When my first child was born, I was disconcerted to learn, as I swam groggily to consciousness, that I had given birth to a boy. Of course, I'd known this was theoretically possible, but since I had no brothers, no neighborhood boys to play with as a child, and had gone to a woman's college, I kind of assumed that God would know I wasn't equipped to be the mother of a boy. Let alone another boy. And then another, et cetera, et cetera, until my sons numbered five (I'll get to the seven part later).
As my sons grew older and their number increased, I made some interesting observations. Number one: No matter what the intended purpose of a toy might be, a boy would immediately consider it something to take apart, to use as a hammer or a drumstick, or to convert into some sort of military weapon.
Number two: Boys are incapable of holding still. I am convinced that as grade-schoolers, were such diagnoses then available (along with their pharmaceutical remedies), my boys would all have been labeled hyper-active, overly distractible, and possibly of below average mentality. In view of their later achievements and those of a number of boys I have tutored, I've come to the conclusion that boys should always start school a year later than girls, and that they should never be expected to sit quietly for more than ten minutes at a time until they reach the age of maturity, which is usually about forty-six. (Sometimes older)
Number three: Boys occupy at least twice as much space as girls do. Watch a group of three or four girls. They can entertain themselves for hours just sitting on the top of a stoop with books or crayons or dolls. During the same amount of time, boys will need the front and back yards of four or five houses, preferable furnished with trees for climbing, bushes for hiding in, and one or two areas where digging is allowed.
My oldest son was thirteen and my youngest two when I realized that these boys were not meant for suburbia. They needed space to stretch their burgeoning wings. I thought a house surrounded by four or five acres of woods would be just about right. Unfortunately, acreage of that size in or close to Cincinnati was more than our budget could handle and I couldn't convince my husband of the advisability of a move to Australia where there was still that whole lovely Outback to explore.
We compromised by selling our five room ranch-style house at a loss (something IRS agents found unbelievable - obviously none of them had ever seen what five boys can do to a house), and moving to a three-story Victorian on the other side of town.
For a while, exploring a new neighborhood provided sufficient outlet for the boys' need for adventure, particularly after they realized that they could tell me they were going to a perfectly acceptable park where, unknown to me, a slight depression under the fence allowed them access to the siding of a railroad in active use.
(Just an aside: I've written a middle grade novel in which the young protagonists engage in a few of the hair-raising escapades I've since learned the boys somehow miraculously survived...Editors, envisioning I suppose, hundreds of letter from horrified mothers, have told me that such activities are far too dangerous for suggestible young readers. What I feel is that it's hard to suggest something dangerous and exciting that boys haven't already thought of.)
What drove this need to explore, to test limits, to court danger? Were my sons so very unusual? I worried about this for years until through a series of freakish occurrences, two more boys joined our family. They were brothers, one twelve at the time, the other fourteen - ages that fit nicely into the middle of the boys. It was only a matter of months until, as a foster mother, I realized it wasn't a lack of parenting skills on my part that made my sons bundles of curiosity and adrenalin. It had something to do with the drive that long ago had propelled one particular sperm to beat the others in the race to the egg.
So what has this to do with boys and islands? In Kyle's Island, I have tried to show that boys need an unexplored place beckoning to them. For Kyle, if he can explore the island, he can satisfy his need to find a place not already known, defined, and reduced by grown-ups. The nondescript island in the middle of a small lake in Michigan is Kyle's Bali Hai, his Shangri- La, his Ultima Thule.
This restlessness of boys, this drive to explore, to master - I've seen my sons wrestle with it. I've watched some inner-city boys turn sullen and hopeless because they could see no island on their own horizon. My heart aches for them and for the boys whose only outlet for their restlessness consists of overcoming obstacles to attaining a higher level on a video game.
I know we can't go back to the days when unexplored frontiers were part of every boy's landscape. I know that not every boy can realistically hope to become an astronaut, a mountain-climber, or a deep-sea diver. But I hope that parents and teachers will recognize, honor, and try to accommodate the inherent restlessness that is part of every boy's make-up instead of trying through discipline or medication to transform boys into "well-behaved" counterparts of their sisters.
Let's watch and applaud a young boy's search for his own island, no matter how different it is from what we dreamed of for him. And if we are lucky, some day he will come back and say to us, "Hey! I want to show you what I've found!"
Posted by Sally Derby, author of Kyle's Island.