March 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Books I’d Like to See | Consider the Source

Marc 2I thought I’d use this column to begin an occasional feature: subjects, formats, and treatments that I’d like to see in books for children and teenagers, but which—as far as I know—don’t exist yet. Feel free to let me know if I’ve missed something.

Last week my nonfiction reading club met and for the first time we read a novel: Philip Klay’s award-winning Redeployment (Penguin, 2015). Klay, a graduate of Dartmouth and the Hunter College M.F.A program, served in Iraq. The book uses invented characters to explore the very real experiences of service personnel (the focus is on men) in Iraq, and vets once home. We were prompted to read it, in part, because a member of our group served in Vietnam and now volunteers for The Battle Buddy Foundation—a group in which vets mentor other vets. He is also married to a psychotherapist who is an expert at dealing with trauma. Our book club member told us about his experiences in Vietnam, coming home, and working with men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There was one stark contrast between his experience and theirs; when he went overseas, he was gone for a year, and he spoke to his family once during that time. Once. Current service personnel Skype, chat, and/or text home every night. Each evening they see their partners and hear their kids in the background; they’re able to catch up on dogs, homework, and home life. When morning arrives, they often find themselves in harm’s way, possibly combat, bonded to a new family: the men and women who serve with them. From the Vietnam vet’s point of view, this was impossibly difficult—working an on/off switch that must rewire the brain in ways that no one can yet describe.

I’d love to see a novel told in alternate voices with one voice being that of a middle grade brother/sister/niece/nephew at home and the other that of a sibling/aunt/uncle overseas. Sure, it could be husband/wife—but then that is an adult book. And I wonder—might the parent/child novel be too intense? How do these worlds and these lives swing in and out of each other? As I type these words, I believe I have heard of one such book. Am I right?

But these are wholly new kinds of experiences—home, and the opposite of home, blurring, then blending, then totally eclipsed and invisible to one another. We do have versions of one kind of blurring—for example, the way in which drone pilots live here, but fight worlds away—in effect, an Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card; T. Doherty, 1985.) Young people are growing up in a world of indistinct boundaries of here and there. How can we get that experience down on the page?

Speaking of juxtaposition and difference, my wife, the novelist Marina Budhos, was looking for young adult novels that deal with class difference, the difference addressed in Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (S & S, March, 2015). Not books about absolute desperate poverty, or about one percent wealth. Rather, books that get at that line of friction that our growing income inequality creates. Surely brand-conscious teenagers must know precisely who has what—what is that experience on each side of the line? Or is it that, as property values skyrocket in one set of zip codes and the foreclosure signs spread through others, we increasingly live in separate communities and attend newly economically and racially segregated schools?

Is it that the kids who have everything go to school with their peers—private schools, charter schools, the schools few students from lower income levels get to attend? How does that separation play out for young people in both communities? Where do the schools meet? In organized sports events? Anyplace else?

The so-called “Religious Freedom” laws in Indiana and Arkansas have recently been challenged and revised. How do these deep conflicts on topics such as same-sex marriage, on abortion, climate change, evolution, and immigration play out in the experiences of young people whose families hold differing values and beliefs? I’d love to see these experiences explored in fiction or nonfiction.

These are a few of the books I’d like to see. What about you?

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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