Friday, September 19, 2008

Sarah Palin To The Rescue!

I believe everyone has a superpower.  My friend Polly can name the designer, season, and price of any garment on any person (knockoffs too) with flawless accuracy.  Roxy can eat more food faster than anyone I've ever seen, has a perfect sense of direction, and over one spring break she built a working TV out of an old toaster.  And her twin brother Tom can imitate anyone's voice and pick any kind of lock. (1)

Maybe its just me, but I hear a lot of similarities in the voices of Sarah Palin and Jasmine, the lead character in Michele Jaffe's fun YA read Bad Kitty.  

Part of the connection, I think, has to do with embracing contraries.  I mean,  both of these females take great pride in showing off their credentials as both "traditional" and "untraditional" women.  Sarah Palin runs a state government, but idolizes her family.   She has won a beauty contest, but also is a lifetime NRA member.  She is committed to the Republican party (and the men who lead it), but is eager to shake things up in Washington.

Jasmine, too, embraces contradictions.  She loves to sun bathe, but loves more solving crimes and mysteries.  She is intimidated by her father, but fearless in the face of evil.  She surrounds herself with friends like Polly and Roxy who are fellow fashionistas, but as interested in intellectual challenges as she is.

Another connection is that both Sarah Palin and Jasmine are unrelenting in their optimism about the future and their ability to meet any challenge.  Both women have a can-do spirit that fits neatly with the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ideology of American culture.

Even though these similarities exist, there are differences.  Most important, Sarah Palin draws a line at embracing contraries that Jasmine does not.  Subjects such as God, devotion to country, and free enterprise are NOT ones that Sarah Palin examines from different perspectives (although her track record suggests that she does say two different things, from time to time, about certain sensitive issues, such as pork barrel spending and teaching creationism in schools).  Because Sarah Palin is running for elective office, she is much more calculating (and arguably superficial) in her choice of contraries to embrace.  

So what might we learn from this comparison?  One reasonable conclusion  is that maybe John McCain is as aware as Michele Jaffe, the creator of Jasmine and Bad Kitty, that today's youth and the larger public are hungry for heroes who do not fit neatly into traditional categories.  In a sense, his choice of Sarah Palin shows that he has learned the core lesson at the heart of Barack Obama's emergence as a player on the national stage: that people who do not look or behave like the figures on the American dollar bill are likely to play larger and larger roles in the social and political life of this nation in the future.

The other lesson is that we Americans need to be careful about accepting without question the labeling of John McCain as "maverick" and Sarah Palin as "bad kitty."  Yes, there are some appealing qualities and backgrounds to each, and some positive efforts toward political change. But ultimately, this ticket is all about imitation.  Imitating the idea of change at the core of the Obama campaign, and more importantly, imitating President Bush and the Republican party on the war in Iraq, oversight of Wall Street, and drilling for oil.  If there is one thing that Michele Jaffe's book teaches, it's that we should beware of imitations.   As Jasmine's friend Polly might advise, buy the real thing whenever possible.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Back In The Saddle Again

"So in Macbeth, when [Shakespeare] wasn't trying to find names that sound alike, what did he want to express in words more beautiful than had ever yet been written?"

Mrs. Baker looked at me for a long moment. Then she went and sat back down at her desk. "That we are made for more than power," she said softly. "That we are made for more than our desires. That pride combined with stubbornness can be disaster.  And that compared with love, malice is a small and petty thing."

The above words, from The Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt, are as powerful a commentary on the current age, on the last eight years of the Bush administration, on Wall Street and the current presidential campaign, as I have read in the last year and a half or so that I have been reading young adult literature and making connections to the contemporary world.  If you haven't read The Wednesday Wars, I highly recommend it--it's perfect for middle school history and language arts courses, or bedside reading by any parent with a child age 10-14.

The argument I have been making on this blog is that young adult literature--of which The Wednesday Wars is a terrific example--provides adults and teens and even tweens with useful perspective on the contemporary world.  It's not just about the foibles of teen romance, parental relationships, and school culture.  It's also about the world we live in today, its flaws and potential, the core principles and concerns we need to pay attention to if we are to move forward as a culture, a society.

