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From The Shelter Island Reporter, November 24, 2016


Codger has always loved Thanksgiving, the most comforting of holidays, spiritual without being commercially religious, a celebration of the basics - family, friends and food. Codger, Crone and Cur will enjoy 16 at the table, from the Island and the city and the West Coast, from the ages of 4 to 81, some of them stashed in two extra houses.

No doubt over the weeklong festivities, there will be talk about the future, including the dread and despair this month has brought, and Codger, not the oldest but surely feeling the most patriarchal, will feel compelled to moderate, pontificate and offer hope.

He will probably quote frequently from his father, the Original Codger, who died a dozen years ago at 100, moderating, pontificating and offering hope to the very end, often at his own Thanksgivings. He frequently said, as good times rolled or crisis loomed, that “nothing is ever as good or bad as your imagination can make it.” After so many ups and downs in his life, the Original Codger believed in cautious optimism, one day at a time. He lived through the Great Depression, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq. As a teacher, he watched his profession ravaged by McCarthyism. His own father died in the flu epidemic of 1918. His wife, a grandchild and all his friends died before he did.

His most consistent values, which he tried to pass on, were skepticism and social justice. He learned to doubt when he was eight years old, in 1912, when he heard the SOS calls from the Titanic on his brother’s crystal radio set. If the unsinkable Titanic could go down, he decided, how could you ever again put blind faith in the officials who misspoke with such authority?

He worked mostly at schools in poor, minority neighborhoods where he dealt with inequality, racism, sexism. He came to believe that all people had the responsibility to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but it was the responsibility of a just society to be sure everyone began with a pair of boots.
Codger still misses the Original Codger and tries to channel him, especially in times as dangerous as these. The OC was a pragmatic man, and in retirement he and Codger’s mother became involved in small town politics and worked for groups that aided the elderly, immigrants and minorities. They lobbied politicians, wrote letters to the editor, started a newsletter, demonstrated. They often conceded that they were preaching to the choir, but thought it essential to keep the choir brave.

Codger thinks the OC would agree that this Thanksgiving is a time to Regroup, Reset and Resist.
Regrouping, of course, is what Thanksgiving is all about, people folding back into their tribes for support and renewal and love. There will doubtless be feasts on the Island haunted by sore points of the election, but you just don’t need to say, “How could you vote for that lying pig, Dimwit?” Codger thinks you should make your points in a non-confrontational way. “I told you so” will come later. Codger thinks that many Trump supporters will need solace up the road when they discover they’ve been bamboozled.
(Crone reminds all not to forget frequent hugs, Cur not to forget frequent treats.)

Resetting was a big word in sports this year. Every time a coach walked out to the mound to settle down a pitcher in trouble, a broadcaster would say he was “resetting” him. Slightly more than half of all voters need to dial down the anxiety caused by the meanness of the election campaign and the shock of the outcome, not because it’s an unjustified response but because that energy is self-destructive and non-productive. It was former President Nixon, after all, who famously said that by hating you destroy yourself. This is a good time to take deep breaths on Shell Beach, hike Mashomack and get back to the Fitness Center, not only to block out the continuing assault of nasty news but to get in shape for the struggle to come.

Resistance to a potentially dark age needs to be approached carefully and incrementally. The malice and divisiveness nurtured by the election was always there. It needs to be weeded out from the roots. For starters, think locally about the issues that mean the most to you, and dig in, whether that means donating more money and time to groups fighting for equality and justice or organizing for elections to come. The most apocalyptic disaster approaching is the effects of climate change; the resistance begins by supporting Town Board members behind such environmental issues as water quality.

The resistance begins tomorrow while we’re offering Thanksgiving for love and renewal.

This appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, August 19, 2011

Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?

At an American Library Association conference in 2007, HarperCollins dressed five of its male young adult authors in blue baseball jerseys with our names on the back and sent us up to bat in a panel entitled "In the Clubhouse." We were meant to demystify to the overwhelmingly female audience the testosterone code that would get teenage boys reading. Whereas boys used to lag behind girls in reading in the early grades, statistics show, they soon caught up. Not anymore.


