Ralph Fletcher on boy writers and his new book

August 7th, 2012

As the father of four sons and the author of countless nonfiction and fiction books, Ralph Fletcher has a natural interest in boys and writing. He has spent the last several years working with boy writers and their teachers, as well as interviewing other male authors about writing for boys. Ralph shared his insights on the subject in Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices and in his video, Dude, Listen to This. Now he has written a book for students (fourth grade and up) called Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know, published by Henry Holt and Co.

Ralph talked about the new book and about engaging boy writers in a recent conversation with Stenhouse General Manager Dan Tobin. Leave a comment or ask a question — we will pick a random winner to receive a signed copy of Boy Writers and Guy-Write.

Let’s start with the new book. How do you see Guy-Write being used in a classroom? And how does it relate to Boy Writers?

Teachers are the audience for Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices. I wanted to give teachers a deeper understanding of boy writers, and to suggest concrete ways we might widen the circle for them.  I ended each chapter with a practical section titled “What Can I Do In My Classroom?” Here I list concrete steps teachers can take to engage boy writers.  I think teachers will appreciate Guy-Write, but in fact I wrote this book for boy writers. I wanted to make a book you could hand to a boy writer, a book that would speak to him in a voice that is anecdotal, friendly, but also serious. The message of the book is: Let’s look at a range of subjects and genres that guys want to write about, as well as some practical tips and strategies you can use to strengthen your own writing.

In both books, you talk about edgy topics that boys might like to write about, including violence and bathroom humor. In your interview with Jon Scieszka in Guy-Write, he discusses writing about things like pee, vomit, and war.  What’s your advice for teachers on where to draw the line when it comes to letting boys choose topics?

While there’s no universal line for these issues, I would ask teachers to consider how they might give boys more leeway in terms of topic, language, and humor. If you do them more freedom, you’ll get more engagement. Consider this story a teacher told me:

“Early in the school year one of my first grade students made a story with a picture of a man and a thought bubble above his head. It said: ‘This man dreamt of sumbody who fartd.’ I was going to deem Michael’s story to be inappropriate, but I had just read your book BOY WRITERS, so I decided to try a different approach. Next day I handed back the stories one by one. I could see that Michael was getting nervous. Finally I got to his piece. When I read it out loud the other kids laughed, as I knew they would. Then I held up the book Walter The Farting Dog and I said: ‘Michael’s story made us laugh, just like this book did when we read it. Good writing can make us laugh.’ I figured that this was the first piece Michael would share during the school year. If he had a bad experience, well, I feared it might affect his entire year, so I wanted to make it positive, and it was. Michael was beaming.”

In this story, I appreciate the teacher’s willingness to rethink her practice. It’s not always easy to change! Of course, the teacher is responsible for the tenor and decorum in the classroom. Ultimately, the teacher can put forth his/her own “line in the sand” (as to what is and is not permissible) but you could also indicate a willingness to rethink and revisit this issue as the year progresses. Students will respect that.

In your chapter on sports writing, you zero in on two common problems: overuse of clichés and too many boring play-by-play details. How do you teach students to recognize when they might be boring their readers?

I write for myself. I am my first reader, and I believe that people are far more alike than we would like to admit. Thus, I assume that what’s interesting to me will be interesting to the reader. The problem, of course, is that the boy writer who played in the “big game” will in fact find every pitch highly interesting! Because he participated he may be oblivious to the reader’s boredom.

There are some developmental issues at play here. Up to and including third grade students will tend to write bed-to-bed (or play-by-play) stories. But by fourth grade students can be taught the power of summarizing. That allows a writer to skip the boring parts, to deal with six or seven innings in one brief paragraph, and then slow down at the most crucial moments.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the emphasis the Common Core Standards place on nonfiction and on analytical writing and argument [though Appendix A of the Standards defines narrative as “creative fictional stories, memoirs, anecdotes, and autobiographies.”] Do you worry that creative writing may get squeezed out?

We know only too well how things go in education—we swing abruptly from one end of the continuum to the other. There’s nothing wrong with teaching nonfiction, argument, and analytical writing. I’m heartened that more attention will be paid to these real-world genres. But yes, I am afraid that a hyper focus on Common Core Standards may lead teachers to neglect narrative writing. That would be a serious mistake.  Story, after all, is the mother of all genre. When kids write real stories about their lives they can include the honest, specific, accurate information that will make the writing come alive. I believe in the power of story writing. I have watched thousands of young writers find their stride by writing stories.

One more thing, and this may sound like a cranky quibble, but I don’t like the connotation of the phrase “creative writing.” It sounds too laid-back and nonrigorous. I much prefer the term “expressive writing.”

I like the way you wrote about boys and emotion. You challenge the stereotype of boys being unemotional. They just might express it differently from girls. I remember there were some very emotional conversations in the boys writing group featured in your video, Dude, Listen to This! Do you find that writing provides boys a way to express emotions they have trouble talking about in conversation?

