Tag Archives: competition

Still fighting it

Just before dusk on a sultry Melbourne night. Twilight sports night at my son’s school. He is in grade one and has two races, a solo sprint and a three-legged race partnered with an assigned “buddy” from a senior class.

He’s anxious. I can see and feel it. At the start line he chews his lip. Frowns. Looks at the ground. Scuffs his feet in the dust. Other boys his age are jostling each other or staring down the track like future Olympians. Then the starter’s gun sounds and he misses it, taking off well behind the bunch. He finishes a distant last.

One of his mates is holding a blue ribbon aloft when I walk around the oval to hug my son. The little dragon and I sidle away from the finish line bustle, pausing only as he is handed a ribbon marked “competitor”. He’s in tears and doesn’t want his peers to see. Obscured from view, I crouch and he perches on my knee, pressing his face to my chest.

I know what he’s feeling. I’ve been there. I know intimately the devastation that festers in the gulf between sporting ambitions and abilities. I ache for him.

In the next race the boy who comes last couldn’t care less. He’s not even slightly interested in sport and is just going through the motions. The little dragon doesn’t have that liberty. He’s not genetically blessed with athleticism but has the heart of a fierce competitor. It’s an agonising combination whereby any pleasure from participating is frequently eclipsed by failing to meet one’s own exacting standards.

I hold him tight. Tell him how proud I am. Suggest that, if he wants to, we can practise together so he’ll be better prepared for racing next time.

The three-legged race arrives. The winner of the solo sprint triumphs again, somewhat slowed by his older companion. The little dragon is basically dragged across the line by his “buddy” and finishes second last. I meet him at the results table where his mate now waves two blue ribbons.

It’s all too raw to expect the little dragon to congratulate his friend. I escort him away, remembering.

I remember hiding in a toilet cubicle during my event at a swimming carnival because I knew I couldn’t compete at the expected level. I let the house team down. Got abused afterwards.

I remember the humiliation of waiting to be last picked for team sports.

I remember completing an endurance running event in a far better than expected position. Then vomiting, poisoned by performance-anxiety and unable to enjoy even that modicum of success.

In part, these experiences are a symptom of a society that places so much emphasis on winning and success that the “fun of taking part” evaporates. Children very quickly perceive that life is a contest and everyone other than the winner is a loser.

Now the little dragon is suffering the same agonies that I did. It’s taken me decades to make peace with my own limited athleticism and unlimited competitiveness. I hope the little dragon gets there quicker than me.

No matter how hard we try, not all of us are genetically predisposed to run faster, jump higher, be stronger or smarter than our peers. One of life’s struggle is learning this. Accepting that we’re each uniquely equipped to make our mark on the world some other way.

Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier watching the little dragon wrestling with it. As Ben Folds says in his superb father-son song, Still Fighting It, “You’re so much like me I’m sorry”.

Sorry, little dragon.

Books for boys 2

Of all my posts so far, Books for boys has attracted the most eyeballs. Getting boys to pick up a book, open it, begin reading (often slowly and grudgingly) and then persevere right through to the finish, can be a real challenge. As a result, there are countless parents and teachers out there on a Holy Grail-style quest for titles that can engage and entertain.

I’m no literacy expert. But I was a compulsive reader when young. Still am, really. I read to my son every night, select books for him from the local library, chat to him and his mates about what they’re reading (if they read at all), visit schools to talk about being an author and journalist, and consume a lot of books myself – many in the Young Adult category. I reckon that gives me a pretty good spider sense for what will snare male readers and what won’t.

While I reckon almost all the titles in my earlier Books for boys post are winners, those listed below are also well worth a look. And if you want to delve even deeper, here are some themes I reckon you should watch for:

Competition: This doesn’t have to mean sport. It could mean who farts the loudest. But boys are inherently competitive and once they get sucked into a competition, they’re more likely to stick around for the medal presentation.

Action: This doesn’t have to mean guns and blood. It does require interesting developments every few pages. Boys are impatient. They don’t want to wait for stuff to happen. I recently read a really well written junior fiction book about two girls whose friendship was on the wane. They talked about it a lot and eventually made up BUT NOTHING ELSE HAPPENED. I guess that’s why the cover was pink.

Short chapters: Yes, I know, this rule is broken by Tolkien and many others. But if you have a seven-year-old who is only beginning to read, they want to feel like they’re getting somewhere, not bogged in a chapter that never ends. Short chapters let them pause, take a break, absorb what they have read and, cue parent voice, turn the light out before midnight.

Humour: Hard to write, great fun to read. Lots of boys like reading gross-out material about bums, snot and slime generally. I actually think the key to this stuff isn’t how sticky or stinky it is. I reckon it’s the story and the slapstick. Boys want to laugh at weird and wonderful things happening – mainly to adults.

Interests: If your boy has an interest or obsession, play to it. Buy books that detail the boots worn by Beckham or the sword swung by Sir Lancelot. If you can’t find a bookstore carrying Japanese manga card game characters, look for them online. Where there’s a market, there’s a publisher.

Comics: Don’t shy away from graphic novels – but do check the suitability for your boy’s age group. There are some fantastic graphic novel series available and, reading is reading, whether there are pictures or not.

I’ve gone on too long and haven’t listed any books yet. I’m not great at pumping my own tyres but I’d note that my own debut novel, Game as Ned has been popular with male (and female) readers aged 13 and up. Judging by the letters I’ve received, the boys like that there’s lots of action (after a slow start), occasional humour, short chapters and a tense finish. When a 15-year-old writes to say “I don’t like reading but your book is the best book I’ve read”, it’s a mighty compliment.

Anyway, here are some more Books for boys that are well worth a look, with suggested reader ages in brackets:

Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy (a bit trippy and obtuse in places but funny and sassy and most boys look at the cover illustration and go “whooooa – I want to read that.”) (10+)

Contest – Matthew Reilly (Most Reilly titles are great for boys but, of those I’ve read, this is my favourite.) (12+)

Kill the Possum – James Moloney (Covers some heavy terrain but teen males will identify with the narrator’s emotions) (15+)

Looking for Alaska – John Green (15+)

Somebody’s Crying – Maureen McCarthy (14+)

For younger readers, check out:

The Tangshan Tigers series – Dan Lee (my son found these by himself, read them and loved them) (7+)

The Captain Underpants series and The Dumb Bunnies – Dave Pilkey (6+)

The OK Team – Nick Place (7+)

Just about anything with Andy Griffiths’ name on the cover (6+)

Ditto for Paul Jennings (7+)

Star Wars graphic novels (7+)

I’ll keep adding to this list as I keep on reading. To check out my personal library, click here. I have added a Books for Boys tag so you can search titles I believe boys will enjoy.