Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Rise of the Geek: Outcasts in Young Adult Literature

The concept of the social outcast as hero in youth fiction goes back a long way. If we wanted to, we could start off with Hansel and Gretel- literally cast out into the woods by uncaring parents to make their own way. The concept of orphan as hero -or heroine- becomes a staple of Victorian literature that remains a hallmark to this day and really deserves its own entry.

Although there are a wealth of books available to us in that genre, we aren't going to be talking about them this time around. Despite these long-suffering characters and their enduring popularity with readers, American youth fiction in the early part of the past century was more often about golden lads and lasses who solved mysteries, were twins who traveled the world and basically popular, happy young people whose innate good natures, kindliness, helpful dogs and generally sterling qualities almost always insured them a well-deserved place at the top of the social heap.

Fast-forward to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In so many titles for young adults, it is the cheerleader, the quarterback, the heroes of yesterday's fiction who are now exposed as self-absorbed, vain and even cruel. More and more we find that the sympathetic character of the story is the underdog. And not just sympathetic - the underdog, the outsider, is the character we are rooting for all along. He or she is not there merely to provide a more lovely main character with a convenient person to stick up for against a bully or be adored by or give a helpful makeover to. Somehow this straggly haired person has been elevated to the main stage. How and why did this happen?

I was trying to remember the first book I read as a child set in more modern times that identified the main character as an outsider. The book that immediately came to mind was the Newberry Honor book 'My Side of the Mountain' by Jean Craighead George.

Most of you probably read this book in school, as I did. Sam Gribley decides to leave his overcrowded New York City apartment and runs away to the mountains to live inside a hollow tree. I remember being amazed by Sam's resilience ( acorn flour pancakes, anyone? a tame hawk?!) but also, I couldn't help but wonder what the heck he was DOING. Sam is an example of the outside by choice- he does not like his surroundings, so he changes them. There is little explanation in the book of what, specifically drives Sam to this, but it is in every way his choice.

Compared to some more recent 'self-exiled' heroes of fiction, Sam had it easy. He avoids people. His struggles are only for things like food and shelter- not social acceptance or even, just to be left alone. There will always be people who march to the beat of their own different drummer, but still have to try and get along with the rest of the band.

D.J. Schwenk, the heroine of 'Dairy Queen' by Catherine Gilbert Murdock knows all about how hard it is to be yourself when it means everyone else thinks you're crazy. Her Wisconsin family dairy farm is falling behind in everything, despite all the work she's done since her father got hurt. Her brothers are college football stars, but never visit home. All DJ wants is a shot to play football herself for the high school team. And possibly to get a really great hair cut. Dairy Queen was one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. Although DJ's goals are decidedly different from those of most teenage girls, she goes after them with determination and makes a laugh-out-loud funny story. She chooses her own path and learns to stand up for herself. Football lovers will definitely get a kick out of this one.

I just read 'Marcello In the Real World' by Francisco X. Stork about a teenage boy with a cognitive condition that causes him to hear music no one else can hear. Similar to someone with asperger's syndrome, Marcello refers to himself in the third person, doesn't use pronouns and has always gone to a special school where his studies are tailored to his interest in music and religion. He plans a summer job there, working with the ponies used for the students' therapy, but his father has another idea. He wants Marcello to experience more of the 'real world'. He believes that Marcello is capable of better interaction with society but has not been given the opportunity to do so. If Marcello comes to work in the mail room of his law firm for the summer, he can choose for himself whether to stay at his special school for his senior year or transfer to a public high school.

At first when reading this, I thought Marcello's father was being cruel and unrealistic. Marcello was obviously happy and secure where he was. In the 'real world' he would be opened up to teasing and torment simply for being the way he was. But as I read the book, I began to value Marcello's way of looking at things around him - and the way others reacted to him, both negatively and positively. This is a book which is beautifully written with lyrical prose which perfectly conveys the way that Marcello processes language and really gave me a brief look into how someone like him might interact with the world around them.

