Before I pass you over to Susan and her daughter, I recommend you visit the previous post she contributed to Dr. Bickmore's YA Wednesday.
Through my Daughter’s Eyes: Lessons Learned from YA Lit
Dr. Susan Densmore-James, a.k.a. The Book Dealer
Elena, a.k.a The Junior Book Dealer
What I do know is this: these trips allow me to reflect, and weighing heavily on my mind are several things.
1. The amount of blame I see daily related to our current national climate and specifically the blame placed on YA lit. as an alleged factor of our young people’s problems
2. How YA Lit is really impacting our youth, and
3. How this is affecting MY youth, in particular.
I am a single parent to a wonderful (and moody) teenage girl whom I adopted from Russia. The past year has been challenging, to say the least, and with a stressful job and aging parents who are often hospitalized added to the mix, the airplane trip I just completed was the first big block of time to grapple with some of the issues I am contemplating related to YAL, society, and parenting, in particular.
As a researcher and lover of knowledge, the first impulse was to read every piece of research I could find. After near-memorization of “Attack of the Teenage Brain” (Medina, 2018) and books on bibliotherapy, I realized there are a huge number of researchers who, in many respects, can speak to the adolescents’ needs way better than I. In fact, every time I write an article, my first reaction is panic; I label myself unworthy, so I feel the need to read every publication related to the topic. I spent many hours down “the rabbit hole” reading further research on bibliotherapy, adolescence, and the value of YA lit. What did I realize? Well, a lot, but first off, I am an expert. An educator of 29 years (teaching middle and high schoolers for 17 of those), my student-given nickname of The Book Dealer based on my ability to match readers with text, and now a mom to my own teen are not weak credentials.
This past summer, my community of YAL was attacked, and specifically Crutcher’s book, Loser’s Bracket, as the author of the article selected a partial passage from the book to give evidence as to the “unbearable” darkness of young adult literature. Mr. Salerno made, as my 9th grade daughter calls it, a “big statement” in saying the lists of recommended titles by the curators of YA literature “evidently” assume that all students arrive to school traumatized in some way. (The Community responded to the article and you can read it here.) From past experience with Crutcher’s books (which were, by the way, always the top favorites of my students), I always finished his books feeling uplifted. There are always adults who are champions for kids and young characters that persevere, despite being not dealt the best hands in life. I wanted Elena’s honest opinion of Crutcher’s book and Salerno’s article.
Loser’s Bracket is the first book Crutcher has written that is told by a female character’s perspective, so I fought to get my hands on an ARC (fought because teens and adults alike want to read his work). After my daughter and I finished reading it, she wanted to be the one to write the book review (this is a good sign), as she is “The Junior Book Dealer” on my blog site. I included the review in its entirety, including her notes to teachers, as well as the concepts/themes she thought could be used for teaching this book.
The Junior Book Dealer
Chris Crutcher’s book introduces Annie, a smart, athletic girl who is in the “loser’s bracket” in basketball. She tries to stay in a tournament for as long as she can (which means losing to play longer) in hopes of seeing her birth family, or “bios,” as Annie calls them. Her birth family uses her sporting events to see her, since she is not allowed visitation time on her own terms but on her foster father’s terms. As usual, the “bios” are often late, which is the reason Annie has to extend her playing time by staying in the loser’s bracket. She is not abused or mistreated at home by her foster family, even if her foster father “Pop” is a little intense about Annie getting an athletic scholarship and about not allowing her to spend time with the “bios.” Annie knows her birth family is toxic, but she always seems to get tangled up in their many dramas. She is lucky she has a good counselor, friends, and a foster mom and brother who are her chosen family because these people support her.
Suggestions for Possible Concepts: Friendships, Chosen Family, Challenges and Perseverance, Sports Books
Lessons Learned: After reading my daughter’s review of the book and considering Loser’s Bracket, I am reminded that parents in YAL are as diverse as parents in society today. Chris Crutcher and I talked about the character of Annie (Loser’s Bracket) and T.J. (Whale Talk), I asked Crutcher about the development of parents, and he told me he always, “...keeps in mind any and all types of childrearing methods.” For this, readers are thankful, as they not only learn about other ways families operate, but many times, it helps us see ourselves in those characters, and it can give us hope and a reason to persevere.
