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Books for Boys Who Don’t Like to Read
I grew up surrounded by books, and am a voracious reader. My own house is full of books, yet my three sons are indifferent readers. That’s why I was fascinated to learn of Max Anderson and his forthcoming series of Christian books, aimed specifically at boys who “don’t like to read – or just think they don’t”.
Max kindly agreed to answer some questions about his planned books:
My father was a librarian and I grew up in a house full of books. I love reading. I always assumed that my three sons would too. But they don’t. Can you please share your thoughts on why youngsters today often don't want to read?
Max: Then my father helped provide the books for your father, since mine wrote over 70 books. He's in his eighties now and still writing. But in our family, as I was growing up, there were seven children. Two were avid readers, several were nominal readers, and I hated it. I think the reasons why children don't like to read may be part genetic - the way we are all wired differently - and part cultural.
Our culture looks down on people who are smart. And children can be so cruel, especially in the early formative years. I remember teasing my older "reader" brother when he wouldn't come out and play with the rest of us. I have to say we weren't very nice about it either.
When we went on family trips, and this is way before the ease of researching on the internet, my brother would read everything he could get his hands on about the sites we were going to visit. On the one hand he was annoying as this walking spewer of facts, but I kind of envied him for knowing all those facts. I never told him that though.
But it's the genetic area that I think makes the most difference. In my case, I don't want to read a page of words. Give me music, moving pictures, and characters on the screen. I'm much more visual and my career has taken me in that direction.
You've decided to do something about all this. Please tell me about the books you've written.
Max: My research began about two years ago. I truly wanted to know why it was that I grew up as a reluctant reader. I found some interesting patterns in the books I looked at. In many cases they defied a person like me to get into them. The style was boring, the dialog was sometimes sparse, or when it was used, seemed too adult. Some of the Christian kids’ books were too preachy. As I looked around for books written especially for boys, I found The Hardy Boys, and only a few others.
Since I still don't like to read, I decided to write a book that I would like. When I write, I use a free-style approach. In other words, I do have an outline, but it's only a guide. When the story idea hits me, it comes fully formed in my mind. That part is frustrating because I wish at the time I could just do a file dump right then and there and the whole story will be finished. Writing free-style to me simply means that I go with whatever is happening and see where events, characters and dialog will take me.
In the case of my first book, Newspaper Caper, there is a character who just showed up as I was writing. She's an old lady sitting on a bench outside the library. And when she appeared, she became an integral part of the story. That's the only time this has happened with a character, but I have seen it happen as a known character develops, or in plot situations and dialog.
As I'm writing, I enter the scene, mentally, and become one or all of the children. In that setting I actually, in my mind, enter into the conversations, the one-liners and so on. Another thing I do is write to mood-appropriate music. One of my stories, Reckless Runaway, has several circus scenes through the story. I played a lot of John Philip Sousa marches. I have a CD by a Russian composer that is very dark and foreboding. This I use when, as they say, the plot thickens and there is fear or danger. The music puts my mind in the mood of what is happening and, I believe, translates into some of the emotion of what is written in words.
In addition, I like props around that make me think of the people or places I'm writing about. This can be pictures, another book, posters, an old clock, etc. In the case of Forest of Fear, which takes place around a logging operation in Oregon, I went out in my back yard and caught a chipmunk. I'd put him in one of my children's old hamster cages and he'd spend the day sitting on my desk. It really helped put my mind in the mood of the forest. At the end of the day I let him go. Then the next day, did it all over again until I was finished with that material. Hmmm...wonder if I owe the little guy any royalties for that. Probably not. My cat probably ate him by now.
There have been at least two occasions where I sat down to write at around 6:00pm, and the next thing I knew, it was morning. Not only that, over half the book was finished.
My attempt at writing to address the problem of the reluctant reader, or the non-reader, was to produce work that is light and breezy, extremely visual, filled with believable dialog, humour, excitement and scary things.
When I finish the rough draft, I let it sit for a few days. And every time, when I pick it up to begin editing, there is a detachment from the work. I do a role reversal and become the poor 8 - 13 year old boy whose mother just put the thing in front of him. If things don't make it through that filter...they're gone. I also read the books out loud. It's amazing how our mind compensates if we read silently. And silent reading is a good thing once the book is done. But in the editing phase, it causes lots of imperfections and stodgy dialog to surface.
In order to attract and keep readers, I am working hard to develop a series of books that will hold interest. That is one of the main reasons I chose not to do the traditional series where all these fantastic things, that couldn't possibly happen to any ONE of us, happens to the same kids, in the same town, over and over again.
My stories all have completely different characters, settings and adventures. They take place in Michigan, Illinois, Oregon, Virginia, Florida, Wyoming, Alabama and so on.
