Simplistic problem books

“The problem with ‘problem’ young-adult fiction” isn’t that it deals with difficult themes such as juvenile delinquency, sex or terrorism, writes Ann Hulbert in Slate. The problem is that these books are simplistic, preachy and often required in school in lieu of real literature.

(Students) learn to look for themes that are right on the surface (“What role does time play in Sura’s life?”). They are instructed to spot trite symbols (“Consider the dead tree as a symbol in the novel. How are classic associations with a tree — life, growth — called into question in The Buffalo Tree? How are they upheld?”). They are asked to probe two-dimensional characters.

We’ve all heard kids complain that they loved, say, To Kill a Mockingbird until their teacher took it apart in class, but the trouble here isn’t that such textual analysis isn’t “fun.” It’s that with formulaic fare, the exercise is critically counterproductive. A book like The Buffalo Tree can’t really bear more than reductive analysis, which reveals it to be a studiously packaged pedagogical lesson, a contrived vehicle for an ultimately upbeat psychosocial message that is at odds with the supposedly realistic setting (“At the end of the novel, Sura . . . has returned home with his spirit and his sanity intact”). But this is just the sort of saccharine simplicity that high-school kids, newly alert to life’s ambiguities, are beginning to pride themselves on seeing through. It’s hard to imagine an exercise more effectively designed to leave kids with the impression that fiction – -in class and out, classic or not — is unlikely to be either very entertaining or enlightening.

A Pennsylvania high school junior is trying to get The Buffalo Tree, which is about a 12-year-old in a juvenile detention center, dropped from the 11th grade reading list. The New York Times called it a battle in the “culture war.” Hulbert wonders why 11th graders can’t read a real book like The Grapes of Wrath or Moby Dick.

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  1. Teen novels aren’t just simplistic; they’re very, very short. I take this as being not remotely conincidental since it’s hard to go for nuance when you’re writing a book that [1] can be read in a couple of hours, and [2] can be read as deeply as it needs to be for the teachers’ purposes (i.e., not pissing off lazy kids and their litigious parents) while at the same time allowing today’s overworked student to watch TV/instant-message in LiveJournal/talk on the phone/whatever.

    Remember: homework is no longer allowed to interfere with the student’s real life.

    Oh – one more thing: Teen novels are hot right now because they frankly mimic the popular teen soaps like The O.C. and One Tree Hill. Thus teachers can feel like they’re still handing out something resembling homework and the kids get more of the same crap they already know from TV and which they are happy to continue ingesting.

    The bookstore I work at sells shitloads – and I use the term carefully – of this stuff to kids who’d probably crap a gold brick if they were handed something the size of “Moby Dick” and told to make sense of it.

    Aw, but who am I kidding? The little bastards would just buy their book reports from the Internet.

    So, hell, maybe teen novels are helping students at large cut down on cheating.

    Gotta find a silver lining somewhere, ya know?

  2. Catherine says:

    Barbara Feinberg has written a booki about the juvenile fiction category.

    Here is her article in American Educator:

  3. Catherine says:

    oh sorry–I didn’t mean to have the html written out like that–

  4. esunola says:

    This is a timely posting, since I was at a school board meeting the other night where the curriculum specialists were all gushing over themselves about working on making subjects more relevant to the students’ lives. Earth to School Board: This kids have barely lived. The purpose of education, and more specifically literature and history, is to take them to times and places they can never go in real life. How is a student supposed to get any grasp of the timelessness of love without reading Shakespeare? Or the trials of war without reading The Red Badge of Courage? The compulsion to make things “relevant” has resulted in our children losing a necessary understanding of history and humanity. The inevitable outcome is the response I get from my 11 year old when he hears a song from 2003 on the car radio and asks why they are playing old stuff. To him, only the present is relevant and meaningful, and only inasmuch as it impacts him personally.

  5. To Kill A Mockingbird is an excellent work of fiction and if taught right, students can appreciate it on different levels.

    This Buffalo Tree might be a great book for what we call the “reluctant reader” but it sure isn’t literature.

    The problem is, most literature isn’t easy reading.

    There are a few exceptions. Huck Finn is an easy read and The Pigman is even easier.

  6. I actually did teach The Grapes of Wrath at the start of my teaching career. It was quite a learning experience for me as a public school teacher… One parent complained because it was “anti-farmer” (Our “Imperial” Valley agricultural community is named in the book.) Another parent expressed concerns that the book was “against religion” because of the actions of the “Preacher” in the story, while two sets of parents accused John Steinbeck of treason because, according to them, the book encouraged Communism!

  7. esunola…I agree with you about the whole “relevance” thing. What education *should* be doing is getting people to develop interests beyond themselves.

    In “Preface to Paradise Lost,” C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed by Milton. “Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan” (And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him.)

    There is something very wrong about bringing people up to have no interests beyond their own immediate day-to-day concerns.

  8. BadaBing says:

    “To Kill A Mockingbird is an excellent work of fiction and if taught right, students can appreciate it on different levels.”

    I find TKAM one of the most simplistic books I’ve ever had the misfortune to teach. It’s not great literature. It’s not even good literature. The characters are two-dimensional. Rednecks are bad, blacks are hapless victims that need help from whites, and Atticus is some sort of demigod. Where’s the nuance? If that’s not enough to stick in your craw, the insipid narrative of the androgynous Scout will. I refuse teaching this piece of overrated crap. It’s about as deep as a rain puddle.

