Wednesday, December 23, 2015

It said WHAAT?!


It's not a word I like, to be honest. I never have. Especially when it comes to books. I don't believe in it for adults at all. For children, however? I think one of my sixth grade students put how I feel about it best when he said, "My parents believe I can read anything I'm interested in, as long as they know what I'm reading. Sometimes they read the same book so they can talk to me about it and answer any questions I might have."

It's a lovely thought, isn't it? I would love to think every parent is that interested in what their children are reading and would be there to help if they had any questions about the content of the books they read. Sadly, I've found that isn't usually the case.

Why do I think this is a problem? Well, I've questioned a few young adult (YA) books in the past, but not to the extent I am now. I'm starting to feel like authors who can't make it on the bestseller list for adult books have decided to try their hand at young adult books for a fan following (I actually read an interview where one author admitted it). It's either that, or they are a best selling author and hope to be the next J.K. Rowling to make more money merchandising and movie making than from book writing. Trouble is, I don't think what they're writing about belongs in the hands of middle school students. And I definitely feel it doesn't belong in the hands of my sixth grade students (who are 10 and 11 when they enter sixth grade).

We're not talking about blood and guts and horror here (although I'm not crazy about too much of that, personally). I'm talking about sex and sexual feelings and sexual innuendos. Society is already over-sexualizing everything children see. Is there now no escape from it - even in books?

I believe the trend started with that "paranormal romance" series about the stupid girl who wrapped her whole life up in a dead vampire (oh, except for when she couldn't decide between the vampire and the werewolf. Seriously?) even though there was no actual "sex" until they were married.  I refuse to name the series. I didn't like it then, I don't like it now. It's poorly written, and I'm embarrassed for the author. She, however, will be reaping the financial benefits for the rest of her life, while an entire generation of young people think what they read in her books is good literature. (I shiver and get nauseous just thinking about it...)

Were there books about teenage romance before that? Absolutely. And better written. It was the marketing that propelled the book series, not the great writing. It reminds of the "boy band formula" that sucks in teens every time. It just breaks my heart that now there seems to be a "tweener/teen formula" for lukewarm novel writing. And I'm being generous using the term "lukewarm" when referring to the overabundance of "romance" books in the YA section of bookstores. Ugh.

Sorry. I got sidetracked. Tis the season. ;)

Back to my target (and, yes, I have one)...

I had a former student of mine (currently in eighth grade) to tell me about a book I just "have to read" and that I'd love it. I took a photo of the book she handed me so I would remember it and told her I would read it for my next book. A few days later, I saw that one of my sixth grade readers was toting around the same book. I asked how he liked it. He said, "So far, so good. I'll let you know when I'm done if it's really good or not."

I read the book in one day, on a Saturday, a couple of weeks ago. I didn't blog about it right away because...I was marinating. I didn't want to be reactive. I did a little research. I asked a few trustworthy adults what they thought about some of the passages. I marinated in it some more. I asked myself what I found offensive about it. I still don't know if this will come out right, but here goes:

The book Proxy by Alex London is supposed to be a modern, sci-fi, dystopian novel that is a new take on The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman. London even quotes Fleischman's book on the page before the first chapter. The comparison is even touted in the book trailers I've seen for Proxy. I've read The Whipping Boy numerous times. I understood the premise of the book.

As an adult, I see nothing wrong with the book...other than the fact I don't find it very original. I enjoyed the story, but I also enjoyed reading The Hunger Games, Ender's Game, The Whipping Boy, and watching the movie "Mad Max" (starring a very young Mel Gibson...back the midnight movies). I could name a few others, but those instantly came to my mind as I was reading Proxy.

 (Now, this is the difficult part...)

Reading through the eyes of my sixth graders, however, I have a big problem with the overt sexual banter and bullying between characters and the offensive thoughts expressed by the 16 year old "prince," or spoiled rich kid character, Knox. Not only does he objectify women, and can't even remember the name of the one he is with in the very first chapter because he's been with so many, he doesn't even try to hide it. And it almost seems to become one of his 'endearing' qualities later on. In other words, 'at least he's up front and honest about how he is and admits it'. Really? Really.

The 16 year old "whipping boy," or proxy who is punished for any and all of Knox's sins and mistakes, is Syd and he is a homosexual. He hasn't actually put into practice what he's been thinking about, but he's known for some time how he feels and who he is attracted to. Readers know his thoughts and feelings on the matter. I don't have a problem with Syd's sexual preferences (to each his or her own), I do have a problem with the slang terms and bullying words and labels used in the book against Syd.  I'm concerned young people will start using them. My first thought when I saw what one character said to Syd was that I hoped I never heard a student say that to another student. My second thought was about how offended I was that even Syd's heterosexual friends make strong innuendos and double-meaning phrases to tease him.

I read about the author after I read the book (which is how I usually do my research). He is one of several authors who is heralded as stepping out to write books for the young adults in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community. I use "LGBT" because that's the label used in the interviews and articles I read about the author and the book. As I said, I don't have a problem with characters having sexual thoughts and feelings about their preferences, I just don't think the topic of sexual preferences of ANY kind belongs in a book for sixth graders.

Now, what age do I think this book would be appropriate for? That's a good question. I am really good at knowing sixth graders, but I've not taught other ages. To answer this question, I went to the best source I know: a student.

Remember the student whose parents let him read anything he wants? And remember the sixth grade student who was reading Proxy? It is the same student. He is a voracious reader and a well-spoken young man. When he finished the book, I simply asked for his opinion of it.

First, he asked me if I'd read the book, and I told him I had. This enabled him to talk about certain characters by name. He told me about a certain scene he really liked (the one that was very Mad Max like), and he liked the technology angle (like Ender's Game), and he thought the two main ideas of the novel were interesting (the same ones from The Whipping Boy and The Hunger Games). I asked him if there was anything else about it he liked. He said, "That's about it." This is a young man who can go on and on and on about a book he loves. The review was too brief and uncharacteristic.

Yellows mark my, "WHAAT?!" moments.
Purples are great passages/adds to novel.
Blues are high vocabulary words.
So, I had to casually ask...

"Was there anything you didn't like about the novel?"

My student looked uncomfortable and said, "Well,...I really didn't like all the...kissing and stuff."

"I want you to know I value your opinion as a good reader. Do you think this is an appropriate book for sixth graders?"

"No," he said, "I think maybe high school...or...maybe eighth grade? I don't know what eighth grade is like yet, but maybe it's okay for them? I definitely don't think it's for sixth graders."


Maybe not, but...perhaps a content/ratings label on anything promoted and sold as YA?

I don't know...

All I do know is that I host a movie club for sixth and eighth grade girls at my school once a week. I am not allowed to show anything over PG - that means no PG-13. Do you know what is in many of the PG-13 movies that causes that '13' to show up at the end and prohibits them being shown at my school? Sexual innuendo and a couple of cuss words.

Just something to think about. That's all.

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