We guys had mixed feelings about the game plan: boys' aversion to reading, let alone to novels, has been worsening for years. But while this certainly posed a problem for us male writers, we felt that we were being treated as a sideshow.


And so we turned from men into boys. Though we ranged in age and style from then 30-­something Kenneth Oppel, a writer of fantasies about ancient beasts ("Darkwing"), to Walter Dean Myers, the 70-­something master of street novels ("Monster"), along with Chris Crutcher ("Whale Talk") and Terry Trueman ("Stuck in Neutral"), we easily slipped into a cohesive pack. We became stereotypes, smart-aleck teammates — and we were very much on the defensive. It was Us vs. Them.


This is exactly what boys do, in the classroom and in the library, as well as in the clubhouse. If we're to counter this tendency and encourage reading among boys who may collectively resist it, boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.


Given the rich variety in young adult fiction available today, this might seem easy. Not so. "We're in a kind of golden age of books for teenagers — in fact, the best ones are more satisfying reads than most of the best books published for adults," said Donald Gallo, a Y.A. anthologist and retired English professor at Central Connecticut State University, when I spoke to him by phone. "The important question is why aren't boys reading the good books being published?"


He ticked off the standard answers: Boys gravitate toward nonfiction. Schools favor classics over contemporary fiction to satisfy testing standards and avoid challenges from parents. And teachers don't always know what's out there for boys. All true, in my opinion.


There are other theories. On his Web site,, the teacher and author Jon Scieszka writes that boys "don't feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction. . . . Boys don't have enough positive male role models for literacy. Because the majority of adults involved in kids' reading are women, boys might not see reading as a masculine activity."


But I think it's also about the books being published. Michael Cart, a past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, agrees. "We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or ­offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become," he told me. "In a commercially driven publishing environment, the emphasis is currently on young women." And then some. At the 2007 A.L.A. conference, a Harper executive said at least three-­quarters of her target audience were girls, and they wanted to read about mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies and vampires.


Naturally, authors are writing for this ready group. The current surge in children's literature has been fueled by talented young female novelists fresh from M.F.A. programs who in earlier times would have been writing midlist adult fiction. Their novels are bought by female editors, stocked by female librarians and taught by female teachers. It's a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.


Children's literature didn't always bear this overwhelmingly female imprint. Like most readers growing up in the 1940s and '50s, before the advent of the Y.A. genre, I went directly from children's books about explorers to Steinbeck and Hemingway. But my son, Sam, a novelist who grew up in the '70s, was able to go from "Goodnight Moon" to the burgeoning category of Y.A. literature.


The books that Sam read differed from the current crop in one significant way: They tended not to be gender-­specific. Many early Y.A. writers were women who wrote well about both genders, like the queen of coming-­of-­age lit, Judy Blume ("Forever"). Others wrote under the guise of asexual initials: S. E. Hinton ("The Outsiders") and M. E. Kerr ("Gentlehands"). The better male writers also wrote about both boys and girls: John Donovan ("I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip"), Paul Zindel ("The Pigman") and Robert Cormier, my hero in the field and author of the 1974 classic, "The Chocolate War." To me, that book exemplifies what's currently missing: here was a tale of fascistic adults and teenage bullying at a Catholic boys high school, and, controversially and crucially, it lacked a redemptive resolution, one of Cormier's trademarks.


But the next spate of Y.A. fiction tended to be simplistic problem novels that read like after-school specials, and soon split along gender lines. Books with story lines about disease, divorce, death and dysfunction sold better for girls than did similar books for boys. The shift seemed to fundamentally alter the Y.A. landscape.

To me and I think to many prospective readers, today's books for boys — supernatural space-and-sword epics that read like video game manuals and sports novels with preachy moral messages — often seem like cynical appeals to the lowest common denominator. Boys prefer video games and ESPN to book versions of them. These knockoffs also lack the tough, edgy story lines that allow boys a private place to reflect on the inner fears of failure and humiliation they try so hard to brush over. Editors who ask writers of books for boys to include girl characters — for commercial reasons — further blunt the edges.


