In this blog entry, Beth Kephart, author of Flow and the forthcoming Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, provides the keynote address she gave at the Publishing Perspectives Conference, “YA: What’s Next” held recently at the Scholastic auditorium in New York City.
Illustrations by William R. Sulit
In the days following the colossal storm called Sandy, stories held us captive, terrifying aerial views, the news that began to leak in from friends. Trash bags strapped on like shiny boots, brand-new adults walked through rising fumes and fresh flotsam, looking for signs of ordinary life. Heartbroken by saturated eggplants and devastated garden fruits, they crouched to gather seeds.
Asking What can we do?, they collected blankets, baked tins of lasagna, emptied their personal libraries of books and took their spontaneous gifts into darkened neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Rutgers student who lost both her parents to a capsized tree and will now raise three younger siblings on her own, was reaching into some impossible well of suddenly-now-adultness to help others suffering the ravages of weather.
We live in a new world, a Sandy-Irene-Katrina world. A world of fiscal cliffs and residual recessions. A world in which the College Board advocates for a Common Core curriculum that asks that 70% of the 12th grade reading list feature nonfiction titles. A world in which the kids who were raised to win are now making their way among winnowing resources, and singing, top of their lungs, We’re gonna die young.
What happened to the promises we made, and to the promises we ourselves believed? What happened to the perceived value of stories? What can we still give to those whose lives haven’t fully begun?
I don’t mean to politicize stories, but I am going to argue for their radical significance in this fragile stretch of time. I’m going to argue, specifically, on behalf of stories written for young adults and Generation Y. What is the future of Young Adult literature? That is the question. We can adopt the pose of forecasters here—pick and choose among genres, speculate, place bets—or we can build the scaffolding for the kind of stories good sense demands we leave behind.
I am biased and fervent. I have opinions and needs. There are kids I happen to love. Kids who follow my blog and profess their dreams with enviable certitude. Kids who crowd into my too-small memoir classroom at the University of Pennsylvania to learn the power of telling, and reading, the truth. Kids who travel far and inconveniently to meet other kids just like themselves — reader/writer kids taking rare advantage of a hodgepodge workshop.
I feel a personal responsibility to these kids when I write my own YA novels—to make room for them inside my landscapes, to instill in them compassion and empathy, to entertain them not just with plot but with ideas, to teach them something of the past, to suggest wisdom and value difference, to introduce places they’ve not yet seen, to invite them to declare themselves. Nothing is altogether black and little is crystalline.
The stories we write for young adults must, I think, be enlivened and also tested by all that percolates and yearns in between. They must come from a moral place, from writers who seek to do more than self-indulgently dazzle their Crayola-hued imaginations on a wavering literary line. They must, ultimately, be perceived as powerfully relevant and life-shaping as anything we might call fact.
We are a globe on the verge, I’m saying, and because we are, mere entertainment for mere entertainment’s sake — for mere (forgive me) profit — strikes me as an increasingly unviable platform. Literature as easy distraction, literature as untempered horror, literature as gossip, literature as desolation, literature as isolation, literature as sensationalism, literature that leaves us stooped, numb, incinerated, angry, distracted, glassy-eyed, New Jersey Shored (and I am referring the show), and emotionally paralyzed: Do we honestly have time for this now? The future of Young Adult literature, I believe, is directly and profoundly tied to the future of young adults. It is bound, to borrow from Jay Asher and Carolyn Macker, to the future of us.
There’s a reason why Patricia McCormick, with her riveting, poetic novels Cut, Sold, Purple Heart, and Never Fall Down, is not just an award-winner but an iconic force in YA today. It’s not because her books are well-meaning. It’s because they have actual meaning. It’s not because they didactically teach — about self-abuse, about child sex slavery, about Cambodian genocide, say — it’s that they engage, they make us care, they make us want to step up or step in.
There’s a reason, likewise, that John Corey Whaley’s debut novel, Where Things Come Back, won so many awards and turned its young author into an insta-star. Because it’s brilliantly odd. Because it’s fantastically germane. Because it is about a search to know and overcome in a woodpeckers-are-going-extinct-and-parents-are-losing-their-way world.
Eliot Schrefer is winning accolades with his new novel Endangered because it is a novel elevated — concerned with a ravaged Congo and the helpless beasts caught in the war, brave enough to depict a young girl who learns what happens when she chooses to save something bigger than herself, when she understands herself to be larger and more capable than she might have thought. Eliot’s Sophie is navigating the world we’ve made, the world we wish we weren’t leaving behind. She has the opportunity to turn the tides with a singular act of courage. And so Endangered both alerts and moves us.
Ruta Sepetys’ new book, Out of the Easy (due out in February) is destined to soar because it takes us on a journey with a prostitute’s daughter in 1950s New Orleans who sure as hell wants a better life for herself, a girl who knows that better means books and education and learning tapped out of unexpected places.
