le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

fantasy casting agent

One of the more enjoyable book-to-film adaptation games is Fantasy Casting. Inevitably, when any book I like is made into a film, I'm disappointed. No one ever looks totally right, important plot elements get changed, Hermione Granger suddenly says things like "I didn't know my hair looked like that from the back!"
But Fantasy Casting Agent allows me to have total control over who appears in my mental version of books I love. Usually, Fantasy Casting happens by chance; I'll see someone and think: {gasp!!!!} "there goes Katniss/Deeba/Count Olaf!"

I have two entries in the Fantasy Casting category, both discovered by chance.

First up, from China Miéville's  extraordinary, wonderful UN LUN DUN:
Explorer and adventurer Yorick Cavea!  This is a taveta golden weaver, and I think he's perfect for the role.

Next up, from The Hunger Games:
Cinna. Played by makeup artist and drag queen nonpareil RAJA (also known as Sutan Amrull), currently in season three of the incomparably great RuPaul's Drag Race.
This is an inadequate screencap of Raja, but she looks JUST. LIKE. CINNA. When I first saw Raja out of full drag, in the workroom on the show, I actually kind of gasped and jaw-dropped with the sense of recognition of Cinna. This is precisely, absolutely, completely how I have always pictured Cinna.

I have always loved Cinna; I always pictured him as being dark and incredibly attractive, obviously fashionable, and with that touch of gold eyeliner. Raja - Sutan, really, because Cinna has to be coded male - fits this to a a particularly gorgeous calligraphic T. I would really and truly LOVE to see Sutan be cast in this role; I don't know how great her acting chops are, but she's definitely got presence, and she loves performing. Cinna's role is small enough - and frankly, close enough to what Raja does in "real life" - that I think she could pull it off. And they simply are never going to be able to find anyone who looks more like Cinna. Ever.

Finally, I have discovered the home of Count Olaf, legendary villain from Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. Turns out Count Olaf keeps a place in the southside of Pittsburgh - who knew?

After zooming in to this detail on the door of the house, anyone acquainted with the books will be unable to deny that this house is marked, distinctly and unmistakably, as Count Olaf's.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Requiescat in Pace, Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones has died.

This is heartbreaking news, though she had been ill for several years. She is the absolute master of contemporary fantasy for younger readers; her books have an entire shelf to themselves at my house. Her books are my go-to comfort reading; they are among my very favorite books, ever. Howl's Moving Castle, of course, is the source for the title of this blog.

Judith of Misrule, a dedicated Diana Wynne Jones reader, offers perhaps the best tribute, in the form of a quotation from one of Jones's books, The Magicians of Caprona:
For, as Paolo and Tonino Montana were told over and over again, a spell is the right words delivered in the right way.

Diana Wynne Jones made magic of one kind and another with her words, in all of her books. She will be missed, most greatly.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

imaginary class planning

New class theme for my imaginary children's/YA lit class. it's an obvious one but I think I could make it work.

and that theme?  Friendship.

Books to be read include:

A Little Friendly Advice by Siobhan Vivian
How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

The Goonies

Possibles include:
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

add in at least one animal-as-friend text (ie, Shiloh, except not Shiloh because it depresses me)
at least one adult-as-friend
add at least one broken-friendship-that-isn't-repaired story

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tokyo Disney, accessibility, miniatures and service

My mom emailed me a link to one of her Disney-geek websites, parkeology.com (why the e? who knows?).
The site is focused on the obscure and the small details that make Disney parks special/unique/interesting.

This weekend, they posted about Tokyo Disney, a place I am not likely to get to anytime soon. 
The writer is focusing on the (evidently incredible) results of wedding Japanese commitment to courtesy and service with Disney's formerly-legendary emphasis on customer service [in recent years, the extremely strict regulations for cast members have been relaxed, at least at the Florida parks; as a person who has worked crummy minimum-wage jobs, I empathize, but I also feel like something is lost when groups of cast members stand around and chat about their boyfriends like any mall employees might. That's not part of "the show," as the old-time Imagineers would say].

