Talk for Public Librarian's Annual Conference in Portlaoise
‘Teenage Kicks', Library Services to Teenagers
Friday, 7th of November, 2008
I'm going to work from a script because I want to be precise about what I say and to make sure this all fits into the allotted time.
In honour of the recent age-banding controversy, I'm going to completely disregard the fact that this Conference is entitled ‘Teenage Kicks' and talk about boy readers of every age. You can all decide for yourselves if the content is suitable.
When we talk about books aimed at teenagers nowadays, we tend to use the term Young Adult. My definition of a ‘Young Adult' book is a story that can be enjoyed by both young and adult readers; it's as simple as that. The soaps and The Simpsons are Young Adult programmes; as is most television. - And most films are too. Although obviously teenagers want to watch ‘unsuitable' films. - When I was in my early teens, my parents would allow us to watch mild sex in films, but not gratuitous violence. Our friends next door could watch violence, but not sex. So we'd wait for our parents to go out and we'd swap videos. In the publishing business, the Young Adult market is a device used to categorise reading for people who are growing out of children's books. But, of course, it didn't really exist when I was that age - I'm sure it was the same for most of you. I read anything I could get my hands on whether it was intended for me or not. - I was into Tolkien, Stephen King's horrors, Louis L'Amour's westerns, Craig Thomas's Cold War thrillers... anything I thought would be a good story. I was a typical teenage boy who liked a steady dosage of sex, violence, mad machines and monsters - And if responsible grown-ups didn't want me to read these things, all the better.
This was the best time in my life for reading. I was able to deal with complex plots and grown-up issues, but I didn't have all those adult responsibilities that dampen your imagination. I wasn't drinking coffee or watching the news. I could get completely absorbed by a story, so much so that I could lose track of time. - It was an extraordinary thing, almost like magic. And I think the ability to read novels brings with it enough curiosity and maturity to enable readers to decide for themselves whether a book is suitable for them or not. Because they will anyway.
Originally, stories were told around the fire and everyone was involved. Children under the age of nine or twelve or fourteen weren't sent outside to play with the goats if the story was considered ‘unsuitable'. Categorization is a very modern phenomenon.
So I wrote my first book and set out to get published. It was my firm intention to spend as much time as I could writing and illustrating; to paraphrase Michael Caine: I wanted to do so many books that by the time people figured out I wasn't a great writer, I'd be one. And that way, what I lacked in quality, I could make up for in quantity. Now, I thought getting published would mean that I could just settle down, enjoy my newfound wealth and spend my time writing and illustrating. I fully intended to be one of those reclusive authors who didn't do any interviews or PR events. With the millions I was going to make, I would buy a house in the hills, grow a long beard and run around with a shotgun telling people to get off my land.
And then I got published. And I went round trying to find my books in bookshops (as you do). And I couldn't find them. My books were hidden away in one corner - in the wrong section - with only the spines showing. That was when I found out that most published writers still have a full-time job doing something else. I realised that if I was ever going to make a living from my writing, I was going to have to do everything I could to let people know about my books. - Nobody had told me about that when I sat there writing the first one, and having wild dreams about being a bestselling author.
The easiest PR sessions to get in Ireland are visits to schools and libraries, working with young children and doing storytelling and in my case a bit of drawing as well. But I had no experience dealing with kids; I didn't have any of my own and, unlike so many other writers, I had never been a teacher. But I found out I enjoyed it; kids just want to be entertained, and if your story is rubbish, they'll soon let you know.
When I first started doing sessions for little kids, I hadn't a clue how it worked. I would read them a story and they would sit there with their faces down, lying on their arms, head lolling around, tilting up towards the ceiling, or their eyes would glaze over. I would think I was boring them senseless. It took me a while to realize that this was a good sign. Their bodies could switch off and they could just surrender their imaginations to the story. When the story finished, there would be this still silence and I would have to ask hopefully: ‘Did you enjoy that?' and they would nod enthusiastically and go ‘Aw yeah!' Unlike adults, they did not know that you needed acknowledgement. A lack of response, silence, meant they were engrossed. It is the opposite when talking to adults.
