Lipsyte crusades for tales for male teens

March 05, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

For more than two decades, author Robert Lipsyte has been looking at the books written for teen-age American males. He didn't like them in the late '60s. And he doesn't think much of them now.

"Traditionally, books for boys have been subversive of everybody's best interests," says Mr. Lipsyte, 55, who moved from the sports department of the New York Times in 1971 to a successful book-writing career that has included eight young-adult books. "They may tell you how to go from second to home on a single, but they're not about anything that's really important, like how to make yourself vulnerable, or to be a friend. And there's never been a teen-age book on sex education."

Tomorrow at Loyola College, Mr. Lipsyte is to be one of the featured speakers at the sixth annual Celebration of Children's Literature. He'll use that occasion, he said in a telephone interview from New York, to argue for good, realistic books for young male teens.

He has practiced what he preaches: His own young-adult books have been anything but traditional. Perhaps the best known of his is his first, the enormously successful "The Contender," which was published in 1967. In gritty prose, it told the story of Alfred Brooks, a black youngster from New York who wanted to be a boxer, only to find that the fight game wasn't for him.

Today, "The Contender" is studied in junior high schools and high schools around the country and remains a consistent seller -- "it's bought the house and put two kids through college," Mr. Lipsyte says.

" 'The Contender' still stands up well -- it's a marvelous book," says Deborah Taylor, head of the Office of Children and Youth at the EnochPratt Free Library. "It speaks to a basic idea that's always true with adolescent males: How do I figure out what being a man is? And the question of acting out aggression: If I don't do that, am I a man? I also like the way Lipsyte plays it out in a city. Big cities were scary places then and they are scary now."

Mr. Lipsyte says "The Contender," "was a big success primarily because of its timing. In 1967, there really were no books in which black kids were the protagonists. It was unusual to write about a boy's life in a black slum, and to depict a scenario in which the kid loses but something came out of it in the end."

As one who has covered sports for many years -- he resumed a weekly column at the Times in 1991 -- Mr. Lipsyte acknowledges he has little patience for young-adult books that portray what he feels is a distorted view of athletics.

"Mostly, they emphasize sports in ways that channel boys to be respectful of authority and part of teams -- mindlessly organizing them to be good citizens," Mr. Lipsyte says. "But books for boys have to move into another direction and deal with the reality in boys' lives. . . .

"We need more writers like Judy Blume, who writes young-adults for girls. I heard she gets 2,000 letters a week, and that's because she writes about real issues and real emotions."

CONFERENCE

What: Sixth annual Celebration of Children's Literature.

Where: McManus Theater, Loyola College, Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane.

When: Tomorrow, 8:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Author Robert Lipsyte will speak from 9 to 10 a.m., children's poet X. J. Kennedy from 10 to 11 a.m., and illustrator Tom Feelings from 1:45 to 3 p.m. A panel of five librarians will discuss children's literature from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Admission: $50. Call (410) 617-5095.

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