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.

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