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Friday, June 24, 2011

Brave New Word

We must deepen our commitment to promoting media literacy with a focus on strategies that improve critical-reading skills.

Linear to Hypertext

Brave New Word

Thoughts on the new digital age
and the old problem of cultural bias --
or what could more precisely be called:


It is enviro-centrism, a kind of willful ignorance, that leads many, otherwise rational, thinking adults to insist that reading means reading a book. I define enviro-centrism as a refusal to acknowledge multiple perspectives and world-views. Beyond ethnocentric beliefs about the superiority of one's culture and cultural norms, enviro-centrism is the narrow-minded unwillingness to shake off one’s own mind-set and experience the world-view of people from a different culture, social background or, in this case, a different generation.

"Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson:
You find the present tense and the past perfect."
-- Owens Lee Pomeroy

Our current literary debate, instigated by the recent techno-revolutionary rise of digital media, is old news. When the waltz was first introduced into Europe’s ballrooms, people were scandalized and proclaimed it not to be dance at all – but merely a vulgar display. Early rock and roll was denounced as raunchy noise with no artistic merit.

Similarly, the cultural tunnel-vision of enviro-centrism is behind the modern mistaken notion that texting and online chatting don’t qualify as real writing, or that reading websites isn't really reading.

Conservative librarians, literary critics, and culturally incompetent educators are entitled to their opinions, but the digital revolution has moved us past the traditional gate-keepers. 

 "If you're yearning for the good old days,
just turn off the air conditioning."

-- Griff Niblack

In the olden days (10 years ago), if you wanted to publish – you had to go through a literary agent and the junior execs at Random House or Houghton Mifflin. Now, all you need is a web-connected PC.

Corporate publishers are not concerned with what young people should be reading, but rather, what they actually are reading. In What’s Hot and Who’s Not in Teen Magazines, Cathy Hochadel notes that even those companies still pushing paper books and magazines realize they need a presence in cyberspace if they want to survive in the real world. "From giants like Hearst to independents like Carus," Hochadel writes, "many publishers offer free access to supplemental data (videos, forums, blogs, etc.) on websites bearing the names of their magazines."

"Today's teens view technology not only as a part of life,
but as a way of life."
-- Debra Lau Whelan, Generation Tech

A July, 2011  MSNBC News article by Jane Weaver highlights findings from a recent study that show teenagers spend more time on the web than watching television, typically surfing over 16 hours a week. The average teenager texts the equivalent of five or six novels a year! Not only are young folks reading and writing, they are doing so far more than previous generations ever did!

In truth, effective text messaging is writing that requires a deep, personal interaction with words as symbols. Far from just a slanguage of abbreviated chatter, text messaging is the instant creation of code. The restrictions of the medium require its users to engage with language on the level of a poet. Texting is a process of pure word manipulation and it is addicting -- in the same way that the telephone was addicting to teens in the 1950s.

. . . But is it ART?

As for enviro-centric protestations about quality and literary merit, Linda W. Braun sums up my feelings quite well in her article, Reading -- It’s Not Just about Books. She firmly warns, "Don’t make negative judgments on the quality of what teens read simply because the reading is taking place through nontraditional means." Reading is reading -- and classics that stand the test of time will survive the digital age.

Braun also nicely articulates the need for adults to go beyond merely acknowledging and accepting new media -- to embracing it, and bravely embracing our responsibility to guide young people toward media literacy through critical-reading skills. Braun writes:

"The more willing adults are to recognize the important role that technology based reading has in teen lives, the more likely it is that teens will start to think of themselves as readers (and the adults will think of them as readers, too.) After all, that’s what we want, isn’t it? We want a world of readers, not just a world of those who read books."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beyond the Page

"Aside from engagement, comic books also help to develop
much needed analytical and critical thinking skills . . .
A common goal, regardless of the level we teach is to help
students reach beyond the page in order to ask and answer
deeper questions that the given work suggests about art,
life, and the intersection of the two."

-- Rocco Versaci,
How Comic Books Can Change the Way Our Students See Literature

Beyond the Page

Charting Radical Change

We are still in the awkward, early adolescence -- the teens -- of the digital age. Remarkably, the radical changes to literature in the 21st century's cyber paradigm shift are also analogous to the development markers of adolescence.  This can all be demonstrated through a Radical Technological Developmental Marker Matrix (RTDMM) graphed into three ideas: YouTube, iPod, and Google!

TYPE ONE - YouTube
Radically Changing Forms and Format

TYPE TWO -- iPod
Radically Changing Perspectives

TYPE THREE -- Google
Radically Changing Boundaries


Beyond the Page

These "radical change" trends are identified in several popular works of YAL that push young readers beyond the page toward metacognition. There is the cinematic deconstruction of Meyers' novel, Monster, the boundary breaking typography and risky subject matter of Rosoff's, How I live Now, and the time shifting, hip-hop lyricism of Morgan's, Sons.

Radical change is also evidenced by the emergence of digital comics, webcomics, photographic comics, and graphic novels such as Gene Yang's Printz Award-winning achievement,  American Born Chinese.


In terms of human development, American Born Chinese (ABC) is assessed as being squarely focused on the central question of adolescence -- and of young adult literature itself: Who am I? It is an age-old question, but with the invention of his cosmic comic book, Gene Yang found a new way to ask it. The novel suggests, in form and in substance, that unique new problems in life may relate to past solutions and prior cultural knowledge.

Everything Old is New Again 

The electrifying birth of the techno era brings unfamiliar changes, but those changes come in the consistent shapes and predictable patterns that have been identified throughout history at times of great technological change. The introduction of Gutenberg's printing press around 1440 was certainly such a time.

