Clothing Choices

I just read a book that made me laugh. That made me cry. That made me email fellow readers and tell them that I was glad I got a copy of the book before someone inevitably slaps a big ole medal on the cover. And I have full confidence in saying this, despite its January 11 release. (Of course, I thought this about Wintergirls, too.) If I were to say it had a flaw – and it does – because let’s face it, no book is perfect – it’s the sin of name-dropping.

Heretofore this amazingly gifted author has avoided naming the brands of clothing characters have worn. But also heretofore, this author has only ever written boy characters. Now that he has gone girl, so has some of his prose. It felt like I needed at least two hands (and that’s several fingers too many) to count the number of times the character referenced her Chuck Taylors. And I would forgive the slight of name-checking Forever 21 in re The Date Dress if there had been mention of the BFF, whose characterization was such that such things are Important, or if such choices were organic in Girl’s own character. But alas, there was not.

To me, Chuck Taylors have become the Manolo Bhlaniks or Jimmy Choos of middle class YA fiction. It became such that I would just read over the name and say…okay…she’s that girl, without ever really needing to know what a Chuck Taylor sneaker looked like. So I finally looked them up. So that’s what they are. Okay. Why do I need to know she wears these things? She, like her boyfriend, is unprecedented.

In this book’s case, I think I know what happened. The author even hinted at it. He fielded a question about the difference in writing boys vs. girls and said one main difficulty was getting the clothes right. Women in his life (spouse, editor, etc.) read the thing and their one negative comment – 16-year-old girls did not wear what he initially robed them in (flower dresses and some sort of offbeat shoe, IIRC), but they were what he remembered 16-year-old girls wearing. In 1997. So her wardrobe changed. And I, persnickety reader, am disappointed, for the character is just so “inimitable,” that the original clothing choices actually make more sense and would endear her even more to me. If that were possible.

Writers of girls: what do we do with what they wear? Is it Important? Will it date the text too much? I like it when name-dropping serves a point: satire, cultural commentary, identifier of flat characters (Gucci will always sound expensive). I hate it when it is the sole identifier of characters who are supposed to be round and when its name (or the store’s) does not signify anything some kid 20 years from now will “get.”

Is this a Gender Thing? Has anyone read a book inside a boy’s head in which he dons a Brooks Brothers for The Date Shirt when fashion is not an intrinsic part of his life? Or am I just being a crotchety old woman because I stayed up past my bedtime thinking about this book, and the clothes do not matter so much because the characters do matter to the universe and do exist beyond the oblivion of the last page?

Cast that Book Game!

I do not have a real post. With whispers of who’s directing and who may like what part, it’s become the next water cooler talk now that the book’s out and read. Since many fans are already doing this, I thought I’d cast my ballot. And dream movie. And not just based on who’s hot right now or just plain hot-looking.

The Hunger Games:

Katniss Everdeen: Hailee Steinfeld (I like her sneer. She’s also slated to hold her weight alongside Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in the upcoming True Grit.)

Gale: Dev Patel (He has the Seam look about him, is endearing in SlumDog Millionaire, and this still has him angry.)

Peeta: Matt Lauria (Watch Friday Night Lights, the latest season. He’s an honest, humble young man with the strong body of a baker’s son. He can be my dandelion any day!)

Haymitch: Johnny Depp (I really don’t think I have to justify this. Except to say he’s better at becoming characters than Robert Downey, Jr. I just see RDJ no matter who he plays. And Randy Quaid is too old.)

Prim: Chloe Moretz (Her name has been floated in circles to play Katniss. I object!)

President Snow: Zeljiko Ivanek (First saw him in The Event, a TV show this season. He just oozes evil. )

Caesar Flickman: Anil Kapoor. (I can’t read the book without thinking of his performance as the host of India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire.)

Rue: Bailee Madison (She’s supposed to be a darker-skinned doppleganger for Prim.)