Author Frank Portman's first book 'King Dork' has been hailed as 'the MySpace generation's Catcher in the Rye' by Gawker.com.
I think they were being clever about that, since CITR is woven though the story when Tom 'King Dork, Chi-mo, Hender-fag Sheepie' Henderson finds his father's old copy of the book and tries to solve a personal family mystery that may or may not involve his high school principal, play in a punk/metal/guitar... ok, just to play in a band that doesn't completely suck, get to first base with a girl and maybe topple or at least make a dent in the social hierarchy of teenagers. Frank Portman is the frontman of the hysterically fabulous San Fransisco band The Mister T Experience and if you like his books, I strongly recommend you check out their music as well.

One of the best examples of the hero in a self-imposed exile has to be TJ Jones, of Chris Crutcher's 'Whale Talk'. This is one of my all-time favorite books for teen age boys and has a harshness and a beauty and a reality that few books come close to. TJ is one of those kids who could be anything - he's smart, not unpopular, a good athlete with a cool girlfriend. But when he stands up to a bunch of jocks tormenting a mentally handicapped boy for wearing his dead brother's letterman jacket TJ has to decide to walk the walk.

He does this by starting a school swim team of complete misfits (one of whom has only one leg) and vowing to go all the way to State. Meanwhile he deals with the racism of his small Washington state town, and tries hard to see the dignity in everyone. This is such a marvelous book because it tells us the truth of how we relate to each other in all of our good and terrible ways without being even a little bit preachy. TJ is honestly one of the most refreshing, decent and likable characters I've ever come across and his story is interwoven effortlessly with the people around him, until it ends in an unexpected and violent climax. TJ is a character with the kind of inner character we all hope to have.

Sometimes the heroes aren't really trying to make a stand about anything. They just are what they are and try to get along. Or they find themselves overwhelmed by personal situations and become outsiders in an attempt to cope.

Last year I read Barry Lyga's terrific 'The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and GothGirl', about a boy with no social standing at school other than being picked on, but a dream about drawing a comic book and meeting his hero, the comic illustrator Brian Bendis. The Fanboy teams up with an unlikely friend- a lying, secretive, but somehow forthright GothGirl who manages to insert herself into Fanboy's life even while holding him at a distance. Their friendship seems to be over at the end of the book, when a betrayal occurs and Gothgirl has to go away.

But Wait! I received an advance copy of 'GothGirl Rising' which will be published in October 2009 by Houghton Mifflin. This book explores the truth about Kyra the GothGirl- what her family is really like, why she had to go away and even reveals why she dresses the way she does.

I loved both of these books. In parts of 'GothGirl Rising' I didn't always like Kyra much. I was so frustrated with her- and yet, Lyga's teenagers are so realistic, so clumsy and unsure about some things and yet so dead-certain of what they know that you feel your heart break for them.They are both outcasts who misunderstand one another, even as they try to be true to each other and themselves. A lot of people might look at a schleppy Fanboy at a ComicCon in a hoodie and dismiss him. A lot of people might look at GothGirl and be horrified by her lip ring, her dyed hair, her black clothes. Sometimes it takes novels like these to remind us that we don't always know what appearances stand for.

'Fat Kid Rules the World' by KL Going is a book than manages to encompass both the negative outsider - a fat kid who sees that reality as his only identity at home and at school- and the self-chosen outsider -a punk rocker basically living on the streets, living a very unhealthy lifestyle, but hailed by his classmates as a celebrity while his life spirals downhill. This is a funny book and one of the best things about it is that it shows that there is no perfect fix- becoming popular doesn't fix your life, being fat isn't the end of the world, but there's something you can do about it. I particularly love the supporting characters, the Fat Kid's dad and brother. It would have been so easy to make them cookie-cutter 'token' characters: a hardcore military background dad with a fat son, and a perfect, athletic older brother who is a one-dimensional jerk. But Going takes all of her characters more seriously than that and forces us to do the same thing. This is another great book if you have an aspiring rocker in your house. The puke scene is unforgettable.