Assessing ABC in terms of literary development and style, what is most surprising is not how new, but rather how very old Yang's techniques are! Much as it magically connects a modern-day middle schooler with the ancient Monkey King of Chinese folklore -- Yang's crazy cartoon is closely tied to art of the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance.

Stop Me if You've Heard This One

Developmentally and stylistically, ABC's three, parallel plotlines make the work a triptych. Yang's multi-level frame succeeds in introducing the aspect of temporality, much like the Renaissance-era triptych with its three painted or carved panels -- generally representing past, present and future.

Similar to many Early Renaissance works, ABC's drawings consist of motionless compositions. The funniest and most poignant moments in Yang's novel are the panels of people standing motionless, staring directly out from the page.

Additional characteristics ABC and many other graphic novels share with Early Renaissance art include the use of iconography and objects as symbols to deliver meaning or point of view, and the mixing of mythic heroes and religious figures with ordinary, everyday contemporary people.

Back to the Future

Gene Yang's crazy cryptic triptych toon turns out to be the perfect vehicle for subtly  expressing some extremely sensitive issues pertaining to cultural identity, self-acceptance and personal responsibility. American Born Chinese exemplifies the type of work Rocco Versaci speaks of in, How Comic Books Can Change the Way Our Students See Literature:

"There are several graphic novels that provide a sophisticated and interesting approach to various events and issues . . . and several titles that would work well in a historical [lesson] unit."

Just as a parent might remind a teenager, we techno-pioneers must remember . . . we're not the first to go through this!  History holds lessons. Through literature, in all its creative new forms, we can connect to past lessons and chart the radical changes ahead.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Light Reading

"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark;
the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light."

-- Plato

Forced Perspective

Meghan Cox Gurdon’s recent attention-getting Wall St. Journal piece which complains of a "darkness too visible" in today’s YAL and bemoans that teen shelves have become saturated with books centered on "pathologies" is a near duplicate of Sara Mosle's New York Times article about "bleak books." Both articles are suspect.

Often times, when those in the intractably mono-cultural worlds of education, publishing and literary criticism speak of "children" – they are speaking only about White, middle class children. That’s not terribly surprising considering the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, and that nearly 90% of America’s teachers are White.

The literary world’s definition of dark may have as much to do with ethnicity and culture as literary tone and subject matter. The digital revolution has produced a substantial increase in the number of multicultural books.

Reading in the Dark

New ways to self-publish and a new crop of small publishers have made it possible for non-traditional YAL to emerge from out of the shadows into the light of the mainstream.

These are books about the young people in America that have been seen, but rarely heard from. The books only feel dark to some publishers, parents and pedagogues because they are about youth with differences -- not only differences of ethnic or so-called "racial" identity, but also differences of cultural background, social status, experiences and world-view. Along with the new century came new literature focusing on teenagers of color, gay teens, teens with disabilities and exceptionalities, teens who have suffered abuse and trauma and terrorism -- teens that, along with asking "Who Am I?" are forced to ask, "Who have you already decided I am?"

Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, offered this robust response to the "bleak book" assessments:

When some cultural critics fret about the "ever-more-appalling" YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

Reality Check

Of course, growing up gay isn’t dark or edgy if you’re gay -- or if you have gay parents. Patrick Jones speaks of what is "formal and normal." Well, when you’re the person who is sixteen and pregnant, or drug-addicted, or Black and in prison -- then that’s normal for you. It isn’t good or bad, light or dark. It is reality -- and according to recent statistics, that reality is becoming increasingly normal.

Stranger Than Fiction

"Teenagers read millions of books every year.
They read for entertainment and for education.
They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad
and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an
often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite
the callow protestations of certain adults, that books,
especially the dark and dangerous ones, will save them."

-- Sherman Alexie

Light Reading

Anybody claiming that Meg Rosoff’s brilliant masterpiece, How I Live Now, is dark – cannot have actually read the book. They likely read a book review or saw an article that mentioned anorexia, incest, violence and cigarette smoking, then they automatically assumed it was dark and ugly. The reverse is true.

How I Live Now is as magical, moving, bright and beautiful as a Brahms symphony. Yes, there are some low notes, loud moments and minor chords -- Rosoff has, after all, composed a symphony, not a harmonica solo – but that’s surely no reason to deny young people such beauty.

The novel’s beauty is due to its story, as well as the way the story is told. Rosoff’s teenaged protagonist, Daisy, and the other characters that appear, are not so much developed, as experienced through a unique narrative structure that surprises Daisy even more than us.

The story is in control, not Daisy. Her snappy "What I Did on my Summer Vacation" report is quickly turned into a romance novel, then a war story, then a tale of survival -- then it becomes something else entirely and events force Daisy to begin again at a second Chapter One.

This coming-of-age novel is finally a stunning blend of several literary styles and genres, including magic realism and dystopian fiction. How I Live Now is wholly original. Not dark -- different -- and enlightening.

Daisy’s experience is physically realized on Rosoff’s pages through a distinctive, punctuation-less poetry that continually underscores (and undermines) her ability to communicate her story in a world without rules. Rosoff’s writing style is a solution to a problem we know nothing about until the end – the second Chapter One. It’s a distinct and unforgettable writing style that manages to both clarify and mystify – like a waltz by Strauss.

Perhaps what ultimately makes How I Live Now so beautiful, is that it is so useful.

Young Daisy is as confused by the terror and taboo romance as we are. But confronted with war, sudden violence, soul-stirring love and inexplicable loss -- Daisy digs in her heels. She is determined to survive. Daisy's resourcefulness, resilience and wit reaches us, even as it teaches us to make sense of our lives in a world that is truly stranger than fiction. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Keepin' It Real

Keepin' It Real

In his forward to Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case, author Chris Crowe reveals that, for decades, he had never heard of Emmett Till. That’s more than a little strange. You don’t have to look very deeply into civil rights history to find the name, Emmett Till. 