BBW: The Huh? Edition

Here are some books challenged for head-scratching reasons:

  • Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. For  one person’s belief it contained “economic fallacies” and socialism. We are in the worst economy since the Great Depression. Every news cycle there’s a story about people not getting by financially. High school economics students should have access to the book and make up their own mind.
  • The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. A parent’s complaint has led to a consideration of a permanent classroom ban because it defined a term heard way back in the 1990s with the Clinton scandal. The dictionary is the place to go to for an accurate definition. Depending on the age of the students, a simpler dictionary may not have words that promote “intellectual” rigor that parents/banners so desire for their children.
  • And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. Why does this half to be more than the pictoral representation of real penguins who once took care of an egg Three Men and a Baby style? Stop pushing your agenda and impressions on children and their books. That goes for both sides?

ETA: Oh boy, just read that some parent is challenging The Hunger Games. She called it “filth.” Yes, the fictional acts are filthy and are roundly condemned by the characters. That’s the whole point of the book. A book, by the way, in which society has degraded to barbaric totalitarianism, and while pen and paper exists, books do not.

Discussion question: Matched, as well as  The Hunger Games, lack varying forms of literacy.  What other dystopic novels feature an illiterate (to any degree) populace? What role do you think the lack of books and writing plays into the degradation of social values?

It’s fairly easy to answer, I think. People who urge schools and libraries to withhold reading material from others ought to think about the slippery slope they’re toeing.

BBW: The Surprise Banned Book

Anita Silvey likes to give the same presentation for her book Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. She asks the audience to submit the title of what book they’ve learned the most from. I usually say Madeline. Other times, it’s The Giver.

Like Jonas, I learned the importance of love, the nature of love, the dignity and value of personhood. More importantly, I learned that adults can be massively wrong and the right thing to do is to challenge their ways and that not every ending is tied up in a happy, clear bow. It was the first book to upset me, and I love it fiercely.But I had no idea what could cause it to be banned. There was no foul language. Jonas and The Giver are clearly good and what the fauxtopia does is clearly bad. Maybe if the narrator explained how the pregnant girls got pregnant (since men are chemically neutered at the onset of puberty), then I could see it possibly having a content issue. But that story hole was not filled.

So why is it banned? The appalling topics of euthanasia, pill-popping (to suppress normal sexual urges), and apparently for being lewd. Uh, conservatives…it can’t go both ways.Or you were never a teenage boy nor lived with one nor read about human development and hormones. Some argue that Lowry didn’t go far enough. I think those people don’t give kids enough credit.

Here’s the thing if you read Lowry’s book and have half a brain, you get that readers are supposed to find these societal behaviors as appalling! Children will hear about these topics on the nightly news, read about them on the Internet, and encounter much worse in video games. But that’s all at home.

The underlying issue of this week is that people don’t want certain books talked about at school. School is a place of learning, but not of real life, apparently. How many parents (including the ones who challenge books) actually have conversations with their children about the good and the bad of the human experience? Do they have the vocabulary and structure with which to inspire independent thought and discernment about the topics?  How are children supposed to learn to think critically if they’re never given anything that demands a critique!

If the only problem with these books is that they’re talked about at school, then parents need to seriously question whether they want their children reading the books outside of any context with no adult guidance and then not come to you because they’re afraid you will punish them for reading that “bad” book instead of getting a loving conversation. Because that’s what happens. Kids will get exposed to bad stuff…don’t you want to be there, and if you can’t, a trained professional – like a teacher?

Here’s what should happen: At the beginning of the year, teachers send out the curriculum outlining the books the kids will read, what’s in them, and WHY they’re reading them. Parents will be strongly encouraged to read the books ahead of time or as a family during the unit. Parents shall be allowed to ask for a substitute book for their children only after having proven that they’ve read the book (and not just because Fox News said so) AND have personally selected a suitable alternative (to be judged by the teacher) that fits the curriculum for that unit. Too much work, you say, parent? Well, that’s your job. Who knows – you might learn something.

BBW: Book Facing a New Challenge, Part 2

Full disclosure: Jo Knowles was my writing instructor at Simmons College’s MFA program in Fall 2007.

Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles is featured on ALA’s Challenged or Banned List for 2009-2010. It’s wonderful that Jo’s poignant novel about overcoming peer sexual abuse is finally getting country-wide exposure, but depressing that it had to come about because a group of adults found its content “unsuited for discussion in coed high school classes” and not providing “intellectual challenge and rigor.”

Problems abound with this mindset:

1) If teenagers can’t communicate about issues in a safe, controlled environment, how will they grow up to interact with the opposite gender in other contexts?

