Friday, August 31, 2007

Kidnapped: Book One: The Abduction, by Gordon Korman

In the young adult literature business, and in the book business generally, books labeled as "popular fiction" have a hard time earning the respect of reviewers and critics. Fortunately for the authors, they usually do pretty well with consumers, who tend to purchase them at greater rates than other forms of literature.

The main complaint about these books is that they are mere "entertainment," with little redeeming social value.

Reading the first book in the Kidnapped adventure series, The Abduction, by Gordon Korman, reminds me of this recurring, dismissive response to popular literature. After finishing The Abduction, I noticed that even though I had been asked to review this book by Signal, a reputable journal in the field of young adult literature, this book is not listed anywhere on the 2007 YALSA book lists and awards that I am reading for this project.

I don't question leaving this book off of the YALSA booklists, even though it would be an excellent book to read with "reluctant" young adult readers, especially in grades 5-7. This is certainly the perogative of the YALSA reviewers. I do question, however, the notion that this book is mere entertainment. In addition to having some fine writing and action, the book supplies useful insight--as perhaps other adventure books do too--on the current age in which we live.

What I am thinking of in particular is the current deep distrust of authority that one finds in a variety of contexts in the United States and throughout the world. In The Abduction, the main characters, Meg and Aiden Falconer, are deeply distrustful of the FBI and other institutionalized authority (e.g., school authorities and mainstream news organizations) as a result of prior poor experiences. Consequently, they rely upon themselves to solve problems, and they align themselves with other unconventional authorities--in the example of this book, a successful blogger on the Internet.

It seems to me that there are numerous examples in the contemporary world of the distrustful attitude toward authority embodied in books such as the Kidnapped series (which details, as the title indicates, Aiden's efforts to find his sister Meg who has been kidnapped). Yesterday's newspaper headlines about the release of a report about the Virginia Tech shootings last April reminds me that people in general are skeptical about the capacity of government and other social institutions to respond smartly to social problems. In 2004, 4 out 5 Iraqi's had a negative attitude toward the US Occupation and the Iraqi government, a distrust that has changed little in subsequent years and that is largely shared by most Americans. And some bloggers suggest that there exists a deep distrust of science and medical authority in many parts of the United States and the world.

My point is that popular fiction like The Abduction is not simply entertainment for the middle school set. It also represents the current age in which we live of fear and distrust which has given rise to a deep (and perhaps quintessentially American) desire for more models of courageous and creative behavior on the part of individuals and organizations.

Perhaps like the sixth grader and school principal reported below?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, by Peter Cameron

Reading up on the Larry Craig scandal this morning, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Someday, this pain will be useful to you, Senator."

You see, I just finished a new YA novel, a first YA novel, by the accomplished author Peter Cameron: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You. It's a beautifully written book, due to appear in bookstores this October. Unfortunately, it's also a bit of a deviation from my research project, as it will be under consideration for a YALSA book award next year. But what the heck, I am going to write about it anyway, mainly because I just read it and it is so good and pertinent to what is going on in the world today.

At the center of this novel is James Sveck, an eighteen year old New Yorker headed to Brown University in the next month or so. James is a smart young man working in his mother's art gallery in Manhattan. He is the quintessential New York sophisticate, much like Holden Caulfield, with the exception that unlike Holden, he is clearly confused about the nature of his sexual orientation.

James's confusion leads him to behave in awkward, problematic, and ultimately stupid ways (though he does nothing quite so stupid as pleading guilty to a crime he claims in hindsight he never committed). James is not alone in his confusion and stupidity: his divorced parents are equally guilty, as are his sister, his therapist, and even the art gallery manager whom he secretly loves. The only sensible and mature character in the novel is James's grandmother, an engaging old lady with a penchant for rye and water.

Set in the context of post-9/11 New York, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You explores the challenge of acting responsibly and productively in a world that seems nothing but a catalyst for pain and grief. Peter Cameron's wonderful prose, his eye for the complexities and paradoxes in contemporary society, and especially his ultimately hopeful attitude toward James and the other characters make this a very special novel to read.

My only complaint is that the first part of the novel is not structured or voiced in the most productive way. Early on, readers are likely to get at least a little confused as Cameron flips back and forth between the past and the present. More significantly, the narrator, James Sveck, uses language that is not repeated elsewhere in the novel and that is sure to prevent most English teachers from incorporating this book into their curriculums. Nevertheless, the second half of the novel is just about perfect, and gives me hope that Peter Cameron will produce other material in the future that teachers can use in their courses.

In the meantime, I recommend this book for reading by older teens and young adults, including Senator Craig. It might help him deal with the beating he is taking out on the web (see below), as well as some of the other personal issues that he is facing.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis

Despite my best effort (ok, maybe not my best effort :), another family vacation has interrupted my development of The Age of _______? But I am back home now, refreshed from seeing various sights on the East Coast (for those of you who haven't been to Quebec City or Acadia National Park, I strongly recommend them). And I have several books to write about.

The first one is The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis, one of ten books that recieved the ALA's Alex Award this year as a recommended adult book for teen readers.

According to my wife, this book should definitely jump to the top of my "best of" list, since she claims I laughed out loud seemingly every 20 pages or so. And, indeed, this is one of my favorite books for young adults, perhaps my favorite book in the collection I have read so far for this project. The Blind Side has a terrific story, with some remarkable, true-to-life (its nonfiction) characters. If you like football, or want to know what could be behind the Michael Vick story, or simply like great survival tales, go out and get this book.

At the center (actually, left tackle) of The Blind Side is Michael Oher, a young African American teen living in inner city Memphis, Tennessee. Michael is delivered one day to Briarcrest Christian School (out in the white suburbs) by a man named "Big Tony," who promised his mother on her deathbed that he would enroll his son in a Christian school. Struck by Michael's impressive size (he is 6'4" as a sophomore, and weighs 340 lbs.), athletic ability, and his precarious perch among the living, Big Tony decides to enroll "Big Mike" as well. And thus begins a remarkable story of survival by a young teen who has never spent any time among white people with money (most of his new school family falls into this category) much less time at school learning to read and write.

What makes this narrative so much fun to read--beyond the compelling story of Michael's life, and especially the people at Briarcrest who love him and help him to achieve--is the way Lewis weaves the story of Michael Oher with the story of how it has come to be that any young person with his size and speed might become a highly prized commodity in the world of college and professional football. Michael's story fits into a larger narrative about how football changed through the efforts of Bill Walsh and Lawrence Taylor, among several others. It also fits into a less explicitly developed narrative about how American culture has changed over the last 25 years or so. Reading The Blind Side provides lots of useful insight into our national obsession with sports and high performance, as well as the complexities of living a Christian life, navigating racial and class divides, and providing opportunity and challenge through education.

My guess is that many teen boys would enjoy this book very much, but in truth, the strongest character is a woman and I think this book is accessible to most any reader (it truly would make a great movie). If I were teaching 9th grade, I would pair it up with a young adult novel like Make Lemonade, which explores in greater depth, perhaps, the circumstances that Michael Oher encountered as a youth. Using these two books would engage both male and female readers, and spark a vigorous debate about the impacts of poverty and a lack of education, as well as what our society needs to do to create stronger relationships among members of diverse communities.

This video here is not about football, but it is about the sort of challenges that Michael Oher faced in making his way through Briarcrest and on to the University of Mississippi. It is a tad long and starts slow, bit give it time--it is well worth your attention.