Today, marks the final day of Banned Book Week, a national event recognizing the importance of free speech and the right to choose our own books. I have invited Alan Lawrence Sitomer, award-winning teacher and author, to share his thoughts about his new book, The Downside of Being Up. Alan's book will no doubt spark controversy because of its frank description of a boy going through puberty.
I admit the book made me uncomfortable. I learned euphemisms for "penis" I didn't want to know. On the other side of things, I don't think we should limit books to those titles that make us feel comfortable. Books should challenge us, provoke us, and stretch our thinking. Above all, The Downside of Being Up will strike a chord with its target audience--middle school boys. If we want boys to read, we have to give them books they connect with and enjoy. I appreciate Alan's willingness to discuss his new book and writing for boys through this guest post.
I like to think of my new book, The Downside of Being Up, as Judy Blume for boys. Simply put, it's a coming of age novel and the truth is, what could be more coming of age than going through puberty?
Yes, I am tackling a fairly taboo subject... or at least a subject that's usually only mentioned in hushed tones as if it's some kind of shameful secret. However, here's a newsflash for ya (Quick, cover your eyes!) adolescent boys get erections. There, I said it. Did the world just end? Doubt it.
This happens to ALL boys. It's not a red state/blue state issue. Tall, short, brown-eyed or blue, two parents in the home or child of divorce, none of it matters. Boys get stiffies and they pop up for us at the most inauspicious of times in our young lives. And when this first starts happening, WE FREAK OUT.
Yet, it's just Mother Nature. There's nothing "wrong" with us. We're not deviants, monsters, bad people or pervs. We're male. It's the way God made us.
Personally, I wish there was a book like this around when I was a kid if only for the sake of letting me know that what I was experiencing was normal. In a way, and I am entirely serious about this (remember, I was California's Teacher of the Year) this text is bibliotherapy and young adolescent males are going to find more than just penis humor in this novel; they are going to find identification.
Also, this is NOT A BOOK ABOUT SEX. In fact, there is no sex at all. This is a tale of a boy going through a very significant and very disconcerting right of passage on the journey to adulthood. It's a classic "character-driven text".
Admittedly though, I wanted to dig my writing heels in and go for, as they say, an LOL reading experience. Me, I love to laugh. However, I also feel that a lot of what people peddle as "comedy" in YA books today is lukewarm at best. I wanted to go for "spitting milk out of your nose funny". So far, the reaction has been pretty good and while I can't promise that everyone is going to find the book riotous, I can tell you that I laughed my own rear-end off while writing it. To me this is significant because as author I always believe I am the first audience. To paraphrase Robert Frost, "I am the first crier and if my work doesn't bring my own eyes to tears, why should I expect it to have that impact on others?" This is true of me as well. If milk isn't spitting out of my nose why would it ever spray through anyone else's nostrils?
The teacher side of me, though, also knows a heck of lot about the critical relationship between literacy skills, academic achievement and life success. Especially, for boys in this day and age. It can be argued - and it has - that we are raising a generation of non-readers, the implications of which are already proving to be calamitous for today's young men. Well, the only way to elevate a young person's reading skills is by getting them to read. And kids today, boys, will read if they are provided reading material that "speaks" to them in a meaningful way.
Boys like to laugh. This is why a comedy which sympathizes with a universal tragedy through which we all suffer, has always felt to me like a solid project on which I ought to hang my hat. The Downside of Being Up is a book that can hopefully be used as a tool to not only convert young male readers from skeptics who "don't like to read" into "fans of reading as long as they are given a 'good' book". As the old saying goes, if you build it they will come.
Now, does it take a male writer to reach boy reader? Of course not. However, this book speaks to an almost universal male awkwardness we all go through at the cruel hands of puberty. There are smiles to be mined from pain and, like death and taxes, certain aspects of growing up when you are a guy prove to be unavoidably befuddling and anxiety producing. This also makes them downright hysterical. Often, we cope with fear, hurt and emotional wreckage through laughter. (There's poignancy and emotional relief to be found in smiling.)
Yet, is there bathroom humor? To that I ask, how well do you know the substance of the lion's share of conversations being held between middle school boys? One answer shall lead to the other. (*wink-wink*)