Lessons and Lives: Why Young Adult Literature Matters
Gary M. Salvner
Gary M. Salvner gave the talk that is published below as the keynote address at the November, 200, ALAN Workshop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. -psc
In the Anglican church, Christmas Eve night is traditionally spent in a service entitled "A Procession of Lessons and Carols," during which sacred music, Biblical readings, and prayers blend into a ceremony of art and thought that anticipates and introduces the festival of Christmas Day.
I offer that ceremony as a metaphor for my intentions this morning. Over the next two days we will have the opportunity to hear a most distinguished group of writers for the young and to converse with fellow teachers and scholars in the field of young adult literature. Consider this keynote, if you will, as a procession into that experience, a collection of "Lessons and Lives" that anticipate this celebration and initiate our inquiry into Connie Zitlow's inspiring workshop theme: "Literature Matters: Young Adults and Their Stories."
OK. Are you settled in your church pews and ready for the first reading? Let's begin with two stories of young people meeting books.
Meet Missy, an eighth grade girl. As a requirement for attending our annual Youngstown State University celebration of reading and writing called the English Festival, Missy reads Harry Mazer's World War II memoir The Last Mission, and then at the Festival she gets to meet Mazer and hear his own recounting of those war experiences. At the end of the day, after the other kids have drifted off, Missy sneaks quietly up to Harry Mazer with her copy of The Last Mission and asks for an autograph.
"Sure," says Mazer. "What's your name. Shall I sign it to you?"
"Put it 'To William,'" Missy replies. "That's my grandpa's name. He was in the Air Corps during World War II like you, and when I finished the book, I gave it to him to read. "Did he like it?" asks Mazer, a new interest in his voice. "He did. One night he came to our house and asked us all into the living room. You know I was in the War," he said, "and that I've not talked about it. It was pretty bad, and I don't like remembering, but I think it's time I did talk about it."
"And he told us stories," Missy explained to Harry Mazer. "All night long he talked to us, and he was crying, and my mother was crying. Please put my grandpa's name on the book."
Here is a second story. Last month, while paging through an issue of USA Today, I came across an article reporting that Scholastic, J.K. Rowling's U.S. publisher, had sponsored an essay contest asking young people to explain "How the Harry Potter Books Have Changed My Life." Ten thousand children had written in, and the newspaper had reprinted the ten winning essays. Reading them over, I was struck by the direct connection that these muggle readers saw between the young wizard Harry Potter's life and their own. Ashley Marie Rhodes-Carter, 14, wrote, "There were amazing similarities between Harry Potter's background and mine. Here was a boy exactly my age who also didn't have a caring family. My mother's neglect put me in foster care for ten years." Tyler Walton, 9, explained, "My life has not been easy. At the age of five I was diagnosed with leukemia. After 3 1/2 years and with just 3 months left to go on treatment, the leukemia came back . . . Harry Potter helped me get through some really hard and scary times. I sometimes think of Harry Potter and me as being kind of alike. He was forced into situations he couldn't control and had to face an enemy that he didn't know if he could beat" (8D).
What might we learn from the stories of Missy and these young Harry Potter fans? An obvious lesson is that literature has the capacity to enter our lives, to interact with what we already know and believe, and perhaps even to change us. Louise Rosenblatt, in her classic work Literature as Exploration, puts it this way as she describes the nature of the literary experience:
The literary work is not primarily a document in the history of language or society. It is not simply a mirror of, or a report on, life. It is not a homily setting forth moral or philosophic or religious precepts. As a work of art, it offers a special kind of experience. It is a mode of living. The poem, the play, the story, is thus an extension, an amplification, of life itself. The reader's primary purpose is to add this kind of experience to the other kinds of desirable experience that life may offer. (278)
Those young Harry Potter fans had put Rowling's work alongside "the other kinds of desirable experience that life may offer" and had used it as a way of understanding and affirming themselves. Missy used a story about the Second World War as a means for coming to know her grandfather and perhaps her whole family. "Put it 'To William,'" she said. "All night long he talked to us, and he was crying, and my mother was crying. Please put my grandpa's name on the book."
