This week I finished The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the book my book club and I decided to read after much, much discussion. I read this book as a seventh grader and rereading it now as a junior in college was quite different than my prior experience. As a hopeless romantic 13 year old the summer between sophomore and junior year of high school may have as well been the next millennium. That’s how old these girls were and they were all beautiful, quirky and talented in their own ways; they were practically adults and had glamorous lives compared to my current braces/band geek/ bangs/uncoordinated status. Yes, even Tibby’s job at a superstore seemed like a dream. Then they had perfectly disarranged summer romances and a pen pal network aka they had it all. *tape screeching to a stop, fast forwarding* Okay, now in 2017 I see these characters as immature, gutsy, wild-child at heart girls who have no idea how bad some of their choices are aka I grew up and it kinda sucks. Lena isn’t ideally shy, she is a prude who needs to speak up for herself. Carmen isn’t a damsel in distress, she is making the worst of a bad situation. Tibby isn’t mysterious and cool, she ignores authority and doesn’t allow happiness to exist within her. And Bridget, well she is certainly fearless, but lack of fear can lead to trouble because we were given gut feeling for a reason. Even the writing, something 13 year old me never considered, seems forced. The ethnic, economical and character differences between the girls seem forced and make it unlikely they would even be friends. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is proof some stories belong in our adolescence where reality can’t touch them.
The other book I completed this week also centered around teenaged girls. The full title would be Who Am I Without Him?: Short Stories about Girls and the Boys in their Lives and it’s not lying, that’s exactly what I was in for. Most of the stories are told by the girls themselves, but a few are told by the boys and one was in the form of a letter from an absent father. <– (That was my favorite one.) The girls are all in middle or high school and the book never says it in words, but they are all from areas with a rich African American culture. This was detectable through the vernacular used and the way characters are
described. Some of the plots involve being too shy to talk to boys, having to keep and extra eye on a boy, questions of economic class, how male and female emotions differ and how to get around religion to date. As I said, my favorite one was the last story of the collection, a letter from an absent father. He knows he has nothing to offer his daughter, so he writes advice “her mother can’t give”.
Daniel Pennac’s “Readers Bill of Rights” is everything I did as a student I did not let my teacher know I did. We get so caught up on the notion that everything done in
school is for a grade, pass or fail, to be completed with the utmost accuracy. How would that be any different for books? A student’s job is to read as many books off of a canonized list in full competition, to relate to its peculiar plot, and be able to explain various aspects in a 3 paged, double-spaced, Times New Roman sized 12-point font. Don’t forget to cite your sources in MLA format.
By the time a student is done with all this work, they have forgotten it is even possible to enjoy the whole experience. But that isn’t that the whole purpose to reading literature? To feel something, to gain an experience, to get lost in another world and learn about a different culture. Pennac’s guideline’s allow for skipping around, indulging endlessly or, in needed cases, abandonment. How can you truly understand a novel and let it resonate with you if you don’t even enjoy it? No one tells us we are allowed to put uninteresting books down. No one lets us know that not reading is an option. (I do not advocate for this one, but I do understand wanting to read a different genre.) No one let’s us know it’s okay to read at our own pace. I mean, in gym class I knew, expected even, to finish in the last half of the mile run, but Language Arts class? No way, that was my jam. The classroom was my place to be first, and someone else’s to be behind.
The “Reader’s Bill of Rights” should be hung in every classroom. Students should be allowed to know their reading rights and to question them. Teachers should be able to honestly defend and explain the rights in a way that make reading comforting and exciting.
This week I finished two books and trucked along on two other ones. The two I’m still reading? Who Am I Without Him?, the series of short stories I started last week. I read a story a night before I go to bed… most of the time. I also began The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the novel my book club has decided to read. I closed the cover on Bud, Not Buddy and Loser.
Bud, Not Buddy is about a ten-year-old orphan, who prefers to go by Bud (hence, the title). He lives in a Home and goes into a foster home where their son abuses him and Bud ends up forced to spend the night in a creepy, boobytrapped shed. He finally escapes with his suitcase of memories, his most prized possession. After spending a few days hopping between the library and soup kitchen, Bud runs into one of his friends from the Home, nicknamed Bugs. They find their way to a Hooverville, one of the many camps for people impacted by the Great Depression, named after President Hoover. Here Bugs and Bud earn their keep and Bud get his first kiss. They try to escape on the railroads, but Bud can’t make the jump. Within his suitcase of memories is a flyer for a jazz group and Bud suspects the “man with the large sideways fiddle” is his father. With determination, a few hiccups along the way, Bud finally finds the band on the blue flyer. With it comes a place to call home, a purpose in life and a family member, but not the one you would expect.
