The first book in the Guys Read Library, Guys Read: Funny Business, is one of my favorite shortcuts when I'm at work in the children's section. When I see Mom hauling her cranky middle grade boy over to the shelves, I will grab a copy of Funny Business, crack it open to the Christopher Paul Curtis story or to Jack Gantos's The Bloody Souvenir, and start to read. When I get to the part about the blood poisoning, that's when our young man usually stops farting around and looks at me.
I hand him the book, and say, "When you come back - if you come back - come find me and I'll give you something else disgusting to read." Mom looks at me and can't decide whether she's repulsed or grateful.
When I grab Guys Read: Thriller off the shelf in order to convince more of those guys that all reading isn't boring, I will probably read a passage from Matt de la Peña's Believing in Brooklyn:
Maybe the ghost of the grandpa he'd never met was messing with him. Then Benny remembered a very important fact: he didn't believe in ghosts, or wish machines.
He held out the headphones, said, "By any chance, Grams, did you leave these in my room?"
She put on her reading glasses to see what he was holding. "Boy, you'd have to put me in a full hazmat suit to touch them feces-looking things." She slipped off her glasses and turned back to The Today Show.
Benny stared down at the headphones trying to figure out how they looked like feces.
Poo. Always funny. And extremely unexpected in the library context. When booktalking a book to boys, work in poo whenever possible. How's that for advice? Can you believe I give away this stuff for free?
But there's another reason why I reach for the first Guys Read book so often, and why I will be reaching for Guys Read: Thriller. Unlike almost every other book of short stories that I can think of, these books are unbelievably inclusive in terms of setting and genre.
Gennifer Choldenko gives us a Hollywood-ready action story involving snakes and conspiracy; Bruce Hale 's protagonist has to go up against monsters in the sewers. Walter Dean Myers takes us to Somalia; we get a short, funny Diamond Brothers mystery from Anthony Horowitz; and Patrick Carman conjures up a ghost from the back pages of an old Archie comic.
Notably, the Guys Read books include plenty of stories that are entirely devoid of magic, and magic is what a lot of those foot-draggers in the children's section are trying to avoid.
I don't want to delve too deeply into why some kids think fantasy is a waste of time, or whether I think that maybe those kids are on to something, but it is a sure and true fact that contemporary realistic fiction for boys is in short supply in middle grade.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since attending a panel on 'diversity in children's and YA literature' at Book Expo. The goal of diversity in children's literature is for every kid to walk into the children's section and come out with something that he or she is interested in reading. Sometimes that means finding books about reconciling the pressures of traditional culture with the desire to fit in (thank you, Grace Lin!) for your mostly-assimilated Nigerian-American children of immigrant parents. And sometimes it just means that we're looking for books with black characters (thank you, Kelly DiPucchio and LeUyen Pham!).
But it's not just about having a black kid, or a Latino kid, or a kid with Aspergers on the team. Although that would be friggin' NICE, and I'm looking at you, X-MEN FIRST CLASS - very sensitive job recruiting mutants of color: the black guy dies in his first fight and the Latina - who by the way is working as a stripper when we first meet her - turns evil.
Not to mention the fact that every single woman in the movie appears wearing only her underwear at least once. Who knew Moira MacTaggert favored garter belts for everyday?
Yeesh. Where was I?
Oh yeah. Listen, the kids who are underserved by children's literature right now are not fantasy readers of color. Black fantasy readers are reasonably satisfied reading fantasy literature even when there are no black characters in it. BUT THERE SHOULD BE. Why wasn't Gregor the Underlander black? Or Percy Jackson? And don't give me Grover. He wasn't even black in the books, and besides, comic relief character of color? What, he's not also a stripper?
No, it goes like this: the kids who are not finding what speaks to them in the fiction section are the readers of contemporary realistic fiction. Specifically, urban contemporary realistic fiction. There are reasons for this - contemporary real life is mostly either boring or tragic, and boring and tragic are two things we kind of like to avoid when creating entertaining reading for middle grade. It's a heck of a trick.
So I was particularly impressed to find that five, maybe five and a half, of the ten stories in this book do not involve the supernatural, the extrasensory, or the paranormal. And even the extranormal ones are rooted in this world - no Superfluous Capitalized Nouns, fairy realms, or swords. Just ghosts and mutant pudding.
But truly, all thrilling.
Ahem. Hrrrmmm. I seem to have something stuck in my throat here... excuse me, I thought I was done with this review, but it seems I have one more rant:
Except. Except for James Patterson's mystifyingly dull story. It's fifteen pages long - short even by middle grade short story standards, totally predictable, and has a happy ending. Further, no fewer than four fairly obscure place names establish the story's setting as Baltimore, but two of those place names are misspelled. Plus, the story name-checks two very nice editors at HarperCollins who are probably mostly embarrassed about it, and who James Patterson of all people does not have to suck up to. I used to think a computer wrote his stuff, like Archie, but at least a computer would fact-check the station stops on the Hunt Valley light rail.
But the beauty of a short story collection, as I tell each and every kid I hand these books to, is that when you get to a story that isn't working for you, you can skip to the next. And the next is great.