Archive for Young Adult Literature

Literature for Adolescents (Fall 2018): sneak preview

English 545: Literature for Adolescents (2018)

This fall, I am teaching English 545: Literature for Adolescents on-line for the first time.  That is, this is the first time I’m teaching the course on-line.  It’s the umpteenth time I’ve taught the course, and the second time I’ve taught on-line.

One thing I learned from teaching on-line this past spring: Build the entire course before the term begins.  And, yes, I learned that because I failed to do it.  So, I am building it now.  This week, I finished the curriculum for the first two weeks.  In case others may find it useful, I’m sharing that below.  (Scroll down.)

A word or two about what’s not in this blog post.  Missing are the ensuing discussion, my responses to students’ responses, quizzes, my responses to the quizzes, the full syllabus, and resources on the course’s Canvas site.  In other words, this is a partial representation of those first couple of weeks.

Here are the main literary texts we will read:

  • Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak.
  • M.T. Anderson, Feed.
  • Kristin Cashore, Graceling.
  • Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves.
  • Nancy Farmer, The House of the Scorpion.
  • Kiese Laymon, Long Division.
  • E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.
  • Malinda Lo, Ash.
  • Walter Dean Myers, Monster.
  • Benjamin Alire Saenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
  • J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Francisco X. Stork, Marcello in the Real World.
  • Angie Thomas, The Hate You Give.
  • Jacqueline Woodson, After Tupac & D. Foster.
  • Ibi Zoboi, American Street.

There will also be a few versions of “Cinderella” (both in preparation for Malinda Lo’s Ash and to get students thinking about the “YA” in many fairy tales), and a few secondary texts, all of which I will either link to or provide a pdf (available via Canvas).  I’m really excited about the novels, three of which are from 2017 — and thus I’m teaching them for the very first time.  I’m also teaching Ash (2009) for the first time.​

Thomas, The Hate U Give Malinda Lo, Ash Zoboi, American Street Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves

I never teach a class exactly the same way twice.  I’m always trying to improve.  Now that I’m teaching on-line, I am also trying to improve my skills as a creator of videos!  That learning curve is represented below: the second video is (I think) the weakest, and video #1 has some strengths but needs snappier editing.  By three and four, the edits are improving.  And the fifth (the first one on E. Lockhart’s Frankie Landau-Banks) is the best thus far.



WEEK 1

week #1, discussion #1: Intro.

I’ll repeat the questions from the video below.

1. What’s your name? And what do you prefer to be called?

2. Where are you from? And where are you located now, while you’re taking this class?

3. Here are our course’s objectives. Listen to them because at the end, I will ask you (A) which of our course objectives are you most looking forward to meeting? And (B) which objective do you think will be the most challenging for you?

This class will introduce you to a range of literature for adolescents, and develop your critical skills in reading these works. We will study works that feature adolescent characters, depict experiences familiar to adolescents, and are taught to or read by adolescents. We will approach these works from a variety of critical perspectives (including formalist, psychoanalytic, queer theory, feminist, Marxist, historical, postcolonial, ecological) — perspectives that many high schools want their teachers to know. In summary, this course will be about different kinds of literature read by young adults, approaches to thinking about this literature, and adolescence’s relationship to power. We will develop these skills via writing a once-weekly journal, participating in class discussions, taking a weekly quiz, and completing these and any other assignments on time.

Now that you know the course’s objectives, (A) which of our course objectives are you most looking forward to meeting?  And (B) which objective do you think will be the most challenging for you?  (C) Do you have any other objectives?  If so, please list them.

4. Your adolescence is very likely far more recent than mine. And yet I know that high school and college are different — that you have very likely changed at least a little since high school… and possibly quite a lot. So, my third question is this.  Describe your adolescence in one word.  And why do you choose that word to describe your adolescence?  The why is important.

5. Have you taken an on-line class before?

Format for answer: VIDEO


week #1, discussion #2: Adolescence, YA Literature, and… J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (through Chapter 10)

Part I: Adolescence & YA Literature

Repeating (below) the questions from the video (above) —

1. What is adolescence?

2. What are the social characteristics of adolescence?

3. Drawing on Lee Talley’s essay, what is “Young Adult”?

Format for answer: TEXT


Part II: J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), through Chapter 10

Those two questions I asked you on day 1 — now is the time to answer them.

1. On page 1, Holden tells us “I had to come out here and take it easy.” Where is here? From where is he narrating this story?  And how do you know?  Beyond the quotation I called your attention to, offer a supporting quotation or quotations from the text that tells you where he is when he is telling the story (as opposed to where he is when it happens).

2. Once more, M.H. Abrams’ classic definition of the unreliable narrator:

The fallible or unreliable narrator is one whose perception, interpretation, and evaluation of the matters he or she narrates do not coincide with the implicit opinions and norms manifested by the author, which the author expects the alert reader to share. (A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th ed., p. 168)

And… I asked you to track Holden’s unreliability.  So. offer a couple of examples where you see the narrator’s perception in tension with those “implicit opinions and norms” of the book.

Format for answer: TEXT


Questions to think about for next class (not this one) —

1. Symbols! This is why English teachers like the book. Holden keeps returning to ideas and objects that he invests with significance — this is how he conveys his emotional truths.  The red hunting hat.  The question of where the ducks go in the winter.  The “Little Shirley Beans” record.  Childhood (his own and his sister Phoebe’s).  And, of course, the title of the novel itself.  So, my question is this: track a symbol.  Where does it recur and why?  That is, what does it mean?

2. By the end of the novel, what (if anything) has Holden learned?  And what’s next for Holden?

3. In addition to finishing the novel, I’ve also asked you to read my “7 questions we should ask about children’s literature.” Pay particular attention to the first of those 7 — What does this book present as normal? Apply that question to the novel, following up with these more specific questions that I have borrowed (and slightly modified) from Nathalie Wooldridge:

  • What or whose view of the world, or kinds of behavior does the book present as normal?
  • Why is the book written from this perspective? How else could it have been written?
  •  What assumptions does the book make about age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture (including the age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture of the reader)?
  • Whose perspectives does the book present? Whose perspectives does the book silence or ignore?

4. Why has this novel become such a cultural touchstone? Should it be a cultural touchstone?  Indeed, should it be on this syllabus?  That last question is not a trick question.  First of all, I’m always changing this syllabus, and I don’t always include The Catcher in the Rye.  Second, you should question what’s on this syllabus.  For this class, there are millions of books to choose from.  Should Catcher in the Rye be among these 15?

Again, these last 4 questions are for next time.


week #1, discussion #3: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (to end)

Answer the question that corresponds with your group number.  Post your comment, drawing on examples from the book — remember the importance of close reading.  Quote from the text to support your arguments. And then please respond to at least one other person in your group — ideally to two or three.  Post your initial comment before the due date (end of Friday) for this discussion.  If your responses to others’ occur after that, it’s OK — the discussion will still be enter-able for a week after the due date.  Try to chime in as soon after the deadline as you can. I realize that we are all having a conversation asynchronously.  Do your best.


1. As I say, I think all the symbols are why English teachers like the book. Holden keeps returning to ideas and objects that he invests with personal significance — this is how he conveys his emotional truths. He’s not likely to say, directly, “I’m afraid of adulthood” or “I miss my brother Allie” or “I feel vulnerable.” No, he’s going to put on his red hunting hat. He’s going to wonder about where the ducks go in the winter. He’s going to search for and then carry around the “Little Shirley Beans” record.  He’s going to talk about childhood (his own and his sister Phoebe’s).  And, of course, his fantasy of becoming a catcher in the rye  So, I asked you to track a symbol.  Where does it recur and why?  That is, what does it mean?


2. By the end of the novel, what (if anything) has Holden learned? And what’s next for Holden? Holden talks about wanting to be a catcher in the rye: “Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff” (173). He talks about pretending he’s a deaf mute, living in a cabin near the woods (198-99, 204-05). He tries to erase all of the fuck yous realizes he can’t: “If you had a million years to do it, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world.  It’s impossible” (202).  People keep “asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September.  It’s such a stupid question, in my opinion.  I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it?  The answer is, you don’t.  I think I am, but how do I know?  I swear it’s a stupid question” (213).  That he asks himself this question at the end tells us what?  Will he apply himself? Will he follow Antolini’s advice to learn from other writers?


3. So, I also asked you to read my “7 questions we should ask about children’s literature” and to pay particular attention to the first of those 7 — What does this book present as normal? Apply that question to the novel, following up with these more specific questions borrowed (and slightly modified) from Nathalie Wooldridge:

  • What or whose view of the world, or kinds of behavior does the book present as normal?
  • Why is the book written from this perspective? How else could it have been written?
  • What assumptions does the book make about age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture (including the age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture of the reader)?
  • Whose perspectives does the book present? Whose perspectives does the book silence or ignore?

