Real Men Read

Derrick Barnes knows how to get guys to read. On a recent mid-February night, the lights of the midtown cityscape glimmered through the windows in the northwest corner of the Kansas City Public Library's Plaza Branch as Barnes, a local author, read for a small gathering of parents, teachers, librarians, and teens.

The story for the evening was a selection from Barnes' new novel, We Could Be Brothers, featuring two teenage boys, a father, and an errant pair of pants.

The protagonist, Robeson Battlefield, has brought his friend and classmate in the eighth grade, Pacino Clapton, home to meet his parents. Pacino has made the mistake of letting his jeans sag.

...Dad tapped Pacino on the chest twice. "No real man walks out of the house looking like a clown. You gotta know that. If for nobody else, wear the belt for you, Clapton."

Bam! Dad was laying it down hard.

Pacino looked like he wanted to defend his "droopy drawers," but the brother was dried up for a comeback. He nodded once, then managed to say, "You're right, Mr. Battlefield. This is your house. I respect it and you." Then he turned to me. "Come on, man, let's go get that belt. I'm starving."

Heartfelt and realistic, Brothers is a change of pace for Barnes. Best known for his Ruby and the Booker Boys series of children's books (which have sold 300,000 copies to date), for his latest book, Barnes has shifted his focus to the lives and struggles of 13-year-old boys in urban Kansas City. (Check out a video trailer for the book.)

In short, Brothers was the perfect choice to kick off the new Guys Read author series at the Plaza Branch.

Developed by Plaza Children's Librarian April Roy, with help from Director of Teen Services Crystal Faris, Guys Read aims to get middle-school-aged boys away from their electronic devices and extracurricular activities and into reading.

Eleven-year-old Ade Menab (center) found something to relate to at Guys Read.

"Guys do read," explains Roy. "It just takes finding the right materials for the right guy, because they're each looking for a really personal reading experience."

That's why, for the series, Roy has selected authors who bring a variety of styles, stories, and cultural perspectives. Something for every guy, in other words.

In the next installment, on Thursday, March 24,  Laura Manivong, an Emmy-winning TV producer and author will discuss her book, Escaping the Tiger, about a family's flight from communist-ruled Laos. Next, Los Angeles author and screenwriter Don Calame will bring the laughs when he talks about his hilarious and topical new book, Swim the Fly, on Thursday, April 21.

"All of the authors have books with middle-school-aged guy characters who are dealing with different issues that boys can relate to," Roy says.

As an author Barnes, who is the father of three young boys of his own (ages 4, 6, and 10), has developed techniques to help his readers relate. For instance, he keeps his plots fast-paced and loaded with action. The descriptions tingle the senses but don't linger on detail. Most important of all is getting the speech right.

"The dialog has to be quick and concrete," Barnes says. "When I was teaching, I took a lot of notes. Boys use a lot of body language, they use their hands a lot, and there's a lot of posturing."

At Barnes' Plaza presentation, 11-year-old Ade Menab adopted an eager posture as he waited in line to meet Barnes.

"It's interesting - I really liked the first six pages," he said of Brothers, and shuffled his feet restlessly.

Now that's a guy who reads.

-- Jason Harper