By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH
–Cat, from Shine (p. 290)
In the last few months I have read a number of books that would fall under the category of “social issues realism,” and so often that sub-genre is about the ugly parts of the world. What is so timely about these texts for adolescents is their ability to present young adults, who may just be emerging into the world with their own opinions about the reality they encounter on the news, at the dinner table, or in all the other spoken but not examined arenas of their lives. In essence, many young people have few opportunities to test their theories, hypotheses, and values. Adolescents are on the edge of discovery about the world, its politics, and both the world’s and their own potential. They have so many thoughts, so many questions, and so many opportunities to make a difference, yet they don’t know how much that difference can mean. I would suggest they need direction, sometimes gentle guidance, and other times stark confrontation. And that is where the following books come in! This week, I would like to point out some works by authors who are presenting the world in ways that fascinate young adult readers while also pushing them to think more deeply about themselves, others, and the situations in which they find themselves. All of these works would probably fall into the category of characters on the edge of making a difference or confronting difference within their lives and worlds.
Novels such as Shine (Myracle, 2011), allow for the questions, and for the opportunities to make a difference in the lives of readers. Shine is not an easy novel to read, however. It involves the beating of Patrick, an openly gay high school student; the ineffectiveness of the authorities to address the case, and; the attempted silencing of the only character willing to find out what really happened. Cat, the main character, was once Patrick’s friend, but she gave up that friendship when she decided it was better to be invisible (for reasons discussed in the book as well). Thus, two years later she faces the task of entering the world again. Entering the world and establishing herself—and Patrick, who remains in a coma throughout the book—as viable human beings worthy of respect and care. Cat must make a choice about making a difference and about questioning the world as it has been given to her by adults within her community. She ultimately decides she is strong enough to do both, but there may be a price to pay for this decision. Shine could make a nice companion to the text Split (Avasthi, 2010), about two brothers learning to overcome the domestic abuse they experienced at the hands of their father. Both are about young people learning to overcome the past and to be counted as viable in the present.
Another great novel about characters who move from the edge so as to make a difference is the translated text, No and Me (de Vigan, 2010), the winner of the 2008 Prix de Libraries. The story presents Lou, a Parisian high school student who feels like an outsider in her classrooms, and her attempt to befriend a homeless teen named “No” as part of a class project. I enjoyed reading this book, but the whole time I was wondering where it would—where it could—go. How do we make a difference in the world around us through the individuals we may meet? This novel leads readers on a journey that includes hope, disillusionment, and the ability to see that the homeless are not there by choice, but often by neglect, insufficient resources, and the inability to know what to do to make their worlds better. It’s a great read to question our assumptions about and treatment of those who live on the edge of society. Readers can also question the social resources available to help the homeless as well as why societies and individuals might think to address this concern within their communities. One reviewer in Britain (Martin, 2010), suggests the book raises the question of how societies “are capable of allowing people to die in the streets?” A question protagonist Lou asks and all readers can ponder. No and Me makes a great complement to Make Lemonade (Wolff, 2006) from a few years ago, which is equally compelling.
Other books that present the edge of making a difference include A Small Free Kiss in the Dark (Millard, 2011), which is about a young homeless boy creating family during war, and Moon over Manifest (Vanderpool, 2010), a story about a young girl on the edge of a new life in a community that includes immigrants who are often alienated by others. These two texts present characters and situations that allow readers to see beyond the superficial and to begin to see how making some choices can create a world of difference for everyone involved. A third text that could be used with either of these two is Crossing the Tracks (Stuben, 2011), a narrative about Iris, a young girl sent away from her father as he begins a new relationship. All three of these novels address characters adjusting to the changes in their lives and creating positive relationships with those around them.
Then, there is Borderline (Stratton, 2010), the story of Sami, a young man of Muslim faith who is bullied by others but then begins to wonder about his father’s suspicious activities. It is a situation where assumptions and reality become blurred. Engaging and pushing the issue of terrorism, Borderline presents not only a young man on the edge of “difference,” but a young person who’s making a difference as a teen committed to his faith, while simultaneously questioning his father’s commitments as well. This is an action-packed story that gives readers an intense read while also allowing them to think about bullying behavior on the individual and perhaps global levels and the reasons for it.
Another intense read is When I was Joe (David, 2011), which presents 13-year-old Ty, who witnesses a murder and then must go into witness protection program (WPP). On the edge of “becoming” different, Ty/Joe becomes more and more out of control of his life while also trying to “control” what he knows about the crime that placed him in the WPP. Being out of control of one’s circumstances and what difference that makes in a life, there is also Stolen (Christopher, 2010), presenting Gemma’s story of being kidnapped and held by a 25-year-old man who has been planning her abduction since she was a child. Not an action-packed thriller like When I was Joe or Borderline, the book Stolen is more psychological as it presents Stockholm syndrome to readers. All of these books create great discussion points about how easily a mind and a personality can be altered, especially when faced with dire circumstances, such as abuse, kidnapping, or neglect.
With the world constantly changing, and often ugly, I just found each of these narratives presents readers with a situation and a choice. They can choose to make their own or others’ worlds a little less ugly, or they can perpetuate the biases and pain that each of the protagonists in these stories chooses to address and perhaps, overcome within themselves or their communities.
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