I am asking you these questions because I want you to think critically about this novel and all novels we read.  You do not need to agree with or like or enjoy each novel on the syllabus.  I ask that you make an attempt to understand each work, but I also invite you — I encourage you — to raise critical questions about each work — backing up your critique with examples from the book.


4. Finally, a big question: Why has this novel become such a cultural touchstone? Should it be a cultural touchstone? And should it be on this syllabus? As I said last time, that question is not a trick question.  (1) I’m always changing this syllabus, and I don’t always include The Catcher in the Rye.  (2) You should question what’s on this syllabus.  Of the millions of Young Adult books we could read, should Catcher in the Rye be among the mere 15 on the syllabus?  Key here as in all questions is defending your answer with examples from the book.

Format for answer: TEXT


Don’t forget: journal entry due Sunday night!


Next time: E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.  Its placement next on the syllabus is not accidental.  So, you might consider her novel as being in conversation with Salinger’s novel.  What would Lockhart’s book say to Salinger’s book?  Each book features a protagonist inclined to rebel — against what does each protagonist rebel?  And what does each protagonist accept?  You might compare/contrast a bit as you read.


WEEK 2

week #2, discussion #1: E. Lockhart’s Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008), through “Broken Date”

1. Let’s start with an exercise in close-reading.  How does the novel’s opening letter position you, the reader?  (Read the letter that opens the novel.)

A. What are the key words or phrases in that opening letter? Why?

B. What questions does the letter raise about the novel you are about to read?

C. What clues does the letter give you for the novel that you are about to read?

D. And where does the letter position you in relation to the novel’s main character, Frankie Landau-Banks? What sort of relationship does it invite?  Are you sympathetic?  Unsympathetic?

Sketch out some answers to these questions, referring to specifics in that opening letter — actually quoting them — in your response.  Feel free to refer to moments beyond that opening letter, too.


2. What questions does Frankie (and the novel itself) raise about masculinity and femininity? That is, how might it invite us to think critically about the gender roles that we’re encouraged to inhabit — “acceptable” versions of masculinity and femininity?  Point to a few examples.  And one last question for part 2 of our discussion: If she landed in The Catcher in the Rye or he landed in her novel, what would Frankie say to Holden?


3. What is the panopticon? How does it work as a system of control? And… what might it tell us about adolescence — or, if you like, about Frankie?

Don’t forget to cite specifics from the novel in your answers!

Format for answer: TEXT


week #2, discussion #2: E. Lockhart’s Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, to end

1. Here is a more succinct version of this question than what’s included in the video: Does the novel propose the idea that women/girls and men/boys use power differently?  In what ways might it be helpful to think of power as distinctly gendered?  In what ways might that not be helpful to understand power as gendered?

Here is the longer version, which I offer mostly for the citations therein. Several times, Frankie notes how the Loyal Order of the Bassett Hounds — that bastion of patriarchal privilege — fosters bonding, “togetherness,” “connection” (see pp. 195, 221, 222). She longs for such a bond herself… but doesn’t get one. At the end, we learn that, while Trish is a “loyal friend,” “Trish’s lack of understanding is a condition of that loyalty” (338). Does Frankie’s lack of a female cohort undermine the feminist critique of patriarchy, expressed elsewhere in the novel? Is it positing that women’s power works differently (a version of Elizabeth’s argument in the debate, pp. 160-165)? If so, does that difference contradict Frankie’s frequent critique of the “double standard” she faces as a girl?  Or, whether it is or is not contradictory, might it be positing an alternate form of power?


2. Near the end of the novel, Porter asks, “Why did you do all that, Frankie?” She answers his question with two questions: “Have you ever heard of the panopticon?” And “Have you ever been in love?” (329). What do these two questions tell you about her motivations?  And why do you suppose Lockhart does not have Frankie elaborate?  Finally, how might these two questions influence our interpretation of the novel?


3. E. Lockhart has said that there will be no sequel to this novel. Her narrator, however, does offer two possibilities for Frankie’s future (336-337): “They sometimes go crazy, these people” or they “change the world” (337). Defending your answer with examples from this book, which future is more likely? Make sure you refer to the final chapter.


Please respond to at least one other comment in your group.  As before, post your initial comment before the deadline; your second (and third, etc.) can fall after the deadline.

Format for answer: TEXT


Don’t forget: journal entry due Sunday night, and quiz due Monday night.

For next week, we’re reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999).  Talk to you then!



Incidentally, I’ve been posting these on YouTube because the Hale Library fire knocked our course infrastructure system (Canvas) for a loop.  Its video-sharing apparatus (MyMediaSite) hasn’t been working.  So, I decided to use my YouTube channel.  I haven’t yet decided if I will post all Literature for Adolescents course videos on YouTube… or just do so until the university’s Canvas site stabilizes again.*

The main downside is that students will be able to see the videos far ahead of two weeks in advance.  Following the advice of other on-line teachers, I make visible curriculum for only two weeks into the future.  The philosophy behind that is you don’t want a student to rush through the class.  They should proceed at roughly the pace of the semester, learning as they go, improving their discussion responses etc. in response to feedback from me and other students. Showing them two weeks into the future allows them to better manage their time — and work ahead if their schedule demands that.

The upside is the possibility that these videos might be useful to other teachers or students of Literature for Adolescents.  If you do find any of these useful, let me know.  Also, if you spot any mistakes or have suggestions, let me know — though keep in mind that you are not seeing all of the teaching.  I will be joining the students’ discussion — typically via text, though sometimes via video.  And my responses to their discussion will sometimes result in additional readings — always brief ones, but useful ones.

That’s all for now.


* A public thanks to everyone working in K-State’s ITS, Telecommunications, and all who have been putting in long hours to get the university fully on-line again.  I appreciate it!  And so do my fellow faculty members!

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Sherman Alexie & #MeToo

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAs many teachers do, I teach Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  When confirmed reports of his sexual harassment and other abuses of power became public, I knew I had to talk to my class about it — I had already taught Absolutely True Diary in my on-line Multicultural Children’s Literature class earlier in the semester.  Thinking that our conversation might be of use to others who are confronting this issue, I’m sharing my initial question, my response to their conversation (which highlights recurring themes), and a quotation from one of the students (shared with her permission).  Because I have to prepare our on-line conversations several weeks in advance, this begins in early March but their responses were only due in late March — and my response followed.


6 March 2018

Because I’m preparing these discussions about three weeks in advance, this will appear as “due” after March Break. And that is in fact when it is due. I don’t feel I can add anything further to our current week. But I also don’t feel that I can ignore this. So I am making this visible now (March 6th) even though you’re not obliged to discuss it until March 27th.

For the past month, those of us in the children’s literature / young adult literature community have known that Sherman Alexie is among those accused of sexual harassment. Last week (Feb. 28), Alexie issued a denial/apology. Yesterday (Mar. 5), three of his accusers went public.

This raises an important question for us — as students, future teachers (some of you), or current teachers (me and some of you).  Should we continue to teach an author who has harmed others?  And that is the question I am posing to you right now.  Should work by Sherman Alexie be on future iterations of this syllabus?  Or ought we instead replace him with, say, a work by another indigenous writer — perhaps Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves —?

This is a hotly debated question, and — from our previous conversations — I know that you will express yourselves with care and consideration for divergent points of view.  Those who argue for often note that those who create great works of art may not lead exemplary Roxane Gay. Photo by Jay Grabiec.lives; their own personal failings are irrelevant to the greatness of their art. And, certainly, as a colleague of mine observed via email, in our English classes we teach many writers who, in their private lives, were horrible human beings.  Those who argue against might say that there is no legacy so important that we can look the other way. As Roxane Gay puts it, “I no longer struggle with artistic legacies. It is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art.” She suggests instead that we turn to artistic work created by those “capable of treating others with respect.”   If these are two opposing poles of the debate, there are of course many positions between them.  And there are other ways of exploring possible answers to this question.

As I say, it’s a difficult, messy question.

I have my own answer to it, which I will share after our conversation — and, indeed, which might be changed by our conversation.


Time passed — including March Break — and the students’ conversation unfolded on-line.  It was the most contentious conversation we’ve had this semester, but — to their great credit — they remained civil even when they strongly disagreed.  I then wrote my promised response, which I reproduce below.


30 March 2018

Hi, everyone. Sorry I’ve been a little quieter this week. Have been a bit under the weather. Indeed, your El Deafo discussion (two weeks from now) lacks my second planned video because my voice is still a bit wonky.

Anyway.  To this discussion!

Thanks, as ever, for wrestling with a difficult and painful subject. You may be interested to know that — here on campus — we held a discussion on this subject before March Break.  The English Department blog published a summary of that discussion on Tuesday of this week.