Time for another story, this one about a ninth grader named Martin who each day endures a demon English teacher, a woman stern and demanding, whose students have given her the nickname "Moose" because of her large, fleshy features and dominant, booming voice.
Martin is afraid of the Moose, whose daily lessons honor the god of correctness-getting grammar quizzes right and constructing sentences that are properly phrased-and whose grade book is filled with C's and D's. But on occasional Fridays, Martin and his classmates witness a transformation- of a type and magnitude that would confound any ninth grader's brain-as this Moose-teacher stops the normal exercises of the week, tells the students to clear their desks, and, in a loud but incredibly expressive voice, reads them poems.
Most are those wonderful narrative classics of middle grade anthologies: Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman" and John Greenleaf Whittier's 1828 ballad, "Skipper Ireson's Ride," about a Massachusetts sea captain who is accused by his townspeople of ignoring a distress call from another ship. For days after the reading, Martin can't get the Whittier poem's melodic refrain out of his head, about the vengeance brought on Ireson by the wives and mothers of those lost sailors: "Old Floyd Ireson, For his hard heart, Tarred and feathered and carried in a cart, By the women of Marblehead!" (225).
One Friday, early in spring, the Moose offers her charges a poem that is altogether different from those dramatic ballads. It starts like this:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt (Roethke, 45).
"That poem," Martin's Moose-teacher explains, "is entitled 'My Papa's Waltz,' written by Mr. Theodore Roethke. He is from your home town."
And young Martin, walking home that afternoon still drunk and scraped by the poem's tensions and rhythms, daydreams about whether Mr. Theodore Roethke, the famous poet, walked down these same sidewalks once. And he further wonders, "If Mr. Roethke could come from this place and write, then could I?"
A fourth story emerges out of my experience as Gary Paulsen's biographer. Several times since the publication of that biography, I've been invited to schools to discuss this noted author. (I'm sure this is out of resignation on the part of teachers, who reason that since they can't get the real Gary to their school, their students might at least get a little something out of listening to the Gary who has written about that Gary.) Several years ago I received such an invitation from a librarian at a rural Ohio middle school and went there to talk to two groups of fifth and sixth graders who were just finishing their reading of Hatchet and The River.
What was different about this visit is that, two weeks thereafter, I received a huge stack of thank-you letters from the students I had met-148 of them in all. (Yes, I admit it; I counted. Even reflected glory casts a nice glow sometimes.) Most politely thanked me, and a few (if you'll allow me a brief digression) told me more than I needed to know. Dalton, for example, wrote, "Your presentation was great, but next time you might want to speak up." Jane wrote, "Thank you for coming to our school. We got to miss science class when you came." And Amanda exclaimed, "I think that it is so cool that you get to speak to Gary Paulsen in person. I know that must cost a lot of money."
But back to the real point of this story, which is certainly not about me and my humbling fan mail. Virtually all of these young letter writers exclaimed their love of Paulsen's works, but as I read them through one letter in particular jumped out at me-by a sixth grader named Jonathan. His was among the shortest letters in the stack, containing three brief sentences: "I really like Gary Paulsen. Right now I'm reading The River. I might be an author." Listen to it again: "I really like Gary Paulsen. Right now I'm reading The River. I might be an author." How remarkable, I thought, that a young person would mention a book he loved and immediately speculate about himself as a writer. How wonderful to have read and to feel empowered by that reading to say, "I might be an author."
Are there further lessons in the stories of Martin and Jonathan? Both have found themselves somehow connected to the experience of literature, and both speculate about their own relationship to the world of words, wondering if literature might continue to hold them not only as readers of stories and poems, but also as writers.
Toni Morrison once remarked, "If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it" (Safire and Safir, 38). I wonder if both Martin and Jonathan have stories to tell, and I wonder whether their exposure to literature has given them the boldness and wisdom to tell those stories. In my most hopeful moments, I imagine them in their adult years affirming with their lives an exclamation once made by Henry James: "To live in the world of creation-to get into it and stay in it-to frequent it and haunt it-to think intensely and fruitfully-to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation-this is the only thing" (Safire and Safir, 57).