Just recently, a young man named James sent Crutcher an email, stating that the book The Sledding Hill came to him at a time when he needed it most. James is transgender, and he was dealing with issues related to an abusive mother and the loss of the one supportive adult in his life, his grandfather.
What impressed me the most is James’s connection to so many of the characters in the book. He wrote that he felt like the character Eddie, as he mentions connecting to the character due to them both, “…looking up to someone, bonding with someone, and then having that ripped away.” He also mentioned an adult in the book, the teacher, Ms. Lewis. Her belief in “the healing power of words” is a belief James shared with her, which he mentioned to Crutcher. He also wrote to the author about the character Montana West. He said he wished he had the courage to stand up to his own Mom like Montana did to her mom.
Situations like this are a reality in today’s society, and hearing James’s story about Crutcher’s book is just one of many I have heard from young people when I was a high school teacher. James’s story was so articulately written, as he goes on to say the book was still with him after his long journey across state to a juvenile detention center and now as he moves to an independent living facility, where he gets to have “his own apartment, learn to drive, and get a job.” That book is still with James today. He told Crutcher that the book has been “read and reread so many times its definitely battered” and it is sitting in his top dresser drawer with photos of his granddad and his journal “(so, the most important things to me).” James has endured more in his short life than most do in a lifetime. His journey is one of strength and courage. He is a survivor.
My own daughter spoke to me a lot about chosen family. Even though we are close, and I feel she has a very privileged life, I am not naive enough to think that I can fill every role that she needs to be happy and to thrive. She needs her own people and the tools to navigate through her life, as well as others’ perspectives.
There is no denying that these two young people have learned some amazing lessons from Crutcher books, and what is an added bonus is how these books inspired their love of writing. As an educator, there is nothing that excites me more. As a parent, there is nothing that comforts me more than the coping skills YA Lit affords our kids. Elena mentioned several times about Annie’s bravery and willingness to ask for help. Being a parent is a tough job; I am so glad I have authors like Crutcher that give me a springboard for discussions. I might not have the words or experience, but these books do. James reminded Crutcher and me that “…every human has a story. When we hear it, everything changes.” This is a great reminder that by limiting what books our kids read, we are not sheltering them. We perhaps are keeping them from that one story that gives them hope.
Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee
The second book selection to share is the new gem by Jeff Zenter, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee. After devouring The Serpent King (if you haven’t read it, it is a must read) and falling in love with the trio of Dill, Lydia, and Travis, I knew Zenter’s next book would be one I would review for this blog, and Elena agreed (she liked the look of Zentner’s posts on my Facebook). It did not disappoint either of us.
Josie and Delia host a public access show called “Midnight Matinee”. Each week, Rayne Ravenscroft (Josie) and Delilah Darkwood (Delia) are “horror hosts” for a low-budget horror movie show, which is sandwiched in between “cheesy” comedy bits that include special guests (such as Lawson Vargas, a boy who falls head-over-heels in love with Josie). The girls’ collaboration emerged due to a collection of horror films left behind by Delia’s father when he abandoned the family and Josie’s big dream of being a star on tv.
The only big threat to the partnership is Josie’s parents. They are insisting Josie attend college in Knoxville, which would allow her to intern for The Food Channel, a position Josie claims she has no interest in taking. Also, Josie is spending a lot of time with Lawson, which is taking time away from Delia. Feeling Josie will be the next to abandon her, Delia presses Josie to attend ShiverCon, convention of all things horror. Delia is convinced that if they can meet Jack Devine, the guru of horror hosts, and impress him enough to enlist his help in bettering their show, Josie will attend college near home and continue the Midnite Matinee gig.