In your discussion, some liken the removal of a book from a course syllabus to censorship. I see the parallel being made, but — as the creator of many syllabi — I would argue that removing a book from a course syllabus is not the same as censorship. The book is not banned. It is still for sale, and still in the library. Also, since I regularly revise my syllabi, I am often taking books off and putting others on. I do this for many reasons, including the never-ending quest to improve the course, the need to stay current (new books keep getting published), and my own need to refresh the syllabus (if I teach the same works over and over, then I risk getting stale).

Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow ThievesAnother theme I notice in your discussion is the idea that removing this book would consequently remove Native American literature from our Multicultural Children’s Lit syllabus. It wouldn’t. We could read Erika Wurth’s Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Rain Is Not My Indian Name, or Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House.  Debbie Reese makes some Native YA Lit recommendations in this blog post. There are many Native children’s and YA books to choose from. Indeed, there should be more than one on this syllabus. There isn’t because the class strives to cover as wide a range of identities as it can, which (I realize) risks making this book the “single story” that Adichie warns against.

I would, however, agree with those who note that (and I’m paraphrasing here) monstrous people have made great art, important art, influential art. Faulkner’s “go slow, now” approach to ending Jim Crow was immoral and unjust, but if I were teaching a class on twentieth-century American literature, I would assign Faulkner. If I were teaching a class on twentieth-century Native American Literature, I think I would also assign Alexie — bringing in the full context, the women who have spoken on the record, the women who have spoken off the record, those who defend Alexie and those who accuse him. We could have a more developed version of the conversation we’ve had here.

But I don’t teach a Native American Literature course. I teach a Multicultural Children’s Literature course and I teach a Young Adult Literature course. Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary has been on both of those syllabi. It will not be on either syllabus in the future. There are many reasons why, but here are four.

  1. William Faulkner is dead. Sherman Alexie is alive. If I assign Alexie’s books (and thus mandate that my students buy his books), I am continuing to pay his salary. I would rather pay the salary of a person who has managed to create good art without harming others. Since there are plenty of such people, I will be assigning Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves next time.
  2. The books I assign in both classes go on to become books that future teachers assign: Secondary Education majors take Literature for Adolescents, and I know that this class has some Education majors in it, too. So, in assigning a book, I am in essence recommending that book for tomorrow’s teachers. I am making it part of the children’s literature / YA literature canon, enshrining it in the curricula of tomorrow.
  3. Sherman Alexie’s treatment of women is diametrically opposed to the goal of a class like Multicultural Children’s Literature. As I say in that opening video, the books we read are about increasing understanding, and respecting others. I cannot in good conscience promote the work of a man who does the opposite of what this class aspires to do.
  4. As his denial/apology indicates, Alexie does not understand why his behavior was wrong. If he understood, apologized, made efforts to make amends, well, there would at least be the possibility that I might assign him again in the future. But he doesn’t get it. He says “I genuinely apologize” but also “There are women telling the truth about my behavior and I have no recollection of verbally threatening anybody or their careers.” So, which behaviors are true, then? He says, “I have made poor decisions,” but declines to name what those decisions were, which makes it hard to believe that he is “working hard to become a healthier man who makes healthier decisions.” If he does not understand why his behavior was wrong, then he cannot learn from his past. You need to know why a mistake is a mistake in order to change.

Because, yes, as some of you have correctly noted, humans are flawed. We make mistakes. We have regrets. We do things we should not do. And we would be naïve to expect our artists, writers, actors, musicians, to be paragons of virtue. But, for me, a pattern of predatory behavior crosses a line.

Though my sense is that not all of you do, I believe the accusers. Why? Many reasons, the first of which (as I say) is that there is a pattern of behavior here. When there’s a pattern, we cannot say, “oh, it was just this one isolated incident.” Also, it’s really really hard to speak publicly about being sexually harassed or assaulted. Women who do get slut-shamed, called liars, blamed for seeking publicity, harassed further, and may face professional consequences. When a woman makes the decision to speak up, she is putting herself at risk. That’s why so many of those men named in the #MeToo movement have gone unnamed until now. Calling out the predatory behavior of powerful men (or women, but it’s usually men) is risky. It’s necessary to call them out, but it requires a level of bravery and emotional strength that not all people have — and nor should they be required to have. Surviving the traumas of harassment and assault takes a lot out of a person. (Big understatement.)

#MeToo

The emotions in this discussion have been more raw than they usually are — which is quite understandable, of course. I mention it here for several reasons, the first of which is that a couple of days have elapsed since the discussion and my response. I wish we could have had this conversation in person because then we could have addressed some of these questions in person. The asynchronous nature of this class means that we could not. But, since we could not, you should know that you all did far better than all of the on-line discussions I’ve seen on this subject. There have been much more contentious posts on recent School Library Journal articles, for example. This discussion never even approached that level of vitriol. Indeed, it was remarkably vitriol free.

That said, I recognize there may yet be some frayed nerves and lingering bad feelings. So. If anyone would like to talk with me about this, please let me know. I am willing to set up a Zoom chat for anyone who’d like it — or multiple Zoom chats. And, whether people seek those or not, I ask that you do your best to sustain the professionalism you’ve managed to sustain throughout the term. We do not have to agree with each other, but we do have to make an effort to understand and respect each other.

For the record, I respect the variety of opinions offered here. I’ve given you my response because I promised that I would. But, as I’ve said before, you do not need to agree with my assessment of a book or, in this case, whether to teach the work of a particular author.

For those who want to read more about this, Debbie Reese has a chronicle of the Alexie story as it unfolded (when you click on the link, scroll down).

Finally, if I may, I’d like to close with the wise words of your classmate Maria Vieyra, who (in this discussion) writes:

None of us are epitomes of perfect ethical behavior, morality, or wisdom, but I believe most of us can agree that there should be consequences for predatory sexual behavior because it does indeed hurt people. And monetary costs from boycotting a book are a small form of justice that we are all able to be a part of, and I do not think it is too heavy a price to pay for the sake of the victims and the future.

Well said.

To all of you: Thanks ever so much for taking the time to wrestle with this contentious and difficult issue. I hope that, though your own responses may differ, you all have arrived at a deeper understanding of what’s at stake in either retaining a book or removing it.


So… that was our class discussion. Also, I didn’t mention this in my response above, but most students thought I should continue to teach Alexie.  Five students — all of them women — argued against teaching his work. (18 students participated in the discussion.)

I would not claim to have the “right” answer to the question of whether to teach Alexie. This is just my answer.  I would say, though, that each syllabus is a political document that is built on moral choices.  What we include on a syllabi and what we omit from that syllabi are deeply enmeshed in morality and in politics — which, of course, makes the creation of any syllabus fraught, complicated, and on some level unsatisfying.  (Or, at least, that’s my experience: I am never 100% happy with any syllabus I’ve created.)

Art is always political.  So is teaching.  We cannot pretend otherwise.

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Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails (at From The Square: The NYU Press Blog)

NYU PressIn recognition of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, I’ve written a short piece for From the Square: The NYU Press Blog.  It’s called “Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails.”  Here’s a brief excerpt:

While censorship will not keep young people safe, censors and would-be censors are right about two things. First, books have power. Second, responsible adults should help guide young people through the hazards of the adult world.

However, like all attempts to safeguard children’s innocence, removing books from libraries and curricula are not only doomed to failure; they are an abdication of adult responsibility and, as Marah Gubar writes of associating innocence with childhood, “potentially damaging to the wellbeing of actual young people.” A responsible adult recognizes that innocence is a negative state — an absence of knowledge and experience — and thus cannot be sustained. Shielding children from books that offer insight into the world’s dangers puts these children at risk. As Meg Rosoff notes, “If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.” Books offer a safe space in which to have conversations about difficult subjects. Taking these books out of circulation diminishes understanding and increases anxiety.

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Ferguson: Response & Resources

This post has two parts: my response and some resources for teaching about Ferguson. Feel free to skip ahead to the resources section.


My Response

Watts 1965 & Ferguson 2014For two weeks now, I have been wanting to write something about the state-sponsored terrorism in Ferguson — and all that it represents (structural racism, police brutality, militarized cops, etc.). But it makes me so angry. And depressed. And fills me with despair. (Indeed, Ferguson is one reason I’ve kept a lower profile on social media lately. The horrors of the world have been too overwhelming.)

