Saturday, June 4, 2011

Not Visible Enough

Before you continue, you should check out this article from The Wall Street Journal.

I was taught that books can serve as a mirror or as a window for a reader. I've learned since that the world is decidely more complicated that just mirrors and windows, but the basic idea still holds true.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but at it's heart, this is an article calling for mass censorship of the young adult genre of books. As a reading teacher for adolescents and as a (soon to be) university faculty member teaching teachers about literature for adolescents, I respect the right of Amy Freeman to dictate what she wants her child to read. However, to suggest that all adolescents shouldn't read these "dark" books, is going too far.

I remember in one of my first graduate courses talking about children and brain development. The discussion centered around small children and their reading habits. While I'll admit that I don't know much about early literacy because it's not my focus, one part of that conversation stayed with me. Children like to hear the same stories over and over again because they're working though something in their minds. I've seen a similar phenomenon with the six-year-old son of one of my friends, who repeatedly watched Fox & the Hound, then repeatedly watched Balto until he worked through whatever issue he was dealing with.

I've had students, eighth graders, do the same thing. An outsider might argue that they're trying to get out of reading, but I know my students well enough to know that they're processing through. Specific example? I purchased the book Truancy for a student at his request. Two days later he came back to me and said that he'd read it twice. Maybe he was dealing with issues of authority as presented in the institution of schooling, maybe he was dealing with something else. The point is this: the kid was reading, the kid chose what he wanted to read, and the kid needed to reread in order to puzzle through whatever he was dealing with at the time.

So what you're saying, then, Wall Street Journal, is that kids should struggle through their issues on their own? Let me make sure I'm understanding you correctly. Think back for me. Remember what it was like to be a teenager. How many adults did you trust with your deepest, darkest issues? But what if the right book was put into your hands at the just the right time? And what if reading that book allowed you to feel like you were a little less alone in the world. That you weren't the only one going through whatever it is you were going through. I did see you used concession/refutation to argue this point, however, there's a voice missing from your argument. An incredibly important voice, I might add.

We tend to look at our past through rose colored glasses, thinking "When I was young, things were different."

And it's true. When we were young, things were different. When I was young, I went through the whole of high school and can't remember reading anything with an African-American depicted as anything but a slave. And until I took a class specifically on African-American literature as an undergraduate English Literature major, I didn't read anything about anyone who looked like me. I read nothing about characters whose lives looked like mine outside of the race issue. I feel like I'm making up for that now.

For me, authors are rock stars. I posted on my Tumblr blog about how excited I got when Libba Bray replied to one of my tweets. I've posted in the past about conversations I've had with other authors - Laurie Halse Anderson, Ellen Hopkins, John Green, Alan Sitomer, Lauren Myracle - and how I've passed messages back and forth between these authors and my students. These students who are grateful  for the words the words that these amazing authors write. Words that speak to kids who profess to have never, in their adolescent lives, finished an entire book. Words that tell these kids that they're not alone. That the world is bigger than the small town we live in. That the intolerance they spout as truth may not actually be truth. And I, and my students, appreciate their honesty, even when it makes us angry.

A colleague of mine in the doctoral program, who used to teach high school English, tells a story about the students with whom she worked. She says as a collective they were turned off from reading because none of the character in the stories they read were of Mexican descent, lived in a poor community, or sounded the same way they did. They resented being taught by the institution that the middle-class, Midwestern, Anglo dialect was the only correct way of fitting into society. Then they read a text with a protagonist who looked like them and spoke like them and they found that reading isn't all bad.

I grew up in Indianapolis, but I live in a small town now. There are many things that many of the students with whom I work don't know about. Columbine. Surprisingly, 9/11 (I showed a video and they asked me if what they were seeing was real). Matthew Shepard. Remember him? While the reality of gang violence is something everyone knows about and deals with here, the reality of the repercussions of homophobic and even anti-Jewish slurs is not. Do we not, as educators and as authors, have a duty to broaden the minds of our students? Or is the most important goal we have to accomplish tied to a white-washed assessment?

I stand with Libba Bray, who said, "Books are, at their heart, dangerous. Because they challenge us: our prejudices, our blind spots. They open us to new ideas, new ways of seeing. They make us hurt in all the right ways. They can push down the barricades of 'them' & widen the circle of 'us'. And when one feels alone--say, because of a terrible burden of a secret, something that creates pain and isolation, books can heal, connect. That's what good books do. That's what hard books do. And we need them in the world." You can read all of her comments here.

I stand with Lauren Myracle. With Laurie Halse Anderson. With Sherman Alexie. With John Green. With Jay Asher. With Neil Gaiman. With Ellen Hopkins. With Maureen Johnson. With Meg Cabot. With all the authors who tell it, and tell it honestly. Because life can be dark. And life can be messy. And if you don't want your own kid to read about the dark mess that life can be, that's your prerogative. I respect that as an educator.

But come to my classroom. Hear the beautiful arguments that the reading of this dark literature ignites. Tell me that the end of Jacqueline Woodson's If You Come Softly isn't a reality for some kid somewhere, that it couldn't be a reality for my own brothers if they're in the wrong part of town, and tell me where else my students would learn about this reality. Tell me that these kids aren't learning, that they aren't taking something away from the novels they read as more than a guide for destructive behaviors.

Come see the community we create, then tell me we're wrong.

1 comment:

cmsmith0328 said...

Well written, English teacher! Goes back to that Will Smith video segment we watched. Many people have lived before us, and the same problems have occurred to them. There is not one problem that we cannot find a book about and see how someone else resolved it. Sometimes we just have to look harder for the book!