“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.