Also, where does one begin? Can’t exactly open with a joke. Q: What’s the Ferguson police’s motto? A: To protect and to serve… white supremacy.  And NO, this isn’t funny. It’s simultaneously sad and infuriating. I mean, surely I am not the only person wondering why the entire Ferguson police force has not been disarmed and dismissed? Yes, after the establishment of a competent police chief and responsible hiring practices, ex-officers would be welcome to reapply for their former jobs. But, at present, the police force there inspires no confidence whatsoever, and represents an ongoing threat to public safety. Indeed, in my fantasy solution, the United Nations sends in peacekeepers to Ferguson. I picture Canadian soldiers wearing those baby-blue UN helmets. They could protect the citizens from the local cops, until Gov. Jay Nixon and Missouri get their act together — which, frankly, means that the UN troops would be in Missouri for a long time.

Michael Brown (1996-2014)You see? I start to write, and then that turns, first, into a rant against the corrupt cops who delayed naming the officer who murdered Michael Brown for jaywalking, in order to grant themselves time to construct an implausible alibi — an alibi that quickly unraveled (because Darren Wilson didn’t even know about the robbery at the time he killed Brown). Second, it turns into an anguish I cannot articulate. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. John Crawford. Trayvon Martin. But also…. James Byrd Jr. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Medgar Evers. Emmett Till.  And less well-known people like Recy Taylor. And the many, many other victims of American racism — an institution as old as the republic itself.

Emmett Till & Trayvon Martin

The myth of America is that it’s the land of the free and the home of the brave. The truth is that, for most of its history, America has been a white supremacist police state. Most people have bought into the American myth so thoroughly that when you confront them with this fact, they refuse to acknowledge it. So, let me rephrase this: for most of American history, people of color have had no rights that white Americans were bound to respect. For the sake of argument, let us make the provisional (and demonstrably false) claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 “ended” racism. Were that true (and it is not true), then we would have 50 years in which African Americans had rights — well, sort of. Or more rights than before 1964 — um, usually. The common date for the United States’ founding is either 1789 (adoption of US Constitution) or 1776 (Declaration of Independence), but we could also use 1619 (first enslaved Africans brought to Jamestown) or 1492 (when Columbus “discovered” a continent where people already lived, and so helped kill them via smallpox-infected blankets). So, let’s do some math for each date. The percentage at the end represents the amount of American history during which people of color have had some (although certainly not full) civil rights in the U.S.

  • 1789: 50 years out of 225. 22%
  • 1776: 50 years out of 238. 21%
  • 1619: 50 years out of 395. 13%
  • 1492: 50 years out of 522. 10%

50 years of partial civil rights — or what we might call “racism lite” — is a piss-poor record for a nation that promotes itself as the world’s greatest exemplar of democracy.

What’s more, President Obama’s election seems to have inspired a renaissance in American racism. He gets elected, and then all the racists come out in full force. There’s the structural kind of racism, such as the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, or the fake “Voter Fraud” laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, or Stand Your Ground laws (applied unequally to white gun-owners and black gun-owners). And then there’s the more personal kind, like the many racial caricatures of Obama or, yeah, whites who murder blacks and get off scot-free.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary AmericaI don’t mean to suggest that Obama’s election and re-election indicate no progress whatsoever since the founding of the republic or even since 1964-1965. Even when he won the presidency in 2008, the notion of a president of color was literally unimaginable to many people — and that’s people of all backgrounds and political persuasions. I know liberals who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries because Americans would never elect a black president. Instead, I mean to suggest that the success of Obama has helped usher in a new era of “racism without racists” (to use Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s term), in which the successes of a few people of color get used to deflect attention away from the persistence of structural racism — a racism personified by the police force in Ferguson, Missouri.

All of what I’ve said above has been better-articulated by others, I know.  So, now, here is what will I hope be a more useful contribution to the conversation — an aggregation of resources for teaching about Ferguson.


The Resources

I’m sure this is incomplete. Please add your own in the comments, below, and I will do my best to add them to these links.

Teaching Ferguson

Steve Sack, "The Talk," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 16 July 2013

Literature

Clay Bennett, "Community Relations." Chattanooga Times Free Press, 15 Aug. 2014

Children’s & YA Literature

Art

Kevin Siers, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Editorial cartoon. Charlotte Observer, 14 Aug. 2014

Analysis & Context

  • Charles P. Pierce, “They Left the Body in the Street.” Esquire. 22 Aug. 2014. “Dictators leave bodies in the street. Petty local satraps leave bodies in the street. Warlords leave bodies in the street…. A police officer shot Michael Brown to death. And they left his body in the street. For four hours. Bodies do not lie in the street for four hours. Not in an advanced society.”
  • Matt Zoller Seitz, “Different Rules Apply.”  MZS.  19 Aug. 2014.  “I went home. The other guy didn’t. That’s white privilege.”
  • Adam Serwer, “Eighty Years of Fergusons.” Buzzfeed. 25 Aug. 2014. “We have had 80 years of Fergusons. We may have more. Violence — as harmful and self-destructive as it is — sometimes works.”
  • Michael Denzel Smith, “Strange Fruit in Ferguson.” The Nation. 20 Aug. 2014. “The police didn’t hang Michael Brown, but they made a public display of his killing. They left his body lying there for all to see. The psychic toll that exerts on a community calls to mind the eerie words once sung by Billie Holiday: ‘Southern trees bear strange fruit/ blood on the leaves and blood at the root…'”
  • St. Louis American‘s Editors. “For the sake of Michael Brown.”  St Louis American. 14 Aug. 2014. “We can’t bring Michael Brown back. But we can insist on a prompt, credible, transparent investigation – under the leadership of the U.S. Department of Justice, we urge – and that his killer be brought to justice. The officer should receive the constitutionally guaranteed due process he did not give to his victim.”
  • Jesse Washington, “Trayvon Martin, My Son, and the Black Male Code.” Huffington Post. 24 March 2012. Not on Ferguson in particular but on the separate-but-unequal treatment of young black men: “Across the country this week, parents were talking to their children, especially their black sons, about the Code. It’s a talk the black community has passed down for generations, an evolving oral tradition from the days when an errant remark could easily cost black people their job, their freedom, or sometimes their life.” Thanks to Sarah Park Dahlen.
  • Janee Woods, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People.” The Root 19 Aug. 2014. “White people who hate racism should work hard to become white allies. Here are some ways for a white person to become engaged, thoughtfully and critically, in examining the crisis in Ferguson and systemic racism in America.”

Primary Resources

Jim Morin, "911? I'm being followed by a stranger, and I'm scared...." Editorial cartoon. Miami Herald, 1

Activism

As I said above, I’m sure I’ve omitted useful resources.  Please let me know, and I’ll add them. (I’ve not followed this as closely as some of you have, I know. As noted at the very beginning of this blog post, the news lately has been rather overwhelming & so I’ve had to retreat a bit from social media. Ferguson. Gaza. Ukraine. Robin Williams’ suicide. Too much to take.)

Thanks to everyone who has shared links via Facebook and Twitter. I’d not have found half of these links without you all.


Update, 3:10 pm, 31 Aug: Added a short, smart response by Robin Bernstein (@RobinMBernstein), and a cartoon by Ben Sargent.

Update, 1:35pm, 29 Aug: With thanks to Kate Slater (@slaterka), added Ezekiel Kweku’s “The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a N*****r Nation” (under “Analysis & Context”); thanks to Julie Danielson (@SevenImp), added a coupe of pieces, including one on a foolish school superintendent who has banned classroom discussion of Ferguson; thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), added the MichaelBrownsCrime tumblr. And a few others…

Update, 9:00 pm, 27 Aug: With thanks to Libby Gruner, added Kia Makarechi’s Vanity Fair piece. Also added a few other pieces, many of which are thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), who — as I note above — is someone you really ought to follow on Twitter (though I think I actually found these pieces [Adam Serwer’s “Eighty Years of Fergusons” & Shaun R. Harper’s “Race Lessons from Ferguson: Back to School, Not Back to Normal.”] via her Facebook feed).

Update, 8:00 pm, 26 Aug: Added the Mary Engelbreit artwork (in “Children’s & YA” section), and a link to related news stories (under “Art”).

Update, 2:40 pm, 26 Aug: Added resources from Sarah Park Dahlen (SarahPark.com), Sophylou (True Stories Backward), Sandy Brehl (@PBWorkshop), & one or two others.

Update, 10:30 am, 25 Aug: I’ve added resources culled from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post.

Update, 10:45 pm, 24 Aug: I will add, tomorrow, some great links from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post. I’ve added a few other links.

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Calls for Papers (Children’s Literature): MLA 2015, Vancouver, BC

MLA 2015: Vancouver, BCScholars of Children’s Literature, Young Adult Literature, Children’s Culture!  Attention! Here are some calls for papers, for the 2015 Modern Language Association, held from January 8 to 11, 2015, in Vancouver, British Columbia. All are sponsored or co-sponsored by the MLA’s Children’s Literature Division. Send in a proposal to one of the organizers!  Come to Vancouver! (Whether or not you present, do come to Vancouver, if you can. It’s a beautiful city — one of my favorite cities, in fact.)

