Dr’s Prescription: Read this book

Sarah Mazetti, June 9, 2015

Sarah Mazetti, June 9, 2015

From The New Yorker blog: an article about bibliotherapy. Those of us who read a lot already know what books do for our sense of well-being, and not just because they relieve us of day-to-day concerns. The neuroscience suggests that reading fiction builds empathy. This article suggests that reading fiction also helps us work through big issues in our lives.

For instance, the blog post’s author, Ceridwen Dovey, was worried about how she would fare when faced with the death of a loved one. A bibliotherapist suggested a few novels, and Dovey found herself reading Calvino, Narayan and Saramago.

Hidden in the middle of the article: news about a book of prescriptions for young readers, adapted from the version for adults, The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies.

I’m eager to see what the authors recommend for teens dealing with the usual set of issues (I’m not popular, my best friend is dating the person I’m in love with, my parents don’t get me, I wish I was someone else, I have to hide my real self). I’m even more curious about which unexpected issues the authors will uncover.

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Fifteen and a Feminist Perspective

As I read Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen using a feminist lens, I was what now seems overly critical of Jane’s near-obsession with her image and her quickness to call herself “dumb” (though she sometimes warranted the pejorative). It was after I read Chelsea Condren’s columnFifteen and reflected on my own teenage years that I began to better understand Jane’s behavior. Although Jane does not always act on her emotions (e.g., she passively awaits Stan’s call despite a burning desire to speak with him, perhaps indicating ’50s male/female power dynamics), she develops confidence as the novel unfolds. Toward the end of the novel, she even embraces the nickname “Birnam wood,” which originated in ridicule.

But from a more traditional feminist perspective (i.e., one that takes issue with attitudes that reinforce male dominance) there is at least one problem with Jane’s newfound self-esteem: it relies heavily on her relationship with Stan and the social status provided by that relationship. Of course, we cannot know whether Jane would have developed confidence to the extent that she did if Stan hadn’t come along to foster and maintain it. Yet there is no doubt that the relationship props Jane up as if she were a rag doll.

After reading Fifteen, the feminist reader might still wonder: how would Jane deal with a breakup? Would she mope and abandon her new feelings of self-worth as she does when she learns that Stan is taking someone else to the dance? If so, Jane’s feelings of self-worth would be too dependent on her perceived worth to men. Nevertheless, the feminist attuned to the realities of female adolescence might concede that whether Y.A. protagonists like Jane suit feminism or not, modern teenage girls will obsess about their appearances, and many more would feel heartbroken if their beaus took another girl to a school dance. That particular set of circumstances is about more than gender; it’s about loyalty. And Jane’s story serves a young female audience in that it shows that moments like these—full of sorrow—are fleeting.

There is no question that young girls have been acting much like Jane for generations, and it seems inevitable that many will continue to do so. Therefore, as Condren seems to suggest in her column, it may be time we stop deeming such behavior as “boy-crazy” or wrong. To me, it would be more completely feminist—more supportive of young girls and their free will—to accept dreamer-like behavior rather than criticize it. To this end, perhaps we should resist the urge to hastily reject books like Fifteen on account of their old-fashioned, mono-cultural standpoints. (Although the cultural homogeneity of Fifteen truly deserves criticism.) Instead, we could let young readers decide whether they want to pick up Fifteen, just as we would let them decide whether to comport themselves like Jane or not.

-SD

The Outsiders: “For Teenagers, About Teenagers, Written by a Teenager”

The OutsidersAccording to a New York Times essay written by Dale Peck in 2007, The Outsiders was an instant hit when published in 1967 and has remained an all-time best seller for more than forty years. I believe that these facts say a great deal.

Although The Outsiders has been criticized for its “sometimes workmanlike prose” and intermittent clichés, such as, perhaps, the novel turning out to be Ponyboy’s crucial English theme, these elements might also be considered those which make the novel authentically Y.A. (Peck, 2007). That is, because The Outsiders was written for teenagers, about teenagers and by a teenager, it is distinctly reflective of the adolescent experience. In fact, the authenticity resulting from these circumstances is said to have profoundly influenced subsequent Y.A. works because after the publication of The Outsiders, young readers began to insist that Y.A. fiction mirror their realities. This meant that from 1967 on, Y.A. fiction would not only need to recount the teenage experience, but recount it in a voice that rang true to young readers.

