A few months ago, a friend and fellow school librarian, sent me an interesting article from The Wall Street Journal entitled "Darkness Too Visible" (June 4/5, 2011), which examines the dark literature that is so popular with young readers.
Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail.
The author points out that as early as 40 years ago, "no-one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to young readers, and some not." Beginning with The Outsiders, still a tremendously popular book, the young-adult industry was born.
The article asks, what is our responsibility to our children (and the children we may come in contact with because of our school district jobs :) )? What do we want to put in their absorbent and impressionable brains?
I come at this question from a few different directions. As a young reader, my life was indelibly shaped with the controversial novels by Judy Blume. I vividly remember reading my first "sex" scene while slowly swinging on the playground and hoping the adult supervisor wouldn't sneak up and read over my shoulder. Some may have argued that I was too young to be reading this, but I felt empowered (as well as a bit nervous and tingly) to know that people would tell me things in a book that an adult might not say to my face. As far as "dark" books go, those are the ones that fly off the middle (and high) school shelves. During the school year, I can't keep a copy of A Child Called It (which, unfortunately, is NOT fiction) in house. I am not saying that books containing violence and sex and suicide should be pushed just for the sake of kids reading, but if I promote reading as a way to step into someone else's shoes, I won't ban them either. I pray the the dystopian societies portrayed in The Hunger Games or The Forest of Hands and Teeth won't even remotely come into existence, but the human emotions portrayed (loyalty, bravery, sorrow, camaraderie) are a real part of everyone's lives.
There are books I won't read, and when my school kids check them out, I might warn them about the darkness contained in the book. (The aforementioned Child Called It is a prime example.) I choose what I want to read and encourage others to do the same. I only got to page 80 in the young adult series Lockdown. Escape from Furnace, because the plot of sadistic alien creatures wearing the guise of humans who set young boys up only to incarcerate them into a prison where there is no escape and you had better not get close to anyone, because chances are, one night they will disappear, hit a little close to home, with my only child being a 10-year-old boy.
Yes, I will incorporate this title into my school collection. Yes, I will get the sequels as they come out. I know (by the subtitle) that they boy will escape and perhaps another child reading this book will find a way out of his/her own personal horror, or, less grandly, just be "into" the book.
I had started this blog post to tell you about a few other books I recently read that would portray the other side of the coin. Seeing as I've already gone off on a rant and want to keep you interested, I will quickly tell you about them.
From oldest to newest, I am happy to say that I have finally read My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. This Newberry Award book, written in 1959 is what I love about a book with its wonderful, courageous and ingenious character. City boy, Sam, decides that he wants to live off the land. He has heard stories all his life about the family land in the remote mountains and he makes his way there and accomplishes his goal. It was a glimpse into another time and place, where a family might let their child prove himself in this manner, without reality shows or mommy looking after him. Sam lives in a tree (the trunk, not the branches), makes his own clothing and supplies and a few friends (both human and animal). I will read the other books in this series. I will hopefully get my own son to read them.; a far cry from his own reality, I must admit.
Al Capone Does My Shirts (2004) won both the Newberry and Young Reader's Medal awards, and for good reason. Matthew ("Moose") and his mom, dad, and autistic sister move to Alcatraz Island, where his father is an electrician and a guard. This book sucked me up like a biscuit soaks butter. I was fully enthralled by this character rich story about kids who have a lot of rules to follow, but live in a time and place where they are on their own a lot. Yes, Al Capone plays a small, but inspirational role in this book. Yet again, this book has a sequel, which I will be on the lookout for.
Lastly, and those of you who have no patience with books dealing with supernatural romance can skip ahead, there is Paranormalcy. This book was recommended to me by the Bookfair rep for my local Barnes and Noble, plus the book is written by a San Diego author, so how could I resist? Evie is one of the only "normal" creatures who work for the International Paranormal Containment Agency, or is she? Dedicated to keeping the world a safer place by placing tracking and behavior modification devices on potentially dangerous creatures like vampires, werewolves and hags, Evie is challenged by nightmares, both real and in her sleep. Paranormals are being murdered and her faith in the Agency is shaken. The fairies are being evasive and one, in particular, is stalking her. And what's up with the hot guy who is practically invisible and has the gift of mirroring anyone he chooses? A great book, again with a sequel that is on my to-be-read-and-purchased-for-my-school list. (Phew!)
So, while I find a lot of merit in the concern of the New York Times author who is wondering exactly what it is we are teaching young people today, I think my own personal role is to keep reading as many of these books as I can and steering as many kids toward them as possible. That's what they pay me the big bucks for, right?!? Thanks for listening.