Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Age of Immigration

On the front page of today's Chicago Tribune is an article about the New Americans Initiative in Illinois, an effort to A) assist immigrants in Illinois become U.S. citizens; B) encourage immigrants to independently initiate their naturalization process; and C) help new citizens participate fully in civic life in Illinois. According to the article, this initiative is part of "a quiet but mounting government push to encourage assimilation, the likes of which have not occurred since Theodore Roosevelt's Americanization programs of the early 20th century."

This focus on immigration and assimilation--which has been a part of mainstream news coverage all year--is consistent with the theme of cultural diversity that is embedded in the young adult literature that I am reading for this project. After the theme of fear and terrorism, this is the most pronounced theme; one finds it in books such as American Born Chinese, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, An Abundance of Katherines, Color of the Sea, and even Water for Elephants. These novels show the challenges that immigrants and their children face in the United States, and also the efforts of many in our country to make our nation a more welcoming home for new arrivals.

The article in the Tribune caught my eye because it calls attention to both efforts to provide greater opportunities and assistance to new immigrants and the recurring hurdles and challenges that immigrants face in many Illinois communities, including Carpentersville and Waukegan. Interestingly, the high school classroom that I observed about a year ago that catalyzed this project is located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, near Carpentersville. The older adolescents that I observed discussing various descriptors for the current age did not mention "immigration" as a possibility, despite the growing influx of new Americans to this area, and also the controversy in nearby communities about how to respond to this phenomenon. This goes to show that reading young adult literature to understand trends and issues in the contemporary world can be a useful alternative to relying soley on one's own experiences and perceptions.

It also suggests that creating a more hospitable environment for new arrivals to the United States is not going to be easily accomplished. According to the Tribune, the focus of government efforts is on providing information as opposed to more substantive efforts to increase dialogue and understanding. In addition, funds for even the most elemental of integration services were cut from the most recent state budget. For many Americans, immigration and issues of cultural diversity remain below the radar, despite the clear evidence that to survive in the current age we must become more attuned to the variety of people in the world and more focused in our efforts to create dialogue and understanding across cultures. One of the best ways to create dialogue and understanding is reading young adult literature--an activity that appears to be taking place outside of school to a greater degree than at any other point in American history, but yet remains a relatively uncommon occurence in school. Since the likelihood of the government stepping up to fund new initiatives in the reading of young adult literature is pretty slim, maybe teachers need to become more forceful in their advocacy of this creative approach to social justice?

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Age of Climate Change

Reading Thomas Friedman's Op-Ed column in the Sunday New York Times this weekend reminds me that I have had the thought, in the course of this research project, that this is the age of climate change. Friedman's column suggests the ways in which an emerging knowledge of and debate about climate change is infiltrating the consciousness of everyday Americans. A couple of overly warm days here, a couple of forest fires and strong hurricanes there, and suddenly one becomes more attuned to the weather and the impact of human behavior on the environment.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, there are two books among the ones that I have read for this project set in Alaska; together, these books provide support for the notion that whatever the reasons, climate change is becoming a significant feature of the contemporary world. The Trap, by John Smelcer, references the changing patterns of hunting in rural Alaska, and the narrower and narrower seasons for trapping. Eagle Blue, by Michael D'Orso, suggests the same, and conveys well the native Alaskan perspective that the increased commercialization of Alaska, and the rest of the world, is undoubtedly behind the changes in temperature and season. As D'Orso points out, for native Alaskans, climate change is not a subject of debate; it is a fact of life.

It will be interesting to see, now that I am about halfway through my reading for this project, whether or not climate change emerges again as a subject of discussion. Other themes are clearly more prominent in contemporary young adult literature--fear and cultural diffusion, in particular--but climate change seems to be there as well, lurking in the background, making me wonder, on this incredibly balmy October day in Chicago, what the future will bring.

