Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Me Being Me Is Exactly as Insane as You Being You

15 year-old Darren Jacobs is grappling with:
1) his parents' recent divorce
2) his father's coming out as gay
3) his body image
4) his sexual feelings
5) his confused emotions about at least 2 girls
6) the way that his parents suddenly seem like different people
7) the way that his parents have lives that don't necessarily have him at the center
8) general weirdness

Like Judy Blume, that trailblazer of realism in children's and YA literature, author Todd Hasak-Lawy speaks candidly about the body and adolescent sexual awareness.  Darren might be awkward and self-conscious and mute, more often than not, but the voice of the narrative is self-assured.  Darren's anger, confusion, contrariness and monosyllabic tendencies seem entirely appropriate for his age, gender and situation in life.

There seems to be a trend in realistic YA fiction for strong language (which was not so present in Blume's writing), sexuality and references to drugs and alcohol.  It may not be what parents want their children to read (ie, a sanitized version of of adolescent life), but it probably rings truer for the life that most adolescents are experiencing.  Also:  Is just me, or does it seem like LGBT themes and characters and storylines are really pervasive at the moment?  Fun Home just won 5 Tony awards, Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the last three realistic YA novels I have read all feature a gay character -- and not even as the protagonist or the main theme, but in a studiously casual way . . . as if to say, "this is just our new normal".  Darren is not completely comfortable with his father being gay, but it's not really the homosexuality per se as much as the fact that his life is changing too quickly.  It's just one of many things that Darren is dealing with, and the storyline deals with it in straightforward, sensitive way.  Like most adolescents, (if not all), Darren is much more interested in his own sexual experiences than his father's.

It's difficult to stand out in a crowded YA field, but this book will be remembered as "the list" book -- and maybe for its catchy title (which suits a story in which there is father-son therapy and a love interest in rehab).  The narrative is told through a series of lists -- some of them brief, and some of them so lengthy that they threaten to stretch the concept to its breaking-point.  It is an arguably gimmicky way of telling a story, but it mostly works.  Much of the humour of the book takes place between the title of the lists and their contents.  It also is an efficient way of breaking up the text, which is always a plus for reluctant readers, male readers, impatient readers and readers who read a lot for their work (me).  Unfortunately, and this would be my main criticism of the book, the overall length of this book starts making even an indulgent and (mostly) entertained reader feel:  enough already.  Didn't YA books used to be between 180-200 pages on average?  Just because J.K. Rowling wrote door-stoppers that sold millions doesn't mean that every YA author needs to deliver such a high word-count.  This story would have greatly benefited from being more tightly edited.  It just goes on a bit too long, even though its separate parts are both entertaining and worthwhile.

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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Reading Aloud

When I was in graduate school, working on a M.Ed. in Reading Education, I was exposed to the ideas of Jim Trelease -- author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, and a tireless and inspirational promoter of reading aloud.  The Big Idea central to Mr. Trelease's philosophy is that we are more likely to do something if we find it pleasurable; ergo, if we can make reading pleasurable, then children (not to mention teenagers and adults) are more likely to do it.  There is a logical progression to this equation:  the more frequently we read, the better reader we will become.  The better reader we become, the more successful we will be at school (and also life -- as books are one of our best sources of emotional/ethical enrichment).  There is an enormous wealth of research in the field of education and it mostly boils down to this:  the more a child reads, the better.

This week the idea of "reading aloud" has resurfaced as a hot topic and Big Idea.

Tony Little, the retiring Head Master of Eton College, has published a book called An Intelligent Person's Guide to Education and one of his bits of advice to parents is this:  read aloud to your teenagers.  A recent article in The Times even led with this idea, perhaps because it is so basic and old-fashioned that it seems archaic . . . or revolutionary.  At a historical moment when many families are more likely to communicate by text than actual conversation, it is an idea that feels positively 19th century (pre-radio, pre-television, pre-computer, pre-Netflix).

The rationale for reading aloud has always been clear:  in the words of Mr. Little, reading aloud "develops listening skills" (which surely are on the wane) and it "fosters a love of literature". Also, when children/teenagers are read aloud to, it kindles their interest.  Over and over again, whether in my own home, in the classroom or library, or in Book Clubs, I have seen the truth of this play out.  If you read an excerpt from a book, your audience is quite likely to want to continue on with that story.  Reading aloud whets the appetite.

My daughters are both avid readers and many of my friends have asked how "I" managed to accomplish this.  First of all,  I read aloud to my children.  Secondly, I surrounded my children with books.  Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, my children grew up observing me reading.  As any parent knows (or should know, at any rate), what we DO is much more important than what we SAY.  I truly believe that the best example we can set, if we want our children to be readers, is to read ourselves . . . to them, with them and in front of them.