Appreciating Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30

In this blog entry, David Updike, co-editor of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30, offers his thoughts on the book and what he learned about Mural Arts along the way.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last thirty years, Philadelphia has become a city of murals. As you crisscross the city, you find them in just about every neighborhood, often where you’d least expect them. They’ve become a part of our landscape, and something that people here and elsewhere associate with Philadelphia. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jane Golden, because it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and her vision, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if the city itself hadn’t embraced the idea that public art matters. And it matters, not just because it improves our aesthetic environment, but more importantly, because it has a lasting impact on the people who participate in the process.

The Mural Arts offices are a buzzing hive of activity. In the hallways you pass a steady stream of people coming and going, to and from mural sites, or classes, or canvassing neighborhoods. And these are people who, to borrow an old phrase from Bill Clinton, look like Philadelphia. They’re young and old, they’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. And they all carry themselves with a sense of purpose. In the gallery downstairs you’ll see exhibitions of art—some of it quite remarkable—made by everyone from elementary school students to inmates serving life sentences at Graterford. And then there’s the room upstairs with the very skylight under which Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic. And I suspect that our city’s greatest painter, were he alive today, would approve of this populist endeavor, which seeks to embrace the city he loved in all of its aspects.

I’m very fortunate to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of our city’s other great cultural institutions. And it occurred to me as I started working on this book that, in a way, the Art Museum and the Mural Arts Program have opposite but entirely complementary missions. At the Museum we work very hard to get people to come to us and experience great art. But Mural Arts brings art to the people in the places where they live and work. And what Mural Arts brings to these communities is not a particular product or aesthetic. Rather, it’s a process of engagement and dialogue and co-creation that takes place over months and years, and whose effects remain long after the paint on the walls has dried.

Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis book seeks, above all else, to document what takes place off the walls. And really, this gets to the heart and soul of what Mural Arts does. Yes, it’s about transforming places, but mostly it’s about transforming people. We wanted to look at that process and its effects through many lenses, so we brought together a diverse group of authors from different disciplines—social sciences, public health, art education, restorative justice—to paint as broad a picture as possible of what a socially engaged art practice looks like, and what it can do, especially when it works in tandem with other organizations to address big issues like homelessness, youth violence, or urban blight.

In the book, Jeremy Nowack aptly refers to what happens in the course of creating a mural as a kind of “social contract” that arises between all of the stakeholders involved in a project—neighbors, business owners, community leaders, schools, artists. And the key word here is “stakeholders.” People feel a sense of investment and ownership in the murals. They take pride in them. They show them off to visitors. New stories and rituals grow up around them. People now ride the Market-Frankford El in West Philly just to see Steve Powers’ 50 Love Letters unfold. Inspired by the murals, couples have gotten engaged and even married on that 20-block stretch along Market Street.

Other stories around the murals are more painful, more challenging, but also rewarding in ways that aren’t necessarily visible to someone looking only at the end result. A particularly poignant example is James Burns’s Finding the Light Within, which took on the issue of youth suicide, not just with a very powerful and personal mural, but also with community meetings, writing workshops, collage workshops, and a participatory blog, all of which provided safe, supportive spaces in which survivors could share their stories. More than 800 people participated in those activities, and hopefully found some measure of healing in the process.

Elizabeth Thomas begins her essay with a provocative question: “Who makes culture?” In other words, Who decides what messages we see and read and hear? Whose stories count? Every day we’re bombarded by images and messages that tell us what we should wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to. But how often do we see our own struggles and achievements reflected in our environment, or our own stories projected into the public discourse? Socially engaged art practice has begun to address this problem of who gets represented—and who does the representing—in public culture. It’s happening in different ways in different cities around the country, but in Philadelphia its most visible proponent is the Mural Arts Program.

Much of the work that Mural Arts has done in recent years has sought to expand the definition of what a mural is and what it can do. For the mural project called Peace Is a Haiku Song, the poet Sonia Sanchez initiated what became, in essence, a citywide collaborative poem cycle. She began with a mental image of haiku by children hanging like cherry blossoms from the trees in Philadelphia. This evolved into an invitation to people of all ages to contribute poems in a series of community workshops and through a dedicated website. The poems didn’t end up hanging from the trees, but many of them ended up on posters around the city that were created by youth working with graphic designer Tony Smyrski.

