Category Archives: Uncategorized

More on Targeting Male Readers

Malinda Lo posted a quick and worthwhile read on her Tumblr   that made me rethink what I said in an earlier posting about designating certain books as “books for boys.”

In my earlier post, my main concern was with gendering experiences that didn’t need to be gendered.  But after reading this, I’m wondering if maybe we should also be challenging boys to read outside of their comfort zones:

A popular exercise among High School creative writing teachers in America is to ask students to imagine they have been transformed, for a day, into someone of the opposite sex, and describe what that day might be like. The results, apparently, are uncannily uniform. The girls all write long and detailed essays that clearly show they have spent a great deal of time thinking about the subject. Half of the boys usually refuse to write the essay entirely. Those who do make it clear they have not the slightest conception what being a teenage girl might be like, and deeply resent having to think about it.

So I’m still not settled on how I feel on all of this, but I’d love to read more on the topic by other librarians and educators.

Advertisements

Shit Adults Say to Young People

If you spend a lot of time on the internet, you’re probably familiar with the meme “shit _____ say to ______,” started (as far as I know) by the Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls video.

I just saw this fantastic one about the relationships between youth and adults and thought I’d share.  The description reads:

“Youth Leaders from the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH) share things that adults have said to them about sex, sexual health, and being a young person.”

Postcolonialism and Third World Youth

A few weeks ago, Walter Dean Myers was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, and I cannot think of a better choice for America.   His passion for literacy and honoring young people will certainly make him an effective advocate for young people’s literature.  His appointment will also hopefully draw further attention to his own books, which are not only engrossing and original, but also often tell the stories of youth who are not given much attention in mainstream children’s or YA lit (that is, the stories of black inner-city young men).   And, on a personal note, reading his book Monster in 7th grade was one of the most powerful reading experiences I had in middle school, so I’m quite pleased with the decision.

But his nomination has not been without controversy.  Some dude named Alexander Nazaryan, a white guy who used to be a teacher in Brooklyn, thinks we should be pushing Homer and Shakespeare, not Myers.   All y’all reading this blog are librarians, right?  So I don’t have to get into why this sort of elitism is all sorts of problematic and ignorant?  Because I’m not writing this post to defend Myers (a Google search will bring up defenses rendered much more beautifully than I could manage), and those of you who were present for my seminar on street lit know why I feel like his stories are important (even though his books are more realistic fiction than street lit).  Plus, the position is not about promoting his own work, but about promoting young people’s lit in general, though Nazaryan seems to forget that.

Instead I want to pick apart Nazaryan’s writing, because I think it exemplifies a racism/neocolonialism that is pretty common when First World people talk about Third World** youth.   And the way librarians and youth advocates talk about marginalized youth affects how we provide services for them, so I believe the language in the article is worth taking a look at.

Dissecting Nazaryan’s Language

I know Walter Dean Myers well. When I taught at a failing middle school in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I was mandated to start class with a 20 minute “free read” that, at its worst, had all the tranquility of Penn Station at rush hour. I don’t mean that as charge against my students, most of whom were poor, tragic, black and deeply desirous of something better – whatever that something was. I mean it is a knock against myself: I was a bad teacher back then and could not get them to sit down. It really wasn’t much more complicated than that.

This is the opening paragraph of Nazaryan’s article, and already we get a glimpse of how he views his students.  He is clearly trying to come off as respectful of his students, but the language he uses nonetheless “otherizes” them.  The words he uses to describe them are curious : poor, tragic, black.  Friends, one of these words is not like the others.  Are these words supposed to be related?  Is being poor or black necessarily tragic?  Let’s read on to understand a little more about how he sees his students.

Of course they loved Myers – at night, they heard the gunshots he wrote about. They told me so when I asked about homework. On weekends, some of them visited brothers or cousins on Rikers. Doritos were breakfast. And, often, dinner.

While this may be true for some of his students, it also feels incomplete.  How do we know that these “tragic” circumstances are the only things that cause his students to relate to Myers’ work?  Might the students also relate to the Myers’ descriptions of basketball triumphs and love in the ghetto?   By focusing only on the poverty and violence they face, it reduces his students to victims, stripping them of the dignity, pleasures, and humanity of their daily lives.

 His stated goal is to make urban children think, but his books rarely have to make them think very deeply at all – they are about those kids’ own sad lives, and the sad lessons too many of them have already learned. To me, from the front of the classroom, those kids were, by and large, smarter than the books he wrote for them – if not, just yet, more sophisticated.

So he’s finally coming out and saying that he thinks their lives are pitiable.  Also, he is suggesting that these young people aren’t engaging with Myers on an intellectual level (and, tellingly, none of the “intellectual” books he mentions kids should be reading take place in the ‘hood…).

