"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."