The experience of seeing your own words and your own images projected into the world is an empowering one, especially for young people. As Cynthia Weiss points out, kids participating in mural projects often gain practical, real-world skills, like photography and graphic design. But they also gain a sense of agency that may be hard to come by elsewhere in their lives. And that type of experience can have a lasting impact on a person’s life in ways that we’re really only beginning to understand.

This is the essence of what Mural Arts does. It’s about creating situations in which people are drawn out of their everyday selves and both challenged and empowered to reach for something more. So while this book marks a milestone in the history of the Mural Arts Program, our hope is that it also points the way forward for others who want to use the power of art to change things for the better.

To listen to a podcast of David Updike and Jane Golden’s presentation at the Free Library of Philadelphia from March 26, click here: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/authorevents/podcast.cfm?podcastID=1216

The NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work — Non-Fiction

Temple University Press congratulates Envisioning Emancipation authors Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer for being named Outstanding Literary Work – Non-Fiction at the NAACP Image Awards February 21.

Envisioning Emancipation_smBarbara Krauthamer, who attended the ceremony, gave the following acceptance speech:

Thank you to the NAACP and to everybody. It is wonderful to be here.  My co-author Dr. Deborah Willis could not be here, but I know that she joins me in thanking all of you. We’d like to thank our editor Janet Francendese and everybody at Temple University Press; all of the librarians and archivists who helped us.  When we dreamed of this book ten years ago we wanted to create a collective family album of photographs that showed African American survival, dignity and beauty, even through the most trying times of slavery and the triumph of emancipation and freedom.  Thank you, and we wanted to dedicate this to our mothers and to those who made a way when there was no way so we could be here today.  Thank you.
And here are some images from the NAACP Image Awards ceremony:

BK screen BK statue photo 2 BK with award

 

Temple University Press staff selects the Books of the Year to give, get, and read

As we wish everyone Happy Holidays and happy reading, the staff at Temple University Press selects the memorable titles of 2013.

Micah Kleit, Executive Editor

The Press published a bounty of riches this year, from Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer’s Envisioning Emancipation to Dean Bartoli Smith’s Never Easy, Never Pretty, an exciting account of the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl win. But the book I’d most like to give as a gift is Philipp H. Lepenies’ Art, Politics, and Development: How Linear Perspective Shaped Policies in the Western World. It’s the kind of work that represents, to me at least, the best of what university presses do in advancing scholarship.Art, Politics, and Development_sm

I’d love it if someone bought me a copy of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.  It’s just the kind of inside-publishing book that reminds me of why I love what I do!

The book I’m planning to read over the holiday — in preparation for the “sequel” that’s due early this Spring —  is Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists.  It’s one of his earliest novels, and I’m excited that he’s returning to this story and continuing it, since it speaks (like so much of his work) powerfully to the ideas of what makes up the American character.

2013 was a great year for big novels from emerging and established writers, and the very best I read this year had to be Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a book that was at once really economical in style but epic in scope: about 70s radicals, motorcycles, Italy and America.  I don’t think I’m the only one who thought of Don DeLillo when reading Kushner’s wonderful novel.

Sara Cohen, Rights and Contracts Manager

G-000865-20111017.jpgThe best TUP book to give?   My loved one are going to have to wait until Presidents’ Day to receive their Christmas gifts so that I can give them Thomas Foster’s Sex and the Founding Fathers.

The book I most want to receive for the holidays? The first book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. A friend sent me Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books piece “Man vs. Corpse,” which cites My Struggle, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it ever since.  I also hope to receive a vegan cookbook (maybe Veganomicon)  so that I can start the new year off with good dietary intentions.

The book I plan to read over the break?  I’m supposed to be reading A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn with my husband and one of our friends.  I’m going to spend the break trying to catch up to the two of them.

Aaron Javsicas, Senior Editor

MoreMuralsEarlier this year I read and very much enjoyed Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford. It’s engrossing historical fiction about what it might have been like to live in the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union, and to feel real optimism about the country’s future even while beginning to see cracks that would spread and destroy it.
I look forward to reading and giving Temple University Press’s Philadelphia murals books Philadelphia Murals and the Stories they Tell, and  More Philadelphia Murals the the Stories They Tell, as a new volume, Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30,  is forthcoming in 2014. I’m from Philadelphia but only recently moved back, after thirteen years in New York, to come on board at the Press. The terrific Mural Arts Program expanded a great deal while I was gone, and I’m excited to catch up with it through these beautiful books.

