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January 13, 2010

Can-Lit and the Teenagers

“Upon reflection, I wondered again why Canadian literature isn’t able to connect with the teenage audience,” wrote Michael Bryson on his blog a while ago, which I thought was an interesting thing to wonder. And certainly not anything I’d much wondered about myself, because I rarely think of teenagers very much anymore, except to be a bit intimidated when I squeeze by them on the sidewalk.

Oh, teenagers, ye of the famously undeveloped brains. Though why did nobody tell me then? When I was a teenager, full of angst, and pain, and feeling, I do wish that someone had pointed out the fact that my brain wasn’t actually built and so nothing I felt really mattered yet. Which turned out to be quite true, in retrospect, but I might have been unwilling to face such a fact at that time. A time in which I was ready to die for the right to talk on the phone for six consecutive hours, and my favourite TV show was Party of Five.

The number of things that annoy me are legion, but up at the top would be people who carry with them any negative literary opinion formed by high school English class. No, worse– people who claim they don’t read because their high school English teachers broke down literature into such tiny pieces that they ruined the whole sport. (You can find evidence of this “breaking down” in any text annotated by a high school student, wherein each instance of “light” and “dark” is highlighted, for example. Or wherever there’s a mention of “river” and someone has written “=life”.) These people not understanding that high school is to teach you to learn how to learn first and foremost, and that perhaps all our closest-held opinions could serve to be re-evaluated once a decade or so.

Still, the greatest literary tragedy of them all, I think, is The Stone Angel as taught in Canadian high schools. Does this still happen? Is there a more inappropriate book out there? I reread it recently, and found it powerful (though far from Margaret Lawrence’s best), but could not understand how it could be expected to resonate with a sixteen year old. An extraordinary sixteen year old, perhaps, but most of us were far from that.

So what would be better? What’s a fully-grown Canadian book that could rock a teenage world? And don’t just think any old book with a youthful protagonist will do– a teenager can spot a phony a mile away. You know, the youthful protagonist who is always the cleverest person in the room (and in the book) so as to a) avoid complexities of character b) make sure we know the author is smart and not just writing YA pap c) reinvent the universe to realize ex-nerd author’s youthful fantasies concerning triumph and domination of a just world.

Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Gil Adamson might work though. Fruit by Brian Francis. When I was in high school, I thought Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is as wonderful as I still do. Maybe Stunt? Alayna Munce’s When I Was Young and In My Prime? Rebecca Rosenblum’s Once. I think Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are would be better than Lives of Girls and Women. The Diviners instead of The Stone Angel (if they could stomach Morag’s stallion). And Lisa Moore’s Alligator, perhaps? Lullabies for Little Criminals?

Or am I mistaken, to suppose that a teenage reader requires a protagonist with shared concerns? Could teenagers be smarter or dumber than they look? What are they (and we) missing? And I know I’ve got some high school English teachers among my readership of six, and I’d be interested to know your opinion, as well as that of anyone else who has one.

14 thoughts on “Can-Lit and the Teenagers”

  1. Andrew S says:

    I actually liked The Stone Angel in high school.

    I think we have to face the truth: any book taught widely in high schools will be widely hated. It isn't the books; it's the teaching.

  2. Kerry says:

    And I maintain it is the taught.

    I liked The Stone Angel too, but upon revisitation, I see I got nothing out of it.

  3. Rebecca Rosenblum says:

    *The Edible Woman* was on my optional reading list in grade 13, and everyone who read it loved it. V relatable, because it's about a young woman going crazy, but also funny and chock-full of straight-forward symbolism that made easy papers.

    I think *Fruit* would be popular with kids, but in so many districts it couldn't be taught without a parent uprising, and in so many others it would just be this "it's ok to be gay" bit of therapy, with no mention of literature. (This is how we were taught everything by non-White authors, sigh, though it wasn't that much.

    I think Ondaatje's *Billy the Kid* could go over big. Or Pyper's *Killing Circle*. Kids love a little violence and a good story. As do I!


  4. Randy Banderob says:

    Oh, you have sliced us English teachers to the bone, to a place we wince to look!
    I stopped teaching The Stone Angel years ago, but its last inception in one of my courses was part of a tragedy unit . . . Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, and The Stone Angel. It made for a depressing semester, but students were able to apply some concepts of tragedy consistently through the pieces and gained some academic confidence doing so.
    I also liked to use The Stone Angel as a really clear example of (albeit simple) non-linear narrative. However, I later found In the Skin of a Lion to demonstrate this even better. In fact, I believe that novel to be the one which was most successful with my students on many counts.
    For those who complain that English teachers "break it down" too much, here is my response . . . . We only really want to teach you one thing about reading text and this is applicable to all reading of all types of text. And that is when you read, you need to have two parts of your brain working. One part reads and reacts naturally and emotionally to the text, the second part of the brain listens to the first and considers how it reacts. Brain part #1 one says, "Wow! When Patrick was moved by the puppet show at the waterworks, I felt moved too!" Brain part #2 says, "Hmmm, I how can I describe that feeling of being "moved" more specifically? How did the author achieve this? What does this say about Patrick? About me?"
    It's getting this second voice active when students read; getting them to see the power of language and how they relate to it.
    This is a very difficult task and newer teachers sometimes resort to testing on plot or the identification of literary devices because they find the task overwhelming. How do you open the world or reading to non-readers? How do you reach your students how don't get it while still stimulating the bookworms in the same class?
    Sorry, I digress. Great topic though.