We need a kid beaten down by project life, struggling with all her might to rise from the fatal suction of the streets, to open the “Lysistrata” and let out a single laugh. Call me a romantic, an earnest fool, but that laugh could save her.

So it seems that Nazaryan wants to “save” these kids from project life.   Because no one ever laughs in the projects (sarcasm).  And thank God for white saviors, because clearly black people are still dependent on white people to improve their situation, and it’s not like white people have actively and structurally had anything to do with the creation of this poverty (more sarcasm).

The Implications of this Language

There are more issues I have with Nazaryan’s article (such as his main argument), but that’s for another post.  What’s important about his language is that it facilitates and justifies a common type of modern day racism which is not intentional or malicious, but nonetheless destructive.  Here are two concerns about the implications of his language: (1) By setting up these kids as innocent victims, who is Nazaryan placing in the role of the “bad guys”? And (2) who is he granting and denying agency?

(1)  Who are the bad guys here?  In the article, I believe Nazaryan is setting up the inner city as the demon.  And to some degree, inner-city caregivers (arguably seen in the note about Doritos) and other adults/older teens in the ‘hood (as seen in the comments about shootings).   Not structural inequality in social services.  Not racism.  Not capitalism.  Not only does this place the blame on the adult inhabitants of the city, but it also suggests that young people need to be saved from their own communities.  The communities that often times (though not always) love them and provide for them as best they can and are integral to their identities.  I think this brings us dangerously close to the justifications for the effed-up tradition of “rescuing” indigenous children and putting them in boarding schools where they are not allowed to speak their own languages or practice their culture’s traditions.

(2)  Who is denied agency?  The answer to this question is obviously the young people and other inhabitants of the inner city.  And the power of the white teachers and other outsiders is perhaps overstated.  I think my problems with this are probably clear by now.

Resistance to “Kid Orientalism”

So what are the best remedies for these one-dimensional portrayals that mainstream journalists are peddling?  Two ideas that are not my own:

  1. Fiction.  Kathryn Bond Stockton, professor at the University of Utah, looks at how African-American fiction can challenge what she calls “kid orientalism” in her talk here (there’s a lot more to her talk – I recommend checking it out if you have 56 minutes!).   Reading sensitive and thoughtful fiction about people who hold marginalized positions in society can create an empathy and (self-)understanding in readers that undermines the dominant racist/neocolonialist discourse.
  2. Youth Themselves.  It would be hypocritical of me to write this post without mentioning how youth themselves are responding to the media that seek to flatten them.  Here’s one really creative, beautiful response to a 20/20 episode that an article in Indian Country sums up as “poverty porn”:

 

To wrap up, I think paying attention to this sort of thinking is important for librarians.   I’ve occasionally noticed these attitudes in discussions about literacy and services to urban/rural/poor/international/etc. people, and this undoubtedly affects what we think our patrons should be reading and how we engage with our patrons’ communities and cultures.  Additionally, maybe librarians can play a role in transforming our society by promoting diverse fiction and amplifying the voices of those who aren’t given much space to be heard by society.

————————————————————-

** Though one common definition of “Third World” is “underdeveloped” nations, here I mean it in the postcolonial feminist sense of including all peoples oppressed historically and presently by imperialism and colonialism.  Thus, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty puts it, “black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples in the U.S., Europe, Australia, some of whom have historic links with the geographically defined third worlds, also define themselves as third world peoples” (in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, p. 5).

Twitter, Literacy, Social Media, Etc.

So our class is over (sad face), but the Elderly Children’s blog will live on for at least a little while.  I prefer to post my book “reviews” over at my Goodreads (feel free to friend), but I’ll use this site as a space to continue ranting exploring youth services and librarianship more broadly. 

Once upon a time I took a class, and the instructor of this class regularly made jabs at Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and other online forms of expression and social media.   He would often say something along the lines of, “People these days all feel like they have something important to say.  Everyone these days has a blog or a Twitter oversharing the inane details of their everyday lives.  Blahblahblah narcissism of the Millennials leading to a glut of information.”

A related thing he liked to make fun of was “textspeak,” as in the ‘wut r u up 2″ style of typing.  He seemed to think that people who used it were unintelligent and borderline illiterate (two traits he seemed incapable of separating).

I would leave every class feeling pretty stabby, as well as disheartened that so many of my classmates seemed to share his sentiments.

I try not to ruin my mood by remembering this class, but my rage about it was reawakened during finals when Margaret Atwood spoke out in defense of Twitter at the nextMEDIA conference.

I agree with Atwood that using Twitter, IMS, Facebook, etc. all require a form of literacy and should be embraced rather than dismissed, and I have a few additional things to say to the critics.

