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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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.]

Related links:

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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Book-Banners Hurt Young People

Banned Books Week 2010 posterAs I look at the American Library Association’s lists of Banned and Challenged Books, one recurring theme emerges: most (though not all) depict difficulties faced by children and teens. Though the motive for banning books is protection, restricting access to these books hurts the children and teens who are most in need of them.  Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak and Maya Angelou‘s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings both addresses the aftermath of rape. Harry Potter tells of a child who thrives despite the active neglect of his foster parents. Rudolfo Anaya‘s Bless Me, Ultima depicts the experience of facing peers who ridicule you for your culture and of facing parents more invested in their dreams than your own.  Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried and Walter Dean Myers‘s Fallen Angels depicts how war shapes a young psyche.  Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole’s And Tango Makes Three shows that same-sex parents appear elsewhere in the animal kingdom, too.  Alex Sanchez‘s Rainbow Boys depicts the challenges gay teens face.

Children in vulnerable populations need to read books that help them make sense of their experiences.  As Mr. Antolini tells Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye (another frequently challenged book), “you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. … Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now.  Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles.  You’ll learn from them — if you want to. … They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end” (189).  Or ,as Holden says earlier in the novel, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author was a friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” (18).

Many of the books that have been banned or challenged are exactly the books that can be the friend to the young person who desperately needs to know that she or he is not alone, that other people have faced similar struggles.  Though there are many such teens, I have been thinking a lot about the high suicide rate among gay teen-agers.  (And, yes, Given Holden’s anxiety about “flits,” The Catcher in the Rye may not be the book to which gay teens turn.)

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Project has strikes me as particularly effective because it lets GLBTQ youth know not only that they’re not alone, but also that the traumas of high school do end and life can be good and even wonderful at times.

David Leviathan, Boy Meets BoyOf course, I’d much rather that young people lived in the world of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, where teen-agers are allowed to express their sexual preference without fear of bullying.  But we don’t live in that world.  In the past three weeks, bullying has led to the suicides of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, and others whose deaths have not made headlines.  It’s extremely hard for teen-agers to realize that life can get better for them. Videos like this can help.

I think that books can help, too.  In my Literature for Adolescents class, I teach Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World.  I teach the former for its frank depiction of sexuality, but also its magical realism, its lyrical prose, and its influence on later writers… such as Sara Ryan, who alludes to Weetzie in her novel.  I teach her Empress of the World because — in addition to being a well-written narrative — I find that my students are more likely to teach it than Weetzie Bat.  They’re able to appreciate Weetzie Bat as art, but the conception of Cherokee Bat makes some uncomfortable.Sara Ryan, Empress of the World Since many will go on to be high school teachers, I want them to have a book about gay teens that they feel comfortable teaching.

(Incidentally, I’m definitely open to other suggestions for other gay-friendly books for that “slot” on the syllabus.  Each time I teach the class, I change it a little, swapping out some books, adding new ones, and so on.  So… if you have suggestions, please place them in the comments below.)

High school can be a difficult time — especially if you’re a member of any group that’s mocked, bullied or ridiculed for being “different.”  It’s hard enough growing up knowing that, say, your government believes that your sexuality makes you unfit to serve your country in uniform.  Or growing up knowing that you need to keep your love a secret, lest you be the victim of a hate crime.  If you’re taught to feel ashamed for who you are, you may not be inclined to talk to other people.  A library is one place where you might find the books that can talk to you, and to help you know that you’re not alone.

Teen-agers of all types (different genders, sexualities, nationalities, ethnicities, body types, religions, etc.) need access to books that help them make sense of what they are going through.  Denying them access to these books contributes to their marginalization and puts them at greater risk.

Why do some parents want to deny young readers access?  I say “parents” because, according to the American Library Association, over half (55%!) of all challenges to books come from parents.  To put that in perspective, the next-highest group of challengers are patrons (13%), followed by other (11%), administrators (9%), and board members (3%).  I have to believe that, in seeking to deny readers access, these parents are acting in what (they think) is the best interests of their community.  And, certainly, the desire to protect one’s children is universal (or nearly universal) among parents — and for good reason.