Charles Ault, Production Director

This year I read A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, which is now on my all-time favorites list. Ruth Ozeki is a 40-ish Buddhist priest who lives with her husband on an island near Vancouver, Canada. Her book features a writer named Ruth who lives with her husband on an island near Vancouver. She discovers the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl in a waterproofed bundle that washes up on the shore. The girl is contemplating suicide and has decided to write down the story of her grandmother, a Buddhist nun, as her last act. We (the reader) read pieces of the diary as Ruth does and then we read Ruth’s reaction to the same thing we just read (and reacted to). But I haven’t mentioned the Zen philosophy and ritual that pervades the story. Or the discussion of quantum mechanics. Or contemporary Japanese pornography….

Joan Vidal, Production Manager

Justifiable Conduct_smThe best TUP book to give: If you have a group of friends who like to read and discuss books, I recommend Erich Goode’s Justifiable Conduct . Filled with examples from the memoirs of public figures who seek absolution for their transgressions, this book is sure to spark conversation.

The book I most want to receive for the holidays: I would like to have The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, by Theodor Geisel.

The book I plan to read over the break: Next on my list is Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire.

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

Don't Call Me_smThe best book I read this year?  The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. This year’s National Book Award fiction winner is the wild story about John Brown and his raid, narrated by a freed slave boy masquerading as a girl.  It’s hilarious.

The best TUP book to give? Don’t Call Me Inspirational, Harilyn Rousso’s compelling memoir.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.

The book I plan to read over the break: I will finish Edwidge Dandicat’s
Claire of the Sea Light and begin Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck.

Brian Murray, Marketing Assistant

How We DIe Now_smThe best TUP book to give this season is Never Easy, Never Pretty by Dean Bartoli Smith. My father has been a Ravens fan his whole life and reminisces about going to games with his father when he was growing up. This book is perfect for him and perfect for any other Ravens’ fan or football fan in general.
The book I plan to read over break is Karla Erickson’s  How We Die Now. What better way to celebrate the holidays with my immediate family and older relatives than to evaluate my own mortality and the cost of living longer? Also a perfect gift for my great Aunt Lenora who will be celebrating her 82nd birthday this January.

Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

WHAT I WILL GIVE: Music, Style, and Aging by Andy Bennett. Because holidays should be filled with sex, drugs, rock and roll and reading, right? Music Style Aging_sm

WHAT I WILL READ: Ink, by Sabrina Vourvoulias (one of the co-authors of 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia by the staff of Al Día). Ink looks at immigration issues through multiple lenses and I really admire Vourvoulias’ work.

THE BEST BOOK I READ IN 2013: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl, is not so much a book you read as a story you investigate. It involves a disgraced journalist and a cult filmmaker, whose daughter has died—or possibly been murdered. What’s intriguing is not just the mystery, but the format of the book: an impressive collection of photographs, website downloads, dossiers, missing persons reports, institution assessments, and created articles. It’s a fascinating interactive experience.

WHAT I WANT TO READ: I’m almost ashamed to admit that I really want to read James Franco’s Actors Anonymous.  I’m an unabashed  Francofile and a completist. I’ll also likely see his film adaptation of As I Lay Dying over the break as well.

A Strange Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination

In this blog entry, Art Simon, author of Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film, ponders provocative commemorations and the meanings of the JFK assassination.

With the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination coming up this Friday, the air and cable waves have been jammed with recollections, profiles and anecdotes about the slain president and his administration. PBS devoted four hours to JFK on the American Experience, NOVA took another look at the logistics of the killing, The New York Times reported on the meaning and on-going sequester of Jackie’s blood stained pink dress. Even the AARP Newsletter ran a piece by Bob Schieffer about his experience of being in Texas on that fateful day. The list goes on and on

But one of the stranger commemorative events is taking place at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth in an exhibition featuring the art that was collected and displayed in Suite 850 of the Texas Hotel where the Kennedys spent their last night together. The curators, while not wanting to re-create the room exactly, have brought together works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, and Kline that were no doubt put on display to let the well bred first couple know Texans were not totally ignorant about high culture.

