by Ali Sparkes
Be honest. There’s a boy in your crosshairs. You want to shoot him right through the heart.
With your favourite book.
But he’s a gamer. What hope is there..?
RBRs. Reluctant Boy Readers; the NEMESIS of any librarian, author, parent or mentor.
There he sits; jiggling up and down with unspent tension, thumbs twitching. He’s not even on the Xbox. He’s just warming up. As soon as he gets home from school he’ll be hitting that controller faster than a horse fly on a sweaty leg. And if he had his way, he’d stay there for a Fortnite.
We know, of course, that reading will calm and feed his soul – give him all the thrill of a game, but also help him to focus where focus is required; help him expand his horizons and improve his own turn of phrase and slip of the pen. Take him further in life.
How, though, will we ever get him to see that?
I travel the country (and beyond), visiting schools. I do fast paced, comedy-led presentations. I use props, voices, audience interaction, singing, sound effects, Mexican waves, hypnotism… I do not want to give Xbox Boy any chance to get bored and look away.
But keeping him laughing and engaged for 60 minutes is one thing; getting him to then pick up one of my books and read it is another.
Over many cups of peppermint tea (yeah, I’m one of the weird ones) and chats with countless librarians, I heard the same lament: ‘That boy – over there – he’s really bright! But he never wants to read. For him it’s all about gaming. Your books are great – but he won’t even pick one up. He drives me crazy!’
I heard that my novels, for a start, were too chunky for Xbox Boy. He really didn’t want to commit to 300+ pages. And if I was ever going to catch his fleeting attention, it needed to be NOW. Right NOW. No faffing about warming up over three pages.
These conversations are precisely why I wrote Death By Detention. It’s half the length of my usual books (my middle grade fiction with Oxford) and the blurb and the opening leaves nothing to chance. Xbox Boy knows within seconds that the kids in this book will be running for their lives, moments into the story – after their head teacher has been shot through a window during their after-hours detention.
He knows masked assassins will be after them, chasing through the unlit school – and that the head teacher is going to come back as a zombie and join the hunt.
This all happens within the first chapter. And the first chapter is two pages long.
And if the premise above sounds a bit like a computer game… well, it’s meant to. It’s no coincidence that my boy character is a troubled kid who pulls all-nighters on the Xbox. Or that my girl character has issues with authority and only wants to be the lead singer in an all-girl punk band.
Many of us authors are guilty of making our heroes the archetypal bullied kid; sensitive and bookish – a bit like ourselves at school, I suspect. But what about the kid who is the bully? The girl who misbehaves and gives the teachers hell? Aren’t they worthy of their own story? I happen to think they are, especially if it helps any reader to understand the reasons why they might be the no hoper kids, kept behind after school.
You see, it wasn’t just Xbox Boy I was after – it was all the kids who think that books aren’t for them or about them. After all, if all you ever see is Anne of Green Gables or Harry Potter on the front cover, and your life is currently all about nicking a ciggie and smoking it in the bogs… why would you relate?
So I wrote the book. My agents loved it.
Publishers poked it away with a long, disinfected bargepole.
It turned out that pitching a YA book about gunmen in schools when there are real life gunmen in schools in the news is not such a great idea. The Paris shootings and the perennial high school attacks in the US seemed to have put paid to my little plan for Xbox Boy. Subsequent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London didn’t help much, either.
I understand the reticence – but I don’t agree with it. Fiction is a safe rehearsal space for the scary stuff that will probably never happen to you. But might. I’m not into gratuitous violence at all, but I’m far less into sanitising it. And in my experience, the average Y7 is way less sensitive that the average parent.
But this was all academic. It looked like a lost cause.
Until late in 2017 when two dear friends and very clever businesswomen – lawyer Beth Rudolf and creative and design guru Sue Thomas – decided we should just set up a tiny publishing company and put Death By Detention out there and see…
Coven Publishing was born in spring 2018. It’s a bit like a microbrewery. We’ve made something curious. We hope enough people will like its taste that we can make some more.
Death By Detention was officially launched in July and now we wait and see. Early responses have been very heartening… and heart-warming. Especially the three Year 8 boys at a school in Norwich who spotted my small box of DBDs, dug in, pulled them out of their own volition, then waited for some time by my table (I’d wandered off somewhere) so they could each buy one.
Amazon reviews are looking good and word is starting to spread. Without a massive publisher like Oxford behind it (Oxford aren’t publishing YA currently, so were not an option for this story) the word of mouth is hugely important.
I have no idea whether we’ve done something rather grand or rather quixotic.
Pray for me…
To see the DBD trailer go to www.alisparkes.com/deathbydetention
This is a guest post by Ali Sparkes, and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.