June 29, 2017


Mean Dads for a Better America: The Generous Rewards of an Old-Fashioned Childhood. By Tom Shillue. Dey St. $26.99.

Guys Read, Volume 7: Heroes and Villains. Edited by Jon Scieszka. Walden Pond Press. $16.99.

     There is feminism, but there is no comparable “masculism”: our society has an underlying assumption that boys and men do not need an “ism” since they already have plenty of power and self-worth and all that and, in fact, have long kept girls and women suppressed and repressed. Why, there was even a recent scientific study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience showing that fathers in the United States (at least in the Atlanta area, where the study was done) treat their toddler boys and girls differently and in so doing reinforce gender stereotyping and all that awful stuff. Um, well, OK, it seems pretty self-evident that parents will treat different children differently, and at least some of that will have to do with a child’s gender, and that is a terrible thing because – why, exactly? While contemplating that, fathers can also think about what kind of parents they want to be, whether they want to be politically correct and hypersensitive to slights to their children’s self-esteem and determined to “helicopter” if necessary by hovering over their growing kids to be sure they are sheltered from a world that they will be forced to enter on their own all too soon – or, on the other hand, if they would prefer to take advice from comedian Tom Shillue and be mean. Or what contemporary American society considers to be mean. Shillue grew up as one of five children in a devout Irish Catholic family in Massachusetts, and he argues – with apparent seriousness most of the time – that fear, discipline and unfairness should be what childhood is all about, because kids are eventually going to have to learn what to fear, how to be disciplined, and that life is not fair, and the sooner they gain the knowledge, the better. There is a certain celebration of the old-fashioned throughout Mean Dads for a Better America, with an emphasis on patriotism and the value of “wait-till-your-father-gets-home” warnings from put-upon moms. But Shillue does not quite seem to realize how some of his anecdotes and recommendations come across. There is, for example, the story of the time when a neighbor boy flipped over Shillue’s plastic swimming pool and started kicking holes in it. Shillue’s response was to join in and do the same thing, until the pool was ruined and Shillue’s mother asked, quite reasonably, why he did that. “I had no answer for her. I liked the pool. But I suppose it was preferable to join in and help destroy your property [rather] than to stand there crying while someone else did.” This is an object lesson in peer pressure and failure of self-assertion, but Shillue thinks of it as essentially a positive experience, recounting it in the context of a similar event that happened when he was older, a Boy Scout at scout camp, and other boys took away his Pillsbury Doughboy mascot – which “was, I thought, a sign of my offbeat coolness” – and started stabbing it with scout knives. Rather than stand up for himself and his property, Shillue joined in the “fun” and helped destroy something that seemed to have genuine meaning for him. “He had to be sacrificed so that I could flourish,” Shillue writes; but that comes across as a rather pathetic justification. Camp “was tough, but if you handled it the right way, it made you more resilient.” Well, perhaps. Or maybe it made you more violence-prone or more likely to disrespect and disdain others’ property and rights. Shillue offers 23 chapters of things he feels readers should “be,” as in “Be Thrifty,” “Be Competitive,” “Be Dedicated,” “Be Reverent,” “Be a Gentleman,” and so on. But there is a near-constant disconnect here between Shillue’s apparently sincere belief in “mean” dads (by which he really means firm fathers with a strong sense of right and wrong and the willingness to instill it in their children) and the anecdotes he offers in support of his prescriptions – which frequently provoke feelings of empathy and sadness rather than a “yes, that’s the way to do it!” reaction. In reality, it is hard to know the “right” way to be a father, or a man – or a mother, or a woman – and there is no single way on which all readers of this book will agree. As a memoir, Mean Dads for a Better America is interesting and often touching, sometimes apparently in spite of itself. But as a prescription for fatherhood, or simply grown-up-man-hood, it is less than useful.

     At least boys and men (and girls and women) can agree that it is better to be a hero than a villain, and easy to tell the difference. Right? Well, maybe not. The seventh volume in the Guys Read series – and how’s that concept for gender stereotyping? – includes 10 stories whose main commonality is that many show a thinner line between heroism and villainy than might be expected. The contributors to Heroes and Villains are Laurie Halse Anderson, Cathy Camper and Raúl Gonzalez, Sharon Creech, Jack Gantos, Christopher Healy, Deborah Hopkinson, Ingrid Law, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Lemony Snicket, and Eugene Yelchin, with illustrations by Jeff Stokely. “The Hero of the Story,” the contribution by Snicket (pen name of David Handler), is explicit about the uncertainty of where the hero-villain line is drawn. The story has Snicket telling about an event, supposedly from his own childhood, in which a woman handed him a baby who turned out to be a kidnaped royal child and whom Snicket was accused of stealing, the accusation turning him into a villain; then it turned out that the baby was not royal after all, turning Snicket into a hero, maybe, for rescuing an unwanted infant who grew up to be the person to whom he is telling the story. The convolutions are typical of Snicket and offer a particularly clear view of the whole hero-or-villain theme, although the story provides no definitive way of separating the good guys from the baddies. Christopher Healy’s “The Villain’s Guide to Being a Hero” operates in a somewhat similar manner, using a mashup-of-fairy-tales format and a 13-year-old Bandit King to present a much funnier take than Snicket’s on the perils and pitfalls of trying to be either heroic or villainous. As usual in anthologies, the stories are uneven and are unconnected except more or less through their underlying theme. They have the advantage of mostly being short and all being easy to read (the book is aimed at readers ages 8-12). And the authors do their best to keep things light, even when they are dealing with something serious, as Laurie Halse Anderson does in “General Poophead” – the story of Benedict Arnold, in which the American Revolution’s hero-turned-traitor is judged by a Valkyrie, the gods of war, and the incontinent “Almighty Pelican of Judgment, a creature somewhat larger than a T. rex and a bit smaller than a blue whale.” Arnold sits clearly on the “villain” side of things, at least from an American perspective, and he is not the only one. In another case, there is a comic strip here called “The Wager,” by Cathy Camper and Raúl Gonzalez, that features el Cucuy and the Boogeyman, creature-under-the-bed types who find that scaring little kids today is a lot harder than they thought it would be. The Guys Read books are presumably intended to have themes and pacing that young male readers, in particular, will appreciate. Perhaps Heroes and Villains does, or perhaps it is simply packaged the way it is because, even if there is no such thing as “masculism,” there is certainly such a thing as marketing savvy – and the book is intended to make preteen boys feel that it has been put together just for them.

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