Monday, April 30, 2007

The Trap, by John Smelcer

The Trap, by John Smelcer, is a true gem for readers interested in the Alaskan wilderness, and relationships between Indian and Euro-American cultures.

The Trap tells the story of an elderly Native man, Albert Least-Weasel, and his young grandson, Johnny Least-Weasel. When Albert does not return from a hunting trip in the wilderness, Johnny must decide whether or not to go out in search of his grandfather.

With its representation of two different traditional Native American myths, this book would pair up well with American Born Chinese, other Native American literature, or more naturalist writing (such as that by the ubiquitous Jack London).

The Trap is a quiet and reflective book, with a surprising amount of suspense and complexity. I recommend it for 6-9th graders, but it is relevant to readers of all ages (I found it in the adult section of my public library).

Friday, April 27, 2007

Reflection on 2007 Printz Award Winners, Part 2

Readers of my first post analyzing what young adult literature has to say about the nature of the contemporary world perhaps noted that I did not refer to An Abundance of Katherines (AAK), by John Green. At first glance, AAK is unlike the other novels discussed below in that the focus of this text is love, and the challenges inherent in forming, sustaining, and ending romantic relationships. While this theme is an important and enduring one, it is not especially unique to the contemporary world.

This does not mean, however, that AAK does not connect to the two themes I previously highlighted: fear and cultural confusion. The two main characters in AAK—Colin Singleton and Lindsey Lee Wells—both have deeply rooted fears. Lindsey Lee is afraid to branch out into the wider world beyond Gutshot, Tennessee—perhaps because her father has left her, perhaps because she is content with being at the top of Gutshot’s social pyramid, or perhaps because her mother is such a singularly driven and successful figure. In any event, Lindsey Lee’s fear is related in no insignificant way to her confusion about whether her loyalties should be to herself and her talents and dreams, or to the small town and boyfriend that has embraced her and given her comfort over the years.

Colin Singleton, on the other hand, fears that what he has been told all his life—that he is exceptional—may in fact not be true. Brilliant with regard to all sorts of academic and trivial endeavors, Colin is stymied by social relationships and especially his inability to fully understand what makes some relationships last and others fall apart. In this regard, he is very much like everyone else—an insight that Colin suppresses since it strengthens rather than diminishes his suspicion that he is not nearly as unique as others perceive him to be. Part of what this novel is about is coming to terms with the fears and anxieties that drive some people to achieve all sorts of external rewards but see the world in simplistic and superficial ways; by learning to listen to others and see himself as having essential ties or connections to the aspirations and problems of others, Colin develops a more complex and healthy understanding of himself and the world in which he lives.

All of which is to say that at the heart of An Abundance of Katherines is a fascinating representation and critique of what I am calling the age of exceptionality. While the concept of exceptionality, or “giftedness” has been around for at least fifty years, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the focus on high performance in schools, sports, and all aspects of American social life is more prominent than ever before (in particular, see this interesting commentary by Po Bronson). In the community in which I live, meetings are routinely held to discuss gifted and talented education programs, travel baseball, soccer, and basketball teams, and highly specialized arts and music camps. In education and business generally, we now identify some people as “highly qualified” and/or “nationally certified”—labels that we typically convey according to performance on “high stakes tests.” AAK represents well the obsession with high performance in contemporary American culture, at the same time that it explores the confusions that can occur when teens with two different orientations toward high performance intersect.

Just as AAK provides evidence of an age of fear and cultural confusion, so too other novels honored by the Printz Award committee provide evidence of an age of exceptionality. Octavian Nothing is a young African who has been selected from among his peers for advanced education classes and instruction; he is engaged in a very unique and somewhat horrifying program of high performance training. In American Born Chinese, we encounter a stereotype of a highly talented Chinese immigrant, and we see how this stereotype places pressures upon other students of Chinese heritage to succeed in school. On the whole, both of these novels join with AAK to portray a new kind of teen social class, one that is realized through intellectual merit and/or participation in high performance programs. What is unique or special about The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing and American Born Chinese is that they both explore the particular challenges that cultural minorities face in these contexts.

One last observation: it is clear that all of the novels recognized by the Printz Award committee are exceptional in at least one other way. They truly embody highly creative and even ground-breaking writing and artistry. John Green, for example, embeds footnotes, math formulas, and an appendix written by a mathematician into his narrative. Markus Zusak gives us Death as a narrator—a truly unique move in young adult literature--and embeds a picture book within his novel (in addition to telling us what is going to happen before events actually unfold). The graphic novel form of American Born Chinese, and especially the weaving together of three different narratives within this text, really is exceptional—perhaps even more exceptional than the plot of the main storyline itself. Surrender is a haunting and highly surprising depiction of isolation and terror. As Michael Cart and others have noted, this appears to be an age of exceptionality in the writing of young adult literature—a time of formulaic experimentation and thinking outside of the box in terms of what is appropriate and acceptable for teen readers. This has led to no small amount of controversy, but indicates that we are indeed fortunate to live in an age where we have more unique and interesting--even exceptional--voices and perspectives in young adult literature than ever before, despite the challenges of the world in which we live.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Reflection on 2007 Printz Award winners, Part 1

Now is the perfect time to stop and reflect upon the nature of the contemporary world, using the five young adult novels below as a source of data and evidence for my claims. Unfortunately, this is the perfect time because of two singular—and terribly unfortunate—events in contemporary American culture: the Don Imus affair, and the murders at Virginia Tech University.