When it comes to emotions we must be careful not to oversimplify or over-generalize. I have met many tender boys. I have also met girls who are tough as nails, who keep their emotions tightly bottled. Still, it does seem like girls have an easier time sharing their feelings. Boys seem to benefit from a separate vehicle for doing so. For instance, I have watched my sons act in a theater production where they are suddenly expected to express a range of emotions. In every case they rose to the challenge.

Sports is another arena where boys are allowed to express emotion. Boys learn at an early age that “Big boys don’t cry,” but when my son’s high school lacrosse team got beat in the state tournament, all the players had tears in their eyes as they walked off the field for the final time. Many were openly crying. Nobody made fun of that—not peers or parents.

In a similar way, writing seems to be one of these arenas where boys allow themselves (and allow their friends) to share a richer range of emotions: sadness, loneliness, loss, jealousy, etc. Many boys find poetry a perfect vehicle for this kind of emotional writing. Of course, this is also true for girls.

One last question: So what have you got against vampires?

Ha! Okay, well, let’s have a bit of historical perspective. A few years ago vampires became the rage. Then the hot thing was (is) zombies. What’s next? My 1st grade niece Liza insists that fairies will be the next big thing. Maybe she’s right.

I’ve got nothing against vampires. (One of my neighbors is a vampire, but he’s quite friendly–on several occasions he has dropped everything to help me sharpen my chainsaw.) But on a serious note…I am against anything that gets done and overdone to the point that it loses its freshness. I don’t like formulaic writing! In my book Pyrotechnics on the Page, I argue that each writer has the responsibility to reinvent our language, to conjure up its power and its magic, each time he or she sits down to write. We can’t fall back on hackneyed scripts or formulas. We have to make it new.

Entry Filed under: Writing

39 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mrs. V  |  August 7th, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Wow! This sounds like it would be a great book to put in the hands of our students. While it is written with them in mind, I am sure that it would still be insightful for teachers as well.

  • 2. Tyler McBride  |  August 7th, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Sounds like a great book! I’d love to read it.

  • 3. Cherri Westbrook  |  August 8th, 2012 at 6:45 am

    We have a very high population of free and reduced lunch children, very high poverty rate. Our boys continue to score lowest in many of our literacy assessments. We have talked about starting a boys reading club…wow, this has me thinking maybe we need to start a boys writing club…yes I would love to learn to help our boys achieve more!!!!!

  • 4. Marsha Hutson  |  August 8th, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    I would absolutely give my eye-teeth to receive Ralph Fletcher’s new book, “Guy Write”! I teach 4th Grade Writing/Language Arts at a Title I Texas school where most of our Pre-K-5th grade students receive free/reduced meals. We have a large percentage of boys at our school who struggle a great deal with Writing both motivationally and ability wise. I have “Boy Writers” and would love to receive Ralph’s new book. Is the new book a kind of “sequel” to “Boy Writers”?

  • 5. Diane Mayr  |  August 10th, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Ralph, your niece is right–fairies are the big thing for first grade girls. As a public librarian, I see the market being flooded by fairy books. If publishers would stop jumping on the fairy/zombie/vampire bandwagon, then writers would have more leeway in creating “fresh” scripts. But, alas, the bottom line rules.

  • 6. Mary Wheeler  |  August 10th, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    While I also don’t like topics done to death, I have found that allowing kids to write about these clicheed subjects increases engagement. Last year, one Kinder boy just wanted to write about Marvel Comics and this motivated him to write more interesting sentences than”I see a cat.” or “I like my Mom.” For two years, it was all about Pokemon then Power Rangers. It certainly gives me an education into popular culture!

  • 7. Krista Marx  |  August 10th, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    I’ve yet to meet a Ralph Fletcher book that I don’t like! I’m especially excited about the topic of dude-writers. I wish this had existed when my son was younger….but it’s never too late. This will be fabulous insight for me and my teachers as we nurture writers in their own right – no matter the gender!

  • 8. Jenna  |  August 10th, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    I am very excited about this new book! As a Title I intervention teacher I have trouble getting boys interested in reading, let alone any writing. I have also found that drawing that line between what is classroom appropriate and what is not has often been difficult. With my fifth grade boys this last year I ended up making many exceptions, often having them run their idea past me first if they weren’t sure, and then I found that they did so much more writing and the other boys were interested in hearing each others’ stories more. Made our writing reflections and discussions much richer!

  • 9. Susan Price  |  August 10th, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    I try to let all of my students write about whatever they wish, however, I sometimes have boys that only want to write about people getting shot or stabbed. How would you help them move onto other topics without taking away their choice?