As for the so-called clichés, these may be considered amateurish, or they may be considered reimaginings of various aspects of quintessential American stories (think “Rebel Without a Cause” and “West Side Story”). And given that the novel’s author, S. E. Hinton, was only fifteen when she began writing the novel, the term “amateurish” hardly packs a punch. No matter what its toughest critics say, the popularity of The Outsiders speaks for itself. Hinton has clearly given the people what they wanted.

-SD

Mockingbirds: Symbols of innocence

Mockpic

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

In the sleepy town of Maycomb (Alabama), set in the middle of The Great Depression, Harper Lee brings about timeless themes and skepticism of race, morality and ethics, feminism, and social class. The story is narrated by Scout Finch; a rambunctious, intelligent, and curious child. The majority of the plot revolves around the trial that is about to take place in which her father, Atticus, is defending an African-American man named Tom Robinson, much to the dismay of the small country-town community. Through Scout’s perspective, we are invited to see the world through a child’s eyes that bring to light many devastating truths about society that still resonate with us today.

Taking place in the Jim Crow south, Atticus’s decision to defend Tom Robinson warrants the immediate disproval of those around him. However, as a man who is determined to “walk in others’ shoes”, Atticus empathizes with Tom and does his best to protect him, even going as far as sitting in front of the jailhouse faced by a mob of angry men. As the trial progresses, the hatred and racism of the town is exposed as ultimately Tom is rendered guilty, though there is no sufficient evidence that he ever committed a crime. The jury unjustly sides with Mayella Ewell because she is a white woman, and in the end, Tom Robinson is sent to jail and later gunned down (several times) for trying to escape.

Throughout the novel, Atticus preaches morality to Scout and her brother Jem, and is determined to get them to understand how they should treat people. In addition to the court case, Lee introduces us to Arthur “Boo” Radley, the local recluse who has been locked away in his house for years and only comes out to place small gifts for the children in the tree. Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill are convinced that the Radley house is haunted, and spend much of their time trying to get him to come out of the house so they can see him. At the end of the novel, Boo saves Jem’s life by killing Bob Ewell, and Scout finally sees him as a human being, as opposed to a monster. Although Scout quickly warms up to him, Boo returns to his house never to be seen again.

In the novel, Atticus states that “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”, which serves as a metaphor to the world around them. Mockingbirds, as a representation of harmless, innocent creatures, can be seen as the many instances that occur in the novel: the way that African Americans are treated, the way that Boo Radley is treated by the gossiping neighbors and even by the children (at one point) taunting him, and Jem and Scout’s vulnerability to a racist world. In the novel, Atticus teaches us powerful lessons on how we should all be more empathetic towards one another; this being an imperative value that still rings true in present society.

I could not find the full movie online, but I have attached the trailer for the documentary “Hey, Boo” on Harper Lee.

-VM

Dave at Night: A Departure for Gail Carson Levine

Dave at NightGail Carson Levine is known for writing fairy-tale–inspired children’s books such as Ella Enchanted and The Princess Tales. But you’ll only finds traces of a fairy tale in Dave at Night. Levine has said: “Dave at Night is historical fiction, my only novel without a shred of fantasy.”

Instead, Levine saw Dave at Night as an opportunity to imagine her father’s childhood. Her father had been an orphan at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum on 137th Street and Amsterdam Avenue during the 1920s, but he never spoke of his time there. So after his death in 1986, Levine researched the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the time period more broadly, thereby giving us Dave at Night.

The story of Dave at Night is told from the perspective of the spirited, trouble-making, eleven-year-old Dave Caros. Dave is living in a Jewish community in the Lower East Side in October 1926 when his only living parent, his father, dies. (Dave’s mother died in childbirth, an event, Dave jokes, resulting from his earliest attempts at making trouble.) Soon after his father’s death, Dave’s brother Gideon goes to live with their Uncle Jack, leaving Dave with their evil stepmother, Ida, who does not waste any time in abandoning Dave at the Hebrew Home for Boys. From the very beginning, Levine does a remarkable job of revealing 1920s New York through the eyes of an impoverished yet sunny boy. Dave marvels at the automobile in which he rides to his father’s funeral, perhaps not altogether aware of what has happened and what will happen.