Geography and Memory in Children’s and Young Adult Literature.  DUE 15 March 2014

Investigating the conference theme of “Negotiating Sites of Memory,” this panel considers the ideological and spatial implications of physical places depicted in children’s and young adult literature. The geographies of these texts demonstrate that constructions of places and people are related processes. In works for young people, the material and the social are mutually constitutive, shaping and reflecting environments that depend on the discursive and/or physical participation of child characters and child readers alike. Importantly, these geographies as produced through literature are imagined representations rather than tangible locations, a gap that explicitly invites the contributions of memory, nostalgia, and fantasy.

Topics prospective panelists might wish to address include, but are not limited to:

  • Place’s role in the development of a children’s literature canon
  • The role of nostalgia and/or memory in shaping depictions of place in writing for children
  • The relationship or interplay between material places and literary representations (for example, Prince Edward Island and Avonlea)
  • The function of maps and illustrations in children’s texts
  • The sustained hold of specific places in children’s and YA literature on cultural imaginations and memory, including the Hundred Acre Wood, Toad Hall, the Four-Story Mistake, Mr. Brown’s antique shop, Hogwarts, Panem, the Island of the Blue Dolphins, and many others
  • Regionalism in children’s and YA literature
  • Virtual places and spaces in digital literature and/or media for young people
  • The geographies of books themselves as physical artifacts of material culture

Please send 500-word abstracts by March 15, 2014 to Kate Slater at slaterks@plu.edu and Gwen Athene Tarbox at gwen.tarbox@wmich.edu. Panelists will need to be members of the MLA by April 7, 2014.

This guaranteed panel is sponsored by the MLA’s Children’s Literature Division. The 2015 MLA will be held in Vancouver, BC from January 8-11, 2015.


Sites of Memory in Children’s Literature. DUE 15 Mar. 2014

Remembering, remembrance, memory, and forgetting shapes children’s literature: authors’ personal memories of childhood that inform their texts or are preserved in cross-written texts or memoirs; larger cultural memories adults wish to pass down to future generations; and events, incidents, and topics elided or “forgotten” in the canon. Indeed, the genre of children’s literature relies on the remembrance, reinterpretation, or revision of past works. This panel invites papers considering all aspects of memory in children’s and young adult literature (historical, literary, nostalgic, patriotic, personal, repressed, traumatic, etc.) as well as papers that explore how literary memory shapes the canon of children’s and YA literature through intertextuality, another site of memory.

Topics prospective panelists might wish to address include, but are not limited to:

  • Adult memories of childhood mined from archives, letters, diaries, memoirs, libraries, school classrooms, or childhood reading practices
  • Cultural and historical events remembered, forgotten, elided, or revised in works of children’s and young adult literature
  • The role of remembrance and nostalgia in canon formation: forgotten texts that are making a comeback (e.g., Henty’s novels in the homeschooling community) or texts that should be remembered
  • How intertextuality functions to challenge, negotiate, or reinterpret ideas of youth, children’s literature, and/or YA literature
  • Genre: historical, theoretical, or institutional practices of remembering and forgetting what constitutes children’s literature
  • Traumatic memories: how they’re represented in individual works as well as how they’re presented to younger readers
  • Iconic texts about remembrance: anything to do with war, but also “holiday” books and texts about important historical events

Please send 500-word proposals by March 15 to Karin Westman at westmank@ksu.edu.

This guaranteed panel is sponsored by the MLA’s Children’s Literature Division. The 2015 MLA will be held in Vancouver, BC from January 8-11, 2015.


World War I in Children’s LiteratureDUE: 27 Feb. 2014

Children at home dream of war; children in war zones dream of home. War poets such as Robert Service, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves were haunted by childhood narratives of home and play, to the point where they were interpreting their own immediate experience through lenses tinted by memory and childish linguistic patterns; novelists such as L.M. Montgomery, Kate Seredy, and Ethel Turner became increasingly obsessed with the identity of place and how war expands (and sometimes explodes) a community’s sense of self. Through picture books and graphic novels, fiction and nonfiction, this session invites us to pause, in this centenary of the Great War, and consider how both immediate and more long-term memories of the war were shaped by children’s literature of the period and how they are continually reshaped by contemporary authors and illustrators using very diverse techniques, including such artists as Michael Morpungo, Diana Preston, Penelope Farmer, Jacques Tardi, Jim Murphy, Kevin Major, David Hill, and Sonya Hartnett. For consideration in this unguaranteed MLA session, please send a 350-word abstract to Jacquilyn Weeks (weeksj@iupui.edu) and Lissa Paul (lpaul@brocku.ca) by February 27th, 2014.

The MLA session will be comprised of three speakers, each of whom will have 15-20min to present their research on this topic. These presentations will be followed by a 15-30min open Q&A. We’ll be looking for a set of three papers that present the strongest and most original arguments while adhering to our general guidelines.

The focus in this context is on research rather than the pragmatic details of publishing or a detailed description of published literature; however, we’d be very interested in a paper that thinks about patterns of contemporary Canadian children’s literature and it’s engagement with the First World War. You would be welcome to offer an analysis of your own work. The 350-word abstract should outline your central argument and give us a sense of what you would discuss in your 15-20min paper.

This non-guaranteed panel is sponsored by the MLA’s Children’s Literature Division. The 2015 MLA will be held in Vancouver, BC from January 8-11, 2015.


Visual Cultures and Young People’s Texts in Canada. DUE 15 Mar. 2014

Exploring visual culture produced by, for, and about young people in Canada, including comics, animation, picture books, photography, and digital forms. 350 word abstracts by 15 March 2014; Jennifer Blair (Jennifer.blair@uottawa.ca) and Catherine Tosenberger (ctosen@gmail.com).

This non-guaranteed panel is co-sponsored by the MLA’s Children’s Literature Division and the MLA’s Canadian Literature in English Discussion Group. The 2015 MLA will be held in Vancouver, BC from January 8-11, 2015.

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I Love the ’80s: Dystopia, Nostalgia, and Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's Ready Player OneKansas State University’s “K-State First” asked me to talk to undergraduates about Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One (2011), this year’s “First Book,” at a “Beyond the Classroom” event.  So, this past Tuesday (Oct. 1st), I did.  In case it may be of interest to others, I’m posting my (admittedly somewhat hastily assembled) talk here, along with some of the images and videos.

I. Dystopia

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a dystopian novel.  Can a dystopian novel be nostalgic?

For those unfamiliar with the term, dystopia is the opposite of utopiaUtopia comes from Thomas More’s 1516 work of the same name, and it imagines an ideal society.  This Utopia is the ideal republic towards which we should all strive.  And, as such, it offers a commentary on what’s wrong with society — it points to what should be improved or changed. How can we make society better?

M.T. Anderson, FeedDystopia has that same improving impulse, that same wish to comment critically on contemporary society, but it goes about delivering that message by imagining the opposite of an ideal society.  A dystopia is a thought experiment that isolates and exaggerates certain social trends in order to highlight their most negative qualities. The most famous examples are probably George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games. In other words, a dystopia offers a critique of society by imaginatively extending the logic of already extant tendencies. Margaret Atwood goes after right-wing attacks on women’s rights in the 1980s, and imagines a modern America where women are valued primarily for their ability to give birth. M.T. Anderson imagines a world where you’re always on-line because you’ve had the feed implanted in your brain; this changes our ability to think, to have complex thoughts. His characters are constantly bombarded with information, commercials, entertainment… and enjoy that… but get precious little time to actually think.

utopia vs. dystopia

A dystopia is a dark place.  You don’t want to live there.  You want to change your society so you don’t have to live there.

Reagan: Government is the problem.Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One presents a dystopian future, in which the widening gap between the wealthy elite and everyone else — a trend which begins in the 1980s, and has continued since then — has grown so wide that the U.S. is now a Third-World country.  In this world, neglected infrastructure, underfunded schools, social services have continued their decline.  This trend also begins in the 1980s, as President Reagan and his “government is the problem” acolytes start going after spending on infrastructure, schools, and other social services. It’s going on right now, actually, as the allegedly “conservative” Republican Party has decided that it’s better to shut down the government than allow more people to access health care.  Relaxing laws that regulate corporations — another ’80s phenomenon that has continued under presidents from both parties — has given the companies in Cline’s world much more power, so much power that instead of just enslaving people in other countries, they can enslave them in this one.  You don’t want to live in Cline’s vision of the future.

II. Nostalgia

Or do you?  Cline’s novel also evinces a deep nostalgia for the same period in which these trends begin: the 1980s.

Zaxxon

The videogames.

Family Ties

The television shows.

Duran Duran

The music.

The Breakfast Club

The John Hughes movies.