Young kids also ask questions that adults would love to ask if only they had the nerve. - I remember one time I was finishing up a session and I said, ‘Are there any questions?' and one little girl put up her hand and said ‘Can I go to the toilet?' Other classics include: “Do you know any famous writers?'; or “Have you ever drawn any naked people?”; or “How much money to do you make?”; or my personal favourite from a kid who cornered me in a school corridor: “Can I have your autograph - who are ya?”. I blame celebrity culture.
In the last five years I've done a lot of sessions with children, including residencies in eight different schools. In that time I've learned a great deal more about the children's book market and the thing that has struck me most is the shortage of books for boys at that key level of eight to twelve years old. At that age where they are most likely to turn away from reading - and from art, incidentally - there seems to be less for them than at any other age. Even this wonderful new Young Adult market is starting to produce loads of excellent books, but by the time they've reached that point, we've already lost so many of them.
And this is despite the fact that they are so easy to please. When boys are at that age, we're basically just little cave men. We have simple tastes, which - in some cases - we never grow out of. I firmly believe that most of the cave paintings that have been found around the world were painted by men, simply because they are largely pictures of a buffalo or a mammoth being shot in the arse with an arrow. If women had been doing the painting, they would be pictures of marriages, girls becoming best friends, or people sitting round dealing with social issues. Or they might possibly be recording the invention of the shoe (I wasn't sure if I'd get away with that one). But the boys wanted to shoot a mammoth in the arse with an arrow and six thousand years later, we haven't changed.
We don't have to worry so much about girls reading because they're more open to different genres, but boys are pickier. They don't want anything that's written by a girl or has a girl in it, or has the colour pink or anything else remotely girlie on the cover, or has words like love, romance, tragedy or pony in the title. That rules out a lot of books - and as they head into their teenage years, they have to start worrying about being cool too. And I'm aware that I'm not saying anything you don't already know. But we know all this and things still haven't changed.
Roald Dahl mastered writing for this age group, but because he influenced every children's writer in our generation, his stuff doesn't have the sting that it used to. So we're faced with a difficult problem. We can't compete with the violence of the Playstation games or the ease with which a child can watch a horror film on the television they have in their bedroom. Upping the ante on these other forms of entertainment obviously won't solve this problem, but I despair at people who wonder why boys can't or won't read and then almost in the same breath, denigrate things like comics, games magazines and role-playing books. For anyone who thinks that comics are unworthy reading material, or will produce a generation of illiterates: I was a huge comics fan as a teenager... now I'm a professional writer giving a talk at a librarians' conference. And though I know they're sometimes bound very badly, the good ones are perfect borrowing material for libraries. High quality graphic novels are expensive to buy. They look good on the shelves, they're quick to read, quick to return. And yet in many libraries in Britain and Ireland, they still hardly feature on the shelves at all.
It's worth remembering, as well, that comics are a format, not a genre. Where else in a library do you have reading material where genres such as horror, crime, war, romance, comedy, superhero, illustrated classics and film adaptations are all mixed in with each other? For those of you who have never delved into the world of comics and don't know where to start, I have short introduction to comics in the Articles section on my website, oisinmcgann.com.
My first school residency was with a class of seven and eight-year old boys from a deprived, inner-city area who either had poor literacy skills, or were learning English as a second language. The teacher was a veteran campaigner and got me in because I could draw as well as write. I had no teaching experience, so this was a very steep learning curve for me.
Never short of ambition, I decided that they would each produce a ten-page illustrated story... and we would not do any writing for the first five classes. Some of them really struggled to write whole sentences - and if these lads could have spelled the kinds of swearwords they used in class, I would have been very happy. All the work was done orally and using pictures to start off. This was just as well, because it gave me a chance to explain that, as this was going up in an exhibition in the children's section of the Ilac Library, we couldn't really have things like hash pipes, stabbings with syringes or flaming penises in the stories. When I told the boy we probably wouldn't be allowed display the burning penis, his response was ‘What if I just had it smokin'?' It broke my heart to restrain his imagination.
But what I discovered was that these kids were bursting to tell stories. They had a wonderful way with vernacular language, loads of imagination and no inhibitions. And they had a kind of savvy that you'd never get from kids in a more protected environment. All they needed was the confidence, and we gave it to them by making everything as easy as possible, to the point where a support teacher would write out what a child told them and the child then copied out what they had written down. Or I would get them to trace the shape of a drawing and then they'd fill in the details themselves so that they could feel what it was like to create a drawing with form and proper proportions. The stories were about monsters so that they could draw them without somebody telling them ‘that's not what one of those looks like'. We played and we cheated and mollycoddled them until they had each produced a ten-page illustrated story... although, granted, some of them only had two or three lines on a page. And they showed me this new technique of putting large gaps in between each word to take up more space.
