Law and Conversation

October 8, 2010

Everyone needs stories

The sad tale of the teenage Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself last week by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student posted a video they’d clandestinely shot of him in an intimate encounter with another male, together with the attempted banning of Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak,” in Missouri a couple of weeks ago, has me thinking about how everyone needs stories. 

Author Cheryl Rainfield wrote of her own childhood abuse and in support of Halse Anderson’s book:

“[A]llowing children and teens to find reflections for their own experiences; being able to read about those experiences in safety while gaining knowledge to arm themselves; or encouraging readers to speak out and find healing themselves because of what they’ve read is SO important.”

The suicide of another young gay person, reportedly after intense bullying based on his sexual orientation, inspired Chicago native and writer Dan Savage to start a story video project to let young gay people know that It Gets BetterIn Savage’s words, “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”   He’s asking other gay adults to make videos of aspects of their life stories, hoping that young people who watch them will realize that tough times don’t last forever.  As Chicagoist reports, only 11 states, including Illinois, currently specify LGBT students as a protected class in anti-bullying and harassment legislation.

Bullying for any reason, of course, is shameful, as is discrimination on grounds unrelated to people’s ability to do their jobs, or afford housing, or other matters.  But drafting a law that prohibits bullying without being overbroad is not an easy task.  Though many look to the law above all for power, story can sometimes be an even more powerful and enduring bulwark against evil, as the responses to “Speak” and the “It Gets Better” project show.

Difficult real-world subjects that many young people have to deal with include not only sexual abuse and coming to terms with sexuality but also poverty, parents’ unemployment, war, racial prejudice, divorce, substance abuse, and eating disorders.  Here are some books with great stories that portray young people coming to terms with some of those issues:

“Ramona And Her Mother,” by Beverly Cleary (parents’ job difficulties, family tensions)

“Houseboat Girl” and “Cotton In My Sack,” as well as others in the American regional series by Lois Lenski (poverty)

“Wintergirls,” by Laurie Halse Anderson and “Perfect,” by Natasha Friend (eating disorders)

“Lush,” by Natasha Friend (parent’s alcoholism)

“Where The Lilies Bloom,” by Vera and Bill Cleaver (poverty, loss of parents)

“Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry,” “The Gold Cadillac,” and many other books and stories by Mildred Taylor (racial prejudice)

“The Ark,” by Margot Benary-Isbert (war)

“A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” Betty Smith (poverty, parent’s alcoholism)

“Veronica Ganz,” by Marilyn Sachs (divorce, family tensions, bullying)

“Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” by John Green and David Levithan (sexual identity)

“Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank (ethnic prejudice, war)

Traditional folk and fairy tales, “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott, and the “Little House” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, may not readily come to mind when thinking about children’s or YA books with edgy subjects.  But fairy tales often include poverty and wicked stepmothers, Marmee and her brood are struggling with the absence of the girls’ father due to war, and the “Little House” books depict a family living hand to mouth and clawing themselves up through a series of unremitting disasters that weren’t unusual for their time.

Are there any books or stories that have helped you through a difficult time in your life?

September 20, 2010

Read This: Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak”

I don’t know whether “Speak,” the YA novel by acclaimed and award-winning writer Laurie Halse Anderson that eloquently conveys a high school girl’s pain over a rape and the ensuing meanness and social ostracism from her peers, will become a classic.  But, just in time for Banned Books Week, someone’s trying to ban it from a school library, which puts “Speak” in the excellent company of  many acknowledged classics that are now required reading in many, if not most, schools.

I had to run out to the library yesterday to find a copy of “Speak” after I saw the outrage on the part of Halse Anderson, as well as many readers and writers whom I follow on Twitter, over a Missouri management professor’s screed condemning the book as containing “soft pornography” because it depicts–in far from graphic terms–the girl’s rape by a high school boy. 

The  term “pornography” doesn’t have a legal definition.  Some of my dictionaries define it as “writing about prostitutes,” “obscene or licentious writing,” or “obscene literature having little or no artistic merit.”  For courts, the term that counts is “obscenity,” which the courts have struggled to define over the years.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart achieved immortality with his attempt, “I know it when I see it,” in his concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).  Nine years later, in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), the court adopted a three-part test for finding that a work is obscene:  “(a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Many readers and writers who have tweeted and blogged about the professor’s article are having a hard time trying to figure out how any portion of “Speak” could possibly satisfy a dictionary definition of “pornography,” let alone any part of the court’s definition of obscenity.  Blog posts with more details about the book and the proposed ban are available here, here, and here, among many other places. 

Acknowledged classics that have been the subject of similar banning attempts include Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” George Orwell’s “1984,” William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.  Sherman Alexie’s terrific “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction in 2007, has also been the subject of banning attempts. You can follow Laurie Halse Anderson on Twitter here.

Have you read “Speak?”  What banned books do you like?

July 23, 2010

Not your grandma’s YA

Filed under: Books and writing,fiction,Law,reading,YA — Helen Gunnarsson @ 9:46 am
Tags: , , ,

21st century young adult (YA) literature is not your mom’s or grandma’s YA, though the classics of their eras remain great.  Today’s YA novel routinely deals with topics such as sex, drugs, alcoholism, bullying and other forms of abuse, depression, and eating disorders.  YA dialogue is typically realistic, which includes an extraordinary number of vulgar expressions on the pages of many YA novels.  You don’t have to like it–I certainly don’t–but it IS the way lots of kids talk.

The recently published “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” by John Green and David Levithan, is not only one of the best YA novels I’ve ever read but one of the best books, period.  The authors wrote the novel in alternating chapters, each writing from the point of view of one of the two main protagonists, each of whom is named Will Grayson.  One WG is straight, the other gay.  Straight WG’s best friend is a gay classmate, Tiny Cooper, who writes, directs, and produces a musical that starts out being about himself and ends up, like “WG, WG” itself, as a wonderful story of love and friendship.

The change in YA lit mirrors an evolution in society, which, in turn, leads to evolution in the law.  Fifty years ago in this country, a book such as “WG, WG,” with principal characters who are gay, frank depictions of teens coming to terms with their sexuality, and LOTS of vulgar language, would have been kept behind the desk in my hometown library if the library even purchased it at all.  Today, it’s reviewed and praised on literary programs around the world, including a discussion with New Zealand children’s writer Kate de Goldi on the April 17 edition of Radio New Zealand’s “Saturday Morning With Kim Hill,” and I’d guess and hope it’s a serious contender for a National Book Award and/or a Pulitzer Prize.  And less than fifty years ago, homosexuality was still considered a psychological disorder.  Not only has the American Psychiatric Association removed it from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but many states, including Illinois, have enacted laws prohibiting discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation, and same-sex marriage is legal in a few states and many countries.  In fact, Iceland’s prime minister recently wed her partner under that country’s new marriage law, apparently amid no hoopla and not even any blinking on the part of Icelanders.

Please run, do not walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and get “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” to read.  The book, incidentally, takes place in Chicago and its suburbs; straight WG goes to Evanston Township High School, gay WG goes to Naperville.

Blog at WordPress.com.