Diversity Roll Call: Paradigm Shifts

The topic of the current diversity roll call is paradigm shifts, more specifically:

Have you ever read a book and the character’s perspective opened you to ideas, beliefs or realities that you had never considered? Tell us a about a work or an author whose body of work changed how you looked at the world, others or yourself. Have you ever read a book and had a paradigm shift because of it?

It took me some time to come up with my answer to this question.  I have read a lot of books.  A LOT.  My main love, though, is series fiction.  The Baby-Sitters Club was my gateway drug into the world of series fiction, and then I moved on to Sweet Valley High before stumbling upon Katherine Applegate’s Ocean City and then Boyfriends/Girlfriends (now Making Out) series.  And I liked Applegate a lot because she always featured a minority character, which was a welcome change from SVH and its focus on the blonde twins and their ultra-white friends.

I recently reread book one in the Girl Friends series, a ten-book series most people have never heard of.  It was extremely popular with me, of course, but one person does not a successful series make, and author Nicole Grey’s contract wasn’t extended, so the series ends on a wicked cliffhanger.  I had stumbled upon Girl Friends in 1993, voracious bookstore goer that I was.  And at first, I thought it was my pick for the paradigm shift because of what I said at the end of my review there.  Namely:

Empowerment through female friendships.  I’d be lying if I said that this series hasn’t inspired my dissertation topic focusing on female friendship.  If I didn’t love these books with all of my heart, I doubt very seriously that I would even think about or consider friendships between girls as much as I do.

But that’s not even it.  Because Applegate had strong female friendships, and the BSC is founded by best friends.  No, it’s more than that.

In his memoir Bad Boy, Walter Dean Myers talks about his experiences reading.  And he says that he read a wealth of writers, mostly white and male.  But it wasn’t until he read James Baldwin and Langston Hughes that his world changed because they talked about Harlem, and he so strongly identified with their writing about it because that’s where he lived.  He saw himself and his family and friends in their writing.  What he said, and I’ll never forget, is that reading Baldwin and Hughes gave him permission to write the stories he wanted to write about the people and places he knew.

And that’s what Girl Friends did for me.  I always wanted to write a book series because that’s what I liked to read, but I didn’t live in a world like BSC and SVH.  I lived in a world with lots of people of color.  A world where there would only be one white main character, if there was one at all.  (Janis, the only featured white character, is introduced last.  LAST.  Most of the series fiction I’ve read centers around a blond white female.  And if not blond, then still white.  The first character introduced in GF is Stephanie–who is Chinese-American.) It wasn’t until I read Grey’s series that I felt like anyone would read or write a series populated with girls of color or a series that talked about the things I saw going on with the people I knew.  It was the first series I read where it felt like a world I lived in, and that blew my mind.

So, not only did it impress upon me the importance of female connection (note:  none of these girls were ever in competition with each other over a boy), nor did it just open my eyes to true contemporary realism in series fiction, but it also showed me there was a place for me and the people and situations I knew in series fiction.  And that gave me permission to dream, for real, about writing my own series one day.

Which I may get around to doing one day.

Diversity Roll Call: The Problem Novel

The current Diversity Roll Call addresses the problem novel as inspired by a Justine Larbalestier post.  More specifically:

Did you read these kinds of works when you were an adolescent? Did you think they were silly or did you gain something from them? Do you enjoy them as an adult? Do you recommend them to students or other teens you’re in contact with? Which titles and to whom would you recommend them? What issues or circumstances would like to see address in YA? What are your recommended best reads and which would you honestly say are poor examples in this genre?

First things first.  I think it’s important to define what a problem novel is to me.  Someone in the comments section over at Color Online said they would call it realistic fiction, but I honestly kind of like the Wikipedia definition of an adolescent’s first confrontation with a social or personal ill.  Which, yes, realistic fiction.  But I would take it a little further.  Since most realistic fiction deals with problems, I’m thinking more specifically of novels I would describe by the social or personal ill first as opposed to, say, the quest the character is on.  Like Monster is about a boy in jail or Out of the Dust is about a girl surviving the Dust Bowl. Because most books require characters to have personal ills on whatever level for the sake of conflict, a problem novel would be more about a social ill than anything.  Meaning that when I think about the novel, I think about it first in terms of that social ill and recognize the ill as a social problem.  (I’m trying to think of realistic fiction, I don’t define as a problem novel, and so far I have True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet [her sobriety is a big part of the novel, but I first think of it as her leaving her old life behind for a small town], Story of a Girl [double standards, family issues, teen pregnancy, but I first think of it as about a girl who did something and now is trying to figure out what that means for her–maybe the title has something to do with that], and A Northern Light [which, I know, murdered pregnant woman, but I think of it more as about Maddie trying to decide if she should go away to school or not].)