For more on climate change, view the video below, or go to Booklist Online to see a list of recent books for youth that discuss this subject.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Chinese Century

Today's letter in the Chicago Tribune from Huixun Zhang, Spokesman for the Consulate General, the People's Republic of China, protesting the awarding of the "so-called" Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama by President Bush a couple of weeks ago reminds me that along with The New Gilded Age, the phrase The Chinese Century has acquired a bit of currency among print and blog commentators as a descriptor of the contemporary period. According to these commentators, China is likely--or at the very least, has the potential--to dominate world affairs in the 21st century in the same way that the United States dominated the 20th century.

Within the young adult literature that I am reading for this project, the graphic novel American Born Chinese evidences some of the growing influence of Chinese culture, albeit in an indirect fashion. Now, there is a new graphic memoir called The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam that explores directly some of the history of China in the 20th century, and in particular the life of a very talented Chinese magician who made his living traveling the globe and offering vaudeville performances to a lot of people in the early 1900s.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam recounts a story told in a film of the same name. Ann Fleming, the author and illustrator, sets out to uncover the story of her great grandfather, partly in response to her own questions about why she has such an internationalist background (Fleming is the daughter of a Chinese mother and an Australian father, was born in Okinawa, and has lived most of her life in Canada). When Fleming discovers that her great grandfather was a vaudeville performer in the early part of the 20th century, and that her great aunt was a part of the show, she decides to learn as much as she can about his life and the circumstances that led to the re-location of most of the family to Canada.

The story that Fleming uncovers is complicated, sometimes contradictory, and full of surprising twists and turns. In addition to describing how her great grandfather married an Austrian woman and owned homes in the United States, Australia, and Europe, Fleming details the larger changes that occured in world affairs over the duration of the first part of the 20th century. More importantly, she highlights the many challenges that Long Tack Sam and other internationalists faced as a result of the rise of fascism and communism--challenges that echo ones encountered today by internationalists as a result of concerns over terrorism.

All in all, this memoir is highly entertaining, extremely readable, and well-documented (via pictures, historical artifacts, and other means). I recommend it for use in middle school and high school classrooms, and in particular courses or units on world history, multiculturalism, and the writing of history. Since it just came out in print last month, you might find this memoir hard to find. However, I've just nominated it for a 2008 award from YALSA under the heading of Great Graphic Novels, and so I hope the book picks up steam and gets more publicity and greater distribution in the future.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam doesn't fit neatly into this project here, but it is a nice change of pace and a reminder of the growing importance of China and Chinese culture in the contemporary world. Judging from both this memoir and the letter composed by the spokesman for the consul general of China, there is a good deal of work that needs to be done before the Chinese Century can become reality. But as the video below shows, it's not going to be easy to escape the influence of China in the future (is the woman in this video for real?).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The New Gilded Age

During this research project, I have repeatedly encountered the phrase "the new gilded age" as a desciptor for the contemporary world. Paul Krugman, a Princeton professor and columnist for The New York Times, has used this term in various articles (most notably this one from October 20, 2002), in his most recent book, and in his new blog of the same name (The Conscience of a Liberal). Other pundits and commentators such as David Remnick of The New Yorker and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz have used this term as well. Although the phrase is often associated with the period of the 1990s, Krugman and others make a persuasive case that rising economic inequality continues to be the defining characteristic of the contemporary era (in particular, see the introduction to Krugman's blog).

A somewhat overlooked but important footnote to this ongoing conversation on blogs and in the conventional print media is the fact that the phrase "the gilded age" originates in literature and, in particular, literature that speaks clearly to the contemporary world. According to Wikipedia, the term "Gilded Age" comes from Shakespeare's King John (1595): "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily... is wasteful and ridiculous excess." Subsequently, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner re-worked this image in their satirical novel,The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today(1873). Historians subsequently borrowed this term to describe the latter quarter of the 19th century in the United States, situated between Reconstruction and The Progressive Era. The Gilded Age was an apt phrase for historians to use since showy displays of wealth and excessive opulence were characteristic of both this time period and Twain and Warner's novel.

