Sunday, April 27, 2014

YA Fiction: Neil Gaiman

Another in my series of YA fiction reviews. Check out my list of warnings from the first post.

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Published by Harper Collins, 2002 and 2008.

How did I not know the Gaiman wrote books for children? I'm not a huge Gaiman fan. I liked American Gods, and I remember the Sandman series fondly from high school, but I've never gone out of my way to find his work, so I must have missed all of his young adult and children books.

Coraline follows the title character, a young girl, as she discovers a parallel world through the bricked-up door in her flat. There, a spider-like monster (who takes the shape of her mother, but with black buttons for eyes) has created a mirror of Coraline's life: the same house, the same kooky neighbors, but all designed as a trap for young children, as Coraline discovers when she talks to the souls of some of the children who had fallen into the web over the last 200 years. Coraline befriends a black cat that is able to move between the worlds (and can speak while in the parallel world). Ultimately, Coraline is able to free the trapped souls of the children, free her own parents who had been captured by the spider, and escape with the cat. It's a short book, incredibly creepy, and wonderfully well written. It's literary writing, but not above what a child can understand. The book reminded me a bit of China Mieville (one of my favorite authors), but much creepier.

Overview:

Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: In general, yes. If your child is easily creeped out by ghost stories, this probably isn't the best book. But if they find such stories pleasantly shivery, then they will love Coraline.

Positive gender roles?: There are very few male characters in the book (unless you count the cat). All the main drivers are female. Coraline herself is brave, resourceful, and quick-thinking. She's a well-developed character, and I particularly like the way she staged a girly-girl tea party as her final trap to defeat the spider. The best part? The author doesn't feel it necessary for Coraline to find and marry the love of her life by the age of 16, or even to have a relationship at all.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: The ethnicity of the characters is never discussed, but there's no explicit engagement with diversity.

Final verdict: I plan to have my daughter read this. My only concern is that she'll find it too scary.

Note: if your child is the nervous type, but you'd like to introduce them to Neil Gaiman, I highly recommend the children's book Finally, the Milk. It's meant for a younger audience (my 4-year old sat through the whole thing in one sitting), partially illustrated, and lots of fun for the parents, too!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Our brains are always changing. Get over it!

Another week, another article about the coming downfall of Western Civilization. It's a genre that dates back to Socrates's laments about the luxury and tyranny of youth (often mis-quoted). Western Civilization hasn't fallen yet.

(OK, so it's fallen and gotten back up several times since then, but it's hard to blame the collapse of Rome or the Black Plague on children rudely crossing their legs, or talking too loudly.)

In our modern scientific era, the genre has taken on a neurological cast. The next generation's failings are damaging their brains, crippling our nation's ability to think, to innovate, to lead, oh, and GET OFF MY LAWN!

This week's contribution to the field is a Washington Post article: "Serious Reading Takes a Hit from Online Scanning and Skimming, Researchers Say." According to cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, web-surfing, e-mail, and other short-term reading commitments are re-wiring our brains, so we're no longer as good at deep reading long works. We've replaced linear reading skills with non-linear reading skills. As the article says, "scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly" have replaced the ability to "remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout...[such as] a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue." 

(You can see how that would be a problem. The ability to quickly find the protagonist's death scene based on the text layout of the page is far more critical than the ability to scan for key words, now isn't it?)

Yes, sure, our brains are being re-wired. Our brains are always being re-wired. That's how we process information. That's how we learn. Our brain is an amazing adaptation: it's an adaptation to allow adaptation. As humans, our fundamental trait is flexibility. We are able to manipulate our environment, but also to modify our behavior to fit our ever-changing niche. That's what the brain does.

So if the brain is being re-wired, it's because it's trying to better fit our current needs. And does anybody seriously believe that our future is going to involve more in-depth exposition on James Joyce and fewer hours spent on Wikipedia? That reading one text without intermission is going to replace near-miraculous modern technology that allows us to look up all connecting information as we read?

I can only imagine the article that must have run in Ye Olde Washingtone Poste after Gutenberg revolutionized printing: "Prior to the so-called innovation of the printing press, we developed an ability to scan our environment, search for key information, and quickly make connections between disparate pieces of information. But now, weighed down by the cognitive changes forced on young minds by the structures of printed tomes, our children are losing this ability, replacing it with a simplistic, linear understanding of the world, learning more about the shape of paragraphs than the shape of the world around them. Oh, and GET OFF YE OLDE LAWN!"

Don't get me wrong, there can be serious consequences to technology shifts, and modern reading/writing habits aren't all good. This study showed, for example, that hand-writing class notes, rather than typing, leads to better learning outcomes. But could we stop it with the hand wringing over the fall of Western Civilization? That got old with Plato.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The world needs classroom discussion rules

I don't own a TV, so I missed the controversial Colbert joke, Suey Park's response, and Josh Zepps's "interview". I had just sat down to write about it, when this Andrew Sullivan "response" to this (as usual) brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates article came across my desk. (Make sure you follow the links in Coates's post to get the full scope of the argument.)

I'm going to talk about the issues raised later. But first a rant: seriously, the world needs classroom discussion rules.

I teach about race, gender, and class, so it's important that my classroom is a safe space for discussion. My students create their own rules for classroom interactions, but one rule is absolute: you don't decide what someone else feels or experiences. If Park says she was offended by Colbert, then she was offended. Period. You can ask her to explain why she feels that way (as long as you're actually listening). You can challenge the usefulness of her response. But you cannot tell her that her feelings are wrong. And it is absolutely inexcusable to use a position of privilege as an older, white, male broadcast journalist, for example, (or as a professor), to speak over and belittle the experience of someone far more vulnerable than you, a younger, female person of color, (or a student). While we study systems of inequality, we must be aware of them in our own classrooms and our own conversations.

Every year, my students choose some version of "show respect" as their top rule for classroom discussion. The essence of respect is not assuming that you're smarter or better informed than anyone else in the room, especially when the topic is anther person's lived experience. Note that this rule applies equally to a woman of color who feels a classroom statement was racist, and to a white man who is offended by allegations of racism. Both are entitled to their unique reaction to their own experiences.

But that doesn't mean that everyone's opinions are equally valid on all topics. If a fellow student/human being has had experiences that you don't share, then you'd better listen to their opinion on those experiences. You don't have to agree, but you have to listen and not assume they're too stupid to understand their own mind.

People who have thought long and deeply about complex subjects, who have done the hard mental work of grappling with those subjects, cannot be dismissed as "overreacting" or "fatalistic". If Coates believes racism is an inherent part of the American experience, then that belief - based on a lifetime of experience, and a depth of historical scholarship - cannot be belittled or stigmatized by labeling it "depression." Respect demands that critics engage his argument through facts and figures, through logic or history. Disrespect is shutting down his voice because he's not saying what you want to hear.

I tell my students that they will feel uncomfortable in my classroom. Learning is a painful process. Like muscle growth, it requires tearing down existing structures and replacing them with something stronger. The pain gets better, but only if you allow yourself to be torn apart first.

Maybe you don't agree with Suey Park. Maybe you don't agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates. But it is possible to disagree by engaging the issues, not by minimizing a person's experience, or shooting down their fundamental right to articulate that experience in their own way.