The Percy Jackson Solution

Twitter was a-twitter today with the latest in a series of cannonballs lobbed in the general direction of books for and about kids, and the people who read them. This one landed on the deck of the SS Rick Riordan. I rarely enter these frays, because I know six hundred other people will say the same thing, and somebody will say it way better than I can (usually Anne Ursu), but I want to respond to this conclusion:

 What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them. . . away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?

What if, I would answer, what if… what if there was a body of research that already answered this question? What if there was an entire professional enterprise devoted to it? What if there was some fangled-thing called “reading education” that explored the lifelong relationships between kids and books?

Hey, guess what! There totally is!

For example, see the work of Jim Trelease, who coined the term “home run book,” an idea summed up nicely by Stephen Krashen:

One very positive experience can create a reader.

What’s a very positive experience? It’s a kid getting excited by a book. Sometimes, as Michael Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm discovered, the book has an authenticity in a reader’s life (which is why we need diverse books). Sometimes, as William Brozo has explored, the book has something do with the adult a kid wants to become. Sometimes, according to Krashen, that book is an award-winning literary historical novel, sometimes it’s gritty urban adventure, sometimes it’s a formulaic mystery (like the ones Mead admits to liking as a child), and sometimes it’s a comic book (gasp). For millions of kids, apparently, it is Percy Jackson. But whatever book turns a kid into a lifelong reader, we know this:

 One very positive experience can create a reader.

This isn’t a theory at this point, it has been affirmed by decades of research. To ask “What if a positive reading experience totally ruins reading?” is as ridiculous at this point as asking if vaccines cause autism: not because the question itself has never been worth asking, but because it’s been answered exhaustively and to keep asking it shows a dogged incuriosity in the facts.

I don’t especially care for Percy Jackson myself (I’m more of a Cronus Chronicles fan), but this isn’t about my taste. Of all the challenges kids becoming lifelong readers — no access to books, no access to books about kids like themselves, socialized negative attitudes about reading, a lack of positive role models who read — one thing absolutely not on the list is beloved series that has millions of kids reading. That is the solution, not the problem.

Too Many Notes

One of my favorite scenes from any movie is this one.

I know the joke is about banal criticism, uttered by a witless fop who knows nothing about music, but I also think — maybe it doesn’t apply to Mozart, but I know what the emperor (who I will always see as Principal Rooney in a ridiculous costume) means. Music can have too many notes. It can be overly notey. Have you seen the winnowing rounds of American Idol, when every vocalist wants to show their stuff by hitting as many notes as they can on their way through a syllable in the lyrics? Too many notes. Cut a few.

Writers are more used to be critiqued on economy, and though it’s obviously not shared by all acclaimed novelists (even famous ones), most of us would roll our eyes at an author who claims their bloated novel has “just as many words  as the piece requires.”

I think, in many ways, my first three novels have too many notes. The first draft of Mudville had so many notes it was a cacophony; you have no idea how many subplots and backstories were  shoved into it. A lot of that was cut, but if I had a fresh crack of it I think I would boil it down to two thirds its current length.

I think that middle grade has gotten overly long and notey as a genre, to be honest. Why when I was a kid (waves cane) when I was a kid there was nary an elementary school book that topped page 200 and you could read the whole thing in one sitting. And books were made out of paper!

That being said, I’ve been working on something since January that is still only 10,000 words long — I’ve had the file open for most of the year, so it’s not for lack of working on it, but it is painstaking and doesn’t want to write itself, and doesn’t want to go away. It’s either my masterpiece or I’ll never finish it. No matter how much you love economy, 10,000 words ain’t going to cut it. 20,000 is all right if you’re Andrew Clements, but for most of us 40K is short. Will I ever get there?

If I do, this is my masterpiece. But you can’t expect it until (does math) 2018, and that’s if I find a publisher three days after writing THE END on the last page (by the way, nobody actually does that, it’s figurative).

I have told people about it, even entire schools full of people, but I haven’t blogged about it, and not many people have read it.

Here’s the first sentence:

Rafael Reyes ran up bleacher steps of Tetelo Vargas stadium flapping his arms and pretending to fly.

