Reading outside of your comfort zone
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:13 PM
Toward the end of August, I decide that if I am going to truly know my chosen field, children’s literature, then I need to make a better effort to read widely, even if it means reading books that don’t automatically appeal to me.
My standard fare, the kind of story I am ceaselessly drawn to, seems to be realistic fiction about girls. Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my very favorite books have main characters who are boys, among them A Day No Pig Would Die by Robert Newton Peck, How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell and The View From the Cherry Tree by Willow Davis Roberts. But I will naturally go after the girl stories if left to my own devices.
So, when my friend Adam stops me in an aisle of the young adult section of Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., where we both work, and says, “You have got to read this book. It is amazing,” I say, “Is it a ‘boy book?’” Adam pauses, considers this question, then says with confidence, “Yes. This is a boy book.”
The book Adam hands to me is J.L. Powers’s stunning first novel, The Confessional. When Jesuit High School student MacKenzie Malone goes a little too far in a schoolyard fight, his enemies seek revenge and he ends up dead. In the ensuing story, MacKenzie’s confused, grief-stricken classmates attempt to make sense of his death but end up in a violent mess that spirals out of control, culminating in an all-out riot outside the church the day of MacKenzie’s funeral. Told in six first-person voices, Powers’ novel is fast-paced and gritty, intense and truthful. This is a story of close friendships and deep regrets, calling to mind teen classics like Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
As I continue to read books in which the main characters are boys, I discover that I happen to be choosing not just books about boys but books about bad boys. Rather, the teacher in me insists, books about good boys who have made bad choices. St. Iggy, by K. L. Going, tells the story of Iggy Corso, who is determined — against all odds — to redeem himself when he is expelled from school. While Iggy’s voice seems somewhat less compelling than that of Troy in Going’s first Printz Honor Award winning novel, Fat Kid Rules the World, the author successfully shows us the difficult journey of one teenager deciding how to change his life. It also delivers an unexpected twist at the end that leaves one’s stomach in knots. The audio recording of St. Iggy, read by Stephen Hoye, is one of the best I have listened to this year.
So far I have been thinking of boy books simply as books in which the main characters are boys, but I begin to wonder whether there might be more to it than that. Adam suggests that perhaps boy books have no love story whatsoever. My father offers his two cents. “Action,” he says. “Lots of action.” The Confessional certainly meets those criteria. But St. Iggy is thoughtful, with more internal than external action. And isn’t there room for a little love in books for boys? Boys, after all, come in all varieties, with a full range of sensibilities. The world of young adult literature would not be complete without David Levithan’s continually popular Boy Meets Boy and Ron Koertge’s The Arizona Kid. I firmly decide you can’t really label a book a boy book — and then I keep on reading.
Love plays a part in Todd Strasser’s Boot Camp, which could be why I liked this novel much more than I thought I would. Boot camp? Push ups? Tough guys yelling at each other? How will this book hold my attention for 250 pages? Strasser surprised me with good reasons for why we should sympathize with Garrett Durrell, whose parents pay to have him kidnapped and taken to what is essentially a prison for troubled teens. Strasser’s narrative is engaging and painful, as Garrett clings to his principles despite the physical and psychological abuse he endures. Though the ending is a bit abrupt, it leaves a deep impression, showing us exactly how attached we have become to Garrett and how fervently we are rooting for him.
Laurie Halse Anderson, who won a Printz Honor Award for her ground-breaking novel Speak, tried her hand at a story about a bad boy in her most recent work. Twisted is an ambitious story in which Anderson attempts to convince us of the despair that leads Tyler to contemplate and come close to attempting suicide. By choosing the first-person voice, Anderson sets herself up for a very difficult task: We know that Tyler will live to tell the tale, so the author must work extra hard to create tension. In this case, the work doesn’t quite pay off. Another author, A. M. Jenkins, succeeds beautifully in Damage, a heart-wrenching novel of the same theme. Also told from the boy’s point of view, Damage was entrancing from start to finish. The tension is palpable throughout, and we believe — until the very end of the novel — that Austin might actually kill himself. Jenkins pulls off a hopeful ending that in no way undermines the seriousness of her character’s depression.
Finally, I’d like to recommend children’s literature expert Anita Silvey’s 500 Great Books for Teens, a useful guide for teenagers and parents. Silvey clearly and concisely summarizes and comments on every title she recommends in ways that make you want to read them all — whether they are boy books, girl books, or, more likely, some kind of captivating in-between.
Galen Longstreth is an MFA student at Vermont College. She received a master’s in Early Childhood and Elementary Education from the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught kindergarten for five years. She is a 1994 graduate of Mercer Island High School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.