Thursday, January 19, 2012

Always, Except For Now

I am generally all for handing kids dark, difficult material and letting them work out what they can about it. Stupid, probably, given that I was a child scarred by an accidental partial viewing of a black and white version of Moby Dick. Still, if they're interested I figure let's have at it! I'm currently deciding whether 10 is too young an age for Godspell or Porgy & Bess.

Twice, though, in recent memory I have been knocked back. The first was when someone passed The Book Thief along to me. I read it, didn't love it, felt it was disturbing in a creeping, cold way and wondered why so many people were talking about it. Then someone, Chili maybe, described it as a Young Adult book. That I did find disturbing. I don't think it's inappropriate at all in terms of subject matter, it just doesn't feel like YA lit to me. Something about the way the story was told felt too adult and not young enough.

Earlier this month a children's librarian I love and trust sent me a book call The White Darkness. There's no confusion here. It's an award-winning YA book with a style and feel of books in that vein. The plot, though, the subject matter, well, I....I just don't know.

It's about the Antarctic. It's about taking an unexpected trip there. It's about family and trust and knowledge and self-esteem. It's a coming-of-age story, sure, but it's a coming-of-age against all odds story that's much more visceral than any C. S. Lewis concoction that's for sure. I didn't laugh or cry so I thought at first that the harrowing tale hadn't made me feel anything. Then I realized it had made me feel cold, hollow, and not a little despairing.

I'm glad I read it. It's sure as shit sticking with me. I can't stop talking about it. I just don't know that I'd recommend it to any young adults. I'm particularly wary of suggesting it to anyone who mirrors the protagonist; smart, sensitive, a little out of step with the in-crowd. I think those kinds of kids might find this story earth shaking.

Or maybe that's just me.


  1. See, though? It's those kinds of books - the ones that unsettle and poke and stick - that I seek out to teach to my students.

    It probably was me who told you that The Book Thief is a YA novel, and in the same breath, I'm sure I raved about it. I teach that book every year - and to freshmen - specifically BECAUSE it's difficult. I WANT my students to be off-balance, I WANT them to not know what's coming next (and to be bothered by that fact). I want them to see the grey in the plot, and to agonize along with the characters when they have to make what essentially amounts to lose-lose decisions. I want, every once in a while, for the story not to have a happy ending.

    The important part of all of this, though, is that I DON'T want them to have to work through all those things ALONE. I'm with them through every letter - and so are their classmates - so that they get to work through all of these difficult things in a community. They can argue about the relative merit of a choice with some who agree with them and others who can argue for the other side; they can ask questions and listen as I and their peers work our way through possible answers.

    I think the experience of reading in a group - with other people off of whom we can bounce our ideas and uncertainties - makes those kinds of novels work. Having a strong, stable, and trustworthy support system from which to work is the difference between leaving a novel in despair and leaving a novel richer for having had the experience.

    1. I should probably clarify about TBT. I don't think it's an unwise choice for teaching any age I just really don't see why anyone thought it was something to be shelved under YA. I also don't remember it as being especially difficult, just dark and slow and heavy. Almost everyone's mileage has varied.

      Regarding TWD, I have spent, and do spend, a lot of time talking with others about what I read. This book came to me via someone with whom I do that a lot. There's no amount of community that would change how the book made me feel NOR SHOULD IT. It's the book's job to make you feel and this one really did that. It just happened to be despair. Also fear and maybe a dose of anger, too.

      Without being too spoilery this story is not, by and large, about choices. It's about life and nature and other people swinging you along and you coming right up against the time when you could choose to die if you want. Over and over and over. (Antarctica is pretty well unpopulated but still might be the meanest place on earth.) It's about sanity and predation and deep betrayal by the people who worked hardest to gain your trust. And it's about a character growing in a way that cannot be reversed, or even soothed, mostly against her will.

      Again, I'm NOT against difficult things for any age of person. I like them. I am all for endings that don't give you all the answers. The way in which this book does that, though, is so raw that I wouldn't presume to decide that any human being was ready to confront this stuff, no matter how much support they had.

