Jon Scieszka has spent his adult life trying to encourage young boys to embrace the written word. The former teacher and the author of more than 20 children's books says treating boys and girls the same in school just doesn't work.
In school reading lists, "we're promoting such a narrow version of literacy that we're not including what a lot of boys like," Scieszka tells Michele Norris.
Scieszka started Guys Read, a literacy program and Web site with suggested reading for boys. Now he's published a book, Guys Write for Guys Read, a collection of stories, comics and advice on boyhood by best-selling authors and illustrators. He hopes the collection (selections of which are below) will inspire boys to read.
'My Entire Football Career' by David Bauer
People often ask me, "What's your favorite sport?" My answer is always the same: "Baseball."
But I grew up in Texas, and in Texas football was, and forever will be, king. I liked football a lot and played it all the time in my backyard and in my friends' backyards. And I played it pretty well. I was kind of small and was, let's say, not fast, but I could throw and catch a football as well as most of my buddies and better than a lot of them.
Just before sixth grade, my family moved to another house and a different school, and when I got there I found out that my new school had a six-man football team with uniforms and a schedule and everything. Whoa, I thought, this is cool, and they said
I could join. The problem was that the team had already been practicing and, for reasons I couldn't fathom, they were all out of uniform jerseys. "You'll just have to get a jersey of your own," Coach said. The team's jerseys were a shiny deep green with white numbers, sort of like the Philadelphia Eagles'. Nowadays, you could easily go out and buy a green jersey with white numbers. Back then it wasn't easy at all. "Don't worry," said my mother. "I'll just get you a plain jersey and dye it green." Okay, but what about the numbers, Mom? "No, I can't make numbers," she said.
On the night before our first game, she presented me with my new jersey. A sick feeling filled my stomach. The jersey was the putrid color of canned English peas. Or stagnant pond water. It had no shine. And, as promised, no numbers. "Mom," I finally said, "I can't wear that." That was a mistake, of course.
"Well," she said, "I'm so sorry I couldn't make you a perfect uniform. I spent all day doing this for you and that's the thanks I get?" I was no match for her dual weapons of guilt and shame and quickly agreed that I was sure it would be fine.
As I trotted onto the field the next day to join my teammates in warm-up, I was consumed with new-guy dread. I knew how pathetic I looked. With my numberless pea-green jersey and oversized white helmet, I looked more like a cauliflower than a football player. I prayed that maybe these guys wouldn't pay any attention. "Your jersey looks like puke!" yelled my teammate Sam. And Sam was my new best friend. The rest of them just started laughing hysterically.
Six-man football, in the sixth grade, is really more like three-man football, at least on offense. You have a quarterback and a running back and an end. The other three are linemen, including the center. The big three do almost everything; the linemen do almost nothing. Our quarterback was Danny Armstrong, who was big and, I thought, very aptly named. Our running back was Teddy Vanderslice, who made terrible grades but could run faster than most horses. Sam was the end. I was the center.
Early in the game, as I was still getting used to the weird noises inside my helmet, I snapped the ball to Danny, who went back to pass. I took a couple of steps forward and turned to look back at Danny and see how the play was going. Not well. Both Sam and Teddy were covered and Danny was scrambling. Suddenly he looked right into my eyes and drilled a pass straight at me. I didn't even know I was an eligible receiver. Apparently I was.
I reacted brilliantly: as the ball came straight and hard into my gut, I wrapped my arms tightly around it. Two-yard gain! But with the surprise of the moment and the force of the throw (I'd like to say there was a vicious tackle, but I can't), I fell backward. I lay on the ground, still holding the ball tight to my stomach, and realized I could not breathe. For approximately forty-five minutes, or so it seemed, no air came into my body or went out of my body. Eventually, Coach came out to see why his pea-green center was still on his back on the ground. "What's the matter, kid?" he asked, with no trace of sympathy. I could say nothing. "You breathing?" Coach asked. I could see all my teammates encircling my body and staring down at me. They were silent but I could hear their thoughts: Hey, the new kid's a weenie. I could say nothing.
After what must have been several more hours without breath, Coach grabbed the waist of my pants and pulled me up in the air, lowered me, and pulled again. Life rushed back into my lungs. I had survived, but my teammates were less than impressed. "At least he didn't puke on his puke jersey!" said my best friend Sam. More hysterical laughter. The humiliation was total, and all for two yards.
