Monday, October 28, 2013

Made up Stories and Young Adults

Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.

                                            - John Green, The Fault in our Stars

Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's.

                               - Stephen King, On Writing

As a teacher of both writing and literature, I often find myself telling my students that reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Writing, for me, is an act of connecting, of reaching out. It’s a way of creating relationships with people I don’t even know, and I’ve long believed that creating meaningful relationships is part of the important work of a life well lived.

I think this is what art in general is all about. Whether you’re a writer, a musician, a painter, a singer, a dancer – on some level, you’re attempting to connect with others.

Reading, then, is also an act of connecting. Instead of doing most of the talking, the reader does most of the listening. The reader is not, however, a passive participant. As John Green puts it, “Reading is always an act of empathy. It’s always an imaging of what it’s like to be someone else.”

You can live so many different lives through the act of reading stories. It’s possible to learn so much about so many different things through the living of those lives. It’s simply brilliant.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m more of a reader at the moment than a writer. I simply haven’t had the emotional energy for creating my own art, but I’ve taken great solace in living on the other side of the equation by reading more than usual.

And what do I read? Mostly young adult fiction. After all, I do spend my days surrounded by them (young adults, I mean). But to be honest, I know that’s not the only reason I like to read what they’re reading. I love YA literature for some of the same reasons I like working with its audience: there’s just something very compelling about that time of life.

The experience of being a teenager can be exciting, confusing, provocative, scary, poignant, and incredibly vivid. That transformation from childhood to adulthood is a pivotal time in many of our lives, and one where we make a lot of choices than can affect the adult we eventually become.

The first book of assigned reading that I can remember loving is John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember feeling so connected to the emotions of the characters. Not coincidentally, the essay I wrote for that book is one of the first pieces of writing I can recall really pouring my heart into. An early lesson in how good literature can inspire.

As an adult, my relationship to the genre has changed. In high school, I loved Holden Caulfield because he was so critical of adults, so full of judgment. These days, I don’t see that as such an intriguing characteristic, but his struggle to make sense of his world and growing up is one that gives me empathy for my own students. I still love Catcher in the Rye, but for much different reasons than I did as a teen.

When I first began teaching ten years ago, I did make a concerted effort to read some more current YA fiction so that I could share casual discussions with my students. I didn’t realize it would be a path to reconnecting with an entire genre of literature I’d forgotten. On one trip to the bookstore in those early years, I happened across, and purchased, John Green’s recently published, debut novel, Looking for Alaska. If you’ve talked about books with me at all, you’ll know that John Green is my favorite author, and Alaska was my first taste of brilliant YA literature since I’d been a teen myself. If I were to give you a quick summary of the book, I would say that it is strikingly similar to A Separate Peace.

Not only do I love John Green’s books (If you haven’t yet read The Fault in our Stars, go do it now! Even if you don’t think you’re a fan of YA. Just read it.), but the man himself is completely full of awesome. Through the youtube channels created by him and his brother, Hank, he has allowed his fans unprecedented access to who he is, and what he and Hank think on all kinds of topics. John Green is smart, thoughtful, hilarious, and an unabashed nerd. He and Hank have created a community of like-minded, motivated individuals who are more than just fans of the books and videos and songs the brothers create. They are participants, engaged in artistic conversations. The world needs more people like them.

One of the reasons that I am allowing myself to go all fan-girly over John here is that he is such an inspiration, and with the recent success of The Fault in our Stars, more people are starting to realize it. (John shares some interesting concerns over this phenomenon in this video.) Much of what I’ve said here are similar to things John has said in his videos over the years. It’s easy to connect with someone who verbalizes so well notions that you already hold true. He sums it all up very nicely I think in this introduction to Crash Course Literature. (What? You’ve never heard of Crash Course? You’d better go check it out! Right after you finish reading The Fault in our Stars.)

I love this video for so many reasons, but one is the topic that I last heard addressed by my own high school English teacher many years ago: authorial intent. This is completely my favorite thing about reading – it is up to YOU as the reader to interpret what happened! Can’t decide whether Pi really survived for 227 days at sea with Richard Parker? Don’t understand the ending of The Giver? Really really dying to know whether he chose the Lady or the Tiger? (Questions, by the way, that all of my students ask me.) You, as the reader, have to decide for yourself, and each person’s answer may be different.  “You decide whether the swing set is just a swing set.” Author Nathan Bransford has a great post about How Art Changes With Us, emphasizing (to me) how what we bring to the table as a reader is incredibly relevant to our understanding of a story.