I call attention to this footnote because it highlights the historic role that literature has played in providing people with useful insight on the contemporary world. Twain and Warner, in their typically satirical manner, embrace this notion that literature speaks tellingly to the contemporary world in the preface to The Gilded Age: "we do not write for a particular class or sect or nation, but to take in the whole world" (note the choice of language here; they knew that some people would be "taken in" by their writing and fail to see their humor and exaggeration). Underlying this research project here, then, is the notion that the historic connection between literature and the world ought to be made more visible to both young adult and adult readers.

Many people today--like Paul Krugman--are fascinated by charts and tables and statistics and data because they provide us with such useful perspective on the contemporary world; indeed, we might say that this is the age of the policy wonk, given the popularity of texts such as Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, and The World Is Flat. However, literature remains an enduring additional source of insight and perspective on current public policy debates and issues. In particular, young adult literature is an exceedingly useful resource for this kind of thinking since, by definition, it focuses on the contemporary world and responds directly to the questioning that adolescents as a group undertake with regard to moral, social, and political values. Given the focus on the contemporary world and the emphasis on social, moral, and political questioning, its not surprising that so many young adult writers follow directly in the footsteps of Louisa May Alcott, Joseph Heller, Ray Bradbury, and other American satirists and social commentators. Young adult literature is arguably the best medium for writers to remind readers of what the world looks like and what we might do to make it a more habitable place for all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Age of ....... Elephants?

I have just finished reading Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, an Alex Award winner for 2007 (in other words, an adult novel published in 2006 and recommended for teen readers by the Young Adult Library Services Association). This novel is a raucous good read--a suspenseful mystery full of odd characters, strange events, and heartrendering plot developments. I wouldn't suggest using this novel in high school teaching, but I definitely would recommend it to a mature high school reader looking for something new and different to read.

I like the novel for many reasons. The tantalizing sexual energy and behind-the-scenes depiction of Depression-era circus life make this a novel to remember. In addition, like John Hamamura's Color of the Sea, Water for Elephants presents readers with tough moral questions: When is it necessary to say no to the personal and financial rewards that evil brings? How does one confront evil and not do harm to oneself and others? These questions underlie the suspense at the heart of Water For Elephants, and make it an intellectually engaging as well as immensely enjoyable read.

For the purpose of this research project, the obvious question to ask is what a story about elephants and a complex love triangle set in a circus in the 1930's has to do with the contemporary world. The answer to this question, I believe, lies in a scene early on in this novel. August, the man married to Marlena, the circus performer in love with August's employee, Jacob, sits down with Jacob to talk about the circus. August asks Jacob: "Tell me, do you honestly think this is the most spectacular show on earth?"

Jacob does not respond, so August answers for him: "No. It's nowhere near. It's probably not even the fiftieth most spectacular show on earth.....The whole thing's illusion, Jacob, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's what people want from us. It's what they expect"(103-104).

These are scary words, mainly because it is so easy to read this scene figuratively, and to insert a leading politician (you decide) in the role of August. Water for Elephants may be set in the past, but it sounds very contemporary, indeed, with its exploration of the differences between perception and reality, and the life-threatening dangers associated with belief in illusions. As I read this novel, it was impossible for me not to think of other kinds of illusions that have recently been in the news: the revelation, for example, that no weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq prior to the US invasion, or the more recent finding that the attorney general's office was selecting justice officials based more upon party affiliation than professionalism. The question that I found myself asking in response to this novel was what I could do, like Jacob, to try to extricate myself from the illusions that have fueled death and violence, as well as numerous other decisions that I find repugnant.