Crowe, a Brigham Young University English professor, goes on to document the enormous amount of national and international attention Till’s case garnered. Incorporated into his text are several primary sources which prove that the events surrounding the 14-year old Black child’s murder were so hotly discussed and debated in the media that the case -- as Crowe himself concludes -- "galvanized Blacks all over the United States and set the stage for the civil rights movement to begin."

So at some point, Professor Crowe had to have found it strange that, somehow, he remained oddly in the dark about the most infamous act of racial violence in American history. But obviously, Crowe was not so disturbed by the disconnect that it altered his plan to tell Emmett Till's story.

Nonfiction, as a metacognitive catalyst, is distinct from fiction, principally due to its authority – that is to say, the trust and "willing suspension of disbelief" required for the direct conversation a nonfiction author has with his or her reader.
Everyone is free to make up their own story and sell it to the highest bidder. Either people buy it and find truth in it, or they don’t. But who has the right to relay the truth of a story that really happened? Who has the right to sell someone else’s life story? Do I even have the right to sell my own life story – if the plot involves naming names and making other people look bad?
These and other QUESTIONS guide my examination of Chris Crowe's narrative nonfiction book and the larger issues surrounding adolescent nonfiction.

Should literary critics, award judges and other
book evaluators separate YA nonfiction from
YA fiction – in the same way that documentaries
are judged differently than dramatic films?

Nonfiction activates metacognition in a very different way than fiction. While the aesthetic pleasure of poems and novels prompt interaction with concepts (strategies), nonfiction appeals to the utilitarian aesthetic of the efferent reader, inviting interaction with process (tactics). In A Universe of Information: The Future of Nonfiction, Betty Carter speaks of "the nonfiction books that guide the reader's thinking through a particular pattern."

Carter observed in her research that teens used nonfiction texts as "models for structuring their own thinking." In this way, while reading a book about card tricks, a teen may come to understand something about friendship. A book on football can provoke a realization about human behavior. The best of YA nonfiction is written with this metacognitive potentiality in mind. "Aware of the kinds of personal connections youngsters search for in their reading," Carter explains, "fine nonfiction authors foster associations between writer and reader by providing direction for thinking or doing."

Having reviewed Chris Crowe’s Getting Away with Murder, I'm forced to ask: What was he thinking?

While Crowe says his book serves to inform young people about a critical moment in the history of the American civil rights struggle, it must simultaneously serve as a model of how research is properly organized, analyzed and synthesized to create a convincing narrative of the truth -- that’s where Crowe falls short. Despite the well-written prose and glossy photos, Crowe’s facts are what lead to his nuanced narrative.  If his facts are wrong, then his narrative belongs in the category of fiction.

Considering the specific vulnerabilities and
developmental needs of teens and young adults,
should creative narrative nonfiction – as opposed
to traditional nonfiction formats and standards --
be acknowledged and approached as a wholly
separate type of YA literature?

Young people are often painfully aware of the social world and their place within it. Nonfiction books can be a life-line to America’s increasingly multicultural youth. Nonfiction addresses the central -- "Who Am I?" -- adolescent developmental marker in a way that novels, comic books and poetry simply cannot. The challenge of course, is to present valid, scholarly subject matter using inventive language and formats that will appeal to teenagers.

From cookbooks and Karate manuals to sex education texts, personal development and how-to nonfiction can be particularly effective in addressing the insecurity and feelings of vulnerability associated with adolescence. Along with books that build confidence through practical explanation -- histories, biographies and other sorts of general nonfiction can provide a young person with an empowering sense of expertise.

When a nonfiction teen publication is factually
incorrect, purposely misleading, poorly researched
or culturally incompetent -- do librarians, literary
critics, and other YAL-connected professionals have a
responsibility to recognize errors and reject the book?

Getting Away with Murder contains several factual errors. On page 47, Crowe captures the excitement of Emmett Till’s train ride to Mississippi with his Uncle Moses Wright and cousin, Curtis Jones. However, that's not what happened. By all credible accounts, Till traveled with Moses Wright and Wheeler Parker -- not Curtis Jones. Researcher, Devery Anderson notes: "Moses and Wheeler would take the train together, and Curtis would come the following week."

Considering decades of controversy about Jones, his exact date of arrival in Mississippi is certainly an important detail in the telling of Emmett Till’s story.

On page 55, Crowe recounts how Curtis Jones was sitting in front of Bryant’s Grocery Store playing checkers with an old man who, in response to Emmett Till’s misbehavior, yelled at the boys, saying Carol Bryant would "blow your brains out." However, since Jones traveled to Mississippi several days after Emmett Till, he cannot have witnessed Till’s supposed "wolf whistle" or inappropriate words. Jones did not hear an elderly bystander yell in reaction to Emmett Till’s alleged misbehavior.

Crowe misidentifies some key trial participants in the photograph on page 119 -- and throughout the book, he misspells the last name of A. A. Rayner, a funeral director who figures prominently in the story, repeatedly referring to him as "Rainer."

In this new information age, the traditional
gatekeepers are gone. Who or what will take
their place? And how does this affect the future
of YA nonfiction literature?

Chris Crowe readily acknowledges his multiple errors, and in a recent email exchange, Crowe explained his mistakes:

"Thank for catching these errors.  I'm especially embarrased [sic] by the misspelling of 'Rainer.'  . . . There are some additional errors in the text, some that I couldn't have known when I was working on the book because the full story of the crime and trial weren't available then."

