On Dr. Seuss, excitedly

I love Dr. Seuss. So insightful. So relevant. So beautiful, creative, strange, and wondrous. When I went away to college, I got “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” as a present. And I loved it. When I’m babysitting, I’m always excited when the kids bring over Dr. Seuss books to read at night. (Although, at about 9 pm, my ability to smoothly read over the rhymes is replaced by lots of yawning and mispronunciation.)

I grabbed this article from a website called “Sources of Insight” that I’d never seen before today.

Lessons Learned from Dr. Seuss

23 FEBRUARY 2010 25 COMMENTS

Lessons Learned from Dr. Seuss

“Kid, you’ll move mountains!  Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So…get on your way!” –Dr. Seuss

When I was a kid, Dr. Seuss was a constant source of inspiration for me.  His stories filled my head with endless possibilities.

Between Great Day for Up and The Cat in the Hat, I was pretty much prepared for making the most of any day.  I think his real masterpiece though was Oh! the Places You’ll Go!   This is the book that convinced me I could move mountains and that life is what you make of it.

21 Lessons Learned from Dr. Seuss
There are so many great lessons from Dr. Seuss.  Each of his book is such a treasure trove of ideas and actions for a better life.  What I did here is boil down a set of 21 lessons that highlight his key themes across his works and quotes:

  1. Be a thinker of great things.  Dr. Seuss teaches us, “Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!”
  2. Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.  Sometimes you just don’t know what you’ve got until after it’s gone.  In Bartholomew and the Ooblek, King Didd got what he wished for, but the sticky Ooblek goo was worse than the fog, snow, sunshine, and rain that it replaced.  The King quickly wanted his old weather back and he learned to appreciate it.
  3. Be your best you.   In the words of Dr. Seuss, “There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”  Make the most of what you’ve got.   In Yertle the Turtle, we see “feather envy” and it’s a gentle reminder to be careful what you wish for and appreciate what you’ve got.
  4. Bend your world in wonderful ways.  Nobody bends it like the Cat in the Hat.   From the metaphors you use, to the thinks that you think, you can shape your world that’s right in front of you.
  5. Don’t put yourself in a box.  You’re only limited by your own imagination.   The Cat in the Hat teaches us how to let our imaginations run wild.
  6. Don’t waste your time worrying who’s better than who.  In Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss teaches us that “You have better things to do than argue who’s better than who.”
  7. Dream it and do it.  You can move mountains when you put your mind to it.  Direct your life like a blockbuster and make things happen.
  8. Edutainment wins over boring and ho-hum.  With whacky words, wondrous worlds, and fantastical characters, Dr. Seuss taught us the edutainment is how you change a child’s life.  Reading is only boring if you make it so.
  9. Kindle your curiosity.  Keep your mind open and your eyes peeled.  Stay curious and follow your growth.
  10. Life happens in moments at a time.  Don’t miss out on life by tuning out the little things along the way.
  11. Own your fun.   There’s more to do than play in the rain.  When you’re bored, you’re boring.   The Cat in the Hat teaches us to be the maker of our own fun.  Make each day your own special blend of whatever it is that best floats your boat.
  12. Play at your day.  You can play at your day, in every way.
  13. Persistence pays off.  Be relentless in your pursuit of things.  In Green Eggs and Ham, it was through persistence that Sam-I-Am finally got the unnamed character to try the green eggs and ham.  In real life, Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times before being published by Vanguard Press.
  14. Treat people fairly and squarely.  In The Sneetches and Other Stories, Dr. Seuss shows us that we can’t judge people by their lot in life or whether they have a star on their belly.  In Yertle the Turtle, it’s a reminder not to climb over people on your way to the top, because they’re same people you’ll see on your way back down.
  15. Try it … you just might like it.  In Green Eggs and Ham, when the unnamed character was surprised to find out that he actually likes green eggs and ham once he tried them.  You just never know until you try.
  16. Saying you’re sorry can help make things right.   In Bartholomew and the Oobleck, when the king finally said the magic words, “I’m sorry,” and “it’s all my fault,” he helped make things right again.
  17. See the bright side of things.  It’s a great day for up, when you can see the sunny side of things.  Sure sometimes you’ll have to work at it, but positivity is a skill.  Do it daily.
  18. Setbacks happen.  Deal with them and move on.   Make trouble think twice about messing with you.
  19. Some people are much more unlucky than you.  When you’re down in the dumps and things get real bad, remind yourself that somewhere, somehow, someway … somebody is much “more unlucky than you.”
  20. Success is a journey and we all have our own paths.  Make your journey count.  Don’t let fear stop you.  Don’t let conventional wisdom stop you.  Lead the life you want to live, and when there’s no path, make one.
  21. Your voice counts.  In Horton Hears a Who, Dr. Seuss shows us how one little voice can tip the scale … after all, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Top 10 Dr. Seuss Quotes 
51J I 6 4IL__SL160_Dr. Seuss has so many quotable quotes, from enjoying your day to being more you.  He has such a way with words.  Even when he reminds us of something we already know, he has a way of saying it that makes an old song sound new.  Here is a sprinkling of some of my favorite quotes:

