For over twenty-five years I have worked at creating the most compressed form of popular art -- the three-minute pop song. Recording artists, publishers and record execs have always demanded the instantly catchy 'hook', the immediately memorable title. "Please don't bore us," goes the old saw, "get to the chorus!" It was drummed into my head from very early on that the audience for which I was writing had a limited attention span, and it was my challenge to provide them with something ear-catching and infectious. In one hundred and eighty seconds.
Now that I've begun to write and publish young adult literature, I find that my quarter century in the music biz serves me well... up to a point. I know that I have a precariously short amount of time -- just a few pages, really -- in which I must seize the imagination of a reader as firmly as my songs have grabbed listeners' ears. But that's only the beginning of the battle; for, you see, I have found myself writing for a young readership that comes to me with arms folded and a cocky, "Oh, yeah?" curl on its lip.
These are the 'reluctant readers.'
I'd never encountered the term until my first novel The Big One-Oh was published in 2007, and "...this is a great read for the reluctant reader!" popped up in several reviews. Savvy literary types informed me that "reluctant reader" is industry code for... are you sitting down?... boys. Yup. Boys' reading habits are so specific that they have merited their very own euphemism.
Actually, 'boys' reading habits' is misleading, for what I also discovered is that, by and large, boys don't really have reading habits. The lament of modern educators is that boys at all levels of education are lagging further and further behind girls. Who or what is to blame? Is it the six hundred channels of television? The proliferation of video games? Ubiquitous cell phones? Twittering? Texting? What?
The answer is likely 'all of the above.' The hole in the dike has grown too large for a little boy's finger to matter anymore; the flood of technology is reshaping the personalities of today's youngsters in a way that the creators of the Mouseketeers, Sesame Street and Barney -- whose creations deeply affected previous generations -- never dreamed.
On a recent trip to Japan I was struck by a sight I first observed in Tokyo and then saw repeated in city after city. At the end of the school day, armies of uniformed middle-grade students crowded in and around a bus stop shelter, spilling onto the sidewalk and into the street. But these kids didn't talk or joke or roughhouse, the way kids do (or did.) Instead, they waited for their bus in eerie silence, each of them hunched over a handheld device, ear buds firmly in place, fingers flying. The fact that their school uniforms were snow white added a ghostly, other-worldly dimension to this and the rest of my sighting; tableaux of schoolmates with nothing to say to each other. Schoolmates who weren't making any memories together. Schoolmates who could hardly be called 'mates.'
Those images flash through my mind every time I stand up before a classroom of kids or a book store full of parents and children. I recognize the awesome opportunity I am being given, of actually speaking to youngsters who, left to their own devices, would happily return to... well, to their own devices. I've got to act fast!
Here's the interesting part: in all the years I have written pop songs, I have never faced my audience. I have never met (most of) the people who bought seventy million of my records. I enjoyed my relative anonymity, happy to sit home (or in a recording studio), crank out the hits, check the charts in Variety and Billboard, and then deposit the checks.
So when The Big One-Oh was published and I realized that I'd have to actually do that Willy Loman thing -- hauling my sample cases and hawking my wares -- I cringed. It wasn't that I had stage-fright; before I'd found success as a songwriter, I'd performed on Broadway. But when the music business started to pay, I was so relieved to be able to leave behind the eight-a-week performance schedule, not to mention the meet-and-greet at the stage door that always left me feeling a bit of a fraud. ("Who do they think I am, fer cryin' out loud?! It's not like I'm on a television show!")
But then I began to make my bookstore appearances and to do my signings. I began to meet my 'reluctant readers' (and their sisters and their parents.) And right from the start, I noticed something strange and wonderful.
I'd make a few introductory remarks about the long journey that took me from being born and raised in Honolulu to performing on Broadway to writing songs, screenplays, and, now, novels. In even the best behaved audiences there'd be fidgeters and whisperers. And, texters.
But when I'd start to read from my book, people would settle down. And then when I'd do the voices (oh, yeah; the old Broadway performer is still lurking just beneath the surface), a hush would descend. Young, old, boys, girls, didn't matter. They'd freeze. Jaws would actually drop.
Stephen Sondheim, that genius songwriter, said it in five syllables: "Children will listen."
Now, as I begin making bookstore and library appearances for my second novel Captain Nobody, I still worry that I've got only a breathtakingly short amount of time in which to earn the attention of my young audience. But then, I remember those silent Japanese schoolchildren. I realize the challenge I'm facing, but I'm also excited by the possibility that I -- or, rather, my words -- might worm their way into these young minds, the way that my songs have. Maybe I'll get them to look up from their handhelds and take a journey with me. And with all of those assembled.
After all, a good story shared makes 'mates' of us all.