A lot of the Parkeology post is taken up with story cards for non-Japanese-speaking guests (the cards shown are printed in English). These are neat - they explain the narratives and themes of the park's attractions, and do so accompanied by gorgeous illustrations - so that non-Japanese speakers can follow along despite Japanese narrations inside the attractions.

But the thing that blew MY mind is the shorter piece of service preceding the story cards. It's accompanied by the photo at right, which is of small, evidently wooden, models of the vehicles for various attractions.Because theming and detail are so important to the Disney Park Experience, all the vehicles are different, tailored to the theme and mood of each attraction.

If you cannot make out the text on this explanatory placard, it reads: SCALE MODELS: Our Visually Impaired Guests May Touch These Models To Easily Understand The Shape of Some Attraction Vehicles.

I don't do disability studies, though it's at the fringes of my consciousness, via queer theory and fat studies and being alive in the world where one can SEE how most places and things are not well adapted for the differently abled.

I have never seen or heard of anything like this particular accommodation for visually-impaired guests. It blows my mind. It makes me feel unaccountably teary in its almost extreme considerateness. Highly detailed scale models of the ride vehicles, for guests to handle and examine if they cannot visually see the vehicles. A way to experience an aspect of the attraction that has tremendous visual impact and that adds to the overall immersive experience. Making those small details - those aspects of the show which were so essential to the project of Disneyland and its offshoots - available to guests who are visually impaired.
It makes a difference, you know; take the vehicles for, say, Peter Pan's Flight (a perennial favorite, though one I personally loathe; it terrified me as a small child - those swinging cars felt terribly unsafe - and then bored/horrified me as an adult who had spent years working on Peter Pan for my masters thesis). Guests board miniature pirate ships suspended from a track on the ceiling. They aren't just generic cars or ski-lift-style hoists; they are miniature versions of Hook's pirate ship. A blind, or otherwise visually impaired, guest won't know this. But the model allows for that experience in a literally hands-on way.

It's absolutely incredible to me. It's an adaptation or accommodation that, once it's pointed out, seems almost essential and obvious, but it's one that is absent from the other parks (and in fact, from virtually anywhere I've ever been). It's evidence of an near-universal thoughtfulness and consideration for all the needs of all the kinds of guests. I know very little about Japanese culture, and don't want to make huge generalizations based on this tiny bit of evidence. However, the fact that someone thought this was necessary, and then a number of people agreed on it and actually executed the plan - this speaks to a culture of consideration for others that I find entrancing.
When I first moved to Washington DC I used to have to take the metro from my workplace to my apartment in Arlington. I had to change trains, during rush hour, at Metro Center - this was a thing that required nerves of steel. A suit of armor would have helped as well. One afternoon, fighting towards my train along with what felt like half the world's population, I saw a visually-impaired man (he had a cane and was clearly using it to navigate) get literally pushed aside by the crowd trying to cram into the metro car. The blind man was also trying to enter the car; he had to feel for the opening with the cane. The impatient horde of rush-hour commuters actually shoved this man out of the way. It wasn't just the pressure of a crushing crowd; it was an aggressive, "out-of-my-way" shoving, the kind of behavior you see on local news on "black friday," when shoppers claw each other for deals on elmos and ipads and wiis. That man, and I, didn't get on that train.
I was shocked.
Actually shocked. I am still shocked when I think about this. That man was at a disadvantage; he had a visual impairment that demanded he take a few extra seconds to find his way into a train car. His impairment - because he was using a cane - was extremely obvious to everyone around him. Accommodating him would have been the work of literally seconds, a tiny shred of time when the crowd hung back and allowed this chap to find his way into the train.

Instead he was shoved off-balance in the tiny stampede of commuters.