I learned as much from those boys as they did from me, and came away with the firm conviction - that has since been confirmed in other residencies - that the stories that boys produce for themselves are earthier, nastier, and more action-filled than anything the publishing market is producing for them. If you look at two of the biggest sellers for this age group, Captain Underpants and Horrid Henry, they're very tame compared to what these kids would write themselves, given half the chance.
I don't think we're losing boy readers because we refuse to publish video-nasties in book form, I think we're losing them because we're not reflecting the world as they see it.
I had started writing stories for this age group and I found I kept pulling myself back. I was worrying what my publishers would think, and what the teachers and librarians would think and it all got too complicated. In the end, I did what I've always done - I wrote what I wanted to read at that age, rather than what I thought they should be reading now. Because I know girls - the biggest audience, who enjoy thrillers and horror and fantasy as much as boys do - will happily read the subtle stuff, but to hold onto a lot of the lads you need a blunt instrument: a fight, a scare, a chase or some toilet humour every few pages. And besides... the girls like those too.
We're not as evolved as we like to think. While our society is making great strides towards a civilized world, as individuals we are still driven by the same base instincts that kept the cavemen (and women) alive back in the wild old days. Nowhere is this more true than in the form of prepubescent boys - and, some might argue, in most of the older ones too. But as we become more civilized, we are forced to quell the instincts that have won us the world title in evolution. We've become a little embarrassed about our primal needs. Just as we begin to think we're getting a handle on them, our selfish urges get the better of us and we end up descending into conflicts ranging from disputes over leylandii hedges to genocide. So when we see boys getting into fights, or even worse, playing war, we are appalled. These urges must be curbed at the youngest possible age, for the sake of the adult that child will become and for the safety of society at large. It is not enough to stop the role-playing, we must protect the children from any suspect stimuli. We wring our hands in despair at the levels of violence on television, in films and computer games.
It wasn't that way in when I was a kid. We didn't need these things to play war; a stick made a perfectly good gun, stones were grenades and you made all the sound effects yourself. And I guarantee you that the body counts in our games were just as high as you see on any Playstation or Xbox.
We debate constantly about the portrayal of violence in books. And yet it is in books that violence is most needed. But it's too simplistic to say boys are violent by nature, or indeed, that they even necessarily enjoy violence for its own sake.
We are simple creatures in an increasingly complicated world. Let's have a look at that world from the point of view of a typical boy in primary school in Ireland or the UK:
Let's say you have not been lucky enough to be born into a particularly book-loving home. Both of your parents work. The television has become a baby-sitter, bombarding you with images of dramatic, stylized, idealized lives, so different from your own. From an early age, you are able to recognize brands and celebrities, flick between television stations and watch DVDs over and over again. But you are less likely than the generation before you to be riding a bike, climbing trees or wandering beyond the watchful eyes of your parents.
Your world is safer than it has ever been before, and yet your parents won't let you out the front door on your own.
Even as you start developing an aversion to hugs and kisses from your doting mum, you still enjoy horseplay with your father; wrestling, being thrown in the air, the giddy horror of being tickled. But he often comes home late after a long commute, and is too busy or too tired to play with you. By the time you were old enough to go to school, you had already have discovered the armchair magic of computer games... but physical play is still the best buzz.
At school, you are forced to sit behind a desk for a large part of the day, five days a week, when you'd much rather be up and doing things or making things or playing outside. You are trained to sit down for long periods of time. It's as if you're being punished.
And years from now, you will belatedly realize the detrimental effect it's having on the size of your arse. Those base instincts of yours are outraged, but there's nothing you can do about it. Television programmes, particularly advertising, will already have started making it clear that boys are dumber than girls. The media - again, particularly in advertising - are still not over that post-feminist thing of the girl in a story having to be more sensible than the boy (I'm guilty of that one myself on several counts).
