Monday, April 14, 2014

There Was Something He Felt Like Doing

A personal record last week: Ten separate talks, plus eight revision workshops, spread between seven different schools and the lovely Massachusetts Reading Association conference. At the latter I spoke about engaging boys as readers. One of the five or six tricks or techniques I discussed: Never ever, ever, ever talk about your feelings. If the narrator discusses matters of the heart too openly and frequently, the book risks losing the boys. Or most of them, anyway. 

I don't mean to imply that a great book for boys should be without heart or feeling. On the contrary. Any great book must have heart. But with boys I think it has to be subtle. 

For instance, here's a little passage from the wonderful Jerry Spinelli novel Maniac Magee:

"Maniac just stood there a minute.  There was something that he felt like doing, and maybe he would have, but the lady turned and went back inside her house and shut the door.  So he walked away.”
He wanted to thank her or hug her. But he'd never admit it. Oh no. And here's another, from Rodman Philbrick's classic, Freak the Mighty:

"It’s time to go home, Gram gets nervous if I’m not back before dark.  Everything seems really great, just like Gwen says, except when I lie down on my bed it hits me, boom, and I’m crying like a baby.  And the really weird thing is, I’m happy."

The emotion comes upon him inexplicably. As a reader, you've probably already guessed that he's happy, since he's made a new friend, but he sure doesn't know, or does not want to admit it, until he's forced to confess, since he's crying and all. 

Finally, I found the classic My Side of the Mountain in my father-in-law's collection. This novel follows a boy who runs away from his overcrowded NYC apartment to live in the woods of the Catskills. When the main character writes about his first night in the woods, he very reluctantly admits how he felt:

"So I sat tight, and shivered and shook - and now I am able to say - I cried a little bit."

Much later in the novel, at a happy moment, when the season changes, we get this:

"Spring was coming to the land! My heart beat faster. I think I was trembling. The valley also blurred. The only thing that can do that is tears, so I guess I was crying."

The reluctance! I love that. Because no boy would ever really admit he cried, not even out of joy. Anyway, there was more to the talk. Many points about fights, and spit, and plots that move.  All of which I'm incorporating into The Unlikely Ninja

On to the random readings. At the Providence Athenaeum I glanced through the letters of Groucho Marx. Here's E.B. White to Groucho Marx, on the comedian’s recently published book: “ is one of the two books in my library in which the sentences seem to be uttered aloud by the author of the book.”

On October 13, 1959, Groucho responds: “...It is not easy to write even a short note to a man who has just published a book on the pitfalls of the English language. You see, I write by ear. I tried writing with the typewriter but I found it too unwieldy. I then tried dictating to my secretary but after some months of futility I realized that she, too, was unwieldy."

He seems so self-conscious here, but I suspect that White was complimenting him. This is voice. When you feel as though you can hear the writing talking to you.

And some other little quotes:

"He was not the model boy of the village. He knew the model boy very well though - and loathed him." - Mark Twain

"The universe for Zorba...was a weighty, intense vision; the stars glided over him, the sea broke against his temples." - Nikos Kazantzakis

And finally, from a teenager I interviewed as part of a book project:

“I knew someone who said the name Derek tastes like earwax.”

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