Not long ago Andrew Smith wrote this awesome Tumblr piece about the problematic ways that adults insist on categorizing, or “boxing” young adult literature. Andrew Smith (in case you just landed here from Mars) is a highly acclaimed YA author whose new book, Grasshopper Jungle, just came out. The Tumblr piece is here, and I would make it required reading for the entire internet if I had such power.
I can’t stop thinking about this piece.
That’s mostly because I AGREE WITH EVERY ONE OF ANDREW SMITH’S SENTIMENTS. I feel like I have to mention that up front, because I’m about to say some things that might, at times, make it seem like I do not agree with Smith. But this is one of those unfortunate moments in life when things are simply not that black and white and this is not a case of he’s-right-I’m-wrong. Rather, this is a case of HE IS DEFINITELY RIGHT AND I AM TRYING TO RECONCILE SOME OF THE WORLDLY PROBLEMS ATTACHED TO THE FACT THAT HE IS RIGHT.
In other words, this post isn’t going to fit nicely into a box.
This post is also, apparently, going to be filled with capital letters, as I seem to be in that mood right now. (I’m in that mood a lot. Let’s just be honest.)
So. Andrew Smith wrote this amazing Tumblr piece about how society likes to put literature, particularly YA literature, into boxes. It’s a great read. Especially this quote:
“In the past ten years or so of my writing career, I have been frustrated by all the boxes people hold up to categorize the canon of Young Adult literature. Here are the worst ones, the boxes I’d like to set fire to:
· Boy books/ Girl books
· Age level (This book is for grades 10 and up! Squee!)
· Male author/ Female author
· LGBTQ books/ Straight (“normal” kid) books”
I read this and immediately thought THAT’S EXACTLY RIGHT. Then I started making a mental list of the many ways my first book, Here’s to You, Zeb Pike has been “boxed” since it came out. I mean, there’s the fact that about 90% of the blogs that have reviewed it exclusively review books with LGBTQ characters. Or the fact that the only Goodreads group that seems to have noticed it exists is a YA LGBTQ group. Or the fact that whenever people ask me what the book is about, they won’t stop looking at me until I put the poor thing into as many boxes as possible. If, for instance, I say, “it’s a contemporary story,” they keep their eyes locked on mine until I add things like “aboutaboy” or “aboutaboystrugglingwithhissexuality” or “aboutaboywho’sneglectedbyhisparents” or “aboutaboywho’safreshmaninhighschool.”
I think the reason I reacted with such YES THAT’S EXACTLY RIGHT when I read this post is that I have been incredibly frustrated by the sheer amount of boxing that has happened with Zeb, especially around the main character’s sexuality. This book is, for me, about so much more than just a character who’s gay, or has neglectful parents, or is in high school. It’s about everything from self-confidence to the importance of family to how much the weather in Vermont sucks in October.
I haven’t liked the fact that the only thing some people see when they look at this books is “GAY TEEN.”
So there I was, reading Andrew Smith’s piece, and reflecting on the fact that I don’t really like how boxed this book has been, and how glad I am that someone much more clever than myself put this into words far better than I’ve been able to…and this line of thinking, of course, led me to imagine a world where books were never boxed or categorized
Which, of course, is where things get complicated.
One potential problem in this world: ensuring kids have access to diverse literature. I’m a middle school curriculum director. Last year, I compiled a book list for a 6th grade curriculum with some utterly brilliant teachers. And it was a killer list of books. Until some very awesome person went, “um, are you going to teach any books with lead female characters?”
I’m glad someone took a moment to put our list of books into a few boxes and notice such a huge diversity gap in that list. I want to make sure my students are constantly being introduced to a wide variety of human perspectives on life, and that may not happen if I don’t take a minute to consider which perspectives they have and haven’t seen.
Another potential problem: sometimes we have to acknowledge the boxes books have already been put in if we want to get those books out of their boxes.
This one’s a little harder to explain, but I’ll try. (C’mon, brain.) I write a lot about the importance of getting LGBTQ books into schools and school libraries. This is definitely boxing on my part, but it’s very intentional. There are so many schools that, either purposely or subconsciously, keep books off of shelves and out of curriculum because they've placed these books in “the LGBTQ box.” If we don’t acknowledge that those boxes exist and that this censorship exists, it stands to reason that this “quiet boxing” will continue and these books will remain out of classrooms and school libraries…despite the fact that a) this is doing a horrible disservice to children and b) all of these censored books are about much more than just an LGBTQ character.
