Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Books for Boys

A college professor of mine once lectured about how it was harder for boys to read books with female protagonists than it was for girls to read about males. I’m not sure I’m going to get her argument right—seeing as how I heard this lecture a couple of decades ago (yikes!), but the gist of it is that most of what we read is from the male point of view, so women from a very early age become adept at seeing though a male lens. (Think of how often you see the word man or the pronoun he. Men for most of history have been the default sex in literature. This likely applies to race too.) When a girl reads a book with a male hero, even if the point of view is first person, she doesn’t have a problem imagining herself in the guy’s shoes. But when boys read a book with a female “I,” according to this professor, it can be jarring.

Who knows if this is true. (For the record, I’m a female.) For research purposes, I did a little survey. Okay, the truth is I asked my teen son this morning while he was eating breakfast:

Me: Does it seem jarring to you when you read a book with a girl narrator?
Son: Um. I don’t know. Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know.

So there you have it.

I’ve heard editors at conferences say that girls will read “boy books” (see Harry Potter) but it’s generally accepted that boys won’t read “girl books.” (Have you ever seen a guy carrying around a copy of Twilight?) Everyone’s looking for what they call crossovers, series like Hunger Games that both sexes seem to enjoy. But for the most part, it’s girl readers who are driving the industry, with some editors giving up on boys all together, saying that boys either don’t like to read or they’re drawn to non-fiction. This trend is not surprising to me. I’ve read a ton of contemporary YA novels, many of which star girl protagonists caught up in love triangles with gorgeous, supernatural guys. Or girl protagonists surviving in bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes while caught up in love triangles with gorgeous, not-supernatural guys. Can’t imagine many boys gravitating toward any of these books.

Not sure where I’m going with this, but I’ve been thinking about it since I finished reading Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. This is a book by a male writer about a male hero with a stereotypically masculine-looking cover, all brownish and gritty with a grim guy’s face hovering over an oil tanker. I confess that I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if it hadn’t been for the prominently displayed medals on the cover. (It won the Printz Award in 2011 and was a finalist for the National Book Award.)

Not exactly my thing—with lots of technical description of the inner workings of ships and some violent interactions between our hero and his enemies and a chase on the high seas that echoes the pirate adventures of Treasure Island—and yet, I found myself after a few chapters sucked into the story. It’s another post-apocalyptic novel but one I haven’t quite seen before, a world decimated by super storms and environmental disasters and a poor boy and his crew trying to eke out what they can as scavengers of ruined oil tankers. But the heart of this story is the boy’s growing awareness of the unfairness of life, of the stark differences between the haves and have-nots, and the role that luck and fate and smarts play when you’re trying to survive. Still mulling over the questions raised and glad I gave an obvious boy book a chance.

Okay, so maybe this is where I’m going with this post. Now I’m thinking of other boy books I’ve liked. If you know a teen boy (or a teen girl growing weary of Twilight-related novels) take a look at these:

1.      Ripper by Stefan Petrucha. An orphan boy in turn of the century New York City, who dreams of being a detective, stumbles onto a mystery involving Jack the Ripper. Page-turning adventure with a Steampunk feel. What’s Steampunk, you  might ask? Even after being told numerous times, I still don’t quite get it, but this trendy genre features gadgets and sci-fi-ish urban settings. Think: Golden Compass and movies like Wild Wild West and Sherlock Holmes.
2.      Maze Runner by James Dashner. Clear your schedule for this page-turner. A boy wakes up in a freaky forest at the edge of a maze. There’s a group of other boys, shades of Lord of the Flies, all named after famous thinkers in history. Our hero, Thomas (after Edison) is compelled to figure out the maze and solve the mystery of why the heck he’s there.
3.      Anything by John Green. I’ve blogged about his books before and ended up sounding like a gushing, over the top groupie. I love every single book this man has written. Please Lord, bestow on me one tenth of his talent. See, I’m doing it again. Here, read this for elaboration on John Green’s genius.
4.      Across the Universe by Beth Revis. A good example of a crossover. Book alternates between boy and girl narrators. The girl has been cryogenically frozen on a ship leaving the dying earth for a more sustainable planet. Unfortunately someone thaws the girl out early. The boy is the king-of the ship-in-training trying to figure out the mystery of the girl and the secrets behind the community he’s supposed to govern. (There’s a reversible cover on this one. The “girl” version has a boy and girl kissing ala Sleeping Beauty. The “boy” version has a blueprint of a space ship.)
5.      For the philosophical/questioning kid in your life, try this year’s Printz winner Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, (full review) or
6.      There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff (see review)
7.      Like history and/or mythology? Check out Tracy Barrett’s latest novel The Dark of the Moon, (also a crossover) a cool twist on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and
8.      Alan Gratz’s Samurai Shortstop, about a boy in turn of the last century Japan struggling to reconcile his samurai past with his interest in baseball
9.      A soon to be published novel by the writer of this blog… (I’ve got to clamp my hand over my mouth to avoid spilling the beans yet on this one—the deal I’ve been tiptoeing around for months now—can’t say anything more; promise to reveal all soon, but one teaser: it may possibly star a male narrator…)


Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Dream Comes True Part 1

Yesterday I found myself walking out of a bookstore with my husband. It was a pleasantly sunny day and we’d been strolling around for a while holding hands. Across the street was an impressive-looking stone tower. We stepped off the curb to head toward it and I burst into tears. Let’s just say I’m not the type of person who cries in public. But there I was, blubbering and half laughing and staring at the stone tower and at the other impressive stone buildings lining the street, while weirdo waves of nostalgia and pride and love washed over me.

I had been on this particular street once before.

