Creating The Book: How to Hook Urban (non)Readers
by G. Neri
Whenever I do a school visit, the first thing I ask (after telling the teachers to avert their eyes) is this: “How many of you do NOT like to read?” The students look around warily before a large number of hands shoot up.
When I was in middle school, I would have raised my hand too. I was a non-reader, into comic books and drawing, and not into reading big blocks of text. But like many authors who started as non-readers, I found my book, the book that changed reading for me.
I believe every non-reader who raises their hand has a book out there waiting to be discovered—one that will change their concept of what a book is and what a book can do. Why do I believe that? Because when I found my book, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster, everything changed. This was the first book I encountered asa kid that had an even crazier imagination than what was going on in my head. I was bowled over—this book seemed to ignore the rules and really pushed the limits in terms of imagination and farce. My own thoughts about the absurdity of the world around me seemed tame in comparison, but now the bar had been raised! I wanted to know what else was out there that I was missing. Well, that led me on a search, and within a relatively short period of time, I was reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, just about the biggest blocks of text imaginable.
So when I approach writing a book now, I am thinking of my twelve-year-old self and how I might be able to create that book, the book that changes a non-reader into a reader. A big challenge for sure, and one that looms even larger for urban boys, who have little to choose from when it comes to seeing their voices and their lives represented on the page.
Chess Rumble (Lee and Low, 2007) became the perfect vehicle for creating, or rather, reinventing a book that might lure in an urban non-reading boy. It is a hybrid graphic novel, which uses free-verse and spot/ half/ full-page illustrations. I’ve come to call it an illustrated free-verse novella because the publishing world had no other way to categorize it.
From my own experience teaching in South Central Los Angeles, I’ve come to realize that you can’t just hand Jane Austen to contemporary urban kids and expect them to make that leap, the void is too wide. The language has become more urban, more visual and sound oriented. Because of that, Chess Rumble uses a distinctly urban voice and bold, compelling images by Jesse Joshua Watson. The images grab the reader’s attention and the voice sucks them in.
Using a voice they recognize makes urban teens sit up—they’re actually shocked to see and hear a voice they know in a book. In almost every school Jesse and I have gone to, we’ve either seen or heard about a young man who’s never read a work of fiction before, who picks up Chess Rumble out of boredom with no intention of reading it, and after setting his eyes on that first page, devours it. Teachers say to us all the time: That student back there has never read anything, but he read your book!
In addition to the voice and images, several elements also help overcome the roadblocks to reading: the thickness of the book (more than one teacher has told me that when they recommend Chess Rumble to a student, their first response is often: how thick is it?). A thin volume, with images, lots of white space and small blocks of text allows readers to feel they are making quick progress. A cool cover ensures kids won’t be embarrassed to be seen with it. And most importantly, a provocative real life story that doesn’t preach helps readers see the connections between the book and their own lives. The book doesn’t talk down to them, but talks with them. It’s no accident that it’s structured like a chess match. The story challenges them and awaits their next move in real life.
Comics played an important part in my childhood, and graphic novels, particularly the reality-based ones, are a fantastic way to discover history and real life issues that can affect our lives. Yummy: Last Days of a Southside Shorty (Lee and Low, late 2009) is based on the true story of an eleven-year-old gangbanger who made the cover of TIME magazine in 1994. It is creative non-fiction that became a graphic novel because, to me, that format was the best way to capture kids at the crucial age where they might become attracted to gangs. These young men, kids like Yummy, don’t read, but like comic books. The graphic novel format allows the serious issues of teen violence to be depicted in a way that middle school students would accept. Not as a lecture, but through the eyes of a young shorty who gets in over his head.
In the book, Yummy tries to impress the gang he hopes will accept him by shooting at a rival, but he accidentally kills a neighborhood girl he grew up with. He becomes a fugitive from justice until the gang decides he has become too much of a liability and must be eliminated. The main question the book and real life raises is this: was Yummy a killer or a victim? Could he be both?
There is something about the comic style that allows you to deal with heavy issues— it sucks you into personal stories, but still allows you to maintain a safe distance. It is a comic, after all. But because readers don’t expect the type of story they get with Yummy, their receptors are open.
Even a YA novel like Surf Mules (Putnam, 2009), I approached with non-readers in mind. I began my creative life as a filmmaker, and like Yummy, Surf Mules is inspired by a film script I wrote. It’s a page turner, inventively designed to play like a movie— fast, compelling and structured almost like a bank heist flick. It has the cool cover, explores a cool subculture (drug trafficking surfers), and plays like a buddy road flick. But underneath, it’s a story of two lifelong friends who come to a fork in the road when it’s time to graduate, and struggle to make that transition to adulthood. Again it features voices not normally seen in YA lit. Non-readers are being attracted to its surface elements but then discover what it’s really about: the choices we make in the name of friendship and the complexities of male bonding.
Writing for boys and non-readers is a niche I fell into by accident. But thinking back to my twelve-year-old self and seeing how I’ve transformed from a non-reader into a novelist inspired me to write books from the male perspective for all young men, but particularly those who may not have any male role models. So when I go to a school and I see those raised hands, I don’t feel despair, I see opportunity…an opportunity to help someone find their book. And that’s a quest worth pursuing.
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