That sentence — believe me, I’ve worked on it enough — that sentence has no superfluous notes.

 

The Pond

We live near a small lake, which I call a pond, because it’s such a small lake. The pond has a pier, and about once a week I walk there with my son. In spring black clouds of baby bullheads hovered near the surface, gulping down the nymphs and wrigglers. By midsummer the water was clogged with plant life, the pond humming with mosquitoes. Byron asked what happened to the bullheads. I assured him the fish were fine, hidden by weeds, now fat and feeding on the hellgrammites at the bottom. We’ve never seen dobsonflies but we both love to say “hellgrammites.”

This summer we got to know all the various kinds of insects, and looked for them in and around the water. We found beetles under stones and looked on milkweed for monarch caterpillars. Byron particularly loves dragonflies, which can fly backwards, and rarely let one go by without pointing and shouting in delight. One day we saw a tiny frog and followed it for a while. Another day, following a rain, we saw monster-story-large mushroom caps floating gills-up in the marshy overflow and Byron couldn’t stop pointing them out to me, knowing I’m interested in fungi.

Summer is gone but the pond is still thriving. Today he rode his scooter the whole way (previous expeditions involved a wagon), sailing down Victory Drive on the path, turning right at the flagpole without being told the way. He was both a big kid and small, at that moment–beyond reach, moving faster than I could hurry, flying under his own power, yet tiny and achingly vulnerable. We stopped once on the way to marvel at a tree full of songbirds — I’ve never seen (or heard) so many at once–a veritable sparrowpalooza. I would have marched right past, but Byron has eerily sensitive hearing, and today that proved a gift.

We finally reached the pond and found it full of geese, mallards, and coots. Every living thing seemed to be out and about, enjoying what might be the last brilliant weekend of the fall, honking and quacking and gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight. We could have stayed forever.

As the era of trucks and trains passes into its own autumn, I am so glad to have a young boy who also loves nature, who treasures the smallest creatures (his two best friends are ants), who sees beauty in rocks and twigs, who marvels at the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies, who even thinks mosquitoes are interesting, and whose heart is open to little birds (who are, after all, the secrets of living).

 

Keeping Up

This evening Byron got a new scooter (an impulse purchase) and for a long while we witnessed pure, unfiltered, untroubled, unlimited joy. For his sensory processing, the scooter is a perfect combination of vestibular sensation (feeling his body fly through the air, balanced on leg) and proprioception (pushing off the keep the scooter going), both of which he craves. But you know, scooters also just plain fun. There’s something wonderful and memorable about playing at dusk, wearing out the day and putting it to bed. There’s even more wonderful in being able to go faster than your parents can run.

Byron on a Scooter Dad in Pursuit

Childhood is made of moments like these. I hope B. can remember it, to keep it like a leaf or a lucky coin, and come back to it when he needs to.

Middle Grade Fiction – Online Class

I am offering my online class, Middle Grade Fiction, once again this winter… I swear this class is a lot of fun, and you’ll learn a bunch. It’s a distillation of what I’ve learned and is steeped in middle-grade classics like Harriet the Spy and Charlotte’s Web.

Find out more or sign up here.

Collectibles

This weekend in Minneapolis has been as lovely and picturesque as autumns can be, the autumn of sentimental poetry and watercolor illustrations for timeless picture books. The trees are gold, country lanes carpeted with russet hues. If I were a better writer I would reel off a description until you wept, but I can ID about six colors between red and yellow and fewer trees by their leaves.

Autumn Lane

Yesterday, I tried to embrace the perfection of a gorgeous fall day in the country, to live in the moment, to treasure it, as people implore parents of the very young to do, though ignoring the stresses of life is like telling someone on a walk to ignore a pebble in one’s shoe.

Children are different; they just run headlong through the woods until they want to be carried home. Our child wanted us to stop and admire truck tire tracts the same way my wife stopped to show him deer tracks. Nobody has told him that any of it isn’t wonderful, that one day is any better than any other, that the woods are better than a city park, and so he — absent the pressure to treasure it — enjoys it more and absolutely, but can be equally stunned by very large parking lots or gas stations with racks of novelty items by the register.