  1. Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
  2. Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.
  3. Only you can control your future.
  4. So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.
  5. The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
  6. Today is gone. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.
  7. Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.
  8. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
  9. You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose.
  10. You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.

It’s inspirational gold.  There is nobody youer than you, and the more that you learn the more places you’ll go.  Bravo.

Dr. Seuss Quotes
51fcyIF5j0L__SL160_If you’re not familiar with Dr. Seuss’s quotes, then you’re in for a treat.  It’s easy to read his words, and he’s a master of saying a lot with so little.

A nice simple way to leverage his quotes is to pick one or two of your favorites.  Sometimes the right quote is just what we need to hear and it can be the perfect catalyst that we need in our life.  Enjoy!

Aloneness

  • All alone! Whether you like it or not, alone is something you’ll be quite a lot.
  • I’m afraid sometimes you’ll play lonely games too, games you can’t win because you’ll play against you.
  • You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.

Be Yourself

  • If you’d never been born, then you might be an Isn’t! An Isn’t has no fun at all. No, he disn’t.
  • You are you. Now, isn’t that pleasant?
  • You’re in pretty good shape for the shape you are in.

Everybody Deserves a Shot

  • A person’s a person, no matter how small.
  • I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.

Fun

  • Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.
  • From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere.
  • I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.
  • If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good.
  • It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.
  • We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.

General

  • Be awesome! Be a book nut!
  • Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more …
  • I do not like green eggs and ham I do not like them Sam I am.
  • I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. Because an elephant’s faithful, 100 percent.
  • I’m glad we had the times together just to laugh and sing a song, seems like we just got started and then before you know it, the times we had together were gone.
  • Oh, the things you can find if you don’t stay behind!
  • Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.
  • So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.
  • They say I’m old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!
  • Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.

Life Happens

  • I’m sorry to say so but, sadly it’s true that bang-ups and hang-ups can happen to you.
  • Things may happen and often do to people as brainy and footsy as you.

Make Things Happen

  • I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead and some come from behind. But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!
  • There’s no limit to how much you’ll know, depending how far beyond zebra you go.
  • Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way.
  • Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Positivity

  • And will you succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!
  • If you keep your eyes open enough, oh the stuff you will learn. Oh the most wonderful stuff.
  • It’s opener, out there, in the wide, open air.
  • Just tell yourself, Duckie, you’re really quite lucky.
  • You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.

Thinking

  • Think and wonder, wonder and think.
  • Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!
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On "The Help"

I have not had time to really read a book from start to finish in a long time.

