On Using Various Lenses to Think About Literature

We all read in different ways. If we didn’t, discussing books with each other wouldn’t be half as much fun. Paying attention to how we read is just as important as what we read. Most women read from a feminist perspective without even realizing it, just as most men read from a perspective of masculinity. Reading from certain perspectives is part of who we are as individuals, but it is when we broaden our views and turn our lenses to the next dial that we really begin to see more deeply inside literature, inside ourselves and into the world itself.

Reading from a biographical lens appeals to me because I am as curious about the author of a book as I am about the book itself. In my opinion, authors put themselves into their writing whether or not they realize they are doing it. Some authors actively try to keep themselves out of their writing, but this too can be seen in a biographical sense, since what is missing from a novel can be equally as important as what is left in.

One particular essayist who interests me is Wayne Koestenbaum. In his book, Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism, he states that gay readers read from a gay perspective. I hadn’t given much thought to this fact until I read that statement, but it is one of those things that I will not be able to unread and I’m grateful for that fact because it has made me think more deeply about my own innate critical lens. Have I also always read from a gay perspective? I suppose I must have, including all the books the books on our reading list this semester, none of which featured a gay, lesbian or transgender protagonist. Someone reading this might respond with the fact that we are reading about adolescents in American literature. But all this reminds me of the two transgendered children that were in my daughter’s 6th, 7th and 8th grade class, or the time my son told me that every girl in his high school was bisexual. A question worth pondering: why is it that in this changing climate of adolescent sexuality is there still such a huge gap in GLBT adolescent fiction and what are we going to do about it?

~ Naptharoe

Huck Finn Reviewed: Tears and Flapdoodle

01_top10censoredbooks_huck-finnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884/1885

Where should I start? Adventure story. Coming of age story. Hilarious satire. Cruel slapstick. Failed exploration of the South’s racist culture. Successful representation of Southern dialects. Great American novel. Insult to descendants of enslaved Africans.

Really, you can say almost anything about Twain’s novel, and most people have. Banned within a year of its publication (by the Concord, Massachusetts, Public Library), it’s been on many lists of challenged, censored, or banned books since then, mostly due to Twain’s use of “coarse language” (i.e., racial epithets). Twenty years ago, Jane Smiley pitted Twain’s novel against Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Twain lost (see her article here). Smiley’s argument focuses on Twain’s treatment of Jim, an escaped slave traveling downriver with Huck.

Huck, a child of the south, wrestles through much of his journey with the issue of stealing someone else’s property — in this case, Jim. Huck needs time with Jim to begin to see the man as a man, as someone who gets hungry and frightened, who shows courage, loyalty, and kindness, and who misses his wife and children just like a white man. Eventually, and to the reader’s relief, Huck decides his friendship with Jim is more important than following any property laws, and he decides to help Jim escape, even if it means going to hell.

This much Smiley supports. What she objects to is what happens to Jim in the latter part of the novel, when Tom Sawyer shows up and takes over the rescue of Jim, being held until his owners can claim him. And I have to admit to feeling exasperated with Tom’s shenanigans at the end of the novel, which not only prolong Jim’s captivity, but add discomfort and even danger to his situation. Most readers, in fact, feel that the Tom Sawyer section diminishes the book’s impact.

What’s valuable in it, beyond the humor, is Huck and Jim’s idyll on the Mississippi: days and nights of floating quietly along, with time to appreciate sky and land and water, almost as though they were the sole audience of a glorious spectacle. And all this time, Huck is learning something that surprises him when he wakes up to it: that Jim’s freedom and happiness are invaluable.

