Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Featured Book: Strays

In Strays, by Ron Koertge, Ted, a shy, mild sixteen-year-old, is thrust into the foster care system when his parents die suddenly in a car crash.  He meets Astin—long time foster kid at the Rafters’ (Ted’s new foster home), who is about to graduate and “age out” of the system—and C.W., who arrives at the Rafters’ at the same time as Ted and is both a wannabe gangsta and, as it turns out, a kind-hearted dog-lover.

The book is about Ted letting go of his parents. They didn’t treat him very well, but he’s nonetheless haunted by their gruesome and abrupt end. He didn't get to say goodbye. Or tell them off.

Strays is also about Ted finding real friends. Family. A “pack” to run with.

In fact, early in the story, Ted, who is awkward and unpopular at his previous school, finds his closest friends are animals, with whom he can inexplicably communicate. It just starts, without warning, around page 14 or so. At first, I wonder if Ted’s imaging it, making it up, or if he’s just plain crazy. Is this an ability he’s always had, or has it developed since his parents’ death?  As it turns out, it doesn’t matter, because it provides for Ted (and me) what’s needed, when it’s needed. At first, it’s only animals who know him, love him, care about him.  Then it’s people, and the animals can go back to being important to Ted in a different way. They don’t have to stand in for real human relationships.

Strays by Ron Koertge
Candlewick, 2007
I like how Koertge handles Ted’s outward emotions throughout the novel.  Ted’s a guy. A teenage guy. He doesn’t want to talk about his feelings. Not to his social worker. Not to the Rafters. Not to Astin or C.W. He even lies to several of these people, claiming he’s “talking things out” with the others. But he really, really needs to talk. And as willing as animals are to listen, their open ears are not enough. Then Megan, Astin’s girlfriend, sets up Ted on a sort-of “friend date” with her pal Wanda.  Even though I thought the relationship between Ted and Wanda will bloom into a romantic one (several times), it doesn’t.  They’re friends. And each can talk to the other about their parents, or any number of other things, that they can’t talk about with anyone else, including Astin and Megan. 

Each character in Strays is well drawn—odd, unique, and authentic. Ted’s foster mother treats a doll like a real child after having lost her own. The father doesn’t particularly like kids, and doesn’t really want to be a part of the foster care system, and might just be in it for the money or to give his wife kids in a non-biological and non-adoptive way.  And he has tons of unreasonable rules. But the foster parents are demonized as foster parents often are. Neither is abusive, and both do pretty much exactly what they say they’ll do.  They’re irritating and predictable in almost a comforting sort of way, and Ted knows where he stands with them—more so than he did with his biological parents.

Astin, Megan, Wanda, and C.W. all reveal themselves to be multidimensional, too.  Astin is a tough biker who’s figured out how to live successfully with the Rafters. He decides to take Ted under his wing, even though he’s out of this place (and the system) very soon.  Megan is wealthy and can be haughty, bossy, but she cares enough for Ted to introduce him to Wanda, and she’s insightful enough to know they’ll hit it off.  C.W. constantly criticizes Ted for his clothing and strives for a tough “street” image, but he falls in love with a stray dog who he puppy-talks to, and is visibly moved when Ted offers him his seat on Astin’s bike following a shooting that C.W. witnesses.  And Wanda is bitter about her parents ditching her and somewhat ashamed of her weight, but she’s warm, witty, and kind, always being up front with Ted about their relationship while only being somewhat of a tease—no more than Ted can handle, though.

All of them are strays, lost, abandoned in some way or another, by the adults that are supposed to be responsible, in charge. Supposed to love them. But they find each other. And even though their relationships aren’t permanent, they remind them that they can have friends, family, meaningful connections, even without parents.

Recommended for boys, ages 14-17.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Electric Tuna

So my son and I go for a walk (usually several) every day. It's nice. He usually falls asleep in his Baby Bjorn, and I listen to This American Life, or some such, on my ipod.

Sometimes these walks are very early in the morning.

A few days ago, on one such early morning walk, we strolled past an automotive shop I must have walked by several hundred times.

And I completely misread its sign.

The incident, of course, inspired a sort of Americanized haiku.

Tired eyes first glance lies.
"Electra Tune," Riley--not
"Electric Tuna."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I'm Back!

Sorry about the serious lack of posts. Since mid-February, my wife and I each completed our respective graduate programs; I finished my thesis; we had a son, who's now five months old; and we packed up and moved 1,200 miles across the country.

So we've been busy.

But we've settled into our new digs and routines. And I'm ready to get down to business.

Watch for regular posts soon!