Power Dynamics

In the future, when I think about my time at Pratt as a Library Science student, I may very well consider July 27, 2009 - the eighth meeting of Summer II's Young Adult Lit class - the worst day ever. Why, you ask? Because I wasn't there. And Barry Lyga, author of Boy Toy, was. Missing truly awesome stuff could be a major theme of my life. It's something I'm trying to work on. Promise.

I want to write about Boy Toy. There is so much I want to say, but I'll keep this brief. Of all of the things that struck me about this book (as reader, a teacher of seventh graders, an adult who loves adolescents . . . ), what stuck with me, haunting me and forcing me to examine my own practices, was the way Lyga paints such a clear picture of adult-child relationships. In Boy Toy, Josh is sexually abused by his seventh grade Social Studies teacher. They end up having an extended "affair," which culminates in her going to prison, her husband beating Josh senseless, and Josh sexually molesting a friend. There is a lot to explore here, as we listen to now-eighteen-year-old Josh tell his story and figure himself and his relationships out.

But I want to focus on the relationship between Eve, the teacher, and Josh, the twelve-year-old. Specifically, in how Lyga, with compassion and amazing skill crafts Eve's sly manipulation of Josh. He makes so explicit the complex power dynamics at play between adults and children, and especially between authority figures such as teachers, and their charges. Every time Eve asks Josh if this is "what [he] wants," she works to ensure that he sees himself as the guilty party. She preys on this guilt, carefully setting up sexual situations that appear to Josh to be in his control and his fault. Six years later, this situation is still being used by certain adults in Josh's life, to their advantage. When Josh's coach wants to goad him - he brings up Eve. It's so well written, and quite disturbing.

And, because I have a near-pathological need to relate everything back to my life and work . . . as a teacher I think about power dynamics of the classroom and the school bureaucracy in general all of the time. The way we are manipulated by our administrators, and they by their supervisors . . . how we, in turn, manipulate our students and they each other . . . in one long chain of power plays. The need to balance honesty, respect, humor, patience, and authority in order to craft a safe learning environment for all kids. Something as simple as collecting a homework assignment, or handing back a quiz is an opportunity to humiliate or praise, to create a class hierarchy, to validate or invalidate . . . everything we do is fraught with this emotional potential. How we use it is everything.


Body Drama

I want so badly to love Body Drama - the book, not the actual thing itself. It's about high time someone made a book celebrating girls' real bodies and showcasing the range of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures they come in. I love that it's full of photographs and frank talk about all the weird and interesting things normal bodies do. I love that it discusses what isn't normal (BV, STIs) without moralizing or sliding into the ick-gross trap too often, and that it offers great advice for dealing with your period and keeping healthy.

But there are a few things I don't like about the book, and they really stand out to me because on all the other points, it's spot on.

First of all, despite its lip service to celebrating our unique and awesome bodies, the book is chock full of body care and beauty tips designed to help you take your awesome uniqueness and make it look, you know, better . . . more ummmm, normal? What the hell? Don't come out swinging, shouting body love and acceptance from the rooftops, then spend every other page reinforcing the beauty status quo. That ideal image you're self-tanning, plucking, waxing, squishing, pushing up and out, coloring, straightening, and painting to achieve . . . it ain't real! And you should know that, Body Drama!

Then it gets a little fat-phobic on you. Body Drama equates being overweight with being unhealthy again and again, but the two are not interchangeable. There are plenty of thin folks who are terribly unhealthy and plenty of chubsters (like myself) who are not. Poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle are unhealthy, but they don't, necessarily = overweight, as healthy eating habits and exercise do not = thin. I know that it's possible to be overweight and healthy. So do plenty of other people (scientists and doctors, even!) Like the good folks at Healthy at Every Size. I know that overweight people can live longer and have better survival rates for cardiac events, I know that fat can help protect against many diseases, I know that thin=/=healthy and overweight =/=unhealthy, I know that dieting can make you sick (really sick). I know that the BMI scale is crap. If I know all of this, why doesn't Body Drama? Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for everyone getting fit and healthy, by all means . . . and I commend Body Drama for a great section on nutrition . . . but fit does not equal trim, it equals fit, it equals the ability to perform certain physical tasks. And a sense of self confidence and self worth that comes from having, specifically, lost weight and from the compliments of others is bound to crumble. Again, Body Drama is paying lip service to love and acceptance, while reminding us that we could look better . . . compliment-worthy, even.

