Friday, September 19, 2008

Sarah Palin To The Rescue!

I believe everyone has a superpower.  My friend Polly can name the designer, season, and price of any garment on any person (knockoffs too) with flawless accuracy.  Roxy can eat more food faster than anyone I've ever seen, has a perfect sense of direction, and over one spring break she built a working TV out of an old toaster.  And her twin brother Tom can imitate anyone's voice and pick any kind of lock. (1)

Maybe its just me, but I hear a lot of similarities in the voices of Sarah Palin and Jasmine, the lead character in Michele Jaffe's fun YA read Bad Kitty.  

Part of the connection, I think, has to do with embracing contraries.  I mean,  both of these females take great pride in showing off their credentials as both "traditional" and "untraditional" women.  Sarah Palin runs a state government, but idolizes her family.   She has won a beauty contest, but also is a lifetime NRA member.  She is committed to the Republican party (and the men who lead it), but is eager to shake things up in Washington.

Jasmine, too, embraces contradictions.  She loves to sun bathe, but loves more solving crimes and mysteries.  She is intimidated by her father, but fearless in the face of evil.  She surrounds herself with friends like Polly and Roxy who are fellow fashionistas, but as interested in intellectual challenges as she is.

Another connection is that both Sarah Palin and Jasmine are unrelenting in their optimism about the future and their ability to meet any challenge.  Both women have a can-do spirit that fits neatly with the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ideology of American culture.

Even though these similarities exist, there are differences.  Most important, Sarah Palin draws a line at embracing contraries that Jasmine does not.  Subjects such as God, devotion to country, and free enterprise are NOT ones that Sarah Palin examines from different perspectives (although her track record suggests that she does say two different things, from time to time, about certain sensitive issues, such as pork barrel spending and teaching creationism in schools).  Because Sarah Palin is running for elective office, she is much more calculating (and arguably superficial) in her choice of contraries to embrace.  

So what might we learn from this comparison?  One reasonable conclusion  is that maybe John McCain is as aware as Michele Jaffe, the creator of Jasmine and Bad Kitty, that today's youth and the larger public are hungry for heroes who do not fit neatly into traditional categories.  In a sense, his choice of Sarah Palin shows that he has learned the core lesson at the heart of Barack Obama's emergence as a player on the national stage: that people who do not look or behave like the figures on the American dollar bill are likely to play larger and larger roles in the social and political life of this nation in the future.

The other lesson is that we Americans need to be careful about accepting without question the labeling of John McCain as "maverick" and Sarah Palin as "bad kitty."  Yes, there are some appealing qualities and backgrounds to each, and some positive efforts toward political change. But ultimately, this ticket is all about imitation.  Imitating the idea of change at the core of the Obama campaign, and more importantly, imitating President Bush and the Republican party on the war in Iraq, oversight of Wall Street, and drilling for oil.  If there is one thing that Michele Jaffe's book teaches, it's that we should beware of imitations.   As Jasmine's friend Polly might advise, buy the real thing whenever possible.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Back In The Saddle Again

"So in Macbeth, when [Shakespeare] wasn't trying to find names that sound alike, what did he want to express in words more beautiful than had ever yet been written?"

Mrs. Baker looked at me for a long moment. Then she went and sat back down at her desk. "That we are made for more than power," she said softly. "That we are made for more than our desires. That pride combined with stubbornness can be disaster.  And that compared with love, malice is a small and petty thing."

The above words, from The Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt, are as powerful a commentary on the current age, on the last eight years of the Bush administration, on Wall Street and the current presidential campaign, as I have read in the last year and a half or so that I have been reading young adult literature and making connections to the contemporary world.  If you haven't read The Wednesday Wars, I highly recommend it--it's perfect for middle school history and language arts courses, or bedside reading by any parent with a child age 10-14.

The argument I have been making on this blog is that young adult literature--of which The Wednesday Wars is a terrific example--provides adults and teens and even tweens with useful perspective on the contemporary world.  It's not just about the foibles of teen romance, parental relationships, and school culture.  It's also about the world we live in today, its flaws and potential, the core principles and concerns we need to pay attention to if we are to move forward as a culture, a society.

In the coming months, I'm going to do my best to stay regular with this blog, writing at least once a week. Now that my research project is done, this blog is going to become a more open-ended site for writing about current events and the ways in which young adult literature can help all of us--adults and kids--to think better about contemporary politics and other aspects of human affairs.  In particular, I'll give special attention to the ways in which insights derived from young adult literature and the contemporary world might help educators to meet new challenges and create new opportunities for teaching and learning.  

