‘White Flight’: A Teen Novel for Urban Boys (in a Market Saturated by Suburban Girls)

White Flight.JPGBoy

In a genre dominated by teen girls, White Flight is a high-interest young adult novel written specifically for teen boys. 

by Christopher Paslay

Let’s face it: Young adult literature is dominated by girls.  A quick peek at Amazon’s teen list proves this fact (as does Goodreads, and the Young Adult Library Services Association). The large majority of YA books are written by women, represented by female literary agents, purchased and promoted by female editors, and read by girls.  I’m not suggesting the industry is sexist, as many so-called “social justice” activists would if the situation were reversed and boys dominated the YA lists.  No; the fact that the ladies rule the teen book kingdom is due to something called the free market—AKA supply and demand.  For the most part, when it comes to fiction and literature, girls buy and read books, and boys don’t.

In 2014, I experienced this reality firsthand.  Sara Megibow, an agent at KT Literary, read my manuscript for White Flight and agreed to represent me; KT Literary is an agency that specializes in juvenile and YA literature, is run and operated by five agents (all women), and has a total of 81 clients (65 of them women).  To my delight, Sara was very interested in my novel, and felt confident she could sell it relatively quickly to one of the Big Five publishers—either Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, or Simon and Schuster.  After all, she’d made these kinds of deals before.  Multiple times, in fact.  Plus, KT was non-fee charging (as are all reputable literary agencies), so if she didn’t sell it, she didn’t get paid.

So I signed a contract and Sara started shopping White Flight around the big houses in New York.  She sent it to Sharyn November at Viking/Penguin.  And she passed.  Joy Peskin at FSG/ Macmillan.  And she passed.  Sara Sargent at Simon Pulse/ S&S.  And she passed.  Connie Hsu at Roaring Brook/Macmillan.  And she passed.  In fact, after nearly nine months of shopping the book, Sara was 0 for 21.  Sara loved the novel and believed in it, but the publishers weren’t biting.

Interestingly, nearly all of the purchasing editors at these houses were white females (like Sara and her partners at KT Literary), and all of these editors talked incessantly about diversity and social justice, and how they wanted to expand YA literature to be more inclusive of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Yet when these white female purchasing editors were offered a novel about two teen boys from Philadelphia—one white, one black—who confront racism, sexual assault, aggressive police officers, and try to reverse the deterioration of their neighborhood by testifying against a known drug dealer who committed first-degree murder, they didn’t get it.

It’s too edgy, they said.  Too much about crime and neighborhood disputes.  Lost on them were the themes of white flight and communities sticking together; confronting the no-snitch mentality; the peer pressure involved with snitching (and the differing viewpoints from a social and racial standpoint); street fights; and the biggest no-no for boys: being viewed as soft by your friends.  These editors wanted diversity and social justice—they wanted to expand YA literature to be more inclusive—but only as long as it conformed to their sheltered, over-simplified, cookie-cutter version of “diversity,” with all the standard cheeseball stereotypes.  Basically, they wanted a liberal, white, suburban female version of “diversity,” one custom made for, well, liberal white suburban females.  And why not?  That’s what the YA market demands.

The tragedy is that teen boys (especially minority boys who don’t like to read) get left out.  Not always, but most of the time; again, just look at the YA lists.  The tragedy is that a decent little book like White Flight can’t get into the hands of teen boys who’d actually appreciate (and enjoy) reading it.  After thinking about this for nearly three years, I’ve decided to self-publish White Flight via Amazon Direct Publishing, and see if I can get some of these reluctant male readers reading.  The book is now available in the Amazon Kindle store for $2.99, and the paper back is only $6.99 (the paperback will be available within the week).  I am donating all profits to Swenson High School’s track team, to pay for new uniforms and entry fees to invitational track meets.

With permission from my principal, I’d like to pilot the book in my Drama class this semester, and see how students respond.  Below is a link to the ebook on Amazon (the paperback will be available soon), and any teacher interested in previewing the book can read a summary and the first 25 pages for free.  One advantage of the novel is that it is written in verse—82 interconnected poems—each of which can be studied or analyzed as an individual activity or lesson.

Thanks for reading.  And if you find White Flight to be useful or a good fit for your students, please pass the word along to your fellow educators.

District Unveils Accountability System for Textbooks

by Christopher Paslay


In a letter today in the Philadelphia Daily News, Dr. Ackerman announced there will be “districtwide accountability systems in place for textbooks that hold everyone responsible for the proper use and return of these instructional resources annually.” 


Dr. Ackerman pledged that the Philadelphia School District will:


–Assess all schools to determine the individual book needs in each classroom and place new book orders where appropriate immediately.


–Implement a new automated tracking system next spring that tracks textbook orders from the district office to individual classrooms.


–Enforce district policy that holds students and parents accountable for lost or damaged textbooks.


–Hold building administrators accountable for ensuring that books are available for each student at the start of each school year and collected at the end of the school year.


