First published at LitReactor on March 29th, 2012
A friend of mine, who produces films in Los Angeles, once used the phrase “wolves in sheep’s clothing” to describe the power of genre films. Essentially, he was arguing that the most effective stories, even those that are considered outside the realm of “high art”, bury deeply powerful themes within the artifice of something that might be considered a little less transcendent. He offered up Let the Right One In as an example, a film that, from a purely “A”-storyline point of view, is about a young boy who befriends a child-vampire. Indeed, this is what happens in that story, but Let the Right One In is not really a film about vampires. It’s about alienation, the loneliness of childhood, the loss of innocence, and the unbridgeable rift that exists between the worlds of adults and children.
In that same vein, the most notable books written for children and young adults, those that endure the test of time and remain on the shelves of bookstores, on recommended reading lists, and in the classrooms and libraries of America, are those that do not dictate or lecture young minds as to the proper paths to take when considering the myriad choices laid before them. Those authors who took the high road couched their lessons to young people in vivid stories and vibrant characters, presenting readers with the knowledge and context needed to inform their own view of a world that rushed up towards them, simultaneously terrifying and beautiful.
In my last column, I offered up the possibility that we were living in a new literary world: one that, if not entirely bereft of controversy, was at the very least far more progressive than that of generations past. Much like the aforementioned “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, the surface of that argument is correct, but after watching what has been going on in certain public schools over the last few months, the situation on the ground has left me more than a bit disturbed. As has been documented in our news section, there have so far been three notable attempts, two in Arizona and one in Michigan, to censor or remove “objectionable” material from classrooms in 2012. The motivation behind these actions has been political (Tucson), and at other times a matter of making one’s personal hang-ups quite public (Michigan). However, the push behind these events (and indeed, all attempts to repress literature) is the same: an effort to insulate certain parties (ourselves, children, society, et al) from the complexity of life and the world we live in.
One of the first books to profoundly affect the way I thought about the world was assigned to me in the fifth grade (note: spoilers ahead). To this day, it remains one of the most frequently challenged books in America, and I suppose the Episcopal School of Dallas deserves some credit for keeping The Giver on the syllabus. Lois Lowry’s novel describes a dystopian future in which the citizens of a seemingly utopian community eliminate emotions and conflict through various drugs. The protagonist, twelve-year-old Jonas, is chosen as The Receiver of Memory, a revered position that imbues him with the responsibility of being the only member of the community to experience feelings, for the purpose of aiding in decisions that require emotional depth. With his newfound knowledge, Jonas becomes increasingly disturbed at the coldness of his home, and makes plans to escape from the village and spread his abilities to others. The novel ends with Jonas fleeing the village with a small child he has rescued from execution. The final pages are somewhat ambiguous, and it is unclear whether Jonas accomplishes his goal, or if he and the child both succumb to hypothermia.
When I finished the book, at the tender age of 10, I remember being upset. Up to that point, the majority of narratives I had consumed followed a traditional “hero’s journey”, and generally had happy endings, with lessons learned. The Giver was perhaps the first book that I (and many others) read that involved a hero trying to do the right thing and (likely) failing. However, the book, coupled with my teachers, forced me to ask various questions that were rather appropriate for a young man approaching puberty and the rush of exciting and terrifying emotions that accompany it: would life be worth living if we eliminated all the things that make it hard? These are obviously very basic philosophical questions, but to a 10-year-old, it’s pretty heavy stuff.
More importantly, consider that 10-year-old to whom this question was asked: the child that was considered by a middle-aged author to be of sound enough mind to understand the question in the first place. Even if that child doesn’t know it, he or she has been injected with just a little bit more self-esteem and intellectual courage to continue on in their own personal development. Part of the magic of books lies in their ability to form bonds between generations and to help parents offer up values and lessons through the power of stories. We can all remember some of our favorite stories and books from when we were tiny young things, but the gravity of these tales, the unwavering importance of a work of art that shakes and rattles a young person to their very foundations, is lost on us in those impressionable days. It may not be until years later, like it was with me, but some day, that child may look back and realize how amazing and transformative it was when adults first began treating them with respect. A child that is challenged by parents, educators, and authors will, more likely than not, go on to challenge themselves in and outside of the classroom as they grow older, and in this day and age, individuals who are willing to challenge themselves are an absolute necessity.
“The children” is a concept that is often invoked by those who are terrified of the world around them. It’s not surprising that many adults feel threatened and frightened by the passing of time, and one could argue that it’s even natural. The falderal in Arizona seems to support this, and the case in Michigan drives home the point that many would rather pretend that those things that seem unpleasant didn’t exist at all. However, no greater disservice could be done to a child than to expect nothing of them, and the greatest books geared towards children have often underlined this great truth: there will be times when the world will break your heart, and you will survive. Those who would deny their own (and other) children the experience of reading The Tempest for their own political reasons, or who would demand a book be pulled from a classroom of high school students because it mentions sex are, at the very best, misinformed, and at the worst, skirting the line that separates overprotective and abusive behavior. It is the duty of a parent, and indeed, of adults everywhere, to prepare children for the world that awaits them, to give them all the tools they need to deal with what lies ahead. Parents, educators, and authors should not only be expected to take a “hands-off” approach when it comes to controversial literature, they should be expected to actively push literature that shocks, cajoles, and challenges young people. Only by trusting the youth of the world to grow into adults will we ever be able to expect them to function as such.