Friday, August 3, 2012

Faster, Higher, Stronger

A few weeks ago, NPR published its list of top "young adult" books. At first, I was intimidated by the size of the list, but there turned out to be very few that a) I had read and b) had stuck with me and c) I had really liked. Most, but not all, of the ones that were all three were science fiction/fantasy based, and a couple of those were holdovers from last summer's fantasy/science fiction ballot. The long list sparked a new round of debate. ("Is Ender's Game really "too violent" for 12-18-year-olds?" "Why isn't A Wrinkle in Time or its sequels on either list?" "What's the definition of young adult fiction, anyway?")

I once read that fiction for young people "should" portray main characters a couple years older than the target audience. I don't remember if any justification was given. Maybe kids can pick up when people exactly their own age are being mis-written. Or maybe authors have more freedom: "look what you have to look forward to, in just a few years you'll be falling in love/struggling through high school/zipping through space and time" (okay, maybe not that last one).

But I'm still not sure how to delineate "children's" and "young adult" and "adult" fiction. I wish I could.

I've always been one for quantifying things, when I can. And sometimes they've been quantified for me, like it or not. Since early in elementary school I was taught that books needed to be measured out. Only books of 150 pages counted for...some tally or other. Then came the Accelerated Reader program. A fixed list of books came with a point total, mostly based on length (with some mind-boggling exceptions); we had to accumulate some total per term and take multiple-choice tests to prove our understanding of the books we'd read. To make matters more complicated, there were reading levels based on...word difficulty? Sentence structure? So in some cases we took pretests at the beginning of the year/quarter, with those of us who recognized more complicated words having a higher reading level. Then the books we read had to be of a certain average difficulty, drastically constraining the choices we had at the higher end.

For all of this, I still didn't think the preexisting scales provided enough information. At some point in childhood my younger self decided that books needed two separate if correlated four-point scales. One, I think, would measure plot complexity, with stale and predictable churn on one end and intricate, "difficult," even plot messes on the other. The other was for emotional maturity level, with unapologetic happiness on one end and whatever bleakness the adults enjoyed on the other. Then I would be able to find what I liked--surely, somewhere there had to be clever, original plots that didn't leave me emotionally drained. So often I was spent after developing empathy for fictional characters, and mentally scolded myself for it. Concern for my counterparts in the real world was too hard to come by, but all the same, I was able to pour myself into works of fiction only to be disappointed.

Having been burned time and time again, it almost looked like a conspiracy perpetrated by The Adults. It was a bait-and-switch. First they worked to “get” kids into reading (like I wouldn't have gotten into it anyway) with exciting plots and happy endings. Sometimes they even expected us to pick up on moral truth from these stories. And then, all of a sudden, they expected me to gradually “grow up with” a series changing in tone, or just to radically change, to prefer “adult” tales of love but mostly woe.

And I didn't change, and I sat there thinking: How dare they?


A few months ago, I was watching West Side Story. In the first act, Tony sings of his newfound love:

Say it loud and there's music playing,
Say it soft and it's almost like praying."

As linguistic innovation goes, this is not quite the gold standard. "Play" and "pray" is a nice one-syllable rhyme, given an artificial boost in cleverness by adding on the -ing at the end. Still, when I heard it, my thoughts were roughly in this order:

Huh. That's a decent rhyme.

I mean, it's not like this experience of falling in love is something I have a lot of familiarity with.

But it's still a catchy song.

This musical is...about fifty years old.

In the ensuing half-century, with all the talented singers and writers that have walked the earth, one might expect something in the way of "progress." We talk about science marching on, about athletes becoming faster and stronger than their predecessors. Maybe, if I turned on the radio today, I would find even more novel, even more clever lyrics, than even the young Sondheim's efforts.

Ha. Wait. That isn't how life works at all.

There's a tension in what I want out of music (and a lot of art), perhaps an unavoidable one. On the one hand, I want what I wanted when I saw Tony singing--some sort of progress, or at the very least diversity. The same trite repetitions about love, decade in and century out, are simply not my cup of tea. Yet push this too far, and I wind up perpetrating some kind of historical determinism--the same kind of argument that says that happy endings had their place, and that place was a century or two ago, that the only choice now is for inaccessibility, ambiguity, and/or nihilism. That's not what I want either.


Of all places for this to come to a head, it was the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games that did the trick for me. One segment, as previously noted on the blog, celebrated the tradition of children's literature in Great Britain. We saw J.K. Rowling reading Peter Pan before Mary Poppins did battle with Lord Voldemort, Cruella de Vil, and The Queen of Hearts--all villains I had enjoyed reading about. I was pleased to see Voldemort defeated the first time, five years ago, and pleased as well to see him vanquished at the Olympic Stadium. It was great fun.

Next came a segment involving the comedian Rowan Atkinson portraying his character Mr. Bean (neither of which I was remotely familiar with), who "messed up" an otherwise stately performance of the Olympic song "Chariots of Fire." Of course, this was in the plan all along, and from what I could tell a popular segment among its target audience. For me, though, it felt like more of the historical determinism: "This is 2012, and we're the UK, so we're not allowed to be serious because that's old-school...or for children. So instead let's have a guy blowing his nose and playing the synthesizer with an umbrella." I'm sure I'm being unfair here, but that was the message I took away from it.

And then came the "adolescent" rather than "children's" segment, which consisted of brief clips of television and music from British popular culture as a couple attempted to find each other through the power of social networking. The songs were explicitly drawn from a range of recent decades, again risking that historical pigeonholing. And the romantic plotline, though perhaps timeless, also failed to hold my interest.

Eventually, the torch was lit, and fireworks went off, accompanied by Pink Floyd's "Eclipse": "All that is now, and all that is gone, and all that's to come, and everything under the sun is in tune," they sing--not a bad sentiment for the games, really, if that's all there is to it! "But the sun is eclipsed by the moon." End album.

Oh. Somewhat less fireworks-deserving.

Maybe (okay, definitely), I take lyrics too seriously. But when it seems like ninety percent of them are the same thing, well, I'm that much pickier about the remaining ten percent.


But the upshot of the opening ceremony wasn't about pop music, or kids' books, or even a chariot of fire, except maybe the ones William Blake wrote about in "Jerusalem." The hymn referencing the "dark satanic mills" of the industrial revolution is considered an unofficial anthem for England (as opposed to the broader UK) and was sung by a children's choir at the ceremonies. The theme stretching from the rising towers of industrialization to the national health service (part of the books section) is that of building a new society, together. Even the "social media" thing culminated in an appearance from Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. "This," he tweeted, "is for everyone."

Technology, community, and faith. That's a story I can get behind.

By Madeline Barnicle