But things go awry in Orlando at ShiverCon. Delia learns her father might be living in Florida, sending her into a near spiral. The entire ShiverCon trip becomes a comedy of errors, as Josie and Lawson take on Jack Devine, while Delia decides whether to face her fears and confront the man she believes might be her father.
It was a huge hit with my daughter, who reminded me that I am not unlike Josie’s mom, who tends to “nag a bit” about following through to the realization of her dreams. We also discussed Delia’s single mother. My daughter was newly adopted when her adoptive father and I divorced, so luckily, she did not experience the same kind of rough patch Delia did. I was impressed that Elena made the connection between Delia’s mother and her high school friend’s mother and was able to see the similarities. She mentioned the strengths and weaknesses of the mom (both fictionally and in her friend’s life). The conversation we had was an important one, as there is no course prvided in high school to teach what makes a good parent. This book was an excellent springboard for that discussion with my daughter.
When I talked to Jeff Zentner about his characters, he had some good points that were echoed by Elena. “One of the interesting tensions of young adulthood is that you’re in this twilight between childhood and adulthood, and certain kinds of parents add to that tension more than others.” Elena said something similar related to parents. She talked about her friend who lives in poverty, and like Delia’s mom, can’t afford the items Elena and I take for granted. Delia’s mom chooses to pay bills over purchasing her own needed medication. “She is doing the best she can with what she has,” Elena said, referring to both moms. Had Elena not read Zenter’s book, this valuable revelation would not have occurred nor been a discussion Elena and I would have had. For this, I am most grateful to Zentner.
Love, Hate, and Other Filters
The third book we wanted to share is Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed. One of the teachers who participated with me in the National Writing Project mentioned that a local high school was reading Ahmed’s book as a school-wide read. Any book that is given a nod as a school-wide read always receives my interest, as this is a decision not taken lightly by adult administrators. This book had a profound impact on both my daughter and me (for different reasons).
Within the first few pages of this incredible book, the main character, Maya Aziz, has the reader feeling the pain of her struggle with over-protective parents. Not only do they not take seriously her dream of attending NYU to study film (her father calls it a “hobby” and introduces her as “the family documentarian”), her mother’s main concern is finding Maya the right husband (i.e., a Muslim boy from the right family). Maya, age 16, knows that the real insurmountable conflict is her crush on a young Caucasian man named Phil, the adorable dimpled young man who has been her long-time friend. Her parents continue to pressure her to see Kareem, a handsome Muslim male described by Maya as the “parental dream of suitability.” Maya starts to feel like her life is not her own to live.
Luckily for her, Maya has her best friend Violet and her Aunt Hina for support for what becomes a difficult year for Maya. When a terrorist attack occurs at the Federal Building in nearby Springfield, and the terrorist shares Maya’s surname, her troubles seem to escalate at an even faster clip. Her dreams feel even farther away than before when she has to deal with the aftermath of the attack and feels nothing but suspicious stares coming from her mostly white classmates, as well as seeing her parents become even more opposed to her attending school at NYU.
Both an old lady (me) and a young, spirited girl loved this book, and, quite honestly, my daughter does not like reading fiction as much as I do. Nonfiction is her book of choice. When I asked her why this book was one of her all-time favorites, she told me she can relate to Maya due to her own “brown skin and Asian eyes.” She went on to share that many times, she feels out of place in her mostly-Caucasian school. I am thankful to this author, as the conversations that ensued were invaluable, and I could better understand my daughter’s plight. Also, I was able to share my time teaching in Virginia during 9/11 and the students I had who felt as Maya did, as well as the fear I had for my Muslim friends with whom I taught in the middle school near Dulles Airport—the same middle school that American Flight 77 flew over before crashing into the Pentagon.
As an educator, I always found it difficult to find a way to talk about some topics, and books were the gateway that allowed for it. 9/11 was even a time for that, as one of my students found a way to understand 9/11 through the Heartsong books of Mattie Stepanek. These books allowed my Muslim students to talk about how ostracized they felt. Additionally, one of my students lost his dad in the tragedy. Whereas once I felt at a loss for helping kids heal, my students asked if we could make our own Heartsongs book and invite Mattie to our school. We came together to write our own book of poems, and the healing began! I will always be grateful to Mattie and his mother Jeni for their mission of peace.
