This time Emily Wender takes a solo turn (Tara, time for you to get in line again.). She writes about a sensitive, but difficult subject. I think about the students in our classes who we need to understand and listen to. Who we need to reach out to them so they don't feel alone. Thanks Emily for leading us towards this discussion.
I found nothing about the successes of love for the young, only the opposite. What
I learned to hope for was escape, a calculated move away from my family and
community and, if possible, the good sense not to call home again. The characters that
inhabited gay literature from the 1960s to the 1990s, even if at times positive and
sympathetic, taught me to disconnect and move on. (33)
Although Banks acknowledges that there are far more LGBTQIA young adult novels in 2009 than there were in his youth, he also notes the limits of many: the “plots are mostly about individuals trying to ‘deal with’ their sexualities” (p. 35). Conflicted about their identities or facing problems because of them, these characters don’t get to work through “larger issues or more complex experiences with the world” (p.35).
Oh yeah, and Alan’s gay. It isn’t that Alan’s sexuality doesn’t contribute to the plot and his conflicts in some way; it does. In Coward, during a complicated competition constructed by his brother to torture Alan, Nathan discovers Alan is gay and threatens to tell the school. And in Dance, Alan must deal with severe bullying at school as well as with hiding his sexuality from his parents. But these conflicts exist within a broader context of problems: whether it is his father’s coldness and his mother’s passivity, his desire to be an artist and his fear to share his art, his efforts to find real friends and to be a real friend, his evolving relationship with his brother, his desire to find the voice he needs to advocate for himself at home and at school, getting over his first crush and discovering another where he least expected it, or his general wonderings about how people, even middle schoolers, can change and become new people, Alan faces the world as a full human being.
Funny, introspective, and self-deprecating, Alan takes the world seriously and can still make you laugh. For books with such dark content, it makes a difference to have a wry and honest narrator, sharing his astute and often sarcastic observations about the world around him (his almost friends, the social hierarchy at school, the minute details that signal impending doom at home, his sketchbook), his fears (losing his lucky underwear, facing Nathan, having to swim during gym class at school, sharing his sketchbook), and his utmost desires (to date Connor Garcia, to swim, and to change the world with art, which he knows is a lot to ask!).
If you haven’t yet checked out these middle grade novels, here are seven reasons to read Eric Bell’s Alan Cole Is Not a Coward and Alan Cole Doesn’t Dance:
1. Alan doesn’t know a lot about himself, but he definitely knows he likes boys.
Alan’s sexuality is one of the only things about himself that he is sure of. Although we need books that share the struggle of coming to know one’s sexuality (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe comes to mind), we also need characters, especially in middle grade novels, who simply know they are gay. In this book, we get to see a middle schooler who knows he likes boys, shares with us which boys he thinks are cute, and isn’t afraid to admit to and indulge his crushes. When responding to a bully in the second book who claims Alan was “looking at him,” Alan lets him know that he’s not his type. And oh yeah, he adds, “‘nobody likes to stare at bigots’” (p. 44). I love that even when conflicts arise around his sexuality, for Alan, being gay is never in question. In fact, the only indication we ever have that Alan is adjusting to his sexuality in some way is his choice to not use the word “gay” in the first novel, an omission that quickly changes in the second.
Bell creates a character who has so much on his plate—and so much he cares about—that it is almost impossible not to see Alan’s sexuality as just one part of his identity, often times taking a back burner to other aspects of who he is. When I taught this book with pre-service teachers this past year, many remarked on this fact: they weren’t used to reading a queer young adult novel where being queer is not the center of everything. For example, one of Alan’s major challenges in Coward is learning how to swim: Bell gives us detailed (and often funny) descriptions of Alan struggling and gaining confidence in the pool (and yes, there is great metaphorical potential in these passages as Alan practices to get his head above water), but through this plot we also get to see a 7th grader learning what it means to address fears, get help, develop friendships, learn, and experience something new.
Being gay takes more of a center stage in terms of Alan’s conflicts in the second novel, but even here, Alan warns us within the first few chapters that he is much more than a “gay seventh grader.” For example, after talking with his two best friends, Madison and Zack, about how his father wants him to take a girl to the school dance in exchange for the chance to attend the art school he has been dreaming of, Alan is frustrated by their responses: Madison thinks it’s a “logical” idea to try dating a girl, you know -- just in case, which infuriates Alan (“‘Do you think it’s ‘very logical’ for you to think about dating guys? You know, just in case?’” (p. 38)), while Zack thinks there is no way he could take a girl to the dance because such an act would utterly violate his identity. In reflecting on his disappointment with the two people who are supposed to know him the best in the world, Alan shares, “They see me as Alan the Gay kid. Not Alan the Artist Who’s Also a Gay Kid” (p. 39). Just in case, reader, you start to think of Alan as the Gay kid, he provides those wake-up calls along the way.