  • 10. John D.  |  August 10th, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    I love the thought that “story is…the mother of all genre.” I just bought the book. Thanks, Ralph!

  • 11. Therese Stewart  |  August 10th, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Thank you so much for all that you have provided in this arena. I am starting my 42nd year of teaching and will not be waiting for a free book….I just have to have it “yesterday”!

  • 12. Pat  |  August 10th, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    I’ll definitely be looking for this book and recommending it to teachers with whom I work. I’ve always hated the term “creative writing” too, and yet the term “creative nonfiction,” although a term that seems odd, is exactly the antidote to the Common Core. With creative nonfiction, the writer uses the narrative arc and looks for the story in the nonfiction. I somehow suspect that Ralph Fletcher’s book gets to the heart of this notion.

  • 13. Matt Renwick  |  August 10th, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    I think this book is very timely. There are some good resources out there for boys and reading, and this book seems like a good companion to those. I plan to share this post with my elementary staff and see if they are interested in reading the book, too.

  • 14. Karen Mida  |  August 10th, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    My daughter will be a 1st yr. 7th grade English teacher this Fall. As a former administrator, this sounds like a good read!!!

  • 15. Jason  |  August 10th, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I see the play-by-play sports writing from my boy writers at times. This book will be added to my TBR pile soon.

  • 16. Anna Weniger  |  August 11th, 2012 at 5:58 am

    So glad I found your book.I work in a school that is borderline Title 1 & our population is over 50% African American. We have a huge learning gap between our male & female populations. Our principal has challenged us to close this gap. We are making slow progress. One thing I have noticed is the correlation between the lack of interest in our boys wanting to write let alone read.I think your book will help me understand the middle school male writer a little more and give me a boost to help them start writing.

  • 17. Pam  |  August 11th, 2012 at 6:19 am

    It is refreshing to have someone encourage teachers ( and educate parents) to allow students , especially boys, to write about feelings, dreams and fears. Too many boys do not have the opportunity to share thoughts with others without fear of being ridiculed or stereotyped. If we encourage boys, and girls, to express themselves in an appropriate way, perhaps we could alleviate some of the more inappropriate ways of expression that is becoming more common (guns and violence)

  • 18. Ondrej Hausenblas  |  August 11th, 2012 at 6:53 am

    In my experience, boys up toi the age of 12-13, or even later on, find great pleasure not only in reading and writing about adventure or about strength, fights, war, but also in exaggerating and in causing a shock to their audience – this can partly be a cause of some of the bathroom humor or an explanation why their writing tends to ignore a story-line or “rational” logic… I wonder how other teachers deal with those boy writings that show more the amusement by making fun or by shocking the others than a good structure or “taste”. I would thank the boy and appreciate him for pleasing us all by his humor but ask him nevertheless to provide a writing that keeps the rules that we have set for the particular writing task. But the boys find this too strict, and it really can dislike writing after some time. What would you recommend?
    Ondrej Hausenblas

  • 19. Jessica  |  August 11th, 2012 at 9:08 am

    I teach a writing class to 8th graders, and I appreciate the perspective of allowing boys a bit more freedom in areas in which they show an interest (even though it may be strange to me!). I am excited to encourage them in the possibilities of writing well.

  • 20. Jennifer Graham  |  August 11th, 2012 at 11:50 am

    This book sounds amazing! I have so many problems with getting boys to write. I am certainly going to read this book for some fresh ideas on helping the male students in my school. I find that boys do tend to all write about the same topics. I would love a copy to share with teachers. Our school is low on writing strategies across the board. This book sees to hold a key to helping us make some changes. Thank you.

  • 21. Elaine Fedxorisin  |  August 11th, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I am always on the look out to find ways to connect to our boy writers. I’d love to read this book to my boy intervention groups. I am going to order a copy and then pass it on to our upper el teachers, Boy writers is a subgroup my school has targeted in our improvement plan.

  • 22. Sherell Stepp  |  August 11th, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    I agree that boys are often our hardest students. I work in an intervention program as well and of course more of our students are male than female. I have read most of Ralph’s books and would love to read this before handing it off to some of my students. I have a couple specifically in mind that I think would take up the challenge of reading it to help them with writing.

  • 23. Cathy B  |  August 11th, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    I feel sheepish. I read “The Gas We Pass — the Story of Farts” to my second-graders at the beginning of the year, and then I forbid them to bring it up again. I stand corrected. I will try really hard to smile through the fart and the poop and the bloody killing and bombing writing, and look for something praiseworthy. Sigh! I need to read these books to give me some tools for helping my boys become good writers (of fart, poop, blood stories). 🙂

  • 24. Jennifer Underwood  |  August 11th, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing about this wonderful new resource for supporting boy writers. I will be rethinking how I respond to writing that I might have previously considered inappropriate.