At Color Online, Susan says:

The problem novel isn’t designed to fix life’s ills, but it can help a young person realize they are not alone and possibly find the courage to seek help or gain understanding. The problem novel is sometimes the first time a young person finds identification.

I would go a step further and say that it’s also to help teens gain understanding of people who are not like them that may have stories they don’t understand.  So if you know someone in jail or who has been raped or has an abusive parent, these kinds of books would benefit you.  And if you don’t personally know anyone facing these issues, you’ve probably heard about them on the news or whatever, so the books can personalize the story.

As a teen/adolescent, I read pretty voraciously, but I often don’t remember the books I read back then.  The only novels I remember that dealt with problems, honestly, are the SVH Very Special Topic books:  the one where Regina o.d.’s, the one where Robin is  anorexic, when Ken goes blind, etc.

jacob-have-i-lovedThose, and Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, which is one of my favorite books ever of all time.  I would count it as a problem novel because it’s all about how Wheeze feels slighted by her family, and Catherine is the preferred sister:  she’s prettier and more talented, and more importantly, she almost died at birth.  I haven’t read the book in years, but Louise’s pain is just as palpable to me now as it was then.  Also, I never forgot the ending where Louise makes sure both twins she helps deliver receive equal attention so those babies won’t go through life the way she and her sister did.  OH MY HEART.

monsterIt’s only now as an adult that I can identify that most of the books I read now are problem novels–or realistic fiction.  And for me, the gold standard of problem novels is Monster by Walter Dean Myers.  Not only is it about a boy in the system, it’s also about the problems with the system. It also addresses all of the issues in a non-didactic way.  Everything is just put on the page for you to decide what to do with it.  (I wrote a whole paper on the book, so I’m trying to be concise.  Basically, the heteroglossia of the novel lends itself to the reader making up his/her own mind about the issues in the book.)  I also love that, in any of the classes I’ve taught on the book, there is never any agreement about whether Steve is innocent or guilty, but everybody can agree that the system is messed up.

In fact, I’d classify most of WDM’s books as problem novels:  Shooter (school shootings), The Beast (heroin), etc.  His most didactic book is the one on recidivism (A Handbook for Boys), and while I like it, I can imagine it’d be pretty annoying to a teen (as evidenced by the reaction of my students when I taught it).  The topic is still well handled, but, yeah, didactic.

Anyway, there are lots and lots of books I’ve read and like that fit this topic, but I’m going to narrow it down to five other books I’d recommend that all deal with different societal ills.
queen make_lemonade_new2 living-dead-girl inexcusable hopewashere

The Queen of Everything by Deb Caletti is about a girl whose dad kills his girlfriend’s husband.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff is about a girl who babysits for a teen mom in their impoverished neighborhood.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott is about a girl who is held captive by a pedophile.

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch is about a boy who rapes a girl.

Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer is about a teen who joins a campaign to fight political corruption in her town.

I’ll be honest.  I don’t exactly like Living Dead Girl or Inexcusable but I think they’re doing something different and are worth a read.  LDG is extremely disturbing (so very disturbing, so very VERY disturbing), but I seriously could not stop reading it once I started.  Inexcusable is not even a very good book, and it left me with a feeling of incompleteness at the end (needed more something), but it’d make a good companion to Speak.  As for the other books, I’ve taught them, and my students have liked them.  Hope Was Here is probably the least depressing of the books just because it’s so gosh darned upbeat and uplifting even when it’s dealing with heavy issues, which is why I’ve included it on the list.

whaletalkI also feel that any list of books about problem novels without a mention of Chris Crutcher, and specifically, Whale Talk is incomplete.  All of his books are, on some level, about abuse and its effects.

And then there are all of the other books that I’m not going to spotlight, but that I think fit this category.  So, a list:

  • The First Part Last by Angela Johnson (teen pregnancy/parenthood)
  • Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (bullying)
  • The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler (fat acceptance)
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green(death–although, as my students pointed out in one class, it is rare not to have death in YA lit)
  • Big Mouth & Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates (media hysteria)
  • Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (rape)
  • Dreamland by Sarah Dessen (partner violence)
  • Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dumphrey by Margaret Peterson Haddix (neglect)
  • North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley (disfigurement/emotional abuse)
  • Don’t Think Twice by Ruth Pennebaker (teen pregnancy)

Diversity Roll Call: Short Story Stroll

The current Diversity Roll Call is for short stories, and I have decided to share three of my favorite short story collections.

