Teen authors urge boys to express their feelings

Mary Quattlebaum

THE WASHINGTON POST – Riley Campbell, Shirelle Hurt and London Jones noticed that boys and girls are sometimes given different messages by family, friends and society. It’s okay for girls to cry and show gentle or vulnerable feelings.

Boys are often told to hide these feelings. They are expected to be tough and angry instead.

The Washington, DC, teens saw this happening to younger brothers, to kids they tutored and to their peers.

So they decided to write a book about the problem, which all three labelled “toxic masculinity” in separate phone interviews with KidsPost.

Man Up! came out recently. It is one of four picture books published this fall by Washington-based Shout Mouse Press, which specialises in illustrated stories and young adult fiction and non-fiction by local teens.

So how do you go from an idea to a published book?

Riley, a junior at Ballou Senior High School, noted that one of the biggest challenges was to create a relatable main character and to “do a book that would be kid-friendly but still provide helpful information”.

The three co-authors got their start as tutors for Reach Incorporated, an organisation in Washington that pairs teens with elementary school students who need help learning to read.

Then they participated last summer in Reach’s leadership academy, where they chose the children’s book workshop from several possible projects.

Director of Shout Mouse Kathy Crutcher called the Reach writers “important storytellers and role models” for younger children.

Since the first book project in 2013, she has worked with seven groups, including Reach, to publish more than 40 books by young people.

The teen writers “represent the lived experience of kids in their communities,” Crutcher said in a phone call.

“We encourage them to ask themselves what story they would have liked to have read” at a younger age and what tales they think their tutees might enjoy.

Riley remembers peers telling her team that toxic masculinity is too serious for a kids’ book.

But she and her co-authors disagree. They see the problem as widespread.

And they found few picture books about toxic masculinity, according to London, who is a sophomore at Anacostia High School.

“It needed to be talked about in the open,” said Shirelle, a junior at Dunbar High School. “Young boys shouldn’t be shamed for their feelings.”

In Man Up! a boy named Aaron is teased for crying when he’s upset by a hurt dog or friends who cheat at video games. Fortunately, Aaron has an older, understanding brother he can turn to. He learns that by talking about his feelings, he can help his friends be more open as well.

Shout Mouse story coach Barrett Smith helped the three teens fine-tune the tale.

The pictures were created by Joy Ingram, an art student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

London hopes the story will encourage empathy in readers. “Maybe they will put themselves in Aaron’s shoes and ask, ‘How would I feel?'” he said. “Then they can become more open-minded.”

The three authors said they would like to make another book.

They said that creating for kids has stretched their writing in new ways. Riley has long enjoyed writing poetry, but now she also “wants to write about social problems,” she said. “Things that we might be able to change.”