Professor Crowe published his True Story of the Emmett Till Case in 2003. Curtis Jones publicly recanted his statements in 1985. A quick search using Google located an interview that Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, gave to the Chicago Tribune in 1999. She is quoted saying, "Curtis Jones had not yet even arrived in Mississippi . . . Every statement he made about being on the scene was a falsehood."

The truth is, until a few years prior to writing Emmett Till’s story, Chris Crowe had never heard it. He was so caught off guard by his total ignorance of this seminal event – he set out to repeat the story, presumably to spare others the embarrassment of not knowing about the 14-year-old that changed a nation. Unfortunately, Crowe is repeating lies.

If the full story was not available to Crowe, it's strange he chose to tell it. But it goes way beyond weird that this university researcher in Utah chose to tell the tale of a Black teenager in Mississippi using the emotion-provoking format of a story -- filling in factual blanks with his own conclusions. This level of cultural incompetence -- printed, published and permanently placed on library shelves -- borders on slander.

Crowe / Emmett Till

In truth, there is no evidence to prove, nor any reason to believe Emmett Till let out with a suggestive "wolf whistle," or that the happy-go-lucky boy grabbed or threatened Carol Bryant in any way. Crowe however, seems to accept the "wolf whistle" as fact. This is not a minor point. It goes to the truth of Emmett Till’s upbringing, his good sense, and the truth of his character.

Similarly, Crowe seems to trust the word of Emmett Till’s murderers when they describe the boy’s behavior during their kidnapping. Crowe’s lengthy Look Magazine quote of killers, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam -- depicting Till as combative and defiant throughout the violent ordeal -- goes unchallenged in the book. Not only is such behavior out of character for the Emmett Till described in Crowe’s own pages, it’s difficult to believe any child would continue to bait his tormentors throughout hours and hours of abuse. It’s far more likely the confessed killers were attempting to blame the victim for the crime -- essentially suggesting that Emmett Till committed suicide by maintaining an uppity attitude, relentlessly mouthing off, and daring the men to kill him.

"I've forwarded all these to my editor for insertion in a new edition," Crowe offers. "Unfortunately, I'm not sure when a new edition will come out.  It might make sense to release an updated and corrected edition on the 10th anniversary of the book in a couple years."

No, waiting for the 10th anniversary of getting away with falsehoods in a book sold as YA nonfiction does not make sense. Emmett Till is a larger than life, legendary folk hero and holds a special place in the hearts of scores of African Americans. Born July 25, 1941, had he survived to tell his own story, Till would be celebrating his 70th birthday next month.

While I appreciate Crowe’s stated purpose -- to keep alive the memory of Emmett Till – that does not justify the telling of a story by someone who does not know it. Considering his admirable writing skills, I would look forward to reading Chris Crowe’s investigation into why he had never become aware of such a pivotal case, how he got the research so wrong once he had become aware, and the insights his new critical analysis reveal about the true story and true character of Emmett Louis Till.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Each One of Us is Multicultural

 America is a multicultural society. Our diversity has long been recognized as our greatest strength. The concepts of "From Many, One," "Freedom and Justice for All" -- and the idea that we are all created equally -- reach down to the very roots of who we are. Nobody thought it would be easy. Our lofty ideals have clearly been at odds with some of our actions. But we have always been a pluralistic society.

There are Two Sides to Every Story

The word multicultural means different things in different contexts. That's appropriate. Context and multiple perspectives is fundamentally what multiculturalism is all about.

Definitions can limit and control as much as they explain and liberate, but we must strive for clarity about what the term culture means in the context of multicultural literature.


Culture does not refer to static categories of populations broken down by race, ethnicity and religion. As it concerns literature, I understand culture to be the ever-changing, interconnected set of artifacts and conceptual representations made manifest by the ideation and experiences of individuals and groups of people.


Multiculturalism then, is an explicit recognition of American ideals, and of a very basic human reality:

Each individual finds identity
through a dynamic weaving
of multiple cultural influences.

Each one of us is multicultural.  

That is to say, a teenager might identify as a female, and a Protestant, and an African American, and so forth -- maintaining varying levels of identification with perhaps dozens of other communities and social groups.

Youth culture is obviously among these social groups.


Through multicultural literature, each of us is strengthened. We are made whole through the continued re-cognition of our diversity as multicultural communities and multicultural individuals. In the cooperative, multi-perspective, multicultural model, we are all invited to have a seat at the table.

Common Sense

We actively work to eliminate prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. We are united by our diversity. Working together, reading together, thinking together -- we will find verification of our truths in others' truths. Together, we will arrive at cross-cultural commonalities and a common sense.

"No one ever talks about the moment you found
that you were white. Or the moment you found
out you were black. That's a profound revelation.
The minute you find that out, something happens.
You have to renegotiate everything."

-- Toni Morrison

Of the ten multicultural book award and literature sites investigated, the eight most predominant concepts are here noted:
  • Exhibit the finest literary craftsmanship and cultural relevance
  • Embodies cultural integrity  and cultural competence (authenticity)
  • Respects the reader
  • Connects culture with social justice
  • Empowers readers to think and decide for themselves
  • Allows for multiple perspectives
  • Recognizes intra-cultural diversity
  • Promotes understanding and appreciation for all cultures

Friday, June 17, 2011

Count Me In!

"America is woven of many strands.
I would recognize them and let it so remain.
Our fate is to become one, and yet many.
This is not prophecy, but description."