The third way Body Drama disappoints me (deeply, painfully) is in its coverage of sexy, sexy sex. Or lack thereof. Yes, there's a great section on contraception that even includes tubal ligation (woot!) and good info on STIs, but no information about your body and sex. Nothing to prepare a girl for what might happen and the ways her body will react to getting hot and heavy (hello vaginal secretions!). Nothing on masturbation, either. Seems to me that sex is a major source of body drama (amiright, Ms. Cho (2:10)? Seriously, after the sex bit, she discusses body issues, dieting, and eating disorders with such grace and humor.)

Body Drama just told me I'm cool the way I am but: really, I could look a lot better, I'm fat and therefore unhealthy, and I might be a slut. Sheesh! I'm going to go crawl into my closet for a while. My winter coats don't judge me.


Defaults and Diversity

Nick Burd, author of the amazing, Vast Fields of Ordinary came to talk to us the other day about his book, and about writing YA lit in general. It was a pretty enlightening conversation, and he said a couple of things that gave me a lot to think about and digest.

The first was about race. The main character of Vast Fields of Ordinary is white - most of the characters in the book are white. It's set in Iowa, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau is 90.6% White. That is a whole lot of percent. Nick said that he chose to make the main character White because (I'm paraphrasing here) writing about a Black person in Iowa necessitates writing about a whole mess of stuff that this novel isn't about. I see the truth in that, I absolutely do. Our cultural default is still set to White, Heterosexual, Judeo-Christian Male. To a certain extent any deviation from that requires explanation and exposition. But what if we stopped explaining? Maybe part of shifting or eliminating the default is to stop explaining why something isn't it?

The second was about sexuality. Nick's next YA book is about two straight boys because (paraphrasing!) in writing about gay teens again, he would be afraid of writing the same book twice. It got me to wondering how many authors think, "Man, if I write about straight kids again . . . well, you know." or "Crap, here I am with another novel about heterosexual teens. I need to take it easy on the P and V, you know?"

Which got the class to talking about how well-represented gay boys are these days, and how under or poorly rep'd gay girls are. The requisite "Why is that?" was tossed around and I said nothing because I have some serious class discussion anxiety. Maybe the idea of our cultural default is at work here, too. White, homosexual, J-C, male is only one step away from default. White, homosexual, J-C, female is two steps away. Twice as far . . . takes twice as long? God, that's overly simplistic, but I think it still holds some water.

We need to start leaping away from the default. Over and over again. Until there are so many "outliers" that the idea of "regular" or "normal" or "other" is obliterated in a mess of everyone. Because, hey, just because we live in a messed up White, heterosexist, religiously intolerant patriarchy doesn't make it right or normal.


YA Programming

We discussed teen programming the other day and my first thoughts were something along the lines of, "What the hell do I know about library programs?" and, "Crap, I'm so uninformed." As the librarians in the group began discussing the components of effective teen programming, and programs they had run in their libraries, I was struck by how familiar it all felt. Hands on projects that extended from the book, bridging the gap between literature and reality, creating/fostering critical thinking and analysis skills, discussing alternate understanding of the text . . . Hey, programming is a lot like . . . teaching?! Then I rolled my eyes at my idiocy and jumped into my group's discussion.

There are obvious differences between creating a library program around a book and teaching that book in a classroom. But there are striking similarities, as well. Especially for us teachers of kids with special needs. Students with cognitive or language impairments, kids with learning disabilities, emotionally disturbed kids, English Language Learners, highly kinesthetic learners . . . they all need teachers to engage their whole selves in a book, and they need high-interest, thought-and-conversation-provoking activities to scaffold their understanding of the text. They need to do meaningful, fun work around that text, and they need to talk about it. A lot.

If only our local libraries were running programs on what the local schools were reading . . . or, you know, the teachers and school library media specialists ever talked. But that's a-whole-nother post.


On liking teenagers

I just had lunch with an old friend and her old friend. We were two teachers and a school social worker and the conversation naturally came around to the one thing we had most obviously in common - kids. We compared stories, laughed at ourselves and our students, and lamented the paucity of resources. Typical teacher talk.