–BR

The Hunger Games

hunger gamesI finally read The Hunger Games! Now I know what all the fuss was about. The plot unfolds at just the right pace. As the New York Times’ Stanley Fish wrote, “you’re always on the hook.” And if you have (or had) an experience like mine, you form such a bond with the protagonist – Katniss Everdeen – that it becomes almost impossible to put the book down without knowing her fate. Although Haymitch Abernathy (Katniss’ mentor) at one point calls her “sullen,” “hostile” and having “about as much charm as a dead slug,” Katniss is honest – at least in her behind-the-scenes dealings – and as the reader, you somehow understand just about every move she makes. When she volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Games, for instance, you might think: I would do the same for my little brother or sister. And as for me, when Katniss’ feelings for Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne begin confusing her, well, let’s just say I’ve been there…

Another beautiful and relatable aspect of the story is Katniss’ friendship with Rue. Rue is the answer to Katniss’ loneliness. She is sweet as pie and reminiscent of Katniss’ sister, Prim. I was heartbroken when she died, but at the same time, given my strong alliance with Katniss, I couldn’t help but feel relieved because in order for Katniss to survive the Games, Rue needed to die. But Katniss doesn’t seem at all relieved. She genuinely mourns the loss of her friend, and though risky, decides to honor Rue following her death.

Katniss “decorates” Rue’s body in flowers not only to honor her, but also to take revenge on the “Capitol.” In doing this, Katniss defies the norms of the Games outright, but this would not be her last act of defiance.

In all honesty, the Capitol’s reaction to Katniss’ final rebellion has made me uneasy about reading the second book. In a way, I feel lucky that Katniss walked away from the Games, and I wish that she could return home and put the Games behind her, but I know this won’t happen… Okay, okay, I admit: I’ll probably pick up the next book in no time, but still I’m apprehensive. Is it just me?

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’d like to think that first of all, Katniss could live happily ever after and second of all, the world would never come to this. It may surprise you to learn that the Games themselves upset me less than the socioeconomic disparities between the “Districts.” The extreme hunger the people of Districts 11 and 12 endure on a daily basis was so upsetting to me, I think, because it’s not farfetched like the Games; it’s not off-base. Poverty and hunger are real, observable problems in today’s world. So, as I reflect on this book, a desire to address existing inequalities expands in me. Perhaps this is the lens through which I’ll present The Hunger Games if I use it in one of my classes someday.

Posted by SD

When You Reach Me: A Book of Questions?

Stead, 2009

Hi all:

I know you’ve all been here before: that moment of mental wandering when you try to imagine how you would summarize the book you just read, should you ever have the opportunity to do so. Sometimes this comes quite naturally. However, sometimes you get a book like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me and (at least for me!) it’s a bit more challenging.

As I was sitting here contemplating the conundrum of how I would go about describing it, it occurred to me that part of my problem in finding the angle that would best describe it is that I’m not entirely certain what genre the book fits into.

Yes, yes, I know. I can look up online what the publishing houses choose to categorize it as just as readily as the next person, but this gentle story of a young girl coming of age in New York City with a single mother really seems to tell too much of a story to fit squarely into any one category. It’s not purely a coming-of-age story, nor is it simply a story about the challenges families face. Marcus introduces time travel into the equation, leading towards a science fiction bent, as do the regular references to protagonist Miranda’s favorite book, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, but that’s not really what the story’s about, either. Despite friend triangles (Miranda-Annemarie-Julia and Miranda-Annemarie-Colin and even Miranda-Sal, to name a few), the book isn’t really just about friendships. The book addresses the issues of class (Annemarie’s doorman’d apartment building and Julia’s diamond ring v. Sal and Miranda’s tenement-style apartment building with hole-y furniture v. the laughing man’s “bed” under the mailbox), but doesn’t seem to dwell on them. It touches on racial concerns (Julia’s caramel/cafe au lait looks and Jimmy’s Indian background), but this is just one of many subpoints here. Are you starting to see where this is complex?