But it might even be true, because girls seem to be able to handle this sitting-behind-a-desk thing better than boys. Except for a few male high fliers, they seem to average better grades. Even at home, your mother is far more likely to be seen reading a book than your father, who prefers the newspaper, a sports mag, or some instruction manual. Instead, your greatest enjoyment and satisfaction is in the ritualized combat that is sport. You particularly enjoy winning. You love overcoming your opponents. It's more exciting to compete than to cooperate.
Life is simpler when you're engaged in physical activities. You can succeed through coordination, skill and aggression, things you can learn just by having fun. Your body tells you this is how it's meant to be; it rewards you with an adrenaline rush of pleasure you feel to your very soul. You are hardwired to enjoy the things that keep you alive in the wild; food, water, physical comfort, intimacy with those close to you and (hopefully at a reasonable age) sex. And, of course, overcoming physical challenges, defeating an opponent - or perhaps even your prey.
But soon it's back inside you go to your desk. Schoolwork centres round books and at first the benefits are less obvious. Even if your parents have not instilled in you a love of books, the odds are you will learn to read because everybody around you tells you it's nigh on impossible to get by without it, and you do like hearing stories and you'd love to be able to read them yourself. But you just don't get the same adrenaline rush as you struggle through those first few years of academia. Abstract concepts hold less interest for you than tangible ones - you have more respect for someone who can put a car engine together than someone who appreciates Shakespeare. You value problem-solving over emotional expression. You prefer to look outward, rather than inward.
Eventually, you can read more or less fluently and despite the competition from sports and computer games, you're willing to give this reading lark a chance. But there are so many things competing for your time now and you find yourself veering towards activities that feed those base instincts again. You can't help yourself; it's in your nature.
But those instincts are becoming less and less relevant. In fact, you are growing up in a world where the role of men is no longer clearly defined. Women can do so much that they couldn't do before, whereas men's behaviour is expected to be more restrained. Man is no longer the only bread-winner. And you can't even look forward to being the defender of the homestead. With a friendly superpower across the water on either side of us, outright war with your nation's neighbours is unlikely, and even then modern warfare has been depersonalized by technology that can kill across vast distances, rendering individuals impotent.
With an effective police force and an organized system of justice, physical strength just isn't as valuable as it used to be in defending the home. Your status is no longer decided by your ability to provide food and protection. Outside of professional sport, even the behaviour that accompanies these skills is inappropriate: We do not duel over honour. Aggression is frowned upon and overt machismo is ridiculed.
Nowadays, if someone like Nathan Hale said the line: ‘I regret that I have but one life to give for my country', you'd be rolling your eyes and saying: ‘Jesus, who does your man think he is?'
Even the trades that used to require physical strength are on the decline in your country, or are being made easy with the proliferation of power tools. And besides, they lack the status of more intellectual or more glamorous work. You are more likely than ever before to end up in a desk job when you leave school or finish college. Manufacturing is on its way out. DIY is considered a hobby, though serious tasks are left to the professionals. People prefer to buy things than to make them. In some other country, other, less fortunate people are saving you the hassle. We do not fix things, we simply replace them. Manual skills become valued for putting together self-assembly furniture with the Allen key provided.
And even with clear diagrams and one tool that fits every screw, you still can't put some of that stuff together. While society has evolved, you have not. Those instincts to overcome challenges, to fight and hunt are still there and they want to be let loose. And like drug addiction or overeating or masturbation, you will find a way to satisfy them or they'll find it themselves.
As a schoolboy, you have to make a hundred petty decisions every day, from the multiple choice questions in your maths book to choosing the ring-tone on your new mobile phone. The factors that will decide your success in life are numerous, insubstantial and transitory. You are bombarded with images conjuring a life you can't seem to achieve no matter how hard you try. You are confused, frustrated. You can't even figure out what real success is anymore - there seem to be so many definitions. Do exams really matter or not? The stress becomes intolerable.
And inside you, that animal is telling you this is all desperately unfair. You should just be able to fight your way to the top of the pile. You hunger for a life where success is determined in one swift, decisive, dramatic act. And the very pinnacle of this is muscle-straining, teeth-clenching, bone-crunching, heart-racing violence - a true life-and-death conflict. The very opposite of an existence sheltered by democracy, law and order... social welfare. You are a wild animal forced to perform bewildering tricks in a circus.