In the coming months, I'm going to do my best to stay regular with this blog, writing at least once a week. Now that my research project is done, this blog is going to become a more open-ended site for writing about current events and the ways in which young adult literature can help all of us--adults and kids--to think better about contemporary politics and other aspects of human affairs.  In particular, I'll give special attention to the ways in which insights derived from young adult literature and the contemporary world might help educators to meet new challenges and create new opportunities for teaching and learning.  

So stay tuned for more about the current age.   Starting tomorrow.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Age of Avoidance

Anyone who has turned to this blog in the last month or so knows that I have been derelict with my posting.

It's not that I have found more enjoyable things to do; it's just that, for reasons having to do with the weather and the hecticness of the time of year, I have found myself avoiding that which puts some unwanted stress on other parts of my life.

In this respect, I am in synch with the two protagonists at the center of the two 2007 Teens Top Ten novels that I read while on my extended vacation from this blog.  Annabel Greene, a high school student in Sarah Dessen's Just Listen, seems to "have it all": a devoted mother, a promising modeling career, beautiful sisters, and wonderful friends. Over the course of this novel, however, we learn that all is not as it seems, as Annabel struggles to confront the pain and disappointment at the heart of her relationships to her mother, sisters, her modeling career, and especially friends.  Confronting anger and talking about emotions is not something that Annabel does easily; it takes her the entire novel to come to terms with her situation.  As a reader, I found myself practically yelling at her to do what she clearly needs to do at the very end of the novel. But Annabel's reluctance to change, and her avoidance of personal responsibility, appears to be the point: going against the grain is never easy, especially in an era where image is everything and so many advantages are being bestowed upon those who stay inside the lines.

Although the situation is very different in Firegirl, by Tony Abbott, the theme of avoidance again is front and center. In this instance, the main character, Tom, is a 7th grader grappling, along with his classmates, with the arrival of Jessica, a young girl who has been horribly scarred by a fire. Unlike his classmates, and especially his best friend Jeff, Tom reaches out to Jessica, and learns the truth about her tragedy.  However, like his classmates and even Jessica's parents, Tom practices a good deal of avoidance, too.  The narrative here is simpler than in Just Listen--Firegirl is ideally suited for fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, whereas Just Listen is more appropriate for teens in 8th grade and up--and much less frustrating in terms of character development and behavior.  But again, we see a central character unevenly negotiating a way toward greater personal responsibility and awareness of the many options that exist out in the world for living a fulfilling life.

As I read these two novels, I found myself at a lost to create a connection to the contemporary world (which also perhaps explains my time away from this blog).   But then I read a column by Frank Rich, in which he points out that Americans have been consistent in avoiding the reality of the Iraq war.   Shortly thereafter, I read Bob Hebert's criticism of Barack Obama's "bitter" remark, in which he suggests that Obama has been avoiding the truth about why his campaign is failing to attract a plurality of lower income, white Americans.   I also found myself paying attention to the many criticisms of the ABC presidential debate in Philadelphia, in which the moderators focused a good deal of attention on issues peripheral to the ones that are likely to consume the attention of the next president.  We live, it seems, in an age of avoidance, at a time when we seem incapable of facing head-on the difficult challenges that we most need to address.

It is this feature of contemporary American life that both Just Listen and Firegirl illuminate.  Given legitimate concerns about personal security and the advances in wealth and technology that have emerged over the last several years, it's easy to understand why people attempt to deal with complex social issues in much the same way that they work on dangers in driving (see the video clip below).  But what both Just Listen and Firegirl suggest is that social issues are not obstacles or impediments that should be avoided; indeed, dealing with social issues head-on is critical to finding one's way in the world.  It is this contribution to our national dialogue that these two books make, and that young adult novels in general are making today. Perhaps all we need to do to get ourselves out of our national predicament is listen.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

New Moon, by Stephanie Meyer

Here is a quote from a commentary a couple of Sundays ago by sports writer George Vecsey. He offers his own view on the popularity of Barack Obama among today's youth:

"The way I see it, the younger generation is much more cool about racial, religious and gender differences than the older generations were. There are a lot of jerks among athletes, but young voters follow sports enough to be familiar with Shaquille O’Neal’s goofy jokes and Tiki Barber’s burning ambition and Dontrelle Willis’s warm smile."