As announced on the Philadelphia School District website, “The District is asking parents and students with textbook issues this year to first contact their school principal. If further action is needed, please contact the student’s Regional Superintendent’s office. Finally, parents and students can contact the Superintendent’s Parent Ombudsman at 215-400-6161 or by sending an e-mail to superintendent@philasd.org if the issue remains unresolved.”


I give this new accountability system two thumbs up.  It’s holistic, in that it holds everyone accountable—students and parents as well as administrators and teachers.  My only question is (and I don’t mean to be cynical), what specifically IS the District policy that “holds students and parents accountable for lost or damaged textbooks”?  Seriously.  How do you do this?  If parents can’t (or won’t) pay for damaged or lost books, how do we handle this?  Do schools put a hold on a student’s records?  Refuse him or her prom tickets?  Stop them from participating in graduation?  Are teachers allowed to refuse students additional texts who owe money for lost books from the year before?


Maybe the District could ask Philadelphia courts to garnish wages.  Or maybe the city could get involved and handle lost textbooks like unpaid parking tickets.          


Regardless of the method, we need to have this policy in writing, and it must be uniform across the city.  And we must implement it.  No excuses.  No backing down under pressure, no giving-in to “special circumstances”.  All for one, and one for all.   


If the District truly follows this plan, and we ALL pull our own weight—teachers, administrators, parents and students—I truly believe the lost textbook epidemic in Philadelphia will be a thing of the past.

Where Are All the District’s Textbooks?

by Christopher Paslay


At a recent School Reform Commission meeting, a freshman at Sayre High School complained to District officials about her school’s lack of textbooks (Shortage of books plagues some city schools, Inquirer, 11/20/08).  She explained that each of her classes had only one set of books, and that she wasn’t issued an extra copy to take home.  As a result, it was difficult for her to complete projects and homework assignments.


Dr. Ackerman, the District’s superintendent, was extremely frustrated by the news.


“Every year, this is a big issue,” Ackerman said. “We spend millions of dollars, and where are the textbooks?”


Ackerman insisted she would immediately address the situation, and planned to ask schools how they’ve been spending their money set aside for textbooks.


If my experience at Swenson Arts and Technology is similar to other schools across the city, Dr. Ackerman need not waste her time asking principals about textbook money.  Funds are properly being spent on books; during the 2005-06 school year, after Paul Vallas spent millions making sure every classroom had more than an ample amount of instructional materials, textbooks arrived at city schools by the truckload. 


No, the problem isn’t money.  It’s what the students do with the books once they are issued to them.


So where are all the District’s textbooks?  They are everywhere, to answer Dr. Ackerman’s question bluntly.  They are under student’s beds and in the backs of their closets.  They are stranded at their mother’s house in Fishtown, or are sitting in the basement of  their father’s place in West Oak Lane.  Some are at the apartment of a one-time boyfriend, girlfriend, or significant other; some are riding merrily on the back of the Market-Frankford El.      


I kid you not.  I’ve had all manner of relatives return lost books to me at school: grandmothers, aunts, uncles, stepfathers.  It’s amazing how a child can make his or her textbook magically disappear, vanish into thin air like an illusion by Criss Angel. 


Where are all the textbooks?  Right where the students leave them.  They go into an academic hibernation of sort, not to return until June when teachers start demanding them back.  Of course, not all textbooks come out of hibernation.  A good portion of them disappear for good.  Gone.  Poof.  Outta here.  Down the rabbit hole and into the Bermuda Triangle. 


Getting textbooks back from students is an extremely trying endeavor.  Too many Philadelphia teenagers are woefully irresponsible.  Why?  Because they are conditioned to eternal accommodations, used to being given second and third and fourth chances.  So the first time you say, Please return your textbook by Friday, you only get about 20% cooperation.  Kids know that they’ll get a second and third opportunity (it’s the Philadelphia School District way), so they blow-off the first request to return school property.


Committed teachers like myself don’t allow these roadblocks to stand in our way.  We keep after our students like madmen (or madwomen): Please return your textbook, please return your textbook, please return your textbook . . . until we make that coveted breakthrough; at this point we get about two-thirds of the books back.       


By now the year is almost over; at this point we must start calling parents.  Calling and pleading with mom and dad to have their son or daughter return their $75 American Literature Text ASAP: Johnny MUST return the book or there will be a hold put on his records.   


And still we don’t get them all back; in the poorer schools, where a large number of students transfer or metaphorically drop off the face of the planet, teachers can’t even get half of them back.      


So textbooks die and go to textbook heaven.  When you figure that there are over 167,000 students in the Philadelphia School District (and that each text is worth close to $70), it’s no surprise that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of textbooks are lost every year in the city.


So what do schools do?  They do what Sayre High School is doing: They conserve by keeping one full class set of texts in the classroom and not allowing students to take them home.  This way, none get lost or damaged.  Homework assignments and projects are given through supplemental materials or photocopies.  And if a student absolutely needs to take a book home, he or she can sign out a copy and promise to return it after a period of time.   


Where do all the textbooks go?  Ask the thousands of Philadelphia teenagers who fail to return them.  As the saying goes: If you don’t use it, you lose it. 


Tragically, this seems to be the case in too many Philadelphia public schools.