Monday, August 22, 2011

The Schwa Was Here

I enjoy reading books for boys.  I was raised with three older brothers who seemed almost of a different species than I was. I eventually raised two sons and often searched book shelves for boy books. Neal Shusterman, along with several other authors, such as Walter Dean Myers, Jerry Spinelli, and Chris Crutcher, have a place on my list of favorite authors for boys. After reading Neal Schusterman's YA novel, Unwind, an edgy story with a boy protagonist, I wanted to read more of his work, and discovered The Schwa Was Here, recommended for ten and up.

What makes a good book for boys? According to author Robert Lipstye, in his August 21, 2011 essay in the New York Times Book review, entitled The Lost Boys,  "boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships--the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives."

". . . prick their dormant empathy." Yes, it's seems that's just what writers for all kids try to do.

As I see it, empathy lies dormant in boys, and girls as well, possibly because of youth and lack of experience. Being told about the challenges and suffering of others isn't enough. Most kids in America when I grew up were told that children in China were starving, but it didn't mean much. I had no experience with anything Chinese until I lived among Chinese characters in books.

So instead of simply telling kids about others who are different, perhaps, through a story with engaging characters, empathy can develop through the literary experience. I found Shusterman  talented enough to create main character, Antsy Bonano, with the humor and the engaging New York street smarts to attract a middle school boy. Many boys will see themselves in Antsy. Once engaged, a boy might go willingly along for the ride through Antsy's world and meet fictional people that open his eyes.

Once in Antsy's world, the reader can, for instance, begin to see what it might mean to feel invisible, as does Antsy's friend Calvin Schwa (along with Antsy himself, sometimes). A boy might even find a relationship with a blind girl emotionally real, and wonder what blindness might be like. Perhaps a boy reader might understand and feel what it might be like to help crotchety Old Man Crawley, who is scared when his precious independence is threatened by an injury. A reader might begin to understand, through Antsy's character, why his own family members don't always get along so well.

Neal Schusterman seems interested in medicine and terms from science and medicine become part of the humor in Antsy's voice. In just one chapter we stumble on terms such as "Elephant Man" (which refers to a disfiguring disease called neurofibromatosis), steroid-pumped opponents, Tourette's syndrome, Siamese twins, vertigo and leprosy and mad cow disease. There is plenty of off- beat stuff to interest boys.

That's not to say that any two boys will like the same kinds of books. My three brothers and two sons are all totally different. But the only way to get a boy interested in any kind of book is through characters in whom they can see themselves, like school athletes, for instance.  It doesn't matter, as long as the voice of the main character elicits a boy's emotional engagement, he wants to follow along, and the story-line is a good one. Only then can "dormant empathy," and, of course, pleasure in reading, develop.

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