2) Foul language, sex, abuse, drug use, etc. are parts of many teenagers’ realities, unfortunately. Withdrawing the opportunity to analyze the novel and the author’s choices may only push teenagers’ problems deeper underground.

3) The AP Literature and Language Composition exams give a suggested list of titles from which to choose in answering generic analysis questions. Students may select books off the list. Speak would be fabulous to write about in tandem with The Scarlett Letter (undoubtedly on the suggested lists). Lessons from a Dead Girl has character development, themes, and literary devices also ready for analysis.

4) I once had a friend say any middle schooler could write Ernest Hemingway books, presumably due to the simple sentence construction and “easy” diction. Actually, Hemingway, Knowles, and other modern writers’ styles are more approachable for the college-bound than Henry James or translated Russian authors. Seriously, Henry James writes in such a way that one sentence is an entire page long. Further, the themes, characters, and plots bear little meaning to teenagers’ realities. Wouldn’t it be an intellectual exercise to approach modern fiction with the same critical background?

Thankfully, the book is still available in the library and the school’s book club.

BBW: New Books Facing Challenges, Part 1

Last week, the book blogosphere was in a tizzy over a Missouri editorialist’s condemnation of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson due to two rape scenes. We all know (1) rape does not equal pornography. Pornography is sexual in nature; rape is a violent crime. And (2) the second scene was not a rape.  It was a fully clothed attempt at assault. Main character Melinda’s voice and the female lacrosse team awesomely prevented things from getting worse. Read the book more closely, WS.

Many people came to the book’s defense and the reasons why this book should be allowed in curricula. So I wanted to tackle something different: banning political ideologies.

This person in Missouri (WS) must have thought that his role as John Q. Public was to act in the public’s best interest. After all, he is a taxpayer and his dollars are funding the school program that includes this book in the curriculum. His children are home-schooled.  What we really have here is an adult with his own ideology and presuming that exercising his rights as a free citizen means to ban everyone from things that go against his ideology. The problem with that – unilaterally making a decision from an unqualified position  – that’s not democracy. That’s dictatorship.

Has WS thought of the precedent he’s trying to set? If he, just anybody, can ban a book, so can someone else.  What if a high school library had the religious texts and someone wanted to ban the one he reads because of the content in the book of Song of Songs? He had the freedom to make his choice about how his children were educated, and he acted according to what was right for his family. He is not in the position to decide what is right for other families. Has he thought about the fact he is taking away rights? I thought his kind were against that. If you want your own freedoms, you have to let others have them, too.

Banned Book Week: List Maker?

Happy Banned Book Week! Are you reading something challenged?

So often, books that are challenged are done so because the content is challenging. Something about the plot, the characters, or the diction challenges someone’s notions. That person then decides that such a book should not be made accessible to any child/teen reader. What often gets lost in the discussion is the difference between access and appropriateness. A parent deciding that because Xavier got nightmares after watching 28 Days Later, Xavier should not read The Hunger Games is valid. Parents are gatekeepers of their families to an extent. What they are not is the moral police for everyone else’s children. Some parents pre-screen books. Others read with the child and have discussions about the challenging content. These are parents acting appropriately and responsibly. To deprive a whole population of a meaningful text because the word “scrotum” (The Higher Power of Lucky) makes you personally uncomfortable is not.

I am going to guess that Girl Parts by John M. Cusick will make it on some lists. I think writers and their editors have to have some inkling that the challenging content will ruffle a few feathers. Why? It opens with a teenager committing suicide on the Internet and a Joe McFrat Jr.-type character who could care less. That apathy propels the plot to his needing companionship in the form of Rose. Rose, a robot, then challenges notions of humanity. As she explores her burgeoning sentience, she, well, explores her sentience.   The novel Deenie first dealt with that topic. Deenie has also been put on banned and challenge lists.

If Girl Parts does get challenged because of that scene, teen readers will miss out on an engaging, realistic, to-the-moment read on tehcnology’s effect on human psychology. The Metro newspapers ran an article recently about people who use the Internet in their suicide plans. It’s a timely topic, especially given the latest Japanese trends of virtual girlfriends and techno rehab camps in China. Rose’s moment is just one strand in the larger web defining the human construct.

Don’t force ideas out of the classroom or libraries. School and new ideas are supposed to be challenging.