    How would you suggest that the teacher support both boys and girls writing in the classroom in a way that does not promote stereotypes about gender-based differences? Or are the differences on the teahcer’s approach more subtle so that the students would not perceive the teacher as treating the boys and the girls differently?

  • 25. Jennifer Underwood  |  August 11th, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing about this wonderful new resources for boy writers. I will be rethinking how I respond to writing that I might have previously considered inappropriate.

    How do you ensure though that the students do not perceive the teacher as treating the boys differently from the girls when teaching writing? Is there a danger of promoting or perpetuating gender-based stereotypes?

  • 26. Becky Wilson  |  August 11th, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    I saw this book at my local public library and picked it up. I finished reading it yesterday and I must say that I LOVED it! It has great examples and non-examples as well as interviews with well known authors that many boys will recognize. I would love to have my own copy to use in my fifth grade classroom!

  • 27. Irene P  |  August 12th, 2012 at 8:00 am

    This topic is an important one. Boys need a different set of strategies to bring out their best work. As a principal, I’ve just found a topic for a teacher workshop! I love all of Ralph’s work. I can’t wait to read this one. Thank you.

  • 28. Mrs. Glenn  |  August 12th, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    I find that in my classroom boys enjoy writing nonfiction so much more than fiction. I like to find way to increase their enjoyment in writing fiction.

  • 29. Nicole Medina  |  August 12th, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    I am rethinking my practice about edgy topics even now. The story you shared about the teacher using bathroom humor in her (and the boy’s) favor made me consider how that could be a life-changing moment for a child.

  • 30. Lee Motley  |  August 12th, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    As a mom of 3 boys and former literacy coach, I am always interested in finding ways to engage them in reading and writing. Prior to coaching, I taught second grade and especially loved teaching writing. I have parents come to me whose boys loved writing in second grade, but now, have no interest whatsoever, because of the “tolerance” level from later teachers. It validates my thinking as a writing teacher that boys are naturally prone to write about certain topics. I am excited to read your new book and share with boys I now work with in the intervention programs I manage for our school now.

  • 31. Robin  |  August 13th, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Excellent post. I will add this book to our must have for teachers (and students). We have single sex classrooms at our elementary school and look for ways to be more sensitive to the art, reading, writing and behavioral needs of boys in particular. This will fit well into our professional development readings.

  • 32. Deborah Hartman  |  August 13th, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Good Sound advise that I will use this year. I may even have the boys read it as a Literature circle book and see what their comments are.

    Thank you

  • 33. Sylvia Biondich  |  August 14th, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    I am so excited to read this book and get it into the hands of middle school boys! It has been my contention for several years now that boys are academically encouraged in math and science and ignored in the language arts (and vice versa for girls, btw). This is fabulous. I love Poetry Matters, so I know I have high expectations for this book.

    Thank you!

  • 34. Brenda  |  August 14th, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Get excerpts of this into class textbooks! Or make it with another half for girls so that it can be a class teaching tool! Thank you, Ralph!

  • 35. makyaj oyunlar_  |  November 26th, 2012 at 2:07 am

    When someone writes an paragraph he/she retains the image of a user in his/her brain
    that how a user can know it. Therefore that’s why this post is perfect. Thanks!

  • 36. Mary Louise Rodgers  |  October 26th, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I grew up with three brothers. I have two sons. A few years ago (before becoming a principal) I insisted on having a class of just boys. Boys and girls are different and most classroom expectations are not designed for boys. I so appreciate books like this that lay it out for teachers of boys and for the boys themselves. Congratulations, Ralph Fletcher! I love your work.

  • 37. Andrew Mulloy  |  October 28th, 2013 at 7:06 am

    I teach 7th grade writing, and I too have a passion to be a role model for boys and am working to help them from going adrift in our classrooms. I have been working to do these types of things in my classroom: allowing more lee-way and giving students the freedom to choose a topic. This is some good stuff.

    In some research I have been doing there is also a suggestion to put a particular emphasis with boys on not writing to the teacher, but to each other – in effect, changing the audience. Is this discussed as a technique in this book?

  • 38. NW  |  October 28th, 2013 at 9:28 am

    This is a great tool to engage boys in writing. Thanks!

  • 39. Jennifer Pudenz  |  March 25th, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    I read your books for my masters program and really enjoyed them. I teach young writers and I had to challenge myself to think about why I teach writing the way that I do. Before I read the book, I limited my boy writers too much. Reading these books helped me to be a better writing teacher. I have a boy in my class who likes to write about trains every time he writes. I have found ways to put a spin on his writing and add trains to keep him motivated and interested in writing. He is starting to take more risks as a writer. I have a girl in my class who writes about scary movies. Prior to reading your books I would have strongly suggested she find other topics to write about. I now can see that she writes about these topics as a way to deal with the reality of them. I highly recommend educators read these 2 books!

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