But any individual young person will not match one parent’s idea of what teenage-hood (or childhood) “is” or “should be.”  There are as many different kinds of teen-agers (and children) as there are different kinds of adults.  Never do we hear an adult say, “This book is inappropriate for adults” or “adults will like this.”  Yet, if we replace the word “adults” with “teen-agers” or “children,” then we’ll see a phrase encountered far too often.  A grown-up resists generalizations about him- or her-self, but is often quite happy to generalize about younger people.  This (well-intentioned) impulse to protect young adults by upholding such generalized, abstract notions of “teen-ager” or “child” not only fails to prepare young persons for the sometimes cruel world they face, but in fact has a greater potential to make their lives harder.

I know that literature is not in itself a solution to the problems of homophobia and bullying.  But it can help diminish the effects of both. And for the friends and families of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas and all the other young GLBTQ people out there, we need to support the freedom to read.

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Speaking Out

Laurie Halse Anderson's SpeakWesley Scroggins, Associate Professor of Management at Missouri State University, thinks that Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak (1999) is “soft pornography.”  Having read and taught Speak many times, I suspect that Mr. Scroggins either lacks some basic literary skills (such as how to detect tone) or is in need of psychological counseling. As an English professor, I’m not qualified to help with the latter, but I can help him with the former.  So, Dr. Scroggins, I’m dedicating this blog post to you.

In an editorial printed on Saturday, Professor Scroggins makes the “soft pornography” allegation and then writes the following about Speak:

This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.

Professor Scroggins has described some plot elements, but has not discerned the novel’s perspective on those events.  The above summary is akin to saying of Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) that it shows firemen as pyromaniacs who start fires instead of putting them out, and burn books, too!  The book does display these events, but it does so in order to invite us to consider them critically.

Speak‘s narrator, Melinda Sordino, uses a literary technique known as irony.  When we use irony, we’re deliberately creating tension between a superficial, literal meaning, and a different, deeper, intended meaning.  If, for instance, I were to speak of George W. Bush’s eloquence or Barack Obama’s pessimism, I would be speaking ironically: the former U.S. president is as famous for his misstatements (“Bushisms”) as the current U.S. president is for his optimism.  Similarly, Melinda is speaking ironically when she writes, “I think the Merryweather cheerleaders confuse me because I missed out on Sunday school.  It has to be a miracle. There is no other explanation.  How else could they sleep with the football team on Saturday night and be reincarnated as virginal goddesses on Monday?” (29).  Here’s how you can tell.  First, statements like “It has to be a miracle” and “There is no other explanation” are hyberbole: exaggerated statements.  Indeed, in context, both are so exaggerated as to make the reader doubt their veracity.  Second, the second half of the final sentence quoted contradicts the first half: it’s not possible both to “sleep with the football team” and to be a “virginal goddess.”  Indeed, depending on one’s religious beliefs, it’s doubtful that anyone can be a “goddess” (another example of the hyperbole that engenders doubt). We might characterize the tone (speaker’s attitude towards the object of discourse) as sarcastic.  Sarcasm (which frequently involves deploying apparent praise as criticism) is a blunt form of irony.  The combination of hyperbole, contradictory statements, and a sarcastic tone helps us understand that Melinda is speaking ironically here.  Specifically, she’s criticizing the hypocrisy of a social order that endorses such a double standard in its treatment of women — treating the cheerleaders, as she says in the sentence following the one I quoted, “as if they operate in two realities simultaneously” (29-30).  Perceiving irony requires the reader to use context to detect tone.