Vecsey's point is that this is a new age where traditional boundaries between white and black, sports and politics, men and women, are being blurred so that cultural differences basically don't mean as much as they once did. Vecsey credits athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan for generating this new attitude among younger members of the American public.

It's an interesting interpretation. And it's useful, too, as an explanation for the popularity of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, of which I have read merely one, New Moon, which was selected in 2007 as the top pick of the Teens Top Ten booklist, sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association.   New Moon has very few explicit connections to the contemporary world; it is about as insular and isolated as a contemporary novel can be (curiously, exactly opposite the other vampire novel that I have read for this project, Blue Bloods, by Melissa De La Cruz). But one thing you can say about this novel is that it articulates very well the blurring of cultural boundaries that Obama's campaign also evokes, and that Vecsey identifies as a defining characteristic of the contemporary age.

The cover of New Moon represents the blurring or blending of cultural boundaries and differences that I am talking about here.  The plot does as well. At the start of New Moon, Bella Swan, a sensitive yet strong teenage girl, goes into shock when her true love, the vampire Edward Cullen, breaks off his relationship with her (for more on this relationship, see the first novel in the series, Twilight).  Eventually, however, Bella recovers, and forms a relationship with Jacob, a tall and handsome Native American with a hidden identity of his own.   Essentially an extended re-thinking of Romeo and Juliet, New Moon explores the nature of love and the question of whether or not it is ever possible to recover from the loss of one's truest soulmate.

I found this second novel in the Twilight series a bit tedious in the beginning, as the somewhat implausible break up occurs between Edward and Bella, but I have to admit I found the romance and tension in the relationship between Bella and Jacob very believable and suspenseful.  The high action at the end of this novel also works very well--it is easy to see why the Twilight series is so popular with teen readers, especially young women.  

Part of the allure of New Moon, though, is not just the way vampires, humans, and other supernatural creatures all interact and blend with one another in relatively harmless ways; in addition, readers enjoy this storytelling, I suspect, because of the danger that always lies just beneath the cultural blending and "forbidden" interaction.  Readers know that Bella is just a footstep away from becoming a vampire herself; readers enjoy watching Edward and other characters battle their more base instincts.  New Moon reminds that full cultural integration and boundary erasure is not easily achieved, and is always frought with danger within a society that is still very Puritan and conservative, at its core.  This is a lesson that Barack Obama has been learning on the campaign trail in recent weeks, as various conservative commentators have begun to question the influence of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright on his thinking and leadership skills (basically, casting Wright as a vampire, and Obama as Bella).  It's a lesson that Eliot Spitzer, too, has learned the hard way (see the video below).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Body Type, by Ina Saltz

Body Type, by Ina Saltz, raises the question of whether or not we are living in an age of tattoos (see this CBS video report for an investigation into this question). But at the heart of Body Type is a clear interest in and advocacy of not only tattoos but also words and word design, raising the additional, perhaps more subtle question of whether or not this is "the age of type."

Yesterday's story in the Chicago Tribune about the speculations of a web-based amateur researcher named Paul Payack,who has suggested (not for the first time) that English is on the verge of breaking through the million word barrier, reinforces the notion that Ina Saltz puts forth that words and type have a greater value and presence in American and international culture than at any other time in recent history. For evidence in support of this notion, Payack turns to the Internet, and various online sources of information. For her evidence, Saltz turns to the phenomenon of tattoos and especially people who have created "intimate messages etched in flesh."