-- Ralph Ellison



Multicultural awards are vital because
we must be direct and explicit in recognizing, rewarding and encouraging voices of the historically marginalized ethnic and cultural groups within society. That is not a mandate for political correctness -- it is a survival tactic.
There is an anti-intellectual streak running through America as deep and wide as the Mississippi. As a nation, we don't trust book learnin'. We never have. I call it page discrimination. The attitude is summed up in a sentence: "They can put anything in a book -- doesn't make it true."
There is even more distrust and disdain for books within America's ethnic and cultural groups. Fewer and fewer people are reading books, or even know how to. The trend is unmistakable. The book is an endagered species.


We must have literary awards, prizes and incentives aimed at increasing the number of multicultural books, because we are an increasingly multicultural society. Young adult literature should reflect the diversity of young adults. Currently, it reflects the stubbornly mono-cultural climates of education, publishing, and literary criticism. While things have improved, we are nowhere near statistical parity.


Multicultural awards are absolutely necessary because -- beyond quantity, we must have quality. We require a concrete definition of excellence in the multicultural category. We have focused far too long on material that is ugly and offensive. It's high time we start paying attention to what is positive, healing, human.

Finally, we have to celebrate diverse authors, the same as Hollywood and the NFL build buzz around their star attractions. A multicultural award is a way to shine a spotlight on non-mainstream writers who have turned their problems into prose. The power of a good role model to a young person of color -- a gay, lesbian or questioning teen -- a poor, disenfranchised youth -- simply cannot be overestimated.

Go Figure

Statistics can be very misleading, but when viewed in context, they provide a helpful snapshot. 

The Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) is keeping an account of our culture gap. Of the approximately 400,000 books published each year in the US, the CCBC estimates there are only about 4,000 books specifically directed at children and young adults. That doesn’t mean they read them! If a teenager is reading a book at all, it’s more than likely not one designated as YAL. Nonetheless the number is a useful, concrete reference point of availability.

How many of the 4,000 YA books published, present a significantly diverse perspective?

The U.S. student body is about 17 percent African American. However, in 2008, the CCBC reported that "among the 3,000 or so titles they received -- only six percent had significant African or African American content. While 20 percent of the country’s students are Latino, only about two percent of all books reviewed by CCBC had significant Latino content.”

While people of color can complain that not enough multicultural books are published – publishers can complain that people of color aren’t buying enough books. But even accounting for that conundrum, the disproportionality is shocking, particularly considering that not every book is a good book.

In 2010 the CCBC estimated that approximately 3,400 YAL works were published. Bearing in mind that over 45 percent of the student population are minority students, last year’s assessment found:
  • 156 books had significant African or African American content
  • 102 books were by Black authors and/or illustrators
  • 22 books featured American Indian themes, topics, or characters
  • 9 were created by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
  • 64 had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
  • 60 books were created by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
  • 66 books had significant Latino content
  • 55 books were created by Latino authors and/or illustrators


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Good Horror? Or Horrible Book?

Good Teen Horror? Or Horrible Book for Teens?

The Meaning of Horror defines horror as . . .

1. an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear

2. anything that causes such a feeling

3. such a feeling as a quality or condition

Technically, horror is a feeling – a feeling of fear -- or that feeling as a quality, which is dread, for example "the horrors of war."

Horror literature then, is not limited to monster stories, vampire romance novels, or books that go bump in the night. It can be anything from the blasé to the beastly. However, one could argue that three-headed monsters, vampires and werewolves are fantasy figures – dark and eerie perhaps -- but not real, and therefore not necessarily the stuff of horror, any more than say, magical fairies, unicorns or leprechauns with pots of gold at the end of sparkling rainbows. 

Monster books are fantasy – but fantasy is not horror. If a person likes the fantasy of, for instance, a visit from a handsome vampire – then such a story is not a horror, it’s a delight! So subject matter does not define or qualify a work as horror.

To belong in the category of horror, a novel must invoke horror in the reader. As the Horror Writers Association website notes, the requirement of a horror story is that it must "elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread."

A Brief History of Horror

Horror was once a universally recognized and highly respected literary genre. Horror literature was identified with the diverse works of esteemed writers such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, Richard Matheson and H.P. Lovecraft. Then, in 1974 -- everything changed; Stephen King published his novel, Carrie. This was the fateful year 1974 – when horror literature lost its identity. It was no longer about emotion, it was about titillation and cheap thrills.

Almost overnight, King's brand of fiction became a multi-million dollar industry. Publishers saw the dollar signs looming before them and charged full speed ahead, making horror into a product. They gave it a specific identity, a specific formula. Writers then popped out of the woodwork, eager to embrace and attempt to duplicate the stunning success of Mr. King. . . . Instead of "evolving, ever-changing," horror became defined -- typecast if you will -- forced to conform to a certain method and a certain manner.

We must now understand that there are two distinct types of horror literature.

1. Popular horror fiction . . . the Stephen King, genre within the genre which is principally defined by the existence of external, inexplicable, unavoidable, unstoppable evil.

2. Classic horror fiction . . . defined by the internal motivations of characters, the dawning horror of the reader, and the most important distinguishing quality of being instructive.

The Meaning of Monsters

The terms "demon" and "monster" belong to the family of words that include "demonstrate" and "remonstrate." informs that these words are based on the Latin phrases: mōnstrā (to show), mōnstrum (a portent or sign), and monere (to warn).

Monsters are lessons. They are meant to teach. Monsters are revelations, and they are warnings. That’s quite the opposite of something that mystifies and menaces with darkness. Monsters are helpful warnings that bring clarity and light.

Classic horror literature is tied to a moral construct -- and a concept perfectly summed up in a maxim attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt (though obviously said in quite a different context):

"There are no victims, only volunteers."

The classic monster story dates back to antiquity. The prototype is the fable of the Cabalist Rabbi and the Golem – a tale that pre-dates Frankenstein by at least two centuries. The Golem is created by the Rabbi in order to help with work, but it turns into a destructive monster when it is made to work on the Sabbath.