Instead, I do what I normally do: start a book, read about a hundred and fifty pages, and set it down. I’ll start another book, then pick up that first book and finish it, or at least get a little further, and then repeat the cycle.
Pretty soon I’m halfway through about five books and finished with none.
One of my co-workers lent me the book “The Help.”
And so, with recently atypical abandon, I went to town on that book. Literally devoured it. I read nearly three hundred pages the first night.
The movie comes out today, and the blogosphere is up in arms about the racist-ness of the movie.
I’m rolling my eyes. Not because I’m a white bitch, but because I read something totally different in the book. Of course, it might be that I’m always wearing my feminism lenses.
Here’s the article that basically sums up a lot of the backlash: Why I’m Just Saying No to The Help
Before I begin, let me note that I don’t think the author of the article read the book.
Her refusal to see the movie is based on a whole bunch of other things – like people’s opinions and their reviews of the movie.
That’s all fine, but it strikes me as interesting that people are so quick to label this movie as one of those white-people-reinforcing sort of deals. Like, “oh, let’s take pity on the blacks. Those poor blacks, where would they be without us whites?”
Bullshit.
We’re so over-critical these days. We’re hot on the lawsuits, quick to jump to a conclusion, way less forgiving, and super focused on political correctness.
This book was not like the “Blind Side,” as some are claiming. By the way, how would the story of Michael Oher have been a different one had it not been framed by his race?
(Don’t get me wrong, there are serious race issues still in play today. And there are still a disproportionate number of under-educated, underemployed blacks. Expectations and cultural disparities exist. The prevailing attitudes and undercurrents are still not about equality. But that’s not always the case. And we can’t always revert to that rule – in my opinion, that sort of thinking helps perpetuate the oppression, self-inflicted or not.)
This book was about women. It was narrated by three women, two black and one white. They each had a ton of shit to deal with. The white one is college-educated but unmarried. That’s sort of a problem, since all of her upper-crust friends are married and having kids left and right. There is an educational disconnect here – Skeeter, the unmarried one, is more ambitious as a result of having finished college.
Her two friends are more obsessed with social standing that social justice.
That’s not to say that Skeeter herself is interested in social justice, she happens to stumble upon it and then grow into it as the story progresses. Her interests in writing the book about the black experience stem from her desire to attain legitimacy in the eyes of Ms. Stein, a New York-based editor.
The black women are so badass. There’s a woman who’s got five kids, a serious attitude, and an abusive husband. At the end of the book (SPOILER ALERT) – she’s leaving her husband. She’s more secure in her position than ever – granted, she’s still a maid, so there was really no upward mobility, but at least she has the gratitude and respect of the people she’s working for.
The other one has lost a son, is constantly fretting about money (who isn’t?), and is deeply attached to the white babies she’s raising. And it’s so fulfilling when the white child colors herself black in school, starts to identify the black woman as her mother, and then starts to play Rosa Parks with her younger brother and then lies to her father about who taught her all of those things. The maid has been telling them stories about Martian Luther King, the alien who didn’t fit in with the humans because he was green.
Aww, heartwarming as that all is, it’s also heartbreaking. There is violence directed at people in the movie, stories of horrible things done by the whites, stories of how hard life is for the blacks.
I guess for the first time, it really hit me that my grandparents were adults by the time that the Civil Rights Movement rolled around. That my mom was entering adolescence.
But that’s not my point:
This book is about women.
The men play supporting roles. They manage to dominate their women while at the same time being absolutely dominated. Leroy beats his wife. Johnny supports his even though she’ll never be able to carry a baby. The Senator’s son dumps Skeeter for her progressive views, god forbid. The socialite queen of the town runs her husband and supports his going-to-fail campaign for government.
It’s about being over-dependent on a husband. It’s about not having a future without one. It’s about upper-class misery, dependency on popularity, isolation.
It’s about women on their own. In the end, there are no love matches for the three. Skeeter’s lost her fiance, Minny’s dumped her good-for-nothing abusive drunk husband, and Aibileen hasn’t had one in a long time – her husband left her when their child was no more than a baby. They are independent, strong, driven women.
They are united in that.
They each have different goals to reach. It’s not one of those, “all the ends are so neatly tied up” sort of deals.
The book highlights the struggles faced by single women, shows the oppression of marriage – the social pressures and expectations from parents, children, family, friends. It also shows the power of community.
While it may not paint the most accurate picture of life in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, I think it does a damn good job at reminding us that we’ve come a long way. We’ve still got a ways to go with both racism and feminism, but the battle is moving forward.
So read the book and get back to me. I’m going to go see the movie and let you know.

