Creative Nonfiction: Didion and Sedaris

Leave a comment

My focus for this reading response is on the following four essays: Joan Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), California Dreaming (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 73-78), On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15).

I enjoyed all four essays but to different extents and for different reasons. While I appreciated the first two (Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming) primarily from a stylistic standpoint and because they gave insights which sparked my curiosity, I connected on a more personal level to the other two (On Going Home and Go Carolina).

In Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), Didion tells the story of “Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller” (AKA: Lucille Miller) who allegedly murdered her husband, Gordon “Cork” Miller by setting his car on fire with him still alive in it late one night on Banyan Street nearby their home in the San Bernardino Mountains in California. While Lucille Miller eventually gets convicted and sentenced for this crime, Didion never seems to pass judgment on her or settle on any particular conclusion of guilt or innocence in the story she tells. Instead, Didion seems to use this particular story as commentary on this place and the type of people who live there, as well as food for thought on the case, our legal system and society itself.

Stylistically, this essay struck me as both beautiful and functional. Didion’s transitions worked especially well as they allowed her to move the essay masterfully back and forth between the facts of the case and the illusions of opinion. Transitions like “Of course she came from somewhere else” (7) and “Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know about the course of this one” (8) gave Didion the ability and flexibility to weave in and out of the information she wanted to share and leave out things she deemed unimportant to her essay. These transitions allowed Didion to tell an otherwise tangled tale in an easy-to-digest way.

Didion’s California Dreaming, a much shorter essay though equally revealing story, is about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, “the current mutation of the Fund for the Republic.” It’s in the little details where we as readers learn the most. For example, by choosing to use the word “mutation” here Didion is able to make a subtle though still poignant statement. In this essay, Didion takes what’s on the surface, or otherwise known as public knowledge,” and adds details, like the nepotistic aspects of the society for example, and even makes a few cult-like parallels, to make us curious about what is really going on here. Though Didion herself avoids making accusations and seems to almost dance around what she really thinks, she gives enough information so we, as readers, can come to our own conclusions.

In both essays, Didion take news stories and public information and dives deeper into them to reveal the aspects anyone not paying close attention may have missed. In doing so, she provides a unique insight into California culture while showing an uglier side of the so-called “American Dream.” In both essays, Didion uses imagery and description exceptionally to add layer after layer, while transitioning smoothly between those layers, to build toward climax. I felt myself being pulled so deeply into these stories that I was itching to know what would be revealed at every turn. And, even though neither essay provided a sense of closure, both gave me so much to think about that I could happily chew for days on certain paragraphs in an effort to try to figure out what Didion really thought about the people and events she was writing about.

On the downside, both Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming struck me as a bit rushed, perhaps due to the sheer quantity of information being shared. And by rushing and squeezing so much in, I think, both essays also dismissed a sense of human connection and feeling. These essays, while profoundly interesting and stylistically beautiful, struck me at times as a collection of informative facts and quotes with little to no emotion.

The final two essays, Didion’s On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15), also made good choices stylistically but they didn’t make those choices at the expense of emotion and in doing so they were able to reach the next level by making the personal connections the other two essays missed. Both relied more heavily on opinion and feelings over “just the facts” and gave very personal accounts of the writers’ lives to give insight into perhaps why they are who they are.

In On Going Home, Didion tells the story of a time when, without her husband, she took her daughter “home” to celebrate her first birthday in the home where Didion grew up and with her premarital family. The essay deals with Didion’s personal issues as she compares and contrasts her current life with her husband and their child versus her life and experiences growing up. Didion shares vivid details to make her points about the differences between her current life/family and her background and in doing so she reveals positive and negative qualities about both. For example, I loved the story about the dust. By telling us that it was so dusty that her husband could literally write the word “dust” in it, it shows how unkempt the house is while also showing the condescending and pretentious qualities of her husband.

I really loved this story, and will likely use it as my second reading response later this week. I loved it so much, I think, because I could relate to it. It connects so well to the feeling many, including myself, get when they grow up, marry or enter a commitment with someone from a wildly different background. It’s so easy to see the differences, both positive and negative, between the families we are given and the families we choose. For example, I grew up in the inner city in Philadelphia while my husband grew up on a farm in Iowa (keeping in mind that while I grew up in Philly, I currently live in Iowa with my husband and daughter). It’s impossible to ignore the many glaring differences between the two that I often find myself loving and hating one over the other and shifting back and forth between which one wins or loses the individual battles of comparison. For example, while I love that my husband comes from a large laid back family with so many cousins all living nearby and the fun and festivities which come naturally with that, I hate that everyone knows each other’s business. Of course, there are also things I love, especially by comparison, about my own premarital family, too, like the faster paced life of the city and the way that how we, as a small family, act in times of struggle like it’s us against the world and how we all truly seem to “get each other.” But while I love “going home,” when I do there are moments when I feel like Didion as she revealed in her essay.

Not only was this story far more personal and emotional than Didion’s other two essays, in the other two she goes to great efforts to set up her stories before revealing the underlying issues and elements, while in this one she gets to the main points almost immediately and was far more conversational and raw, both personally and emotionally, than the other two.

Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15) by David Sedaris made similar emotional connections for me as Didion’s On Going Home but while it had some similarities to Didion’s other two essays it maintained a style of its own. Like Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming by Didion, Sedaris goes to great efforts to set up his story before jumping into its true themes and getting to the good stuff, so to speak. I liked his quirkier style and specifically how he used elements from a young boy’s imagination, like referring to the speech therapist as “Agent Samson” and his younger self’s creative problem solving, like avoiding the Ss. But what I really liked about this particular essay was the smart humor throughout and the way in which Sedaris set up this story—how he leads us to believe that this is a story about a boy who battled a speech impediment, but as the story builds the story behind the story is revealed and this is where Sedaris shares a far more personal journey and his issues with his sexuality.

Like Didion’s On Going Home, my favorite aspect of this essay is how Sedaris lets us in. He welcomes us into a very personal part of himself and does so in such a way where we feel like we belong there, like we’re not snooping around in someone else’s business.

Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, California Dreaming, On Going Home, and Sedaris’s Go Carolina are exceptional examples of how to weave a story that will grab and maintain a reader’s attention from start to finish. In all four of these essays, Didion and Sedaris use dark humor to deal with dark topics and some intense issues as they lead us down various well detailed paths in what felt to me, at times, like layered labyrinths. But none of them strolled too far down any particular path long enough for me to nod off, stop reading or skip ahead.

What I admire most and aspire toward, as a writer and writing student, is how Didion and Sedaris masterfully set up and paced their stories, as well as how they grabbed and kept my attention from start to finish by revealing just what I needed to know just when I needed to know it. Each told unique stories in his and her own unique ways and in reading them I feel satisfied by what I’ve consumed and yet I am still left thinking and wondering and wanting more.

