Travels with Charlie (and Bella and Octavian): YA Literature and Me, the Reader
It dawned on me recently that I have become a YA junkie. This revelation occurred to me as I was packing my suitcase for a trip out to see my sister in California. I pack my suitcase on a regular basis given that my job requires I teach classes sometimes 400 miles away from our campus. I also travel and speak at various conferences. So, I have a routine when it comes to packing. I layer in the necessities. The first layer is always books, the books I will read once I reach my destination as opposed to the books that go into the carry on luggage. Those are the books I will read during the journey. Add an iPod and a Kindle, and I am good to go. And, of course, all the books I pack in whatever medium they present themselves are young adult books. What is it about YA literature that touches me so deeply as a reader? YA books, much more so than adult literature, have been a part of my development as a lifelong reader. Donelson and Nilsen discuss the stages of literary appreciation in their classic textbook, Literature for Today’s Young Adults (Allyn & Bacon, 2008). These stages mirror my connection to YA literature. It all begins with unconscious delight.
Unconscious delight is the stage in the development of readers in which we fall into the world of the book and the real world slips away. We become lost in the book, in its setting, in the events, in the characters. How well I remember solving crimes with Nancy Drew as a tween and teen. I wanted to BE Nancy with her sports car and long tresses and pals who would follow her into dangerous situation. I toyed with a career in nursing for a while courtesy of Cherry Ames and Sue Barton. As my YA reading continued, I wandered through different worlds with Harry Potter and Lucy and Lyra. I found myself fighting on a Civil War battlefield, sailing in an airborn pirate ship, stranded on an island, and attending a private boarding school. Unconscious delight takes me off an airplane and into the life of a teenager who falls in love with a vampire. It removes me from my bedroom and transports me to the side of an escaped slave struggling to decide whether to fight on the side of the British or the Americans in the revolution. It plucks me from the doctor’s waiting room and plops me squarely in the middle of the trial of a teen who protests his innocence. Book after book, unconscious delight carries me into the world an author has created for his characters. And what characters they are.
The characters include the Socs and the Greasers. When I read Hinton’s classic novel, I found characters who reflected the life I was living despite the fact that they were male and living in another state. The Socs and Greasers gave way to other characters who had connections to my life and experiences. Now I was reading autobiographically, reading about characters like me. In Leigh Botts I finally encountered a character who, like me, lived in a single parent family. Leigh and I shared a special connection as he longed for his absent father and hoped his parents would reconcile. Jamie in Big Fat Manifesto gave voice to my rants about people’s misconceptions about fat people. Her biting columns in the high school newspaper made me cheer. Frankie Landau Banks’ slightly skewed sense of humor, which I share, connected us for a time. Interestingly enough, reading autobiographically does not seem to be difficult in YA literature. Apparently, my inner teen lurks just beneath the surface and rises easily to make the connections with protagonists as wide-ranging as Bod in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book to Daphne in Terry Pratchett’s Nation and Catniss from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. How do I connect to these three rather disparate characters? Catniss rages against the injustice she sees in government. Daphne is torn between what she has been taught is “civilized” and what she observes on the island alongside Mau as they attempt to recreate a civilization damaged by a tsunami. And Bod accepts people at face value no matter how strange they might seem to others. I connect to each of these three as I read their stories.
Occasionally, however, I want to read about other people, other places, and other times. Reading for vicarious experience. I can travel back in time and read about a young girl saved by the power of words and books and reading in Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Or I can plunge into an unknown future with Jenna Fox where medical ethics go awry or enter The Forest of Hands and Teeth with Mary. I can live with Liga in her own personal heaven or with Taylor and others on Jellicoe Road. I can, safely within the confines of a book, discover what it is liked to be raped and not have anyone believe me just like Melinda in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I can travel with Dicey and the other Tillerman children in search of a relative to take them in when their mother disappears. I can live the life of Alice, an abducted child who has been held captive by a psychotic man in Elizabeth Scott’s riveting Living Dead Girl. I can watch as Keir, aka “killer,” attacks a girl, a friend, and rationalizes that attack in Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. Or I can laugh with the hapless “me” (aka Gary Paulsen) in Harris and Me as a city boy finds out about pig sties, pitchforks, and electric fencing. I can accompany two teen guys on a road trip replete with romance and adventure and mathematical formulas in An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. Different centuries, different planets, different characters: all exist in YA literature. There are two other reasons that I read, though, and they reflect the last two stages in the development of a lifelong reader.