  1. Re: txt spk: There’s a lot of hand-wringing over whether or not this trend is dumbing down North American youth, and whether or not it’s destroying the English language.  But I think our view of it might change if we view it as a vernacular or dialect, rather than a bastardized form of English.  It’s probably still just as grammatically complex and meaningful as Standard English, though maybe it’s not yet at the point of being its own dialect.  People have always freaked out about nonstandard dialects, such as African American Vernacular English and dialects of rural communities in the American South.  But pretty sure linguists have determined that there are just as many rules and complexities to these fully-fleshed dialects.  While some people in my aforementioned class were disgusted by the news that one classroom allowed essays written in text speak, I feel like forcing everyone to conform to Standard English is problematic as well, since only some students are given the advantage of exposure to that language at home.
  2. Narcissism of Millennials: As one of those blogging tweeting narcissists, maybe I’m a bit biased, but the idea that “unimportant” people with “unimportant” thoughts should just shut up sort of offends me.   And as an aspiring advocate for youth, I find the sentiment troubling.  In describing his experience of being a (relatively happy and well-adjusted) child in an NPR interview, writer David Rakoff noted how he hated the “rank injustice of not being listened to,” and that the whole stage of life felt like an “exercise in impotent powerlessness.”  And I think the disempowering and “not listening” he talks about takes many forms, one of which is by dismissing what they do offer.  We do this by saying “you’ll change your mind when you get older,” ridiculing their forms of expression (again, text speak), or chalking up their feelings to hormones or cries for attention.   So when we say that it’s stupid for teens to pour their hearts out on LiveJournal, or that nobody cares about their tweets about prom, we’re delegitimizing their expression all over again.  And it’s not like the internet has super limited space.  Without getting into the algorithms of search engines, one person’s blog isn’t really hurting anyone else’s experience of the internet.

I guess I (perhaps inaccurately) interpret a lot of the attacks on social media as an attack on youth culture, as well as informed by very closed-minded understandings of literacy.   So I think it’s important for youth services librarians/advocates for literacy to learn about these new tools for expression, and above all, to keep an open mind.   /endrant.

Dystopias

Who doesn’t love dystopias? (Well, Ira I guess).  I loved all the classic dystopias in high school, and my interest in the questions they brought up about what society could look like eventually led me to major in political theory/philosophy in my undergrad.  I actually asked some professors in the political science department about creating a course on “the political philosophy of science fictions,” but none of them really read sci fi or felt like it was worth a course.  Whatever.  (PS if any of you are interested in a dystopia book club… let me know).

So I’ve actually read four of these titles over the past year. I’ll go in order from least favorite to favorite.

The Uglies: I read this a few months ago, and I don’t know, I wasn’t blown away.  I think it would have held more weight with me in middle school/early high school when everyone placed so much value on aesthetics and I was starting to question that.  But now, the whole plastic surgery and mind control stuff didn’t seem that thought-provoking.  Maybe it was too close to reality to be very interesting?   It was a sort of fun and easy read, though.

How I Live Now:  Great story about war, adaptability, love, hate, and healing. The ending brought me to tears – heartbreaking and hopeful in equal measures. And because the story’s so simple, I didn’t realize the book’s complexity until I was reading the final few chapters.  However, I did find it a little slow (did I mention I’m bored by love stories? ), and the dystopia/alternate history lover in me wanted a few more details about the war (though I understand why Rosoff didn’t fill the reader in – a lack of details emphasized the senselessness or universality or whatever).

Unwind:  I read this book at the beginning of the semester, and something about it stuck with me.  The world it builds is really satisfying (and book talk-able), as there’s lots of detail and even the secondary characters are rich. What especially stood out to me were the characters’ reactions to being rejected by their parents.  I am pretty particular about how bad parents are portrayed in literature, and the relationships in this one felt pretty complex and real for not being a character-driven novel.  The anger and longing in Connor’s letter to his parents broke my heart, and I feel like this book might have resonance with young people in our society who have been kicked out, disowned, or abandoned by parents for delinquency (Connor), religious reasons (Lev), or unknown reasons (Risa).  But beyond potential for bibliotheray, it’s a really great and horrifying read.  And apparently there’s a sequel coming out in 2012?

The Knife of Never Letting Go:   Too amazing.  Couldn’t put it down (well, except for one point where something heart-wrenching happened and I was so emotionally involved in the characters that I was too despondent to read on for a while).  It’s an emotional page-turner that also manages to be really smart.  I’m reading the second book now, and I feel like we should be reading this series for 9001 to explore the relationship between information and power.  I’ll probably reread it sometime as a reflection on privacy, intimacy, and hope.  Also, Aaron is a totally terrifying (if somewhat one-dimensional) antagonist.

OK, I’ll write some more posts later.  2.5 hours of sleep last night, so apologies for unfinished trains of thought.  Good luck wrapping up the term!