Censorship: Why you shouldn’t advocate for it

I wasn’t allowed to watch the movies that my friends were watching and I hated it. All I wanted to was to see Titanic. I’ll never forget one of my classmates not letting me see a page in her Titanic movie companion book because she knew I wasn’t allowed to see the movie. 
My mom still cringes when I mention my first R-rated film (Ronin, when I was in the fourth grade). I don’t think I saw another R-rated film until high school. I still have only seen about five episodes of the Simpsons. I remember getting into angsty adolescent skirmishes with my dad because he wouldn’t let me buy CDs (when people still bought those) with the “Parental Advisory” stickers on them. My parents were careful, and surprisingly united in their cause to protect us from content they deemed inappropriate.
However careful my parents were to keep me from playing violent video games and from viewing violent images, they neglected to monitor my reading to a certain extent. I’d wait eagerly for mom to finish reading Reader’s Digest so I could have it, and she’d always tell me not to read certain articles. 
So those were the first ones I read. And yes, some of them were probably inappropriate for an 8-year old, but they also opened my eyes to the reality of the world around me. (I also watched both the morning and evening news, and Dateline, and stuff like that. I’m consequently terrified of fireworks, boiling water in glass bottomed containers, and swimming pool drains. But as a result, I’m also still alive.) 
Reader’s Digest wrote about female genital mutilation years before it was a mainstream topic. Now, they’re making a movie about Waris Dirie, the woman whose story appeared in that magazine at some point during my youth. I don’t consider that inappropriate at all. I’m grateful. It allowed me to understand something I might not have been able to – and it allowed me to learn without being embarrassed to ask awkward questions. 
As a child, I devoured books. It didn’t matter whether they were aimed at children, young adults, or adults, I read them all. My particular favorites were murder mysteries. I loved them. Agatha Christie, Lillian Jackson Braun, and so on. 
One year, someone bought me a big book of murder mysteries from Barnes and Noble. I’ll never forget it. That purple and black cover, the fact that it was at least a thousand pages. I thought it would last at least a week (I read so fast that I had to start choosing books based on thickness so they’d last). And I started reading. 
Not far into the book, I came upon a story so grotesque, I had to stop reading. (It concerned the rape and murder of a young girl.) My usual morbid curiosity was gone. I was haunted by what I’d read. I closed the book and hid it at the bottom of my drawer. I never again picked up that book. 
Perhaps my parents would never have given it to me if they’d known what it contained. But it was given to me with the best of intentions – they knew I loved murder mysteries. 
I was young, yes, but I was also old enough to make the decision not to continue reading for myself. 
The article that this post is based on calls into question the maturity of young adults to choose for themselves. What are we exposing our kids to? Today’s popular books don’t have any new themes in them…Shakespeare wrote about suicide, bloody battles, sex, etc. What is scandalous today becomes blasé tomorrow. 
I didn’t only learn about sex because of romance novels – one night, I couldn’t sleep and Mom gave me a book and told me not to read past a certain page. I started reading and fell in love with the characters. I read the entire book that night. It remains one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever read, not because it was inappropriate (it wasn’t), but because it was beautiful. I laughed and I cried. I slept well that night, knowing that somewhere, a fictional couple had found that love that all humans strive for. 
Books taught me about history, and tragedy, and famine, and war. I learned about the triumphs of humanity, the beauty of the natural world, the greed that comes with power. 
I don’t regret the exposure I had through novels. They prepared me to lead the life I lead today. They taught me about inner strength, gratitude, poise, passion, intelligence, the best way to silence an enemy, all sorts of poisons, drugs, politics, the justice system, common sense, fact, fiction, wild adventures, and magic. They were my greatest escape, my greatest indulgence, the source of much of my happiness. 
Thank you, Mom and Dad, for letting me read. 
The text below comes from a Wall Street Journal article published on June 4, 2011:

Darkness Too Visible

Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three, stood recently in the young-adult section of her local Barnes & Noble, in Bethesda, Md., feeling thwarted and disheartened.
She had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.
If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.
Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code. But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.
[yalit]Raul Allen
If you think it matters what is inside a young person’s mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads. This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new. Adolescence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn’t, on a personal level, really signify.
As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to young readers and some not. As elsewhere in American life, the 1960s changed everything. In 1967, S.E. Hinton published “The Outsiders,” a raw and striking novel that dealt directly with class tensions, family dysfunction and violent, disaffected youth. It launched an industry.
Mirroring the tumultuous times, dark topics began surging on to children’s bookshelves. A purported diary published anonymously in 1971, “Go Ask Alice,” recounts a girl’s spiral into drug addiction, rape, prostitution and a fatal overdose. A generation watched Linda Blair playing the lead in the 1975 made-for-TV movie “Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic” and went straight for Robin S. Wagner’s original book. The writer Robert Cormier is generally credited with having introduced utter hopelessness to teen narratives. His 1977 novel, “I Am the Cheese,” relates the delirium of a traumatized youth who witnessed his parents’ murder, and it does not (to say the least) have a happy ending.
Grim though these novels are, they seem positively tame in comparison with what’s on shelves now. In Andrew Smith’s 2010 novel, “The Marbury Lens,” for example, young Jack is drugged, abducted and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he encounters a curious pair of glasses that transport him into an alternate world of almost unimaginable gore and cruelty. Moments after arriving he finds himself facing a wall of horrors, “covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, penises. Where the f— was this?” No happy ending to this one, either.
In Jackie Morse Kessler’s gruesome but inventive 2011 take on a girl’s struggle with self-injury, “Rage,” teenage Missy’s secret cutting turns nightmarish after she is the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. “She had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.” Missy survives, but only after a stint as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Books We can Recommend for Young Adult Readers

