Parenting, Young Teenagers, and Teen Literature

Hi all!  Today’s post is written by a guest writer, Jeff.  A little background:  Jeff is a calm and thoughtful man who has four children.  He works as a master in the circuit court hearing cases involving juvenile delinquents.

Here’s Jeff:

I love to read.  Histories, mysteries, biographies, adventure, espionage, crime, Dusty Lizard Blog – they’re all fun for me.  Once I discovered books on CD, I could even read while driving!  My wife loves to read, too.  In fact, she reads so voraciously that we tease her about only reading every third word on every other page.  My wife and I produced four young readers.  We constantly hear the happy refrain of “can you reserve the next book in my series at the library, please.”  No problem.  As parents, one of our great joys is to see our children curled up with books.

As our children age, however, we spend less and less time in the children’s section of the library.  This is the natural way of things and, despite a bit of nostalgic melancholy, we are grateful for their advancing reading skills, the new adventures they will encounter, and the opportunity to discuss books as peers.

Our son Peter’s school helped this process along by assigning a summer reading project.  He was to pick a book (1) appropriate to his reading level, (2) that he had not read before, (3) that had won or been a runner-up for a literary award, and (4) that had not been made into a movie.  The arrival of this assignment prompted one of those delicious parent moments when our son was alternately whining and venting his wrath while his mother and I smiled serenely.  Little did we know that it was to be us, not our son, who would encounter a brave new world: teen literature.

First, let me introduce you to book awards.  I was familiar with two, the Newberry Medal and the Caldecott Medal, both of which are given for children’s literature by the American Library Association (www.ala.org).  After some research I learned that the ALA is not alone in this endeavor.  Everybody gives out book awards.  Professor Google can introduce you to book award lists created by anyone from international literati to individual local libraries.

I decided to stick with what I knew and perused the Newberry and Caldecott winners and honor books for the last several years.  It quickly became apparent that my son’s reading level was beyond the books considered for those awards.  I kept looking and found the Printz Medal, which is awarded by the ALA for teen literature.  I also found the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which is awarded by the National Book Foundation (www.nationalbook.org).  Given that both are awarded annually, I thought the past five years would provide a good-sized pool of books from which to fish.

I tried to separate the fish from the chum by eliminating all books dealing primarily with relationships, mysticism, horror, girls, and general teen angst.  I also shied away from non-fiction, just for the sake of keeping my son interested.  From the remaining books, I selected three: “Feed” by M.T. Anderson, “Jasper Jones” by Craig Silvey, and “Nation” by Terry Pratchett.

“Feed” (2002 National Book Award Finalist) is a futuristic story in which people are implanted with a device that feeds instant internet-type information directly into the brain.  The main character, who is implanted, meets another character, who is not implanted, and must face the consequences of this technological development.  Sounded like something my son would enjoy.  Unfortunately, in the first chapter the main character and his friends talk about going to the moon (a popular hang-out) to get drunk, pick up girls, and …  I didn’t read any further and I didn’t give it to my son.

“Jasper Jones” (2012 Printz Medal Honor Book) is a coming-of-age story set in Australia.  I enjoyed this book despite the nearly constant cussing.  The dialog is well-written, and the plot carries you along and leaves you anxious for the conclusion.  The author admits to being a fan of authors from the American south, and readers will recognize Huck Finn and Scout Finch among the pages of “Jasper Jones.”  Unfortunately, the reader will also find an explicit sex scene where the main character catches his mother in adultery as well as a key plot line involving parent-child sex abuse.  I let my son start this book, but thankfully I was reading ahead and made him stop before he encountered these heavy topics.

Worried that this process was not going well, I selected several more books including “Ship Breaker” by Paolo Bacigalupi (2011 Printz Medal Winner; 2010 National Book Award Finalist).  This post-environmental apocalypse story is about an impoverished teen employed to strip valuable materials out of decrepit, beached transport ships, but who has big dreams and big challenges.  The story is raw, which effectively conveys the main character’s stark existence, but there are repeated scenes involving drinking and drug abuse, child abuse, and prostitution, including child prostitution.  Not sure he’s ready for that either.