And it’s not just schools that are boxing books—it’s the publishing industry as well. Here’s to You, Zeb Pike is published by Harmony Ink Press, which deals exclusively with LGBTQ YA literature. HIP was founded in response to the low number of books with LGBTQ characters that are currently succeeding in the publishing marketplace. Do I think it’s ideal that a company like Harmony has to exist? No offense to my awesome publisher, but no. In an ideal world, perspectives from all types of people would be evenly spread in bookstores. Am I incredibly grateful that Harmony exists? Yes. (And not just because they put up with my email tardiness.) I’m grateful that they exist to fill a void in a marketplace that has boxed a bunch of books and put them in a proverbial garage.
At the end of the day, though, Andrew Smith is absolutely right: by constantly putting books in boxes, we are sending the message that to kids that people belong in boxes. I’ve definitely been heard uttering things to my students like, “I think the guys in this class will like this book a lot.” I was once in a classroom where the books were shelved with such labels as “Books for Athletes.” This doesn’t make me or my colleague bad teachers. We were just doing our best to get kids interested in putting away their PSPs for a few minutes. But it does make us guilty of sending the wrong subliminal messages to some pretty impressionable minds. And as Smith reminds us, once you put something in a box, “the box can’t be destroyed.”
We obviously need to stop sending the message to kids that books, and therefore people, need to go in a box and never come out and once you are there this is the only box you can ever be in. Which means we all need to be much more aware of how we over-box books, or box them unnecessarily, or make a book out to be nothing more than a box it’s in. And if we MUST put a book in a box, we need to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons.
Hopefully we will someday become a society where the only boxes young adults ever put a book in is the “I LOVED IT” box. I think I’ll like that world a lot.
And in the meantime, you should go read Grasshopper Jungle, so I have people to discuss it with when I finish.
Warning: I’m still crying, so this will likely be one of the more disjointed pieces of writing I ever produce, and I might even decide not to edit it, because the whole reason I am crying a in a hotel room has a lot to do with the fact that life is ultimately unedited, no matter how hard to try to take your red pen to it.
It all started…well, with me NOT in tears. I was sitting in this hotel room, which isn’t so bad, despite some really questionable décor choices involving pineapples. I’m here in Albany for a Conference to Make Me Better at Helping Kids Read Good, and overall it’s been a decent few days. Hundreds of teachers and school administrators together in a room are actually kind of a hoot. That’s what happens when you let us all sleep in longer than 5 a.m. AND we get to eat while sitting down for two days in a row.
But tonight has been surprisingly rough. My colleague who flew in with me already left, so I decided to lock myself in my room with overpriced room service, about twelve hours of unit plan reviewing and assessment writing, and a determination TO FIGURE OUT THE ENDING OF THIS BOOK THAT JUST KEEPS ENDING DIFFERENTLY AND MY POOR EDITOR.
And I just started to feel all very WHAT ON EARTH IS THE POINT. Because I’ve just spent two days in a room with educators who are amazing and awesome and who I know on MANY levels are doing this whole Teaching Kids to Read Good thing better than I am, and I often tend to wonder how I am perceived by these other Educators of Amazingness. Also because I am basically paralyzed by finalizing the ending of my newest book and I’m not sure why. I have seriously re-written it so many times, and my editor right now likes it, but I just cannot call it finished—and today I realized I am probably paralyzed because a few reviews of my first book that were unfavorable towards the ending.
Anyhoo, it was about then when I realized I AM THINKING A LOT LATELY ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE THINK OF ME AND HOW I COMPARE MYSELF TO OTHERS. This was disappointing for two reason: one, I read a book this summer that told me to stop doing that and I was trying really really hard. And two, I hate when I do that.
Anyhoo again, then I did what any sane person in this situation might do: I started watching John and Hank Green videos ad nauseum (spell check says I have that wrong, but it’s got no better suggestions). This was helpful at first, because John and Hank Green videos, I only recently discovered (yes, yes, multiple years behind here…I’m also still trying to learn how to squeeze all my thoughts into 140 characters), have this weird way of saying exactly what I need to hear. So when John (following his own Twitter rule, I am allowed to call him by his first name) almost immediately dropped this quote from Franny and Zooey about how “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody” I knew I had picked the right activity for the evening.
Until THIS video happened.
I just put it on again and teared right back up. Watch that video. Right now.
I was watching, and listening, and I got to the part about Lord of the Flies. Right about then I also got an email message that my book has a new review. So I started reading the review while watching the video, because all those studies claiming multitasking isn’t really good for us can’t POSSIBLY be right.
Here’s what I then heard John Green say:
“There are always nerdfighters…who will listen to you if you will also listen back.” (If you don’t get the nerdfighters reference, a few John and Hank Green videos will cure you of that right quick. And you want to be cured.)
At the same time, I read this review. Bear in mind that my first book has not sold well. And because I’m published through what is kindly referred to as a “boutique” publisher, not many people know about it. So I’m always a little surprised when, well, anyone at all has read it.