Works Cited:

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Go Ask Alice (a personal PS)

Leave a comment

I first read Go Ask Alice at age 12 and it was so powerful that it’s stayed with me. It was one of my favorite books back then and reading it again at 37, it was still powerful but it was also nostalgic. I remember once I read it back then wanting all of my friends to read it, too. It felt important. And honestly I still believe every teen girl should read it. What an awesome book.

I love to write in the margins as I read. I fully intend to share this book someday with my daughter so this time I wrote notes to her in the margins. Every time “Alice” wished she had someone to talk to, I wrote a little note reminding my daughter that she can always talk to me. And each time “Alice” failed and felt badly about herself, I wrote a note telling my daughter that I will always love her no matter what.

Go Ask Alice: An awesome YA novel (if you ask me)

Leave a comment

Go Ask Alice is the “diary” of an “anonymous” teenage girl whose life, documented from age 15 to 17, is dominated by her downward spiral into drug addiction. Published in 1971, this realistic, young adult problem novel remains one of the most popular YA books of all time.

Although the book was originally marketed as the true diary of an actual teenage girl, it has since been revealed to be a work of fiction. It opens: Go Ask Alice is based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user. It is not a definitive statement on the middle-class, teenage drug world. It does not offer any solutions. It is, however, a highly personal and specific chronicle. As such, we hope it will provide insights into the increasingly complicated world in which we live. Names, dates, places and certain events have been changed in accordance with the wishes of those concerned. ~ The Editors

Like many teen girls, the protagonist confides her inner most thoughts and secrets to her diary. In terms of craft, since the story is written in first person and in diary form, “Alice” is presented to us as her life unfolds naturally, with observations both dramatic and insignificant. She speaks directly to the reader and her relaxed, sometimes exaggerated, adolescent tone makes her experiences, while at times foreign to many readers, seem authentic, truthful and realistic.

The protagonist’s language plays a big part in her authenticity. It stayed consistently teen-like from the very first page when she writes: “I thought I’d literally and completely die with happiness” all the way to her final entry two years later when she writes: “Diaries are great when you’re young. In fact, you’ve saved my sanity a hundred, thousand, million times.”

The protagonist’s name is never actually revealed in the book. According to Wikipedia, it is believed that Go Ask Alice got its name from the 1967 Jefferson Airplane song White Rabbit which includes the lyrics: “Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.” Grace Slick, one of the band’s lead singers, wrote the song after noticing possible drug references in Lewis Carroll’s classic novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (AKA: Alice in Wonderland), first published in 1865. The connection is spelled out for us on page 36 of Go Ask Alice, when in Alice’s July 14th entry, she writes: “I feel like Alice in Wonderland. Maybe Lewis G. Carroll was on drugs, too.”

Though the byline says “Anonymous,” the US Copyright Office lists Beatrice Sparks as the sole author, although her name is found nowhere on the book itself. According to Wikipedia, “Beatrice Sparks (1917–2012) was an American therapist and Mormon youth counselor who was known for producing books purporting to be the ‘real diaries’ of troubled teenagers.”

In Wild Ink: How to Write Fiction for Young Adults, Victoria Handley identifies and defines the following common characteristics of YA literature: Age of Protagonist, Coming of Age, Passion, Honesty, Independence, Wild Exploration and Breakdown/Breakthrough. There is no question that Go Ask Alice contains each of these qualities, or that the story itself as well as its messages are clearly driven by Alice’s wild exploration and her breakdowns/breakthroughs.

The protagonist predominantly explores the world of drugs and through a string of breakdowns the reader is able to see the damage the drugs are doing to her mentally and physically. On page 163, after she vowed again to never touch drugs, while babysitting Alice eats some chocolate covered peanuts which we learn later were laced with acid. After going into a fit of rage, she is locked in a closet where she self-mutilates. She is hospitalized and later institutionalized. She writes: “The whole ends of my fingers have been torn off and two nails have been pulled out completely and the others torn down almost in half.” In addition to the physical breakdown, she is experiencing a mental breakdown, as well: “The worms are eating away at my female parts first. They have almost entirely eaten away at my vagina and my breasts and now they are working their way to my mouth and throat. I wish the doctors and nurses would let my soul die, but they are still experimenting with trying to reunite the body and the spirit.”

Alice’s breakthroughs are few and far between but her intentions to stop doing drugs are made clear multiple times in the novel. Sadly, each time she succumbs to her addiction.

On page 14 of In Writing and Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going writes: “Writing for teens isn’t easy. It’s a balancing act—weighing what’s relevant with what’s timeless—but if you can do this, you can succeed in any genre.”

Go Ask Alice was published in 1971 and some of references in the book suggest a timeline from 1968 until 1970, yet today’s teens are still reaching for it, reading it and talking to their friends about it. With well over a million copies in print, it has become a classic piece of YA literature. It addresses difficult themes and it successfully makes its points. This powerful realistic faux-diary of a teenager’s struggle with the seductive and often fatal world of drugs and addiction tells the truth about drugs in an authentic, never preachy voice. The book is influential and it challenges the conceptions of YA literature by tackling powerful young adult themes, like drug addiction and sex, without bothering to sugar coat consequences. Drugs and sex have always been and will always be hot topics for teens and will probably always be considered taboo topics by many adults. Through its no-holds-barred, realistic depiction of one teen’s journey into drug addiction and sex, Go Ask Alice has advanced the field of YA lit.

On page 531 of Literature for Adolescents—Pap or Protein? Frank G. Jennings writes: “Here are young people, trembling on the threshold of adulthood. They want to know what it is like to hope and fail, to suffer, to die, to love wastefully. They want to have spelled out some of the awful consequences of going against society’s grain. They want to dare greatly.”

I first read Go Ask Alice as an eighth grader attending a Catholic elementary school in inner city Philadelphia. My best friend Nicole talked it up and then finally lent me her copy when she was finished with it. I remember being anxious to get my hands on it. To me, it was exciting and scandalous, since the book was not available in our school’s library and I knew the content was pretty much off limits for someone my age. While my parents weren’t typically the types to censor my reading, I assumed they wouldn’t approve if they knew so I snuck around to read it.

On page 42 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “W.H. Auden said, ‘Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.’”

I remember being blown away by this young girl’s diary, which at the time I truly believed to be real. I related to Alice’s desire to fit in and her issues with her body. Most teenage girls would. I was captivated by her firsthand account of how she first got introduced to drugs and sex and how both spiraled out of control until she was addicted to various drugs and having casual sex with complete strangers. Alice’s experiences fascinated and scared me.

When Alice is sober, she writes almost every day about her life and her goals but when she’s on drugs, there are large gaps between entries and many entries are undated. Alice goes from writing about normal teen girl things like friendships and boys to documenting in a broken matter-of-fact way her recollection of being raped and how good the drugs made her feel.

