A couple of years ago I was asked to take part in a panel discussion at the State Library of NSW, the topic of which was “Boys and Books”. It seems that over the last few years this has become the hot topic at conferences, seminars and training days, where experts – and people like me – are asked to discuss the perceived reluctance of boys to immerse themselves in books. By people like me I refer to boys who have seemingly broken the conventional mold by turning into men interested in not only reading books, but in creating them.
As part of the brief that I and the other three speakers were given on this particular occasion, we were asked to each compile a shortlist of recommended titles for boys. Having made a decision to pitch it at young adult readers,(sometimes you have to choose) here is my list.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.
When Susan Eloise Hinton released this book in 1967, she was a teenager herself. The widely-held view is that she used her initials rather than her full name because she felt that this would lend her greater kudos when she released her gritty novel about growing up male on the tough streets of Anytown, USA. (And some people think that J.K. Rowling had all the good ideas first!)
The Outsiders might have dated slightly in some of the language, fashion and cars, but put the boys in any of Sydney’s western suburbs, driving Subarus and Hondas and wearing gangsta tops, and the story would still hold water. Why?
It’s all about the characters. For me, both as reader and writer, character is everything. And never has this been better borne-out than in this book. Ponyboy, the shy, bright kid who is all too aware of what his future could be, but sees too many obstacles and an unlevel playing-field. Soda, Johnny, Cherry, Darry, Dallas; each of these characters are starkly real, and can still be spotted in the malls and streets of our cities, thirty-five years later.
I challenge any boy from any background to read this book and not relate to some, if not all of the characters. Timeless and powerful, in my opinion The Outsiders is, along with Catcher in the Rye, one of the great American novels that started YA fiction along the road to becoming a self-contained genre.
Josh by Ivan Southall
This was one of the seminal books of my childhood. The reasons were threefold: first, it tells a story of a boy who is out of place and out of his social depth, who knows that there are rules governing the place in which he finds himself, and yet no one will tell him what those rules are. As a missionary child, I related very strongly to Josh Plowman.
Second, it deals with those ever-present pre-adolescent themes of bullying, impending adulthood, and puppy-love with humour and sensitivity. Again, when I first read it, I found that Josh Plowman’s experience was right on the money.
And third, as a young man gradually coming to the realisation that writing was a path he felt compelled to follow, it taught me that an incomplete sentence is still OK. I’d always suspected that the rules of grammar were perfectly fine as guidelines, but that when it came down to it, writing as an artform was rather more free than all that. To my knowledge Josh was never promoted as a verse novel, and yet I strongly believe that there is something far more poetic than prosaic about it. Did it predate the current trend of verse novels by twenty years? Take a look at any page of this wonderful book and make up your own mind.
The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
In my opinion, this is one of the finest works of philosophy ever written. Teenaged boys might balk slightly at the notion of reading a fable about a pair of windup mice on a quest for a place of belonging, and yet once they get into this poignant and multi-layered story they will find themselves drawn to the characters.
Why is this? It’s more than just the adventure, danger and fantasy within this book. I’m no psychologist, but I think this story catches the developing young man unawares because beneath his yearning for adventure and excitement is an associated need for belonging, for territory. Now that the village is safe from marauders, sport takes the place of feudal conflict, fulfilling that need and desire for competition and conquest. And feudal conflict was always about territory.
At a very real primitive level, finding a partner is also about establishing a safe place, in which one can create more members for the tribe. Boys might not acknowlege that this is behind their flirting with the girls on the bus, but by God it’s true. And Russell Hoban’s masterpiece appeals to this deep and compelling urge for security and territory.
I also recommend it because quite simply, I love it, on about five different levels. I’ve read it every year since I was in Year 8 at school, and it still moves me to tears. I read it to my daughter a couple of months ago, and… well, let’s just say that I had to stop for a break from time to time.
After January by Nick Earls
Nick Earls has a very distinctive narrative voice. This book was my first exposure to his writing, and I was a devoted fan thereafter.
After January tells the story of a young man who is biding his time in the period between completing his HSC exams and getting his results. Once those marks come in, he’ll know what the rest of his life holds, or at the very least, the next year or two. But in the meantime, he’s caught in limbo, living in his mother’s beach house on the South Queensland coast. During this time he meets a mysterious local girl – the daughter of an eccentric hinterland hippie – and one thing leads to another, queue lush strings and soft-focus lens…
The outcome is not what you might think, but the decision that the boy and his girlfriend make is both admirable and totally believable. But I rate this book so highly for male readers not because it says what it has to say without moralising (the quickest way to get a YA novel slammed shut) or because it’s so well written (which it is) but because it is so achingly real. It’s exactly like being sixteen or seventeen all over again, and for a young man of that age, knowing that he is not alone in this experience is invaluable.
Which brings me to the wildcard…
Borrowed Light by Anna Fienberg
I say it’s a wildcard because Borrowed Light is a book about a young girl caught in the not-unusual dilemma of falling pregnant, which is a strange kind of theme for a book recommended for boys.
Anna Fienberg despairs that people often refer to Borrowed Light as “the abortion book”, but like most great books you can’t define it in such a throwaway manner. To do so is to oversimplify the deftly-handled complexity of a fine piece of writing, and to reduce it to shades of black and white. This book doesn’t deserve such oversimplification. It deserves to be read and considered, by girls as well as boys.
Why boys, if it’s about a girl, and from the point-of-view of a girl? If we accept that one of the obligations of good literature for boys is to help them become better men, what better way is there to do that than to help them understand the female of the species? And this book is a wonderful place to start, because Fienberg’s insights into the mind of a young girl are so clear, so evocative, that any boy who can process this novel will be a lot closer to understanding that greatest of mysteries which is the female psyche.
Glancing through my list of five again, I’m acutely aware of its inadequacy. There are so many titles I could add – The Machinegunners by Robert Westhall, James Moloney’s Swashbuckler and A Bridge to Wiseman’s Cove, A Place Like This by Steven Herrick, Robert Cormier’s classic The Chocolate War, 48 Shades of Brown by Nick Earls, the two books S.E. Hinton wrote after The Outsiders, and anything by Markus Zusak. I might even squeeze in one Captain Mack by James Roy! And the common thread running through all of these novels is that while they each offer the young male reader a finely-crafted and entertaining read, they do something more. They help him to become a far better man than he might otherwise have been. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want for our boys?