The argument over boys' reading is not just about gender. This is business, not prejudice. Why publish books if they never reach prospective readers? That many of the edgy books boys would like to read are either not taught or are banned does nothing to promote the cause.


This is why I felt compelled to describe, at the 2007 A.L.A. conference, my interactions with readers of my 2006 novel "Raiders Night," a book frequently banned by male principals and superintendents (many of them former coaches) for its depiction of the drug and hazing underside of high school football. But the boys who read it are quick to relate to its touchy subject matter. At one school I visited in suburban Chicago, a female teacher, working with a female librarian, had been slipping "Raiders Night" to dozens of boys, mostly athletes.


These "reluctant" readers were eager to talk to me about their reading experiences. They talked about not trusting coaches who, they said, send you in hurt, and lie about your playing time and play you off against your friends. They felt trapped — they loved the fellowship, the physical contact, the prestige of the game. They even talked, gingerly, about playing because Dad wants you to and how you could be kept in line by the fear of being called a girl or gay. This was hard-core boy talk, but it was also book talk — the fictional characters we were discussing allowed us the freedom to express feelings the way girls do. Would this conversation ever have taken place without a literary impetus?


A number of boys thought the book's ending, in which the hero makes what I considered the moral choice of protecting the weak and not the team, was "messed up." A real jock, they told me, does whatever he needs to do to win, and right or wrong has nothing to do with it.


I told them I had a reading list for them. This ran on April 8, 2009. on the USA Today Op-Ed page. The PGA was so angry it asked its members to complain. Did they ever.


This piece ran in the New York Times.

At a tough branch library in Philadelphia -- there were more guards than librarians -- a teenage boy I thought had slept through my speech stood up and asked, ''Do you use drugs when you write?''
He seemed disappointed when I just said no, but not as disappointed as I was at giving the same answer to the next question, from a girl who had seemed entranced by my every word. She asked, ''Are you rich enough now to stop writing?''

Sometimes I think that questions from teenage readers are the real payoff in writing books marketed as ''young adult literature.'' There is a reader-writer connection in this category that simply does not exist in sports journalism, movies, television news and documentaries, and novels for older adults, genres in which I've been called a genius and a jerk because I stroked or ruffled someone's feathers. Readers in middle school and high school have taken me to task for things that have happened to my characters -- their characters, they think -- but always in the context of the work itself. Their minds were open to the story and to what they thought I was saying, whether or not they agreed. That's why writing for them is the most satisfying writing I do.

That satisfaction is something all of us who regularly write for teenagers try to keep in mind when people ask us what we plan to do when we grow up. It's touchy. Most of us started out thinking we'd be writing about a King Lear, not a Kid Lear.

I know exactly when I became a writer for young adults. On Nov. 20, 1965, a few minutes after 9 p.m. Las Vegas time, I was sitting at a darkened poolside outside a casino hotel with an old boxing manager I had taken to dinner. He was reminiscing about his glory days when he owned a gym on East 14th Street in Manhattan. Late at night, he said, he would sit at the top of three dark, twisting flights of stairs. He would be waiting for that special kid to climb up, alone, fighting his fear of the unknown because his life on the streets below was so desperate.

A kid who used his fear as fuel, the old manager said, would have a chance to become a contender. Becoming the champion, he said, is often the luck of the draw, but being a contender, a somebody with promise, is about hard work and character.

The picture of those stairs stayed with me all through the fight I had been sent to cover -- Muhammad Ali beat Floyd Patterson -- and all the way home. I became inflamed with the picture, and wondered: What kind of kid would dare to come up those steps? What would be going on in his life? What would he find at the top?

I wondered what I needed to do to become a contender; what were my narrow twisting stairs? I was a boxing writer for this paper; I had worked on a nonfiction book, helping Dick Gregory write his autobiography, ''Nigger''; and I had sold some short stories, but I had never written a novel. Would the chapters of a novel be my steps up to becoming a contender?

When I got back to New York, there was a letter from one Ferdinand Monjo at Harper & Row. He wondered if I had ever thought of writing a book with boxing as its milieu -- a common boxing term, milieu. I called Mr. Monjo right up and began babbling about a book titled ''The Contender.'' There would be three flights of stairs in it. Mr. Monjo said, ''Go right ahead, dear boy,'' and in my innocence, thank goodness, I thought that was a contract.