1904 film, The Golem
by German Director, Paul Wegener

Good Horror vs. Horrible Horror

Since the horror genre so closely correlates with the themes and hallmarks of the adolescent journey, it bears closer inspection than any other YAL genre. Responsible educators, librarians and literary professionals cannot claim that literature is a powerful tool for teens, providing growth by allowing for vicarious experience – but then claim that negative, violent, destructive books are just harmless, middle-schooler, "gross out" fun.

Parents and youth-connected professionals don’t want adolescents, particularly those in the early adolescent years of 11-14, to spend their time contemplating horror for the sake of horror. As children are trying to make sense of themselves and the world, adults instinctively want to protect them from nihilistic negativity and destructivism.

A child at age 11 or 12 -- unless he or she is extremely well-read and mature -- has no way to filter or balance such material. Furthermore, horror for the sake of horror in novels (or art, music and video games) presents adolescents with a distorted view of the world. This nihilistic view does not present truth because it is clearly imbalanced, however, it may appeal to certain imbalances in the developing adolescent’s brain and emotional life.

The literary (cultural) or artistic measure of a work must be its truth. A useful rubric for good horror and bad horror should be similar to one that would allow us to separate a romance novel from pornography. Does the work of horror fiction play upon fears and undermine growth? Or does it examine fears and encourage thought? Is it educative?

Horror Royalty

While Stephen King has been sold as "the indisputable master of horror," he has never claimed that title. In fact, King once famously referred to himself as "the McDonald’s of literature." However, the far lesser-known storyteller, Roberta Simpson Brown, has every right to declare herself a member of horror royalty. Her book, Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales (QCBT) is a classy collection of classic horror stories.

QCBT contains stories where the protagonist is an ordinary person facing an ordinary situation in our ordinary world, but who chooses to make extraordinary – often, evil choices.

Mundane, everyday personal problems and frustrating situations turn into horrors when the would-be hero goes beyond normal or natural means to craft a solution, and then suffers the inevitable consequences. Alternately, the protagonist is innocent victim, so it is the antagonist who suffers the karmic blowback. Either way, these tales rely on what we know to be the ordinary and, in some sense, the expected.

The stories in QCBT are predictable from the start. Nothing is jumping out of the plot to surprise us. The horror is that we know what’s coming. We dread it. Classic horror literature, particularly YA horror, has a moral component -- almost always teaching readers a lesson from the matrix of "good things/ bad things (happen to) good people/ bad people."

Classic horror stories redeem themselves in this feature. The shock, gore, blood or monstrosity is neither fantastical nor gratuitous, but rather, serves the purpose of teaching us a very real truth.

Certainly many of Stephen King’s horror stories fit the classic definition, but typically, his books are of a different mold. King’s template involves inexplicable and unstoppable horror visited upon unsuspecting people. It is a roller coaster ride with no hills, valleys, twists or turns – just a straight shot down into hell.

The cold-blooded tales in Roberta Simpson Brown’s book however, consistently follow the classic template. For example, there is the story she calls, Whispers. It’s about a young girl named Kim who is out with her parents shopping for a birthday present when she hears a pair of earrings whispering to her. The earrings are ugly and strange. Kim’s mother thinks they look like little tongues. Despite the advice of her parents, Kim begs to have the earrings. She hears them whispering and senses they might give her some kind of power – a power she can use to hurt her enemies at school. I won’t give away the ending, but obviously it is Kim who eventually gets hurt.

Each one of the two dozen tales in QCBT evokes fear and dread in the reader. Each one teaches the reader a lesson – not about monsters, witches and ghosts, but about human nature. Together, the stories in Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales touch upon nearly every stylistic characteristic of the horror genre and marker of adolescent development.

Stylistic Characteristics and Themes of the YA Horror Genre

1.    Identity – "Who am I?" within myself and in the world, and in relation to God and the universe. "The Dark Unknown"

2.    Hero Quest -- the teen protagonist(s) saves the day

3.    Archetypal quest themes -- good versus evil, order versus chaos, illusion versus reality, and the necessity of thought as a tool for survival

4.    Emotional turbulence

5.    Power and Control -- symbols of superhuman power and control, undisturbed by chemical, interpersonal, and emotional shifts (direct antithesis of the adolescent paradigm)

6.    Sexual awareness – intensity and power of vampires and similar monsters

7.    Introspection

8.    Boundary Testing – exploring the dark side

9.    Liminality (between-ness) -- half-living/half dead, human/wolf, etc.

10.    Marginality – a sense of alienation. Being different, an outsider and also persecuted for that difference. Rejection

11.    Moral questions (Trust, loyalty, and betrayal)

12.    Revenge -- often for peer or parental abuse. Need for acceptance and approval.

13.    Acute Social Awareness – popularity. Getting the guy or girl, attaining beauty, becoming "special" in some way

14.    Physical change – "the vampire is usually an unwilling victim of a bodily change he cannot control, a change that brings on frightening new desires and cravings."

15.    Responsibility and independence – the battle with a monster that tests personal resilience and resourcefulness

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lego Ergo Sum

     Cogito Ergo Sum
     I Think, Therefore I Am

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on."
--Shakespeare’s Tempest      

Consciousness of self, social role orientation and the search for personal identity are the hallmarks of the adolescent stage. Researchers have noted that prior to this period, development largely depends on what is done to us. At adolescence, development depends mainly on what we do.

     Lego Ergo Sum 
     I Read, Therefore I Am

We grapple with social issues in seeking to find our own identity, but we’re also confronted with profound philosophical and moral questions. Adolescence is a period of accelerated brain development and increased cognitive ability. The "why?" and "what is?" of the preadolescent wonder years turn into the teenager’s more complex questions: "why not?" and "what if?" This is the principle reason fantasy literature and science fiction are so perfectly suited to “tweens” and young adults. At the center of fantasy and all its many sub-genres, is the quest to find out:

What if?

