Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish centers on a month of big changes for high schooler Grady. He’s changed his look; he’s changed his name; and he’s told his parents that he’s not their son, not their daughter. And while he finds that these are “big changes” for everyone around him, he is unable to figure out why his transition has made such an impact in the lives of his friends, family, and classmates. Despite his growing conviction that gender is simply a construct, he is frequently frustrated by the limitations that these constructs enforce. From the very first pages of dialogue, Grady finds that gender is essentialized and prioritized, presented as “the first question”—as it literally does in the opening conversation about his new baby cousin. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
In my last post, I introduced the topic of cultural inheritance in intergenerational queer communities. Here, I continue to develop this idea as it relates to queer YA literature, focusing on one of the main complications that arises through this model.
This complication is evident in Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, a pivotal YA novel in its early positive representation of lesbian characters. Published in 1982, the narrative follows Liza as she meets and falls in love with the eponymous Annie. As a pivotal text, the novel seems to balance on diverse perspectives regarding homosexuality.
Yet, when Liza’s parents discover that she and Annie are romantically involved, her father tempers his reluctant acceptance of Annie’s sexuality with a warning of the future that now faces her:
Still from “Heaven,” by Troye Sivan
In my blog post on All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, I noted “the talk” as a form of cultural inheritance that reveals how many black parents instruct their children to respond when confronted by the police. “The talk” appeared again in Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, and while this is an extremely unfortunate instance of cultural inheritance, it has led me to inquire how other communities explored in the frameworks of this course might enact similar exchanges.
In “‘Why Would I Want to Hear?’: Cochlear Implants in Young Adult Fiction,” Marion Rana commends the increasing number of protagonists in YA literature that represent minority groups from “the margins of society.” While Rana’s article focuses on the representation of deaf characters, she notes that the genre has made a general shift away from portraying characters with disabilities in “problem novels only.” While a greater range of representation is certainly reason to celebrate, many works still do utilize the old frameworks of problem novels, but in a subversively progressive way of their own.
In Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, 14-year-old Caden shifts between two narratives—one fantastic and one realistic—that slowly begin to merge. For Caden, this event reveals the full extent of his mental illness. As the novel progresses, Caden learns not only which reality to trust, but how he can come to terms with the new future laid before him, one in which his sanity and his creativity frequently wage war.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, follows Starr as she navigates life—at home and at high school—after witnessing the murder of her friend Khalil, finding that every facet of her life is informed through race.
When her dad asks her to explain the significance of the phrase “The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody” (the meaning that Tupac gave to the term “Thug Life” and the source from which the title of Thomas’s novel takes its name), Starr responds that the phrase is about “us.” With her dad’s promptings, Starr expands upon this idea:
“Black people, minorities, poor people. Everybody at the bottom of the society. […] We’re the ones who get the short end of the stick, but we’re the ones they fear the most. That’s why the government targeted Black Panthers, right? Because they were scared of the Panthers?”
In All American Boys, “the talk” is referenced a number of times throughout the book. As instructions relayed from parents to their sons, it’s not the sex talk (a staple of so many other YA novels) that weighs on the young men in Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s coauthored work. Instead, “the talk” turns out to be guidelines for how young black men are told to respond when confronted by a cop. Yet, despite following the instructions his parents laid out for him, Rashad, who narrates half of All American Boys, becomes the victim of police brutality.
YA literature is often described as gateway texts that offer younger readers an entrance to critical engagement with a written work, yet scholarship in this field rarely takes advantage of the opportunities they have so conveniently identified. Commentary by the authors of these YA novels, however, often provide the first vital steps into this discussion.
“Young Adult Literature & Social Justice as Pedagogy” is an independent study designed with two overarching objectives in mind. The first is as an introduction to the field of YA literature and the concerns, issues, and characteristics that define and shape this genre.
The second objective is of a narrower aim: to explore a selection of social-justice themed YA novels. Within this latter objective, the course targets the intersections of YA novels and/as activism, social justice and/as pedagogy. This survey’s specific emphasis on LGBT issues will provide even more opportunities for in-depth analysis (regarding changes in approaches to social justice, for example).
The posts on this blog will respond to the primary texts, using them as a platform by which to engage with supplemental readings.