Those small scale models for visually-impaired guests makes me suspect that, in Japan, that blind man with his cane would have entered calmly and unhindered into the train car.

Those scale models also make me think back - because everything is related to one's dissertation - to Mister Rogers; that kind of accommodation is being neighborly in an entirely pragmatic but essential way.

I love those scale models, and whoever thought of them.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

alcohol, genetics and Native Americans - a query

I've been trying to read a curiously un-gripping book on the 1854 cholera epidemic in London (The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson); one of the nonfiction things I like reading about is disease and medical history. But it's got to be a good story as well, and truthfully, most stories about devastating illnesses and the ways societies and/or individuals cope with and cure them, usually ARE good stories. But this book is just not doing it for me; there are long journalistic digressions from the main story of the man, John Snow, who was working on figuring out the cause of cholera (a cause that would lead to cure; contaminated drinking water carries the cholera bug).

One of these digressions had to do with tolerance and genetics and evolution; Johnson describes how frequently drinking water rather than some kind of alcohol was a fairly recent thing in the 19th century. For hundreds, thousands, years before, people who settled in towns, villages and cities drank alcohol, because - due to their fixed and substantial populations, procuring clean water was not feasible. But evidently, a tolerance to alcohol had to be acquired over generations; as Johnson points out, "alcohol... is a deadly poison and notoriously addictive." He tells us that "early agrarians lacked that trait [a gene producing an enzyme allowing humans to process alcohol] and thus were genetically incapable of 'holding their liquor'."  Thus, over many long years, humans with that gene came to be dominant in urbanized/settled regions as humans lacking that gene died without reproducing (this is how evolution works). The key here is urbanization and agriculture; shifting away from hunting-gathering, with is almost by definition migratory, humans stayed in one place and began mucking up those places with their waste products, which end up in the water supply and deliver brutal gifts like dysentery and cholera to the inhabitants who drink that water. Thus, alcohol, which kills off most of those waterborne bugs.

This is when Johnson gets interesting. He writes:
The descendants of hunter-gatherers - like many Native Americans or Australian Aborigines - were never forced through this genetic bottleneck, and so today they show disproportionate rates of alcoholism. The chronic drinking problem in Native American populations has been blamed on everything from the weak "Indian constitution" to the humiliating abuses of the US reservation system. But their alcohol intolerance most likely has another explanation: their ancestors didn't live in towns.

Johnson doesn't give sources for his comments on genetics, and I also lack the time to really thoroughly research this (I suspect it's not as easy or solid a claim as Johnson makes it appear, though I don't really know). But it's an intriguing possibility. I haven't done more than dip a few toes into anything like serious Native American scholarship and criticism, but you don't have to read much fiction (Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian will suffice) to know that alcoholism and alcohol have been catastrophic for Native Americans.  A genetic explanation doesn't, of course, get us anywhere in terms of a way of solving this problem or aiding Native populations, and it's perilously similar to the "weak constitution" claim, which makes the Natives seem at blame, or at fault, for alcoholism. And having an alcohol intolerance doesn't mean you should have been naturally-selected out of existence; it simply means that Native populations either kept their water supply clean, had other kinds of tolerances, or moved around enough to maintain uncontaminated water, and thus had no biological imperative to shed non-genetically-tolerant people.

Ultimately, the genetic basis for specifically Native alcoholism isn't terribly productive in any ways other than intellectual or historical ones. The problem is what alcohol abuse and alcohol intolerance does to individuals and their families (who are also frequently impacted by the "humiliating abuses" of the reservation system).

