I love it when an author slaps a reference to another book into his or her own, especially in kids' or YA books. It's a sly way of suggesting to the reader, "If you are enjoying my book, here's what I like - you should try it!" Rebecca Stead not only drew inspiration from A Wrinkle in Time when she wrote When You Reach Me, but she wove the older book firmly into the narrative. I don't know anybody who finished that book and didn't at least consider re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's classic. If there's bookshelf in a picture book, I always squint to see what titles the illustrator has drawn.
Charlie Higson wrote a bookworm character into The Dead, and that kid's finest moment was when he defended himself from a mindless cannibal attacker using his copy of The Gormenghast Trilogy as a weapon. That's a great little glimpse into Charlie Higson's head.
The book that Tom Angleberger slides into Darth Paper Strikes Back is Robot Dreams, Sara Varon's nearly wordless graphic novel about a dog and a robot who are pals. That book is full of emotion without being mushy. It says a great deal about loyalty and love without embarrassing the reader.
Hm. Hmm, I say.
Robert Lipsyte had a truly excellent essay on the back page of the New York Times Book Review this week. He discussed the frayed, borderline dysfunctional relationship between teenage boys and fiction, something that is not too hard to notice if you spend a lot of time with teenagers, teen fiction, or both. I myself am reasonably happy if I can set a fiction-averse boy up with a basketball novel, or one of the sci-fi novels that, in Lipsyte's words, "read like video game manuals."
Lipsyte would not be reasonably happy about such an outcome. He argues, passionately and convincingly, that boys need "reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives."
Reading like Robot Dreams. Reading like Darth Paper Strikes Back.
(Briefly let me address the fact that both of these books are shelved in the kids' section: you can't have teenage boys who seek out fiction that incorporates emotional themes if you never had middle grade boys who were comfortable with such books.)
Darth Paper is an origami finger puppet created by seventh-grade spoilsport Harvey. Harvey is one of those kids who gets extremely frustrated when people don't see things his way. Later in life, people like Harvey run for City Council. In middle school, they generally just stomp around going, "Aaargh!" In the previous Origami Yoda book, Harvey was the one sixth grader who never could accept the mystical origin of Origami Yoda's wisdom.
In this book, Harvey seems to have gone over to the Dark Side all the way. He and Darth Paper go all-out to challenge Dwight, Origami Yoda's creator and, er, operator. When Origami Yoda delivers a piece of advice to a cheerleader that could be construed as threatening speech, Harvey makes sure that it is. Dwight gets in truly gigantic trouble, in part because he has a history of odd behavior - behavior such as going around school with a puppet on his finger, and is kicked out of school pending review by the school board.
Oh, man! This is when our faithful narrator, relatively normal Tommy, springs into action. Just as in The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, he begins assembling a case file, asking his classmates to contribute their stories of Dwight (and Origami Yoda's) kindness, problem-solving and persistence.
Tommy eventually presents his case file to the school board, but wouldn't you know it, Harvey is there too, to give his side of the story. The ending is a real surprise, and even though anyone who's seen Return of the Jedi might have guessed there would be a moment of redemption just when all seemed darkest, none of the readers in my house could figure just how that was going to play out.
AND it's funny. LOL funny. Full of expressive, word-perfect middle school dialogue. Plus there are origami instructions, and two pencil-and-paper games that you can learn to make in about a minute. My kids have not stopped playing Beggar's Canyon Podrace (above is Milo's Santa Fe Loop course) since they got up this morning.
This is what I think, for boys. I look at a funny novel full of feeling like this one or like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; and I look at a wordless novel full of feeling like Robot Dreams; and then I think about The Book Thief, Holes (another book that Angleberger name-checks here), and Hatchet, which are all emotionally intense books that boys will read... and I think, just don't embarrass them. Put your characters in enough peril that strong emotional responses are perfectly justified, or make it funny, or keep the words to a minimum. Give them a chance to access their own feelings while they appear to be doing something else.
"Heard of a Jedi mind trick you have, hmmm?"