Kirkus Reviews notes of Coward that in its treatment of the suburban family, the book seems like it would appeal to older adolescents as well as middle schoolers. For me, Bell’s treatment of this setting is one of the reasons to read the books. These novels call into question that a suburban upbringing is inherently a safe or nurturing one—for any kid, gay or straight. Early on in Coward, Alan describes his neighborhood, and it sounds as if it should be a wonderful life:
16 Werther Street is nestled in a nice suburban neighborhood, with a little creek running
along the back end. The backyard has tall fences and a perfectly kept, pristine green
awn Dad makes sure to tend to every weekend in case the neighbors fly over with a
helicopter. The smell of fall hits me as soon as I step outside: moist grass, the neighbors’
apple cobbler, air so crisp and clear you could see straight to Seattle if you squinted
hard enough. (p.15)
Yet as soon as we enter this home and this school, we see through the facade. What happens in that grass, for example, just a few pages later? “Nathan tackles me in seconds. I try crawling out from under him, but he grabs the back of my head and forces it down into the grass, rubbing it into the dirt” (p. 24)
Or take, for example, those shared nightly meals around the dinner table--what we’ve all been told is crucial to a family’s cohesion. They are some of the most disturbing and stressful scenes in both books, full of a cutting tension. Here’s Alan describing just the beginning of the first meal we witness:
Some people say grace before dinner. They thank family, friends, food, everything in the
universe for their meal. At 16 Werther Street, in Petal Fields, Pennsylvania, you don’t
say anything before dinner. Or during dinner. Or after. You don’t say much of anything
unless you’re spoken to first, and then you say as little as possible. Nobody gets thanked
around here. (p. 9)
In fact, reading these novels made me start imagining a literature and film course designed around suburbia: American Beauty, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and even Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik could all find a home on that syllabus.
Alan comes out in the first book because he wants to take control away from Nathan or anyone else who threatens to reveal his sexuality. As it happens, it turns out that many people just don’t care. When Alan’s crush, Connor Garcia, finds out that Alan likes him, and the class bully begins making fun of Alan to Connor, Connor immediately reacts: “Alan’s cool,” he says, then adding to Alan, “But you know we can’t ever, like, uh, date and stuff, right? Cause I like girls, and you’re, y’know, not a girl?” (p. 254-255). Alan wisely lets him know that he’s pretty sure he’ll get over him anyway.
When the second book begins, we see how coming out isn’t over for Alan. He has to do it again. And again. And now that he is being bullied relentlessly by an intensely homophobic 7th grader, the stakes of being out are high, so high that he wonders about coming out in the first place:
I came out to practically the entire school at once, so there were never any gradual
steps, at least at Evergreen. But now I . . . I want to hide it. I want to hide under the
covers and stay there for weeks. I want to not get punched anymore by bigots who think
gay people have nothing better to do than plot against straight people. (p. 56)
What Bell does so well is capture the constant heteronormativity Alan faces and the very real risks of being a queer adolescent within our world, while also thematizing how all people have some kind of metaphorical closet, some way in which they obscure parts of who they are. Ultimately, although these books make it clear that coming out is an unfair constant for queer young people, they also encourage sharing who you are when it matters to you: Alan’s evolving confidence and self-knowledge is enviable, and when a girl at school eventually approaches Alan about deciding to come out as a lesbian, it occurs to Alan that coming out, like the recent public art display he installed in the school hallways, really can change someone else’s world for the better.
These books are explicit about the real physical and emotional threats to queer adolescents. At the same time, they also expose acts of bullying that can enter any adolescent’s life, even on Werther Lane. Nathan is the first bully in book one, a big brother who causes both mental and physical anguish to his brother through a complicated game he has created titled Cole vs. Cole, or CvC. The boys’ father, although rarely physically abusive, is the top bully in the novels: withholding what his children want, constantly demoralizing and demeaning them, dismissing his wife (who says almost nothing in book one), and putting his kids in impossible positions for selfish reasons. And then there are the various bullies at school who seize on anything different, whether you’re gay (Alan), “fat” (Madison), or earnestly happy and bouncing off the walls (Zack). Together, Alan and his friends support each other through various incidents of bullying while also leading efforts to change culture in their school, and for Alan, in his home.
Kindness is a popular and important theme in middle grade novels (think Stargirl or Wonder), and Bell’s books thematize kindness in challenging ways. As a reader, can I come to see Nathan, Alan’s abusive older brother in Coward, as a vulnerable human I can empathize with in Dance? Can I really see possibility for redemption in their selfish withholding father? Dance continues to push these questions onto the middle school landscape, as Alan finds himself discovering the vulnerabilities in the boy who bullies him. These books reiterate time and time how people’s unwillingness to recognize others’ full humanity is fundamentally linked to their acts of verbal or physical violence.
This past fall, my students (many of them pre-service teachers) kept coming back to a scene from Coward that highlights the pivotal role a teacher can play in the unfolding of a young person’s life. Here, in what at first seems like a benign parent conference, Alan’s English teacher, Miss Richter, questions his father, the domineering presence in Alan’s life (and someone Alan, nor anyone else in his family, has ever challenged):
“Alan has many strengths,” Dad says. “Right, Alan?”
“Right,” I say without looking up.
Miss Richter points her pencil at Dad. “Can you name one?”
Dad pauses. “What do you mean?”
“I can name many strengths of Alan’s, Mr Cole. Can you name one?”
If I could crumble into the earth, I’d do it right now. Dad looks over at me like this is
somehow my fault. (p. 197)
My students wanted to know if a conversation like this were truly feasible, and we read the rest of the scene out loud, looking at how deftly the character of Miss Richter manages to suggest to Mr. Cole that positive feedback helps Alan grow at school and could work at home as well--how, when read as a single moment within the whole conference, her question is impactful but still contextul, still appropriate. She makes a point, and she also establishes a new tenor to her relationship with Alan: although they have never spoken directly about his home life, she signals to him that she knows, at the very least, that his parents are not his cheerleaders.
One of the reasons to read YA with pre-service teachers is how many opportunities it offers to consider the divergent ways teachers, administrators, and schools intervene in the lives of young people, as well as the many ways teachers, administrators, and schools are limited in those interventions (Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is a favorite of mine for this conversation) or simply fail to make them all together. Both Coward and Dance provide various chances for readers to reflect on how schools respond to bullying, both on their grounds and in their students’ home lives.
If you haven’t yet checked out Bell’s novels, I hope you’re convinced to put them on your list. Happy reading!