      Which is not, I suppose, to say I wouldn't recommend it. I wouldn't press that recommendation, though. It's a toughie. You might take it very hard. You might not, though. Just be prepared. Read it if you like. I won't think another thing of it if you decide against.

      I'm not sure about it but this might be in the same vein for me as Where The Red Fern Grows and Lord of the Flies. I'm really glad that no one assigned these books to me at any level of schooling. I read the latter on my own and was glad to be able to work through it on my own. I still haven't read WTRFG. I'm thinking about doing it because of a conversation with a young friend but I really don't want to. It's not an emotional journey I want to choose and it certainly wouldn't be one I'd want to go through in a group.

      And there you go. Made a perfectly cogent point then wrote an extra paragraph that takes it in another direction entirely. Whee!

  2. TWD is totally creepy, weird, unsettling and strange. I felt like part of the point was that we make assumptions about certain people (parents for example) that they must be trustworthy and smart and all the things we assume they are since we were little. The big reveal in this book is not so far off how any of us come to see our parents or other authority figure in our lives as we get older... with a shocking dose of reality.

    I didn't like TBT either. At all. I read two or three chapters and stopped. Too dark for me. Maybe I'll try again some other time, but hey, I'm the master of my own reading destiny now. If I don't like it, I can chose not to read it. Go me.

  3. I found TWD orders of magnitude more creepy than TBT. There was just something that didn't turn me loose about TBT.

    I noticed the human/parent thing but until you spoke of it here didn't see how the theme was so deeply layered into the story. Interesting to think of that in light of The Hunger Games. We love Katniss because she's an independent ass kicker but she's always been so in our knowledge of her. We don't see her through that transition the way we do in TWD. I think the extremity of the circumstances in TWD make it a really fantastic way to highlight that important milestone. And yet the extremity is what makes it so very raw and painful. But that's about right. Often it's a cold thing when we take leaps of knowledge about the people who we think are invincible.

    In other news I'm reading a really bleak non-fiction book now, Into Thin Air. Spoiler Alert: So many people die it could be written by Shakespeare. This is fucking Macbeth on a Mountain Top. Krakauer tops each chapter with a quote from a book. Usually they're about climbing and often about climbing Everest. However, at the top of the most recent chapter it's a quote from the last missive of the leader of the expedition where Oates died.

  4. First of all, I really really enjoyed, "Into Thin Air." Maybe I have a thing for bleak, snowy, cold settings where people die. Sounds a little odd, but oh well.

    Just so you know I read TWD and really really loved it even though it was so weird and creepy. But I had no idea that everyone else in the world thinks it is just weird and creepy. When we discussed it in class only my professor and I actually liked it. I might have thought twice before giving it to you - or at least giving it to you for your birthday - if I had known. But then you might have missed it. That would have been sad, right?!

    Okay, there was one other thing about this book that resonated with me in a big way. The whole idea that one can be such an outcast/freak in one setting, but then when relocated not be. So our "differentness" is only relevant compared to the people we are with. Sym so longed to fit in. She tried to fit in. But when you read about the people she was trying to fit in with - well they seemed horrid to me and I wondered why she wanted to. I didn't get this for a long time (have I gotten it yet?), but I find I am still dealing with these issues. I think, in some way, that's why I love library school - freaks and geeks and we all are there together just loving it.

  5. I'm glad you gave it to me, thank you! I'm glad I read it, too. I don't know if I want to say I liked it or not. Just not sure.

    Fitting in, why we want to, who we want to fit with, how we fit, they're things we deal with every day. I know I wouldn't be a good middle school teacher because my desire to fit in would be detrimental. I think the confusion is at its peak there. It's not gone now, though. And as a single person trying to meet other single people it's still working inside me. I love the people I hang out with but they aren't exactly conducive to meeting other singles. Do I have to go out late and drink a lot and listen to music I don't care about to meet someone? I don't know. But it's a question that seems to come up a lot.