Writing for boys: an interview with Rich Wallace


Good morning readers and writers! I’m here today with Rich Wallace. Rich is the author of many award-winning books for boys, ranging from his debut YA novel, Wrestling Sturbridge, to his popular sports series, “The Winning Season” and “Kickers.” He spent many years as an editor at Highlights for Children magazine and still pens the enormously popular comic strip “The Timbertoes” for that publication. Booklist calls him a “master of edgy sports fiction.” He is also an amazing teacher. Next month, he will be offering an amazing opportunity to work with him, Chris Crutcher, and Lenore Look. (That’s Rich and Lenore in the picture!)

Sarah: Hi Rich! Welcome to the Mixed Up Files! I have always been a big fan of your books. They always offer great voice and action, too. I also know you are offering a retreat at the Highlights Foundation for Writing for Boys. What an opportunity! But is writing for boys really something you can craft intentionally?

I’ll make my confession: After Head Case and Beyond Lucky, I was interviewed a few times about how to write for boys, and although I tried to sound earnest, the truth is: I don’t know if “writing for boys” is completely possible . . . for me. I wrote about “the lives of boys.”  I didn’t worry about who read the books. 

Rich: Exactly. I remember Jerry Spinelli saying that the key in writing books that will appeal to kids is not to write for kids, but to write about them. So this workshop is targeted to people who are writing about boys—of any age. But we’ll share a lot of great ideas and practices that will be pertinent to anyone writing for kids or teenagers (of either gender). The lineup of workshop leaders has written much for boys (though not exclusively) but there’s no great line in the sand that makes a book for one gender or the other. All of my books feature male protagonists, but I hear from a lot of girls who like my books. Still, it’s pretty clear that certain genres are targeted heavily toward boys or girls.

Sarah: Tell us about the retreat. What do you hope the writers will gain? 

RW: I hope they’ll find ways to probe deeper into the psyche of their characters by drawing on their own experiences and emotions. I know Chris Crutcher quite well but have never taught with him, so I expect to learn a lot myself. Lenore Look and I have done a couple of workshops together, and I immediately adopted some of her strategies after hearing her teach. These workshops are very organic – we spend nearly every waking moment together over the three days, sharing meals and chatting late into the evening and even doing yoga at 6 a.m. if anyone’s interested. There are a lot of prepared presentations and some manuscript sharing, but there’s a great deal of informal time that can be just as illuminating or more so.


(That’s Chris!)

Sarah: Boys are all different. We don’t pigeonhole girl readers the way we do with boys–and of course, pigeonholing is a dangerous thing. I sometimes feel like “writing for boys” is the PC way of saying: writing fast paced books with a lot of action–and here’s the thing: I like those kinds of books. (I came to reading very late in life.) I guess what I’m saying: books “for boys” are for girls, too. And lots of “girl books” appeal to boys.

RW: Of course. A more descriptive title for this workshop might be “Creating Male Characters in Fiction for Children and Teens,” but “Writing for Boys” is punchier. It’s all about perspective. We write from a male perspective, and there are many things to consider when doing that.

Sarah: That sounds great! Were you always a reader? Tell us about the books you enjoyed as a boy. 

 RW: I was fortunate that my mother was a huge advocate of the public library (and, at 86, still is). So from way before kindergarten we were making frequent trips to the library for the Curious George books, Caps for Sale, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Make Way for Ducklings, etc. I became a serious non-reader around about third grade, when I started getting out in the neighborhood more independently and discovered stickball and street hockey. Even in college (as an English major!) I faked my way through a lot of classes. After I graduated, I went back and actually read many of the books I’d acquired, and have read ever more voraciously since.

Sarah: How do you start writing your books? Are you a plunger? Do you plot? Do you have specific boys in mind when you sit down to write? 

RW: It depends on the project. I’ve written several series that target somewhat narrow age groups, so I have those well planned before I start. With a stand-alone novel, I usually begin with a character in a situation (and a strong sense of place) and begin writing a scene to see where it leads. Outlining/plotting starts vaguely, but I look for anchors and plot development as the story develops, and I do outline a fair amount to help me get from one point to another. One great thing about the Highlights Foundation workshops is that there is a small “instructor-to-student” ratio, so we’re all together in a relatively informal environment and the sessions become more discussions than lectures. I’ll make sure that Lenore and Chris and I each talk about our writing process. No writer’s approach fits neatly with any other’s, but I’ve gained a lot over the years by hearing how others do it.

wicked cruel cover jpegSarah: What is the difference between “books for boys” and “books for girls?” What do boys write to you after reading your books?

RW: The majority of the letters I receive are prompted by my sports series books – The Winning Season and Kickers, which are written for middle-grade kids. Both boys and girls like to tell me about their own experiences in sports, particularly as it parallels something that happened to one of my characters. I think the more obvious delineations between books occur after a kid begins to come of age. But it’s all a spectrum, and no books could be said to appeal only to one gender. Start with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Safe to say that they were originally published to appeal to the two different genders, and I’d guess that the readership did reflect that.

Sarah: What do you think is the greatest challenge for writers today–especially if they want to write for this market? 

RW: There is so much daunting competition. But the great books do get published, so write one of those. A good friend who has attended a number of my workshops over the years sold her first novel last month. She’d been submitting novels for a couple of decades, and is in fact a really great writer. Matching yourself with the right editor at the right time with the right book . . . it’s difficult. Artistic efforts always are.

Sarah: Who are your favorite authors?

RW: I’ll be working with two of them at this retreat in Lenore and Chris. For fun, I also read a lot of John Updike, J.D. Salinger, E.B. White . . . (in other words, people who were writing mostly for the New Yorker before I was born!) Among writers who are still with us, a few would be Sherman Alexie, Annie Proulx, and lots of nonfiction science/nature material. I read way more nonfiction than fiction; probably 25 to 1. (I just wrote my first book of nonfiction, collaborating with my wife, novelist Sandra Neil Wallace. It’s a biography of perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time: Babe Conquers the World: The Legendary Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. It’ll be out in March.) Sandra will drop in on the workshop, too, and talk about her two novels that have male leads.

Thanks, Rich, for sharing your thoughts on The Mixed-Up Files blog!

If you are a writer and want to write realistic boy characters, go here and register for this amazing event! If you are a reader and like books with great action and conflict, check out Rich’s books! You won’t be able to put them down!

Sarah Aronson is a writer who loves sports. She and Nancy Werlin will also be offering a whole novel class for the Highlights Foundation in September 2014.



Sarah Aronson
  1. What a. great interview, and lots of good points about writing books that interest all students. Have just added this workshop to my bucket list- always loved the Timbertoes!

  2. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Rich at several Highlights Foundation events and he is wonderfully personable and his teaching is practical and memorable. If you can swing it, I really recommend going to this workshop (wish I could!)

    Thanks for the great interview!