Category Archives: violence in young adult fiction

Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction: Moving from pat answers to real conversations

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{cover design by Jeannie M. Lee, Simon & Schuster}

This is the third blog post in a series about how violence in portrayed in young adult fiction.   I started with Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick and then Hate List by Jennifer Brown.  This week’s book is technically adult, but it is by Jodi Picoult, who many of my 8th graders read when they are ready to try a harder book.  Nineteen Minutes is a story about when a boy who was mercilessly bullied walks into his New Hampshire high school and starts  shooting.  In Picoult-fashion, it is a highly researched page turner with a surprise ending.

The strength of this story is that Picoult uses multiple narrators and flashback to tell the story so it becomes not just about one character.  We hear from his best friend from childhood who had abandoned him for the popular crowd and her mother who is a superior court judge.  We also hear from his mother who is a midwife and his father who is an economics professor who studies the cost of happiness.  In addition, Picoult includes narration from the defense attorney and the detective, both characters who throw their hearts into the case.

I also read his former best friend sympathetically because I was able to feel the social conflict she tried to bury, which is an extremely relatable emotion for teenagers, and honestly, any adult. The character who I read with the most sympathy, however, was the shooter.  The pain and humiliation he faced was unbearable, and I think for teenagers, the most important voice to hear.   As a teacher, I have sat in on countless assemblies where students hear messages about bullying, and honestly, they aren’t learning anything new.  Kids can recite for themselves the “lessons” presented to them and walking through the halls they mock them–not because they are callous or cold, but I think because they can sense that assemblies don’t make a difference.   What does, though, in my experience, is:

  • Inviting kids into stories that have a beginning, middle, and end in which they can explore motivation, cause and effect, character growth and begin to develop empathy and understanding for what it means to be human.
  • Inviting kids into art that addresses the difficult questions, rather than giving them another pat answer.
  • Inviting kids into conversations about these books and these pieces of artwork and giving them time to think and respond through conversation, writing, and art.
  • Listening to kids, respecting their opinions and experiences, and giving them grace and room to grow in the process of growing up.
  • Creating homes and classrooms where kids are reminded that everyone has a story and most often we don’t know all of it.

There are so many jumping off points for important thought-work and writing and conversations in this story, that my resounding answer to the question of how do we cope with these incredibly difficult issues in young adult literature is that we let kids read about them–we hand them the books–because they represent the complex, uncomfortable, difficult issues in life.   Reading (and responding to reading) is a safe way to explore things that they are going to be exposed to either way.  I’d recommend that parents actively read alongside their children–it will open up doors to conversations you didn’t know could exist with teenagers.

Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction: Hate List & Seeing One Another

Reading Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock led me to begin a study of how violence is portrayed in young adult books, which has made for a dark reading month, to be honest.  But in the same way that I said in my previous post, it has made me really consider the kind of adult I want to be with my students everyday.  Teaching 8th grade can feel like a roller coaster, but getting inside the minds of these protagonists is one of the best reminders of the struggles many of my students silently face and helps me remember the big picture in moments when it would be easy to let my anger, annoyance, or eye rolls reign.

The next one book I read was Hate List by Jennifer Brown, which is a story about a school shooting that leaves 6 students dead and many wounded.  The protagonist is Valerie, the girlfriend of the shooter, Nick, who was ignorant of his plan to kill, but implicated because she started a list of people they hated and Nick used it to pick his victims.  In the story, Valerie jumped up to Nick when he was shooting and inadvertently saved a girl who had harassed her.  Valerie took that bullet in her thigh and afterward Nick shot himself in the head.  The entire school wonders if Valerie was a hero or if it was a murder-suicide gone wrong.  The novel is Valerie’s story as she goes back to school for her senior year five months after the shooting.

Brown intersperses present day (Valerie’s family life, therapy sessions, loneliness) with flashbacks from  relationship with Nick (how Valerie had a place to feel understood and happy) as well as newspaper articles published about the shooting.  What I appreciate here is that young adult readers are able to really get inside the mind of the complex emotions that Valerie faces–guilt or whether her actions helped cause the tragedy, anger at Nick for not being upfront with her about it, losing Nick.  The combination continually asks the reader to consider perspective and how things appear don’t always tell the whole story, and this is what teenagers (and adults) must remember:

“People do it all the time–assume that they “know” what’s going on in someone else’s head. That’s impossible. And to think it’s possible is a mistake. A really big mistake. A life-ruining one if you’re not careful.” This quote from the story can be applicable to every character of the book–and every reader: Valerie didn’t know what was going on in Nick’s head, the kids who constantly made fun of them had no idea what was going on in either one of their heads, the parents didn’t know, the teachers didn’t know.  I wonder if what we can take away from this is that we must take the time to know people and their stories, which for me is what it always come back to–the importance of story. Teenage culture is a complex beast and there is no way to treat its darkness with simple adages.  So again, I am left thinking:

Teenagers need this book.