Saltz's focus on tattoos that consist almost exclusively of words is what distinguishes her book and makes it so interesting to read, especially for those of us who love language and literature. Body Type is divided into different categories of word tattoos, organized according to the different motivations behind the etchings (for example, love, politics, religion, etc...). Saltz's analysis of the tattoos depicted is limited, but often provocative and always deeply appreciative; for the most part, she lets the pictures and her subjects do the talking. Saltz's commitment to exploring the artistry and emotions behind the body type she captures on camera is truly exemplary, and allows readers the freedom to explore or not explore the ethics, morality, and meaning of this phenomenon.

Body Type is recommended by librarians for reluctant young adult readers, and I definitely concur. The text is limited in actual words, but rich in commitment to language and personal expression. Body Type would be terrific for use in an art and design class, or in any class that seeks to invite teens and other readers to go out into the world to explore its richness and diversity.

So, is it fair to say that we are living in an "age of type"? It does seem clear--as the above video represents--that people are more and more open to the idea of expressing their commitment to words and language visibly through tattoos, through etchings on their bodies. This commitment to using the body to express a commitment to words parallels the increased use of other mediums or forms of communication such as the Internet, mobile phones, video, and even literature to do the same. Books that I have read as a part of this study, such as The Book Thief and The Thirteenth Tale (and others that I haven't yet commented on, such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret) celebrate the power of words and word design in the same way as the photographs in Body Type. Just as scientists are poised to explore new frontiers using new technologies, so too readers and writers seem motivated to explore new means of celebrating and communicating words and type, of putting words out in front of people for use in making sense of the world.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Blue Bloods, by Melissa De La Cruz

Few young adult novels bring together as many of the themes percolating through the current age as Blue Bloods, by Melissa De La Cruz. Fragmentation, isolation, affluence, sexuality, exceptionality, fear--this book has it all.

This is appropriate given that the main characters in Blue Bloods also seem to have it all. A 2007 Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, Blue Bloods explores the emergence into adulthood of a unique clique of well-heeled descendants of the original Mayflower pilgrims. If you ever wondered what it is like (or what you hope it would be like) to be wealthy, young, and living on the upper east side of New York City, this is the book for you.

Although the book celebrates money and the advantages--even excesses--that wealth and social status bring, it also explores the downside of such things, as the above cover suggests.  The social criticism comes in the form of a very creative integration of the vampire legend into the fabric of the story.  Through this integration, affluence and exceptionality are highlighted, but also critiqued.  There is something clearly repulsive about sucking blood and acting without regard for others, and it is this repulsion that adds complexity and depth to the novel and the depiction of a highly stratified social world.
Blue Bloods is the first book in a new series, and it does a very nice job of setting up the context for the story (one of the more amusing parts is the description of the changes that adolescents undergo as their vampire-ness begins to express itself).  The writing is sharp and witty, although I personally found some of the background information about the history of vampires in America just a tad plodding.  But the suspense that De La Cruz creates through the introduction of a rogue vampire is very well-done, and made we want to read the sequel.

In short, Blue Bloods is fun reading that touches on many themes and anxieties current in our world today: isolation, unfettered affluence, increased sexuality, fears about the future, and concerns that changes in the world that need to happen are not going to occur.  It also captures the sense of terror that many people feel, the nagging fear that our worse nightmares lie just around the corner.

For more on vampires, check out the video below from National Geographic, or visit Elizabeth Miller's very helpful website.  

Friday, February 1, 2008

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Watching Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debate last night reminds me of the surprising number of books I have read for this project that represent not only a divided, or fragmented, world but also divided or fragmented personalities. The Thirteenth Tale was one of the first books to catch my attention in this regard, with its depiction of disparate twins and parallel writers, but curiously all of my more recent reading, focused on the 2007 Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, seems to follow along this same path. The Sleeper Conspiracy, with its representation of a part-time assassin, part-time teenager, is the most obvious example, but other books such as Played, Street Pharm, and What Happened to Cass McBride? represent identity fragmentation as well.