It is time for a fifth story. As you all know, our friend Robert Cormier died two weeks ago, and he was to have followed me to this lectern. Here is a Robert Cormier story.
Bob visited Youngstown twice, the first of which was in 1988, when he served as featured author for our tenth anniversary English Festival. The crowds attending the Festival were exceptionally large that year, with over a thousand students in attendance on each of its three days, and I remember talking to a few teachers on the first morning as the students filed in for the opening ceremony.
"My kids aren't so sure about this Cormier," one of them remarked, perhaps capturing the sentiments of many. "They read his stuff, and it upset a lot of them. I don't know how they're going to respond to a guy who ends The Chocolate War with a beaten Jerry Renault trying to warn Goober not to disturb the universe."
And so, armed with suspicion, hundreds of uneasy students at a time filed into the large meeting room in our student center day after day to see this Robert Cormier and to hear what he had to say.
How 3,000 students responded to this author and what he had to say became vividly clear at the end of the third day, when a roomful of tired junior high students sat restlessly waiting for the Festival's awards ceremony to start. It is customary for our featured authors to assist us in handing out prizes to students at the end of each Festival day, and Bob had obliged happily, exclaiming at one point that he was stunned that a huge roomful of kids could be stomping and cheering to honor their peers for their accomplishments in reading and writing. "It sounds like a pep rally," he had remarked.
On that third day, Bob was delayed in arriving, and just as the awards ceremony was to begin he snuck in a side door and made his way quietly to the stage. What happened next was wholly unexpected and electric, and it will always remain for me the ultimate image of literature's power and of the influence of compassionate and truth-telling authors. A few students at the corner of the room saw Bob enter, and instantly they stood up and pointed, after which more students stood, and within seconds-and it was literally seconds-a thousand junior high school students, some of them the very same students who had begun the day suspicious of this starkly honest story-teller, thundered to their feet and clapped and cheered so loudly and long that Bob himself was left speechless.
Robert Cormier, if he were here, no doubt would deflect the point of that story away from himself, perhaps by remarking about our good kids in Youngstown or, if pressed, about the energizing power of literature. The point in part was about literature, but more specifically it was about Robert Cormier's literature, and about his capacity to share with young readers what the British educator and novelist Aidan Chambers suggests are the two functions of the literary work: "That it is conciliatory, comforting us in our shared humanity; and that it is subversive, challenging our prejudices and ingrained attitudes" (10).
Perhaps Robert Cormier's standing ovation came because many young readers understood Jerry Renault's willingness to "disturb the universe" as he tried to make a place for himself. Perhaps they cheered because they knew Cormier was telling the truth by showing that such a struggle sometimes has harsh and difficult consequences.
Before going on, I wish to pause for one more moment on Aidan Chambers' observation that good literature both comforts and subverts, particularly on this issue of the subversive power of books. Few of us as educators are out of hearing range of the censors' cries these days; nor are authors and publishers. It is helpful, however, to look at this problem historically in order to understand that the complaint is not just with modern works, including young adult novels, but with books themselves. Here is a critic named T. DeWitt Talmadge, writing in 1889 in a book entitled Social Dynamite; or, The Wickedness of Modern Society:
A man who gives himself up to the indiscriminate reading of novels will be nervous, inane, and a nuisance. He will be fit neither for the store, nor the shop, nor the field. A woman who gives herself up to the indiscriminate reading of novels will be unfitted for the duties of wife, mother, sister, daughter. There she is, hair disheveled, countenance vacant, cheeks pale, hands trembling, bursting into tears at midnight over the fate of some unfortunate lover, in the daytime, when she ought to be busy, staring by the half hour at nothing: biting her finger nails into the quick. (175)
A century later, we still live with that suspicion of the story's power to take us, and perhaps it is this worry that gives censors their adrenaline, for fear can be a most energizing force. Modern society, it seems, is obsessed with keeping the young in an illusory bubble of protective insulation -in other words, with pretending that we can keep our young innocent. In doing so, what they scarcely consider is the powerful lesson that Lois Lowry offers us in The Giver about the personal and cultural price of such presumed safety. Sitting with the baby Gabriel one night after learning the cost of his society's "sameness," Jonas ponders, "Things could change, Gabe. Things could be different. I don't know how, but there might be some way for things to be different. There could be colors . . . And grandparents . . . And everybody would have the memories." And then, leaning over the sleeping baby, Jonas whispers, "There could be love" (128-9).