Twice Told:  Original Stories Inspired by Original Artwork by Scott Hunt – The concept for this collection is pretty simple:  two authors were sent one drawing by Scott Hunt and then asked to write a story about it.  The brilliance of this collection is that the stories very often deal with very similar things to resolve the picture.  It’s kind of uncanny.  For example, one of the pictures is of an axe on a table with a cake; both stories deal with gender expectations.  One picture is of a little kid in a bunny suit; both stories deal with inappropriate sexual attention.  One picture is of a man in front of a donut shop; both stories are about girls scared to confront their pasts.  The other great thing is that I read that book two years ago at least, and I still remember those stories clearly.

I Believe in Water:  Twelve Brushes with Religion by Marilyn Singer – This short story collection is all about religion, and the different encounters and struggles people have with it.  Great collection because it opens up possibilities and understanding.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer – I don’t remember all of the stories in this collection because I read it several years ago, but the one about the teacher rang especially true with me (and I think even inspired a lesson plan).  And I do remember that Packer is an awesome writer and reading this collection led me to seek out more of her work.

Diversity Roll Call: On Gender

I was going to do a big intro post, but instead I am just going to jump right in.  At some point, I will update my About page to talk about the purpose of this website, but the short of it is that I’m a person who has been an English major my whole life and that affects the way I see the world.

Okay, so first things first is responding to this Diversity Roll Call on gender.  Specifically, I’m responding to Topic B, prompt #1.

Talk about a book (or offer a list of books) that you think has appeal to both genders. Or, books with a female lead that would appeal to guys, or vice versa. It doesn’t have to be a kids’ book–choose whatever genre you’d like.

I am going to talk first about books with female leads that appeal to guys and then a little bit about books featuring male protagonists that my female and male students responded well to.  My lists both come from the American Lit classes I’ve taught in the past (to college freshmen and sophomores with a junior or senior sometimes thrown in) on young adult fiction.  I try to pick an even number of books by/about males and females except for the one semester that I taught an all female-authored book list.  Over the past three years, these are the books that my male students have responded favorably to that have female protagonists.

  1. Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer
  2. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
  3. This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
  4. Teen Idol by Meg Cabot
  5. The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart
  6. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
  7. Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
  8. A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
  9. Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde

Also I know a teenage boy who said he really liked The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares, but he wasn’t in my class, so I didn’t think it should necessarily go on the list.

What I have discovered from my students is that they don’t like girls that are particularly girly.  That is, books that focus on boobs and shopping and the girl wanting a boy to like them.  They tend to hate, collectively, overly emo books (featuring male or female protagonists) all about how their parents don’t love them or how they have problems connecting with people.  Their reactions to both of those types of books is that the protag should get over him/herself and find something else to do.

One of the reasons Hope Was Here and Teen Idol went over so well is that the books were about “normal” teens interacting with their communities and figuring out what to do.  The girls weren’t whiny or mopey and were a lot more proactive.  Note, though, that books about relationships were well received, but tone had a lot to do with it.  Ruby in The Boyfriend List is extremely neurotic but also funny, and all of my students were kind of appalled at her friends and boyfriends.  One of my male students said This Lullaby was typical romantic fare but well written and with really good characters. They like A Northern Light because Mattie has “real problems” (figuring out how to take care of her family, trying to get into school) and isn’t consumed by boys and shopping and bra size.  The other books are all fantasy, so even though they deal with particularly female issues (A Great and Terrible Beauty and A Certain Slant of Light in particular), they enjoyed the stories and the quest aspect of the narrative.

Honestly, the biggest issue the guys had with the books about girls is that the covers are all so PINK.  So even if they marginally liked or disliked the book, reading it in front of their friends would sometimes result in comments they’d rather avoid.  Most of the books on the list, by the way, do not have pink or lavender colors–only Teen Idol and This Lullaby.

I won’t spend a lot of time on books about boys that appeal to girls because it has been shown through lots of studies that girls have no problem in general reading about boys.  But a lot of the books about boys tend to skew emo, and my male students hate that, so here are books with male protagonists that males and females in my classes have enjoyed.

  1. Monster by Walter Dean Myers
  2. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
  3. Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
  4. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  5. Love Among the Walnuts by Jean Ferris
  6. Holes by Louis Sachar
  7. Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman
  8. Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
  9. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

One of my male students said Son of the Mob was one of the only books we read that semester that seemed to be about a real boy–meaning one he could readily identify with.  Which makes sense because the protag in that book is not emo, has a girlfriend or is all about trying to get one, and is trying to get along with his family.  I should also point out that heavy issues do not turn the students off.  What gets to them is really how the narrator or protagonist deals with the issue, which is why Whale Talk is so popular with my students.

I feel like both lists should be longer, but I also know that I have repeated books that have gone over well or cover issues that I want to discuss.  There are books I have read with female protagonist that I think should appeal to male students, but I am not teaching literature this upcoming semester, so I can’t test them out.  Would that I could, though.  Would that I could.