When he enters the Hebrew Home for Boys for the first time, Dave describes it as colder than outside. Later that day, at lunch, Dave describes the meat he and his peers are served as “gristly,” and the reader begins to see how the boys’ days are tightly regimented, just as the days at the actual Hebrew Orphan Asylum once were. Not to mention the fact that the asylum’s superintendent, Mr. Bloom (a.k.a. Mr. Doom), terrorizes the boys on a daily basis. Levine has an uncanny ability to set detailed scenes, using only an authentically adolescent voice. The action, too, matches the psyche of a daring adolescent boy, as Dave quickly finds a way to slip out of the asylum by night.

Through Dave’s nights out, Levine artfully weaves the history of the Harlem Renaissance—with all its great writers, painters and musicians—into the novel. On his first night out, Dave meets an elderly Jewish man named Solomon Gruber, who takes him to a rent party on 136th Street, claiming to be his grandfather. And it’s not long before Solly begins to actually fill that role in Dave’s mind. At the rent party, Dave befriends a wealthy African American girl named Irma Lee Packer. Dave is mesmerized by Irma Lee’s beauty and kindness, and she and Dave quickly become the best of friends. Although the doom and gloom of the Hebrew Home for Boys may seem to contrast Dave’s colorful nights in Harlem, there are some sunlit moments there. As Dave becomes closer to each of the “elevens” (the orphans of his age), Dave learns the meaning of friendship and loyalty.

It’s with the help of all of his new friends that Dave makes just the right amount of trouble – an amount that might make life at the Hebrew Home for Boys tolerable. Dave at Night does not want for history, introspection, action or character diversity. With much skill, Levine writes a historically accurate novel featuring a round, lovable narrator, a varying plot and a wide array of wicked and endearing characters.

-SD

Top-Ten Digital Reading Tools

blog wordleWant to help your students get excited about reading, especially reading independently? Sara Kajder’s April 19 post on her NerdyReader blog gives some pointers for hooking your students via digital tools such as GoodReads and Wordle. As Kajder explains,

It is usually the [reluctant readers] who are the most surprised when we begin using a variety of apps and digital tools to support their work as readers, as the thought of using Vine or Instagram in English class both disrupts their expectations and leads them to rethink the ways in which readers choose texts, make meaning and share their thinking with others.

How many of Kajder’s recommended digital reading tools are you familiar with?

–BR

The Presence of Magical Realism in YA Literature: When You Reach Me and How I Live Now

For those that aren’t too familiar with Magical Realism (and if everyone is, forgive me if this is patronizing), its the presence of “the fantastic” or elements of the fantastic woven into a narrative that would otherwise constitute as realistic fiction. The most famous examples of this type of writing can most readily be found in works created by South American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch) and Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, Daughters of Fortune). While my experiences with this genre of fiction are fairly limited, I have always been fascinated by the idea that “fantastic” elements could be woven so easily (almost flippantly) into a narrative. Magical occurrences take place and all the characters in their books continue about their business as though it isn’t odd that one of their family members has naturally green hair and possesses a staggering ethereal beauty (found in The House of the Spirits).

how i live now                  when-you-reach-me

The week in which we read When You Reach Me and How I Live Now was very refreshing to me because of the fact that the authors of these novels wrote their narratives in a very similar vein. Miranda’s realization [SPOILERS] that the homeless “laughing man” on her street was actually Marcus time traveling from the past to prevent Sal’s death comes so easily once all the pieces fall into place and she readily accepts this “impossible” idea as fact. In short, time-traveling Marcus is Miranda’s equivalent of a green-haired family member. How I Live Now‘s Daisy never actually states or sees [SPOILERS] Edmond’s mind-reading abilities or Isaac and Piper gifts with animals as anything out of the ordinary, but rather treats them as things that simply “are.” I love how both Stead and Rosoff blend these elements into their narratives so seamlessly, and haven’t really encountered anything quite like this in YA Literature (save for Allende’s City of the Beasts and L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, of which When You Reach Me was partially inspired by).

Thoughts, anyone?

 

-NC