But it's an interesting claim, and one I have not come across elsewhere.  It makes me rethink the dreadful representations (from the 18th and 19th century) of the alcoholic "savage" in a very different light; it makes the way Native people were taken advantage of by traders, settlers, explorers, etc using alcohol as payment and lure, seem even more appalling than it did (a difficult accomplishment).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spaceship Earth and Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller" (from Illuminations) was one of my early critical influences. I read it as part of a project on narrative theory, my third year of college; since then, I have taken grad classes that dealt with Benjamin (one in particular that looked specifically at "The Storyteller"), and have come to realize Benjamin is far more complicated than I initially thought. Still, some of the basic things in that essay that really moved me still affect me strongly, and though they have deeper meanings and connotations and contexts than I fully grasp, they also retain their surface meaning(s). In other words: this is a simplistic view of a very complex text, and I am aware of that.

Experience, Benjamin tells us, and wisdom or counsel, are what the storyteller offers. And we are losing (have lost?) the ability to communicate experience; we have lost any counsel or wisdom we might have been able to offer. In Part VI of this essay (in the version linked to above) is the stuff that really hits home for me. Benjamin identifies as concomitant with the rise of capitalism the true menace to experience and storytelling: the rise and primacy of information.
Information replaces experience, replaces story. The already-explained and the instantly verifiable replaces the psychological work of the story-listener/reader and the art of experience and counsel-sharing of the storyteller.

Benjamin wrote this essay in the mid 1930s; I would argue that, in many ways, in mass popular culture, information has almost totally eclipsed experience and story. Or, perhaps, experience has been downgraded and filtered and collapsed into information.

You can see the replacement of story and art with information in a very vivid way if you pay a visit to Disney's Epcot Center in Florida. My family began making annual pilgrimages to Disneyworld when I was a small fry; my parents now "snowbird" not far from Orlando. When I visit them during my spring break, there is disneyfication. I get almost as much of a charge from the critical outrage I experience as I do from the pleasure of entertainment.

At any rate, for years I've been touring peacefully through the iconic attraction at Epcot, Spaceship Earth, the slow-moving ride inside the geosphere at the park's entrance (the "giant golf ball" to the uninformed). As a small fry, it was narrated by Walter Cronkite; as an older kid, it was revamped and narrated by Jeremy Irons in richly British accents. One particularly glorious moment comes when the ride vehicle rounds a corner to face a tableau of animatronic figures with masks in a Greek amphitheatre, and Jeremy intones "The theatre is born." (you can hear Jeremy say this around 3:45 in the above clip). The ride was a journey through the art of human communication, from cave paintings to the invention of papyrus "paper" to a common alphabet to the movable-type printing press to the explosion of art in the renaissance (pronounced by Jeremy, wonderfully British, as the renAYsance) to mechanical reproduction on a grand scale to films, television, radio, internet.

A recent reference to Spaceship Earth ("the most relaxing 15 minutes of your life") on the website of Karsten Knight plus my recent Florida/Disneyfication spring break, made Benjamin and Spaceship Earth to collide in my brain, prompting this (lengthy and link-riddled) post.

A year or two ago, however, sponsorship of the attraction changed hands from AT&T to Siemens. And the ride changed. A lot.
Now it's narrated by Judi Dench (anglophilia at epcot, what can I say?), and instead of being the story of communication, it's the story of information, and information technologies.
No longer do we have Jeremy Irons telling us that the Greeks elevated the spoken word to an art form, and the theatre is born; now, we have Dame Judi tell us that the Greeks founded schools, and developed mathematics, which lead to mechanical inventions that paved the way for technology.

In the former narrations, Glorious Rome falls to invaders, and thus the Dark Ages descend. "But all was not lost; far across the land, from Cairo to Cordoba, Jewish teachers and Islamic scholars continue the quest for knowledge." We learn that these Jewish and Islamic thinkers "shared new discoveries with all who would listen."

This is a bit of history that I don't think most people know about; we mostly get that Anglocentric history with the blacked-out bits of the dark ages, where Europe and the world just goes dark for a few centuries, until slowly, aided by unicorns and King Arthur, they pull themselves up into the medieval age, then the Renaissance. Meanwhile, everyone outside the white Christian world continues to writhe around in abject squalor and ignorance (see 7:20 or thereabouts for the best visual representation of this).