For those of you who enjoy reading about fragmentation, I recommend Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Cohn and Levithan--both successful young adult authors in their own right--set in motion an unlikely relationship between two disparate teenagers, Nick, a budding musician and song writer of very modest means, and Norah, a music critic extraordinaire and the daughter of a wealthy music industry executive. Nick and Norah meet in a somewhat stressful situation: when Nick sees his former girlfriend walking toward him in a club, he turns to Norah--whom he doesn't know--and asks: "Will you be my girlfriend for the next five minutes?" This question sparks a relationship that takes all sorts of unexpected twists and turns over a period of about 12 hectic, fun-filled, and eventually exhausting hours.

In addition to exploring topics such as music, relationships, homosexuality, oral sex, and the advantages of sobriety, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist delves into tikkun olam, a concept integral to Judaism that more or less translates to the importance of making an effort to prevent social chaos and fragmentation. Cohn and Levithan's take on this idea is anything but corny, and they make a strong statement about the potential within every individual to affect change and create order out of clashing elements.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist is definitely too edgy in language and sexual content for use in most classrooms. However, the writing is excellent, and the story develops at a nice pace. This is terrific outside of school reading for older adolescents, and especially perhaps ones living in urban areas. As an adult, I enjoyed the talk about bands that I recall hearing as a college student in the early '80s.

In a recent article, Nicholas Kristof terms the current era the "age of ambition." In support of this claim, Kristoff cites various examples of young people engaging in "social entrepreneurship," or concrete and sustainable efforts to address serious social problems. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist does not model any such efforts, but it does provide a philosophical framework for exerting agency in a world full of disharmony. In other words, Cohn and Levithan suggest that it is possible to unify disparate points of view and ways of being in the world--something I find myself increasingly yearning for, especially as I watched the presidential debate last night.

Maybe unification isn't such a bad thing to root for?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Street Pharm, by Allison van Diepen

According to Thomas Friedman, the world is flat. But here is what I am thinking: the world is flat, but it's also straight. Of course, the world is not completely straight, just as the world isn’t entirely flat. But it is getting flatter and straighter all the time.

Or so I am thinking after reading Street Pharm, by Allison van Diepen.

This first novel, recommended by the Young Adult Library Services Association for reluctant young adult readers, chronicles the struggles and lifestyle of Ty Johnson, a sixteen year old African American teenager living in Brooklyn and attempting to keep solvent a drug empire established by his father. Keeping his father's illicit enterprise going is no easy task, given the kinds of characters who are drawn to it, the vigilance of New York's finest, and the repeated efforts of other drug lords and would-be king-pins to take it over (remember: it's a flat world out there, so challenges come from all directions, including outside of New York City).

One of the pleasant surprises of this novel is that it is so easy to root for Ty Johnson as he takes on these challenges. Even though Ty deals drugs, he doesn’t touch the stuff himself (the one time he does, he has an awful experience, which reinforces his commitment to straightness). He is determined not to get involved with women who are attracted to fame and easy money, because he fears that this will diminish his entrepreneurial focus and commitment. Most important, Ty is a pretty smart guy, who applies with creativity ideas drawn from bushido and Machiavelli (at one point, even using these ideas to critique the Iraq war). Like a young, promising, yet somewhat naive CEO, Ty Johnson is determined not to let anything distract him from his goal of making a lot of money quickly and eventually escaping to a better world--a goal that just about any person, adolescent or adult, can identify with.

Street Pharm is a terrific book, a lot of fun to read, both melodramatic and realistic at the same time. For sure, there is language and sexual situations that some adolescents may not be ready for; on the other hand, older adolescents--especially reluctant readers--are likely to enjoy the multiple references to street culture and urban conditions. Ultimately, though, Street Pharm is about more than the drug trade and the crazy lifestyle that people involved in it lead. It is about the advantages of keeping straight, of not smoking or drinking, of staying in school, and rejecting material and emotional imperatives in favor of what is right and in the best interest of all.

In this sense, Street Pharm--like Played--represents a current preoccupation with straightness: witness the recent moves of several states to institute smoking bans, as well as the increased attention to and rigorous accountability with regard to steriods and the Iraq war. The next thing to go should be caffeine. But, of course, caffeine helps to keep us straight, so this might be the one drug we will overlook in our quest for straightness.