Then we began discussing teaching and working with kids in general. As we moved off of ourselves and into the wider world in which we work, our stories all seemed to have a common theme - one that begged the question: why do so many adults who work with teens seem (or profess) to hate them?

I've seen a goodly number of teen-hating teachers and librarians in the last few years and I'm starting to worry that I'm destined to become one. Is it possible to maintain your compassion, composure, patience, and humor in the face of a decade or two of teen antics and angst? Will I gradually lose the ability to remember what 14, 15, 16 felt like? Or to remember the crap I pulled at those ages? How bloody annoying I was? How much life sucked?


On Little Brother

Little Brother rocks my socks in the best of fight-the-power-revolutionary-freedom ways. Reading this book made my heart sing. It made me want to learn how to solder tiny metal bits in meaningful ways.

It may seem an odd pairing, but Little Brother reminds me a great deal of Donnie Darko. Both lovingly and accurately portray the seriousness of teens lives as actually serious. In both the main character is on a quest for the truth about how things work. Whether that thing is space-time, or habeas corpus. While Little Brother is a techno-thriller about a Department of Homeland Security gone mad on its own power (comment peu realiste!) and the gamers who decide to put an end to the madness, and Donnie Darko is a tale of wormholes, and bubbles of space-time, alternate realities, and the ramifications of the everyday choices we make, they both speak to the power of teens. The power to make a difference, to manifest change, to take control. They speak to agency - which is something I think many teens feel a distinct lack of.


Hope . . .

Do teens need hope? More to the point - do they need it in their literature? After discussing some painfully gut-wrenching novels in class, we came around to this essential question. We brainstormed and were able to come up with only a handful of titles (barring Christopher Pike's oeuvre) where in the main character dies. Many of these were still relatively hopeful - begging the question, do teens need hope? Do they need that glimmer of silver in the thunderhead?

I don't think so. I see kids go from tween to teen every year. I watch them mature and learn to read and take stock of the world around them. They exist in a limbo: not kids and not yet adults, governed by rules they have no say in, highly marketed but not self-sufficient, affected and interested by politics but unable to vote . . . Teens live in a adult world that is largely ignorant of their concerns and crises. I think there is something about the hopeless, the utterly bleak, that speaks to this sense of alienation and disenfranchisement.

Many of them don't need rainbows after the storm, but we keep providing it. Perhaps it has something to do with our adult guilt - our need to promise that everything will eventually be kind of okay. The protagonist will survive (and so will you!). The world cares about her (and also about you!). Bad things happen to good people but not really because in the end there is a glimmer of hope to let you know that g-d or whomever is still on their (your!) side.

Do I think teens need hope? Not any more than adults do. I think we're just suffering from Pretty Woman syndrome - on their behalf.


What do young adults need?

The other night we had an interesting discussion about the critical components that teens need in a library. Specifically, if you were building a YA/teen section from scratch, what are the most important things to include. My partner and I settled on: books published for/as YA, graphic novels/manga, non-fiction, computers, and seating. Yeah, maybe seating is superfluous, and our imaginary, budding teen population would benefit more from study guides, or DVDs, but I like a good sit. A good sit, a comfortable space, a bit of real estate to call your own . . . these things seem important to me. I know they were when I was a teen.

My public library was right next to my tiny high school and I spent many many an afternoon there. I don't remember if it even had a YA section because I wasn't there for the books (gasp!). I was there to hang out in the basement where the past years of periodicals were stored. To be loud and obnoxious, to read ancient copies of Cosmo, to flirt and fight, to smoke cigarettes out back, and to form friendships that sustain me to this day. Occasionally I was there to use the microfiche and photocopier, because I didn't have the internet until I was a senior. I never once checked out an item, I never volunteered, I wasn't a page, and eventually I left.

I remember thinking wistfully how wicked awesome it would be if the library was open late. Or if it served coffee. Or hosted poetry nights. Or short fiction contests. And you know what, it may very well have, only we never heard about it. What my library needed was literal space for us (no, the basement storage area does not count) and someone to talk to us, and to listen. As we discuss relating to teens and drawing teens into our libraries I think back to my young adulthood and I'm struck by how little it would have taken to get me involved.