Of James Halliday, whose will initiates the contest that our protagonist pursues, Cline’s narrator tells us: “He had an extreme fixation on the 1980s” and “Halliday seemed to expect everyone to share his obsessions” (55).  To win the contest that grants the lucky winner control of Halliday’s corporation — the one that created and manages the OASIS, an on-line virtual reality where everyone spends most of their time — contestants must become experts in 1980s trivia.

I turned 11 in 1980.  Ernest Cline turned 8 in 1980.  James Halliday turned 7 in 1980.  (I figured this out because Wade’s name appears on the high-score chart in 2045, “After five long years” of no one solving the contest, initiated at Halliday’s death, … and Halliday died at age 67.)  Anyway.  My point is that Cline, Halliday, and myself are contemporaries.  We’re all members of the 1980s generation.

And, as a member of that generation, I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgia.

Especially the music. 1983 was the zenith of my pop-music consciousness. Name a song released that year, and I’ll tell you who the artist was and I can probably describe the video.

I then showed the students excerpts from a few 1980s music videos. For the most part, they laughed.

Billy Idol‘s “Rebel Yell” was a hit in 1983.  (It’s referenced on p. 184.)

They laughed the loudest at this, especially at Mr. Idol’s fist-pumping.

Men Without Hats‘ “Safety Dance” was a no. 3 pop hit in 1982.  (See p. 180.)

To my surprise, some students recognized this one.

And, yes, before there was Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” there was “Rock Me Amadeus,” a number one hit in 1985. Sung in German, by the Austrian performer Falco. (On p. 200.)

To my surprise, “Rock Me Amadeus” was less familiar to them.  Or so it seemed from their reaction.

They Might Be Giants‘ “Don’t Let’s Start” (1986) was not a big hit, but the book quotes this line from the song: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” (199). Also, they’re my favorite band. So, indulge me for a moment, won’t you?

Thanks.  The band’s biggest hits were probably on their 1990 record Flood: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” They would go on to sing “Boss of Me,” the theme to Malcolm in the Middle.

OK.  So.  That was fun.  For me, anyway.

III. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 1

So. What do we do with the novel’s nostalgia?  Here are two possible readings.

One is that a typical dystopian novel — or film, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is referenced in Ready Player One — isn’t nostalgic.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985)

One reading, then, is to argue that nostalgia is the opposite of dystopia.  It’s a looking backwards with very selective memory.  You’re remembering the past’s greatest hits — or the parts that you like the best.  You remember fondly weird trashy pop from the 1980s, primitive computing technology, The Breakfast Club, Family Ties, and think: ah, a simpler time.  A happier time.

Perhaps you, who are at least two decades younger than I am, look back fondly on the pop hits of 2003: Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”  I don’t know.

So, if we pursue this reading of nostalgia, we might remember what Laine Nooney said in her talk here last Friday, which was that Ready Player One has a vision of the 1980s “in which the popular was never political.”

The problem is that the actual 1980s popular culture was political.

Family Ties, a television show mentioned in the novel (14), starred Michael J. Fox as conservative teen-ager Alex P. Keaton in a liberal family.  It presented him sympathetically, and Fox is a likable actor, but the tension between liberal parents and conservative son was the main source of that show’s humor.  In this sense, it was a political television show.

In the world of popular music there was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star hit single from 1984, that raised money for famine relief in Ethopia.

(I didn’t actually show this video; I’m just putting it here for you. And yes, lines like “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas” or even the notion that the people of Africa should celebrate Christmas are, at best, problematic.)

USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” an album and single from 1985 also for famine relief in Africa.

(I didn’t show this one either.)

That same year also brought us Live Aid, an all-star concert in Philadelphia and London, broadcast live on MTV.  And then there were the Farm Aid concerts, the first of which was in 1985.  And the best all-star “benefit single” to come out of that period was Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” (1985) — masterminded by Little Steven, a.k.a. Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s band, though you may also know him from The Sopranos).

(I did show some of this video… because it’s quite an effective piece of agitprop.  And the song is great.  RUN-DMC! Lou Reed!  Bruce Springsteen!  Kurtis Blow!  U2!  Miles Davis!  Bob Dylan!  Joey Ramone!  Bonnie Raitt!)

There was also Nena’s “Red Balloons” (1983), a pop hit about stray balloons that accidentally trigger a nuclear war. The song hit number one across Europe, and number two in the U.S.  Originally recorded in German.

(I showed some of this one, too.)

And those are just the ones that got the most publicity.  There’s also:

  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” from his third album (1980) — the song that inspired Van Zandt to write “Sun City.”
  • The Clash, “Know Your Rights” from Combat Rock (1982).
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1982)
  • Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black” (1988)
  • The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984)

While we’re on the subject, who was the best-selling artist of the 1980s?  Indeed, whose album was the best-selling record of the 1980s?  And is the best-selling album, period?

At first, no one responded.  After some encouragement, one student said, “Well, I would say Michael Jackson. Thriller.” 

Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983)

Right!  Michael Jackson.  Thriller (1982) had an unprecedented 7 top-10 singles: “Beat It” (featuring Eddie Van Halen on guitar), “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “PYT,” “Human Nature,” “The Girl is Mine” (featuring Paul McCartney), “Thriller” (with guest vocal by Vincent Price).  It won eight Grammy Awards in 1984.  It’s sold about 30 million copies in the US, and another 20 million abroad.  Today, it still sells 130,000 a year.

Michael Jackson is missing from the novel.  As are a lot of artists of color.  Where’s Prince?  Purple Rain was huge.  “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” were both top-10 singles.  And then there’s 1999, which included the title song and “Little Red Corvette.”  Where’s Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine?  Her Primitive Love had three top-10 hits in 1985, and her 1987 record Let It Loose had even more, including “The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You.”  For that matter, where’s the ground-breaking collaboration and hit single from RUN-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”?

Where is hip-hop in general?  For that matter, where is Madonna?

So, one reading of the book’s nostalgia, then, is that’s regressive.  It’s nostalgia for a very particular, apolitical, very white culture.  It’s a 1980s without politics.

IV. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 2

But here’s another reading of nostalgia — reading that’s progressive instead of regressive.  It’s also possible to look back to another time in order to imagine a better future.  For example, you might write about the 1930s — in which unions in the U.S. won workers a 40-hour work week and a living wage — in order to remind people of the power of organizing.

So, in Ready Player One, we might argue, the book expresses a longing for a particular kind of gaming experience, a particular kind of technology, a technology that embraces slowness and collaboration.

Zork I

One of the keys to the puzzle in this book is the text-only adventure game Zork.  As a 13-year-old, I and my friends played Zork on an Apple IIe. We also drew elaborate maps for Zork.  And Zork II, and Zork III.  We solved them all, working together.

That was slow, but so was the technology itself.

Radio Shack's TRS-80, with cassette

Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (1977-1981)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984).

Apple IIe

The Apple IIe.

Back in 1980, when my parents bought our family’s first computer (a TRS-80), we would buy a book of programs (in BASIC), type them in, save them to a cassette tape, and then load them in when we wanted to play them.  Loading a program could take up to half an hour!  The 8-inch floppy disk was a huge leap forward in data retrieval technology.

Slowness gives you time to think, time to reflect on what you’re doing. It is not about instant gratification, but about rewards built up over time. We played these games off and on for weeks, months — for a long time.

I’ve found Zork via Frotz, a free app for the iPad and iPhone.  Let’s play it.  I’ll post the screen up here, read it to you, and you tell me what you want to do.

We played Zork.  Students discussed what they wanted to do, and called out sentences for me to type in. Here are a couple of screenshots.

Zork: screenshot (via Frotz)

 

Zork: another screenshot (via Frotz)

They laughed, and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I couldn’t have predicted it, but playing Zork was definitely the highlight of my presentation.  After we’d played for about 10 minutes, I then asked:

Have any of you ever played a text-based computer game before?

No one had. So, I asked:

What was it like?  How does the experience differ from a contemporary videogame?

One student told me that it was indeed, much slower-paced, and very unlike the typical first-person shooter games — though that wasn’t the precise term he used.

I ask, in part, because I played video games between 1980 and 1984.  Apart from the occasional game of Angry Birds, I have not played video games since that period.  And so I’m wondering if my reading of a video game like Zork — that it invites slowness and collaboration — is correct.

Perhaps they were just being polite, but students told me that the experience was indeed much as I’d described it.

Zork is, in a sense, what would also be called “interactive fiction” — something else that emerged in the 1980s, with novels like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1987), which you bought on a disk, ran the program, and then decided which paths of the narrative you wanted to take.

To conclude, I posed the following questions for them to discuss.