Perhaps the most constant question presented in the narrative is just that: questions. The book’s air of mystery is consistent, though it’s not really just mystery. Really, it’s questions. And the book itself does an intriguing job of breaking down it’s presented mysteries into bite-size question nuggets: who’s leaving notes, why Sal stopped being friends with Miranda, who stole Jimmy’s $2 bill jar, why did Marcus punch Sal in the stomach, why can’t Richard have an apartment key, Miranda’s mother’s preparation for and participation in the televised game show (which both require her superior ability to answer questions), and the many other unknowns throughout, all present an air of question to the story. These aren’t all necessarily mysteries, per se, but open question marks that Miranda–bit by bit–finds answers to or clues to help her better understand. I feel that the idea of clue-collecting in particular is especially essential to this story because–whether it’s a relationship, a weird event, a strange conversation, whatever–the constant seems to be missing pieces, which she eventually is able to put together. But that poses yet another question: can question answering be a genre? Personally, I think not.

As you read this book, what did you think? What theme(s) stood out the most to you? What genre would you place this in (assuming YA Lit isn’ t a proper genre, in and of itself)? Or do you have a different interpretation of the text?

–JMF

YA Lit Rebels: With and Without Causes

Hi all! Again, down the rabbit hole of YA Lit. . .

As I was reading through another stack of library books, I noticed that there was another trend that seemed to repeat (and I bet it’s going to come as a HUGE surprise to you teachers/parents/siblings/etc out there): REBELS! And all kinds of rebels, too–rebels that rebel and then feel bad, rebels that rebel and don’t feel bad, rebels that rebel for a cause, and rebels that rebel for, well, what seems to be the fun of it.

So the classic rebel could easily be Katniss in The Hunger Games (and probably some of her cohorts, for that matter). Although reluctant to be the symbol of the revolution between the Capitol and the districts of Panem, who could forget the iconic image when she twirls in that dress on Cesar’s stage, igniting into a fiery mockingjay, sparking the fire that lights the rebellion? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, *please* get thee to the library!)

However, it’s not like Katniss has a copyright on being a rebel. In fact, there are some really unique and intriguing YA books out there that deal with various kinds of rebels, too.

In terms of rebels regretting what they’d done (and indeed rebelling against their own rebellions!), one particularly interesting fantasy series is Cate Tiernan’s Immortal Beloved. Clearly aimed for the older YA set, it follows “Nasty,” one of the immortals who’s lived her life as a ne’er do well–and has not only not done well, she’s done downright vile. As her immortal friends have become increasingly oppressive, obsessive and generally dark magic crazy, she decides she needs to escape. Enter a special retreat for immortals who want to try to resolve their issues, recover who they are as people, and learn to be generally better. The holistic retreat is a shock for Nasty–but as the series progresses, her rebellious nature ultimately leads her towards awareness and improvement, rather than simply acting selfishly and exclusively for her personal benefit. This is a very well-written series, and a very engaging set of rebels!

The Secret to Lying

Following the fantasy rebel theme, though a little more lightly, is Todd Mitchell’s The Secret to Lying. It follows 15-year-old James, an afterthought and general nerd in his previous school, to a new school for the gifted. There, he decides to reinvent himself, to rebel against the stereotype he had been pigeon-holed as, and to spread his wings as a new stereotype (hmmm.): the cool kid. Not a bad idea, but his reliance on creatively retelling the truth leads to not only a humorous/uncomfortable string of events, but also functions as a warning to the reader. This is an interesting page-turner of a story, and speaks to the idea of rebelling gone not quite as well as originally hoped and intended.

Royalty has it’s place rebelling in YA lit, too.

And it rebels with a major cause. Rae Carsons’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns series features a 16-year-old princess-turned-queen protagonist who rebels against neighboring tyrants on behalf of her people. She also rebels (though perhaps inadvertently) against the Disney princess stereotype, as a self-described heavily overweight new queen. Her tendency to rebel both from societal norms and gender norms adds intrigue to a page-turning series.

Oh, but before you conclude that rebellion is a thing of fantasy, brace yourself! It also has a very strong hold in realistic YA fiction.

