Thursday, April 29, 2010

Finding Ourselves in Fiction

Many of us turned to books when we couldn’t turn to our peers or our parents. If you’ve read through my list of Twenty Classics for teens, you already know that I learned about puberty from Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Some topics just seem too private to discuss with anyone else.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan tackles two of the toughest topics for young men to talk about with others: friendship with a gay male, and knowing that you’re gay but not ready to come out openly. Through the alternating first person narratives of Will Grayson and will grayson, Green and Levithan create fully formed characters who grapple with these issues sometimes clunkily and sometimes gracefully—just as teens themselves do.

The first Will Grayson (created by John Green) is a straight male whose defense of larger-than-life Tiny results in, as you might have guessed, Will also being called gay. Then there’s will grayson (created by David Levithan) who knows he’s gay but has told no one except for an online friend named Isaac, whom he arranges to meet and which occasions his chance introduction to the other Will Grayson.

Next there’s Jane, who Will thinks may or may not be gay, but who is a member of the gay alliance at school and a friend of Tiny’s. And then there’s Maura, who has an unrequited crush on will. Will and will, Tiny and Jane offend their friends, then win them back; at times one friend seems to have all the power, then it shifts back to the other friend, and sometimes they even shoulder the burden equally. This book is as much about how to communicate honestly with friends and—yes—parents, as it is about the first stirrings of attraction, and even love.

There is so much for your teen to mine here about common missteps in friendship and romance, not to mention the trademark humor of both authors (John Green you may know from Paper Towns, and David Levithan from his co-authorship with Rachel Cohn on Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, the inspiration for the feature film of the same name). What are books but emotional laboratories, where we can test our theories about other people, and safely explore our ideas about ourselves.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nature: The Key to the Spark Within You

I was 13 when I first visited Walden Pond. It was 1976, the Bicentennial, and my father had a professional conference to attend in Boston. He and my mother decided we would drive from Michigan, making stops in Lexington and Concord, Mass. We visited Louisa May Alcott’s home, where I remember thinking the rooms were so small, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house where I seem to recall an etching on a downstairs window purportedly made with a diamond, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home. It was astounding to me that all of these writers I’d been reading could be so concentrated in one place. But I think stopping at Walden Pond made the biggest impact. To see the land that had inspired so many of Henry David Thoreau’s ideas--to walk where he had walked and planted and harvested--made his journal real.

Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino impressed me greatly because his graphic novel format captured visually the feeling of setting foot on that land, and what it’s like to be alone beside the water and to smell the earth. His images of the landscape render words unnecessary in many of the sequences of panels, and he gives you room, as readers, to take in what it’s like to stand where Thoreau stood, to see what he saw.

Young people are so in touch with that sensory experience. Right now I’m staying with my seven-year-old nephew, Tiger, for a stretch here in Austin, Texas, and he and his classmates are so connected to the present. We’ve had a series of overcast and rainy days, and at the first sign of sunshine, they’re out the door, riding bikes, zipping on their scooters, playing hide-and-seek among the trees in the park. There’s something about being in nature that makes us more alive, more awake.

That’s what John Porcellino taps into in the quotes and episodes he’s chosen from Thoreau’s journals, and it’s the reason I’ve returned to his book again and again since its publication in 2008. In an interview, Porcellino said he discovered Thoreau in high school, at about the time that he began to experiment with comics. Porcellino said that his advice to young people is to “Find that spark that’s unique to you and express that.” He believes that that is a large part of what we can take from Thoreau’s philosophy, too, as a man who lived differently from his peers in 19th-century New England. Though Thoreau may not have been fully appreciated in his own time, his ideas continue to influence us today.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Decoding Language

When children can't make sense of a word they hear, they will often substitute a different word that does make sense to them. But, let’s admit it, we all do it. Song lyrics leap to mind. We hear a catchy melody and want to sing along, but we’re unsure of the words, so we might mumble some consonants that faintly resemble the singer’s phrases, or we fill in a seemingly logical alternative.