Ferdinand Monjo was a terrific editor, and he was surrounded by terrific editors: Charlotte Zolotow, a well-known children's book author who became my editor later, and Ursula Nordstrom, their boss, who just about invented the young adult genre. I knew nothing about children's books then; I was just writing my novel, with boxing as its milieu. But because it was linear, had a 17-year-old protagonist and no sex, it was right for that new genre. And for the times.

Government money was available, there was a need for books with minority protagonists, and perhaps most important there was a generation of librarians and teachers open to stories that were closer to the bone of contemporary teenagers' real lives.

The letters have never stopped coming, more than you would think from white Iowa farm girls who said they identified with Alfred Brooks, a black high school dropout. In my school and library visits, young black men, once they got past their mixed feelings about my whiteness, wanted to talk about what I should write next. They had definite ideas about what should happen to some of the characters. Alfred's best friend, James, whom they all liked, would certainly die before the next book, they said; he was a junkie, they knew him well, he didn't stand a chance.

But it didn't matter because I had no intention of writing any more novels for teenagers. It was King Lear time. Even though ''The Contender'' did well enough to buy a suburban house and help send my two children to college, that genre flourished without me. Stars such as M. E. Kerr, Paul Zindel, S. E. Hinton, Richard Peck, Robert Cormier and Walter Dean Myers brought to the genre a grittier and even a more literary sensibility than existed in mainstream fiction. (Young adult fiction keeps getting better. I was amazed five years ago, as a National Book Award judge, at how hard it was to choose one winner from so much good, smart writing.)

Ten years after my first novel, while writing an essay for Mother Jones magazine about books that had influenced me, the phrase ''in the prison of my fat'' fell out of the typewriter. I had never before consciously thought about how trapped I had felt as an overweight kid, hating my body and finding comfort in reading and writing. In my earliest fiction, thin people died horribly.

That night I started writing my second novel for teenagers, ''One Fat Summer,'' an emotionally true story of my 14th summer during which I lost perhaps 40 pounds. (I don't know exactly because I always jumped off the scale as it rolled up toward 200.)

That 1977 novel started a flood of letters, the best from very tall girls who identified with the fat boy. During my school visits, chubby apprentice writers, once they got past their mixed feelings that I had kept most of the weight off, asked me to recount particularly horrible ways to kill thin classmates, who themselves were listening with what seemed to be horrified interest and new empathy.

In 1997 ''One Fat Summer'' was briefly banned at a school in Levittown, N.Y., because of a passage dealing with masturbation that I don't remember writing. Censorship became a source of pride because it connected me to Francesca Lia Block, the most exciting writer of young adult fiction to emerge in recent years, and to my hero in the field, Judy Blume, who may simply be the most influential writer of our time. She has made a positive difference in thousands of young people's lives.

This, of course, is the secret allure of writing for teenagers. There is a messianic streak to what we do; at the very least we think we are teachers as much as we are artists. If you do this long enough, people who claim we made a difference in their lives write or call to say they have given copies of our books to their children.

Because school sales are often critical to our books' success, we tend to meet our readers more often than many other writers do. As we age (and as our own children age), meeting teenagers and sometimes spending time alone talking with them becomes an important part of staying in touch with our readers and characters. What that also does is spawn sequels. When kids begin talking about characters you created 30 years ago as if they were friends, the need to revisit them becomes overwhelming. Nostalgia has created more sequels than marketing. This year I've been going to schools to talk about ''Warrior Angel,'' the fourth in a series that began with that first book, ''The Contender.'' Of my nine novels for teenagers, that latest one was the toughest to write.

It was a high school student's question that made me understand why. She stood up after I spoke, a little grin on her face, and asked me if winning the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in young adult literature in 2001 had put pressure on me to write better. This time I just said yes.

I thanked her for asking. Only a teenager would ask a question like that, a real question that acknowledged me as a real person trying to make some sense out of real lives. What I didn't say was that maybe this book would make me rich enough to stop writing. Or to afford the drugs to keep me writing forever.