Adolescence being a developmental period of boundary testing and risk taking, fantasy literature and science fiction offer young people a framework for experiencing a world where not even the sky is a limit! And yet, the best of the fantasy genre is literature tightly anchored to the boundaries and contours that describe real truth – not fancy or artifice. In this way, fantasy and science fiction are supremely metacognitive.

Why not?

Paradoxically, all of the fantasy genres hinge on contemplation of some fundamental reality or deeper truth, sometimes through speculative ideation, but often through an invocation of apagogic reasoning – that is, they prove a universal truth indirectly, by showing the impossibility or absurdity of the contrary. So while stories in this genre focus on matters beyond reality, fantasy literature – and Sci-Fi in particular – concerns itself with the domain of nonfiction: realistic explanations, plausible logic and detail.

     Brave New Words

Fine literature of this genre can be said to be meta-metaphoric! The nonfictional qualities of fantasy push fiction to its limits and encourage the reader to decode entire new paradigms of thought. Once a new world has been convincingly established through a literary work, it naturally invites companion pieces which further extend the central metaphor while retaining a unique inner logic and culturo-linguistic coherence. These stories generate stories about stories themselves! Perhaps the proper word for this sort of metaphoric 3-D thinking is meta-epistemic.

"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio."
-- Shakespeare’s Hamlet      

When the dream world is more like a nightmare, and the logic is twisted toward deception or damnation, fantasy literature crosses over into the melodrama and madness of horror. While horror literature models many of the characteristics and features of the fantasy genres, it may or may not remain relevant to the central tasks of adolescence which are thwarted by the transitional aspects of the high-growth stage: vulnerability, insecurity, ambiguity, frustration, aloneness and a sense of loss.

The other-worldly stories in Margo Lanagan’s collection, Black Juice are a harsh blend of phantasm and fatalistic fiction. Her book echoes the brutal simplicity of the pre-technological fairy tale. The beauty of Lanagan’s language is obscured and sublimated – not elevated – by the horror and horrific indifference of her environments. While not a fun teen read, the sort of phantasmic fictional realism found in Margo Lanagan’s very dry, Black Juice, confronts the adolescent reader with the crisis of authority without responsibility and its opposite.

     I Read, Therefore I Exist

FanLit and Sci-Fi have long been associated with Anglo cultural traditions, western religious themes and heteronormativity. (Damsels in hi-tech distress.) However, the recent radical changes in technology have engendered radical changes in literary perspectives. Over the last few decades, speculative fiction and urban fantasy have emerged as vibrant sub-genres with novelists like John Crowley, Matt Ruff and Emma Bull pioneering the way.


  1. The central quest of FanLit and Sci-Fi: "What if?"
  2. Identity Formation – "Who am I?" in relation to God and the universe. "The Dark Unknown"
  3. Hero -- the teen protagonist(s) saves the day, role development
  4. Archetypal quest themes -- good versus evil, order versus chaos, illusion versus reality, and the necessity of thought as a tool for survival
  5. Creative energy
  6. Testing boundaries on a grand scale
  7. Developing a "moral compass"
  8. Highly charged emotionalism and intensity
  9. Pain and struggle and a developing resilience
  10. Raw vulnerability in facing the world and its relationship in a very different way
  11. Understanding socially responsible behavior
  12. Idealistic view of the world
  13. Dawning intellectual awareness
  14. Desiring independence
  15. Concern about self and appearance -- experimentation with self-image
  16. Greater understanding of gender roles and relationships
  17. Emotional turbulence
  18. Power and Control -- symbols of superhuman power and control
  19. Authority / Responsibility
  20. Introspection
  21. Liminality (between-ness) -- half-living/half dead, human/wolf, etc.
  22. Marginality – a sense of alienation. Being different, an outsider and also persecuted for that difference.
  23. Acute Social Awareness – popularity. Getting the guy or girl, attaining beauty, becoming "special" in some way.
  24. Physical change – loss of control; awkwardness; transformation.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Child of Fear -- Censorship

Child of Fear

Identified in, An introduction to Censorship by Steven Pico, are the five common book challenge elements guaranteed to drive a teenager into politics. Pico emphasizes that this list is absolute because in his experience, "it’s always the same scenario."
  • The challenged books are not read in their entirety

  • The material is universally approved by educators and critics

  • Opinions of professionals are ignored

  • Attitudes of students are never sought

  • Those who disagree are ostracized or forced to leave

Young adults are particularly attuned to matters of injustice and hypocrisy. "I could not believe the hypocrisy of the censorship of books in the United States," Pico writes. Despite their own boundary testing and experimentation, teenagers can become almost hyper-aware of rule violation, unfairness and inconsistency in policy or procedure.

Coping with the moral and social dynamic of responsibility/authority –- censorship is like Kryptonite to juveniles!  It’s an existential threat. The mere specter of censorship alarms young adults because it cuts against the idealism that is signature to the adolescent stage. Censorship sends teenagers into fits of indignant rage, despair and dark suspicion. "After twelve years of schooling," says Pico, "my education had in many ways finally begun."

Dylan Burns in Changing Minds makes similar statements. "This idealism led me to pursue, in high school, a number of other political activities." Like Pico, Burns agonizes over the awareness censorship has prompted. "Realizing this bizarre situation was probably the first political awakening of my young life, it angered and saddened me that this book was under attack from the intolerant and the fearful."