Why do the young need stories today? Why do they, and we, need young adult literature? Perhaps because, in this age of superficial protections that, in truth, offer little safety, we have become lost in cynicism and cliché. Schools, Columbine reminded us, are not safe, and the emotionally and physically battered students we see every day in our classrooms remind us that homes are not safe either. At the same time, the young move through institutions that seem ludicrous for their disregard of these real perils. The consumer culture forms the pretense that security comes from wealth, and school proficiency tests and other regimens perpetuate the illusion that learning is about answers rather than questions. How many of our students truly come to school to have questions answered? How many even imagine that in school they might voice an opinion about what issues are raised, or what books are read? Schools, with their test-driven curricula, and commercialism, with its pitches to "be all you can be" and "just do it," offer little security because they do nothing to honor and strengthen either self or community. Does it serve our young to learn that Dr. Pepper is the most "misun- derstood" soft drink? How cynical an appeal that is to their own insecurities about being misunderstood and unaccepted.
Why do the young need literature? Because good books and poems-the kind that comfort and subvert-cannot be cynical. Because stories that address the questions of our day, and allow students to ponder and decipher real answers, overwhelm cliché. Authors-when they laugh as Joan Bauer does; and reassure as Kimberly Willis Holt, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Katherine Paterson do; and challenge in the way of Chris Crutcher and Robert Cormier-are searching for real answers. Such authors assume authority and influence, becoming, to use Shelley's phrase, "the unacknowledged legislators of the World" (508).
All of this, by the way, means that the censors are right about one thing-books do have extraordinary power, and literature can change us. What is wrong about the censors' reading of the problem is the world view it reflects-the conclusion that life should be protected against rather than lived, that difference should be stifled rather than embraced. Their perception of living is clichéd, not honest; cynical, not hopeful.
And in the midst of all the protestations, Jonas whispers, "There could be love."
Let me get ready for another story. Having made the claim that schools should be dangerous places and books should question with passion and honesty, let me with equal honesty propose that probably at times we ourselves have been in awe of a book's power and thus worried about its impact on a young reader. I myself will confess to being so shattered by the ending of Robert Cormier's After the First Death at first reading-so completely devastated by it-that I could not go back to the book for a year, let alone recommend it to someone else.
Is it not possible that a young reader might find something hurtful in a book that hits too close, might be injured by all of that honesty? Perhaps so, but that is why we teachers are there, and why parents should be there, reading alongside their children. And that is why we need to consider this final story, the point of which is that children who need to can make themselves much safer than we usually imagine is possible.
Several years ago a Youngstown junior high teacher, in the midst of an acrimonious censorship outburst in our community, prepared some of her students to attend our English Festival by having them read Jacqueline Woodson's touching novel I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This. She did so with a bit of nervousness, realizing that the book dealt with some challenging issues, among them the fact that the character Lena carries the terrible secret that she is being sexually abused by her father.
This teacher's general worry eventually became located in her concern for Susan, a seventh grader in her class whom she knew had also been abused by a parent. She worried how Susan might react to such an open portrayal of her very problem in the book.
One afternoon, in a private conversation, the teacher had an opportunity to ask Susan about her reading of I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This. "I liked it," Susan commented, "and I felt sorry for Lena, what she was going through." After which the teacher, taking a deep breath, asked, "Yes, Susan, tell me about what she was going through. What was Lena's secret?" And what Susan said both startled the teacher and taught her something about the resilience of young readers. "Her secret?" asked Susan. "She was poor. I felt bad for Lena because she didn't have anything."
