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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, I checked back and my comment didn't show! Hmpsh! :)

Anyway, I thought you made a brilliant connection between avoidance of social issues and avoidance of car crashes. Hopefully people will confront their social issues head on, but not while behind the wheel!