Here, for example, is the context for Melinda’s statement, “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” (134).  Throughout the novel, Melinda speaks primarily to the reader and says very little to the other characters.  Just before she began her freshman year of high school, she went to a party, drank beer, and was raped.  The event traumatizes her.  She feels shame (survivors of rape often blame themselves), and doesn’t want to talk to anyone about what happened.  She says, “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” just as she begins to recall the events leading up to her rape.  A “gorgeous cover-model guy,” a senior whose name she does not know, begins flirting with her, and kisses her.  A little drunk, she “couldn’t figure out how to tell him to slow down,” but believes that he is attracted to her: “Nearly knocked me off my feet, that kiss.  And I thought that just for a minute there that I had a boyfriend, I would start high school with a boyfriend, older and stronger and ready to watch out for me” (135).  In other words, the statement “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” describes her state of mind prior to the senior’s sexual assault.  Inexperienced with alcohol and inexperienced with dating, Melinda is unaware that the senior’s intentions are anything other than romantic.  We, the readers, know better.  We know she is talking about the party where something happened, the party to which she has alluded many times already.  We know that something painful is about to occur.

And it does.  Immediately after she expresses the thought that the senior (who, we learn later, is named Andy) will look out for her, the next sentences are “He kissed me hard again. His teeth ground hard against my lips. It was hard to breathe” (135).  And then “A cloud cloaked the moon.  Shadows looked like photo negatives” (135).  Several words here clue the reader into the fact that something is about to go wrong.  The darkness of the “cloud cloaked” and shadows, and the uncanniness of “photo negatives” convey that Melinda’s experience is taking a dark turn. So, too, does the repetition of the word “hard” (three times) coupled (twice) with sensations of pain or distress: “teeth ground hard against my lips” and “hard to breathe.”  If you’re more than just functionally literate, you should recognize this.

Dr. Scroggins does not seem to be more than just functionally literate because he classifies the next scene as “soft pornography.”  If he finds a young girl’s rape to be sexually exciting, then he is in dire need of counseling.  Indeed, were I his employer, I would remove him from the classroom until he had undergone such counseling: such a man is a potential danger to students and colleagues.  However, Psychology is not my area of expertise.  (I earned a B.A. in English and in Psychology, but a Ph.D. in English.)  So, let us assume that the issue is literacy and not pathology.  Here is the scene he describes as pornographic:

“Do you want to?” he asked.

What did he say? I didn’t answer.  I didn’t know. I didn’t speak.

We were on the ground. When did that happen? “No.” No I did not like this. I was on the ground and he was on top of me. My lips mumble something about leaving, about a friend who needs me, about my parents worrying. I can hear myself — I’m mumbling like a deranged drunk. His lips lock on mine and I can’t say anything. I twist my head away. He is so heavy. There is a boulder on me. I open my mouth to breath, to scream, and his hand covers it. In my head, my voice is clear as a bell: “NO I DON’T WANT TO!” But I can’t spit it out. I’m trying to remember how we got on the ground and where the moon went and wham! shirt up, shorts down, and the ground smells wet and dark and NO! — I’m not really here, I’m definitely back at Rachel’s crimping my hair and glueing on fake nails, and he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me and gets up

and zips his jeans

and smiles (135-136).

The fact that the next thing Melinda does is call 911 should be a clue that the preceding experience was not meant to elicit desire.  If it aroused Dr. Scroggins, then let us assume he simply lacks sufficient literacy skils to perceive why this scene is disturbing.

Here’s why it is.  First of all, it’s a textbook case of rape: Andy (the senior) forces Melinda to have sex without consent.  He asks, “Do you want to?” Melinda at first does not reply, but then says (at the top of the long paragraph) “No.”  So, right there: rape.

Second of all, the words Melinda uses to describe the experience convey her pain, Andy’s coercion, and the subsequent trauma.  She says, “I twist my head away” — a sign of resistance.  She wants to move but cannot because he is more powerful than she is: “There is a boulder on me.” When she tries to scream, he covers her mouth with his hand.  These, not incidentally, are also signs of rape.  Rape is a crime of power, not of desire.  The moment when she thinks, “I’m not really here,” is a moment of dissociation, common when a person is experiencing trauma.  Finally, the repeated “hurts me hurts me hurts me” should give Dr. Scroggins and any reader a clue that this experience is not erotic, but painful.  It’s a crime.  It’s called rape.