These two recent events link clearly to two compelling themes that I highlight in my digital booktalks below. The first idea or theme is that of fear, terrorism, and/or death (call it what you will—you get my drift). The second theme is that of cultural diffusion and confusion. Both themes loom large in the young adult novels below, and in the contemporary world—as evidenced not only by the events cited above, but also by other events such as the war in Iraq and Tim Hardaway’s disparaging comments about homosexuals made prior to this year’s NBA All-Star Game.

So, might we say that we live in an age of fear and death, or alternatively, an age of terrorism and cultural confusion? Given that the young adult novels Surrender, The Book Thief, The Amazing Life of Octavian Nothing, and American Born Chinese all represent and comment directly upon death and terrorism, and/or the fear and anger that arises when people from different cultures fail to understand and respect one another, I am inclined to say yes. There appears to be something at work in the world today—perhaps facilitated by the capacity of the popular media to distribute information quickly to large numbers of people—that is leading creative writers to make these themes a central focus of their storytelling.

In the process of preparing this commentary, I visited three websites that provide some useful perspective on the claim that I am making here about what recently published, highly acclaimed young adult literature is saying about the nature of the contemporary world.

According to a report of the Council of Economic Advisors, the United States is becoming an increasingly diverse nation, characterized by an unprecedented degree of social heterogeneity. However, the heterogeneity that increasingly defines American culture is not evenly distributed; gaps exist between regions and locales in terms of the quantity and degree of social diversity. In addition, some evidence exists that members of different ethnic and social groups have very different perceptions of and attitudes toward public policy issues. It seems fair to say that the representation of cultural diffusion and confusion in contemporary young adult literature mirrors the highly dynamic social environment of the United States, an environment that is increasingly multicultural, diverse, and self-aware with regard to issues of cultural diversity, yet also fraught with considerable challenges, misunderstandings, and conflicts.

Another website that I visited is one on death and dying, created by Mike Kearl at Trinity University, in San Antonio, Texas. According to a variety of data and reports, the quantity of death and dying occurring in the world today is actually decreasing, and has decreased substantially over the last 20 years. Correspondingly, individual life expectancy is increasing, and is expected to increase worldwide in the future. But it is also true that death rates are higher in countries characterized by social diversity and economic inequalities. So perhaps the novelistic fascination with death and dying, and this culture of fear that we have heard so much about over the last several years, is more a response to the persistence and unpredictability of violence and death worldwide than it is a response to some sort of increase in actual occurrence. In other words, perhaps death and dying are receiving so much attention from young adult novelists and the public at large because such acts are increasingly random and unpredictable, and indicate the limits and shortcomings of the economic and social world that we have thus far created.

Perhaps, too, we Americans are obsessed with death and terrorism because the majority social context in the United States—the suburb—is so very different from the contexts of death, dying, and violence that exist throughout the world today. Maybe it is this inherent inequality or tension that young adult writers want teens and others to think about for the purpose of questioning the isolation and stratifying social structures that foster fear, terrorism, and violence.

All of this writing about terrorism and fear and cultural conflict reminds me of a recent critique of teachers and young adult literature written by Barbara Feinberg. Essentially, Feinberg suggests that the focus on conflicts and negative behaviors in secondary classrooms and young adult literature is a disturbing trend. But does contemporary young adult literature have more to say about contemporary society than simply that we live in an age of fear and cultural confusion? I think so--stay tuned for Part 2 of my commentary.

Monday, April 16, 2007

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese is the big kahuna of the novels that I have read so far for this project. It is the 2007 Printz Award winner for literary excellence in young adult literature.

For a great review of this novel, visit A Fuse #8 Production: Review of the Day: American Born Chinese. BTW, I love Fuse #8's blog--it is a great resource for information about children's literature, and its a lot of fun to read. I hope one day to be as witty as this children's librarian.

For insight on Gene Luen Yang's creative process, visit A Fuse #8 Production: Monkey King Mana and follow the links to Yang's own article about his book. The commentary on the relationship between the Monkey King fable, Buddhism, and Christianity is really fascinating.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this novel, and have already recommended it to many teachers. I think middle school students (7th and 8th graders especially), and 9th and 10th graders, would especially enjoy this book. The artistry is powerful, and the interweaving of three different stories provides a lot to talk about, in addition to the issues of cultural identity and interrelationships. If you are using themes like diversity, stereotypes, and overcoming adversity to structure your curriculum, this might be a great book for you. History teachers discussing immigration in their courses also might use this book to examine some of the impacts of making a transition to life in the United States, not only for new arrivals, but also for the second generation.

My rising 6th grader picked up this book and thought it was a little strange (mainly because the issues it raises are more adolescent than pre-adolescent). It is probably better suited to 7th grade and up, but there is no reason younger adolescents can't read it and enjoy it too.