air, or sink model ships in the local pond with an air rifle (BB gun). Thank heavens those violent times are long past and I survived into an enlightened age of Teletubbies and Barney. My son wouldn’t grow into the violent little monster I had been.
It was not easy shucking off my heritage as I tried to make the next generation better than mine, but I had help. Many major publishing houses and the adjudicators of several literary prizes worked hard to replace the adventure/war books I used to crave with kinder, gentler, character-driven stories. True, some dealt with difficult problems—growing up gay, living on the street, family breakup—but they were real-life dilemmas facing real children in our modern world. They didn’t encourage violence in boys.
My son was also born with the advantage of two older sisters. Thus he had the benefit of an extant library of the books that had helped them grow into small facsimiles of civilized human beings. I approached the raising of my third child with confidence. Then, a few years back, when my son was seven or so, I heard him singing the Barney song:
“I hate you, you hate me
Let’s go out and kill Barney
With a shotgun blast and Barney hits the floor
No more purple dinosaur.”
Surely those weren’t the original words? He must have picked them up from one of his unreconstructed friends. My plan was in danger. I rushed to his sisters’ literary legacy to save him, but the groaning shelves of books were no help.
“How about this one? It’s about a boy who is bullied at school because he doesn’t play sports. He…”
“Okay. This one is about a street kid whose only friend is a strange girl whose parents are splitting up and…”
“A boy struggling with the realization that he is distinct and…”
A house full of award-winning books and my son’s preferred reading material, when he could be dragged in from playing soccer or creating automatic weapons from pieces of wood, was (pause for horrified shudder) R. L. Stine.
Where had I gone wrong? Couldn’t he see that the Goosebumps books were dreadfully written, formulaic trash? Well, as it turns out, he could.
“They’re not well written,” I said.
“I know,” he replied.
“They’re all the same story.”
“So, why do you read them?”
Somewhere, far above my head, a light bulb went on. I rushed down to the local library to find some “exciting” books at the appropriate reading level.
Try it sometime, it’s a sobering exercise. Assume that a seven or eight-year-old boy is reading at his age level or a little above and that he needs an exciting story to hold his interest (and by exciting I don’t mean just an exciting ending, there must be excitement throughout). There are some, but you will be able to take them home in a good sized book bag. You will need a pickup truck for the books that will appeal to a girl of the same age and reading level. (A side note here is that girls are more flexible readers than boys—girls read books for boys, boys don’t read books for girls.)
My son is eleven now and his reading tastes haven’t changed; Awake and Dreaming, Looking for X, and Stitches sit, gathering dust on the bookshelves. He has moved on from Fear Street to more sophisticated, better written fantasy/adventure, and I have learned several things.
Raising two girls does nothing to prepare one for raising a boy. Boys are not the failed girls that our school system would sometimes like to view them as. They are different. Their bodies are different and their brains are different. They act, react and learn differently from girls. And they need to read different books.
So, what makes a good book for boys? At the simplest level, a whole bunch of dead guys.
My son is an aficionado of first sentences. He reads all my books and his first comment is always about the first sentence. His favourite is in my latest book, The Flags of War: “The heavy black cannonball bounced twice over the spongy mat of heather before decapitating the man to Rory McGregor’s left.” I suspect, in his mind, this could only be improved by an accompanying illustration.
A dead guy in the first sentence is good because it captures the reader’s attention and that is the second thing a book for boys must do, draw them in quickly. Boys live in an immediate world that requires instant gratification. They won’t read fifty pages of background—the thrills have to be there, or at least promised, up front.
And the thrills have to keep coming.
R. L. Stine knew this; every short Goosebumps chapter ends on a high. That is extreme, but the promise made in the opening hook is that there will be more thrills and they must be supplied in sufficient quantity to keep the story moving along, because the story is the key.
Books for boys must be strongly plot driven. Boys don’t want or need long sections of character development. There are two reasons for this. One is that it interferes with the excitement (see above). The other is not specific to boys. Kids bring much more imagination to reading than most adults. Adults enjoy having characters defined in detail. Kids will create a fully rounded character from a single good descriptive sentence. From a boy’s perspective, too much character development gets in the way.
What doesn’t get in the way of a boys’ story is a detailed description of a neat weapon. Boys like to know how things work. They will happily read a description of a World War Two Tiger tank that comes directly from Herr Krupp’s owner’s manual. How thick was its armour plating? What size of shell could it stop? How fast could it go? Where did the crew sit? What calibre was the machine gun in the turret? What happened to the crew if a shell got through the armour plating?
So, what am I saying—boys are un-saveable savages and we must pander to their baser instincts? No. But if we want to talk to boys about the things that we think matter, we have to, first and foremost, hold their interest. Take war for example.
Three of my last four novels are war stories. They are set in different wars, but all involve boys who get caught up in the violence and horror. There are a lot of dead guys in them and a lot of descriptions of weapons, but they are not there for salacious entertainment and so that I can get a bigger royalty cheque. Okay, partly they are, but the main reason stems from something I learned talking to boys on book tours. War is cool. It was cool when Agamemnon attacked Troy, when the crusaders besieged Jerusalem and when Germany invaded Belgium, and it is cool now. Why else do young men flock to fight?
When the Americans were invading Iraq, it was a tough time to be a boy. An Abrams M1 battle tank with a 120 mm cannon featuring a DRS Technologies second generation GEN II TIS thermal-imaging gunner’s sight, steel encased depleted uranium armour, 12.7 mm Browning M2 machine gun and an L8A1 six-barrelled smoke grenade discharger fitted on each side of the turret is unutterably cool to a twelve-year-old boy. He could see them on television and yet he was being told that the war was wrong. Perhaps his parents were going on peace marches. There was a conflict there. He could handle it by only talking tanks to his buddies and peace marches to his parents, but it couldn’t be resolved—unless there was a safe place to talk about both aspects of war.
That place is the past. The past is safe and a modern reader can get caught up in the thrill and learn that other boys have felt as he does without adult censure. In And In the Morning, a boy in 1914 is swept up in the enthusiasm for war and can’t wait to join up and fight. He sees war as a huge, exciting adventure.
Of course, there’s a danger here. If a book relates to a boy’s attraction to war, it must also portray the other side—the rats, the rotting corpses, the terror of life in the trenches—in at least an equally convincing way. It must be graphic and many people are not comfortable with that.
I once had a manuscript rejected as “too grim.” Given that too grim is an oxymoron to a twelve-year-old boy, let us assume the publisher was right. Let’s take out all the graphic bits in And In the Morning. What’s left? A book that says war is an exciting adventure but fails to point out that soldiers die horribly. Is this a perspective we want to encourage?
George Santayana’s observation that we will relive the past that we do not remember is particularly applicable to boys and violence. Pretending that boys do not feel an attraction to violence is only sweeping the problem under the rug. Ignoring the attraction doesn’t make it go away, despite the warm, comfortable feeling we adults get every time a “problem” book that deals with difficult issues we feel kids should know about wins a major literary award. We have to acknowledge the things that boys are interested in, even if we would rather they weren’t. Only by doing that will we get their attention. Only by getting their attention can we get them to read. Only then can we make a larger point about the kind of world we would like them to create when they grow up. Now, what sound do you think a Teletubby makes when you step on it?
First published in Wordworks, the magazine of the BC Federation of Writers in 2004. Reprinted in Quill & Quire.