I also tried “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to a Nation Volume 1: The Pox Party” (2007 Printz Medal Honor Book) which is also by M.T. Anderson.  This book met the school’s criteria, but I would’ve picked it up anyway because I’m a sucker for a unique title.  I didn’t finish it.  It’s weird.  I’m not sure that M.T. Anderson and I are going to get along.

I began to fear that “teen literature” was code for “teen characters dealing with adult issues.”  I admit that my journey through the world of teen literature has not been comprehensive. I have barely scraped the surface.  But as a parent, particularly a parent of avid young readers, I became concerned.  How was I to encourage more difficult reading if doing so accelerated the pace at which I wanted to introduce complex, mature topics and the manner in which I wanted to introduce them?

Before you reject me as a book-burner, rest assured I am not.  I oppose efforts to burn or ban books.  But I’m also a parent charged with nurturing and protecting my children.  Those tasks become more complicated when a book suddenly involves – SURPRISE! – a father molesting his daughter.  It’s hard to discover those tidbits in the blurbs on library websites, Amazon, or even the dust jackets of the books themselves.  Am I to spend my children’s teen years previewing their books?

Some of you are thinking, “welcome to parenting teens.”  I admit that part (maybe most) of my difficulty is the fear of releasing my kids to grow up, to experience the world, and to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.  They will eventually discover all of these issues, but until now I have been the dam holding back the great reservoir of worldliness and sin that seeks to drown and corrupt them.  I am reluctantly opening a few flood gates in a controlled release, but it’s frustrating to discover that another gate is wide open without my knowledge.  Maybe I’m naïve.  Maybe I’m silly.  Maybe I’m sentimental.  Maybe I’m just like every other parent struggling to raise good kids in a dark world.

So what do we do?  We parent and we persevere.  We do the very best we can to know what our children are reading, viewing and hearing.  We maintain an open a dialog, and we stop what we’re doing to answer questions and talk.  We teach them, we train them, and then we trust them.  We pray and pray some more and keep praying while we let them grow up.  And we allow ourselves some moments of nostalgic melancholy over their childhoods.

Lest you become book-burners yourselves, I did discover a few fish in that pool were worth keeping.

“Flesh and Blood So Cheap” by Albert Marrin (2011 National Book Award Finalist) is about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.  This is a dramatized account of an historic event.  For those unfamiliar with the Triangle fire, it was a horrific tragedy so the book obviously contains some difficult passages.

“Dodger” by Terry Pratchett (2013 Printz Medal Honor Book) is a fun and interesting story.  Imagine if the Artful Dodger (of “Oliver Twist” fame) was a real person who met and befriended Charles Dickens on the streets of London and helped him solve a mystery.  There is some language, drunkenness, and fallen women.

“Nation” by Terry Pratchett (2009 Printz Medal Honor Book) is about a boy growing up on a Pacific island who, thanks to a freak tsunami, finds himself alone on the island with a shipwrecked English girl.  They must find a way to communicate, work together, find the best of their cultures, and face their bleak prospects while they rebuild a “nation.”

“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak (2007 Printz Medal Honor Book) shot straight into my personal all-time favorite books list.  I loved this book and the unique style in which it is written.  The story takes place in Nazi Germany, so the holocaust is part of the story but in a tangential way.  The main character is a foster child who finds what the people in her life are really made of while they face the ongoing war.  This could be a good book to help introduce some difficult World War II topics, like the holocaust, to your child.

“When My Name was Keoko” by Linda Sue Park (unjustly denied a major book award) is about a Korean girl and her brother growing up during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s.  You will laugh.  You will cry.  Your heart will break and then this wonderful author will mend it and give it back to you.  One of my all-time favorite books.

If your readers are a little younger, try “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick (2008 Caldecott Medal Winner) and “A Single Shard” by Linda Sue Park (2002 Newberry Medal Winner).

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