So stay tuned for more about the current age.   Starting tomorrow.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Age of Avoidance

Anyone who has turned to this blog in the last month or so knows that I have been derelict with my posting.

It's not that I have found more enjoyable things to do; it's just that, for reasons having to do with the weather and the hecticness of the time of year, I have found myself avoiding that which puts some unwanted stress on other parts of my life.

In this respect, I am in synch with the two protagonists at the center of the two 2007 Teens Top Ten novels that I read while on my extended vacation from this blog.  Annabel Greene, a high school student in Sarah Dessen's Just Listen, seems to "have it all": a devoted mother, a promising modeling career, beautiful sisters, and wonderful friends. Over the course of this novel, however, we learn that all is not as it seems, as Annabel struggles to confront the pain and disappointment at the heart of her relationships to her mother, sisters, her modeling career, and especially friends.  Confronting anger and talking about emotions is not something that Annabel does easily; it takes her the entire novel to come to terms with her situation.  As a reader, I found myself practically yelling at her to do what she clearly needs to do at the very end of the novel. But Annabel's reluctance to change, and her avoidance of personal responsibility, appears to be the point: going against the grain is never easy, especially in an era where image is everything and so many advantages are being bestowed upon those who stay inside the lines.

Although the situation is very different in Firegirl, by Tony Abbott, the theme of avoidance again is front and center. In this instance, the main character, Tom, is a 7th grader grappling, along with his classmates, with the arrival of Jessica, a young girl who has been horribly scarred by a fire. Unlike his classmates, and especially his best friend Jeff, Tom reaches out to Jessica, and learns the truth about her tragedy.  However, like his classmates and even Jessica's parents, Tom practices a good deal of avoidance, too.  The narrative here is simpler than in Just Listen--Firegirl is ideally suited for fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, whereas Just Listen is more appropriate for teens in 8th grade and up--and much less frustrating in terms of character development and behavior.  But again, we see a central character unevenly negotiating a way toward greater personal responsibility and awareness of the many options that exist out in the world for living a fulfilling life.

As I read these two novels, I found myself at a lost to create a connection to the contemporary world (which also perhaps explains my time away from this blog).   But then I read a column by Frank Rich, in which he points out that Americans have been consistent in avoiding the reality of the Iraq war.   Shortly thereafter, I read Bob Hebert's criticism of Barack Obama's "bitter" remark, in which he suggests that Obama has been avoiding the truth about why his campaign is failing to attract a plurality of lower income, white Americans.   I also found myself paying attention to the many criticisms of the ABC presidential debate in Philadelphia, in which the moderators focused a good deal of attention on issues peripheral to the ones that are likely to consume the attention of the next president.  We live, it seems, in an age of avoidance, at a time when we seem incapable of facing head-on the difficult challenges that we most need to address.

It is this feature of contemporary American life that both Just Listen and Firegirl illuminate.  Given legitimate concerns about personal security and the advances in wealth and technology that have emerged over the last several years, it's easy to understand why people attempt to deal with complex social issues in much the same way that they work on dangers in driving (see the video clip below).  But what both Just Listen and Firegirl suggest is that social issues are not obstacles or impediments that should be avoided; indeed, dealing with social issues head-on is critical to finding one's way in the world.  It is this contribution to our national dialogue that these two books make, and that young adult novels in general are making today. Perhaps all we need to do to get ourselves out of our national predicament is listen.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

New Moon, by Stephanie Meyer

Here is a quote from a commentary a couple of Sundays ago by sports writer George Vecsey. He offers his own view on the popularity of Barack Obama among today's youth:

"The way I see it, the younger generation is much more cool about racial, religious and gender differences than the older generations were. There are a lot of jerks among athletes, but young voters follow sports enough to be familiar with Shaquille O’Neal’s goofy jokes and Tiki Barber’s burning ambition and Dontrelle Willis’s warm smile."

Vecsey's point is that this is a new age where traditional boundaries between white and black, sports and politics, men and women, are being blurred so that cultural differences basically don't mean as much as they once did. Vecsey credits athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan for generating this new attitude among younger members of the American public.

It's an interesting interpretation. And it's useful, too, as an explanation for the popularity of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, of which I have read merely one, New Moon, which was selected in 2007 as the top pick of the Teens Top Ten booklist, sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association.   New Moon has very few explicit connections to the contemporary world; it is about as insular and isolated as a contemporary novel can be (curiously, exactly opposite the other vampire novel that I have read for this project, Blue Bloods, by Melissa De La Cruz). But one thing you can say about this novel is that it articulates very well the blurring of cultural boundaries that Obama's campaign also evokes, and that Vecsey identifies as a defining characteristic of the contemporary age.