In addition to being a cautionary tale about the evils of drugs, Go Ask Alice is also a book about loneliness, depression, fitting in and finding one’s place in the world. As Alice’s family moved around, young Alice started at a new school in the middle of the year and she struggled to make and keep friends. Like many young adults, she felt insecure and struggled with her weight and appearance. She perceived her siblings to be more attractive and popular and because of this she believed her parents loved them more. She felt alone and like an outcast at school and at home. In multiple entries, Alice writes: “I wish I had someone to talk to.”

Whether or not teens can relate to Alice’s world and circumstances, most are able to relate to her mindset and her emotions. At twelve, I was curious about drugs and sex. While I hadn’t yet done either, some of my friends had and I was aware that I could if I’d wanted to. Living in the city, in a densely populated neighborhood, I certainly had access if I’d wanted to try either. But, unlike Alice, I knew I had people to talk to. I could talk to my parents—though like many teens in my situation, I didn’t always take advantage of that and more often than not I got my information from my friends. Still I knew I was loved and that my family was there for me if and when I needed them. But even with a good family and friends, there were still plenty of times when I felt alone, lonely and different, and when I struggled to fit in just like Alice. Every teen feels this way and some of the things that happened to Alice could happen to anyone.

This book made a huge impact on me as an adolescent. I remember how I felt when Alice’s life began to unravel and how scared I was for her when she ran away. I was so happy when her parents welcomed her back only to be devastated again when she wound up institutionalized. I believed her when she vowed to never touch drugs again in her final journal entry. And I cried when I read the epilogue and learned she died from an overdose three weeks later.

Because of its explicit drug and sex references, Go Ask Alice has been banned from many school libraries. According to Wikipedia: “The American Library Association listed Go Ask Alice as number 23 on its list of the 100 most frequently challenged books of the 1990s. The book was number 8 on the most challenged list in 2001 and up to number 6 in 2003. The dispute over the book’s authorship does not seem to have played any role in these censorship battles.”

This is a book that has the ability to make a difference with young readers. Even though it was written in the 1960s and much of the language and plot reflects those times, the protagonist’s story is still relevant today.
Addiction, drugs, sex, rebellion and fitting in are timeless young adult topics. And while I understand some parents may not want their teens to read it because of its mature themes and language, teenagers are who need to read Go Ask Alice.

Twelve-year-old me read this book and was totally freaked out! I did not want to be like Alice. Reading it again at 37, the book still affected me. Sure, I’m an adult now and as such my perspective is entirely different. But I still cried for Alice. And now, I can look back over my life and see how her story influenced me. I definitely had Alice in the back of my mind when I encountered similar situations in my teen years to those she faced in the book, and I proceeded with caution. Seeing what happened to her positively influenced me to walk a different path.

Even though I believed the book to be a real diary written by a real girl back when I first read it, I’m not sure it would’ve been any less impactful had I known it had actually been written by an adult. Rereading the story as an adult I still found Alice’s voice authentic and even knowing what I know now, that the book was written by Beatrice Sparks, I still pictured a young girl in my head. The protagonist, whether or not she was based on a real person, still felt real to me and her thoughts and actions grabbed and kept my attention. On page 59 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “Active characters are endlessly fascinating because we’re always wondering what they’ll do next. It’s easy to feel as though we know them well, and when a reader feels like they know a character in the same way they know a real person, they’ll invest in loving him, hating him, rooting for him, or laughing with him. Active characters shape the plot through the choices they make, and their desires create mirrored desires in the audience.”

Like most teens, Alice knows she shouldn’t do drugs. But once she tries them she immediately wants more and she becomes increasingly more curious about different drugs. As her appetite grows, so does her addiction. Soon she goes from dabbling to dealing. Not only can the reader see the effects of drugs through Alice’s deterioration as the book progresses but after each drug relapse she goes on and on about the dangers of drugs and promises herself each time that this time will be her last. But the addiction overpowers her and the drugs win every time.

On page 53 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “Watching what a character does or does not do can reveal what she wants and help create a fuller sense of who she is both physically and emotionally. This is especially true when we reveal the reasons behind her actions.” After a string of horrific experiences, Alice reveals her desire to become a social worker and someday counsel kids about the evils of drugs. She wants to do better but the drugs are too powerful and her addiction to them keeps sucking her back in.

Above all else, Go Ask Alice is an effective cautionary tale. Rather than lecture the reader about the perils of addiction, it draws our attention to the protagonist and through her internal dialogue, her thoughts, feelings, actions and experiences, it screams: “Don’t do drugs!”

On page 52 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “In Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting stories for Children, she writes: ‘What happens to characters—how they suffer and celebrate, how they meet challenges, overcome obstacles and find redemption—is the heart and soul and spirit of story.’”

Alice’s battle with drugs and her journey through addiction, saturated with repeated mistakes and painful suffering, made her a sympathetic and, at times, frustrating character. She knew what she was doing was wrong and yet she just couldn’t seem to stay straight long enough to save herself. Still Alice’s most redeeming quality was her desire to overcome her own addictions so that she could someday become a social worker and help others to avoid making the mistakes she’d made. In a heartbreaking twist, Alice never actually reaches that goal.

When I look back at my youth and think about some of the choices I made and the lessons I learned from reading Go Ask Alice, I truly believe, in some profound way, Alice fulfilled her destiny to help others. Her story certainly helped me.

Works Cited:
Anonymous. Go Ask Alice. Simon Pulse. New York. Print. 1971.
Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008.
Handley, Victoria. Wild Ink: How to Write Fiction for Young Adults. Prufrock Press. 2010.
Jennings. Frank., Literature for Adolescents–Pap or Protein? Source: The English Journal, Vol. 45, No. 9. (526-531). National Council of Teachers of English. 1956.
Wikipedia. Web site. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Sparks
Wikipedia. Web site. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_Ask_Alice

American Born Chinese

Leave a comment

In his graphic young adult novel, American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang tells three unique stories with three unique protagonists but each story shares a single message: Be yourself. To make his point crystal clear, Yang brings together various elements, including illustrations, to highlight the idea of wanting to become someone you’re not just for the sake of fitting in.

The first story is about the Monkey King who was “a deity in his own right” and “monkeys from the four corners of the world flocked to him” but when he is refused admission to a dinner party outside his kingdom for not wearing shoes (a human trait), he loses his mind, kills everyone at the party and decides he no longer wants to be a monkey. Angry and embarrassed, he goes to great lengths to become the Great Sage Equal of Heaven instead. As the story unfolds, as punishment for what he did, the Monkey King is inevitably banished by Tze-Yo-Tzuh, creator of all existence, and forced to live under a mountain of rock. He eventually realizes the only way to free himself from his self-induced prison is to embrace who he is and accept being a monkey.