Dangerous Knowledge 2e_smThis strikes me as among the strangest forms of reenactment yet for an event that has been subjected to all kinds of re-creation, from The Warren Commission, to Hollywood versions in JFK and In the Line of Fire to an episode of Seinfeld (or was that a reenactment of a reenactment?) to a 2004 video game called JFK: Reloaded that places the player in Oswald’s alleged sixth floor window with the rather perverse object being to re-create the shooting just as The Warren Commission described it.

Somewhere Sigmund Freud has a knowing smile as the nation cannot break free of its own repetition compulsion and the killing of JFK. But with the art exhibit in Fort Worth we have moved away from reimagining the public space of Dealey Plaza and into conjuring the private aesthetic experience of the first couple. Why? Having heard from virtually everyone involved in the assassination, from Secret Service agents to Governor and Mrs. Connolly to witness-bystanders, and having participated in the question posed by virtually everyone alive at the time—do you remember where you were when you heard the news?—the only experience not yet tapped is that of the Kennedys. And since we can not get to the heart of their experience, we might substitute for it their experience of the hotel that morning, their waking up to a wall of 20th Century masterpieces.

As I have written about the culture of the Kennedy assassination over the years, I have always been reluctant to speculate about mass psychology, resisting the impulse to diagnose the various national obsessions around JFK and his killing. But with another nod in Freud’s direction, it does seem as though the art exhibit in Fort Worth is one more example of our 50 year old fetish, a need to find substitutes for what we don’t know but wish we did—about the Kennedys, about Oswald’s motives or those of his accomplices (depending on your opinion), about exit and entrance wounds and about what the Sixties might have been had the assassination not happened. We respond to the absence of knowing with a glut of images, recycled footage of Camelot, yet another examination of the Zapruder film, another memoir by someone who claims to have known the private side of the President.

And yet turning our attention to art on this 50th anniversary is not a bad idea. I would suggest however that we look not to what hung in the Texas Hotel but to what got produced within weeks and then within a couple years of the assassination, namely the silkscreen portraits created by Andy Warhol and the underground film masterpiece Report made by Bruce Conner. Indeed, pop artists at the time offered a fascinating reply to the assassination and its afterlife in the pages of Life magazine, the Warren Report and American culture generally. It’s a shame that in the media blitz now attending to JFK’s death, these works are being overlooked. Nearly 50 years after their making, they still present a compelling and visually provocative commentary on the meaning of the JFK assassination, both in its time and ours: Who gets to write the history of an event like this? Who profits from its telling and re-telling? How should we understand the moving image as evidence and window onto the past?

Profiling Black and Latino Kids as “Ghetto Thug” Criminals

In this blog entry, Elaine Bell Kaplan, author of “We Live in the Shadow”: Inner-City Kids Tell Their Stories through Photographs, gives voice to her students who use the photovoice methodology in her book to tell their stories.

The deadly shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was on the minds of the 30 social workers at my book talk in late July.  They believed that George Zimmerman’s perception of Martin was provoked by the popular image of inner-city kids

That dehumanizing image as kid criminals certainly prevailed when I was growing up in Harlem. I remember thinking I was just like other kids who played Simon Says, Jumping Jacks and other street games. That idea was shattered by comments like, “those kids are playing street games today will be robbing us tomorrow.”  As an inner-city kid, I quickly learned that negative images tracked kids like me.

In fact, as I write in my book, inner-city kids “have been set apart and that there’s no will in this society to bring these kids into the mainstream.” A blogger, quoted in my book, responded to the question, “What should be done about these kids?” “Send them to Iraq!”

We Live_smI wrote We Live in the Shadow,” to look at the significant social problems faced by inner-city kids,

The group of seventy-four 12-15 year-olds interviewed in the book, attended after-school programs. The kids credited these programs with making them feel safe from the gangs and drug dealers that roam their neighborhoods.

In order to capture these kids’ sense of their world and not that of adults who usually write about them, I gave each a $5.00 disposable cameras and asked them to, “Take photos of whatever it is you want to tell me about your life. “

Instead of giving in to negative stereotypes, the kids used their cameras to capture another view of themselves. Thirteen-year-old Kyle put it best:

“Most ‘people see kids like me as inner-city–gang bangers.  I don’t wanna be a gang banger.  That judges me and how I act. I don’t do that stuff. It makes the community look pathetic.  Um, like some people say that, like where you live, says how smart you are how dumb. But I don’t think that’s possible because I live in, like, a pretty bad neighborhood, but I’m still, like a bright kid.”

