Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting Real

"Get real."  This admonition, most effectively done with a trace of sarcasm, was a favorite of the high school teens I was teaching five or six years ago.  Like most teen phrases, this gem served multiple purposes -- as an expression of disbelief, as a put-down, as a snappy comeback.  How it was used depended entirely on the context.

Context determines so much in teen literature.  This weeks is Banned Books Week; during the last week of September, those of us who choose to commemorate banned books are attempting to raise awareness of multiple local, national (and international) efforts to remove certain books from library and school shelves, to prevent access to entire works of literature.  So many of the books that have been challenged in the almost-30-year history of Banned Books week are works of young adult literature.  As a young adult librarian, I take this week pretty seriously, helping to design displays and activities that spotlight these works.  Anyone who works with teens knows that telling them a book has been challenged somewhere in the nation only serves to make them want to read.  For even the most reluctant of readers, a challenged book presents a temptation, even if they only read it to find the one or two pages that usually serve as the basis for the challenge.

It is those one or two pages that become most problematic . . .or the one or two words, or the one or two ideas.  My colleague designed our teen room display this year, and one of the books on it is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Just this morning, another lady asked me why that book has been challenged.  There have been several reasons, but the primary one is the prolific use of the word "nigger."  Now, anyone who has actually read the book will know that Huck's use of that word is simply an authentic reflection of how he spoke; indeed, Twain was one of the first American authors to use authentic dialect when writing his characters.  Dialect is just how people really talk; for a mid-nineteenth century, uneducated teenager in the South to use the word "nigger" is no more offensive than for my nine-year-old ranch-raised little boy to use the word "ain't."  It's just real -- just part of the story.  Taken out of context, however, and perceived through our 21st-century eyes, the word becomes offensive.

What about the context of another, more recently challenged book?  There are a few pages in Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that might make a parent blush while reading.  Those pages, however, have little to do with the story, other than to make the character more authentic, more real.  Those pages have spurred multiple challenges in the last year or so, particularly because the book itself has won so many awards.  Taken in correct context, the problematic episode is little more than an aside, although it would present an opportunity for parent-child discussion of sexuality.  Taken out of context, though, challengers believe the entire books is vulgar and indecent. 

A final example:  There is a classic work of American literature, one of my favorites, that I think all American teenagers need to read:  To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's masterpiece. Over the years, the challenges to this book -- and there have been many -- have fallen into two categories.  Some challengers take offense at the language in the book; there again, the phrases used are an accurate reflection of the characters who use them, and serve to complete our picture of the characters.  Atticus Finch would not use the phrase "whore lady," or any of the other seemingly offensive terms in the novel; this would be completely out of character.  For other characters to use these phrases is to make them real, to stand them in comparison to Atticus, and to illustrate their youth, their ignorance, or both.

Other challenges to Mockingbird have stemmed from the portrayal of the groups of characters in the novel.  Some challengers claim that the novel portrays African Americans negatively; others complain that Caucasian Americans suffer from a critical characterization.  Both camps are right:  there are negative characterizations of both racial groups.  Taken out of context, of course they could be offensive; but in the context of the novel, these characterizations only serve to drive home the book's major theme.  Black people are portrayed negatively through the eyes of the bigoted characters in the novel; while white characters come off as ignorant bigots only if that is the role of the character.   The characters we remember from the novel -- Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, and especially Jem -- stay in our collective memory not because of their bigotry, but because of their courage and compassion in the face of cultural bigotry.  We remember them because they are real, and their stories resonate with us years later.

Teen literature is about what teens are interested in:  relationships, cultures, prejudices, sexuality, the environment, war, drugs, school, gangs and bullying, guns, the supernatural .  . . .pretty much the same things adults are interested in.   Books that address these topics, in a way that feels real and authentic to teens, are the books they read, think about, talk about.  For parents, having a teen that reads is challenging -- because we also need to read these books, to address their entire context, to be prepared to discuss the issues these books raise.  No sugar-coating here; we adults need to "get real."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Music, Myth and Magic

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?  Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme . . .

As I was growing up, this old folk song was simply a pleasant tune to hum, an interesting, haunting melody to play on the piano, out of my older sisters' dog-eared songbooks.

It was, at least, until I read Nancy Werlin's masterful Impossible, an exquisite novel that turns the riddle in an old folk tale into one girl's key to saving her sanity, and her life.

In Impossible, we meet Lucy, a normal seventeen-year-old with a life she's happy with.  She lives with loving foster parents, enjoys her friendships, and has just been asked to the prom. The only dark spot in her life is her mother -- a mentally unstable woman who wanders the streets of Lucy's hometown, occasionally attempting conversation with Lucy.  It's an unusual circumstance, but Lucy possesses the strength to deal with it.  Life, for Lucy, is basically good.

Until the night she is raped.  Afterwards, as the novel turns from realism to fantasy, Lucy is confronted by the evil Elfin King.  He tells her that she is cursed, as have been all the women of the family.  The curse is this:  to become pregnant at age 17, to have a baby, and to immediately go insane.  This is what has happened to Lucy's mother, to Lucy's grandmother, to all the women of her family for generations.  It's what will happen to Lucy in nine months, and if she has a daughter, the curse will continue.

The only way to avoid her destiny, according to the Elfin King, is for Lucy to accomplish each of the impossible tasks described in the lyrics of a very old folk song, Scarborough Fair. Lucy, with the help of her parents and her oldest friend, sets out to somehow defeat the curse, to free herself and all the women of her line from the clutches of the Elfin King.  The creativity and intelligence she displays are breath-taking; I could not put this one down, my brain running through the lyrics as I read, wondering how she would unravel the next piece of the puzzle. 

This is one of my favorite types of fantasy:  a retelling, re-weaving, of a very old tale.  I was a child who read traditional fairy tales, who grew up listening to old songs; for me, a contemporary novel that twists an old legend captivates my imagination in ways that more realistic literature just can't.  I love the retellings of old tales:  recent favorites have included  Wildwood Dancing, based on the legend of the twelve dancing princesses, by Juliet Marillier; Hush, an epic based on an Irish folk tale, by Donna Jo Napoli; and Pay the Piper, a retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, by Jane Yolen.

Besides appealing to teens who have loved fairy tales, these re-tellings of more traditional stories present a powerful reading tool for students who struggle with literature.  By being somewhat familiar with the original story, a reader then has a framework on which to hang the events of the re-told novel.  Comprehension increases because the reader is able to anticipate events and make logical predictions.  Even when the novel version of the tale differs significantly from the original, having that previous experience with the characters and plots can allow the reader to make connections and comparisons between the two versions, thus increasing their engagement.  Any reading teacher will tell you that the extent to which a student is engaged with -- meaning interested in -- a story is the extent to which the reader comprehends.  Besides Marillier, Napoli, Werlin and Yolen, try Cameron Dokey, particularly for young readers.

As for me . . . . well, Werlin just released Extraordinary, her follow-up to Impossible.  It's sitting on my bedside table right now, just waiting for me.  Personally, I'm hoping for a rainy weekend.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fall & Football

Over the weekend, I finished reading Football Genius by Tim Green.  Admittedly, I am not a huge football fan; I'll watch the Super Bowl if a friend is throwing a good party, and I do attend high school games . . . but mostly to watch the marching band.  So, it was with reluctance - and a sense of professional obligation - that I picked up the novel. The book is one of fifteen nominated for Wyoming's Soaring Eagle youth book award this year, and I do try to read every nominee.

That much being said, the novel ended up being a pleasant Sunday-afternoon read.  The storyline moved along nicely, and I was able to skim through the more tedious (for me) descriptions of the football plays to get back to the actual plot.  The characters were predictable, for a YA novel, but the underlying tension -- a losing football team, a family drama, and even two budding romances -- provided a pleasant diversion.  For the right age group, there is even the possiblity of several lessons about truth, loyalty, and self-knowledge. I'd certainly try it for a younger reader -- say 5th to 7th grade -- who likes sports.  Be aware that the main characters are all in the 6th grade, so you won't have as much luck getting older teens to read it.  In the library, we notice that our teen patrons will read about characters older than them, but rarely about ones who are younger.