Perhaps fueling my political reading of Water for Elephants is the image at the heart of the novel, the elephant. This is going out on an interpretive limb, but the story might be read as a parable about the contemporary Republican party, a party led by two well-intentioned but misguided leaders (Bush and Cheney) who, like August and the circus owner in Water for Elephants, cause many deaths in pursuit of their ambitions. You'll have to read the novel to understand this last comment, but perhaps the ending is a message from Gruen about what needs to happen in November of 2008?

In any case, this is a novel with lots of room for interpretation. History lovers will enjoy the pictures and details. Animal lovers will take satisfaction in the compassion evidenced toward a wide variety of species. Writers and readers alike will learn from the rich language and smart structure of the story. Like the subject it describes, Water For Elephants may not be the most spectacular show on earth, but it definitely entertains.

For more on the relationship between illusion and politics, see this video here, apparantly put together by a college student.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Age of Fear

A newspaper story in The New York Times caught my attention this weekend. Published in print on Friday, October 19th, this story shines light on the age of fear, and in particular the relationship between this concept and contemporary young adult literature.

Basically, the above report explains how Japanese
clothing designers are exploring new ways of creating outer wear that enables people to camouflage themselves in the event that they feel threatened by a perceived criminal. According to the report, these "elaborate defenses are coming at a time when crime rates are actually declining in Japan." However, according to the same report, the Japanese say "they feel growing anxiety about safety, fanned by sensationalist news media."

Like suicide rates, crime rates in Japan have increased significantly over the last decade or so. More recently, there has been a modest decline, mirroring declines that have been reported in the United States in recent years. Tracking crime and generating crime rates is a complicated endeavor; there are multiple kinds of crime, and numerous ways of generating statistics. I'll leave it to the criminologists to debate the exact specifics. What appears clear is that people today are highly sensitive to crime, perhaps because it is such a persistent problem, perhaps because the types of crimes committed and the reporting about them are so much more extreme than in the past, perhaps because significant populations of baby boomers are aging and therefore becoming more sensitive to crime in both the United States and Japan (according to more than one report, Japan is the most rapidly aging country in the world).

This rising tide of anxiety and fear that The New York Times is reporting (and taking advantage of or generating) is well represented in contemporary young adult literature. The novel Surrender, in particular, traces the contours of a fear of crime, and its impact on a community. Other novels look at fears having to do with cultural differences (American Born Chinese and The Trap), child abuse (The Rules of Survival), and war (Nightrise and Color of the Sea). Even though young adult writers are targeting a younger audience of readers than baby boomers, they appear to have a fascination with fear and the perception of fear, examining both causes and potential solutions to them.

As I have previously written, it is interesting that Japan is a country that is getting some attention these days, both in the press and in contemporary young adult literature, in relationship to this theme of fear. Its hard to say why this is happening; what we can infer from The New York Times article above is that the Japanese tend to have approaches to solving problems that are different from conventional American or Western approaches. So maybe Japan is getting attention because it provides readers and writers in the United States with creative and outside-of-the-box ways of thinking through persistent problems and their causes and solutions. And maybe this is why literature, too, is such a good resource for thinking about the contemporary world--it also provides a forum for entertaining ideas and concepts that might be hard to explore or give attention to in policy briefs or other nonfiction genres of writing and speaking.

Friday, October 19, 2007

James Watson and the Age of Arrogance

Ok, so maybe I spoke too soon in my previous posting, in which I claimed that this is the age of humility, not arrogance.

This morning, I opened up my morning newspaper (the Chicago Tribune) and found a story on page one about the suspension of James Watson, co-founder of the structure of DNA and modern genetics, by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Watson made comments in the October 14th London Times that were highly offensive in that they suggested unequivocally that black employees--and by extension the entire African race--are intellectually inferior compared to whites. Robert Sternberg, a prominent researcher on race and IQ at Tufts University, highlights the arrogance embedded in Watson's comments in the Tribune article that I read: "It is unfortunate that some people with great expertise in one area sometimes lose their sense of perspective and come to view themselves as expert in areas about which they know nothing."