A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers is getting named to this year’s best of lists because it asks readers to forswear boxes and labels and to see what happens when you catapult love into the world. Elizabeth Wein with her plucky, smart, history-saturated, we-will-defy-the-odds-or-at-least-go-down-vividly-trying Code Name Verity is a celebration of truth in friendship. It’s a World War II story that feels entirely right now. It gives its heroines opportunities to decide who they will be at the very worst of times.
And why is Lois Lowry still as relevant today as she was when she first created a type of story that has now been branded dystopian? Because Lowry’s dystopian landscapes teach us about the world in which we live. They teach us about the responsibility of knowing and the salve of empathy, something she calls veering. They suggest that teens abandon familiar places and established rules in search not only of what could be better, but of what could be made better. Lowry’s teens don’t simply harness power. They find it within themselves.
William Alexander’s Goblin Secrets — not, strictly speaking, a YA book but the winner of this year’s National Book Awards prize for young people’s literature — may be viewed as a particularly prescient precursor of the future as well — a magical, fantastical, steampunk story that, for all its revving inventions, for all its brilliant hues, is a story about a civilization working to stem off both evil and the obliterating force of floods. It’s about Staten Island, Long Beach Island, Queens, if we think about it. Desolation is on its way. What can, and will, young Rownie do?
Finally, let’s face the facts about Mr. John Green and Mr. David Levithan, as close to a YA Lit Rock Stars as they come. We don’t have to wonder why they’re loved; we know. John Green and David Levithan are loved because they are writing about love, and because they show their couple zillion vocal fans that love is the smartest version of cool.
These books—and of course there are others, for we are talent blessed in our lit world—are the books of right now, but they are also, I believe, the books of our future. They’re the books that transcend genres, age groups, and socio-economic lines, the books that have not been label-reduced or ghetto-ized, the books whose people and landscapes—real or imagined, historical or fantastical — have been rendered alive, authentic, urgent. They’re the books that, ten or twenty years from now, will take their place alongside The Book Thief, The Giver, The House on Mango Street, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Call of the Wild, The Outsiders — on a bookshelf, in a Kindle, on a smartphone — as classics. They’re the books that have something to say, in other words, and not simply a story to tell.
The YA books of the future will — if we’re smart, if we harness our resources, if fiction still has a central place in public school curricula, if we are still free to want and free to read—be like the best of what is being written and published today. Which is to say intelligent and searching. Original and impassioned. Lit from within and motivated by a desire to start a conversation about what it means to be alive, what it means to choose, what it means to controvert the status quo, what it means to lead, what it means to yearn, what it means to be different, what it means to get along, what it means to take a stand, what it means to hope.
The YA books of the future will give rise and shape to the generation whose job it has become to fix the mess we’re in.
Call me naïve. Call me idealistic. Call me helplessly immune to the ways of commerce, to the power of trends, to the rules and regulations of the 140-character Tweet. You will not, I promise, be the first to accuse.
But I’m looking out my window these days, and I’m thinking about my kids. I’m thinking about dying woodpeckers, sick-making wars, wrung-out-eco-systems, the ceaseless battles of self-interested legislators, the jobs that aren’t, the families that are suffering. I’m thinking about a 19-year-old Rutgers student who is suddenly mom, dad, provider.
I’m thinking that politics aren’t working so well, and that our planet and our children need us, and that our stories, meticulously made, can still be the cure.
Beth Kephart’s fourteenth novel, Small Damages (Philomel), takes place in southern Spain and received starred rePreviewviews. She blogs daily at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com and is at work on a novel set in Florence.
Last week, Larry Magid, author of My Soul’s Been Psychedelicized spoke to a capacity crowd at Temple University’s Paley Library. WRTI’s Jim Cotter interviewed Magid about his career, which spans five decades and thousands of concerts. Temple University staff photographer Joe Labilito captured the event in these photos.
Last weekend, Temple University Press partcipated in the Chestnut Hill Book Festival on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia.
Authors attending the festival included:
Julia Foulkes, author of To The City, answers the question: Why do people move to the city?
It’s no surprise that 9/11 caused me to wonder why I live in New York City. I don’t have a job that is easily movable, but still: why stay in a place where your chance of being caught in a terrorist attack are exponentially greater than in Bowling Green, Ohio, or Eugene, Oregon? While the attacks caused personal consternation, they also prompted intellectual ones: why do people move to the city?
As a cultural historian, I’m more interested in the ineffable qualities of life in the past rather than statistics and demographics. I knew that the 1920 census showed that more people lived in cities than a rural environment for the first time in the nation’s history. I also knew that it was a short-lived prominence: the sway to the suburbs was significant by the 1950 census. But the numbers couldn’t convey what I believed to be the aspirational pull of cities and urban life – not just the possibility of a job but the hope for a different kind of life. The pull that kept me and many others in New York City and Washington, DC, after 9/11.
