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.

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