In any case, check out Steet Pharm, by Allison van Diepen. And check out the video below, for another example of a recent text that both celebrates and critiques urban youth culture all at the same time (be forewarned, there is some explicit language in this text, too, that has sparked a bit of controversy).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Sleeper Conspiracy, by Tom Sniegoski

Post 9/11, the term sleeper cell became a part of the lexicon of 21st century America, popularized via a drama on Showtime, a Frontline report, and investigations in New York and Detroit. The "sleeper" phenomenon is a fitting emblem of the age of fear, an age in which terror can strike at any time, and from quarters totally unexpected.

Now, teen readers have available to them a new series, The Sleeper Conspiracy, by Tom Sniegoski, a 2007 Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. This two part series, which begins with The Sleeper Code, delivers an action packed narrative about a teenage boy, Tom Lovett, who suffers from a severe case of narcolepsy. Unbeknownst to Tom, he does not simply fall asleep when he has a narcoleptic attack; rather, he turns into a killing machine named Tyler Garrett, a secret agent created by the United States government to combat terrorism throughout the world.

The discovery of the truth of Tom's "sleeper" personality and how and why it is activated drives the action in Part 1 of this series. The interesting twist that Sniegoski pulls, perhaps influenced by real world developments at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and in Iraq (where it appears a minimum of 150,000 Iraqis died in the first three years after the US invasion to depose Saddam Hussein) is that Tyler Garrett and his handlers are depicted as just as dangerous as the foreign terrorists whom they are fighting. In other words, the book explores the limits of violence as a response to terrorism, and the advantages and disadvantages of non-violent behavior. A very interesting ethical dialogue takes place within the character of Tom Lovett (AKA Tyler Garrett), and consequently within the reader, too.

The second book in the series, The Sleeper Agenda, continues this ethical questioning, but the action becomes even more intense and suspenseful. Tom learns how his alter ego Tyler Garrett was created, and becomes an ally in the search to find and stop the US government official responsible for his creation (who, by this point, is now aiding and abetting terrorists throughout the world). Along the way, Tom also becomes involved with Madison, the young woman he meets in Part 1. There is more violence in this novel, as well as more psychological drama as a complex effort begins to bring a resolution to the two competing personalities of Tom and Tyler.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Sleeper Conspiracy--it reminds me a lot of The Gatekeepers, though I wouldn't say that it is in quite the same league. My 6th grade son picked up the first book, and enjoyed it, and my older adolescent read the entire series. Although I haven't encouraged my 6th grader to read the second book, I do think younger adolescents more comfortable with horror and suspense would enjoy both books. They are fun thrillers, even though sorting out the relationship between Tom and Tyler can be just a bit repetitive and confusing.

As for me, I continue to find popular fiction a very interesting lens on the contemporary world (for my previous thoughts on this, see my comments about Kidnapped, by Gordon Korman). Although I tend to side with those who see fear and terrorism as overblown by the media, I do think that we are living at a time where prior assumptions about the ability of diverse people and perspectives to co-exist relatively harmoniously need to be critically re-examined. Peace and security aren't so much facts of life as they are conditions that are earned, and earning them sometimes requires bold actions that run against the grain. The Sleeper Conspiracy does a nice job of pointing out the limits of how far we can run against the grain, in terms of the use of force in combatting terrorism, while at the same time pointing out the challenges inherent in adhering strictly to pacifist values and practices. It advocates a reasonable middle ground that I suspect is convincing to most readers, the only problem being that the focus is entirely on the use of force, as opposed to the political and social policies that are even more critical to the creation of a safe and secure world.

