Young adults and literature
August 27, 2013
The recent brouhaha that erupted at last week’s Park City School District Board of Education meeting caught my attention. It seems that some parents were at odds with an assignment that all P.C. High School students spend part of their summer reading Sherman Alexie’s award-winning "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."
I thought "what better way to get their non-reading sons and daughters up to Dolly’s Bookstore to acquire a copy than to characterize it as containing ‘explicit content.’" As far as I know, a more efficient manner in which to entice teenagers to enter a bookshop has yet to be invented. Park City parents are obviously hipper than most.
I vividly recall when the National Book Awards were announced several years back and poet-author-screenwriter-filmmaker-performer Sherman Alexie walked away with the honors in the Young Adult (YA) category.
Having been a longtime fan of his writing, I felt elated that the young Seattle-based writer received such an honor, whether or not it came in a sub-genre. It was a National Book Award, for heavens sake! You don’t find many reservation kids who were born with water on the brain holding one of those.
The son of a Spokane Indian mother and Couer d’Alene Indian father, Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation before opting out to attend a public high school which he felt would increase his chances of getting to college.
What initially attracted me to Alexie was his screenplay for "Smoke Signals," a 1998 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner. It immediately caused me to go back over much of his earlier writings the first being the short story that he adapted for his screenplay, "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" from his collection "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."
He’s the guy who put one of my all-time favorite cinematic lines, "It’s a great day to be indigenous," into the mouth of one of my favorite Native American poet-musician-actor-activists, John Trudell. Trudell almost stole the show in Smoke Signals as a Rez disc-jockey with a quiver full of classic one-liners.
Now just because I find his writing to be oftentimes brilliant, that doesn’t mean I actually "like" Alexie. Over the years of being around him at both film festivals and performances, while totally understanding his impoverished youth and "bootstrap" accomplishments, I’ve come away somewhat lacking in "simpatico." I’m sure that would crush him to hear that. Not!
Although I had never heard the characterization previously, my own experience with "Young Adult literature," as with most of my generation, probably began with the adventures of the young angst-ridden preppie Holden Caulfield in "Catcher in the Rye."
In that I certainly found myself alienated at the time, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I suppose in many ways I was author J.D. Salinger’s target demographic. But who among my pimply-faced peer group was not?
The next reading experience I probably would have included in that category, even though I was into my twenties when it came out, would have been S.E. Hinton’s Tulsa book, "The Outsiders." My son Smokey would be assigned her later work "Rumble Fish" during his high school years.
I suppose the main characteristic that has historically defined the YA genre would be that the protagonist(s) is or are of a teenage persuasion. After that, maybe the story should be narrated by a teen and include conflict resolutions to which a teen could relate. A story told from a young adult viewpoint also wouldn’t hurt. Sidebars of maturity, relationships, sexuality, and drugs probably would insinuate themselves into the current crop of YA, I would imagine.
As far as what both parents and students should take away from all this is that what the schools are attempting to accomplish is to radically improve the students’ future quality of life by turning them into "readers." The parents just want to be a bit more involved in what books are in the mix, it would seem. The teachers can always use more constructive parental involvement.
To the students, I would hope they would come to realize that getting into the habit of reading literature, whether Young Adult or not, is as good as it gets as far as the overall growth process. And I think the sooner they can read "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," the better. With their parents’ permission, of course. This is an opportunity for a family discussion that would benefit all.
Everyone should also keep in mind that books that are "banned" by one generation become the "classics" of the next! Read banned books! With or without "explicit content," they stick to your ribs!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.