If Professor Scroggins does not know the difference between rape and consensual sex, then he is a criminal waiting to happen.  If, on the other hand, he simply lacks sufficient literacy skills to read literature, then I hope that this blog posting may be of some help to him.

UPDATE, 9:00 pm.  There are many other interesting responses to this editorial.  Here are links to a few of them:

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More Metafiction for Children

Since “Metafiction for Children: A User’s Guide” went up yesterday (as the final entry on In Media Res“Children’s Culture” week), I’ve been pleased by people’s kind response to my amateur video.  Thanks, everyone!

There are far more books than I could include in the film, and there were several I had not thought of. So, I thought I’d expand the field of inquiry here with a more complete bibliography of metafictional works for young readers.

First, the titles included in the film clip:

  • Lane Smith, It’s a Book (2010)
  • Art Spiegelman, Open Me… I’m a Dog! (1997)
  • Winsor McCay, Little Nemo In Slumberland of May 2, 1909.  From The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland (1997), edited and with an introduction by Richard Marschall, and including appreciations by Maurice Sendak, Ron Goulart, Art Spiegelman, Charles M. Schulz, Chuck Jones, and Bill Watterson.
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Part 1, 1605; Part 2, 1615).  Not a children’s book.  Obviously.
  • Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (1999).  The two-page spread is from this book.
  • Dav Pilkey, the above title, and: The Adventures of Captain Underpants (1997), Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (1999), Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants (2000).
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992)
  • Walter Dean Myers, Monster (1999)
  • David Macaulay, Black and White (1990)
  • Ann Jonas, Round Trip (1983)
  • D.W. Johnson, Palazzo Inverso (2010)
  • Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld, Duck! Rabbit! (2009)
  • Charley Bowers, The Bowers Mother Goose Movie Book (1923)
  • David A. Carter, One Red Dot (2004)
  • Peter Newell, Topys & Turvys (1902)
  • David Wiesner, The Three Pigs (2001)
  • Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)

Over on In Media Res, I list the titles behind me:

  • Jon Agee’s The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988)
  • Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book (2004)
  • Roderick Townley’s The Great Good Thing (2001)
  • Johnson’s A Picture for Harold’s Room (1960)
  • Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile (2010)
  • Deborah Freedman’s Scribble (2007)
  • Laurie Keller’s The Scrambled States of America (1998)

And there are even a few back there that you can’t see (because my body blocks them from the shot):

  • Donald Barthelme, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (1971)
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (1989)

More picture books:

  • Ahlberg and Ingman, The PencilAllan Ahlberg, The Bravest Bear Ever (2000)
  • Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman. The Pencil (2008)
  • Janet and Allen Ahlberg, The Jolly Postman (1986)
  • Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)
  • Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner, Thirteen (1975)
  • Nicole Claveloux, Go, Go, Go, Grabote! (1973)
  • Michael Garland, Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook (2003) and sequels
  • Mordicai GersteinA Book (2009)
  • Shirley Glaser, The Alphazeds.  Pictures by Milton Glaser (2003)
  • Emily Gravett, Wolves (2005)
  • Emily Gravett, Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears (2007)
  • Deborah Hopkinson and John Hendrix, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (2008)
  • Roberto Innocenti and J. Patrick Lewis, The Last Resort (2002)
  • Tove Jansson, The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My (1952; English, 1996)
  • Crockett Johnson, the Harold series (1955-1963)
  • Barbara Kanninen, A Story with Pictures (2007)
  • Julius Lester, Ackamarackus. Illustrated by Emilie Chollat (2001)
  • Mike Lester, A Is for Salad (2000)
  • Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)
  • Richard McGuire, What’s Wrong with This Book? (1996)
  • Peter Newell, The Hole Book (1908), The Slant Book (1910), and The Rocket Book (1912)
  • Margie Palatini, Piggie Pie. Illustrated by Howard Fine (1995)
  • Terry Pratchett, Where’s My Cow? Illustrated by Melvyn Grant (2005)
  • Jon Scieszka and Steve Johnson, The Frog Prince Continued (1991)
  • Shel Silverstein, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book (1961)
  • William Steig, Yellow & Pink (1984)
  • Jon Stone and Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book (1971)
  • Chris Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984)
  • Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)
  • Mo Willems, We Are in a Book! (2010)

