Sunday, July 31, 2011

Can Boys Read Judy Blume?

So I had a piece a few weeks ago in the Hartford Courant, about talking to your kids about "the facts of life." And no, I don't mean the 80s show with Mrs. Garrett and Tootie... which is even harder to explain. (When the show went from seven featured students the first season to only four the next, how did they explain where everyone else went? Did that school only have those four students? How were those four girls, who were so different, even friends? And what exactly is a Tootie, anyway?)

Anyway, back to the article: for a hook, I started with a memory I have about reading Judy Blume books when I was in fifth grade; meanwhile, thirty years later, when my own sons got to the fifth grade, I realized, "Hey, I don't want them reading those books! They're too young for this stuff." Existential crisis ensued.

I got some good feedback on the piece, but quite a few people had the same question for me: What was a boy doing reading Judy Blume?

I guess I kind of understand why they were asking, since, yes, Ms. Judy does have a lot of female protagonists, and, no, her books never incorporated a ton of car chases or laser guns. So maybe she has developed a rep for being an anuthor for girls. But is it justified?

Hey, the first Judy Blume book I read was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, which has male narrator named Peter Hatcher, and I just kept going after that. I was ten. What did I know about "boy" books vs. "girl" books?

But the whole thing got me thinking: why not go through the Judy Blume books I remember reading as a child and label them according to target gender? So if I think the book is primarily meant for girls, I'll label it "For Girls"; if I regard the book as primarily meant for boys, I'll label it "For Boys." If it seems to me immaterial, that there is no target gender, I'll say "Both." (I was hoping to use that wacky masculine/ feminine symbol that Prince used for a little bit in the 90s, but I guess just the word "both" will have to suffice.)

Before we begin, a few caveats:

  • This list is in no way exhaustive, as a quick Judy Blume Sporcle game revealed. My Judy Blume phase only lasted for about a year, and I never really read any of her books after 1980's Superfudge. (Sorry, Iggy's House-- just never got around to you...)

  • This list doesn't include Forever, which I never read. But my wife (who says she remembers girls passing around marked-up copies of Forever in the back of the middle school bus) assures me this is a book For Girls (or maybe Sllightly Scandalized but Nonetheless Very Curious Young Women is more like it).

  • Finally, this list does not include Deenie or Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself; I did read both of them, but I don't really remember anything about them. I think I'm blocking out Deenie because I'm pretty sure the main character had scoliosis, and in the fifth grade, the only thing that frightened me more than Fantasy Island and the insect segments on That's Incredible was scoliosis. As far as Sally Freedman goes, I honestly remember nothing about it other than the fact that one of the characetrs thought Hitler was living in her neighborhood... or something.

With that in mind.... here are my totally subjective, based-on-nothing thoughts about which genders should read Judy Blume books:

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing: The book that started it all-- believe it or not, the book has three sequels. Classic children's book-- regardless of gender. BOTH

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great: More of a spin-off than a sequel to Fourth Grade Nothing (you wouldn't call The Tortellis a "sequel" to Cheers, would you?), this book is actually more complicated than its predecessor, thanks to its somewhat detestable narrator, Sheila Tubman. But a great book that has a lot to say about owning up to your own shortcomings. A female narrator, sure, but that doesn't make a darn bit of difference. BOTH

Blubber: Basically, Mean Girls in the 1970s. Not a ton of guy characters, as far as I can remember-- the book is pretty much about girls bullying girls-- but I don't think that makes it a "girl" book; to me, the lesson about the dangers of bullying is universal. In fact, with renewed talk about bullying lately, this book should make a comeback. BOTH

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret: No equivocating here: totally a girl's book. Margaret and her friends are going through "changes"-- changes which I didn't understand as a fifth grader and only vaguely have a handle on now. (I'm kidding... kind of.) There's another narrative strand about Margaret trying to choose between her dad's Judaism or her mother's Catholicism. But the puberty stuff really drives the book. So, yeah, even though I read it, no one will deny it's a book For Girls.

Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Written a year after Are You There, God?, this is basically its male counterpart: the boy puberty book. At least, that's the way I remembered it. But over the past year, when I first had the inkling to write that Courant article, I read it over, and I realized that the puberty stuff acts as a metaphor for all the other changes the narrator Tony is going through. In this case, most of the changes have to do with his family's newfound wealth, after the dad invents something and makes a boatload of money. But of course, as Tony, a middle-schooler with a nervous stomach, discovers, mo' money means mo' problems. At its core, the book is about classism: if Karl Marx were alive today and had a talk show, this one could be a part of his Book Club.

Still... even though boys and girls could get something out of all the "problems of the nouveau riche" stuff going on, all the puberty talk means it's probably a book For Boys.

