April 12, 2016

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Jack Strong Takes a Stand

Hello, Writerly Friends.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from book marketer Susan Raab. The first line was:

Raising tween boys is a challenge. Humor helps. Best is when you can illustrate the possible error of their ways.

My guy has graduated from 'tween to full on, learning-to-drive, tight-lipped teenager. Which is why this logline was so appealing. Raising tween boys is a challenge. Was I ready to laugh about it? Yes, I was.

Boy, did Susan know her audience.

The email wasn't about a parenting or self-help (or "Help, I'm losing myself to parenting!") book. It was for a new middle grade novel, JACK STRONG TAKES A STAND, "About a teen who stages an on-couch sit-in (and school boycott) rather than let his parents subject him to any more unwanted activities." Hmm.

Read more about Jack at the MacMillan website.
As a  newly minted educational consultant, have I seen parents who overschedule their kids in the name of getting into a good college? Does a dog have fleas?

Thanks to Susan for sending me a copy of JACK STRONG, by Tommy Greenwald for review.

Jack Strong is an upper-middle class, suburban middle schooler. He has a crush on Cathy Billows, is awesome at cello, and less-than-awesome at baseball. But those are just the things Jack cares about. Jack's eyes-on-the-prize father is looking ahead to college. Dad thinks loading Jack up with community service, Chinese classes and test-prep tutors is the ticket to getting in to a good school.

Writerly friends, Jack has a clearly defined problem, which makes for an appealing protagonist. Jack's schedule a little bit over the top, but I don't think middle grade readers will mind the hyperbole. It makes the situation funnier.

Jack's packed schedule opens the book.
Illustrated by Melissa Mendes.
Even when Jack's little league team wins the local World Series, his father makes him skip the celebration. Tennis lessons are more important, right? Wrong. Jack decides to stage a sit-in, camping out on the family couch until he's allowed to quit everything but cello and baseball. Drama ensues.

You'll get the point from Tommy Greenwald's book trailer:

Okay, so you may know a family like Jack's. Especially if you live in an upper middle class suburb. But I'm here to say two things to the Mr. Strongs of the world:

1. Well rounded is out. Passionate is in.

True statement.

Even when I was teaching high school 15 YEARS AGO, we had a top student -- a Julliard violinist -- who was rejected by an Ivy school. Why? They said she was "over packaged." This means that the girl's schedule had been carefully, and too-obviously (according to the admissions office), constructed to make her look like an appealing college candidate. She was charming and bright, but that was overshadowed by the uber-student persona on her application. 

What I'm hearing from admissions counselors now is this: high schoolers should follow Jack Strong's lead. Colleges are looking for depth. They want kids who are passionate about one or two things.

My guy is all-tech, all the time. He could use some exercise, but he'd rather add the Cyber Security team to his schedule than make time to play Ultimate Frisbee. The schools that find my teen's focus appealing, rather than limiting, are exactly the kinds of colleges where  he'll feel most comfortable.

Which leads me to...

2. Getting into college is not like American Idol.

That's right. Getting into college is neither a competition, nor a popularity contest. There are something like 4,500 colleges in the United States. Chances are, there are a lot of really fabulous schools you have never heard of. One of them could be the perfect fit for your 'tween (if you're starting early, like Mr. Strong), or teen.

And fit is what it's all about. You'll hear this from guidance counselors, admissions officers, and educational consultants like me. Would you wear a Prada coat that made your hips look enormous? Me neither. The same goes for schools.

Take the time to look past name brands. Are the students at school X people your child would feel comfortable hanging around with? Are most of the classes big lecture halls, or small enough that students get to know the faculty? How's the food? The dorms? (Swarthmore's dorms have co-ed bathrooms. No joke. Are you comfortable with that?)

For kids, JACK STRONG TAKES A STAND is all about standing up for yourself. A kid should be a kid, gosh darn it! A little Xbox and a few rounds of Gin Rummy with Nana make for great downtime. The book is funny and sweet, and Jack is inspiring without being angelic.

For parents, I see JACK STRONG as a cautionary tale. Is your middle schooler involved in six different, unrelated activities? It may be time for a heart to heart. Which activities does the 'tween really dig, and which ones are starting to feel like a chore? What's negotiable (e.g. I chip in and help my kids with laundry if they have stacks of homework), and what's not (most high schools require community service.) Now is a great time to open up a dialogue.

Meanwhile, here are some couches I wouldn't mind camping out on if I ever went on strike:

Jack could store his music, Chinese notes, and baseball schedule in this couch.
Does this one look too much like a certain famous ogre?

Ramsa Sofa
Maybe if the couch was shaped a little less like a book shelf.

1 comment:

Tabatha said...

Yes! Having a passion is great for a teenager. A parent told me recently about her friends expecting that getting a top SAT score and having good grades would be enough to get their kids into an Ivy League school, and then being horribly disappointed when they weren't. Someone else said that they heard colleges expect kids to have 900 volunteer hours. ? Parents get all kinds of crazy ideas.