More chapter books:

  • Janet and Allan Ahlberg, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (1993)
  • Mary Amato, Please Write in This Book. Illustrated by Eric Brace (2006)
  • Avi, Nothing But the Truth (1991)
  • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010)
  • Clement Freud, Grimble (1968)
  • Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (2003), Inkspell (2005), and Inkdeath (2008)
  • Linda Sue Park, Project MulberryLois Lowry, The Willoughbys (2008)
  • Geraldine McCaughrean, A Pack of Lies: Twelve Stories in One (1988)
  • E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure-Seekers (1899)
  • E. Nesbit, “The Town in the Library, in the Town in the Library” in Nine Unlikely Tales for Children (1901)
  • Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001)
  • Linda Sue Park, Project Mulberry (2005)
  • Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006)
  • Scott Westerfield, Extras (2009)
  • The Choose Your Own Adventure books (1979-1998)

More Comics: George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, G. B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury, Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, Berke Breathed’s Bloom County.

Some Graphic Novels:

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (the graphic novel)Lynda Barry, 100 Demons (2002)
  • Daniel Clowes, Ice Haven (2005)
  • Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (1987)
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley, the Scott Pilgrim series (2004-2010)
  • Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007)
  • Art Spiegelman, Maus (1986 & 1991)
  • Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan (2000)
  • Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese (2006)

Thanks to the child_lit community (especially Tracy Barrett, Pat Bartoshesky, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Sarah Blake Johnson, Deborah Hopkinson, Kate Wooddell), Deborah Freedman (via Twitter), and to Eric Carpenter (via In Media Res) for their suggestions.

And, of course, this list is incomplete!  Please add your own favorites in the comments section, below.

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The Trauma Games

Suzanne Collins, MockingjayWar is hell.  If General Sherman (and, I expect, many others) hadn’t said it first, I suspect Suzanne Collins might have chosen those three words as a subtitle for her Hunger Games trilogy.  As its predecessors did, Mockingjay dramatizes the physical and emotional consequences of war.  It’s especially adept at displaying the scars invisible to those of us who either have not been in a war or do not know people who have. The victors of the Hunger Games cannot sleep — as Finnick says, “I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking” (156).  They are haunted by what they’ve done, and by what they haven’t done.  Even if the physical wounds heal, the emotional ones linger.  Early in the novel, after Gale admits that he’d use a bow and arrow on people if it would keep Katniss safe, she thinks, “I don’t know what to tell him about the aftermath of killing a person. About how they never leave you” (68). Like the first two books in series, the third is about trauma.

It is also about torture, which — no matter what your government tells you — is not merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.”  It’s torture.  Characters in Mockingjay have been tortured by the agents of Panem, the totalitarian regime against which the Rebels (including our heroine Katniss) fight.  Appropriately, Collins does not invite us into the scenes of torture.  She shows us what happens later, how torture’s survivors cope.  The tortures of Panem are a sophisticated cruelty, a more subtle and more damaging type of the aversion therapy scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).  One character has been soaked in water, and then given electric shocks; now, rain, the shower, water of any kind triggers a flashback to that experience.  Another has been drugged with venom, conditioned not just to doubt but to kill a loved one.  Damage inflicted on the mind, the novel suggests, is the hardest pain to bear.  As Katniss says late in the novel, “I can’t believe how normal they’ve made me look on the outside when inwardly I’m such a wasteland” (366).

Though Collins understands why people would feel the need to fight a war, Mockingjay offers a more eloquent defense of pacifism than of, say, a “just war.”  There’s a line in the book that made me think of the lists of dead troops from America’s current wars, names of people who are almost always younger than I am — people in their 20s, and sometimes as young as 17 or 18.  To say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of children killed in those wars.  This is the line.  Considering the “creature” that is a human being, Katniss observes, “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences” (377).

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