Obviously, this unicorns and ignorance version is utterly false; as Jeremy tells us, Jewish and Islamic scholars (in Spain, in much of North Africa and the Middle East) were working away, inventing modern medicine and any number of other things; meanwhile, all of Asia was clicking away, China leading the race of progress by a good many miles.

My point here is: Jeremy includes the non-Christian, non-white world, briefly, here. And it's a really important inclusion, one that makes note of both the preservation of and the continuance of scholarship.

Judi Dench, on the other hand, now tells us that these "Arab and Jewish" chaps had all this Roman-and-earlier knowledge stored away in libraries, where they, the Arabs and Jews, "watched over it." No mention here of new ideas or inventions made by the Arabs (who used to be Islamic scholars) and Jewish folks; no, they're just maintaining the warehouses.
Dame Judi makes this entirely too clear by saying: "call it [the Arabs & Jewish folks] the world's first backup system."

you did not just call thousands of humans, some of them truly brilliant thinkers, a "backup system."
Oh, but she did.

The ride does not improve from this point. We got paeans to progress and technology, information, computers, a very nerdy fellow (Steve Wozniak? Bill Gates?) in a garage fiddling with a prototypical personal computer, greenlit screen and all. We get told a new language was invented, one spoken by computers. We get technology and computers are awesome rah rah huzzah!
We got lots of tableaux of people alone with their technology.

In the old days of Spaceship Earth, it was about communication and the arts; it was about the way humans were able to connect with one another. In the setup to the ride, accompanied by misty images of fur-wearing folks hunting woolly mammoth, Jeremy Irons and Walter Cronkite told us that human invention of arts and language and writing meant that we were "no longer alone."

The tableaux at the end of changed. Used to be a pair of voice actors in the radio booth; now it's just one man. The woman seems to have been repurposed into the 80s, where she gets an afro and yellow tights and stands alone surrounded by huge computers. The small obnoxious child who shrieked "Extra! Extra!" while brandishing mass-printed newspapers at us in our ride vehicles is now, very curiously, pushed back and facing into a corner, back to us, while a new, older voice says "extra! extra!" in a muffled way. This child laborer, turned to face the corner, is a freakish alteration, reminiscent of the end of the Blair Witch Project and absolutely baffling.
Instead of seeing how communication technologies connect people - through a series of mini-tableaux of - essentially - webcam communications (a mother singing to a child at bedtime, grandparents watching a grandchild's graduation, a field researcher discussing a find with a colleague, two kids sharing clips of their athletic achievements, one in California, one in Japan), we get the nerdy guy alone in his garage, and then a new "interactive" gag about where you, the rider, want to live.

Information and isolation, instead of experience and wisdom. Technology and data, instead of arts and invention.
It's a grim visualization of the (admittedly first-world) ills of contemporary life.

As noted above, my musings were partially prompted by Karsten Knight's fairly offhand comment on his website. Spaceship Earth used to be a very blissful 15 minutes of slow-moving British narration through a eurocentric but otherwise fairly inoffensive art-appreciation show. As a kid, visiting the park in August with my family, Spaceship Earth was a blessed relief:  usually with a short line, the ride was cool and dark, enabling us to sit, slightly tipped back in our ride vehicles, relaxed.

Now I feel unhappy, tensely awaiting that awful "Backup system" comment, angered by the translation of some of the west's greatest artistic achievements into nearly literal blips of data. Computers are great - I'm using one right this second, and so are you - but Steve Wozniak or his avatar inventing a PC really doesn't have a patch on Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. You see both of these represented now, but the avatar-nerd gets more time and focus than Michelangelo. Greek theatre has vanished, replaced with mathematics. The very real scholarly, intellectual and artistic pursuits (of which medicine was one very important aspect) of the Islamic/Arab world are totally elided, replaced with the truly offensive and insulting "backup system," as if cultures and civilizations and humans are some kind of primitive floppy disk, a precursor to that old 5-inch floppy.