So you seek out violence; physically, in the constrained form of sport, but also in your entertainment: television, films, computer games. You fantasize about problems that can be solved by punching or kicking, stabbing or shooting or blowing things up. You've never had to fight for your life, but you watch 24 or the Saw films, or play Grand Theft Auto. You become fascinated with the Second World War, Vietnam or the Gulf. There are even computer games set in real historical battles where, years ago, real men were maimed and killed. You don't care that these games disrespect their memory and provide no moral position on the violence you are committing on-screen - offering, instead, the option to play again. Material deemed unsuitable for you simply promises greater excitement.
Even with all the other distractions, you know you should be reading. Most of those with the highest status in society have good educations and you want to be one of them. But there's no such thing as passive reading. You have to put in the effort to get results and it can take a while before you're able to read those exciting stories on your own. As an entertainment, it's hobbled at the start of the race. But you persevere because you know that there's stuff out there you like. It's a pity that most of what's considered suitable for you is so tame compared to other forms of entertainment.
The ‘naughty' books you are offered are nothing compared to what you'd write yourself, if you could get away with it. You come out into the schoolyard telling your friends about this book where a boy cheats in an egg-and-spoon race. One of your friends tells you how last night, he blew a guy's head off with his nine millimetre and drove over the dead body with his Subaru Impreza, escaping the police by engaging his nitrous oxide system. Who is more likely to impress the lads? As a boy reader, you're probably not aware that the children's book industry is dominated by women. Most of the writers, agents, editors, publicists, reviewers, specialist booksellers, teachers and librarians are women. Women are not violent by nature - most of them abhor it. They tend not to commit violent crimes, engage in or even watch rough contact sports - although these trends do seem to be changing. You notice that some of the girls you know seem to be setting out to out-lad the lads on a Saturday night, claiming their equal rights to get pissed, start a fight, puke and fall unconscious in the gutter - though you suspect that not many of them work in the children's books industry.
But for many women, trying to understand the thrill of violence is tantamount to a man trying to understand what it's like to be pregnant.
So, unlike the worlds of movies and games, it's inevitable that female taste will dominate in children's books. And I do mean taste, not censorship. And while women - unlike most men - will read just about anything, books that do little more than satisfy a hunger for action are, at best, valued for appealing to those ‘difficult' boy readers or, at worst, dismissed as trash. Books with regular action scenes (or, for that matter, earthy humour - your favourite kind) do not win awards. Contrast this with the male-dominated world of superhero comics, where action is the staple diet and every second woman is a scantily clad Amazon warrior with the body of a porn star.
As a typical boy in primary school, you find that the books, comics and magazines you love best are often considered low-brow - mere stepping-stones to the realm of ‘proper' books. If you find more literary stuff boring, it's because you're not literate enough, not intelligent enough. You should blame your parents.
The fact that this kind of reading doesn't interest you enough to provide a goal worth attaining, that you feel more affinity with 50 Cent than Umberto Eco, is your problem, not theirs. If you don't make it that far, you will have failed. And you hate to fail. You would rather opt out than face what promises to be certain failure.
And the fact that many of the people pushing these literary books have little interest in the things you love and the people you respect (because those guys do stuff) you become convinced that academia is not for you. By the time you have reached a level in your education where abstract concepts can offer the most exciting possibilities, you have decided that reading is for girls, swots... nerds. And you are not one of them and never want to be.
I don't have definitive answers for what appears to be the biggest problem facing educators and the book industry today. I do believe that games, television and films are not the enemies of reading, as they are so often portrayed. They are feeding a need that is there, one that is patently not being fed enough by books. I think part of the blame, paradoxically, lies with a lifestyle where young children are not encouraged to explore and get dirty and take risks. They are safer in front of the telly, or playing a console game. They're not burning off all that fidgety energy churning up inside them. They're not being left outside to find their own entertainment and let their imaginations run riot.
Remember when a kids' party used to consist of just filling them with sugar and sending them out into the garden? Now they expect their entertainment to be provided for them. Every time we stump up a magician or a bouncy castle for our little princes and princesses, we deprive them of something: the will to use their own initiative.
I think that children - and boys at primary school level in particular - need to spend much less time sitting at desks and more time applying what they learn in their lessons to practical tasks, where they can use their hands and move around more. They need to be problem-solving, building things, maybe even things they read about in stories.