The kids’ photos and stories of South Central neighborhoods revealed homes desperately in need of repair, rats in the lunchrooms, teachers who did not teach and bathrooms that were, ” messy, dirty, they stink.” As 12-year-old Jessica, said about her photo showing what she called the “filthy bathroom and unflushed toilet at my school.  Look at what we have to put up with. We get blamed for this, but nobody cleans it up.”  What did the kids learn from this experience: “Don’t go unless it’s an emergency.”

Unflushed toiletThirteen year-old Cesar’s photo of his family’s car led to a story of being carjacked and threatened by a gang.  Oscar’s photo of his father cooking Tamales led to stories of late-night dinners because parents worked late or had two jobs. Other photos showed kids working on homework in a classroom or wearing sweaters with a college logo —the kids’ way of showing their desire to well in school.

I had this conversation with Max, a student in one of my classes who had read my book.

“I could not help but feel like you were writing about me. Each turned page was like a memoir of my experiences at Los Angeles Unified School District public schools. The kids of this book and their stories are real. I am them, and they are me. Even though they are little bit younger than me, I understand their pain and frustration. I dreaded going to class each day. My school was like a dropout factory. It was extremely over-crowded, ridden with racial tension, violence, trash, and graffiti.”

The worst part of the matter was the collective of faculty and staff who seemed to care more about their selfish endeavors rather than teaching their students. Not to say that there were not good teachers.

Max said, “Maybe if the odds were not stacked so hard against us, we would all be scholars.” Instead, as the kids in my book said: “No matter what I do I will still considered to be a ghetto thug.”

The social workers and others I talked to agreed. For Trayvon Martin’s, Kyle, Max, and even me, there is no escape from being racially profiled. The bad news is that these kids can’t defend themselves from this assault. Nonetheless, I am excited that they knew to use photos to tell their stories.  Still, the key question remains, when will the rest of this society hear them?

The Filadelfia Story

In this blog entry, Sabrina Vourvoulias, the managing editor of Al Día, describes the stories that can be found in the photo history, 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia
I am enamored with stories. My own and my family’s, certainly, but also the stories my friends and neighbors tell. And the ones I overhear when a grandparent explains to a child why something is significant, or a beloved custom.
Even more, I love the stories that emerge when many of us sit together leafing through photo albums — remembering food, festivals, people — in community.
For the past twenty years, Latinos in Philadelphia have read and seen their stories appear weekly in Al Día newspaper. The book 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia is simply an extension of that work of documentation. Book_cover_ok
In it you’ll find stories about Latinos in Philadelphia that go back to the time of the founding fathers: Like Manuel Torres, for example, the first diplomatic officer from Latin America recognized officially by President James Monroe, who was a resident of the city and is buried at Old St. Mary cemetery alongside Commodore John Barry and Thomas Fitzsimmons.
You’ll see a cabinet card of of Samuel Cruz and his family, newly arrived from Puerto Rico. He would go on to become one of the best respected of the butchers working in the meat-packing district of Northern Liberties, and an integral member of the Puerto Rican community that opened bodegas and settled their families in North Philadelphia. You’ll also see photographs of community-wide celebrations, like the annual St. John the Baptist parade, that took place along Spring Garden Street because that’s where La Milagrosa — the first church in the city to hold a regular Spanish-language Mass and considered “the Plymouth Rock of Latino Catholic Philadelphia” — was located.
la_milagrosa2012030510 SamCruz
There are stories, too, in the photographs of the Puerto Rican community taken by local photojournalist David Cruz in the decade before the Al Día newspaper was established, and in the profoundly moving photo stories he’s shot for Al Día since. In these — many of them focused on the Mexican community — you’ll find stories of tragedy, and resilience, and of the hope for a better life every immigrant packs in his or her bags when they come here.
A day without an ImmigrantThe value of this book isn’t as an exhaustive history — it isn’t one — but rather it is in the glimpses it provides of the everyday lives of Latinos of the city. It also handily refutes the erroneous assumption that all Latinos are recently arrived, unskilled laborers and undocumented immigrants. There is both honor and great joy in the way every member contributes to the vitality of our community, but our diversity is also a point of pride.
As you leaf through the pages of this book, I hope you’ll see what I did when I took on the task of editing it: There are a million stories in these images. They are worth telling. And worth hearing.

Lamp Lighters and Seed Sowers: Tomorrow’s YA

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.

They galvanize.

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.

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