It's Benjamin's essay in animatronic form, and it's truly heartbreaking. My dissertation work also deals with Disneyland, and my reading about Walt Disney and the early years of his work has me genuinely convinced that, at the heart of what Walt Disney and his studio did, was a true commitment to the twin forces of technology AND art, and what each could do for the other. Spaceship Earth strips art right out of the picture, replacing it with gleaming technology for its own sake, information instead of experience and story-telling. It's a vast step backward for Disney, in my estimation of that company's philosophy (not its corporate philosophy, which was never Walt Disney's philosophy to begin with; this is a man who plowed most of his eventually sizable income right back into his studio and his techno-artistic endeavors).
It's a bloody shame is what it truly is, and it's no longer that 15 most relaxing minutes of your life. Now it's a hurried-along, 10-minute barrage of information without counsel, wisdom or art.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Peter Pan aside

listening to an archived episode of BBC Radio 4's amazing nerdy-intellectual program "In Our Time," (about fairies) one of the guests said, in a most matter-of-fact tone:
What Peter Pan is really about is dead children. Every Wendy-house is a kind of tomb, really.

I love that the guest (Diane Purkiss) says this in such a decided tone, as if there were no disagreement at all about the place of dead children in Peter Pan.

Purkiss also mentions - and my mind is blown - a Persian demon or spirit called Kubu, who is evidently a lost dead child, much like Peter Pan, who seeks other children to keep him company (in other words: Kubu will kill your babies so he can have friends). Some quick googling doesn't turn up much except - oddly - a geography paper about salt and henna and spiritual beliefs, which mentions Kubu, a "manifestation of a stillborn child."

For more Peter Pan thoughts (including a guest post by me!), please see Jonathan Auxier's excellent, and excellently written, blog The Scop.

(disclaimer? note? Jonathan Auxier is the partner of a former classmate of mine at Pitt, children's literature scholar/current grad student Mary Burke Auxier. it's a small world)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

teenage boys

I have never been a teenage boy. I do not regret this, but it does mean my own empirical evidence for male adolescence is fairly limited. I'm dependent on second-hand, after-the-fact anecdotal evidence from males of my acquaintance, evidence of the kind that would never stand up in a court of law.

There's a common belief out there that Boys Don't Read. I know this is bunk. Yet! When it comes to YA fiction, I'm becoming more and more concerned that perhaps, in fact, teenage boys don't read YA lit.

The question arose last fall, in Representing Adolescence, and it stumped me: What do adolescent boys actually read? Which books?

When I was in high school, the guys of my acquaintance (if they read at all) were into Tom Clancy and Stephen King and Michael Crichton. Maybe James Patterson, maybe Thomas Harris. Maybe the early, errant John Grisham. One or two standouts read Robert Jordan (in particular, a boy I sat next to in AP European history, who somehow managed to read Robert Jordan almost every day in class yet still pay attention, respond to the teacher, and get staggeringly high grades on tests. In that nerdy way I had and have, I was smitten).
These seem, still, to be the go-to books for teenage boys; at least, at the bookstore where I worked from 2008-2010, Patterson, King, Clancy were still in high demand. The only YA titles I remember any male readers asking for - aside from ones assigned for school reading - were Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak.

So what ARE teenage boys reading? Or, more accurately, what YA books are they reading? Or, more to the point: Where are the really good YA books for YA boys?

Because of my own interests, I know some of the titles and authors that gay teenage boys read; those tend to deal with LGBTQ issues, which - alas for our culture of compulsory heterosexuality/homophobia - are not likely to be picked up by straight teenage boys.