Another reason I’ve been thinking about these things lately is that, back in September, my students and I celebrated Banned Books Week. It blows my mind that people want to prevent teens from reading about the ugly and difficult things in this world. How else to allow them to learn about, and then hopefully avoid experiencing, those ugly things themselves? How else to keep them from being lost if they already have?

Again, literature is such an incredible tool for learning. This is Speak author Lauire Halse Anderson’s take on censorship.

Reluctant readers make me sad, but at the same time, I consider them a great challenge.  I know there are books out there for everyone. One of my biggest jobs as a teacher of reading is to help kids find books that they love. I can say that I have definitely gotten a lot better at that part of the job. How? Simply by loving reading the same books they love reading and then sharing them.

Today in class, one of my students interrupted a lesson to declare, “I finished Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children!”

I asked him if he liked it, and he was like, “Yeah, but it was such a cliffhanger!”

And I was all, “I know! He’d better be writing a sequel!”

Important conversations to have with kids, right?

(Incidentally, yes, many of my students have figured out they can derail a boring-as-hell grammar lesson by throwing out a comment about a book. I kind of consider that on-topic, really.)

Anyway, my point is, read good books. Good fiction matters because it connect us. It teaches us about each other and about ourselves, and often we don’t even realize we’re learning at all. We’re just being swept away in the power of a good story. Stories help to make the world a little bit smaller, in a very good way.

What do you think? What was the first story that swept you away? What are your favorite titles now?


  1. I loved this post, Gretchen, and I plan to read the first part of it to my reluctant-reader 7th-grade son--though he occasionally gets caught up in a book. A year ago it was Wonder, and more recently, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life. Rick Riordan also does the trick for him. My 10th grade daughter is reading less for pleasure -- hardly at all, really, unless I nudge her -- because she reads so much for school; also, we discovered she is severely dyslexic. But there was a magic time a couple of years ago when she pushed through the Hunger Games trilogy, and Matched, and several others. One of my happiest memories of traveling around the world is reading The Giver aloud to my daughter (then in 6th grade) so my son, then in 3rd grade, could experience it too, and we hung on to every word. I have read A Fault in Our Stars and will read his Alaska book too. I, too, am reading more than writing these days--at the moment, Seabiscuit, since I read her book Unbroken a couple of years ago and always meant to read Seabuscuit (it's great). Before that, I escaped with a Kate Atkinson novel. I could go on and on. Thanks for deviating from your usual topics -- and for being a great teacher! Our state and country need more like you.

    1. I'm so glad you liked the post, Sarah! My 6th-graders read Wonder as a summer read, and now I am reading it aloud to my 7th-graders. We all love it. For your son, has he read The Maze Runner yet? My students, especially the boys, love it and I keep meaning to read it myself. For your daughter, some of John Greens other books (Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines) are not quite as heavy as TFiOS or Alaska, but still great. Also, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell if she likes John Green type books. Since you said she liked the Hunger Games, she might also like the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. That one also reminds me of The Giver, which I love.

      Thanks for the comment, and happy reading!

  2. Just yesterday I read "X-Country" by Robert Reed (copyright 2007, first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) in the recent issue of Marathon & Beyond (electronic version). Although a life-long reader and longtime (20+ yrs) ultrarunner, I usually avoid running related literature, other than magazines. This short story brought to mind much of what you discuss here. It’s very well-written and thought-provoking.

    John Green’s youtube video reminded me a lot of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, the Author of the Quixote”. Have you read it? Short story… takes 20 minutes?

    Been reading “Into the Silence: the Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest”. Non-fiction -- fascinating, grueling, tangentially ultrarunning-related -- but narrative (Borges was never one to make much of a distinction btwn non/fiction – it’s all narrative). Interesting… a day after reading “X-Contry” I found this 1922 quote from an expedition climber: “The man who grins the most is usually the one who goes farthest in the mountains.”

    I ran Leadville in ’94 (28:48:xx). Trudging up Hope Pass, here came Ann Trason in the overall lead. She looked intense, focused and strong, running fast downhill. 20 minutes later, it was Juan Herrera, lead Tarahumara. He was running fast, too, in those huaraches but he looked relaxed. He looked *happy*. McDougall should have included this observation in his book.

    What’s the connection? Beats me… :)