Posts tagged ‘sherman alexie’

June 13, 2011

Is YA Lit Too Dark?

by renata

Spoiler: no.

I’m a little late to the game on this, but I still wanted to chime in. Because why have a blog if not to post your opinions even if no one else cares about them?

It seems like every few months or so, some adult has written a big story discovering YA lit for the first time and being shocked at how well-written/violent/popular/whatever it is. Meanwhile, YA lit continues on being written and read like usual.

Most recently, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote this story for the Wall Street Journal, Darkness Too Visible, about how YA lit is just too graphic and dark for teens to handle, and whatever is a parent to purchase for their poor teens to read?

She quotes a concerned mother who:

Had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.

Right after this story went up, I read All This Darkness! What to Buy the Grownup Reader (A Parody) by Sarah Ockler, a pretty funny piece about how condescending Gordun’s article is. One of my favorite parts of Ockler’s piece was:

I recently stood slack-jawed in the adult fiction section of my local big box book store, having decided that supporting my community while getting personalized recommendations by professionals who generally adore books and make it their business to know exactly what sorts of things a reader will love was just not on my to-do list this year, feeling stupefied and helpless.

The mom in Gurdon’s story could have asked a damn librarian (or small bookstore employee) for some kind of appropriate book rather than standing at Barnes & Noble and wringing her hands. But whatever. We all know about librarians and their leftist, anti-censorship agendas.

Anyway, assuming libraries are out of the question, is it even true that YA lit has gotten “darker”? Darker than what, exactly? YA lit is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until maybe thirty, forty years ago, if you weren’t reading children’s books, you were reading adult books. Adult vampire-suicide-mutilation books.

Gurdon even briefly points this out in her article:

As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to young readers and some not.

I don’t really understand how this is supposed to be preferable to the existence of young adult literature.

Anyway, tons of people have already responded to this article. There was a pretty hilarious Twitter meme: #YAKills. (A few highlights: “I became convinced that my labrador retriever was my daemon, and we got kicked out of every restaurant for a year. #YAkills@NaturallySteph. “Shared 1 pair of unwashed jeans w/3 friends for a summer – not only did I not get a boyfriend, but no one would sit next to me. #YAKills” @ChandraYB )

There was also the serious version, #YASaves. Sherman Alexie (author of the YA book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, as well as several books, short stories, and poems for adults) wrote a response to Gurdon’s article that’s probably the best explanation of how YA lit saves: Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.

He talks about his own childhood of poverty and abuse. He talks about the children and teens who have responded positively to his novel, which gets called out by Gurdon for being popular among teens, yet depraved. Do read Alexie’s piece if you are at all interested in YA lit or young adults or humans. A small highlight:

When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children.

Word, Sherman Alexie. Word.

Or as Linda Holmes wrote for NPR:

While the WSJ piece refers to the YA fiction view of the world as a funhouse mirror, I fear that what’s distorted is the vision of being a teenager that suggests kids don’t know pathologies like suicide or abuse unless they read about them in books.

Obviously, I would prefer it if no children or teens had to suffer. But the fact is, millions of young adults are survivors of abuse and/or poverty and/or homelessness and/or discrimination and/or any number of things that are much worse than anything that happened in Breaking Dawn.

And even for privileged children, there is value in reading “dark” books. I myself grew up a happy, white, middle-class kid. I had my own little school dramas and angst, of course, but overall I was extremely lucky. But I devoured Lurlene McDaniel books–you know, the ones about teenagers dying of cancer? Why did I do that? I didn’t have cancer. A cousin of mine died of leukemia when I was four or five, but I didn’t know him very well and don’t consider myself to have been particularly scarred by the experience. (it’s sadder to me now, as an adult, to think back on what his death must have been like for my older cousins, my aunts and uncles, and my parents, than it was for me personally as a child.) And it wasn’t just me–Lurlene McDaniel’s books, and other copycat teen illness books, are extremely popular. According to Wikipedia, she’s written over sixty YA books.

In case you’re not familiar with McDaniel’s books, here’s a plot summary of one, chosen at random from Amazon.

SheDiedTooYoung

Wait, she dies? Spoiler alert, Lurlene!!

She Died Too Young (published 1994–well before the alleged onset of Darkness in YA lit)

Chelsea James and Katie O’Roark met at Jenny House and spent a wonderful summer together. Now Chelsea and her mother are staying with Katie as Chelsea awaits news concerning a heart transplant. While waiting for a compatible donor, Chelsea meets Jillian, a girl who’s funny and kind. Jillian is also waiting. She needs a heart-lung transplant. The two girls become fast friends. When Chelsea meets Jillian’s brother, he awakens feelings in Chelsea she’s never known before. However, as her medical situation grows desperate, Chelsea finds herself in a contest for her life against her very best friend.

I’m pretty sure I read that one. Why would I read that? That is super sad. I mean, the title gives it away. I read it because kids and young adults are trying on the idea of mortality, of tragedy. Even if I didn’t need a heart-lung transplant, and neither did anyone else I knew, there was still the idea that someone out there did, and someday I might. Someday I would die! How sad! I read about dying teens, and teens with drug problems, and teens who were exposed to toxic waste and developed super powers. I read about teens who were abandoned alone in the woods with only a hatchet and their wits to keep them alive. I turned out fine (does that sound braggy?).

I also definitely slipped into my mom’s bookshelf and read some adult books I didn’t really understand. I mean, I could read the words, but I didn’t really understand them. I distinctly remember reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb at about age 12 and having no idea what was going on, but feeling really grown up that I had it. I also remember seeing the movie Cider House Rules as a young teen and thinking Tobey Maguire was like, so cute. Then as an adult I read the book and went, wait, this is about abortion? Was that part in the movie? (I checked and yes, it’s totally in the movie. It’s like, the central premise of the movie. But I didn’t get it because I didn’t really know what abortion was.) If kids aren’t old enough to be reading something, they won’t understand it.

If teens aren’t already doing meth, they’re  not going to run out and start after they read Crank by Ellen Hopkins. But it might help them gain an understanding of why someone might start doing drugs.  And if they have been affected by meth, they’ll be relieved to see someone on the page whose experiences might match their own.

I guess in summary all I have to say is: if you don’t like the Hunger Games, don’t read the Hunger Games, and don’t buy a copy for your kids. But please settle down about what a travesty it is that teens are reading books where bad things happen, or I will come to your house and shoot you with a crossbow. I’m unhinged! I read YA literature! Do not fuck with me!

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?