Monday, March 31, 2014

Guest blogger - Teen vs Adult sensibilities

Janet H. is the colleague I describe as a 'kindred spirit' because we're both fanatical readers of children's literature.  We swap titles constantly adding to each others 'to-be-read' piles on a regular basis.  We have similiar tastes but vary enough that we can often direct each other to books we wouldn't have otherwise got to.  I thought it worth sharing  Janet's retrospective about a recent book club meeting she attended as it focuses on a book a few of us in the Doucette Library really favoured and makes us consider where our own lines in sand are when it comes to contentious issues - How much is too much?

Like most women of a certain age, I belong to a book club. We have all been friends for over 20 years, connected originally by volunteer work, but now connected by our monthly meetings, our passion for books and our love of wine. We select our books in categories and one of the categories on our list is children’s/teen books. Of course, I get nominated to select the book in this category. The category started because we all wanted to read Harry Potter (and needed an excuse, I guess) – but we have read classic children’s books (Alcott and Montgomery), Hunger Games, John Green, and have dipped our collective toes into graphic novels.

So for this year’s choice, I suggested Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I have raved about the power of this book before. It is not an easy read, but the courage and the deep friendship between the two young women resonated strongly with me and stays with me, even a year later.

So I was more than a little surprised that at how much feedback (OK, pushback) was generated about this book. Along with the comments “Deeply disturbing” “Terrible torture scenes - gratuitous” “How could she?” came the inevitable “I can’t believe that this is a YA book – it should be marketed to adults, shouldn't it? It’s very graphic.”

To say I was surprised is, perhaps, an understatement. This is something I got used to defending when the Hunger Games came out – when adults would say, “Children killing children – how awful!”  my tongue in cheek response (one which I usually did not say) was “Have you BEEN in a high school lately? Do you REMEMBER your high school experiences?” I am stating the obvious when I say that I think children and young adults read, in part, to put things into perspective. Reading transports people into a different world and away from their own troubles – the “Hunger Games” may not ever be a world that our children will know, but the need to build friendships and collaborations, the need to  be strong in the face of adversity, the need to recognize and deal with your fears,  are common themes in life.

And I view Code Name Verity both the same and differently. Unlike the Hunger Games, Code Name Verity was written about a historical time that was truly horrible and life altering. Young women and men, to say nothing of children, adults and seniors, were tortured, beaten, experimented on – and all in the name of a truly evil man and his ideas of a perfect world. To be brave enough to enlist in the military, to serve your country when it was at war, to take on the role of a spy, or to work as part of the Resistance movement when you have barely reached maturity as an adult was a very real experience for many of that generation. More to the point for me, was the strength of the friendships formed in that time – when you never knew what the next day would bring – when you could not fathom how you were going to summon the courage to carry on, you did - and in the face of utter horror, complete despair and physical and emotional pain. Hope and optimism against evil drove many to be brave and courageous (even foolhardy?) when the odds appeared to be against them.

I re-read Code Name Verity before our book club meeting. I wanted to know if the impact that it had on me was a result of “glorifying”  the book in my head or was very real. What struck me again as I re-read it was the strength of the bond between two young women. I had forgotten that final scene and what happened on the bridge until I read it again. And the awfulness of that moment hit me again – and made me wonder what I would have done in that moment. Was the violence gratuitous? I don’t think so – it seemed to be a necessary part of the action. And from any non-fiction accounts of what I have read, this was a very real part of the Second World War and the fate of those captured by the Germans and thought to be spies.

Wein, in the afterword, states that there was no part of the book that was not based on a real event. And I think that is what sold me on the book and made me recommend it to my book club. At the same time, she also says that what she wanted to write was not a good history, but a good story. I think she did that in spades. Would I recommend it again? Yes, but perhaps I would position it differently (although I can’t remember how I positioned it, so maybe that was not the issue). Perhaps the issue is that we persist in thinking of the teen/YA years as an idyllic time and of teenagers as basically self-centered individuals struggling to become fully realized adults.  Instead, this book should reinforce that many teens were, and are, capable strong beings when called upon to do the impossible. And maybe there was some of the “I could never do that” in the narrative of my friends. Who knows?


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