The review said:
“When I finished this book, I was in tears. If I could meet the author, I would wanna hug her and thank her for writing this book. The more I’d read the more I wanted to read. And in the end, I found it to be a literary masterpiece.”
I realize and recognize that not everyone in the world will have that reaction to my book. In fact, just last month someone basically said they regretted the moment they ever laid eyes on it. But the fact that even one person ever in the world thinks that....
Well, I’ll come back to that in a second, but first you have to know what I then heard come out of John Green’s mouth:
“I call up the great Robert Frost quote: the only way out is through. You will get through. I will get through.”
And then I was REALLY, REALLY crying. Surrounded by strange pineapples in a city about 2,000 miles away from my home. And when I really wasn’t quite sure why, I decided if I started writing that eventually I might figure it out.
Here is what I think I know: it is a ridiculous exercise to base all your self-worth on what others say and think of you, obviously. And Salinger, as he so often did, captured perfectly that the human fear of invalidation or lack of validation is at best bizarre and at worst paralyzing. And Twitter proves that this really is a human condition.
So all we can do, I think, is what John Green pushes us to think about in this video: find the people who appreciate us for whatever it is that we are and want to be, so that we can validate each other in a space where that validation is real, and healthy, and worthwhile. I will never be sorry that the validation of that review makes me cry. That kind of validation is why I wrote it in the first place—because the truths in that book are truths for me, and I wanted to share them with people who have similar truths. But obsessing over whether or not an entire populace of people will like the ending of my next book? That’s when the human need for validation becomes so dangerous.
As Cyril Connelly put it, “Better to write for yourself and have no audience than to write for your audience and have no self.”
And I didn't get into education to be the best at it. Meeting other awesome teachers is amazing because they make me more awesome. The comparisons only drive the community apart rather than bring us together. It’s a sucky thing that in this day and age of teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance that so often the first thought on a teacher’s mind IS whether or not they are better than their peers. This is a collaborative practice, and it needs to stay a collaborative practice against all odds. And my inner human desires to be competitive and WIN AT EVERYTHING (especially Scrabble) that I thought I had squelched years ago must go back to being squelched because I clearly am not squelching them well.
John Green created that video for a teenage audience. I jokingly made the title of my author-world website “writing books for the young adult in all of us” because I, like so many YA authors, know that that gap from young adult to adult is a pretty short one, and we’re all crossing back and forth all the time.
The same twelve-year-old me who used to sit in class and wonder if what she just said sounded stupid to everyone else was at that conference today. And that same thirteen-year-old me who just had to win the spelling competition because I wasn’t good at basketball comes back every time I see my book’s sales rank on Amazon. And that fourteen-year-old me who swooned in happiness when my teacher said I was a good writer was reading that review today.
John Green’s right, and so was Frost: “The only way out is through.” I think you have to find your way out of a place where you simply let many others determine your happiness so that you can get to the place where you let THE RIGHT people determine your happiness. At that point, I think you’re actually determining your own happiness. And if you forget to do that for a while, it’s okay—apparently someone will eventually get on YouTube or a book blogging site and remind you.
Or something like that. I’m still crying at little, and I can’t find my red pen. But I think that’s close.
If you follow me on Twitter at all, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m a football fan.
Yes, yes, it seems unlikely. After all, I’m five-two and have limited athletic ability. I also grew up in a household that is fairly disdainful of most sports, and my parents cringe a little when I try to talk to them about passing stats.
So when people ask me how I became a football fan, I find it a little hard to explain what really happened. The truth? I fell into the football world for two reasons: the competition and the camaraderie.
When I first fell in love with my husband, I did it in spite of the fact that he likes football. I spent the first year of our lives together avoiding him on Sundays and changing the channel at every commercial on Monday nights. (Drove him nuts.) Then he and his friends started a fantasy football league, and even though I didn’t have a clue what a wide receiver was (they receive…packages?), I figured, why not? They needed an extra person, and I like games. What could be the harm?
Famous last words.
Next thing I knew I was spending every Wednesday hunched over the computer peering over waiver lists and every Sunday morning screaming at the TV as though my life depended on it. I almost broke a window during our league’s second year when my team lost in the playoffs and I chucked a book across the room.
Whoops. So clearly, I’m competitive, and football (particularly fantasy football) gave me an outlet for that.
But here’s the other part of football that made me a likely lifelong fan: the camaraderie.
No one ever told me that becoming is football fan is sort of like joining a club. It’s not a secret club or anything, sure, but it is certainly a club. My students taught me this during my first year as an Official Football Fan.
See, I teach middle school. And every middle school teacher on the planet will tell you that finding a way to reach and connect with every one of your students in nearly impossible. But you do what you can. And it turns out joining Football Fan Club is just one of many things you can do.
