Monday, November 5, 2012

Big questions for young people (and the rest of us)

Several years ago, a librarian friend who repeatedly schooled me at scrabble mentioned that she preferred young adult fiction to serious, proper fiction. After reading these powerful but accessible books, I see her point. Sometimes the nuance of adult fiction get in the way of asking bigger questions, even if those questions still deserve nuanced answers.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, tackles poverty, death, and the challenges of growing up with humor and grace (and even illustrations). A friend gave me a copy while I was traveling and I finished it within a few days, but was sad to reach the end. The chapters are small vignettes that could almost stand alone, suggesting the “diary" aspect of the book. The narrator is a cartoonist and every illustration adds depth to the narrative by distilling his ideas about the people around him and situations in which he finds himself into cartoons. This book makes me want to read more about challenges for Native Americans  and life on reservations in the United States, but I doubt that anything I read next will be as charming.

I know I’m several years late to this party, but I finally read the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. My initial reaction was that the premise was identical to Battle Royale and therefore thoroughly unoriginal. But, I kept hearing good things about the writing and am interested in food politics, so I bought the first book. I was drawn in by Collins’ ability to weave a fascinating dystopian world, stayed for the action adventure, and ultimately appreciated the self-doubt. The books are page-turners, manipulating and motivating readers as we expect, but they also indict the ideas and modern realities of valuing rich lives over poor ones and the media-driven worlds of politics and entertainment. Poverty and the politics of food are important throughout the trilogy and the characters are affected by the violence that surrounds them and in which they take part. Although the series is over-the-top dramatic and extremely violent, it contains satisfying ambiguity within the main characters themselves and the sides in the battle that envelops them.

I also finally read Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, both by Orson Scott Card. The fundamental good and evil struggle--to save humanity from destruction by hive-minded “buggers”--in these books is lightly, if ever, challenged. However, the drama within a child’s head in Ender’s Game and the descriptions of the battles between students at the school are fascinating. We see the school and experiences of the boys through their thoughts and learn about the surrounding circumstances in selections of conversations between the teachers and administrators in both books. Ender’s Shadow is not a book about a boy like Ender’s Game, since the main character thinks like an adult from age four when we meet him; it adds another dimension to the first story. Despite the fact that you know the outcome of Ender and Bean's games and battles, Card creates tension and develops the parallel story well. I like that I was wondering how much I bought into the Ender’s Game telling of events while I was reading Ender’s Shadow.

Perhaps I’ve been more willing to embrace the good and evil narratives because of the major and rather terrifying election that is looming. Enjoy a brief escape with any of these books; it might just be better than reading a newspaper or turning on the television for the next several days, at least for those of you who are also in the US. 

1 comment:

  1. If you liked the Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, you should also read the rest of both series. Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind follow Ender and explore the philosophical implications of living with other sentient beings. Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant follow Bean and focus more on political life back on Earth. But I must confess, the original is still my favorite.