17 October 2008

Turning Books Inside-Out for Boys

In an article on single-sex schools, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted American physician and psychologist Leonard Sax as saying:

books that were considered to be more suited to girls, such as Jane Eyre, could be taught in a way that engaged boys.

"Start in the middle of the story and then work from the beginning," he said. Doing that created a sense of mystery and engaged readers and made them want to read on to find out more.

"Homer knew about it, Hollywood scriptwriters know about it," he said. "If you want to engage boys in any great book you start in the middle."
So let's check out that theory. Here's the start of Chapter 1 of A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett:
Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

She sat with her feet tucked under her, and leaned against her father, who held her in his arm, as she stared out of the window at the passing people with a queer old-fashioned thoughtfulness in her big eyes.

She was such a little girl that one did not expect to see such a look on her small face. It would have been an old look for a child of twelve, and Sara Crewe was only seven. The fact was, however, that she was always dreaming and thinking odd things and could not herself remember any time when she had not been thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to. She felt as if she had lived a long, long time.
And the start of Chapter 8 (of 19):
The first night she spent in her attic was a thing Sara never forgot. During its passing she lived through a wild, unchildlike woe of which she never spoke to anyone about her. There was no one who would have understood. It was, indeed, well for her that as she lay awake in the darkness her mind was forcibly distracted, now and then, by the strangeness of her surroundings. It was, perhaps, well for her that she was reminded by her small body of material things. If this had not been so, the anguish of her young mind might have been too great for a child to bear. But, really, while the night was passing she scarcely knew that she had a body at all or remembered any other thing than one.
Of course, that's a novel from 1905. Shall we try the same test with a "boy's book" of the same approximate vintage? Chapter 1 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:

No answer.


No answer.

"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You Tom!"

No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service--she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll--"
That opening's all about mystery, humor, and suspense rather than, as in the Burnett extracts, mood. And just for completeness, here's Chapter 17 (of 35) of Tom Sawyer:
But there was no hilarity in the little town that same tranquil Saturday afternoon. The Harpers, and Aunt Polly's family, were being put into mourning, with great grief and many tears. An unusual quiet possessed the village, although it was ordinarily quiet enough, in all conscience. The villagers conducted their concerns with an absent air, and talked little; but they sighed often. The Saturday holiday seemed a burden to the children. They had no heart in their sports, and gradually gave them up.

In the afternoon Becky Thatcher found herself moping about the deserted schoolhouse yard, and feeling very melancholy. But she found nothing there to comfort her. She soliloquized:

"Oh, if I only had a brass andiron-knob again! But I haven't got anything now to remember him by." And she choked back a little sob.
Some boys might say that both those books would be improved if only you took out the girls entirely. That would make A Little Princess much shorter, to be sure, but we must make some sacrifices for the sake of education.

Of course, these days everyone who writes for children is told to get into the story as fast as possible, even if that means starting off in the middle of the action and doubling back with a flashback. It's a tough feat: too many explanatory flashbacks in an opening chapter prevents a book from building up any momentum.

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