    As for short novels lacking complexity and nuance, I say not always. To wit, Of Mice and Men and Anthem.

    Where I teach the average sophomore reads at a 5th-grade level. I don’t mind if they read Goosebumps for SSR. “Good God, will you look at that! Rogelio’s reading!” The novels I teach in class, however, often go unread: Lord of the Flies, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Separate Peace. Those that don’t read those ones almost always flunk, as they should.

  9. My goodness, I suggest you read some secondary works on TKAM. You are mistaken. It is exceptionally good literature.

    It’s only a melodrama on the surface.

    Harper Lee doesn’t portray the rednecks as evil. On the contrary, she shows that the prejudice toward Tom Robinson is of the same nature as Scout’s prejudice toward Boo Radley.

    Nor does she portray Atticus as Mr. Perfect. He moralizes a lot, but when push comes to shove, he obstructs justice and lies about a murder.

    Harper Lee takes a black and white conflict and shows the many shades of gray.

    There’s hardly a page in this book that isn’t masterfully written.

    It’s far superior to Lord of the Flies, All Quiet on the Western Front, and even Of Mice and Men.

    If you were in my class, I’d show you.

  10. AndyJoy says:

    Another thing about TKAM–in my experience, it’s not considered a high school read, but rather a jr. high one. Jr. highers still think on a very concrete level and struggle to analyze critically, and TKAM is a good starting point for their developing minds. My mom reads it aloud to her 7th graders, and it always sparks wonderful discussions. For many of them, it’s their first introduction to literature that isn’t someththing “fun” that they’d choose. Many have come back later and told my mom that being read that book sparked their interest in reading beyond their normal genres.

  11. Why focus on “great literature” only? Isaac Asimov did a great job exploring the conflict between technology and society in his robot stories. Ursula LeGuin just published a collection of short stories – speculative fiction which asks all sorts of questions (what if we didn’t sleep, what if we shared communal dreams etc.) Let’s not forget the magical realists – Charles deLint writes some of the best magical realism I’ve seen from an American author and has many teenage characters in his short stories. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Isabelle Allende are all easier to read than the Bronte sisters. Amy Tan captures the angst of living between cultures in a way that made sense to a lot of my friends.
    Of course the problem with most of these (except dear old Isaac) is that there is way too much explicit sex for any of them to be presented in school, especially to kids less than 13. I suppose you could stick to Mark Twain and keep yourself amused for quite a long time….

  12. Why focus on “great literature” only? Isaac Asimov did a great job exploring the conflict between technology and society in his robot stories. Ursula LeGuin just published a collection of short stories – speculative fiction which asks all sorts of questions (what if we didn’t sleep, what if we shared communal dreams etc.)

    You know what, in this age of Star Wars and Harry Potter, why not use some science fiction and fantasy in the classroom? It may not be “great literature”, but at least some of it is good. Asimov, LeGuin, Heinlein, Clarke, Niven are some of the masters of the SF universe.

    I can also think of no better way to piss off the educrats and culture vultures! To them, SF is the lowest possible form of literature, and “white male fascist-racist” too boot. And to the Christian mafia, SF is “satanic” and detracts from their own dystopian fantasies.

    What more, SF is the leading edge of the “personal revolution”. Think for yourself, sucker, and don’t be one of the Cool Carls and Carlas of some trashy, tribal teen novel.

  13. BadaBing says:

    I’m a Christian and I don’t think SciFi is satanic, occult, or evil. I used to eat it up like candy. No Christian I’ve ever talked to or read a book by ever had such a dumbass notion. SciFi is akin to fantasy and Tolkien and CS Lewis were masters of the genre. They were Christians. I don’t know where you people come up with this bullshit.

  14. BadaBing
    I don’t know where you people come up with this bullshit.

    It’s the whole “repeat a lie often enough…” effect. The closest I’ve come is the parents of some friends of mine who think Harry Potter is a bad influence.

    It is a real phenomenon, but it’s so rare as to be insignificant. It’s just one of the things anti-religious types like to trot out as if it applies to the majority.

  15. I agree that TKAM is trite. Every year I get a parent or two who complain that it is racist. I agree with them and ask them to stick with me, because I follow up with Coming of Age in Mississippi and The Invisible Man and have the kids tell me how the novel is racist, and we’re not talking the “N” word, either. Robert, I love most of what you say, man, but I can’t agree with you on that novel (except your criticisms of Atticus). I’m with BadaBing.

    I don’t teach YA. If the kids want to read that on their own, they can go for it. They don’t need me for that. My job is to help them through literature that’s just a little over their heads (like Marquez, Borges, Bronte, Tan, Steinbeck, and others mentioned in the thread — I love Allende, but she is a little too sexy for high school required reading).

  16. Note that I said “Christian mafia”, not Christians or Christianity in general. Whatever I may feel about this religion – most of its followers are open minded about SF and fantasy literature, and even role-playing games. And there are very good Christian SF/fantasy writers such as Tolkien, Lewis, and (IIRC) Blish.

    Attempted censorship by extremist groups is hardly “insignificant”. They are not just a few isolated nutcases. I wouldn’t have used the term “Christian mafia” if they weren’t powerful and organized.

  17. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Re: Young Adult Novels…I have to laugh at the memory of my favorite book in Junior High (oops~~I mean “middle school”), which was “Forever” by Judy Blume. Yeah…I went on to discover the joys of Joyce, Blake, Shakespeare, etc…but I’ll always have a fondness for “Forever” and guys named Ralph.