The other insight that I take away from The Sleeper Conspiracy is this idea of multiple personalities--something that Larry King touches on in his interview below with Stephen Colbert. In the current presidential campaigns, it is fascinating (and increasingly tiresome) to hear about the different "sides" of each of the candidates. Hillary has to prove that she is sensitive and feeling (like Tom Lovett), because she comes off as such a cold and calculated power-seeker (Tyler Garrett). Barack, on the other hand, needs to prove he can make the tough decisions and be Tyler Garrett because he is such an inspiring and sensitive speaker (Tom Lovett). Americans don't seem to know for sure which personality they want yet, nor are they sure which personalities are real and authentic to the candidates (for more on the dual personalities of these candidates, see this recent commentary by Stanley Fish). It's hard to tell for sure where the truth lies, and what is most needed--a fact that ought to drive most of us to remember that on the policy issues these two candidates aren't very different and either one would move this country in a much needed new direction.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Played, by Dana Davidson

A little over fifteen years ago, I was a doctoral student at The University of Michigan teaching with a team of graduate students in a summer writing program for inner city kids in Detroit, MI. While I worked with a small group of elementary teachers and students at The Dewey Center for Urban Education, others worked at Northern High School. This experience changed my life, and set me on the road to a career as an urban teacher educator.

Over the duration of this unique summer program (documented in part in David Schaafsma's book Eating On The Street), I heard lots of discussion about the program at Northern High. In particular, I recall a good deal of debate among the teachers involved about the appropriateness of several highly provocative love poems that the high school students had produced.

Fast forward to today, and in particular to Played, by Dana Davidson, a 2007 Top Ten Quick Pick f0r Reluctant Young Adult Readers, and I see that the subject of love is still very much on the minds of teenagers in Detroit, MI. My guess is that the debate among teachers and parents about the appropriateness of reading and writing about teenage love--and yes, sex--is also alive and well, too. It doesn't surprise me that Dana Davidson is in the midst of this debate, since I recall her as an active participant when both she and I were students at The University of Michigan.

Played tells the story of a handsome young man, Ian, who accepts a challenge posed by his soon-to-be high school fraternity brothers to sleep with plain-faced Kylie Winship within a time period of three weeks. In addition, he takes on the task of getting her to fall in love with him, too. While Ian is prepared to meet these challenges, given his history of success with the ladies, he is totally unprepared for the changes in thinking and emotion that his relationship with Kylie eventually brings.

Just as Ian's relationship with Kylie produces changes in perspective for which he is unprepared, so too Davidson's narrative has the potential to spark unexpected changes in the mindsets of readers. Male readers, for example, will be challenged to look at fraternity games and sexual conquests from an alternative perspective--even as the novel highlights the advantages that come from such activities. Female readers will be challenged to stand up for themselves and cast a critical eye on the attitudes of the boys they love--even as they derive pleasure from reading about a girl who is unable to resist the superficial come-ons of a handsome young man. Last but not least, adult readers like myself will be challenged to appreciate the useful lessons about relationships and the importance of hard work that are conveyed in Played amid the more attention-grabbing representations of sexy, affluent teenagers living in the New Gilded Age (for a concrete example of teenagers living in the New Gilded Age, see this column by Clark Hoyt; it discusses a recent controversy regarding the use of a teenage model in a higly provocative photo shoot for a fashion magazine put out by The New York Times).

So, how should we older adults think about books like Played that put before readers a detailed and somewhat enticing portrait of teenagers enacting values not typically reinforced in church, home, or school? To be honest, Played and books like it are not ones I want my own younger adolescent reading; however, I don't have any issues with older (15+) or more mature adolescents reading this kind of literature, especially if the goal of the reading moves beyond the acquisition of social and sexual knowledge to using the texts to understand the nature of the contemporary world. The contemporary world is full of examples of how sex and fashion are being used by various people to make money, get attention, and derive short-term rewards. Undoubtedly, the Internet is fueling this trend, as can be seen in the example of Obama Girl.

Do I want teens to be aware and critical of this trend, of the way in which sex and sexiness is being used to play consumers and readers of all kinds and to shift their attention toward the interests and desires of others? Absolutely. The only way to do this, I believe, is to read the world--including television, YouTube, and books like Played--and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the sales pitches represented therein. This is certainly a discussion that many teens are ready and willing to have, but many adults continue to put obstacles in the way of such conversations, out of a fear of touching on topics that are still taboo within public domains. Dana Davidson is to be commended for challenging these anxieties, and attempting to draw more teenagers into a productive conversation about the complexities of sex and love and the contemporary world.