BOOKS FOR YOUNG MEN:
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (2010)
This grueling post-apocalyptic National Book Award winner earns its scenes of menace and the odd expletive by believably conjuring a future in which people survive by scavenging materials from the rusting hulks of oil tankers. In a pitiless semi-civilization, one single act of decency launches a young man on a terrifying journey.
Peace by Richard Bausch (2009)
For older teens, a taut World War II novel set in 1944 that evokes the conflicting moral struggles of war. When a detachment of American GIs tramping through the Italian countryside discovers an escaping German soldier and a young woman hiding in the back of a cart, the resulting bloodshed—is it murder or self-defense?—sets off profound reverberations in the men’s hearts.
Old School by Tobias Wolff (2004)
Set in a smart New England prep school in the 1960s, this story of a young man’s search for authentic identity captures the mixture of longing and ambition that causes so many adolescents to try, if only for a time, to shape themselves along other people’s lines. Here, the admired models are writers—Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand, Robert Frost—who visit the school and for whom the young protagonist contorts himself in painful and revealing ways.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
A science-fiction classic that offers surprisingly mordant commentary on contemporary American life. In a society where rampant political correctness has resulted in the outlawing of books, Guy Montag works as a “fireman” tasked with destroying intellectual contraband. His wife spends her days immersed in the virtual reality projected on screens around her. When Guy accidentally reads a line from a book, he finds himself strangely stirred—and impelled to an act of recklessness that will change his life forever. Teenagers whose families are maddeningly glued to screens may find Guy’s rebellion bracingly resonant.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
Told (with the occasional expletive) from the unreliable perspective of a high-functioning autistic teenager, this mystery recounts 15-year-old Christopher’s effort to solve the killing of a neighborhood dog. When the boy himself falls under suspicion in the animal’s death, his violent response propels him toward discoveries that will ultimately overturn his understanding of his own family.
True Grit by Charles Portis (1968)
The movie versions are fine, but they only approximate the drollery and tenderness of this tale of Wild West vengeance. Narrated in retrospect by a rawhide-tough woman named Mattie Ross, the novel recounts her girlhood quest to hunt down her father’s killer in lawless Indian Territory, with the aid of dissolute U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. The brilliance is all in the tone: Beneath Mattie’s blunt manner lies a fierce intelligence and wagon-loads of grit. Girls will love this one, too.
BOOKS FOR YOUNG WOMEN:
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell (2008)
The events swirling around 15-year-old Evie in this sophisticated National Book Award winner seem to her, in the blinkered way of teenagers, mainly the backdrop to her own sexual awakening. In a story involving deceitful parents, stolen Jewish treasure, a handsome ex-GI, adultery and murder, all set in louche, off-season Palm Beach, it is only when Evie must decide whether to lie—and whom to save—that it is apparent that she is no longer a child.
Ophelia by Lisa Klein (2006)
An inventive retelling of the story of Hamlet from the perspective of beautiful, bewildered Ophelia. In Shakespeare’s play, we are meant to understand her as a love-struck medieval girl gone mad. Here she is an intelligent if impractical Elizabethan who, with the help of Queen Gertrude, secretly marries Prince Hamlet, fakes her own death and runs away with—well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?
Angelmonster by Veronica Bennett (2005)
This elegant novel introduces us to 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, future author of “Frankenstein,” shortly before she meets the dashing poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The events that ensue seem as jolting today as they were to the couple’s early 19th-century contemporaries: an adulterous escape from London to Europe, the births and deaths of two children, a sojourn in Italy with the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron (which included a famous night of telling ghost stories), and Percy Shelley’s tragic death at sea.
Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien (1973)
A post-apocalyptic novel for adolescents that is all the more frightening for its restraint. It has been a year since all-out nuclear war has left Ann Burden apparently the only girl in the radioactive remains of the United States; thanks to a quirk of geography, her family’s farm (but not her family) survived the cataclysm. When she sees a column of distant smoke, Ann realizes that she is not alone, and soon she is nursing back to health a man who turns out not to be the person to play Adam to her Eve.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
This vivid novel of early 20th-century Brooklyn is proof that mature material can be rendered with such subtle humanity that a younger teen can read it with as much enjoyment as a person many years older. I got my copy in a used bookstore when I was 11 and was so entranced by the story of book-loving Francie Nolan and her impoverished Irish-Catholic family—her beautiful mother, her handsome drunken father and various other misbehaving or censorious relatives—that I read it over and over throughout adolescence. Only years later did I grasp everything that happened between the adult characters. Isn’t that what being a young reader, or indeed a teenager, is all about?
The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.
Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.
The novel “Scars,” a dreadfully clunky 2010 exercise by Cheryl Rainfield that School Library Journal inexplicably called “one heck of a good book,” ran into difficulties earlier this year at the Boone County Library in Kentucky, but not because of its contents. A patron complained that the book’s depiction of cutting—the cover shows a horribly scarred forearm—might trigger a sufferer’s relapse. That the protagonist’s father has been raping her since she was a toddler and is trying to engineer her suicide was not the issue for the team of librarians re-evaluating the book.
“Books like ‘Scars,’ or with questionable material, those provide teachable moments for the family,” says Amanda Hopper, the library’s youth-services coordinator, adding: “We like to have the adult perspective, but we do try to target the teens because that’s who’s reading it.” The book stayed on the shelves.
Perhaps the quickest way to grasp how much more lurid teen books have become is to compare two authors: the original Judy Blume and a younger writer recently hailed by Publishers Weekly as “this generation’s Judy Blume.”
The real Judy Blume won millions of readers (and the disapprobation of many adults) with then-daring novels such as 1970’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which deals with female puberty, 1971’s “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t,” which addresses puberty from a boy’s perspective, and 1975’s “Forever,” in which teenagers lose their virginity in scenes of earnest practicality. Objectionable the material may be for some parents, but it’s not grotesque.
By contrast, the latest novel by “this generation’s Judy Blume,” otherwise known as Lauren Myracle, takes place in a small Southern town in the aftermath of an assault on a gay teenager. The boy has been savagely beaten and left tied up with a gas pump nozzle shoved down his throat, and he may not live. The protagonist of “Shine,” a 16-year-old girl and once a close friend of the victim, is herself yet to recover from a sexual assault in eighth grade; assorted locals, meanwhile, reveal themselves to be in the grip of homophobia, booze and crystal meth. Determined in the face of police indifference to investigate the attack on her friend, the girl relives her own assault (thus taking readers through it, too) and acquaints us with the concept of “bag fags,” heterosexuals who engage in gay sex for drugs. The author makes free with language that can’t be reprinted in a newspaper.
In the book business, none of this is controversial, and, to be fair, Ms. Myracle’s work is not unusually profane. Foul language is widely regarded among librarians, reviewers and booksellers as perfectly OK, provided that it emerges organically from the characters and the setting rather than being tacked on for sensation. In Ms. Myracle’s case, with her depiction of redneck bigots with meth-addled sensibilities, the language is probably apt.

