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.