The second story is about Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants, who just wants to fit in and is willing to go to great lengths to do so. Even as a young boy, when the herbalist’s wife asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, he says he wants to be a Transformer, a kid’s toy that is symbolic to the story. The old woman replies, “It’s easy to become anything you wish so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” When Jin enters middle school and notices the cute blond, Amelia Harris, from that point on Jin transforms himself hoping she’ll fall in love with him. He even dyes and perms his hair to look more like Amelia’s (platonic) male friend in an attempt to win her over. That’s ironic not only because Amelia and the boy were just friends but later the boy makes it clear that he looks down on Jin when he asks him to stop dating Amelia for the sake of her reputation. Basically Jin started out disliking himself and being ashamed of his culture and he transformed himself into someone who also disliked him and his culture.

The third story brings the other two stories together. It features a white kid named Danny and his Chinese “cousin” Chin-Kee. Not only is Chin-Kee’s name a racist slang term but Chin-Kee, the character, is the epitome of every Chinese stereotype. Danny is embarrassed of Chin-Kee and tries to get rid of him but Chin-Kee refuses to leave and turns out to be stronger physically and spiritually. As this story progresses, we learn that Danny is the transformed version of Jin Wang from story #2 and we learn that Chin-Kee is the Monkey King from story #1. We also learn that Jin Wang’s friend Wei-Chen is in fact the Monkey King’s son being tested in human form. On page 217, the Monkey King even gives his son a Transformer toy and says “Let it remind you of who you are.” As this tale progresses Wei-Chen turns his back on his culture, too. And in the end it becomes Jin Wan’s responsibility to find Wei-Chen so each can embrace who they really are.

American Born Chinese is an insightful story about discrimination and transformation. It teaches us that one of the worst forms of discrimination is when we discriminate against ourselves.

In American Born Chinese, Yang uses pictures to get his points across to the reader. With so many confusing spiritual and religious themes and unfamiliar multicultural perspectives, without pictures many young readers may have found themselves confused. The pictures help the reader better understand the content of the story and, in turn, reinforces the author’s messages.

On page 93 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going writes: “You’ll want to choose the very best descriptions so your setting seems real and has the most impact possible… settings can shape our stories and create a tone that helps an author achieve his or her goals.”

In this case, graphic novelists have the advantage because rather than finding the best descriptions in the hopes that readers will see what authors want them to see, the graphic novelist can literally draw the picture he or she wants the reader to see instead.

There’s truth to the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” By adding visuals, graphic novels open new possibilities in storytelling. If a writer is able to offer words with illustrations, his or her points and messages are far less likely to be misconstrued or missed altogether.

While I think Yang was successful in general with his graphic novel, in some ways I think the pictures held him back. There were moments when the illustrations were so over the top that some readers may miss a message because they’re busy laughing. Or because they are hyper-focused on one element they may miss the surrounding elements. There were also moments when the characters were so cartoonish that it was challenging at times to take them seriously.

Personally, I struggled to get through this book. In fact, I lost count of how many times I put it down and procrastinated finishing it. It gave me the same feeling of exhaustion I get when I watch a movie with subtitles. Maybe it was all the multitasking that made reading American Born Chinese feel more like work than art to me. Or maybe it was the simple fact that as an active reader one of my favorite things about reading is picturing the story in my mind. There were times when I felt like the images were being forced down my throat and other times when I felt like I had to study every picture to fully understand the story.

Still I can’t imagine this book without the illustrations and even though they weren’t exactly my cup of tea, I think they served a valuable purpose. From an author’s POV, what a great way to “show” rather than “tell” our stories while underlining the points we are trying to make. That said; I can see why so many people, and young adults in particular, enjoy reading them. Pictures are fun and illustrations are a great way to connect with those young adults who dislike books or those who struggle with reading. In this way, graphic novels are able to reach people which other novels cannot. And if they spark a love for reading, then graphic novels are okay in my book!

Works Cited:

Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008. Print.

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: Square Fish. 2006. Print.

The Hunger Games: YA Dystopian Science Fiction

Leave a comment

Today’s young adults are under so many pressures that I think they must often feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Utopian and dystopian YA literature is popular because it offers its readers an incomparable element of escapism from their everyday lives. While the stories themselves are imaginative and the settings are a stretch from reality as we know it, these stories and their young protagonists tend to be both relatable and inspiring. They often feature “normal” teen characters who have realistic problems but who fight to overcome extraordinary obstacles and sometimes even end up saving the world.

Utopia and dystopia are opposites. Utopian novels are set in paradise-like societies, or utopias, where everything seems ideal, carefree and perfect, while dystopian novels are often set in hostile, unappealing, scary and degraded societies, or dystopias. Both utopian and dystopian societies explore social and political structures and are commonly featured in science fiction.

The Hunger Games is dystopian science fiction, though it contains both dystopian and utopian elements. However, while the Capitol could be seen as a utopia, its primary function in the novel is that of contrast to the districts, which are clearly dystopian, and to the painful, humiliating and degrading essence of the games. So the dystopian elements outweigh the utopian elements. The dystopian qualities of the districts include the dehumanization and suppression of the citizens ruled by a controlling government that degrades and punishes its people. Each district performs a specific function that benefits the Capitol but they are kept segregated and are unable to share their talents and resources with other districts. This ensures that no one district can excel. Even within the districts, the government promotes hatred, fear and lack of trust through segregation. On page 14, Katniss says: “It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided amongst ourselves.” On page 203, she wonders if the Gamemakers are censoring their conversations because “they don’t want people in different districts to know about one another.” The districts are fenced in like prisons and the citizens are forced to live in impoverished, third worldly conditions where they deal with starvation, public whippings and limited resources. Finally, the Reaping itself—an event in which the government selects children from a public lottery, takes them away from their families and kills them for entertainment—is dystopian.

A successful Sci-Fi or Fantasy will bend and stretch our imagination without breaking it entirely. This so-called “suspension of disbelief” is our willingness to suspend what we know to be true in order to enjoy a work of fiction. Still, science fiction and fantasy are very different and as such they require different degrees of suspended disbelief. In science fiction we are willing to believe an alternate or futuristic reality based on things we know to be true in our current reality. For example, it’s easy enough for us to believe a science fiction story in which people live on Mars someday simply because we already have space travel. On the other hand, fantasies like Twilight or Lord of the Rings, for examples, are not based in reality and require a larger leap of faith.

The Hunger Games is science fiction primarily because of its many plausible futuristic elements, including: flaming outfits, instant hair dryers, tracker jackers, hovercrafts, teleporting devices, computer-controlled illusions, temperature and weather controlled environments, magic burn medicines and robotic dogs. Collins creates a believable world by creating things that we think could possibly happen in the future based on what we know now about our own world. Plus, when it comes to the future, we tend to be open-minded about the many scientific and technological possibilities so things like temperature controlled atmospheres, hovercrafts and robotic dogs aren’t so hard to imagine. Also, Collins is consistent with the elements she creates. On page 82 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going says: “Be consistent. Whatever the rules of your world are, stay within them. Don’t change anything for your own convenience.” Collins makes the rules and sticks to them. For example, when the Gamemakers announced the surprising change in their rules that would’ve allowed Katniss and Peeta to win together, it seemed convenient and out of character. If it had simply ended there, no one would’ve bought it.