I found those ineffable qualities in an unexpected source. One of the best-known efforts of the Works Progress Administration was the photographic project of the Farm Settlement Administration, more commonly known as the FSA/OWI collection (OWI was the acronym for the Office of War Information, which took over the photographic project in 1942). This collection boasts such famous photos as Arthur Rothstein’s capture of an Oklahoma dust storm and Dorothea Lange’s portrayal of despondency in “Migrant Mother,” each icons of the Great Depression. The project’s formation began as a way to document rural America in the face of massive migration and hardship in the farms and rural lands of the country. But alongside the photographs of that desperation are the places to which farmers and migrants were moving: cities. In spite of an avowed concern with rural life, photographers of the FSA/OWI also documented the pull of the city and the intrusion of urban life into country ways.
The photographs in To the City focus on new aspects of urban life such as the mechanized level of traffic that cars brought about; the cultural attractions from “high” to “low”; and the renewed possibilities of citizenship, particularly in the war years. One of my favorites is a photograph by John Vachon that he titled “Window Shopping,” which displays a sole shopper gazing at suits in a large empty lobby of a clothes store (p. 67). The photo captures not only the shopper’s determined intent but his reflection in the window creates a new vision, as his mirrored head sits atop a mannequin displaying a dapper new suit. In the midst of the Great Depression, the anonymity, commerce, and diversity of the city offered more dreams, more chances to see another vision of the world in which one was composed, attractive, and sure of where one was going.
If the role of cities in world affairs has come to be a tenser one since the 1930s and ‘40s, through the crisis of the 1960s and ‘70s to today’s terrorists’ schemes, it is useful to remember when and how cities have also been the focus of opportunity and aspiration. To the City gives grain, tone, and detail to the larger societal swing toward life in the metropolis, whether in residence or in the imagination.
In this blog entry, Deb Willis, editor of Black Venus 2010 discusses Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” and the inspiration for her new collection of essays, poems, photographs and artwork.
Black Venus 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot,” focuses on critical works on the subject of Sarah, or Saartjie, Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus.” The book includes scholarly, lyrical, historical and artistic works, capturing the spirit of a new body of work about Baartman.
Nearly two hundred years after her death and five years after her “homegoing” burial in South Africa, Sarah Baartman’s short life has been examined, critiqued, distorted and mythologized. Born in South Africa in 1789, Baartman was brought to England and placed on exhibit in 1810. She was exhibited on stage and in a cage in London and Paris and performed at private parties for a little more than five years. The so-called “Hottentot Venus” was “admired” by her protagonists, who depicted her as animal-like, exotic, different, and deviant.
The book is divided in four parts– “Sarah Baartman in Context,” ”Sarah Baartman’s Legacy in Art and Art History,” “The ‘Hottentot Venus’ in Art and Film,” and “Iconic Women in the Twentieth Century,” with contributors from various disciplines. The sections explore the physiological and psychological threshold of the space in which Baartman performed, the multiple possibilities in recuperating Baartman’s story as they traverse the crossroads of sexuality and specularity, past and present, production and reception of visual representations. The book concentrates on the art historical aspect of Baartman’s legacy.
Readers may ask one of the most obvious questions surrounding the interest in Baartman —why her? She was neither the first nor the only African woman on display in Europe. Some of the writers in this volume noted that at least one other African woman was exhibited as a “Hottentot Venus” after Baartman’s death. We have only to look at contemporary culture to see the way in which Sarah Baartman’s image continues to be recycled as fashion in the works of some contemporary photographers. The anthology also examines the lives of women who were and still are iconic figures in the twentieth century, such as Josephine Baker.
Contributors include an architect, a ceramicist, poets, writers, historians, photographers, installation artists, and writers, including: Holly Bass, Lisa Gail Collins, Renee Cox, J. Yolande Daniels, Carole Boyce Davies, Diana Ferrus, Cheryl Finley, Nikkey Finney, Kianga Ford, Terri Francis, Renee Green, Lyle Ashton Harris, Roshini Kempadoo, Michael Harris, Linda Susan Jackson, Simone Leigh, Zine Magubane, E. Ethelbert Miller, Charmaine Nelson, Debra Singer, Berni Searle, Michele Wallace, Carla Williams and Elizabeth Alexander.
This is the book’s cover illustration. It shows, in one image, everything I did and was trying to do with these images.
Most of the image has a dulling yellow patina, which obscures detail in both light and dark areas of her face and her clothing. The clear rectangle shows the results of some work I did on that image in Photoshop CS3. Mainly, I reduced (but didn’t remove entirely) the level of yellow and applied a bit of sharpening to what was left. I also shifted the greys and blacks a bit. With some of the other images I tinkered with some other color channels as well.
It was a matter of trial and error, of working with those various color and density controls until I got a balance that seemed right to me. (This is fast and easy on the computer, but very complex, very slow and very expensive in a darkroom, which is why I couldn’t do this book until now.) As I worked with the images more, I found myself going back to images I thought I’d finished earlier and redoing them. I also found myself developing relationships with the images themselves: even though I know nothing about the lives of any of these individuals I would come to feel, after looking at them on my monitor for many hours, that they needed to be lighter or darker than I’d previously printed them, or there should be more or less yellow or magenta. I can’t explain that: it’s just a matter of feeling, like music.