One of the members of a children’s literature listserv send a query to the group. She explained that she was writing historical fiction and that the setting of her book was the South during the Great Depression. One of her characters was a teenage boy who was poor, athletic and used reading as his escape. What kinds of books would that kind of a boy read? she asked the group.
The author described my father. I wrote to her about his love of Sir Walter Scott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Rudyard Kipling. His favorite books would be called “classics,” but he never
described them with that dry term. In high school, he read books about adventure and courage. There were struggles between life and death, honor and exile, love and longing. The stories were grand, with epic plots and dialogue made up of fruity adjectives. My father loved prose that rang with poetry and poems that told stories. His teachers read passages from the books with deep, resonant voices. He and his classmates leaned in to catch every word. How amazing, my father thought. How amazing that books can reach across centuries to touch the imaginations of boys in middle Tennessee.
Back in the 90s, I was an account executive at Bozell, a large advertising agency in New York City. My account was Marithe & Francois Girbaud, which specialized in denim apparel and was distributed in this country by VF Corp. There were many obstacles to marketing the brand in the U.S., but the one that held everyone’s attention at the agency and at VF Corp. was how to get the attention of teenage boys.
I still sit at my desk and ponder the question, how do I market to young men? These days, I’m not trying to sell jeans, I’m trying to sell boys on reading. I find myself remembering my father’s stories about his high school days. Do boys today respond to literature and language as he did?
Not long ago, a student slipped into the library during his lunch period, something he’s forbidden to do without a hall pass. He was charming and used to getting his way with middle aged women. He was stocky with a football player’s build, wearing a clingy t-shirt confidently and carrying a lazy smile. He needed a book. Right away.
“There’s no such thing as an urgent book.”
He smiled and persisted. He needed a book for silent reading but he was having trouble finding the one he wanted. I looked skeptical. High school boys with these assignments often take the first book they see, especially when they wait until the last minute to come to the library. If they’re looking for a specific title, there’s a high probability they are going to carry around a book they were required to read in an earlier grade and pretend to read it for their current assignment. I asked him to describe the book.
He considered the question. “It was yellow.”
“Uh huh. Any other details?”
“It was small.”
“Well, there’s a surprise.”
He grinned. “I’m going to ask my old teacher what it was. She had it in her room.” He sprinted out of the library and returned a few minutes later.
“Romeo and Juliet,” he announced.
“No. My teacher said that was the book. And then she told me to leave her alone during her lunch, so I can’t get it from her.”
We walked over to the 800s and I pulled the various versions of Romeo and Juliet off of the library shelves, including a graphic novel and a simple adaptation. I watched as he evaluated the volumes.
“Which one is the real one?”
“What do you mean?”
“This one has pictures, so that’s not right. This one looks like it’s for little kids and the words aren’t Shakespeare’s words. We took turns with the parts in class. It was really cool. You could see the story. You know what I mean? In your head. Like in a movie. When Romeo and Juliet died… I didn’t want them to die. That part was really sad because they shouldn’t have died, it was all mixed up. But it made sense that they died. Have you ever read anything by Shakespeare? You should read Shakespeare sometime because what he says, the way he writes something, it’s… perfect.”
I pulled a slim, yellow volume from the pile and handed it to him. “See? I told you!” he smirked.
Yes, he did. Books reach across decades, generation after generation, to stir hearts and imaginations, one boy at a time. How amazing.