Saturday, October 26, 2013

Let's hear it for the boys!

Spunky girl books are nothing new. Readers (and other selectors of books) in search of a strong fantasy heroine, an everygirl who know her own mind and isn't afraid to speak it, or a princess who hates tiaras needn't look far. There are also plenty of books and other media projecting the opposite image of femininity. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it sure as heck would be wrong if that were the only way fiction portrayed girls. I love me some anti-princess books. But I don't think they're the whole answer.

What about the boys?

We've started to see some books over the past few years about boys with nontraditionally male interests. There's Will Grayson, Will Grayson and My Most Excellent Year and Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy and Better Nate Than Ever. Great books, and I'm very glad to see them being published and succeeding. But these examples have a little too much in common. Three of the four are YA (Better Nate Than Ever is upper-middle-grade), and in all four, the characters who love musicals or makeup are gay or very probably gay.

Again, there's very much a place for these books (though, much as I enjoy reading about musicals, it's a pretty worn-out stereotype). But why must the male equivalent of an anti-princess book always be about sexuality? Apparently, a girl can shoot a basketball or rescue a kingdom without outing herself as a lesbian, so books about girls who break the now-oft-broken mold are appropriate for any age. But it seems that boys who are into the arts must also be into other boys, so books about them become sensitive material, appropriate only for older readers. (There are precious few exceptions among picture books; William's Doll comes to mind, as does The Art Lesson.)

Yes, males have been socially dominant for a very, very long time, and yes, girls have needed role models who break free of established gender roles. But it can't be easy to be a boy, straight or gay or in between or too young to know, who would rather knit or sing than play soccer. We need books that normalize boys with all sorts of interests and personalities, and we need them in sections of the library that boys will visit long before they're reading YA. The world may well be telling them by kindergarten that there's something wrong with them. Let's tell them there's something right.

Edited to add: I just want to make sure it's really, really clear that I'm not saying queerness is a bad thing, or that it's terrible to be "accused" of being queer. I'm just saying that interests are a separate thing from sexuality. Many books about girls seem to understand that, and books about boys need to catch up.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hades in the house

Most of you reading this remember what Harry Potter releases were like. As the series got more popular and the story stakes got higher, midnight on the appointed date became a bigger and bigger event. (Come to think of it, it's surprising that the release dates were generally in the summer. Is that a British publishing thing, or was Harry just big enough to make his own scheduling rules?) Thousands of people lined up to read the same thing at the same time, there was talk of people in one time zone spoiling people in another, and I was reminded of the American Dickens fans who stopped Brits at the docks to ask, "Is Little Nell dead?"

I was as eager as anyone. (Well, maybe not as anyone, but pretty eager.) But I was also self-aware enough to join in the joy over the fact that we were all this excited over a book.

I don't think we've seen that phenomenon's equal. We have seen quite a few other book phenomena that Harry made possible by expanding the scale of the children's and YA book world and making it okay for adults to read both. These are all fairly cliche observations by now. But I bring them up because House of Hades has brought them to mind.

Like many or most books, the penultimate volume in Rick Riordan's Heroes of Olympus trilogy was released on a Tuesday. We sold dozens the first day and lots more throughout the week. Mr. Riordan himself signed 140 of them so they'd be ready for release day; more than half of those were gone by the end of the weekend. The weekend sales didn't surprise me; plenty of people, often families with kids, wander into bookstores on the weekend, especially bookstores surrounded by restaurants and coffee shops. And while they're there, they often do pick up the latest from a favorite author. But very few people just wander into a bookstore on a Tuesday. I suspect that the vast majority of those early sales were to people who made a trip out to the bookstore because this book was coming out. Either the kids or their parents (this series has some crossover appeal, but not at the same level as a Harry Potter or a Hunger Games or a Divergent) took note of the release date and arranged a weekday accordingly. (The store did put the word out that we had signed copies, and that may have played some role; I'd be curious to hear how the book has done at other stores like ours. Honestly, it's not a big time of year for gifts, and I suspect the major factor was simply kids wanting to know what happened next.)

A hardcover middle-grade novel flew off the shelves of a midsize indie bookstore on a Tuesday in October. (And a Wednesday, a Thursday, and a Friday.) Holy Hades, that's awesome.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Characterizing "Building"

As always, the Boston Globe-Horn Book winners and honorees were a diverse bunch of books, and the organizers had to find a theme that fit them all. They did, and it was a theme dear to my heart: "Building Character." In my own writing, character is my strength, plot my weakness, so I usually try to focus on plot first. This works because plot is things going wrong, and when things go wrong, it builds character.

As I said to a writing friend last night, the speeches at these events often get me itching to go home and write. Somewhere between Jonathan Bean's speech about working his work around medical obstacles and Rainbow Rowell's about letting a novel come out of sensitive emotional places in herself, that itch began. When I got home, I started trying out a new opening for my middle-grade WIP, one that starts earlier in the timeline instead of having a flashback later. This effort at bringing forth the protagonist's voice in a strong, first-page kind of way at a new moment reinforced for me what a tough school year I've given him. When he gets to this summer in a few pages, it's going to be different from last summer, and working with him last night reminded me that he's also going to be a different person. His year has built character.

Vague as I'm being at this stage, I will say this: if anyone dares to insinuate that my artistic male protagonist is a wuss, I have a list ready of examples of his bravery. It's similar to Eleanor's bravery, and Park's bravery, and the bravery of lots of characters who deal with tough things but aren't defined by them. (Don't worry, Rainbow; Afterschool Special has become such a buzzword for the inverse that those of us who didn't grow up with them still got the reference.)

I highly recommend writing right after a good children's lit event, and this was one. I also recommend writing tired if you need to get past overthinking. Besides, it probably builds character.