On page 96, Going writes: “It’s also important to give your imaginary time period a multidimensional quality, alluding to what has come before and what might be in store in the future.” The “present” world Collins creates hovers in between a past that through Katniss’ memories we know enough about to visualize and accept and a future we can easily make rational assumptions about based on what we know about the “present” world and what happens to the characters in the story. We know that even though Katniss and Peeta beat the system and won the games, the games themselves will continue. On page 378, Katniss says, “It’s the Capitol’s way of reminding people that the Hunger Games never really go away. We’ll be given a lot of useless plaques, and everyone will have to pretend they love us.”

Collins is also consistent with the way she develops characterization. She begins with our main character Katniss since everything we see in the novel will be through Katniss’ eyes. We immediately get to know Katniss mostly through her own actions—we learn about her physical strength and warrior mentality through her hunting and we learn what kind of person she is when she takes her sister’s place in the Reaping. Voila! She is multidimensional because she kills but she also loves. On page 60 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “Actions also reveal character. What a person does shows us who he is—not just who he says he is.” Katniss herself is a believer that actions speak louder than words so, in turn, she uses a combination of physical descriptions and actions to set up her supporting characters. Since Katniss makes assumptions based on the appearances and actions of others, it’s easy for us to do the same. For example, she sees parallels between Prim and Rue so we do, too. This also makes it so that when she doesn’t immediately connect the dots on a particular character we can use what she’s noticed to make our own very satisfying assumptions—like how we realize Peeta has fallen for Katniss long before she realizes it herself. And based on her actions, we can tell Katniss is falling for him, too.

The Hunger Games is considered a dystopian science fiction novel because it contains many dystopian and science fiction elements. It’s successful because of the consistency and believability of those elements. Like every good science fiction novelist, Collins tells a story that stimulates without squashing our imaginations while creating settings we can easily picture and characters who we can believe in.

Works Cited:

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York. Scholastic. 2008. Print

Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008. Print.

“Speak”

Leave a comment

Speak, written by Laurie Halse Anderson, is a story about rape, recovery and healing. Labeled a “Problem Novel” in the Young Adult genre, the book tackles uncomfortable topics and doesn’t shy away from real life problems. Speak speaks out against violence and victimization while teaching us about trauma, empowerment, patience, compassion and the power of words.

After being raped at a party by a popular senior named Andy Evans, 14-year-old freshman Melinda Sordino calls the police but is suddenly unable to verbalize what happened. When the police arrive and break up the party, Melinda is blamed for it and later ostracized by her peers. Unable to process, admit or discuss what happened to her, Melinda nearly stops speaking altogether. She withdraws at home and starts skipping school, nonverbally expressing herself through body language and self-destructive behavior, like biting her lip until it bleeds and even cutting herself. As her grades slip and her silence becomes deafening, her parents realize something is wrong but, distracted by their own problems, they accuse Melinda of acting out for attention. Because she isn’t getting the support or help she needs, Melinda’s depression deepens.

I found Melinda’s story to be a realistic depiction of a young girl’s journey from rape to recovery. While the novel touches on other young adult issues, like fitting in, popularity, finding one’s identity, grades, status and relationships, those issues were overshadowed by the trauma and recovery themes—and rightfully so. After all, this mirrors what would actually happen in real life. While life keeps on moving and the world keeps spinning, anyone who has survived a tragedy or trauma knows that the life of the victim becomes saturated by those experiences.

On page 52 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going says: “In Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, she writes: ‘What happens to characters—how they suffer and celebrate, how they meet challenges, overcome obstacles and find redemption—is the heart and soul and spirit of story.’” Going continues: “Our personalities reveal themselves through our speech, actions and body language… Watching what a character does or does not do can reveal what she wants and help create a fuller sense of who she is both physically and emotionally. This is especially true when we reveal the reasons behind her actions.”

Melinda wanted desperately for this experience to somehow go away and her brain’s defense mechanism was to try to repress the rape. She prayed that if she didn’t speak about it, then it would magically disappear. This, too, is common in real life traumas and tragedies.

I imagine some readers will say that Melinda should have immediately spoken up and sought justice against her attacker, and I admit I had those thoughts, too. But then I tried to put myself in Melinda’s shoes. Rape is nearly impossible to process as an adult, but Melinda is a 14-year-old girl and trying to process something this traumatic at such a young age is both scary and challenging beyond words. Not only was Melinda raped, but this was also her first sexual experience. And she said it herself—she wasn’t even scheduled to learn about sex until her junior year. How can we expect her to feel comfortable speaking about something that no one has taken the time to discuss with her? Add that to the fact that sex and rape are often considered taboo topics. Victims of rape often feel ashamed and even responsible for what happened to them.

This week’s lecture states: “The real-lives of teens do not always have to be dramatic. A story of a teen driven to exhaustion by pressures of getting into the right college may connect more than stories about teens in drugs or gangs. The essence of the problem is only that it is realistic.”

Rape is a tricky theme and traditionally stories about rape involve dramatic and horrific rape scenes, backlashes from victims telling their stories and horrendous public trials. Speak was nothing like that. While it was indeed dramatic in its own way, the rape scene was dealt with delicately through flashback. And rather than focusing the story on the rapist getting what he deserved, this story focused almost entirely on the victim. To me this was realistic. Real people recovering from real traumas may be too afraid, embarrassed, confused or scarred to speak up.

At school, Melinda hides in a janitor’s closet to avoid people. While this seemed silly to me at first, I couldn’t escape the closet’s obvious symbolism. On page 50, Melinda says: “I know my head isn’t screwed on straight. I want to leave, transfer, warp myself to another galaxy. I want to confess everything, hand over the guilt and mistake and anger to someone else. There is a beast inside my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the inside of my ribs. Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me, straining me. My closet is a good thing, a quiet place that helps me hold these thoughts inside my head where no one can hear them.” Similar to homosexuals who are “in the closet,” a term used to describe those who have not yet come out to their friends and family, Melinda did absolutely nothing wrong and yet she is overcome by guilt and fear and shame.

Melinda starts to find her voice through artistic expression in Mr. Freeman’s class. Meanwhile, Melinda’s ex-friend Rachel starts dating Andy Evans and Melinda fears Rachel will get raped, too. Melinda tries to warn her but Rachel ignores her and accuses her of being jealous. Still it is Melinda’s warning combined with Andy’s aggressive behavior that leads to the breakup at prom. Melinda’s urgency to help others (shown through bathroom graffiti and through her courageous warning to Rachel) along with her artistic expression slowly helps Melinda acknowledge that she was raped and empowers her to finally speak up and stand up against her attacker. Once the truth comes out, the students no longer treat Melinda like an outcast. In the end, Melinda tells her story to Mr. Freeman and the truth finally sets her free, so to speak, to move on and to heal.