Freckle Juice: Hmmmm... honestly, don't remember much about this one, either, except that it was really short and it had illustrations. I read it in the fifth grade, and I definitely remember feeling it was a book for littler kids... which probably means it doesn't have anything edgy or offensive. I'd call this one right down the middle. BOTH

It's Not the End of the World: This "divorce" book has a female narrator, but that doesn't really matter to the plot, which is about children trying to survive their parents' break-up. Kinda unremarkable but not a bad book either. BOTH

Superfudge: This bona fide sequel to Fourth Grade Nothing has the Hatcher family move for a year to the suburbs, buy a myna bird, and add a new member to the family (a baby girl named Tootsie). Just like the original, I'd say this one works for both genders. BOTH

So take that, all you "what's-a-boy-doing-reading-Judy-Blume?"naysayers out there! Clearly, the completely objective data I've compiled shows that out of the eight books mentioned above, only one was pretty clearly "For Girls." Now that I cleared that up, I'll have to start thinking up answers for the new question I'll probably be asked-- "What's a boy doing watching 'The Facts of Life,' anyway?"

Monday, July 11, 2011

Does Bon Jovi Have Any "Forgotten Gems"?

I know it's been a while since I last posted, but I recently stumbled upon two comments that riled me up enough to write. Naturally, both comments involved Bon Jovi.

The first comment was made by my wonderful niece Lucy, who claimed she "hated" Jon Bon Jovi, because "he is old, he is ugly, and he is not a good singer."

The second was an off-handed remark I read on pages 162-163 of Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City: "It seems the only good Bon Jovi songs were the popular ones," Klosterman posits. "The band has no forgotten gems whatsoever (except maybe 'Love is a Social Disease,' and even that is a stretch)."

(Incidentally, I know that FRC came out in 2001, and that my righteous indignation isn't particularly timely, but I just came across that comment this weekend. So my indignation is righteously timely to me.)

The first bundle of comments, about JBJ being old and not a good singer, I can let slide. My niece, after all, twelve; Dakota Fanning seems old to her. And being twelve, she's not really familiar with Bon Jovi's oeuvre. (And yes, I originally typed "body of work" there.) She's probably more familiar with his more recent offerings, the "Have a Nice Days" or the "We Weren't Born To Follows" or the "What Do You Gots," which no one would consider strongest stuff. Not bad, mind you, just a tad derivative. Oh hell, who are we kidding? They're pretty much the same song. But it's a good same song, so we collectively let it go.

But I couldn't easily dismiss the Klosterman comment about Jovi having "no forgotten gems" and felt determined to prove him wrong. After all, we're fast approaching the 25th anniversary of Slippery When Wet (released August 1986), which is when I first called myself a fan. So I felt I needed to speak on Jon's behalf-- because, you know, he really needs my endorsement.

However, while combing through my Jovi treasure trove for "forgotten gems," I realized two things. First, I'm just about the worst Jovi fan in the world, in that I only own two Bon Jovi albums: Slippery When Wet (on cassette, no less!) and Greatest Hits- The Ultimate Collection. Not sure why I don't own more; I think it started when I didn't buy 1988's New Jersey, both because I didn't like the debut single, "Bad Medicine" ("More like 'Bad Music,'" I oh-so-wittily quipped), and because the album came out right when I started college, a time when you're basically required to pooh-pooh everything that got you through high school. Bottom line: combing through my treasure trove didn't take as long as I thought.

Still, reviewing my admittedly sparse collection brought me to my second realization: "Geez, maybe Klosterman has a point. Maybe the only good Bon Jovi songs are the popular ones!" This came after a car ride spent listening to Disc 2 of Ultimate Collection, which such contains such anthems as "These Days" and "When We Were Beautiful." Never heard of them? There's a reason for that: they're lame. Forgettable.

(As an aside: Why do "greatest hits" collections invariably leave out at least one or two of a band's actual "greatest hits"? How can any Bon Jovi "best of" collection not have "Never Say Goodbye" or "She Don't Know Me" or even "Thank You for Loving Me"? Defies explanation. Would you have a John Parr "best of'" without "Naughty Naughty"? What about a T'Pau "greatest hits" without "Heart and Soul"?)

And yet, I refuse to agree with Klosterman's asserton that Jovi has "no forgetten gems whatsoever." In fact, I came up with three great Jovi songs that, to my knowledge, never got significant airplay:

"Shot Through the Heart": And no, I'm not confusing this with "You Give Love a Bad Name." I'm talking about a great "you broke my heart, you soulless meanie" song from their first album. Basically, "You Give Love a Bad Name, v. 1."

"Wild in the Streets": Last song on Slippery When Wet. Awesome tune, any way you look at it. Check and mate, Chuck Kolsterman.

"Silent Night": When I first saw Bon Jovi in December '86, Jon swung out into the audience on a trapeze-type device and sang this song from a platform. When I saw them in July '87, they did the same trapeze bit, only with "Never Say Goodbye"; when I saw them in March '89, they sang "I'll Be There For You." Yeah, they're all remarkably similar (you could probably throw "Bed of Roses" in there, too), but I think "Silent Night" is the best of the bunch. Definitely a forgotten gem.

So, Bon Jovi may not have a ton of forgotten gems, but he does have them. Of course, only after I wrote all this, I realized something: Why does it even matter, anyway? As long as his popular songs remain unforgettable, who cares about the forgotten ones?