LookingForAlaska-cover.jpg

John Greene’s Looking for Alaska follows Miles Halter as he matures into a rebel against societal norms with his new friends, chases the girl, and tries to learn what’s important in life at his boarding school. Expect cigarettes, swearing, sex, violence and alcohol. (For some reason, elements of Miles remind me of a certain Holden Caulfield).

Finally, Craig Silvey’s tour de force Jasper Jones follows 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, brought to the brink by the heavy weight of a major secret, a complicated family life, a racist town, and a budding romance. Ultimately, he rebels against his family, against societal norms, even against the law. . . and becomes (arguably) a better–but definitely a happier–person for it. This book, seriously, made me laugh until I cried–talk about beautifully written dialogue!

And these, my friends, are just the tippy-top of some of the YA Lit rebellion canon, from what I can tell. Anyone else read some good rebellions lately? What are your thoughts about teaching rebellion in classrooms? How much is ok? How much topples over the edge? And why oh why is rebellion such a popular YA lit topic, anyway?

–JMF

Shapeshifter David vs Hydra-headed Goliath: Chris Crutcher

LD                                       https://i1.wp.com/cdn-prod.www.aws.nypl.org/sites/default/files/images/crutcher_m.jpg

Well, as I finish Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, I have to stop and dash off my pink cloud valentine to Chris Crutcher, the pen warrior. I see some patterns between Deadline and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes that I consider noteworthy and even admirable. Like a good baker, Crutcher knows that if you stay true to the right measurements of your ingredients, you can be creative with substitutions, and come out with something original each time.

His adolescent boy-protagonists: two extremes in one body, usually the asset hidden behind the hairline, the deficit visible to all the world – what a great way to shape the representative of the Age of Development. Hence, Ben in Deadline is undersized and terminal, and Eric in Sarah Byrnes is fat; both smart. In this way, our hero can discover and discuss thorny social and political dilemmas from a variety of angles  (because he is not scared to use his intelligence) while retaining the essential vulnerability of anguished physicality, the most painful aspect of adolescence, in my experience.  Religion, nationalism, racism and sexuality, even death, are brought into play, through our flawed protagonist. We can love him, since his imperfections are always visible, and we feel his experiences, as his vulnerabilities bring us into his world.

His superheroes are female: they embody the feminine mystery of life by carrying a secret, or more, of the painful realities of an oppressive and misogynistic culture; unveiling these drive the story towards its ultimate goal: the truth. These females have greater spunk and grit while showing how to overcome, or at least resist, the  abuse of a hypocritical society; another set of contradictions. They inspire our protagonist, and us, to face the truth, however horrible it is.

His villains are male: their destructiveness is two-fold, coming from the inability to question oneself, i.e. use one’s intelligence; and believing that physical domination is a solution. Despite their darkness, sometimes they are a mixed bag, like Sooner in Deadline, who is redeemed by his athleticism, team spirit, and the possibility that his death will change his abusive father; and Dale in Sarah Byrnes, who is brought onto the winning team by Sarah Byrne’s tactical strategies.

He has two kinds of families, too: the ones that are able to support each other in a healthy way, despite obstacles (Eric and his single mom in Sarah Byrnes; Ben and his brother Cody in Deadline); and families that have threads of violence, abuse and fractured relationships (Sarah in Sarah Byrnes; Dallas in Deadline). He also depicts families ruled by single obsessions, like Sooner’s dad in Deadline, and Ellerby in Sarah Byrnes.

Crutcher challenges the reader to think about issues raised by the smarter kids in the school; he alternates that heady thinking with pulse-racing descriptions of athletic competitiveness, an all-American pursuit. In this manner, he keeps his polarized balance by offering critiques of our political and social culture while cheering us on with the adrenaline of sports.

So, I am warmed by Crutcher’s big, democratic, all-American heart that believes that engaged young people, thinking, feeling, reasoning, will find solutions to the complex, unfair world they are inheriting, despite dark endings.  The desire to have young people commit to their intelligence, their uniqueness, their strengths, is an evident pattern in his books, and in the funny and loving way he depicts all  his young people.