Posts tagged ‘racial identity’

June 2, 2011

Colorful Characters: YA Lit and Diversity

by renata

Previously, I posted about my difficulty in creating questions for my book discussion group project. But I finally came up with some, hooray! You can view the finished project here (including book summaries and all the discussion questions I slaved over.) I spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about race and culture in a way that didn’t sound awkward. I think this is something a lot of white Americans spend a lot of time thinking about (or else no time at all). I ended up calling my project the “Multicultural Voices Book Discussion Group,” though I’m still not happy with the name.

Ultimately, I think discussion of race and culture is something that can often be done more effectively in YA books than in adult books. (I think this might also be true of sexuality.) YA books often deal with a search for a sense of self, which includes a search for racial or cultural identity. YA narrators can often pull off a more self-conscious discussion of race than adult narrators. This is important on a literal level as well as on a metaphorical level.

Too, young people are more accepting of change. It’s realistic to have YA characters questioning the status quo in a way that many adult characters would be incapable of doing. (Not necessarily the case, of course. Look at Atticus Finch.) Even so, it’s hard to talk about issues of race without talking about race and being too heavy-handed. Racism as experienced today is subtle. We no longer have “whites only” drinking fountains, but wealthy suburbs might have de facto whites only schools. Young black teens might not be explicitly barred from entering certain stores, but they might be tailed by security the entire time they shop (as seen on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).

FreshPrince

Fresh, but Persecuted

Also, discussing race does not have to equal talking about racism. Books, YA and otherwise, can feature characters celebrating their culture, or even taking it for granted. We can and should have books about black characters who aren’t defined by being black. We also can and should have books about white American characters who seriously engage with what it means to be white. I can’t think of any YA books that really do that. If you know of any, please leave them in the comments! Alternately, please write one.

Anyway, here are the eight books I chose for my Multicultural Voices discussion group:

I picked these eight not necessarily because they are my eight favorite books, but to provide a variety of viewpoints and racial/cultural identities. Of these, my favorites are The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (an instant classic and a must-read, in my opinion), Ten Things I Hate About Me, and Ask Me No Questions. Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa is another great novel, and I really admire the way it shows its protagonist grappling with all the political and personal ramifications of being Cuban-American. In retrospect, I probably should have included this book instead of Return to Sender, and I say this as an ardent admirer of Julia Alvarez’s work for adults (In The Time of the Butterflies is an all-time favorite.)  Return to Sender is the only book of these eight with a white narrator, and it’s really more of a middle grade novel than a YA novel.

PS: I have a future blog entry in mind that will be dedicated to giving Justine Larbalestier a gold star for her YA books and their treatment of race. I am sure you’re all on the edge of your seats waiting for it.

What are your favorite YA novels that deal with race? Are they by Justine Larbalestier? Why or why not?

May 3, 2011

Book Club

by renata

First, a follow-up on prom. It turns out that Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a book about prom. It’s cunningly entitled Prom. I’m definitely adding it to my to-read list, since if anybody can write a somewhat-normal book about prom, it’s probably her. David Levithan and Daniel Ehrenhaft have also edited a YA anthology called 21 Proms, which includes a story by my YA lit crush, John Green, so I will also check that out. Perhaps there is hope for some decent prom stories after all!

And now, on to me talking about my homework. I’m working on creating a “book club discussion portfolio,” which requires me to choose a theme and select an appropriate set of books, and then create promotional materials and discussion questions. I’ve somewhat ambitiously chosen racial identity as my theme and I am now discovering how terrible I am at writing discussion questions. I keep catching myself writing questions like “Do you think you are racist?” and “Did you hate [character]?” These are not productive questions. The very act of trying to write these questions is giving me a greater understanding of the books. It’s also making me really glad that I decided to pursue librarianship rather than teaching.

Do you like book clubs? There is a YA book club on campus that I sometimes attend. I like talking about books, of course, but sometimes it gets very heated. Our Mockingjay discussion particularly got my blood running! Who knew there were so many Katniss-haters out there? Not me. And those opinions are wrong and must be corrected. … Right?

And now, for your enjoyment, a few of the discussion questions I’ve been slaving over, with annotations.

For Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian:Absolutely True Diary

How do you interpret the book’s title? Is Junior really a “Part-Time Indian”? Is his story “Absolutely True”? (I almost added “What does it mean to be ‘true’?” but I thought that might be getting a little heavy for a high school book club.)

For Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender:

How would you react if you found out that your parents were hiring undocumented workers on their farm? (This book’s narrator is a white kid who is basically terrified of immigrants and any perceived threats to “homeland security.” I basically could not stand him and had a hard time writing any discussion questions that did not reflect my hatred of him.)

For Walter Dean Myers’ Slam:

Slam is one of a handful of minority students at a primarily white school, and he thinks he got in “when they had all the fuss about getting more black kids to go to the magnet schools.” How diverse would you rate your school? What effect do you think diversity has on classroom learning? (It was really hard for me to write any questions about this book that were not extremely leading. But my target audience for this project is largely white Midwestern teenagers who probably have not given much thought about what it’s like to be one of the few minorities at their school. Think about it, kids!! And adults!! If I ever actually lead a book club discussion on this book it will probably end with me screaming at everyone.)

 

Discussion Questions

Have you ever had to write discussion questions? Why or why not?

Would you like to write some discussion questions for my project? Discuss.

If you could discuss anything, what would you discuss?

Would you rather discuss discos or discuses? Would you rather throw discos or discuses?

What would Katniss Everdeen do if people said mean things about her at book club?