The cover of New Moon represents the blurring or blending of cultural boundaries and differences that I am talking about here.  The plot does as well. At the start of New Moon, Bella Swan, a sensitive yet strong teenage girl, goes into shock when her true love, the vampire Edward Cullen, breaks off his relationship with her (for more on this relationship, see the first novel in the series, Twilight).  Eventually, however, Bella recovers, and forms a relationship with Jacob, a tall and handsome Native American with a hidden identity of his own.   Essentially an extended re-thinking of Romeo and Juliet, New Moon explores the nature of love and the question of whether or not it is ever possible to recover from the loss of one's truest soulmate.

I found this second novel in the Twilight series a bit tedious in the beginning, as the somewhat implausible break up occurs between Edward and Bella, but I have to admit I found the romance and tension in the relationship between Bella and Jacob very believable and suspenseful.  The high action at the end of this novel also works very well--it is easy to see why the Twilight series is so popular with teen readers, especially young women.  

Part of the allure of New Moon, though, is not just the way vampires, humans, and other supernatural creatures all interact and blend with one another in relatively harmless ways; in addition, readers enjoy this storytelling, I suspect, because of the danger that always lies just beneath the cultural blending and "forbidden" interaction.  Readers know that Bella is just a footstep away from becoming a vampire herself; readers enjoy watching Edward and other characters battle their more base instincts.  New Moon reminds that full cultural integration and boundary erasure is not easily achieved, and is always frought with danger within a society that is still very Puritan and conservative, at its core.  This is a lesson that Barack Obama has been learning on the campaign trail in recent weeks, as various conservative commentators have begun to question the influence of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright on his thinking and leadership skills (basically, casting Wright as a vampire, and Obama as Bella).  It's a lesson that Eliot Spitzer, too, has learned the hard way (see the video below).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Body Type, by Ina Saltz

Body Type, by Ina Saltz, raises the question of whether or not we are living in an age of tattoos (see this CBS video report for an investigation into this question). But at the heart of Body Type is a clear interest in and advocacy of not only tattoos but also words and word design, raising the additional, perhaps more subtle question of whether or not this is "the age of type."

Yesterday's story in the Chicago Tribune about the speculations of a web-based amateur researcher named Paul Payack,who has suggested (not for the first time) that English is on the verge of breaking through the million word barrier, reinforces the notion that Ina Saltz puts forth that words and type have a greater value and presence in American and international culture than at any other time in recent history. For evidence in support of this notion, Payack turns to the Internet, and various online sources of information. For her evidence, Saltz turns to the phenomenon of tattoos and especially people who have created "intimate messages etched in flesh."

Saltz's focus on tattoos that consist almost exclusively of words is what distinguishes her book and makes it so interesting to read, especially for those of us who love language and literature. Body Type is divided into different categories of word tattoos, organized according to the different motivations behind the etchings (for example, love, politics, religion, etc...). Saltz's analysis of the tattoos depicted is limited, but often provocative and always deeply appreciative; for the most part, she lets the pictures and her subjects do the talking. Saltz's commitment to exploring the artistry and emotions behind the body type she captures on camera is truly exemplary, and allows readers the freedom to explore or not explore the ethics, morality, and meaning of this phenomenon.

Body Type is recommended by librarians for reluctant young adult readers, and I definitely concur. The text is limited in actual words, but rich in commitment to language and personal expression. Body Type would be terrific for use in an art and design class, or in any class that seeks to invite teens and other readers to go out into the world to explore its richness and diversity.

So, is it fair to say that we are living in an "age of type"? It does seem clear--as the above video represents--that people are more and more open to the idea of expressing their commitment to words and language visibly through tattoos, through etchings on their bodies. This commitment to using the body to express a commitment to words parallels the increased use of other mediums or forms of communication such as the Internet, mobile phones, video, and even literature to do the same. Books that I have read as a part of this study, such as The Book Thief and The Thirteenth Tale (and others that I haven't yet commented on, such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret) celebrate the power of words and word design in the same way as the photographs in Body Type. Just as scientists are poised to explore new frontiers using new technologies, so too readers and writers seem motivated to explore new means of celebrating and communicating words and type, of putting words out in front of people for use in making sense of the world.