For the purpose of this research project, it is interesting to note that Watson's arrogance parallels that of the scientists that M.T. Anderson depicts in his award-winning young adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Like the racist scientists in this book, Watson has worked for years in a relatively secluded enclave much removed from the larger world. And, like these scientists, he appears to have an understanding of intelligence that is deeply flawed and narrow. Perhaps there is not as much distance between the 18th century world that Anderson depicts and the 21st century world that we inhabit as we might think.

Less obvious are the multiple connections to the young adult novel An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green. Like the exceptionally talented Colin in this book, James Watson was born in Chicago and appeared on a popular (radio) show exhibiting highly precocious kids (the show was called Quiz Kids). Furthermore, Watson clearly wanted to make an impact on the world at an early age (he enrolled at The University of Chicago at the age of 15, and determined to study genetics by age 16). Watson's story, then, is not just the story of a tragic fall due to age and limited interaction with the larger world; like Green's novel, it also is a story about the perils of exceptionality, not only for the person involved, but also for the society that chooses to celebrate high performance in its most specialized forms over and above the whole person.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

In a NY Times article published on Oct. 15th, a young American blogger, Samir Khan, is quoted as saying "America is known to be a people of arrogance." Khan is featured as an example of a new kind of blogger who is using the Internet to extend the reach of the jihadist message of Al Queda. This statement raises the question:

Are we living in an age of arrogance?

While I'd love to say yes to this claim, for reasons having to do with my personal dissatisfaction with the political leadership in the United States, I tend to think the current age is as much an age of humility as it is arrogance. For example, very few recordings of humiliation are as riveting as this one in which George Bush is pictured listening to Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner. As this commentary by Troy Patterson makes clear, the performance delivered by Colbert exposed the lack of clothes on our current leader, as well as the questionable undergarments of the establishment around him. And there was absolutely nothing that the president could do to avoid the humilation, or punish Colbert for his audacity.

More refined evidence that America is a land of humility comes in the form of the incredibly postive response that American readers have had to The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. This first novel, written for an adult audience, takes on a different kind of arrogance than that exemplified by George Bush.

In The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield explores the arrogance of storytellers, and fiction writers in particular. According to the main character, Vida Winter, "nothing is more telling than a story." However, Vida Winter's capacity to obtain happiness and a sense of completion as her life nears its end is complicated by the fact that she has never been entirely truthful or forthright about her own personal history. With the help of a shy and demure biographer, Winter sets aside her fears and arrogance, and tells her own story. In so doing, she inspires her biographer and other characters in the novel to undertake their own autobiographical explorations.

The reasons for the popularity of this novel in the United States are complicated, but due without a doubt to the riveting mystery that underlies Winter's story, the charm of reading about British characters who are still influenced by Victorian values and customs (such as humility and sipping tea), and the fine writing, which is simultaneously detailed, clever, and almost reverential with regard to the use of traditional literary elements and devices. In addition, The Thirteenth Tale has been helped immensely by the publicity that it has received on the Internet. Fans of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and anything by Jane Austen will love this book, since it has many clear textual references and connections.

I strongly recommend The Thirteenth Tale to teenagers who enjoy reading and a good mystery, or who may want to explore 19th century literature set in a 21st century context. High school English teachers teaching British literature also should seek out this book if they are interested in exploring the enduring popularity of ideas, conventions, and values manifested in Victorian literature; the novel does have some edgy parts, but nothing that would prevent it from being taught in a typical sophomore or junior classroom.

For those of you still wondering about whether we live in an age of arrogance or humility, consider the excerpt below from another very popular and Victorian-influenced text in American culture: The Sound of Music. As this excerpt reminds, it is hard to say whether arrogance or humility is more pervasive and ultimately powerful in the contemporary world. Maybe we need a good dose of both? In that case, I'll cast my lot with Julie Andrews.

PS: Yes, there is a governess in The Thirteenth Tale, too.