But whether it’s language that parents want their children reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books. In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into schools, to strip expletives from Chris Lynch’s 2005 novel, “Inexcusable,” which revolves around a thuggish jock and the rape he commits. “I don’t, as a rule, like to do this on young adult books,” the editor grumbled, “I don’t want to compromise on how kids really talk. I don’t want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers.”

By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!”

It is of course understood to be an act of literary heroism to stand against any constraints, no matter the age of one’s readers; Ms. Myracle’s editor told Publishers Weekly that the author “has been on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression.”

Every year the American Library Association delights in releasing a list of the most frequently challenged books. A number of young-adult books made the Top 10 in 2010, including Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling “Hunger Games” trilogy and Sherman Alexie’s prize-winning novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” “It almost makes me happy to hear books still have that kind of power,” Mr. Alexie was quoted saying; “There’s nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet.”

Oh, well, that’s all right then. Except that it isn’t. It is no comment on Mr. Alexie’s work to say that one depravity does not justify another. If young people are encountering ghastly things on the Internet, that’s a failure of the adults around them, not an excuse for more envelope-pushing.

Veteran children’s bookseller Jewell Stoddard traces part of the problem to aesthetic coarseness in some younger publishers, editors and writers who, she says, “are used to videogames and TV and really violent movies and they love that stuff. So they think that every 12-year-old is going to love that stuff and not be affected by it. And I don’t think that’s possible.”

In an effort to keep the most grueling material out of the hands of younger readers, Ms. Stoddard and her colleagues at Politics & Prose, an independent Washington, D.C., bookstore, created a special “PG-15” nook for older teens. With some unease, she admits that creating a separate section may inadvertently lure the attention of younger children keen to seem older than they are.

At the same time, she notes that many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby private school, only three of the visiting 18 juniors said that they read YA books.

So it may be that the book industry’s ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.

Odds and Ends and Saturdays

I got an email from Mama P this morning. You’ll remember Priscilla, my absolutely insanely wonderful host mother in South Africa.
Her emails are always short and to the point. They never say much, but I’m grateful for them. Today she said that the weather is turning cold, and to say hello to Mike and James Dean for her. I laughed out loud when I read the last bit; I had completely forgotten about that. So here’s how it goes:

The night that James was coming to pick me up for our first date, I realized I had no idea what his name was. I knew it was either James or Dean. So we had all just referred to him as James Dean the entire week. I realized that this was eventually going to present a problem, so I called him, and luckily, he didn’t answer his phone. Voicemail clued me in on his real name and that was that. But we still called James Dean.

It’s amazing how much I miss that place. I know it will never be the same, but it will always have a beautiful place in my heart. I want to get back there, to stand at Muizenberg Beach and feel the waves crash against my feet and fight my way onto the train and off again.

However, my life here is growing daily. While I like that I’m learning a lot at my current job, I’m not satisfied with the compensation and have taken on babysitting to make extra cash. (This supports my lifestyle, which you may be surprised to hear isn’t quite as wild as you might think.) Anyway, I’ve got four families in the rotation and the balancing act is getting a bit hectic.

This week, for example, I will be working all seven days. And twice this week I had to go straight from work to babysit. The other nights I went directly home and was in bed relatively early. It’s all fine and well, but I’m not getting any decompression time and am beginning to get a bit stressed.
Hopefully this week will provide ample opportunity for sleep as I’m not scheduled to work any week days.