There were certain things in the story which I found unrealistic or hard to believe at first but those things were explained away by the diary style in which the story was told. For example, I struggled with Melinda’s recount of the scene where Andy attacks her at school and she fights back. To me, it seemed exaggerated but then I thought it doesn’t matter what I think because these are Melinda’s memories. She is a 14-year-old girl recovering from a trauma so her point of view as well as her fears and insecurities are painted over everything. Not only do teens have a tendency to exaggerate the good and the bad but her exaggeration doesn’t make her a liar.

This class inspired me to dig out a bunch of my old diaries and journals (as I got older I started calling them journals) and I can’t believe how much I exaggerated back then. The experiences were always true but back then everything was a big deal to me and my words reflected that.

What happened to Melinda was a very big deal. That in addition to the fact that she is a teen and teens have the tendency to exaggerate, we must keep in mind that Melinda is also the victim of trauma. Some of her actions may seem odd to someone who hasn’t gone through what she’s been through but from a psychological standpoint everyone recovers differently from trauma.

I’m obviously not a psychologist but I think it’s pretty clear that Melinda could have been suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. According to the National Center for PTSD, “Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something terrible and scary that you see, hear about, or that happens to you, like combat exposure, child sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attack, sexual or physical assault, serious accidents, natural disasters… Children age 12 to 18 have symptoms similar to adults: depression, anxiety, withdrawal, or reckless behavior like substance abuse or running away.” Rape certainly qualifies as a “traumatic event.”

Prior to the rape, Melinda struck me as any typical teenage girl; she was excited, naively optimistic and enthusiastic. Just moments before the rape, she fantasized about her popularity and about having a boyfriend. But, as is the case with most victims, Melinda’s world suddenly shattered. As a direct result of being traumatized and raped, such a vibrant young girl became ashamed and afraid of everything and everyone.

Melinda’s PTSD is further revealed through her inability to speak and through her actions and body language. For example, she freezes in fear every time she sees Andy Evans. She refers to him as It because she doesn’t want to think of him as a person and since she can’t bring herself to say his name. Melinda slowly befriends her lab partner, David Petrakis, who eventually encourages her to speak up for herself. Even though she perceives David to be a good person, Melinda cannot overcome the fear that he might hurt her too so she avoids being alone with him.

There were moments when I struggled with the pace of the novel and how slowly some of the obvious elements were revealed. But then I thought about Melinda’s mother, who clearly suspected something was wrong but wasn’t sure what. Then I thought to myself: What if Melinda was my child? What if I was in the dark but somehow sensed or suspected something traumatic had happened? Would I be in denial? Maybe. Would I ignore the problem or, worse yet, would I blame my daughter for it? I hope not. It would be the hardest thing I’d ever have to do, but I would want to be patient with her and let her tell me in her own time and in her own words and on her own terms. Even though it was often hard to watch, that’s what Melinda did and this novel demanded a certain level of patience similar to what is required from a loved one.

On page 52 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “If your audience invests in your characters, whether that investment comes in the form of love, hate, or morbid fascination, they’ll keep turning the pages and follow the story until the bitter end.”

Even though I found the novel to be predictable in many ways, I found it impossible to put down. I needed to know Melinda’s fate and I needed confirmation that she was going to be okay.

The lesson is in the title: Speak. There is nothing shameful or embarrassing about what happened to Melinda or anyone else, male or female, who is a victim of rape. Once Melinda found the courage to speak up against her attacker, she found her strength as well as her desire to help and protect others against having the same thing happen to them. Once she spoke up, others wanted to help her, too, and the healing process was able to begin. This novel shows the trauma and devastation of rape but it also empowers the victims to speak and teaches the rest of us to listen.

While we’re on the topic…

Leave a comment

Reading The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie made me feel empowered. Even though I’m a 37-year-old white woman and not exactly the book’s “Young Adult” AKA 12-18-year-old target audience, I could still relate to Junior. I grew up in a poor neighborhood in inner city Philadelphia. The neighborhood had (and still has) a reputation for being a “bad” part of town. Every morning I took public transportation to attend an all-girls catholic high school in an even worse part of town. While I could have gone to a nearby public high school, my parents wanted me to have what they considered a better opportunity and since I’d won a scholarship it seemed like a no brainer. I had my first multicultural experiences in that school and the relationships I formed there helped make me who I am today. Since I’m taking a YA writing class and we’re focusing on multiculturalism this week, I thought it would be fitting and fun to dig out and share something I wrote on the topic back in high school.Val's Little Flower HS Article about Diana

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: Multiculturalism in YA Lit

Leave a comment

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian Sherman Alexie writes about a 14-year-old Native American boy named Arnold Spirit, Jr., AKA “Junior,” who grows up poor on a Spokane Indian reservation and, after a conversation in which a reservation teacher convinces him that he must leave his heritage behind to achieve a happy and successful life, Junior decides to do just that. With his parents’ permission, he enrolls in an all-white high school off the reservation where he hopes to find hope and, in turn, struggles to fit into two separate cultures.

Even before attending Reardan High School, Junior already knew what it was like to be different. He was born physically different than those around him. He was singled out and beaten up repeatedly and even on the reservation he struggled to fit in. But he had a good family and their support gave him the strength and confidence to keep trying.

Although he set out in search of hope, hope was something Junior had had all along. We see this on page six when Junior, an amateur cartoonist, says: “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” His cartoons help him navigate the negativity therefore they are a physical manifestation of his sense of hope.

I believe what Junior was really searching for was a place where he could finally fit in.

This week’s lecture states: “The popularity of multi-cultural literature among Young Adults is easy to see when we realize how often the problem in YA literature is finding an identity and fitting a place in the world.”

Alexie makes Junior’s experience universal to young readers by including an abundance of themes and issues which so many teens in our society experience and struggle with in their own lives; including poverty, racism, alcoholism, bullying, depression, tragedy and eating disorders. Each of these elements is enough to make anyone feel alone, different and defeated.

The book focuses primarily on poverty and through Junior’s eyes we are able to see how painful and truly devastating poverty is not only for an individual, but for an entire community. We see how being poor makes Junior feel, how poverty has squashed hope on the reservation and how alcoholism, a condition that leads to so much senseless death, is everywhere.

On page 13, Junior says: “It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that somehow you deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.” This passage is so profound because while Junior is speaking specifically about poverty, “poverty” could easily be replaced with any other struggle that causes a similar circle of negativity effect. We have all struggled with something in life that caused us to feel this way.