I finished the game, and I finished the season, though I remember none of it. I had already decided that it was time for a career change.
And that's why I love baseball.
David Bauer is deputy managing editor of Sports Illustrated.
'The Follower' by Jack Gantos
My mother said he was trouble the first time I met him. His name was Frankie Pagoda and he had just been catapulted across his yard like a human cannonball and landed badly in ours. He was moaning as I stood over him, not knowing what to do. He was on his back and at first he wasn't moving, but slowly he began to gyrate his arms and legs like a stunned crab.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Frankie . . . P—" he slowly replied. "Frankie Pagoda."
He was in a lot of pain, and here's what was going on. His older brother, Scary Gary, who had already been in trouble with the law, had made him climb to the very top of a reedy Australian pine tree with a rope between his teeth. Then he tied the rope to the top of the tree and Gary tied the other end to the winch on Mr. Pagoda's tow truck. He winched the tip of the tree all the way down so it made a big spring and then Frankie held on like a Koala bear while Gary cut the rope with a machete. Frankie was launched like the stones the Romans flung at the Vandals.
I was in my bedroom and Mom was in the kitchen; both of us had windows that faced the backyard. Then we heard that first Whoosh! of the tree and Frankie hollering, "Ahhhhhh!" That was followed by a thud and a very soulful moan. And this is how we found him—on his back with his arms and legs slowly stretching out.
"Are you okay?" I asked. He slowly turned over onto his hands and knees.
"Yeah," he said, wincing. "I've had worse."
Mom pointed at him as if he were a garden pest. "He's a heap of trouble," she said to me. Then she said to Frankie, "If you have to hurt yourself, please do it in your own yard."
He seemed to nod to that and I helped him up and he ran off. A few minutes later we heard, Whoosh! "Ahhhhh!" Thud! "Ugh!" He was back.
"Something is messed up with those people," Mom said, chopping up onions that evening. "Something's wrong in their heads."
Maybe there was something wrong with me, too. I was different from Frankie but still, the first moment I saw him in pain, it occurred to me that I wanted to be in pain, too.
That evening my mother came into my room. "If I ever catch you playing with that kid or over at their house, you will be in big trouble. This is just a friendly warning," she said.
"Why?" I asked. "He's a neighbor and will probably be a friend."
"You should not be friends with kids who are a danger to themselves and others."
I got some courage up and replied, "That's what I love about him."
She pointed a red finger at my chest. "You are a follower, not a leader," she said bluntly. "You are putty in the wrong hands. Don't get me wrong. You're a nice kid, but you are most definitely a follower."
I sort of knew this was true but I didn't want to admit it to her. Plus, a little of me still wanted to believe that I was strong, that I was my own man and a great leader.
But within a week I was Frankie's man, which was pretty scary because he was Gary's man, which made me low man on the totem pole—or pine tree. The first time Gary launched me, I hit a car. It was an old Mercury Cougar parked in their backyard. It didn't have any wheels and sat on its belly like a cat crouching to catch a bird. I hit the roof, which was like a steel trampoline. It dented down and popped up and I went springing off the top. As I was in the air, I kept thinking, When you hit the ground, roll and tumble and it won't hurt so much. This is what I had learned from watching Roller Derby on TV. It was my favorite show and very violent, but the players always avoided massive debilitating and life-threatening injuries as long as they rolled and tumbled across the wooden track or over the rails and into the rows of metal folding chairs. So, as I flew through the air, I stared at the grassy yard and planned my clever descent. I hit the ground with my outstretched arms and, instead of bouncing as if my hands were shock absorbers, I collapsed into the ground like a piece of space junk.
I dislocated the fingers on my right hand, bruised the side of my face, and sprained my right shoulder. I limped home hunched over like Quasimodo and went straight to my room. A few minutes later I was barking in pain from relocating the joints in my fingers. I was so afraid my mother would see my bruised face that I stole my sister's makeup and powered my bruise. At dinner I couldn't use my right arm. It hung limply by my side like an elephant's trunk. I must have pinched a nerve on contact with the ground that left my arm paralyzed. Perhaps for life. I ate with my left hand and food kept falling down my chin and shirt and onto my lap.
"What's wrong with your arm?" my mother asked.
"Nothing," I mumbled.
She sneered, stood up, and came around to my side. She grabbed my arm and pulled on it like it was the starter rope on a lawnmower engine. Something deep inside my shoulder went Pop!
