Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tenth Anniversary: The Lit Edition

I might come across as a little self-centered as I say this, but I'm going to say it anyway.

This is what I thought when I saw this cover:
  1. God, that's so sad. It would suck to lose your dad, and suck more for it to happen on a day everyone talks about.

  2. "The Children of 9/11".... That sounds like a novel title - like the American version of Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie.

  3. How old would that make them now? 9? Technically less than 9 and 9 months?

  4. Those are middle grade readers. That's my age group. They might read my books!
I told you I might come across self-centered. But hear me out:

I don't mean this in an eager-beaver, everyone's-a-potential-reader kind of way. I mean, those kids weren't even alive when 9/11 happened. In fact, most of my target audience wasn't even born on September 11, 2001. Even the oldest kids in this age group weren't more than two years old - way too young to remember it.

So, they only have secondhand knowledge to compare it with. Which includes anything I might have to say or write about it.

Does anybody else think about stuff like this? (Am I the only one with this particular flavor of weird?)

I stole this straight off of Alex Bracken's Tumblr.

I do remember September 11, 2001.

I had just turned 15 - a sophomore in high school. Before second period, the principal called all students into the cafeteria, which set off little warning bells in our young minds: the last time he had done that, he'd announced that a kid in the class above me had died.

Before the principal got there, one of my friends - who is now married with a beautiful ten-month-old son - arrived at our table. She was crying. She said a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. She had seen it on the news in photography class. She said she was scared. I told her it was going to be okay, privately thinking that she must have misunderstood. I just couldn't see how that could happen.

But she was right.

My scope of reality had to grow a little bigger. Something impossible had happened, and it changed my world forever.

This is not an unusual story. It's just mine. People all across the country have their own.

But this about this for a second: if you're part of my generation, if you were in your teens or early twenties, think for a second how that affected you - how it changed you.

Not just the day, but everything that came afterwards.

Think about the word terror for a second. Whether you hear it in the word terrorist or in the phrase War on Terror, how many times have you heard terror in the past ten years?

Literally too many to count.

If you don't hear it in conversation, or in school debates, then it's on the news, or at the pulpit or in the paper (whether print or online). How many issues of the New York Times from September 12, 2001 to today have been printed without the word terror in it? (Someone should check that out. That's a senior year project for some college kid right there.)

Don't you think that shapes you? If you were in your teens or your twenties on 9/11/2001, then this last decade has been a major part of your development - the time when you're just figuring out who you are, and what your world is like, and how you feel about it, and how you can live in it. This chant of terror terror terror has defined a part of you in the same way the civil rights movement defined many of our parents, and WWII defined many of our grandparents.

Now think for a moment about this year's debut novelists - how many of them are in their twenties or thirties now? How many have become adults hearing the terror terror terror chant every single day?

Maybe it's just the circle of Twitter friends I hang around with, but I would say around half.

Our books are coming out now, and if you write MG or YA, you aren't speaking directly to your peers. Your words are aimed at the generation that comes after you, the "Children of 9/11," the kids who were a little too young to remember it for themselves.

Does anyone think about what we're saying about terror, about fear? It's a huge theme in ALL literature. Seriously, how many interesting conflicts can you create without fear?

This may be gross conjecture at this point, but if someone pointed a gun to my head and made me voice an opinion, I'd have to say: For the most part, today's emerging writers treat fear as a huge and overwhelming force - one that you have to confront and conquer on the personal level before the external ones. In other words, the fear inside you, the one trying to control you, is way more important than anything outside your own mind.

There are a lot of books out there. You can't apply this theory to every new YA or MG. But some definitely do. The book that comes to mind is the one I just finished (re-)reading:

Divergent, by agent sister Veronica Roth, who happens to be in her early twenties.

Now, I know that everyone in the world hasn't read this awesome, amazing, powerful book, so I'll try to keep this spoiler free:

In this dystopian novel, Beatrice/Tris (the MC) joins an organization called Dauntless, a group of people who prize bravery over everything else, but especially over every other human virtue. A large part of her initiation is spent conquering all of her fears - phobia by phobia.

Still not convinced my theory applies?

Take a look at some of these quotes from the book - in the context of a post-9/11 world:

"We [the Dauntless] believe that preparation eradicates cowardice, which we define as the failure to act in the midst of fear." (77)

"I ignore my fear. When I make decisions, I pretend it doesn't exist." (145)

"Becoming fearless isn't the point. That's impossible. It's learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it, THAT'S the point." (239)

Terror isn't about politics or nations for most people. It's about how to live day-to-day life in a world with so much fear.

This is why I'm totally blown away when adult readers belittle MG or YA - when they call it unimportant, or silly, or not serious. Books for kids help them confront and cope with stuff their parents never had to face.

Let's take a thirteen-year-old reader, for example. She will confront completely different fears than her forty-something mother did at the same age. When her mom was a teen, she had to worry about getting an airplane, because the engine might fail and there were no parachutes. The teenage daughter has to worry about that, and as she takes off her shoes at airport security, she has to worry about someone taking over the plane and crashing it into a national monument.

The teen has to worry not just about getting cancer, but about a stranger releasing anthrax, or some other biological weapon, into the air at her school, her gym, her grocery store. The teen has to worry not just about learning to drive, but whether or not the planet will have enough gas to fill up her car.

We are growing up in a completely different world than our parents did. There is so much they can't teach us.

But books can.

Maybe they can't teach us how to fix everything, but they can teach us how to cope with tragedy and terror.

And coping, coming to terms with something so overwhelming...well, that's always the first step.

1 comment:

debby said...

Wow-that's very insightful. That's a very powerful message.