There's something really girly about a lot of YA fiction that's out there, even the good stuff. I try, whenever I can, to resist gender normativity and all that, but the fact is: the publishing world thinks in terms of male/female, and they go all out for the girls in the YA department. All those miserable supernatural romances, all those fancypants girls with scads of money serials, all those books about friends and trauma and first loves and music - all have a girl-oriented feel to them. It may be just in packaging - Natalie Standiford's mind-bendingly great How to Say Goodbye in Robot, while narrated by a female, is not an overly girly book. Yet some jackass decided to give it a vivid bubblegum pink dustjacket, thus dooming it to a life of female-only readership.

The teenage-culture world seems to skew heavily female, in ways that strike me as troubling. There are junior-girl versions of lots of things; magazines make this most vividly clear. You have Teen Vogue and People, Seventeen, and that host of tweenybopper magazines (Tiger Beat, Teen Beat, etc). But there's no comparable set of junior versions of magazines for teenage boys; there's no Teen GQ, no Teen Esquire. The concerns and interests of adolescent boys are imagined to be identical to the concerns and interests of adult men. How can this be?

It used to be that girlhood and womanhood were collapsed into each other (and in many ways, still are), while boyhood (short pants! living in the nursery!) and manhood were two distinct things. Now there's a "training" stage for girls as they grow up into adult women, a phase of life when clothes, makeup and boys are all the rage (as reflected by the teen-girl magazines). This is distinct from women's periodicals mainly by the absence of home decor and organization from the teen mags; women's magazines are mainly concerned with clothes, makeup, Your Man, and your home.  Teenage girls get juniors magazines, junior clothes, junior makeup, even training bras (training for what? it's not like training wheels on a bike, or training a plant to grow in a certain way - is the "training" just a weak effort at desexualizing fairly young girls' foundation garments?). But there are not similar "training" things for teenage boys. Why? Is the teenage boy meant to be read, meant to be, identical to the adult male?

There are heaps of great books with male protagonists; M.T. Anderson's excellent Feed and Octavian Nothing books; Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy; Frank Portman's King Dork; K.L. Going's King of the Screwups and Fat Kid Rules the World.  But it is not at all clear to me that teenage boys are reading them unless forced to by a teacher. 

Among my undergrads, when I ask what the (sadly few) boys in the class read as adolescents, mostly they say - Clancy, King, Patterson.  A few read fantasy: Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman. In the YA world, only two authors get mentioned: one boy was passionate about Neil Shusterman, and several had read and enjoyed John Green's books.

So what's going on here? Where is the abundance of good YA books for guys? Where are the YA guys to read those books? Why is YA somehow the province of teenage girls?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Popularity: I really want to know about this

Somehow, today's planned discussion of Speak devolved into a weak conversation about popularity and unpopularity in adolescence. Since this is one of THE MAJOR themes of lots of YA realist fiction, it's worth talking about. It's also, as far as I can tell, a major theme among high schoolers.

As I have in past classes, I asked this gaggle to put up hands if you considered yourself popular in high school. A goodly number raised their hands; I wasn't surprised by any of them. I asked who would identify themselves as distinctly unpopular, and got a few hands (I always put mine up for this as well; the older I get, the more relieved I feel that I wasn't well-liked by my classmates). So I tried to get them to analyze what it means to be popular. Is it being well-known? Well-liked? does it have to do with class? Why are so few people ready and willing to cop to being popular in high school?  I have some thoughts of my own on all of these subjects, but I really am extremely curious about this as a topic, and I was hoping to get some decent responses from my students.
As usual, they mostly just sat there and looked vaguely at me, or possibly into space, or "secretly" at the phones in their hands, "hidden" under their desks [industry secret: those desks have no fronts. i can SEE your phone in your lap]. A handful responded with various things, some more thoughtful than others, some more anecdote-laden than others.
The idea of popularity as relational came up, as did the phrase "people who would talk to you," which, when extracted from the high school context, kind of sounds awful. The point being made there had to do with proximity. Take random Popular Girl A. Put her in, say, English class without her normal Popular friends. Who will she talk to? A hierarchy organizes itself then, based on that class; Girl A may talk to you in English, but she won't sit with you in lunch when her other friends are there.  This really needs to be mapped visually, but I don't have the time or talent for it now, but it makes a lot of sense.