Jerry Spinelli’s Loser, the other book I finished this week, was a heart touching story about that kid who laughs too loud, loves too hard, has endless curiosity and wants to be friends with everyone. Donald Zinkoff is a loser in every sense of the word. On the very first day of school he wears a three-foot-tall giraffe hat he got from a trip to the zoo and on Saturdays, he goes to school because he just really loves school. Zinkoff wants to be a mailman, just like his dad and makes friends with all his unlikely neighbors. The kids at school find him to be a clueless comic relief, but the readers see him as a teacher’s savior. While he can’t focus and blurts out answers, he loves school and wants to learn more than anything. He has a heart of gold and a story that’ll make you laugh and cry only pages apart. I highly recommend Loser to anyone looking for a book about the underdog who loves the world.
Young adult literature is written not for someone to understand teenagers, but for teenagers to feel understood. This new golden age of young adult literature is marked by the realization that teens experience more than just heartbreaks and drama. We have seen the revelation of books addressing sexual issues from identity, to rape, to abuse; home lives from Norman Rockwell paintings to broken homes and homes in extreme poverty. These novels are not written just to entertain teenagers, but to comfort them by showing them realistic examples of their lives. Heartbreak and drama are still very real issues that need to be explored, but it’s time we look past the cliché girl-meets-boy, boy-hurts-girl storyline.
I remember learning about the birth of the teenager in the decade after WWII my junior year in American History. Growing up with my nose in every book I could find, watching all of our teenage fantasies play out in John Hughes movies and thoroughly enjoying my high school experience, I could not imagine a society sans teenagers. As the fifties and sixties introduced a new age group, authors began to write for them. Think of how fun it must’ve been to write a whole new genre, a new frontier of literature. That doesn’t mean that these authors were the first ones to write young adult literature, they were just first ones to know they were doing so. My favoritest author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote YA books before it was even an existing category! I read and reread her books over and over, shaping my likes and dislikes in literature.
Some of my favorites books have always been the Little House on the Prairie series, The Baby-Sitter’s Club books, pretty much anything by Judy Blume and any historical account of teenage girls in America from the Pilgrims to the mid-1900s. As I got older, I reveled in cheesy teen romances. I was fascinated by how many different ways love stories could (or couldn’t) work out. Every time I step into a book store or library or any other book heaven, I don’t just see colorful spines and intriguing title – I see all the ways people have taken the same 26 letters and rearranged them to make so many different stories.
Yet, through all this reorganizing, there seem to be very few teenage romances aimed at male teens. Up until recently, romance was strictly a feminine topic, a girly storyline. Maybe now in the new golden age of YA literature, we will see a rise in young adult romances focused at boys.
Most of the time novels are the easiest, most direct and enjoyable ways to take in a story, but if we introduce adolescent literature in a more elements, then we can appeal to a larger audience and perhaps plant an interest for a different sort of literature in teens. Poems, prose, epics, graphic novels and plays can all tell of the struggles of being a teen.
I started the semester off with a wide range of books. I began four books, one of which I finished, one I gave up on and two I am still working on. George, the book I completed, was like nothing I’ve ever read before. Written by Alex Gino, it is a story about a child named George. George has an older brother who tends to ignores his younger sibling, a best friend named Kelly and cries in class when Charlotte dies in E.B. White’s classic tale. This sensitive personality often leads to bullying in school, but that isn’t George’s biggest conflict; you see, George is a girl. She is a girl in every way but physically. Gino offers a sympathy and realistic view of life for a transgender child. I have never really understood the concept of being transgender and this book explains it the simplest terms, after all, it’s told from the perspective of a fourth grader. I smiled at George’s experience as she shows the world she is really Melissa. A couple parts made me cry as well at her mom’s struggle to understand what George is telling her. I highly recommend George to anyone, literally anyone.
After George, I started The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata. I read the back of the book and the first chapter in the library before I checked it out and it seemed like a book I wouldn’t normally be drawn to, but I decided to give it a chance. I got about 100 pages in and I still just couldn’t get into the story, it wasn’t capturing me. So far a young Asian girl named Summer had traveled up the Midwest with her grandparents and older brother to help harvesters in several states. This is her family’s main source of income. Her grandpa is pretty quiet, Jaz, the brother, has social issues and Summer’s grandma believes in tradition and is very strict. The family Summer’s travels with is unforgivingly rude and Summer is not a happy narrator. I do not believe in spending time on a book you do not enjoy when you could be reading your next favorite book. So around Chapter Eight I put The Thing About Luck Down and picked up Bud, Not Buddy.
I am still working on Bud, Not Buddy and a series of short stories, Who Am I Without Him?. I have a hard time sticking to just one book at a time, so I tend to read up to seven at a time. Today I also started a Jerry Spinelli novel, but you can hear about that one next week!