Teenagers need reading experiences that will let them talk about this book and push them to grow as people.

Teenagers need adults who can read these books, enter into the conversations with them, and to remember that all is not as it seems.

So, Brown takes the adolescent reader through the pain, necessity, and reality of moving forward.  She also takes me back to what Leonard Peacock said: “show me that it’s possible to be an adult and be happy.” At the end of the day, I feel a responsibility to offer students the possibility of hope.

Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction & Thinking About Who We Are As Adults

This post has been many weeks in the making.  After I finished The Luminaries, I picked up Matthew Quick’s latest young adult novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. Quick wrote Silver Linings Playbook and also Boy 21, which I used quite a bit early in the school year with my students.  I am trying to organize a way for students to do an author study, so I set off to find comparisons between the two titles.  However, this turned into a theme study for myself, which has actually taken a lot out of me emotionally in the past few weeks.  On the first page of this story, Leonard Peacock is taking a picture of his breakfast and a gun, and we learn he is planning on killing one of his classmates and then himself later that day.

Just like I teach my students, I need to take to writing to make sense of what I’ve been reading lately.  This will be the first post in a series that focuses on how teenage violence is portrayed in literature.

I am incredibly liberal when it comes to kids reading what they want to read, especially my Brooklyn 8th graders who are not sheltered from life’s truths.  What I love about most young adult literature, and why I think it is unhealthy for teenagers to jump straight into a diet of adult books and classics when they enter high school at 14, is that most young adult authors respect, love, and honor teenagers and their experiences.  These authors are courageous in going to the places that many teens are scared to bring to their parents.  These authors understand social-emotional development and their books often feel like therapy.  Their protagonists deal with real issues in real ways and generally find genuine, realistic resolution: peace, an ability to move forward, an understanding of change.  These authors haven’t forgotten the pain, anger, and intensity of what it feels like to be an adolescent.  When kids skip straight to books with adult characters, they miss out on so many healthy learning experiences.

However, as I continued to read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, I felt more and more uncomfortable.  For an adult, I consider that a good thing: our reading should rattle us sometimes and force us to consider perspectives and experiences we would not otherwise encounter.  And actually, for young adults, I think this holds true most of the time, which is why I encourage my students to read books about people who are different from them.  But there was something deeply unsettling about this 17 year old character that made me stop and ask: are my 13 year old students ready for this?

Quick’s story telling does not shy away from harsh realities of our overly imperfect world: Leonard’s parents are non-existent, which has left enormous scars and every time he allows himself to hope for understanding from his mother, she disappoints him again.  He was abused by a peer. The ending of the story has hope, but it’s not completely resolved and feels like a harsh (yet healthy) coming-of-age realization.   Quick does provide two adults who support and understand Leonard, in the form of an elderly neighbor with whom he watches old films and his social studies teacher.  These relationships also offer sound (not saccharin) advice to any teenager struggling with suicidal tendencies.  I’m wondering if my uncomfortableness with the story comes from myself not fully realizing the depth of pain teenagers can face–and perhaps me wanting to think none of my 8th graders have reached this level yet–though, I know for a fact that’s not true.  And once I remember that fact, my uneasiness with the title makes me think that some teenagers need this story.

What I also realized, though, is that adults need this story, too–more so perhaps, than the page turning series that are so easy to devour (which also are important to read when you work with or have teenagers).  Quick’s book is hard to read, and that is why we must.  Leonard Peacock’s opinions about adults–surprisingly nuanced and mature–are the kinds of reminders adults need:

(Re: Vice Principal) Vice Principal Torres’s face starts to turn eggplant purple as he says, “I don’t have time for double talk this morning, Leonard.” …I was really trying to make a connection. I would have talked with him openly and honestly–no double talk at all–if he would have just sat down and taken a few minutes to be human.  What’s so important that he couldn’t take five minutes to look up at the sky with me? (37)

(Re: Mother) Show me its possible to be an adult and be happy. Please (46).

(Re: School Counselor) Deep down she absolutely knows I’m bullshitting her, I’m sure of it.  But she has a million problems to solve, hundreds of students who need her help, endless asshole parents to deal with, mountains of paperwork, meetings in that awful room with the round table and the window air-conditioning unit over the tropically hot boiler room, and so she knows the easiest thing to do is believe me.  She’s fulfilled her obligation, assuaged her conscience by finding me in the hallway and giving me the chance to freak out, and I’ve played my role too, by remaining calm, pretending to be okay, and therefore giving her permission to cross me off her things-to-do-list (97).

These quotes make me wonder if the title is actually coming from the voice of his peer-abuser or from the adults who didn’t notice what was happening.

So, I am left thinking about a few things at this point.  First, teenagers face incredible pain and as uncomfortable as some of the topics may be, books are part of the solution. Moreover, they need adults who can model how to be human in all its glory and hardship: how to be genuine with our emotions,  have meaningful relationships, and how to find joy amidst the struggle.