"Arghhh," I sighed. The relief from the pain was heavenly.
"You are as dumb as a post," my mother said. "I'm warning you—don't play with that kid! He'll lead you to your death."
I couldn't help myself. The next day I felt pretty good and my teeth no longer throbbed when I breathed through my mouth. As soon as my mother went into the bathroom I ran over to Frankie's house. His brother Gary had rigged up an electric chair with a train transformer. He ran copper leads from the transformer to chicken wire on the chair seat and duct-taped it down.
"Don't be a chicken," he said demonically when he saw me. "Take a seat."
I did and it was torture at its most challenging. When I got home I looked at my naked butt in the mirror, and it was singed with the same chicken wire pattern that was on the chair. "Wow," I said. "Pretty cool."
The next day my mother did the laundry. She came to me with my pants, which were singed with the same wire pattern. "You don't have to tell me how this happened," she said. "You just have to stop. Whatever drives you to do this stuff is a sickness. So I'm grounding you for a while until you start displaying some sense."
Maybe I was sick. Maybe I was a follower. But I couldn't help myself. I wanted to sneak back for more. I was just thinking of crawling out the window when I looked over at the Pagoda house, and Frankie had his bike up on the peak of his roof. He was poised to pedal down the slope and land in the pool, which was quite a distance from the eaves of the house.
"Go!" Gary demanded. Frankie did. He pedaled as fast as he could and yelled all the way down and then was in the air. My vision was blocked by a bush, and instead of a splashing sound there was the springy metal sound of his bike hitting the concrete patio and clattering around. In a minute Gary was hollering at him to stop being a sissy and to get up and the dent in his forehead wasn't anything to cry over. I rubbed my hand over my forehead. Perhaps a little dent of my own would look good, I thought.
The ambulance arrived in a few minutes. After some begging, Mom allowed me to visit Frankie in the hospital, and later, once Scary Gary was sent off to a special program for dangerous boys, I even snuck over to Frankie's house a few times. He recovered just fine. And because he stopped doing dumb things for Gary, I stopped doing dumb things for him. He was a follower too, like me. And when you put two followers together nothing really bad happens. We didn't get hurt for a while or do anything too stupid. About a month went by before I secretly hoped Scary Gary would return home and rescue us from being so dull. I was bored out of my mind.
Jack Gantos is author of the Joey Pigza books, Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade without a Clue and Hole in My Life.
'The Day I Threw the Trivia Bowl' by Robert Siegel
I have a confession to make: I threw the Trivia Bowl.
The year was 1988. The place, eleventh grade.
In 1988, as an academically advanced (read: geeky) sixteen-year-old, my primary objective in life was the maintenance of my low profile among classmates. I did not want to stick out in any way, especially for anything that had even the faintest whiff of dorkery.
Problem was, I happened to be the captain of a formidable four-man Trivia Bowl team that was to represent the school at the countywide Trivia Bowl competition. For a boy prone to nightmares of academic achievement-related mockery, this was not good.
The night before the Trivia Bowl, I was freaking. I imagined that if we won, they would proudly announce it over the intercom to the entire school during homeroom. This is what they did whenever someone did something notable. I imagined all the kids pointing and laughing at the trivia dork. This prospect terrified me beyond words.
And yet, another part of me desperately wanted to win the Trivia Bowl. I loved trivia and, even more, I loved winning at stuff. It was a terrible dilemma.
The day of the competition comes. We burst out of the gate strongly. What is the capital of Nepal? Kathmandu. What is the largest animal that has ever lived? The blue whale. By the end of the first round, we were in second place and, thanks to a furious late run, had momentum squarely on our side. I was excited, but all the while in the back of my mind, I was imagining that dreaded homeroom announcement.
Things go even better (or worse) in Round Two. We take the lead. As the competition heads toward the finish, it becomes clear that it's a two-team race. Us versus our hated rivals from Massapequa. We go back and forth, trading blows like Foreman and Ali.
It all comes down to one question. If we get it right, we win; if we miss, they have the chance to answer for the win.
"Who shot Robert F. Kennedy?"
Uh-oh. I know it.
No one else on my team knows. They all look at me expectantly. I am well-known amongst them as the assassination expert. They assume I will blurt out the answer, which, of course, is Sirhan B. Sirhan. I hem and haw. What's going on? they are clearly wondering. Rob doesn't know? After what seems like an eternity, I give my answer:
"I'm sorry, that's not correct."