Ireland and the UK have an appalling lack of playgrounds and sporting facilities for kids, and we could be using them to associate reading with play. We could have whole pages of local sporting news displayed on notice-boards - at a ten-year old's eye-level - in communal sports-grounds and the bare walls of gymnasiums for them to read while waiting for their friends to get changed, or their parents to pick them up. We could have the alphabet painted around every playground, not just in schools, but everywhere. Fairy-tales and nursery rhymes on billboards. We could have the instructions for playground games on easy-to-read, illustrated signs. We could commission intelligent graffiti.
We could ensure that not every piece of attractive typography on display around or near our schools and libraries is a piece of advertising.
One of the reasons that we don't see teenagers in libraries is that reading is thought of as solitary and quiet, sedentary and antisocial - the opposite of playing outside, of being popular and cool. We should make it more interactive and even take it out of the classroom or library: Why is there so little reading aloud for the sheer pleasure of it, without analysis, particularly in secondary schools? We could have contests where kids of any age, either individually or in teams, compete against their classmates to read out the funniest, scariest, most thrilling or most disgusting passage from a book of their choice. We could have more children's literature quizzes. We could have storytelling sessions outside the classroom, in the yard or on some stretch of grass or under some trees. Find somewhere that sets the mood. Go somewhere exciting for the day and wear the kids out, then come back and read a story that has a similar setting to the one you've just come from.
For most readers, and particularly for boys, text offers not just an enjoyment of reading itself, but also a means of doing and knowing things. Look at how they soak up non-fiction, magazines, newspapers, sports biographies, the Guinness Book of Records, as well as websites and online networking. Even apart from publications that offer facts, news, instruction or the like, boys will often care less about how something is written and more what it is written about. Lads who couldn't care less about the heart-breaking tale of a child with a terminal illness might be moved to tears by the story of Shackleton's survival in the Antarctic. They will seek out stories about things they enjoy doing, or would like to do in the future, or cannot do because they're unable to... or because society will not permit it.
And of all the vices, society is least tolerant of violence - unless it can be labelled ‘war', of course - and not many of us end up as cops or soldiers or spies or gangsters or assassins, so that is what boy readers want most of all; stories about exciting experiences, the brushes with danger they will never have. And if they don't find it in books, they'll find it somewhere else.
But it's in books that they will get the most thorough experience. Books will give them time and detail that other media will not. Books will let them soak it in at their own pace. And the inherent maturity that comes with learning to read means they will become more discerning towards these experiences. They will eventually seek out better description, more evocative language, a more perceptive view of things. Better writing.
Or they might not. We can't force it on them.
If they are shown the violence they're begging for, and if it is portrayed realistically, rather than in cartoon or game form, and they are shown it in the wider context that the scope of a good story will allow, they will become more receptive to the consequences of that violence. We can instil in them a more mature attitude towards it.
But we can't do any of this if we insist on differentiating their favourite genres of books from those we consider more ‘worthy', with the implication that they are ignorant if they don't agree.
Which is exactly what the world of literature and education does. So the boys look for role models who suit their view of the world, others who've turned away from education in favour of more immediate gains. And in doing so, the idea is reinforced that those who can, do; those who can't... read.
I am absolutely not against teaching the classics in school (I can hear the cries of ‘Dumbing down!' already), I want kids to read more classics, not less. But I am against their being placed above every other form of reading. They are one in a range of options in the development of literacy - and as it is, by shoving them down tender young throats, we are doing to classic texts what we have done to the Irish language. We're creating resentment.
Yes, a good teacher or librarian can inspire enthusiasm, and enthusiastic readers will always look for more sophisticated writing. But there is a big difference between exploring literature and instilling the love of reading that will sustain it and encourage the next generation of writers - not to mention ensuring that every child leaving school can actually read. Surely a story should be judged on its ability to engage and affect the reader? Instead, we often blame the reader for not being affected. For not liking what we want them to like. How, then, can we blame them for turning away?
We need to remember that there was a time in the life of every Charles Dickens or every Salman Rushdie, when he picked his nose, laughed at fart jokes and was obsessed with his willy even before he knew what to do with it. I say we let them live their crude little lives for all they're worth.
Thanks for listening.