Heroes

Late reading response to last week’s books.  I have more posts floating around my head about poetry and social problem novels, but those might have to wait until the end of the term.

So I’ve read three of the zero to hero books before:

  1. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (1.5 years ago)
  2. It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (3 weeks ago)
  3. I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak (last week)

Though I don’t remember Alexie’s book super clearly (I just remember feeling totally in love with and moved by it),  I thought it was sort of interesting to conceptualize the protagonists of the three books as “heroes.”

My own heroes as a young adult were pretty run of the mill  – Gandhi, Emma Goldman, MLK Jr., Monty Roberts (the horse whisperer) – a mix of people my education had taught me to admire and people that my teen subcultures glorified.  I can’t think of anyone I knew personally that I would have listed, though maybe I’m forgetting someone.  Most everyone I knew was so flawed and layered and completely human that I never would have (and probably still wouldn’t) said that I wanted to be just like any of them.

But really, a lot of those other celebrity heroes I idolized were just as flawed as the people around me.  For one, a lot of my culture’s heroes, while definitely righteous and courageous, were also just in the right place at the right time (e.g. Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat).   Also, a lot of these heroes were flawed in some ways (e.g. affairs, prejudiced, addicted, or just not as brave as I thought).

So I sort of love the zero to hero books for showing that heroes can be pretty fucked up and make the wrong decisions.  And that sometimes just navigating everyday horrors is pretty courageous, even if you’re not “saving” anyone else from their troubles.

That being said, I did have some problems with the heroes in It’s Kind of a Funny Story and I Am the Messenger.  And the books in general:

  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story:  I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had trouble empathizing with the main character.  His depression was the sort of unfeeling but slightly anxious kind, and I guess I prefer my stories about depression to be about the painful, self-loathing kind.  But then again, I guess part of its appeal is that it’s “a story about depression that’s not at all depressing” (taken from the back).   And the ending was so unsatisfying.  Vizzini also crossed the line into offensive with some (most?) of the secondary characters.  I think this marks the least sensitive portrayal of a trans character I’ve ever seen in literature (at least I think it was a trans character? can’t even tell).  Portraying a trans woman as deceitful and hypersexual and not having a gender worth respecting – what was he thinking?  And then there are the other characters in the ward.  I feel like they were there as more of a “look at the crazies!” and a foil to Craig’s depression than they were actual characters that we were supposed to empathize with.  And the way he interacted with his love interest felt slightly off to me. I should really just stop talking about this book. Blah. I guess the thing I liked about it was that it modeled someone realizing they were unhappy and taking steps to get help, which can be really terrifying with the stigma against mental illness and the way depression makes you feel like you aren’t worth the help.  I dunno, I’d like to hear from someone who liked the book to better understand its appeal.
  • I am the Messenger: I liked this one way better.  Smart writing, charming doggy sidekick, great premise (did anyone watch the show Early Edition? reminded me of that).  I did feel there were some gaps (or maybe things that were over my head), and the ending was …weird.  Deux ex machina?  And I had some problems with Ed’s heroism:
    1. He sort of “saves” people from their situations in an unrealistic or problematic way – like rescuing a family from an abusive patriarch by threatening the man to the point that he leaves town. It made me think of all my training to work on a crisis line about how you can’t rescue someone from an abusive relationship and how attacking the abusive person disempowers the person being abused.
    2. He uses violence to solve violence, which bothered me for ideological reasons.
    3. He comes up with solutions to problems through something like divine inspiration (“and suddenly I knew”). When I’ve been faced with problems like he’s encountering, I stress a lot and am completely unsure of myself before, during, and after responding. Ed’s confidence that he was doing the right thing seemed unrealistic.

As I wrap this post up, I wonder if there’s a difference between role models and heroes (like people who are “good” versus people who have done good things).  And what that distinction might matter.

 

Behind Those Books Documentary

Vanessa Irvin Morris linked to this on her blog, and I found it really interesting to actually hear from writers, critics, and readers themselves:

The first and only comprehensive documentation, on film, of the urban literature genre, giving viewers a raw and uncut look inside the emerging industry. Behind the Books chronicles the evolution of Street Fiction through interviews with pioneer authors, industry insiders, fans, activists, Hip-Hop artists, book clubs, editors, literary agents, vendors and the like.

Featuring: Terry McMillan, Zane, Nikki Turner, K’wan, Omar Tyree, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Nick Chiles, Kevin Powell, Teri Woods, Vickie Stringer, Anthony Whyte, Treasure E. Blue, J.M. Benjamin, Randy “Ski” Thompson, Azarel, KaShamba Williams, Queen Pen, Brandon McCalla, Brandi Bowles, Momowilly and many more.”