  5. Melwyk says:

    Hmm, I liked The Stone Angel a lot in high school as well. But it was optional reading.

    As for teaching situations, I'm not sure what would work – will anything really be enjoyed by every teenager in a varied classroom? But I think there is quite a lot of recent Can lit that could be used effectively with teens- I'd have to think on an actual list but I know that some of the ones I read this year would be perfect.

  6. charlotteashley says:

    Oh man, I'd have LOVED A Complicated Kindness when I was 15.

    But I don't think the high school reading curriculum is completely clueless. I had to read Cat's Eye and HATED it, but the same year read Fifth Business and have been a life-long, die-hard Robertson Davies fan(atic) ever since.

    My husband, meanwhile, read both Whale Music and Civilzation by Paul Quarrington for OAC English (RIP) and remains a Quarrington champion to this day.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Before saying anything about what is a successful novel choice, I have to
    say that there is no such thing in a class of 30 people. There are many
    things that are very different about teenagers and adults, but I think a
    major similarity is that any book given to 30 individuals will elicit an
    unbelievably wide range of responses regardless of the teaching or the age
    of the readers.

    I have had some success with Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. I have
    found that the kids get hooked in the first three "chapters" by the Ming and
    Fitz love story (the angst, the overwrought emotion is relevant to them),
    but they later become a bit disenchanted when the book veers away from this
    plot line.
    They tend to get very upset when the ending doesn't offer resolution. This
    is, for me, the brilliance of the story and so I hope to use this as an
    opportunity to challenge their notion of what makes literature powerful,
    that it can reflect our reality through both plot and structure. The book
    shows that life continues, that resolution often doesn't come and it's not
    that happiness will never be available, but that life is more about
    fluctuating moments of happiness and struggle. When explaining this, there
    is a moment where they seem to get it (maybe not like it, but get it) and it
    is for some maybe a moment of confronting this transition to adulthood that
    they are just beginning. Maybe I am projecting this onto them. I think
    they get some pride from the fact that they have been given a book that
    doesn't deal in happy endings because they are mature enough for this.
    Also, I try to show them the potential comfort that can come from this idea
    that not everything is resolved, that in their own lives they are beginning
    to experience this idea and that it is okay.
    I have taught The Handmaid's Tale twice. They seem to have found the
    reading painful, but really respond well to discussing the issues raised.
    Does this make it worthwhile enough? I have shied away from it since,
    although it is a book I really enjoy. A colleague has apparently had
    amazing success with Oryx and Crake. Eventually I will give it a spin in
    the classroom.

    One other issue with book selections is funding. If we had unlimited
    resources, every year I would buy a class set of something current and
    provocative, but that is unfortunately not the case.
    My mom recommended The Flying Troutmans for the classroom. It has
    potential, but it falls a bit flat in places. I have also used two
    different Rebecca Rosenblum stories, all with great success.


  8. Kerry says:

    So maybe I was wrong about The Stone Angel, and my own likes are not so universal– I know many people hate my beloved Cat`s Eye.

    But what about books not necessarily taught in school then? Forget school (which is for chumps anyway). Would any of these (or other) books resonate more if readers found them on their own terms?

  9. Andrew S says:

    I think if we were to square off on whether it's the teaching or the taught, Kerry, we'd both be only half right.

    I think that instead of blaming the teaching (which sounds a lot like blaming the teachers), maybe I should say that the learning goals of high school English have an inevitable dessicant effect on any book they contact. Books tend to become codes to be cracked.

  10. patricia says:

    I think I was lucky when I was in high school. I liked pretty much all my English teachers, and loved The Stone Angel, which was required reading. After that, I devoured everything written by Margaret Laurence (I think I like A Jest of God almost as much as The Stone Angel). Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood – I had a blast. Though I must confess that Wild Geese was a chore (same for The Tin Flute). When I was in grade 13, for some bizarre reason, I was able to take 3(!) English courses, which could explain why I can now barely add.

    I think it's a combination of many things – the school, the teachers, the curriculum, the student…(it certainly helps to be a nerdy book girl).

    If I was a student reading in high school today? I'd be thrilled. There's so much good stuff to choose.

    Oh, and I adore Cat's Eye. Very much beloved.

  11. JK says:

    OAC English ruined Joyce for me and I never recovered (not CanLit but still…) Come to think of it, I'm not sure we even DID CanLit in High School. Which is another issue altogether. And I agree with charlotte ashley, I think A Complicated Kindness, or even The Flying Troutmans could have set up Can Lit as something vibrant and contemporary.

  12. Kerry says:

    You read Joyce in OAC English? Wow.

  13. BabelBabe says:

    hated Bloodletting; loved Cat's Eye. just be glad you're in Canada – in the US it's all Catcher in the Rye and Romeo and Juliet.

    my word verif is hydratte – it's what you are when you only drink lattes.

  14. Britt Gullick says:

    I ate up The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver in high school. It is actually the only book I remember reading, come to think of it, so it must have struck a chord. That, and The Bell Jar, which you should never read if you are 18 and living in a basement apartment. I loved historical fiction even then. Suite Francaise, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Secret River, What is the What… All books that amazed me as an adult, and would have amazed me at 17 too. The minute you underestimate a teenager, you will bore them. Challenge them to read something that is slightly outside their depth and I think they will go for it. Especially if the subject matter seems a little too advanced. (Especially if you tell them you think that).

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