Literary Merit

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TwistedThis blog of mine isn’t about reviewing books, but about questioning the way we read, write, and teach. And not questioning in the sense of finding fault, necessarily, but in the sense of exploration.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I read for Banned Books Week: Laurie Halse Anderson’s 2007 novel Twisted.

On her blog, she gave an update on the challenge in Kentucky, saying that now instead of the book being objected to by parents on the basis of content, it’s being objected to by the superintendent on the basis of literary merit. The class trying to use the book is an AP literature course and so, according to the superintendent, should only be reading books that would be taught in college.

Wow.

Does anyone else have a hard time wrapping their head around that? I mean, I took an adolescent literature class in college where our “assigned” reading was 30 young adult lit books of our choice. That was the semester I finally got around to reading the Harry Potter series, thanks to that teacher. I think I also read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. So, if they teach young adult lit in college, wouldn’t that mean any YA book would qualify to be taught in an AP class?

And here’s my other thought: Does a book have to be hard to understand in order to be college-level and have literary merit?

Literary merit, to me, is that it shows a side of humanity I might not have considered before and does it in a way that opens my mind to new ideas and new tolerance of people.

This book does that.

I was blown away by how real this protagonist and his family felt. His father is referred to as a grade-A jerk, and yet the reader can tell that there’s more to him than that. He’s never the stereotypical jerk. He’s a father who doesn’t know how to be a father any more than his son knows how to be a “man.” Their relationship is complex, dipping low to points where the son imagines killing his father and then reversing completely, like when Tyler is up on the roof pulling down Christmas lights and his dad comes up the ladder to hand him pliers and experiences vertigo, and Tyler helps him down one shaky step at a time. Without giving away the ending, all I can say is that I teared up twice.

On a different note, I learned new sympathy for all the teenage guys in the world as I experienced through a book what it’s like to have to hide an erection so often. Yeah, this book is real in that sort of raw, uncensored way, too, which might be part of the reason for the challenges, but it’s also part of what gives it merit. It validates the story and experience of adolescence.

Life isn’t neat and tidy, life is raw and uncensored. And a book that will make teenagers think about life in new complex, complicated ways and reconsider people and themselves through new perspectives is a book that deserves to be read and taught.

[UPDATE: I just read Chris Crowe’s September 2001 article in English Journal called “Young Adult Literature: AP and YA?” which defends thought-provoking YA books as potential references for the open-ended question on the AP test and also points out that AP students dissect complex young adult novels with as much fervor as they do classics, pulling ample meaning from both. I’ve excerpted a bit and provided a link in the Quote of the Moment on the right.]

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3 responses »

  1. I love your posts. I went to LHA’s signing at King’s English last spring, and afterward she spoke to the group of us about how we need to put new contemporary books in the hands of students, especially in high school. I totally agree that a book doesn’t have to be hard to understand to have literary merit, and I can’t stand it when small-minded people apply these tags to YA books. As if YA books don’t warrant study, because they were written with a teenage audience in mind. What does that say about how these adults view teenagers? Their problems don’t warrant validation?

    Okay. Stepping off my little box now. Love your blog Nikki! You’re doing great.

    Like

  2. Hey, I was there too! I mean, not that it’s such a huge coincidence, but it’s cool that we were in the same room once before ever meeting. And I loved hearing her speak. That was the coolest book signing I’ve been to (though Shannon’s are a close second).

    Thanks for stepping on the box, though. There is some amazing YA lit out there, and I hate that so many adults think books for teenagers are just silly gossip novels or whatever.

    Like

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