Keeping that in mind,  there are definite age-level distinctions among sports-related YA authors.  Green, Mike Lupica, and John Feinstein are three whose books bridge the juvenile/young adult fiction gap.  Choose their books for, again, a 5th to 7th grade student.

For older readers who can handle more mature sports-related content, you might try John Coy's Crackback, Pete Hautman's Rash, or Gordon Korman's Pop.  And for truly excellent story-telling, with sports always as a backdrop, read Chris Crutcher.  I lose myself in Crutcher's true-to-life characters and gut-wrenching stories so much that I don't even notice I'm reading a sports book.  Whale Talk and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes are particularly good, and Deadline, a Soaring Eagle award nominee from 2008-2009, has been described to me (by a teen) as "life-changing." Be aware that Crutcher, who has worked with teens in a variety of professional settings, writes the way teens often speak; his books are frequently challenged, mostly for language.  If your teen is old enough to handle the language, these books offer much potential parent-child discussion material . . . even if you can't explain what first down is.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hope Rising . . . and Falling

September is Hispanic Heritage month; upon that prompt, a few years ago I picked up a copy of Pamela Munoz Ryan's excellent historical fiction novel, Esperanza Rising.  For those of you who are not bilingual, "esperanza" means "hope", and is a particularly apt name for the main character of this novel.  Despite tremendous heartbreak, the 12-year-old Esperanza rises again and again in her story.

Esperanza and her mother, both accustomed to a life of wealth and indulgence in Mexico, are forced by various circumstances to flee to California and find work as agricultural laborers.  There, they face racial prejudice that gives already-limited jobs to displaced white Americans who have fled the Dust Bowl to also find work in California. The tiny family must fight not only to survive, but also to maintain their rich cultural heritage and ties to family still living in Mexico.  

Set as it is in the 1930's, the short novel really could be an excellent companion to larger works of Great Depression literature, such as John Steinbeck's classic Grapes of Wrath.  In fact, there are so many similarities between the stories of Esperanza and her family and Steinbeck's Joad family, that older teens could conceivably read both and write an excellent comparative essay on them.  (My daughter is taking American Lit right now, so you can see where my mind is!)

For younger readers, however, the story of 12-year-old Esperanza will serve as both heartwarming entertainment and a wonderful lesson about a specific time and place in American history.  There is much here to enrich cross-cultural learning, as well:  Esperanza and her mother strive to carry out Hispanic traditions despite the hard times in which they live.  For moms and dads, consider this book for readers from about the 5th grade up, especially if you want to encourage discussion about tolerance and diversity.

Unfortunately, not all Young Adult books about Mexican-Americans are as positive. La Linea, a 2006 title by Ann Jaramillo, presents immigration in a more desperate, realistic tone, and raises questions our country will have to consider about the actual individuals who are attempting to cross the border, whether legally or not.  The story of a brother and sister who have been essentially deserted by their parents, La Linea is, according to the author, fiction, but based on real-life events.

More recent titles include Mexican Whiteboy, by Matthew de la Pena. This story presents the racial prejudices and obstacles that so many American teenagers of mixed heritage are facing today.  de la Pena has several titles out; this one deals particularly with sports, and so is more appealing to teenage boys than Esperanza.  Try it for a reluctant reader, and especially for a teen who is himself (or herself) dealing with racism. 

Use Sherman Alexie's wonderful, and very funny,  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for the same type of audience.  This book deals with prejudice toward Native Americans rather than Hispanic Americans, but the underlying themes are the same:  How much should one's cultural heritage influence one's opportunities in life?  How much do we judge others by their culture, before knowing them as individuals?  How can the expectations of one's own cultural group, even one's own family, act as limitations in life?  Be aware that these last two titles are recommended for grades 7 and up.

Hope you find one of these books to open your own eyes, or those of a child you care about.