Considering the adolescent reaction to matters of censorship, a clear strategy suggests itself: make the issue of censorship a routine part of the discussion. Librarians can hold mock book burnings. Teachers can stage read-ins and do plays. Parents can join book circles and literary discussion groups.

Folks can’t value freedoms they don’t realize they have. A community that regularly celebrates the freeness of speech is prepared to recognize and respond to a challenge.

Bluest Eye / Speak

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Laurie Halse Anderson’s, Speak have both been challenged due to the controversial issues surrounding rape and sexual violence dealt with in the two novels. Both authors have spoken strongly and forcefully about censorship.

In the 2006 Platinum Edition of Speak, Anderson, who has authored children’s books as well as YA novels, includes some of her personal thoughts on censorship. Her remarks specifically relate to literature for young people. Anderson understands that parents, educators and other concerned adults who challenge books, often have good intentions and only wish to censor in an effort to protect teenagers. Anderson clarifies:

"But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them."

The Bluest I

Toni Morrison spoke out about the importance of fighting censorship in October 2009, after one of her books was banned at a Michigan high school:

"The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists' questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films -- and that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink."

The emotional and sexual abuse found in both The Bluest Eye and Speak, make them suitable for mature high school readers. Considering the sensitive nature of the material, no teenager should be required to read either book. But exposure to a diverse range of quality literature is an indispensable intellectual and emotional tool for young adults. Reading enables young people to tolerate the uncertainty, liminality and emotionality of adolescence.

Another great value of literature is that it allows young people to travel vicariously to other times and places. The Bluest Eye is fiction, but it communicates the very real experiences of its author, Toni Morrison. The book truthfully provides a perspective on American history and society – and is therefore useful as a social studies text.

While Morrison’s book explores harsh examples of social injustice and physical violence, young people who know and understand the mistakes of the past are less likely to repeat them. The Bluest Eye prompts readers to engage with and reflect on matters of social and personal responsibility, and thus it promotes moral development.

The Bluest Eye can provide a format for young people of diverse cultural backgrounds to assess their own thoughts and feelings about self-image and self-worth. Morrison’s story directly addresses several of the developmental tasks and markers of adolescence including: identity development; self-consciousness; sensitivity to criticism; physical awkwardness; sense of isolation; feeling outcast; and acute awareness of the social world and one’s place within it.


Scholars and critics uniformly consider Toni Morison's work to be of the highest literary value. Her lengthy list of awards includes the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 2006, Sam Tanenhaus, then editor of the New York Times Book Review, sent a letter to approximately two-hundred “prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." The winner was Morrison's Beloved.

Margaret Atwood speaks of Morrison's "stature as a pre-eminent American novelist."

Literary critic, John Leonard, said Morrison’s The Bluest Eye delivers "a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry." Leonard continues: "I have said 'poetry.' But The Bluest Eye is also history, sociology, folklore, nightmare and music."

First published in 1970, Toni Morrison’s brave, Black American bildungsroman was a herald of the coming radical changes in Arts and Letters. The Nobel laureate’s extraordinarily rich use of language, depth of narrative and searing insight, place Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye among the most important works of American literature.

 Speak For Yourself

Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye, is about the potentially devastating socio-psychological effects of a filtered media. Similarly, Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, is practically a study in the dangers of withheld information and forced silence.

While not every book is appropriate for every teen, there are no instances where the move to suppress a work is ever a suitable choice. Censorship is intolerable to young people. It undermines their growth because it betrays a lack of trust. As adolescents are learning ways to think through their problems, denial and silence can be very dangerous models.

  • Every 2 minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.
  • Every year there are about 213,000 victims of sexual assault
  • 1 in 6 American women will be the victims of a completed or attempted rape in her lifetime.
  • 9 of every 10 rape victims are female
  • 44% of those rape victims are under age 18.
  • Victims of sexual assault are more likely to be depressed, abuse substances and contemplate suicide

Rape is not a comfortable or simple thing to talk about. As a result, 60% of sexualized assaults are not reported to police. The fact is, our reluctance to openly and plainly speak about rape is at odds with how much we hear about it.

Sexual violence against young women is America's worst-kept secret. Rape is an issue in our newspapers and magazines, on our televisions and movie screens, in our neighborhoods and in our homes.

It is simply not reasonable or rational that we would censor books like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye – the few items that approach issues of sexual violence carefully, thoughtfully and honestly, and that seek to enlighten and heal.

We want to protect our children, but statistics testify to the truth. We can best protect young women and men by preparing them for the real world.
Through quality literature, and the reflection it promotes, young adults are empowered to protect themselves. 

Process-First Approach

Community squabbles, political battles and culture wars can be extremely upsetting to young people. In Literature Review Process Finds Balance, Robert Klempen writes: "A divided community might make an interesting story for the evening news, but not for a child's education. The issue is just too important."  Klempen then provides the precise recipe for a successful challenge response. His review of the process reveals that process itself "can act as a catalyst for peaceful conflict resolution." Reduced to its basic elements, Klempen’s approach involves two principals and an 8-part process.

Process-First Approach to Balancing the
Values and Beliefs of an Entire Community

A. Work in groups to think critically

B. Employ explicit problem-solving and decision-making strategies

C. Review Process:
  1. Formation of a Strategy Team (an inclusive review committee)
  2. Identification and Review of pertinent policy and processes
  3. Kepner-Tregoe's "Situation Appraisal" (Parent’s written concerns / investigation)
  4. Written Response (to parent's concerns from appropriate departments)
  5. Public Hearing and Interview (with people from both sides of the issue)
  6. Decision Analysis (based on standards and other materials)
  7. Situation Re-Appraisal (with all parties involved)
  8. Potential Problem Analysis (in advance of future challenges)

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