But what I really want to know - and I sincerely, devoutly hope that people, someone, anyone, will post a comment about this - is how popularity was defined or organized in YOUR high school experience. One remark that was mentioned today - and affirmed by about half a dozen students in this class - was the "everyone in my class was friends, we all got along, no one was unpopular." I have heard this remark before, and every single time I hear it I want to shake my head and sigh.  I suspect this often means "No one I knew was unpopular," or "None of my friends was unpopular." Because there's a swath of kids in every high school, I imagine, who are largely invisible. They might just be quiet kids; they might be weird, they might just be so average as to disappear. Maybe they don't join any clubs or sports; maybe they work two jobs, or have some weird out-of-school hobby. Maybe they simply don't fit into any readily identifiable archetype or social group and thus, uncategorizable, become invisible. There are people like this in every environment I've ever been in - high school, college, grad schools, workplaces - people who seem to never be talked about, never seem to draw attention. People who fade in and fade out and have very little to do with anyone as far as you can tell (and when you ask your friends about that person, often many of them don't really know who you mean; or maybe one does and has a tiny tidbit of information, like: he eats lunch in fourth period, or I think he used to work in Communications.

I just cannot believe in the existence of any high school in America where everyone's friendly and kind to everyone else. Where there's no one who's the weirdo loser. Where there's no small band of uber-nerds, clinging together for safety, but generally the butt of everyone else's jokes. Someone who no one likes.  ALL group environments seem to resolve themselves into hierarchies of some kind, even hippie quasi-communes like my undergraduate institution.  There's always at least that one kid that no one you know has ever seen speaking to anyone.

One girl, in class today, put forth the intensely troubling idea (especially in the context of Speak) that anyone who isn't "friends with everyone in the class" has brought it on themselves. That they don't want to be happy. That they don't join things, or "put themselves out there."  Implied in her remarks was a negative judgment: if you don't join in, then you kind of suck.  But then I think of Melinda, in Speak, and her silence and what it conceals and reveals. I think of all the troubled fictional teenagers who have no or few friends because of a perceived issue that is actually a symptom of some truly grave problem.

I know the terms popular and unpopular are simplistic and reductive and possibly not useful. What I mean, I think, is whether you perceived yourself to be unpopular, or popular, in high school. Not what other people thought of you; not what you think of other people. But how you felt, or feel, as a high-schooler.

Two easy criteria: were you ever picked last, or nearly-last, for teams in gym class?  Did you ever have to eat lunch alone because you had no one to sit with?
And a third, a corollary of these two: Did you ever have to worry about the likelihood of either of these things happening?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Academy-award winning short film The Lost Thing

The children's lit/Australian pride worlds are abuzz today over Shaun Tan's win at the Academy Awards on Sunday, in  the Best Short Animated Film category for "The Lost Thing," which is based on Tan's picture book of the same name.

The film is just under 15 minutes in length, and can be viewed online here. Oddly, it has subtitles in French, which I found distracting, since I have a solid picture-book-level vocabulary in French and thus could actually read the subtitles pretty easily.

Tan's work is incredible; his illustrations, his style, are beyond gorgeous. Perhaps his best-known (most readily available?) book in the States is his collaboration with John Marsden, The Rabbits, which is actually quite a devastating read.

"The Lost Thing" is a wonderful, wondrous film, more than tinged with a kind of surrealist melancholy. I'm tempted to search out its symbolic and allegorical "meanings" - the number of potential meanings is rather large, I think - but part of me just wants, for now, to enjoy it as a gorgeous, strange, strangely touching, short film. 

Go watch it. Enjoy. You will be very glad that you did.