Some outcasts are created simply by association. In 'Hate List' by Jennifer Brown, to be published September, 2009 by Little, Brown , Valerie Leftman is as shocked as everyone else when her boyfriend Nick opens fire on their high school, killing several classmates and wounding Valerie before turning the gun on himself. But the worst part is the Hate List that they kept together- a list of people in the school who have wronged them, a list that Nick chose his targets from. Now Valerie has to convince her former friends, her teachers, and even her own family that the Hate List was never supposed to be something real. She has to convince herself that she can move beyond this.

When a girl from the Hate List stands up for her in public Valerie has to change her life as well and grieve for Nick along with all the other victims. This is an uncomfortable book to read at times. I felt almost like I learned more than I wanted to know about Valerie and her family. But her character is well drawn and complex and the unique way she and the other students choose to deal with the aftermath of the shooting made this book one that I read almost straight through.

Religious association is definitely something tat can create problems for teenagers. In 'Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature' by Robin Brande Mena Reece is kicked out of her family's fundamentalist Christian church and so when her former friends and churchmates decide to take on the local science teacher, Mena knows what's coming. But Ms. Shepard is a brilliant scientist, who remains calm and unruffled and Mena's lab partner and his family introduce Mena to a new way of looking at things. This book shows the small, even petty everyday struggles we all have with our own beliefs. This was YA chick-lit with an added twist- a perfect summer read.

A terrific import from Australia, 'Ten Things I Hate About Me' by Randa Abdel-Fattah shows a girl who is Jamie at school, just another Aussie girl with dyed blond hair and Jamiah at home, with her loving Lebanese Muslim father and siblings. Seeing how other Muslim kids at her school get hassled, Jamilah keeps her heritage and religion a secret. But she loves playing traditional music and her friends and culture, and an Internet friendship that turns serious makes it hard to keep the two separate forever. This is another good summer book- light in tone, but dealing with real issues. Distinctive supporting characters, including a feminist sister who embroiders slogans on her hijab and gets put in jail after a protest march put this book outside of the norm of Chick lit as well. Also check out 'Does My Head Look Big In This?' by the same author, about a girl who decides to start wearing the hijab in public.

Two more books about outcasts that I've read recently come to mind.

The first is 'Looks' by Madeleine George. Meghan Ball feels invisible at school, despite her massive size. The only time she feels solidified is when a group of boys single her out to pick on. The rest of the time, its like she doesn't exist. When Aimee Zorn shows up at school, she is mysterious and tiny, full of rituals about her food - the antithesis of Meghan. But Meghan realizes that they are kindred spirits and that she has a warning for Aimee, if she can just get up the nerve to convey it. This is a short book, with arresting prose and elegant description. It deals not just with eating disorders, but with our feelings of hurt and how hard it is to expose ourselves to the world around us.

The last book I'm going to write about here is Laurie Halse Anderson's 'Speak'. This book is widely hailed as one of the most important books for young adults published in the last decade, and with good reason. It is the story of the outcast that something has been done to. Someone who has become outcast after being acted upon by others- in this case, Melinda is raped at a party and withdraws so far into herself that she loses the power of speech. Her parents, teachers, and friends are wrapped up in their own concerns and fail to see the signs of Melinda's gradual absence from her own life. With very little graphic violence, this book manages to convey the horror, fear and terrible aloneness of the aftermath of an attack. When this book came out ten years ago, it was considered very controversial. I am glad that it is being taught in schools today, helping us all remember to pay attention to each other, because people can go missing so easily, even in - or especially in- a crowded school.

So these are just a very few of the books that I could have chosen to write about where the outcast is the character we want to succeed. I would LOVE to hear your opinions if you've read any of these books or others. Do you recommend anything in this genre? Why do you think this trend is so popular now? What have you been reading lately?

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite books that fits into this theme: Island of the Blue Dolpins! LOVED that book. Also, I do think that Harriet the Spy could fit, since she only had Ole Golly the nanny, and Ole Golly takes off to marry that dude. Loner fiction should have it's own genre. :)