This week’s lecture states that multicultural YA books often tell “the repressed history of the oppressed.” Not only did Junior suffer in poverty but he was shunned by the Indians on his reservation while he simultaneously struggled to fit in with the white kids at Reardan. He felt invisible and alone until he finally made a friend and then another until eventually he was popular and no longer lonely. But his popularity at Reardan didn’t solve his problems at home. Similarly, Junior’s sister managed to escape the reservation and even though she seemed to find happiness, she ended up dead because she wasn’t able to escape the alcoholism.

I think Young Adult literature is a great venue for exploring notions of race and class because books have the capacity to create empathy. When I read a good story like this one, I get so caught up in it that I feel like I’m experiencing what the characters are experiencing. Books have the ability to draw a reader in because he or she relates to the characters and they can provide an experience that a reader’s never experienced before. Therefore, a book that focuses on multiculturalism and race has the potential to encourage people who are struggling with cultural issues or racism as well as teach tolerance and expand the minds of those who aren’t.

On page 90 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going writes: “Writing for teens is not about limits, it’s about possibilities. Deciding to be a YA author is not about confining yourself within the limitations of established rules; it’s about writing with the maximum integrity for an audience that is intelligent, complex, and primed to explore.”

This week’s lecture states: “Young Adult literature is a genre that is very open to the voices of many diverse cultures. The reasons for this are many and varied. The first may be that the young people of today grow up in a much less segregated community that highlights the importance of different cultural groups. So, it may be that young adults have a respect and curiosity not necessarily found in previous generations.”

Not every teen lives in a multiethnic neighborhood or attends a multicultural school. But we live in a world where our perspectives are no longer defined, confined or limited by our immediate surroundings. A bonus of living in a media driven society is that we have immediate access to everything and with a click of a mouse we can experience other cultures without ever leaving our homes. Young adults of today literally have the world at their fingertips.

That’s not to say some aren’t more or less sheltered than others. But by reading a novel with such themes as multiculturalism and race, a reader who isn’t exposed to other cultures in his or her own life is able to learn about other cultures through the characters in a story. And if the writer does his or her job well, characters should come to life in the mind of the reader. In this way, novels can create a sense of empathy. And empathy creates tolerance and empowerment.

Young adult readers who connect with Junior will share in his struggles, learn from his lessons and celebrate his triumphs. On page 79, Junior starts to feel empowered: “I was a poor kid raising money for other poor kids. It made me feel almost honorable.” The act of helping others made Junior feel good about himself. He eventually starts to believe in himself and his outlook changes. On page 138 when Coach says “You play with dignity and respect and I’ll treat you with dignity and respect, no matter what happens,” Junior realizes not everyone is against him. On page 176, Junior breaks down the root of every major problem as: “The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.” This is significant because he no longer blames his race for his issues. And on page 186, he shows his newfound strength when he says, “I’m never going to surrender to anybody. Never, ever, ever.”

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is a book about pain, diversity, discrimination, empowerment and overcoming adversity. But more so than all of that, it’s a book about hope. In his story, Sherman Alexis shows us the importance of hope, how having it can help us overcome even our biggest problems and how not having it only causes more problems.

Works Cited:

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Hachette Book Company. New York. 2009.

Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008. Print.

The Pigman: Wild Exploration and Codependence

Leave a comment

This week’s lecture states: “As adults we need to re-connect with the genuine emotions and conflicts we had as an adolescent.” It goes on to say, “Several of the texts on Young Adult literature point out certain characteristics, conflicts, and themes of YA lit that are universal to the young adult experience. Victoria Handley in Writer’s Ink: How to Write Fiction for Young Adults, identifies some common characteristics of Young Adult literature. Her list includes: Age of Protagonist, Coming of Age, Passion, Honesty, Independence, Wild Exploration and Breakdown/Breakthrough.”

While The Pigman touches on all of the above, the book performs exceptionally well in the area of Wild Exploration and makes me want to qualify the area of Independence.

Our lecture pairs the two elements together when it states, “Aligned with independence Handley speaks about how our teenage years are those of exploration and risk taking. As teenagers, our strongest memories may be of the times we took a chance or did something reckless.” The Pigman is a book primarily about growing up and the young adults’ need for wild exploration and independence. But in addition to independence it explores codependence, as well, and each of these elements together leads in the end to the protagonists’ major breakthrough.

Co-protagonists John and Lorraine take turns chapter by chapter telling their story. This technique works well because it gives the reader access to each of them equally, from their own individual points of view as well as from that of the other. Seeing John and his actions, for example, both from his own POV and from Lorraine’s POV automatically gives the reader increased access and it makes the narration more reliable because you have that extra perspective. Plus while each explores, the other can explain the reasons for the exploration.

Chapter Two opens from Lorraine’s POV with, “I should never have let John write the first chapter because he always twists things subliminally. I am not panting, and I’m not about to have a thrombosis. It’s just that some very strange things have happened to us during the last few months, and we feel we should write them down while they’re still fresh in our minds. It’s got to be written now before John and I mature and repress the whole thing.” At this point, the wild exploration and the breakthrough have already taken place even though it has yet to be revealed.

Together, John and Lorraine dare each other to take risks and push each other to do things neither had the confidence to do on his/her own. They do juvenile things like making prank calls, throwing a party and drinking in the cemetery, and they even explore more adult things like their attraction to one another and playing house. In their exploration, together they go so far as to do some things that seem outrageous or even stupid today (like going to a stranger’s house).

Their wild exploration ties in nicely with what John and Lorraine see for themselves in the future and it is a direct result of their suppressed home lives. On page 17, John says “Lorraine remembers the big words and I remember the action. Which sort of makes sense when you stop to think that Lorraine is going to be a famous writer and I’m going to be a great actor.” They see their wild actions as a type of research. Their risky explorations may in fact be preparing them for their dream jobs but it’s also causing them to grow and mature as individuals. John and Lorraine feel stifled and unloved at home. Both have equally dysfunctional, sad and abrasive families, with John’s aggressive and controlling parents who have all but planned for John to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and Lorraine’s bitter, man-hating mother who lectures Lorraine not to trust men. They codependently explore Mr. Pignati’s world and in doing so they momentarily escape their own realities and experience what they feel it must be like to be grown up and in a loving family. With no children of his own and a deceased wife, Mr. Pignati is lonely. He gets companionship from John and Lorraine and they are able to be carefree in a way that they can’t be with their own families. They drink, talk, watch TV, take fieldtrips, tell stories and play games with Mr. Pignati like he’s a sort of surrogate parent and when he’s away they play house, dress-up and even dip a toe into the sexual exploration of each other’s bodies.

Their wild exploration culminates in the passage on pages 119-121 when John and Lorraine dress up in Mr. and Mrs. Pignati’s clothes. Their playful exploration leads to their first kiss.

Page 36 of Literature for Today’s Young Adult says: “Close connections exist between adolescent literature and adolescent psychology, with psychology providing the overall picture and literature providing individual portraits.” The page lists “acquiring more mature social skills” and “achieving a masculine or feminine sex role” as the top two developmental tasks for adolescents as they achieve their individual identities. In The Pigman, John and Lorraine do both of these things. At home, they are children; John feels inclined to act out (i.e., gluing the phone) and Lorraine feels like she must do everything her mom tells her to do. But away from home, they seek adventure and they feel compelled and free to explore and to dabble in adult things.

