Writing toward teen boys—the conversation continues

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A week or so ago, I posted a video by a bright young reader who was contemplating the How do we get teen boys to read more? question.  This weekend, the New York Times is pondering that matter as well, with this video conversation between Rick Riordan, James Patterson, and Pamela Paul, as well as this Robert Lipsyte essay.

Good teachers and interested parents understand that the best cure for reluctant readers lies in identifying the right book for the right readers—easily said, but not always easily done.  I had a hard time myself finding just the right books for my own son (a concern I explored in my memoir Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World), and even today, given a choice, this hardworking, curious, academically motivated, generous-hearted kid of mine leans away from books toward other media—except when writing his own stories.  It's then that he professes himself most eager to see what others do, and he's especially eager to read the work of his contemporaries—his classmates, published young authors—finding most relevance and meaning in the stories they tell. 

I spend a lot of time thinking about the relevance of my own work. I don't write toward trends, don't capitalize on them, and I'm rather ill-suited for a world like the one that Lipsyte describes in his essay, in which one Harper executive noted (in 2007) that "at least three-quarters of her target audience were girls, and they wanted to read about mean girls, gossip girls, fenemies and vampires."  I have none of that in me.  I would not know where to begin. 

But I can write more inclusively, and I am working on that now, paying closer attention to the male characters in my stories, listening and leaning toward them.  Now at work, as many of you know, on a book peopled by teen boys in late 19th century Philadelphia—a murdered, good-hearted thief, his animal-rescuing brother, and a rising careerist with journalism in his future—I find myself exhilarated by the self-generated task of writing a book of redemption and adventure that has at its center conflicted, complex young men.  Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent, which will be illustrated with original, edgy art, is a prequel to Dangerous Neighbors (Egmont USA), my Centennial Philadelphia story about twin sisters.  It is an outside-the-trends risk, as all my work tends to be.  But it is also, I think, a risk worth taking, a readership that deserves our attention.

The book's first page can be found here


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