It was seven years ago during a vacation in New England. My son used to be good friends with a sweet little girl who moved away when her father took a position in the art and architecture department at Yale. Even though I grew up in Connecticut, I had never seen the campus, so when the mom invited our son to spend an afternoon with her daughter, I sort of invited our family along too. We met at a local pizza restaurant (New Haven, apparently, is known for its pizza) and then while the kids caught up, we went on a cool tour of the campus.

The college is a pretty impressive place. It’s smack dab in the middle of a very urban setting, but unlock one of the metal gates (the mom had a key!) and step through a stone archway, and you’re in a different world of courtyards and stained glass and gargoyles jutting out of gothic style buildings. “I wanna go here,” our son said to us at one point, and I think I may have smiled at him and said: “Dream on, kiddo.”

The funny thing is, he did.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have gotten a sense of how I feel about pursuing a dream. I’ve wanted to be a writer (which entails having my novels published) for as long as I can remember. It hasn’t been what anyone would call an easy journey, but out of sheer determination (some might say stubbornness bordering on lunacy) I persevered. The last few years of this seemingly endless process—writing, revising, submitting, and absorbing the blows of countless rejections—I’ve watched my son go through a similar (although MUCH shorter!!) process choosing and applying to college. The main similarity, I’ve noticed, is that we were both doing a ton of work and then having to step back and let some outside force evaluate us.

Somewhere along the way our son announced that he’d like to apply to Yale. Everyone said it was a total crapshoot. The place admits roughly 6% of its applicants and for even the very top students it’s something like a lottery. Most likely he would not get in, but what the hey, my husband and I told him, why not take the chance? It would be risking failure to do so, but not applying meant never knowing what might have happened.

Long story short: he was accepted. Which is why we were in Connecticut yesterday and I was strolling around holding my husband’s hand and gawking at stone towers and sobbing like a goofball on the streets of New Haven. There was the same tower our little boy had skipped by with his sweet little friend. There was the pizza restaurant where we met for lunch. There were the same elaborate metal gates, and since we were on an official tour, we were allowed inside the hidden courtyards, where older kids walked purposefully off to class or sat on slate roofs sunning themselves.

I have never felt such an awesome sense of gratitude in my life. When my husband and I walked out of the bookstore, I looked at the tower and then below as our son emerged through one of those arches, hands in his pockets, like he’d been striding across that campus for years.

Listen, faithful readers, if you have a dream—I don’t care how much of a crapshoot people tell you it is--I am here to tell you: What the hey. Tell the Universe what you want and take your shot.

PS. That writer dream of mine is about to come true too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Who the Heck Am I? A Look at Two Creepy YA Novels

Just the other day I was feeling nostalgic about my teen years, reminiscing about how fun that time was with my whole life stretched in front of me and no real stress or problems except worrying about an upcoming test or figuring out what to wear to a party. Which probably made my teen readers snort and roll their eyes. Actually, the teen me of (cough cough) 20--who am I kidding?--30 years ago would’ve snorted and rolled her eyes too. That version of me is sometimes hard to tap into, but seeing as how it’s my job to write for teens, I tend to put myself back into that fun time of life probably more often than the average adult. And here’s what hit me, especially after reading a couple of chilling YA novels, which provided an additional reminder: being a teen is not always that fun.

It’s no surprise that young adult literature is often called dark. High school’s full of good old-fashioned conflict: peer pressure, bullies, controlling nagging adults who don’t freaking understand you, and the boy who rips your heart out and spits on it. Never mind the surging hormones and inopportune acne breakouts. AND all of this is whirring around while you’re grappling with the biggest issue of all—trying to figure out who you are.

This is the subplot, if not THE plot of many YA novels and the two I recently read that nudged me to remember some of the not so fun aspects of my own high school years (interesting digression/confession: I once punched a girl in the mouth. Me! An obedient book-wormy Catholic school girl who’d never gotten a detention or even a tardy slip. But senior year this girl had been tormenting me for months, and one day I snapped and popped her in the face.) I don’t know how the authors would characterize their books, but I’m gonna shelve them in Horror.

Glimmer by Phoebe Kitanidis has a grabby (and be warned: r-rated) hook: teen boy and girl wake up in bed, um, naked, not remembering how they got there. Wary and freaked out, they resolve to hang together for a few days, at least until they can unravel the mystery behind their mutual amnesia. They stumble into this bizarre town called Summer Falls that reminded me of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Do you remember that scene on the planet where It lives, with all the kids bouncing balls in the driveways and all the fathers marching off to work at the same time? Well, the town in Glimmer is that place amped up. With a twist. Summer Falls is just a little too perfect and the main characters aren’t the only ones having trouble remembering stuff. Which might be a good thing. Or not. There’s a horror plot at the center involving vengeful ghosts, but what packs the real punch is the idea of forgetfulness itself. Because what’s more chilling than not knowing who you are?

Well, here’s something: questioning your own sanity.

Shift, the debut novel by Australian writer Em Bailey, twists the search for identity around in a thought-provoking way. Main character Olive’s got the usual teen problems—school’s a drag, mom’s a suffering single parent, and there’s a group of mean girls led by former best friend, Katie doing their best to make Olive feel like crud. Add to that she’s grappling with some kind of breakdown and must take meds to keep her life from spinning out of control again. Enter new girl Miranda, who just seems off to Olive and her only friend Ami. The two girls watch as Miranda latches onto Katie and takes that saying, "imitation is the highest form of flattery" to its extreme. The real trouble is: is Olive’s perception of Miranda accurate or is she on the verge of losing her mind?

Yikes, I was biting my nails reading both of these books and more than a little relieved to have my own angsty teen conflicts far behind me.

In case anyone’s wondering, I never punched anyone again… that I remember.

Cue: creepy music.