When I talked with Samira Ahmed about her book, something I had not considered is an author’s use of a backstory. Ahmed shared that she “builds the backstory of the parents in my mind, even if that story doesn’t appear on the page.” Using guiding questions about motives, the parent/child dynamic, their past, the stakes for the characters—all are part of her character development. This made me stop and think. What if we used this method when considering our fellow humans’ behaviors? We all have a backstory that drives us.
Finally, I would like to reflect on Dear Martin. I know I am probably the last of my group of friends who are immersed in YAL to read this one, but I want to briefly talk about its impact on me as a parent, on my daughter as a young adult, and an entire classroom of 10th graders at a local school.
In Nic Stone’s debut YA book, Justyce McAllister is a young, African-American high school student who is well-positioned for entrance into an Ivy League university. But one night, he is doing the right thing by trying to save his on-again, off-again girlfriend from driving her car after drinking, and when a police officer arrives at the scene, Justyce is placed in handcuffs, without being given the chance to explain his story. It seems all he hears about are stories of young African American males who are placed behind bars. To add to his frustrations, despite the fact that he and his mother have worked hard to provide him a quality education in a safe school, he feels undervalued and undeserving of his scholarship by his mostly-Caucasian classmates. Add to that the feelings of hostility from the young men from his old neighborhood who feel Justyce has abandoned them for a nearly 100% Caucasian world.
The racial profiling experienced by Justyce, partnered with events in the news and the discussion that ensues in Doc’s class are just the start of Justyce’s troubles, as he has to come to grips with many distressing events in his life that impact him more than he could ever imagine. He starts to question Dr. King’s peaceful protests, which makes him wrestle with his own identity.
Reading these books gave my daughter and me an incredible opportunity for honest dialogue. My daughter was the one to point out that the issues of racism, hatred, poverty, and prejudice seem to have grown in our nation, so I know I am not alone in my thinking. The college students I teach talk about it, as well. These YA authors have gifted us with a natural, non-threatening way to talk about issues. They have created dynamic characters who give us hope and guide us in solving our own problems.
I think what is critical to remember is this: we need to open the door to adulthood for our young adults with books and discussions that allow them to experience lives different than their own. In doing so, there is a greater understanding of others along with teaching our young adults coping skills. As a two-for-one bonus, these readings and discussions promote the necessary literacy skills for adulthood.
My daughter found these books to be very “different.” She said all the books have different types of people. The characters have different stories and backgrounds and believe differently. They all have very different problems. This speaks to the importance of choice in reading in order to allow for students to self-select books that will engage and sustain their reading to allow for experiencing these differing views. When I asked Elena if she felt each book had a different theme, she sat for quite a while (I had to remember to wait and really listen, which was also a lesson I learned). She replied decisively—no. She gave me two words—hope and courage. At no time did she mention “darkness.”
As mentioned earlier, Samira Ahmed, the author of Love, Hate, and Other Filters included an author’s note that greatly impacted me, and apparently impacted my daughter, too. She tells the reader that she wrote the book out of hope and love. She writes that recent times have seen “…horrific violence. But all around us, we’ve seen people rise up, not merely against the forces of hate, but for equality and justice.” She wrote the book for those “…who bear the brunt of hate because of the color of their skin, or the sound of their name, or the scarf on their head, or the person they love; for those who are spat upon, for those who are told to ‘go home’ when they are home: you are known. You are loved. You are enough. Let your light shine.”
These words left me in awe of this author. I felt Samira’s love radiate through the kindle app on my phone. My daughter read the book on her Ipad, and I was not sure she read the author’s notes. I rushed into her bedroom and asked her. “Yes, Mom. I always read the author’s notes; you told me we need to know the purpose before we read the book. Why else do you think I could easily connect the four books to hope?” I smiled. My daughter is becoming an expert on YA Lit. I guess it is time to strike “Junior” from her title because she taught me a lesson or two.