Alas, today brings more babysitting, volunteering at a choir concert that one of my co-workers is singing in, and then date night. And tomorrow brings babysitting.
I really love the families that I’m sitting for this weekend – I find it much easier to babysit when I’m actually enjoying myself as well. One family has three little girls, and then, of course, there are the twins.   I find myself hoping the symphony season won’t end!

Last night, Jacob and I went to see a production of Macbeth at UCD. Jacob was personally invested – he did the music for the show. I went because I waffle back and forth on my hate/love of Shakespeare. This play was pretty well done. The costuming choices were interesting – mostly just corsets – and the cast was tiny, but the leads delivered their lines really well.
After that, we went to an art gallery where they were serving pancakes and alcohol (strange combination, but hey, whatever). After paying $5 to get in and being told that drinks were free – we ended up having to pay $4 for a small cup. Ridiculous. The gallery was cute, but it was trying too hard to replicate the scene in New York. There were topless models being spraypainted (when done properly, it’s actually really beautiful), but it just felt like an afterthought, especially as the crowd began to diminish.  After meeting up with our friend Claire and her girlfriend and wandering around looking at some art, we bailed to go dancing.

And so we danced. The night drew to a close, and I was grateful, because the tired had begun creeping through my bones. I went home, said hello to Carlos and Mike, and was asleep nearly immediately. I woke up tired – I didn’t get nearly enough sleep. I’m hoping for a nap while I do my laundry.

Tonight, once my obligations are over, I’ve got a wild night planned (as usual). The guy that I guess I’m dating (I don’t know – we eat dinner together sometimes. He made me waffles. I think that counts as sort of edging toward dating?) is going to come down from Boulder (and maybe bring his adorable dog!) and we’re going to go see Claire’s band play and then (depending on how tired I am or how bored he is) head to a weird art gallery/warehouse for a space party ordeal.

Jacob is super into the electronic scene, which means I find myself at a lot of events. I joking called it a “space cult” based on the theme of the first party he invited me to. Now, we call them space parties. They’re not really – just a bunch of people in a room listening to really good (or really bad, depending) music and maybe drinking.

And yes, we may have to relocate Carlos for the evening. Jacob is more than happy to babysit and Carlos has been itching to get out and explore.

Matisse and a Picture Post

I’m prefacing this post by saying that it’s about 85 degrees in my apartment right now. My brain is being slowly over-cooked. Also, the bugs have taken this warm weather as an opportunity to crawl around. I don’t mind them, but I do.
Maddie and I are switching back and forth between “Say Yes to the Dress” and “SportsCenter.” That very much sums up our lives.

Today I joined my friends Greg and Carolyn at the Art Institute downtown. The city was hot and muggy, but full of energy because this morning was the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup celebration parade. The streets were full of people dressed in bright red, hot but happy. We spent a pleasant afternoon perusing parts of the museum; we saw an exhibit featuring many Chicago artists trained at the Art Institute (SAIC). Then we went and saw the Matisse exhibit. I generally stay away from modern art, so I don’t know a whole lot about it, but having Greg as a tour guide added to my experience.
I’m in the middle of attempting to upload my photos of Matisse (only one, since photography was prohibited and I had to sneak it) and also of my one true love, the Impressionists.
                                      
                                                                   Below, Lake Michigan.

If you quint, you can see me! I’m wearing a blue Oxford and brown shorts in the bottom right, below! 
Above, a man whose suit was tremendously horrible. It was part chartreuse and part rust, and when he walked, it seemed to change color in the light. And he has Gene Wilder hair circa the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” era. Scary.

                                      
                                          

Above, the Art Institute lions wearing hockey helmets.
I’ve been thus unable to retrieve my pictures from today, so be sure to check back because I’m going to post them tomorrow (or whenever I get them…apparently my 3G isn’t so hot right now, or the fact that I’m trying to simultaneously email 25 pictures from my cell phone may have slowed progress). But I want to talk about Matisse a bit, so it might be worth it.