It isn't because I've written them, but I can sit down today and happily read any one of my manuscripts. And as I do, that detachment sets in to where I honestly don't have the feeling that I had anything to do with them. I laugh when something funny happens or is said, and feel all the range of emotions.
It seems it's been quite difficult for you to get them published. Why is that?
Max: I found something interesting here. Apart from the fact that some houses are cutting back due to the economy, most books today are written for girls. I had an editor tell me, "Now if you could just write a story about a girl and a horse...that sells every time." To me, that was exactly what was wrong with what I had found in my research. EVERYONE is trying to do things in similar ways. Then along comes HARRY POTTER and suddenly writers and editors think all books need to be fantasy, wizardry, magic or something.
Next, most books are purchased by women. Women like detail, lots and lots of detail in literature. Guys like humour, action and excitement. If the story gets all bogged down with a lot of seemingly meaningless detail, you lose the young male reader in my opinion.
And finally, most editors, the gatekeeper of publishing, are women. I have nothing against women. My wife and I have been married since our early 20's. I love my daughter. But we have to face the fact that our minds work differently.
Beyond these obstacles, publishing is a business. I've been told that in many publishing houses, only 10% of books ever make money. But when you think of the fact that when so much that is being written is similar to what is already there, it isn't difficult to see why this might be so.
So I set out on a different course. I couldn't find one book that was anything like what I had in mind. I began writing them, even if there would never be a market for them because I enjoyed reading them myself when they were finished.
Then a gentleman by the name of Dr. Marvin Baker got in touch with me. We were on the same writers’ chat board on the internet. It turns out that he has had an interest in developing books for “tweeners”. He wanted to help in increasing literacy in America. Realizing that most of what was being produced for young readers wasn't reaching the reluctant or defiant reader, he decided to do something about it. When he approached me, we were like two halves of the same part. He wanted to publish for this age group and market, and I was already writing for them. The similarities in our thinking were stunning. And the market will have to tell us if we are right or wrong.
What sort of response have you had already to the books?
Max: I have a core group of readers who have been with me from the start. I like to call them my family, friends, and cheerleaders. They include my father, along with the two voracious readers from my family. So that brother I used to tease for being an early reader has now become one of my best encouragers. The group also includes editors, people who used to be involved in publishing, parents, and even some reluctant readers. Here is an exchange from one of those. I think it is typical of what we are going to find when people discover books by Max Elliot Anderson from Tweener Press:
Email #1: Ethan, my reluctant reader, would like to read either "Newspaper Caper" or “Mountain Cabin Mystery."
Email #2: You know, maybe it's really a matter of preference. My reluctant reader is right this very moment reading one of your stories....and he is very engrossed – keeps telling me about parts of it....likes the humour.....so you just never know. I'd say you may be onto something here!
Email #3: Ethan is still reading.....likes your writing (he said, "Mom, he doesn't write like you...instead of saying could you, he says couldja, just like we talk!")....and your humour....I'll have him write you an email.
Email #4: Dear Mr. Anderson, Your story was funny and exciting. My favourite part was when Tom was stuck in the building with the attack dogs I liked it cause it kept on getting more and more interesting and exciting. Other books start to get boring but this one didn't. Can I read “Mountain Cabin Mystery” next? Ethan
This past week his mother wrote to me saying, “Ethan decided he'd buy ALL of your books - so I guess I'm committed to buying them for a while to come.”
Finally, could you please tell me something about yourself?
Max: I'm 56 years old. I have a degree in psychology. I'm a Vietnam-era veteran of the US Army. My entire professional life has been devoted to the production of films, video programs and television commercials. My wife's name is Claudia. Our son, Jim will enter law school this fall, and my daughter Sarah begins her teaching career in the field of Early Childhood next year.
Many of my productions have won local, regional and national awards including three Telly Awards - the equivalent to the Oscar for non-theatrical productions. The PBS television special, “Gospel at the Symphony”, was nominated for an Emmy and the double album won a Grammy.
I have had a private, one-hour video interview with President Ronald Reagan, and have produced, shot, or directed over 500 national television commercials for True Value Hardware Stores. My name is listed in several of the Who's Who volumes including Who's Who in America beginning in 1999 and continuing with the current issue.
Five years ago, I produced a video called “Tracy’s Choices”, for teenagers. The central message is about the consequences of our choices in life. Tracy eventually died from complications due to AIDS. Her story was an attempt to reach out to young people and help them avoid the mistakes she made in her own life.
I received an award for Best Cinematographer for my work on the feature film, “Pilgrims Progress”. This was the first film Liam Neeson was ever in. I have also been involved in the production of some of the most successful Christian films for children, including “Hobo and the Runaway”, “The Mystery of Willoughby Castle”, “The Great Banana Pie Caper” and many others.
Max, thank you very much. This is a wonderful new project, and I pray that it might bless many people.
[Update: You can read more about the books - now a series of eight - here.]
July 10th, 2003