How can it be that Susan, an honors student and perceptive reader, had never seen the incest that Lena and her friend Marie discuss openly in the story? Perhaps she read so as not to see it because it was too close, because she wisely needed to protect herself from that which might threaten her world and identity. And the teacher did the only thing she could logically and compassionately do in that circumstance: she allowed Susan to keep her reading of the text.
And the lesson in Susan's experience? Maybe it is that the young have more resilience than we think they do. Maybe it is that the young, like all of us, have that ability to put thoughts and experiences away until they are ready to deal with them.
But what would have happened if Susan had, indeed, seen her own tragic abuse in the story of Lena? Knowing Susan's teacher, I can imagine that only reassurance and healing would ultimately result. There is no safety in denying or ignoring tragedy, but there is protection in facing it, and we who teach must responsibly acknowledge that "happily ever after" is not the ending of all of life's stories. Facing struggles-through books and all other means-affirms life. In it, "There could be love."
Before the last chorus of this procession, I wish to acknowledge that all of the individuals you have met this morning- Missy and Jonathan; Martin and the Harry Potter fans; the kids who stood for Robert Cormier; and Susan, who protected herself from Lena's secret-are real, although I have not always used their real names. One you've met, however, is to me much more real than all the others, for in the ninth grade, I was privileged to have a teacher whom my classmates and I called Moose, and I was, and am, the Martin of my tale. The story is in fact even more remarkable than I have given it to you, for Moose's real name was Miss June Roethke, and she was the kid sister of Pulitzer Prize winning author Theodore Roethke, one of the twentieth century's great American poets. Before coming to her class, I knew nothing of Ted Roethke, including the fact that he grew up about three miles from my home, and even more serious than that, I knew nothing of what the music of literature could be and how it could transform.
If literature is a living force, then it is the June Roethke's of the world who deliver it fully born to our youth. It is teachers who do that, and despite my worries about her sternness, June Roethke was certainly a teacher, a great teacher. And if literature is to remain alive, then it is we teachers who must sustain that life force by testifying to its power and by offering young people those stories, those young adult novels and poems, that reflect and embrace life, that-to repeat once more Aidan Chambers' words-comfort us in our shared humanity and challenge our prejudices and ingrained attitudes.
In speaking once to a group of fellow science fiction writers, Ray Bradbury offered this exhortation: "May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories-science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake the world" (Safire and Safir, 23). For our author friends here, I offer that wish for you-that you remake the world. And for those of us here who read these books and teach young readers, may we do the same, facing in our lessons and lives our own struggles to love and remake the world.
And now for the final song. One other poem Miss June Roethke taught me those many years ago, also written by her brother and my almost-neighbor Theodore Roethke, is entitled, "The Waking." It goes like this:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go (108).
So let us, for these two days, learn by going where we must go in honoring young adults and their stories, and let us take the lively air of the wonderful authors and teachers who are spending these days with us.
Let the celebration begin.
Blais, Jacqueline. "A Magical Breakfast of Potter Champions." USA Today (October 9, 2000), 8D.
Chambers, Aidan. Introducing Books to Children. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973.
Cormier, Robert. After the First Death. New York: Avon Books, 1979.
Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. New York: Dell, 1974.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1993.
Mazer, Harry. The Last Mission. New York: Delacorte, 1979.
Paulsen, Gary. Hatchet. New York: Bradbury Press, 1987.
Paulsen, Gary. The River. New York: Delacorte, 1991.
Roethke, Theodore. Roethke: Collected Poems. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1966.
Rosenblatt, Louise. Literature as Exploration. New York: Noble and Noble, 1976.
Safire, William, and Leonard Safir. Good Advice on Writing. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Defense of Poetry," in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1977.
Talmadge, T. DeWitt. Social Dynamite; or, The Wickedness of Modern Society. Chicago: Standard Publishing Co., 1889.
Whittier, John Greenleaf. The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1889.
Woodson, Jacqueline. I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1994.
Gary M. Salvner is a professor of English at Youngstown State University, Ohio; he is a past president and the current Executive Secretary of ALAN.
Reference Citation: Salvner, Gary M. (2001) "Lessons and Lives: Why Young Adult Literature Matters." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 3, p. 9.