Massapequa pounces and gets it right. My teammates and I watch as they hold aloft the 1988 Trivia Bowl trophy in sweet victory.
The whole ride home, I wrestled with my decision to blow the Trivia Bowl. I felt terrible about what I did, but at least I would avoid homeroom humiliation. Right?
Wrong. The next morning in homeroom:
"Congratulations to eleventh-graders Robert Siegel, Mark Roth, Adam Frankel, and Dan Eckert for their valiant effort yesterday in the countywide Trivia Bowl competition, in which they placed second."
Not only was I a dork, I was a losing dork.
The moral of the story is, if you're ever in a Trivia Bowl, don't throw it. Either way, they're gonna announce it in homeroom, so you might as well win.
Robert Siegel, former editor in chief of The Onion, is author of Our Dumb Century: 'The Onion' Presents 100 Years of Head-lines from American's Finest News Source.
'Copies' by David Lubar
At least I had company this year. I hate getting dragged to Dad's office for Kids Come to Work Day. It's so boring, I want to scream. But my little brother was finally old enough to come.
"You kids are in for a treat," Dad said when we pulled into the parking lot. "We got a new shredder for the office. Bet you can't wait to see that baby in action, right?"
"Right, Dad," I said, grabbing hold of Nicky by the collar so he wouldn't wander into the path of any of the dozens of cars zipping through the parking lot.
Dad kept describing the wonders that lay ahead of us. "And we just put in two new copiers."
Shoot. When he said that, I realized I'd forgotten to bring anything to copy. It's fun to run off a couple hundred copies of a cartoon and pass them out at school. But I didn't have anything with me. Wait. That wasn't true. I had Nicky. The moment we got inside, I asked if I could go to the copy room.
"Sure," Dad said. "You know the way. Just don't fool around too much. The company has a policy against personal copies."
"Hey, don't worry," I said. "Come on, Nicky, I'll show you Dad's spiffy new copiers." I grinned at the thought of how personal a copy could be.
I led Nicky down the hall to the copy room. We were in luck. The place was all ours. "Here," I said, pulling a chair over to the copier. "Get up."
Nicky hopped onto the chair. I lifted the lid of the copier. "Put your face on the glass," I said. "But close your eyes. It can get real bright."
Nicky did what I said. I set the machine for ten copies, but my finger slipped. It showed 1,000. Hey, why not? I thought, deciding to leave the number the way it was.
"Here goes," I said, hitting the copy button.
Man, it was fast. Copies started coming out like bullets from a machine gun. They looked real cool. Nicky had his face scrunched up, but you could tell it was him.
I glanced at the other copier and got another idea. I almost didn't do it, but I couldn't resist. Hey—what's the harm? I slipped down my pants and sat on the machine. I'd heard about kids doing this, but I'd never tried it. I reached over and hit the buttons. Might as well make a thousand copies of my butt, to go along with the thousand of Nicky's face. Talk about a perfect pair.
My machine was even faster. Before I knew it, I'd run off the thousand copies. I hopped down and went back over to Nicky.
"Hey, these aren't any good," I said, grabbing a copy as it shot out of the machine. The image was faded. I thumbed through the stack. Maybe the machine was running out of supplies. Each copy that came out was a bit more faded.
"Can I get up now?" Nicky asked as the machine hummed to a stop. His voice sounded really muffled.
"Sure. Yeah. It's done."
Nicky stood up.
For a moment, I just stared. Then I blinked.
That was more than Nicky could do. His nose and mouth and eyelids were gone. Almost everything was gone. It had been copied away. Two small holes were all that was left of his nose. A pair of eyes stared out at me from a face like an egg.
Oh man, Dad was going to kick my butt.
I raced to the other machine and looked at the last copy that came out. Nothing. Just a smooth, round hunk of flesh.
When my hand stopped shaking, I reached down the back of my pants.
Smoothness. No crack. Nothing.
Nicky made some kind of noise in his throat, but I couldn't understand it. Without a mouth, he couldn't talk.
It was about then that I realized something awful. It was bad enough that Nicky couldn't talk. But I had to go to the bathroom. And without a butt, I couldn't do that, either.
David Lubar is the author of Dunk, Hidden Talents and In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Misadventures.