This morning we went the park, and B found two maple leaves, one maroon and gold, to add to his collection. At the park, other children were doing the same — filling their parents’ pockets with perfect specimens. Kids as young as two and as old as twelve were stopping to wonder and admire the gems strewing the paths. I imagine all of them have a treasure chest like this one at home:

leaves and pine cones

But the collection is curated by parents, who say no to the cicada shells, headless action figures, and cellophane wrappers a kid might also take a shine to. At the park B played with a child who had collected, in addition to his leaves, the googly eye lost from a toy, and a bit of string. Children don’t sort the world into good things and garbage. It is all interesting. I think we cease to be really young when we start to discriminate. And that is the great paradox — we can no longer truly treasure the wonders of the world as we realize there are treasures to be had, that the rest of it is garbage.

On the walk home B stopped to do a little jig, bringing to mind this line from Stafford:

“Kids – they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.”

Seeking

Our son is, in the language of child development, a sensory-seeker.

At least for tactile things — he wants to shove to feel the bodies next to him. His impulse to throw things (including punches) overwhelms him. He begs for us to “squish” him, and flings himself at our bodies. It’s made classes he’s been in tough, all that pushing, the time-outs and tantrums. It makes every night long, when the craving for rough contact seems to be stronger. He stuffs blankets in his mouth, tries to fold himself up in the bed or the couch, and sometimes seems to be trying to kick out of his own skin, as if he’s molting.

It’s hard to know, with toddlers, what is normal nuttiness and what is unusual even for toddlers, but we definitely thought that having a preschooler wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Other kids B’s age didn’t seem to be quite so turbulent every single day, or their parents quite so ragged, and B seemed to be lagging behind on a lot of behavioral stuff. We started with behavioral counseling, which has helped us as parents a great deal, but that segued into occupational therapy.

Now he’s been diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder. We’re still learning what that means, but it’s nice to have an explanation and a treatment plan for what we long suspected were more than the usual toddler problems. Some issues seem to be directly related to the sensory-processing dysfunction (like, er, using the potty). Other things (like going to bed) just seem held back by it–he was distracted, or overwhelmed, by other things. And of course some of them are normal toddler things.

For him sounds seem to be amplified, often distracting or annoying him, while tactile sensations don’t quite process, so he digs in deeper to feel. I’ve wondered so many times what is going on his head, and asked in that classic exasperated parental way, “what were you thinking?” Now I know his body is trying to give his brain the information it needs, or maybe any information at all. Suddenly everything made sense, so to speak.

So now we go to the sensitively-named AUTISM SHOP for weighted blankets and big-kid chew toys that give him the tactile sensations he craves. He sees two therapists every week. We’ve learned he needs to do “heavy work,” and my wife has improvised games for him involving shoving things around the house to calm him in advance of outings. We do yoga at bedtime. He loves it, especially “the lion,” which gives him license to roar.

Life has gotten a little bit easier. We’re even getting sleep, and sleep makes everything else seem less impossible.

We’re lucky to live in an era and a country where there is so much awareness of these developmental issues, and of course we’re lucky to have the resources to give him what he needs. I suppose many kids just outgrow the issues, but by then they have reputations that will follow them, expectations that become self-fulfilling–that they will be trouble in class, or get into fights. I hope he can learn how to cope before Kindergarten. I feel bad for him. Being a kid is so hard already. Obviously other kids have bigger challenges than he does, and I want to hug them all. Kids this age aren’t really guilty of anything. They have needs and impulses they are trying to sort out. They can be exasperating but none of them are “bad kids.”

If I can end this entry with a plea, it is for adults to stop clucking their tongue or pursing their lips when they see a kid like ours acting out, presumably judging us for not spanking him or whatever.  You really don’t know what’s going on with him, and you don’t know how much we’ve worried and stressed about his behavior, how much we’ve done and how far he’s come. Offer a sympathetic smile or mind your own business. We’re working on it.

We’re doing it for him, mind you, not for you.