One of my favorite examples in literature occurs in Bette Bao Lord’s novel, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, when 10-year-old Bandit Wong emigrates to the U.S. from China and has to recite the pledge of allegiance with her classmates. She says, “I pledge a lesson to the frog of the United States of America, and to the wee puppet for witches’ hands…” Even children born in this country are uncertain in elementary school about the words “allegiance” and “republic.” What exactly are we pledging and to whom?

According to an interview with author-artist Keith Baker, the idea for LMNO Peas came from hearing kids say “L-M-N-O-P” whenever they said the alphabet, as if these letters made a word. “I was sharing this with some teachers who taught pre-readers, and they said that kids don’t understand that L M N O P are actually five distinct letters,” he adds. In his book, the pea
characters work and play among the letters, emphasizing the individual letters’ shapes and sounds. Your youngsters build confidence as they master the alphabet, but all the while they feel as if they’re just being entertained. What an ideal way to learn.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Curious Nature

What is it about animals that captivate us? Maybe it’s their complete abandon. They pay close attention to whatever they are doing, especially when they’re eating, which is why we always want to be present at feeding time at the zoo or aquarium. First of all, they come from everywhere to get the food, but secondly they’re completely absorbed in what they’re doing. As we observe them, we feel like spies because—unless we interfere in some way, with a sound or a sudden movement—they seem completely unaware of us.

In Busy Birdies by John Schindel, the photographs place us in close proximity to the parrots, ducks, herons and peacocks Steven Holt captured on his camera. How often would we get near enough to a hummingbird to watch it extract nectar from a flower (“Birdy sipping”)? When young children have this opportunity to observe an animal up close, they seize it. And birds are the perfect place to start because they are so abundant—even in the city you can find sparrows, pigeons, even the occasional red-tailed hawk!

A book like this can be a way into encouraging a child’s naturally curious nature. Using that photo of a goose with its wings spread and its companion with wings retracting, you can start a conversation with a child about how geese fly, and then observe birds in flight to see what it looks like in action. Children begin to ask questions—what kind of bird is that? Why does the hummingbird sip from flowers? And that leads the way to searching out more books about birds, and maybe a hike with binoculars in tow.

I remember a friend who lives in Baltimore laughing as she told me that she’d taken her children to the zoo in Washington DC and all her kids wanted to do was follow the pigeons. Birds are so much a part of a child’s everyday experience that they naturally gravitate toward them (plus birds are smaller than they are). It’s a great place to start, and then let their curiosity lead as far as it will take them.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Finding Meaning

The observance of Passover and Easter are difficult to explain to a child. They hear the stories each spring, but children aren’t really equipped to process the events recounted in those stories for years. It’s right around adolescence that young people begin to understand and take in the stories they’ve been hearing in Temple and church, about injustice, life and death, and starting over with a second chance at life.

Whatever your family’s traditions may be, nature reinforces these themes, with its renewal of life, crocuses bursting from the barren earth, blossoms forming on bare trees, and longer stretches of sunlight. A sense of hope emerges. That sense of hope is what Sam gains during the course of the seven days following her fatal injury in a car accident in the first chapter of Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. It is not a book with religious themes, but it is a book about finding meaning in one’s life. Much of the rebellion associated with the teenage years involves finding one’s own way, not accepting as a package what we’ve always been told, questioning our parents, our teachers, our religious practices. We have to doubt in order to find a deeper sense of faith, whatever that faith may be.

When I was younger, I deeply resented the phrase (usually uttered by my grandparents or their friends) “Youth is wasted on the young.” I’ve come to think that what underlies that statement is that when we’re younger we have no sense of our mortality, so we take things for granted. As we get older, the moments matter more. Faced with the possibility of death, Sam begins to wonder, why did she abide her friend Lindsay’s cruelty? Why would Sam want the guy who makes her more in the eyes of her peers, rather than the guy who brings out the best in her? The fact that Sam is in the popular crowd makes her vulnerability all the more poignant. She begins to see things and people, including her own family, differently when she realizes they may be lost to her—forever. She begins to think about her “greatest hits,… the things I wanted to remember; the things I wanted to be remembered for.”