V. Concluding Questions

Ready Player One: Questions

As I told them, that last question was cribbed from Laine Nooney’s talk. We had a lively discussion, and then as we packed up, I played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video as our concluding music.

And that’s it!

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Fighting Rape Culture: Steubenville, Activism, and Children’s Books

Laurie Penny calls Steubenville’s “rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment.” As she says, “The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated.”  In calling it the “Abu Ghraib moment” for rape culture, Penny says, “It’s the moment when America and the world are being forced, despite ourselves, to confront the real human horror of the rapes and sexual assaults that take place in their thousands every day in our communities.”

I hope she’s right. I hope people do confront it. To create a change in a culture that condones rape, we need more than hope. We need to act. Here’s what educators might do.

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak1. Teach Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or other young adult novels that address rape and its aftermath.  (I know there are other novels that would fit the bill, but this is the one I always teach.)  And teach these books to high school students.

Anderson’s Speak is a sensitive, thoughtful examination of rape and its aftermath. It also has many moments of dark humor: The book’s protagonist, Melinda Sordino, has an incisive wit. It’s hard to imagine a teenage male (or, really, anyone) reading this book and continuing to think that rape is somehow “OK.” That said, I realize that it’s a lot to expect a single book to change rape culture.  So, we should also…

2. Debunk myths about rape. When I teach Speak, I always tell my students the following, often framed by the comment that they probably already know this. But, post-Steubenville, I realize I cannot take that knowledge for granted. Indeed, just last week, a local weekly in Manhattan Kansas (where I live and work) published some breathtaking stupidity on the subject of rape.

So, then, here is what I do. I ask them to define rape, and we debunk the myths.

I ask: Define rape.  What is it?

  • rape myth: the person fails to say “no,” and so silence means “yes”; or “no” may mean “yes” if it’s said in a certain way…
  • rape: In fact, no means no.  Rape is sexual intercourse with someone without that person’s consent.  If you have sexual intercourse with someone and you do not have their consent, that’s rape. Two very good examples from the novel: Melinda remembering the party, back in August (133-36); Melinda imagining receiving counsel from Oprah et al (164).
  • rape myth: that men are at the mercy of their sexual drives and therefore rape when they are overly frustrated or when the opportunity arises.  That’s false.
  • rape is a crime of power, not of desire.  Rapists often speak not of their sexual arousal or attraction to their victims, but of their desire to hurt or dominate them.
  • rape myth: Rapes occur on dark deserted streets between strangers.
  • rape: In fact, a majority of rapists and victims know each other.  Rapes often occur in the home.  Many women experience date rape or acquaintance rape.  In other words, you’re more likely to be raped by someone you know.

Or, as Mallory Ortberg writes in response to CNN’s (truly bizarre) representation of the rapists as victims, “For readers interested in learning more about how not to be labeled as registered sex offenders, a good first step is not to rape unconscious women, no matter how good your grades are. Regardless of the strength of your GPA (weighted or unweighted), if you commit rape, there is a possibility you may someday be convicted of a sex crime.”

3. “Feminist” is not a dirty word. If you support equal pay for equal work, if you think women deserve equal treatment under the law, if you believe women deserve the right to vote, then congratulations! You’re a feminist! So. Stop apologizing for being a feminist. Stop using the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but….” And when someone uses a phrase like “feminazi,” call that person out. Feminism offers a critique of the power relations between the genders, and argues that there should be a balance of power. This is a good thing. It’s not fascist. It points out that women are human beings — a basic fact which the Steubenville rapists evidently did not know. Their lack of knowledge has now landed them both in jail.

4. Teach Women’s Studies in high school. As punk-rock legend Henry Rollins writes in response to this case, we should “Put women’s studies in high school the curriculum from war heroes to politicians, writers, speakers, activists, revolutionaries and let young people understand that women have been kicking ass in high threat conditions for ages and they are worthy of respect.” He also suggests that high schools teach sex ed, and explain to students what rape is and is not.

I read the other day of a college administrator saying that Women’s Studies should be cut because it doesn’t help students get jobs. I’ve no empirical evidence that his claim is true (and neither did he), but consider this: Women’s Studies can help keep you out of jail. It can make you a better human being. A sense of human decency and lack of a criminal record would be welcome in many places of work.

5. Teach books — fiction, non-fiction — with smart, interesting, strong, three-dimensional female protagonists, and books with thoughtful, considerate male protagonists.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is at least a start.

Children’s Picture Books and Graphic Novels

    • Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline (1939)
    • Virginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow (1943). Yes, I realize that the protagonist is a snowplow, but she’s a she and a hero.
    • Ian Falconer, Olivia (2000) and its sequels.
    • Florence Parry Heide, Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated, illus. Lane Smith (2009)
    • Ellen Jackson, Cinder Edna, illus. Kevin O’Malley (1994)
    • Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)
    • Munro Leaf, The Story of Ferdinand (1936)
    • Suzy Lee, Wave (2008)
    • Suzy Lee, Shadow (2010)
    • Robert Munsch, The Paper Bag Princess, illus. Michael Martchenko (1980)
    • Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Midnight Giant (2012)
    • Antoinette Portis, A Penguin Story (2009)
    • Antonio Ramirez and Domi, Napi (2004), Napi Goes to the Mountain (2006), and Napi Makes a Village (2010)
    • Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach (1991)
    • Chris Van Allsburg, Queen of the Falls (2011)
    • Bernard Waber, Ira Sleeps Over (1972)
    • Mo Willems, Knuffle Bunny (2004), Knuffle Bunny, Too (2007), Knuffle Bunny Free (2010).
    • Jay Williams, Philbert the Fearful, illus. Ib Ohlsson (1966)
    • Jay Williams, The Practical Princess, illus. Friso Henstra (1969)
    • Jeanette Winter, Wangari’s Trees of Peace (2008)

Children’s Novels and Graphic Novels

    • Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)
    • Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes (1999)
    • Beverly Cleary, the Ramona books (1955-1999)
    • Roald Dahl, Matilda (1988)
    • Barry Deutsch, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (2010)
    • Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy (1964)
    • Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2002)
    • Virginia Hamilton, Zeely (1967)
    • Michael Hoeye, the Hermux Tantamoq series: Time Stops for No Mouse (1999), The Sands of Time (2001), No Time Like Show Time (2004), Time to Smell the Roses (2007)
    • Polly Horvath, The Canning Season (2003)
    • Diane Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
    • Hilary McKay, the Casson Family series: Saffy’s Angel (2001), Indigo’s Star (2003), Permanent Rose (2005), Caddy Ever After (2006), Forever Rose (2007).
    • Linda Sue Park, Project Mulberry (2005).
    • Katherine Patterson, The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978).
    • Sara Pennypacker, Sparrow Girl (2009).
    • Tor Seidler, The Wainscott Weasel (1993). Seidler’s male characters tend to be introspective, & thoughtful.
    • Siena Cherson Siegel, To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel, artwork by Mark Siegel (2006)
    • Maurice Sendak, The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960)
    • Roderick Townley, The Great Good Thing (2001)
    • Jean Webster, Daddy Long-Legs (1912)
    • Vera B. Williams, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart (2001)

Young Adult Novels and Graphic Novels

    • Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-1869)
    • Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak (1999)
    • Avi, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (1990)
    • Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons! (2002).  A graphic novel.
    • Kristin Cashore, Graceling (2008), Fire (2009), Bitterblue (2012)
    • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008)
    • John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (2012)
    • James Kennedy, The Order of Odd-Fish (2008)
    • Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (1957)
    • Linda Medley, Castle Waiting (2000).  A graphic novel, repr. with an intro by Jane Yolen (2006).
    • L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its sequels.
    • Terry Pratchett, the Tiffany Aching books: The Wee Free Men (2003), A Hat Full of Sky (2004), Wintersmith (2006), I Shall Wear Midnight (2010).
    • Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1998), The Amber Spyglass (2000). Lyra is a great character, but so is Will.
    • Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now (2004)
    • Sara Ryan, Empress of the World (2001)
    • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003).  A graphic novel.
    • Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
    • Virginia Euwer Wolff, True Believer (2002)
    • Jacqueline Woodson, The House You Pass on the Way (1997)
    • Jane Yolen, Briar Rose (1992)

Anthologies:

    • Marlo Thomas and friends, Free to Be You and Me (1974)
    • Jack Zipes, ed., Don’t Bet on the Prince (1986)

As I say, this list is not exhaustive — it’s just a starting point.  So, you should feel free to add other recommended titles in the comments section below.

6. Rape culture is a massive social problem. Changing it requires action at all levels of government, and all levels of education. If your senator or representative voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, publicize the fact that they are part of the problem. For example, in the state of Kansas, Senator Pat Roberts, Representative Tim Huelskamp, and Representative Mike Pompeo all voted against the Violence Against Women Act. We might phone their offices and ask them: Why do you support violence against women? Why do you enable rape culture? How often do you beat your wife? Why do you think spousal abuse should be encouraged?

