Phasing the Gatekeepers
According to all reliable sources a hurricane is about to wipe out the city of New York and all its denizens therein. With that in mind I feel it is time to ponder the ponderable. We’re all gatekeepers here, yes? Librarians, parents, teachers, etc. Our job, as we see it, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. The good from the bad. The tawdry from the divine. The curds from the whey. The . . . but I distract myself.
Point of fact, many of us enjoy this job. We deem what is acceptable, our children get the best of the best, and so it goes. Recently, though, I’ve noticed a strange gatekeeper phenomenon that pops up every once in a while. And it’s something I first noticed when my blogging was still in its earliest stages.
The year was 2007. Gas was $3.38 a gallon. Apple was introducing something called an “iPhone”. The final Harry Potter novel was appearing on bookstore shelves worldwide. And a young Jack Gantos . . . all right, a slightly younger Jack Gantos was publishing I Am Not Joey Pigza. And librarians were mad at him for it.
Not just librarians either. A whole host of folks were pretty peeved with Mr. Gantos. To understand why you had to be familiar with the Joey Pigza series. Following the life of a boy with ADHD, Joey saw a series of ups and downs starting in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key and continuing in Joey Pigza Loses Control. By the time the third book, What Would Joey Do? finished the reader was safe and secure in the knowledge that maybe things were finally looking up for ole Joey P. Adults were happy. Then Gantos had to go and spoil it all.
In I Am Not Joey Pigza our titular hero backslides. It’s not his fault, really. His no good dad has won the lottery and his mother, now entranced with daddy’s money, lets the doofus back into her son’s life. Dad’s just as ADHD as his son, but unlike Joey he doesn’t believe in medication. What follows is a strange amalgamation of childhood dream and nightmare. Imagine you had a dad who pulled you out of school to play crazy games with you during the day. Now imagine that life getting sourer and worse as the days go on. For kids reading the book, the story is told through Joey’s eyes and really, he doesn’t mind what happens to him all that much. For adults, reading the book can be agony.
Here’s the situation. Grown men and women of my acquaintance would rail again Gantos for writing this book. These were people who loved Joey. Who felt incredibly protective of him. And for Gantos to allow that rat of a father back into Joey’s life . . . well, for some it felt like a personal betrayal. How could he do this to Joey? That kid was doing okay. Why change that?
It was such an odd reaction to witness too. It was like a personal betrayal to these folks. So I tucked it into the back of my mind for a rainy day.
Fast forward to 2011 and the publication of two very different books. In fact, as of right now they are my two top contenders for the 2012 Newbery Award. On the one hand is the well received and much lauded Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. On the other, relative newcomer and dark horse candidate Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Both books are works of historical fiction. Both contain father characters with questionable moral compasses. And both raise the following question:
Since what I read into this is not the same as what a child would read into this, does that ultimately hurt the novel?
If you haven’t read Okay for Now this is as much of a spoiler alert as you are going to get, by the way.
You see, Okay for Now has everything going for it award-wise . . . except its ending. It probably would be a shoo-in for Newbery gold even with the strange Broadway switcheroo. Why not? But then you get to the finale and the father’s supposed turnaround. One minute he’s a monster capable of tattooing his own offspring against their will. The next he’s crying over his sons and talking about how pretty the flowers on the table are. Adults don’t buy this sudden change of heart, and well they shouldn’t. Yet to my eyes this isn’t some miraculous new leaf being turned over. This dad could easily wake up the next morning the same cussed scoundrel his always was. We’re simply viewing a brief moment of peace. But will kids read the ending that way or will they assume that everything from now one is going to be hunky-dory? Which is to say, as an adult I can see how this is just a temporary fix, while a child might see it as a permanent change. Is that the fault of the novel?
Now let’s look at Jefferson’s Sons. In this novel the children of Thomas Jefferson with his slave Sally Hemings consider their lot in life and various potential futures. Bradley cleverly makes it so that the point of views in this book always come from children. While the characters age and grow the perspective is continually young. And right at the beginning Beverly, the eldest child of Ms. Hemings, asks her if she loves his father. She laughs and says “of course” which may immediately get a gatekeeper’s antennae whirling (or whatever movement it is that antennae indulge in). “Of course”? Does Hemings really love Jefferson and, if so, is that the kind of thing we want to see in a novel for kids? Yet the book is far more complex than that. You can’t pigeonhole it quite that easily and as you read through it you find it knows how to deal with morally ambiguous questions. That said, an adult might go back to that earlier “of course” and worry that a kid would believe Ms. Hemings wholeheartedly. And wouldn’t that be a bad thing, even if the rest of the book casts her relationship in a slightly different light?
What these two books and the final Joey Pigza have in common is that they’re all have significant moments that are read and interpreted differently by adults than by children. You could say that’s true of all literature for kids, and you’d be right. The difference with these books is that whether or not you see them as weak or strong novels hinges on whether or not you think (A) That a kid is going to read some element of this book differently than a grown-up might and (B) That interpretation is wrong and therefore the book is wrong and this is a flaw that should have been remedied.
Curious thoughts for a windy day.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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