You might leave a job behind, but don’t sever those old co-worker connections — you just never know.
Elizabeth Larsen and Joshua Glenn worked together at the Utne Reader magazine (then based in Minneapolis) in the 1990s. Then Larsen moved on to pursue a freelance career and MFA, and Glenn, who edited the Utne Lens, one of the first online magazines on the web, moved to Boston, where he writes, edits and conducts semiotics analysis. But they kept in touch, and one day Larsen picked up the phone and it was Glenn. He had a wild, completely irresistible idea.
“He asked me what I was doing for the next year, and proposed we write a book together,” she said.
Glenn’s editor had suggested that there was a need for a kids’ activity guide with a more techy and hip feel than the nostalgic blockbusters out there, like “The Dangerous Book for Boys.” Larsen was instantly game, so using Google Docs as their collaborative virtual work space, the two put together “Unbored: The Essential Guide to Serious Fun,” a solid inch-thick guide of activities, projects, pranks, useful ideas and information for kids ages 8 to13.
“Josh loved being a kid, and has a perpetual kid-like side,” says Larsen, and it shows: Glenn’s contributions include a number of intriguing make-build-blow-things-up endeavors, as well as numerous lists and excerpts from mind-expanding cultural artifacts that today’s kids might have missed, such as key sections of “A Princess of Mars,” an inspiring bit of Thoreau, and lists of great movies and books for pre-teens.
Meanwhile, Larsen, who has spent much of her career interviewing child development experts, explored the emotional and social aspects of life in the pre-teen years.
“Middle school was a time in my life that was really hard. I wasn’t the most applied student, I was a big talker in class and I didn’t get a lot of positive feedback. So I’m really interested in this age group and in finding ways to help them feel good about themselves. And it’s also a very exciting time of life — you are figuring out who you are separate from your parents.”
Larsen’s first job out of college was at the revolutionary teen magazine Sassy, where she helped write engaging, honest content about the realities and interests of young readers — rather than marketers. The magazine’s fans loved it, but advertisers did not. When Sassy discussed topics such as sexuality and toxic shock syndrome, advertisers balked, and the magazine folded.
“Unbored” doesn’t quite reach into these serious matters, but they are just on the horizon for the book’s readers, so puberty comes up in passing a few times, and readers understand that they aren’t being treated like children here. They are, however, encouraged to play.
The book is packed with ideas of things to make, watch, read and do. Some of these projects are messy and a few are thrilling and just a little nutty, such as the you-build-it remote-control water blaster.
Both Larsen and Glenn have offspring in the target age range, so they had built-in test readers at home, highly useful — and painfully honest.
“Early on, I read two paragraphs to my youngest son, and he said, ‘I thought this was going to be a fun book,’ says Larsen, ruefully. She realized that the language was too stiff to engage a child, and punched things up a bit. “I think Josh and I used more exclamation points than ever in our careers.”
So now the book is a fun read, and it jumps quickly across topics to keep the readers engaged and keep them coming back. Great comic illustrations add to the pore-over-each-page quality.
“We started thinking about it as a field guide to life at this age,” says Larsen, so the book includes parents-pleasing life skills like how to read a nutritional content label, how to declutter your bedroom, and how to swear in a more colorful, less profane manner. “We never thought every kid would like every page in this book, but there’s so much in here, we tried to make some of it education and empowering, in a ‘put the spinach next to the steak’ way.”
There are a lot of kids how-to and what-to-do guides on the market, and the writers needed this one to be different. Glenn, who does semiotic brand analysis, did an extensive analysis of all the kids guides out there to look at what new territory “Unbored” could cover. He noticed that few of the competitors acknowledged technology, instead hewing to nostalgic topics such as how to build a fire or tie a knot.
“But we’ve seen in our lives that kids are really attracted to technology. By acknowledging that, we’re connecting with them in a more honest way, and also taking the opportunity to help them make good decisions. We want them to understand how to use screens without letting the screens use us.”
That doesn’t stop the writers from sliding in a piece advising kids to encourage their family to shut off — or ditch entirely — the TV. We’ll see how many kids take up that challenge. But if they did, as this book proves, they wouldn’t ever be bored.