Around the time I was ten, I started counting how many books I read every summer. Taped to the back of my bedroom door was a notebook sheet of paper with years written down the side, a line of tally marks behind them. My goal for each summer? Beat last year’s number. And I did, until about the time I was seventeen with a full time job, a boyfriend and friends who I realized I no longer had forever with until we all went on with whatever we were doing with our lives. It’s not that I stopped reading, I just let sixteen year old Mary Anne win the competition. That piece of paper is no longer on the door, but I still have it so someday a less busy me can continue on.
At my middle school every six grader had to take a reading class. One of the first things we did was set a goal for the semester of how many pages we would read. I think the recommended number was 2,500; I wrote down 20,000. My thinking with was if I read even just ten 200 page books in the those 18 weeks I would have 20,000 no problem. After all, I had read a chapter book a day in fourth and fifth grade. My teacher wasn’t so sure. She didn’t want me to over work myself and after much persistence on my part, I was allowed to aim for 5,000 pages that semester. How sad is it that my “goal” was now a quarter of what I told myself I could easily achieve? However, I was a pretty vindictive sixth grader, so after that meeting I decided I would surpass 5,000 pages without a word. That fall I read book after book as I always had and the only clue my teacher had was the amount of times I borrowed the library pass. At the end of the semester, we added up our totals from a chart listing each book and how long it was. My total was almost 55,000 pages. The look on my teacher’s face when I handed her my folder was priceless. She allowed me to make my own goals from then on, no recommended number necessary.
I don’t remember independent reading being highly talked about or recommended after sixth grade. Sure, sometimes an English teacher would require students to read a book each quarter, but that was only one book for nine weeks. Other than that, reading was just something some people did, like playing an instrument or being on the debate team. My freshman year I could not wait to check out books at my new school library. I had almost out read the middle school library and I was ready for shelves and shelves of new selections. I remember being so proud as I set a pile of three or four books on the counter and handed my brand new student ID to the stern librarian. About a week later I brought them back and repeated my steps with a new stack of books.
Around the middle of October, after I had slid my ID across the counter top, the librarian looked up at me and asked, “What do you do with these books every week?” I began to smile, thinking she was joking, but as we made eye contact I realized she was completely serious. “I read them!”, my giggly self replied. She just nodded and gave back my ID with a bookmark. As I zipped my new collection up in my purple backpack, I wondered why a librarian of all people would ask a thing like that. As the year continued and over the next three, I learned the library was used as a place to hang out with textbooks open in front of you and use the computers for Pinterest. The books were just decorations to most of my classmates. She was truly surprised a teenager continually read for pleasure. I knew there was something wrong with this picture.
My second year of high school my English class read Lord of the Flies by William Golding and I loved it. This was one of the first times I had really seen the way art can reflect life and understood symbolism. I loved it. I had discovered a wonderful secret to something I had already loved. Now this class had jocks, geeks, bookworms, kids who only talked when they were required, kids who wore the same hoodie everyday no matter what the temperature and weirdos, like please-call-me-by-my-dragon-name weirdos who wore paper capes longer than the list of books I’ve read. As a sixteen year old sophomore, I realized this masterpiece was a metaphor for all societies – big cities ones, small town ones, ones on deserted islands and academic ones. As I read each page thoroughly and discussed the plot with passion in my reading group, I realized only a handful of my classmates shared my feelings. The rest would rather count wild pigs than finish the book, let alone make connections and predictions about it. It didn’t matter which social group they resembled, it was a book and books were pointless. It was here I realized as a teacher I could change this opinion, or at least steer kids in the right direction. Books don’t have to be boring and reading assignments don’t have to be repetitive. I could help change academic societies from a crowd of wild boys with a shell and save the Piggys before they fall from the cliff. (spoiler alert)
Senior year my first period class was in the corner of the freshmen wing in a classroom most people could never find thinking it was a janitor’s closet. The spring before you graduate not too many people want to take a first period class, let alone one that will actually make you read like World Literature when the other English electives watched movies and wrote instructions for board games. I could easily see who had intended to sign up for the class and who took it because it was the only class open. The teacher was one I had never even met before and I didn’t know what to expect. Mrs. Meyer gave us the rundown of her life the first day like any other teacher. She had gone to school years longer than necessary just for the sake of going to school, ran a restaurant with her husband and now was a teacher cause she wanted to be in a classroom again. I admired her immediately. As the semester went on, her love of learning and literature made me more confident than ever that I wanted to become an English teacher, too. At this point I had already committed to CSC and toying with the ideal of journalism. When it came time to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I learned she had read and taught the play so many times she had every line memorized. She could recite the entirety of the work due to multiple readings- she loved it that much. Whenever a kid lost their place reading out loud, she could pick up right where they had left off. I want to have the passion she has for literature and to influence students the way she influenced me.
Images courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons and the endless collection of Johnson family photos