Courtesy of Mother Jones, here is a list of the senators and representatives who voted against reauthorizing the act. All Democrats voted for it — except for Texas Democrat Rubén Hinojosa, who abstained. All Republicans voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act — except for six, who abstained from voting.

160 Republicans Voted Against the Violence Against Women Act

Here is a full list of every representative who voted against this legislation, with links to contact information: http://www.opencongress.org/vote/2013/h/55

7. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) has two ways you can get involved.  1) Donate to the #Speak4RAINN campaign, which helps rape survivors get the help they need. 2) Students can enter the “How Speak Spoke to Me” Contest. The prize? A visit to your class from Laurie Halse Anderson herself.

[Added point no. 7 & the above video on 5 April 2013.]

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Related content on this blog (Nine Kinds of Pie):

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Ignorance Is Not a Virtue

Boy wearing a dunce cap sitting in front of a blackboardThe critic who touts his ignorance as a virtue should not have a job as a critic.  Any “news” publication that employs such a person in this capacity is shirking its responsibility to provide well-informed discourse.

So, then.  Why would Time magazine or the New York Times employ Joel Stein?

In his “Adults Should Read Adult Books,” Mr. Stein writes,

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

Stein defends his position by admitting that he has not read the works he disparages:

I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

And so readers of the Times are left to wonder: why publish the words of a man who has not done his homework?  Is merely showing up now all that’s required to get an “A”?  If I received a paper as poorly argued as this, I would give it a poor grade.  However, having read Mr. Stein’s piece, I wonder if, in future, I should instead suggest that the student submit the paper to the Times‘ “Room for Debate” section.

The New York Times‘ motto used to be “All The News That’s Fit to Print.”  Reading Mr Stein’s piece, one wonders if the paper has changed its motto to “Anything That Fits in Print.” Or perhaps it simply holds its “Room for Debate” writers to a lower standard.

It’s worth having a debate about the aesthetic merits of literary works of all genres and for all age groups. Let’s talk about Suzanne Collins, Thomas Pynchon, Dr. Seuss, J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Virginia Woolf, Charles M. Schulz, Maurice Sendak, Herman Melville, Margaret Wise Brown, Art Spiegelman, Toni Morrison, M.T. Anderson, George Herriman, Shaun Tan, and Langston Hughes.  We should embrace arguments about taste and literary merit.  These are important conversations to have.  We are unlikely to arrive at a consensus on a canon of “great works,” but we can come to a better understanding of the mercurial standards of taste, and our own relationship to those standards.

However, an intelligent conversation requires that we, first, read the works under discussion. Given that Joel Stein fails to meet even so basic a standard as this, his continued employment as a professional journalist is baffling. So, New York Times and Time: surely, you can do better than this?

_____________

To give credit where it’s due, this brief post takes its inspiration from a conversation today on Jane Yolen‘s Facebook page, where Kevin Andrew Murphy wrote: “But the sin of Stein and [Ginia] Bellafante is not that they wrote scathing reviews, but that they wrote scathing reviews preening in their own ignorance and claiming it as a virtue.”

Image from “Who’s wearing the dunce cap? This girl” at LovelyGirls.

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Google’s Brave New World: The Feed Is Here

M.T. Anderson, FeedBut the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. It can tell you how to get them, and help you make buying decisions that are hard. Everything we think and feel is taken in by the corporations, mainly by data ones like Feedlink and OnFeed and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that’s keyed just to you, and then they give it to their branch companies, or other companies buy them, and they can get to know what it is we need, so all you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.

— M.T. Anderson, Feed (2002), p. 48

Presumably, the people at Google have not read M.T. Anderson‘s Feed.  Or, if they have, they misread his dystopia as a utopia.  Either way, Google’s new “Project Glass” is eerily familiar.

Nearly all of the comments on Project Glass’s Google Plus page are enthusiastic.  “Count me in for a beta test group!”   “Future can’t get here fast enough!”  And, of course, “Glasses are nice, but how soon can I just plug them straight into my brain?”

Google's Project Glass (photo from Google)As in the imagined future of Anderson’s novel, this earliest incarnation of the feed is external — but, as technology improves (in the book), people have it implanted.  And, as Anderson’s novel suggests, being plugged into the feed all the time exacerbates the effects of, say, being on Facebook or Twitter all the time — remarkably prescient, given that his novel came out two years before Facebook, and four years prior to Twitter.  Dramatizing the experience of always being bombarded by the feed, the novel’s main characters lack an attention span, the ability to think critically, and the capacity to use language with any sophistication.  These deficits make them easy targets for advertisers and politicians.  As Violet says,  “They’re also making you want things. Everything we’ve grown up with — the stories on the feed, the games, all of that — it’s all streamlining our personalities so we’re easier to sell to” (97).  And: “No one with feeds thinks about it, she said. When you have the feed all your life, you’re brought up not to think about thingsBecause of the feed, we’re raising a nation of idiots” (113).

So, Google, before you lead us further into this brave new world, consider for a moment.  Read Anderson’s novel.  Are you sure this is such a great idea?

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Why Meghan Can’t Read

stack of booksIn an op-ed piece that the Wall Street Journal published as an article, Meghan Cox Gurdon criticizes contemporary young adult fiction for its darkness. As she writes, “it is … possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.”  In other words, reading about troubled teens may not help console the troubled, but may in fact create more troubled teens.

Rebutting this claim, one Meghan Cox Gurdon wisely notes, “Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code.”  In other words, reading about troubled teens will not create more troubled teens.  Since Gurdon makes this point earlier in the same article, one wonders whether there are two Gurdons at work here — say, Gurdon (who deplores darkness in lit for teens) and Gurdon Prime (who recognizes that darkness need not beget darkness).

Gurdon Prime makes a strong point. Representing anorexia, bullying, rape, racism, or any of the host of challenges that teens face is different from endorsing any of those things. For this reason, Gurdon misses the mark when she accuses the “book industry” of using “the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into … children’s lives.”  As Gurdon Prime knows, representation is different from endorsement. Since Gurdon does not appear to be in as close contact with her (former, I presume?) collaborator, I’d like to amplify Gurdon Prime’s point with a few tips on how to tell the difference between representation and endorsement.

1) Which characters does the novel represent sympathetically?  With which ideas do those characters seem aligned?

2) Since detecting sympathy seems a challenge for Gurdon, here are some literary terms to keep in mind:

A. Point of view.  Whose points of view does the book represent?  If it is a third-person narrative, does it tend to align itself with particular characters?  Which ones?  When?  Why?  If it is a first-person narrative, is the narrator reliable?  Or do the narrator’s perceptions and interpretations of events fail to coincide with the implied opinions and norms of the author?  If a book gives you reason to doubt the veracity of its narrator, then you have an unreliable narrator — and you’d be wise to view this character’s words with skepticism.

B. Diction, which is a fancy term for “word choice.”  The words an author chooses convey tone, a term for the speaker’s attitude towards the object of discourse.  If, for instance, Gurdon Prime suggested that Gurdon were “a narrow-minded, nattering nitwit,” one would feel compelled to note the sarcasm in such a choice of words.  The alliterative pleasures of that repeated “n” aside, this would be an ad hominem attack on Gurdon — personal and needlessly hostile.  And such diction might make us interpret Gurdon Prime as mean-spirited, even cruel.  On the other hand, what if Gurdon Prime instead said that Gurdon were “guilty only of her concern for young people, a concern which sometimes manifests itself in language that conveys passion more than it does an ability to read critically”?  In addition to suspecting Gurdon Prime of harboring an academic affiliation, we might also note the sympathy manifest in phrases like “concern for young people” and in the politic nature of the criticism: in this claim, “language” is the culprit, not Gurdon herself.

C. Narrative structure.  Who gets the first word in the book?  Who gets the last?  What impact does structure have on point of view?

3) There are of course many other literary features to consider here.  And many novels are ambiguous, requiring the reader to think about where to place her or his sympathy.  If Collins’ The Hunger Games (one of the books Gurdon cites) invites criticism of the violent spectacle in which Katniss and other tributes must participate, how do we evaluate those moments where the novel seems to invite us to root for Katniss, hoping that her acts of violence allow her to survive?  Is Collins’ novel complicit with what it strives to critique?  Or is she hoping to make the reader uneasy, by engendering in her or him the very feelings that the novel exposes as dangerous?

I suspect that Gurdon Prime understands all of the preceding points.  Here’s hoping that Gurdon is willing to listen to her erstwhile writing partner — indeed, here’s hoping that they collaborate again.  Together, they might produce some lasting work.

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Image source: “Summer Reading,” on Howdy!

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