So there I was, teaching a grammar lesson, and because I’d been very bored the week before, I’d snuck some pretty not-so-subtle fantasy football references into the day’s exercises. Steve Smith will earn a hundred yards in the game this week and make your teacher very happy I think so don’t you. You know, fix the run-on. Or something like that. I have no memory of what the exact sentence or assignment was, but I’m sure you get the idea.
And one of my kiddos, who I had remained woefully disconnected from all year, who wanted nothing to do with me and who, while not a troublemaker, certainly wasn’t living up to his full potential in my classroom, jerked his head up. “You drafted Steve Smith? What were you thinking?”
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. And the kid passed my class.
Being mildly socially inept, I have used my membership in Football Fan Club as a way to start conversations at awkward social gatherings, bond with co-workers, and convince a whole army of middle school kids that I’m not quite as uncool as I look at first glance. Because this is a sport that breeds serious camaraderie. Members of Football Fan Club, even when they root for different teams, are often so passionate about this sport that they will instantly form some kind of bond with anyone else who wants to discuss the pass interference rules with them. As someone who hated sports for much of my life, I’ve found this instant connection to be both strange and amazing at time—but the more years I live as a football fan, the more I appreciate it.
And that’s just the level of camaraderie that builds between fans of the sport. Now let’s talk about the camaraderie that builds between fans of the same team.
I have a lot of non-football friends (I keep ‘em around anyway) who are consistently appalled by what I’ve heard referred to as the level of “fanaticism” over football teams. Yeah, that’s fair. It’s definite fanaticism. What else can you call it when 90,000 people dress in the same color and all go hang out in the same area of a city to yell and scream with one another?
But I would argue that this sort of fanaticism is, in some ways, one of the best things that can happen to a place. Let me tell you why.
I started out my football career as a Giants fan, having been a recent transplant to Colorado from the east coast. Because if you’re going to watch the hours of football I instantly started watching when I joined that fantasy league, you’ve gotta have a team. (Plus, Eli Manning is cute; I don’t care what the polls say.) I remain an avid Giants fan who has cried her way through two Superbowl wins and hates the Patriots with an appropriate level of passion. But I’ve lived in Colorado a lot of years, and because Colorado only has one football team, it’s hard not to get sucked into the fanaticism that surround the Broncos in this state. I’ve been a Broncos fan since the first time I went to a game and got to dress just like 90,000 other people and yell with them. And in years like this, when they’re WINNING, and they are about to go to the Superbowl, I think it would be impossible to live in Colorado and not get sucked into the fanaticism currently surrounding Orange and Blue.
Here’s why that fanaticism is not just a good thing—it’s an amazing thing.
We’re a pretty divided state, Colorado, in a lot of ways. In Denver the signs change from Spanish to English rapidly, depending on what part of town you’re in. Red and blue cities vie for who has more political power in state-wide elections. Socioeconomics are so variant here that school choice is everyone’s rallying cry for education reform, because the same city can have the best and worst schools in the state within mere miles of each other.
But every Sunday this year, when I’ve gone grocery shopping before football starts, I’m surrounded by people wearing orange and blue shirts with me, and talking about Manning (Peyton this time; at least I keep allegiance in families) and whether or not he’ll come back next season, and what the playoffs picture looks like. Every Friday at school you can hear students and teachers murmuring to each other about what the upcoming game is.
And now? On the cusp of Denver’s first Superbowl appearance since the days of John Elway? Well, you literally cannot avoid how united in our fanaticism we all are.
Schools on Friday showed staffs and classes decked out in nothing but orange and blue. Every electronic billboard in this state is flashing congratulations and luck towards the Denver Broncos. When hubs and I went out to get food last night, I literally stopped counting how many people were wearing jerseys. Even the buildings have gotten in on the act.
People are talking about this team in Spanish AND English, and it doesn’t matter what language you’re cheering for the Broncos in. Red and blue cities have the same billboards flashing. Teachers in every school, regardless of how many computers the students there have, wore their jerseys on Friday afternoon.
This state is, truly, United in Orange. And yes, you could also say we are united by our fanaticism. But it’s a fanaticism that’s bringing us together, rather than driving us apart—and those types of fanaticisms seems harder and harder to come by these days.
I’m hardly saying football is perfect sport. It is sexist in its mere existence, homophobic in its silence on issues affecting gay people, and racist in its undertones. It comes with its own inner fanaticisms that are extremely dividing.
But I’m still a proud football fan and a proud Broncos fan, because I’m proud to be part of a state that’s united around something which is bringing us together. Hopefully it is in this space, where we all agree on one thing, that we can begin to talk to about the things we don’t always agree on—and that we will all become better people for it.