On page four, Patty Campbell explains: “The central theme of most YA fiction is becoming an adult, finding the answer to the question: Who am I and what am I going to do about it? No matter what events are going on in the book, accomplishing that task is really what the book is about, and in the climactic moment the resolution of the external conflict is linked to a realization for the protagonist that helps shape an adult identity.”

In The Pigman, main characters John and Lorraine are free to explore wildly in this foreign adult world they ventured into together. But much of their freedom comes from their mutual codependence. Each finds safety and support in the other, and therefore their relationship goes beyond friendship. Mr. Pignati is codependent too, so much so that when his wife died he retreated emotionally into a world of solitude but needed John and Lorraine to climb out of it.

The three of them use each other to escape their own realities and, in turn, they cause each other to grow as well. John and Lorraine draw Mr. Pignati out of his lonely shell and in doing so they learn not to take life for granted. Also, since John and Lorraine have each other they feel free to explore Mr. Pignati’s world together and, no matter what happens, they believe everything will be alright because they have each other.

The party is a perfect example of how their wild exploration led to a breakdown. Even though they cared about Mr. Pignati, when he was in the hospital they couldn’t resist throwing a party in his house. When Mr. Pignati returns home mid-party and finds a huge mess of broken pigs, John and Lorraine feel awful but can’t take back what they’d done. Later, even though he reluctantly agrees to take the trip to the zoo, their relationship never returns to the way it was before the party.

When Mr. Pignati dies, John and Lorraine are forced to realize that being together won’t stop every bad thing from happening. And in the end, they had to face the reality that at some point we all need to grow up and tackle the world on our own. Their mutual wild exploration as well as their codependence gave them the courage to dabble together in adulthood and Mr. Pignati’s death caused them in the end to truly grow up and say goodbye to their childish ways.

Through its exceptional use of wild exploration and by drawing lines between independence and codependence, The Pigman captures the texture and feel of growing up. In the beginning, John and Lorraine blamed their parents as the source of their problems. But through their relationship with Mr. Pignati, they begin to mature and realize that, in spite of the temptation to blame others, in the end, life is what we make of it and we only have ourselves to blame when it goes wrong.

On the last page of The Pigman, John says: “We had trespassed too—been where we didn’t belong, and we were being punished for it. Mr. Pignati had paid with his life. But when he died, something in us died too. There was no one else to blame anymore. No Bores or Old Ladies or Nortons, or Assassins waiting at the bridge. And there was no place to hide—no place across any river for a boatman to take us. Our life would be what we made of it—nothing more, nothing less.” Mr. Pignati had moved on into the afterlife. Now John and Lorraine were moving on, too.

Works Cited:

Donelson, Kenneth and Pace Nilson, Alleen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. Boston, MA. Pearson Education. 2009.

Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008. Print.

Zindel, Paul. The Pigman. New York: Harper Collins, 1968. Print.

The Outsiders

5 Comments

S.E. Hinton wrote: “Teenagers today want to read about teenagers today” and I agree. I also think teenagers today want to be treated like and spoken to like adults because many of them are in fact dealing with some pretty adult issues.

As grown-ups, we often look at teens more as older children than as young adults. We believe (or want to believe) that they haven’t seen or experienced certain things. Our attempt to completely shelter them is naïve because as Ponyboy says on page 40 of The Outsiders, “when you’re 13 in our neighborhood you know the score.” While they’re not yet fully grown, they think and feel similarly to adults.

Teens have profound and deeply rooted needs for independence, exploration, survival and success while they also want to be loved, supported, cared for and protected. But don’t we all need and want these things? These are not just “teen” needs they are human needs and not necessarily tied to age, gender, race or socio-economic status.

In Writing & Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going writes: “Conflict makes for great stories, and although we wish it didn’t exist, it’s everywhere.” This week’s lecture states: “Instead of teenage lives filled with trivial concerns like dating and social etiquette, the characters in the Outsiders came face to face with violence, poverty, social stigma, and being forced into adult roles.”

In The Outsiders, Hinton captures the voice and real life needs of young adults, adds conflict and ties it all together to explore one of adolescent life’s biggest internal struggles: Standing out while fitting in. She respectfully tells a story in which teens from various backgrounds and home situations make their own difficult adult decisions and face the consequences of those decisions.

There are several important passages in which Hinton effectively approaches the thoughts and feelings of her audience. It was hard for me to pick just one passage so I picked a few.

Two which I feel kind of go together and give the mutual sentiment of wanting to belong are on page 29 when Ponyboy says, “Our one rule, besides Stick together, is don’t get caught” and on page 176 when Darry says, “We’re all we’ve got left. We ought to be able to stick together against everything. If we don’t have each other, we don’t have anything.” I think both passages are important because they speak to Ponyboy’s need to be loved and a part of something bigger than his individual self. Like Ponyboy, we learn as teens that whether love comes from family or friends isn’t important. The important part is that we are loved and that we belong. With all the challenges and new experiences of adolescence, the feeling of needing to belong is amplified.

The passage on pages 48 and 49 really pull all of this together. After lying down and looking up at the stars, Johnny and Ponyboy fall asleep. They wake up way past Ponyboy’s curfew and we get the sense that he’s going to be in big trouble but Johnny won’t be. This is when we learn “Johnny’s parents don’t care if he comes home or not.” When Ponyboy arrives home, his brothers are waiting up for him (though Soda nodded off) like they’re his parents. They even left the porch light on for him. Ponyboy gets in trouble but it’s clear that he’s loved and once he figures that out later in the novel then that love and sense of family overshadows everything else.

After reading the book, I called my nephew. He’s 15 and what you might call “street smart” but he also loves to read and he’d previously told me he read and loved this book. I asked him why. He said he can relate to Ponyboy and the Greasers because they’re going through what he’s going through. He also said something that needs to be understood about the book is the idea of following your gut instead of doing what others want you to do. He said it’s important to be a part of the group but that being your own person is also important. We talked about the rumble on page 127 and the bad feeling Ponyboy had leading up to it. He said that Ponyboy knew the difference between right and wrong but he couldn’t fight the urge to do the wrong thing since it felt like it was the right thing at the time because Ponyboy considered his friends his family.

SE Hinton did an outstanding job of writing a book that relates to teenagers of yesterday and today because she uses timeless conflicts and themes and never talks down to her audience. Teens are in fact “Young Adults” and the YA genre pays respect to that fact in its title. With adult themes and conflicts and so many important passages to support them in her novel The Outsiders, Hinton proves she respects young adults and she gives them a story they want to read.

Works Cited:

Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008. Print.

Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders. New York: Viking, 1967. Print.