I read for philosophical speculation. I want to find out about Charles Darwin, the women who trained to become astronauts during the Mercury generation, and Emmett Till. I want to understand more about science and geography. I love gathering fun facts to share with my own teens. And so I turn to nonfiction. Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone informed me about the women who proved they could endure all that their male counterparts in the new space program could. It made me realize the sacrifices of the women who came before me, the ones who broke through other glass ceilings and opened the doors to the “boys only” clubs. Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman provided me not only an interesting examination of the life’s work of Darwin but also a close look at his personal life and how it affected his work and vice versa. Religion, politics, child rearing philosophies and other pieces of the Darwin’s lives broadened by understanding of the scientist; it allowed me to view Darwin as a father and husband as well as a learned scientist. Every Minute on Earth and Everything You Need to Know about the World contain hundreds of facts about the world in which we live including the number of Krispy Kreme donuts produced every minute (more than 5000) and the location of the first wedding held in a public bathroom (Thailand). Facts like these astonish my own teens and those whose classrooms I visit. Chris Crowe’s account of the murder of Emmett Till, Getting Away with Murder, documents the events that provided the impetus for the nascent Civil Rights Movement. I was a child when these events began to unfold. Reading about then now make them come back to life for me as a reader. Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti demonstrates how the Nazis recruited and used youth to spread their message of hate and intolerance. It reminds me of the incredible power we, as teachers, can have in the lives of those we instruct. The life of John Lennon is the subject for Elizabeth Partridge’s John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth. I grew up during the British invasion and owned albums by the Beatles and by Lennon whose message of “Give Peace a Chance” still resonates with me as an adult. In short, there is much nonfiction has to offer me as I continue to develop my own philosophy.
Finally, I read for the sheer beauty and pleasure that reading provides me, reading for aesthetic experience. Authors who evoke emotions ranging from laughter to tears, authors who are wordsmiths, and authors who create memorable reading experiences are all part and parcel of aesthetic experiences in YA literature. Why, for instance, do I rush to read the latest offerings by Chris Crutcher? It is because his writing moves me. When I read Deadline, I was moved to tears with the loss of Ben Wolf even though I knew he was dying at the outset of the novel. Ditto to Before I Die by Jenny Downham. I know Tessa is dying from the opening pages of this novel. However, her spirit even in the last moments of her life, is indomitable. David Lubar’s word play in novels such as Punished leaves me not only laughing but wondering how he can construct humor so effortlessly. Ditto Joan Bauer. How can she create such gentle good humor in books that deal with death, divorce, alcoholism, politics, and journalism? How dies humor assist both the characters in her books and the readers? In Peeled, Bauer tackles the world of journalism through the eyes of Hildy Biddle, a reporter for her high school newspaper who knows there is more to the story than she is told. Francesca Lia Block’s use of simile and metaphor in The Waters and the Wild causes me to pause often in my reading of her novels and admire her wordsmithing ability. Ditto Ellen Hopkins whose novels in verse are exquisitely wrought with figurative language that somehow conveys the spirit of her characters. Identical, her latest offering for YA readers, contains lyrical passages about the most heinous events imaginable in the lives of Kaeleigh and Raeanne, identical twins. Aesthetic reading does not end once the final pages of the book are turned. Instead, the characters and events remain with me. I have been somehow changed by my reading. I am better for having met and known Melinda and Octavian and Hildy and Bod and Frankie and Kier and Bella and all the other characters who have inhabited the books I have read. I have taken journeys with Jenna and Mau and Lyra and Alice and Harry and Dicey. And even though some of those journeys have been rough going, the going was always worth it in the end.
YA literature has given me the chance to connect over and over and over again with teens, both real and imagined. It has kept me in touch with my own inner teen and offered me the chance to live many lives at once without ever once leaving my own life. I am fortunate that my job requires that I keep up to date with the world of YA literature. As I finish serving on the first Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Committee for ALAN, I assume my new role as a member of the 2010 Michael Printz Committee. Imagine, another year of reading the best YA books of 2009! It is a year of reading that I know will also leave me changed. I look forward to that.
Let me know what you think. Is it too long???