- Will the Real Young Adult Novel Please Stand Up?
For the past five years, March 20, the first day of Spring, has been the day I pull out a six months' accumulation of publishers' catalogues. Crocuses are blooming, newly returned robins chirp, and fall semester book orders are due in another week or two. No problem. I'm eager to find superb novels for my college class in Adolescent Literature, and I know that I'll succeed. The days fly by; April 1st arrives. I give my now completed book lists one last glance. Only after they are turned in do I realize my actual situation. Somewhere on those neatly typed sheets lurks a book that I'll come to regret; I've been living in an Order Form Fool's Paradise.
Not all misery likes company. So, out of compassion for my colleagues who teach Adolescent Literature at the college level, and in hopes of a little catharsis for myself, I herewith present several unedited segments from my blooper file of novels I wish I hadn't ordered.
The Catcher in the Rye
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was teaching and what my class was like and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I'm not going to tell you my whole vita or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to my class around last Christmas just before they got pretty run down and had to go home for semester break."
Actually, I don't identify as closely with young Holden Caulfield as my opening remarks here would suggest. I suspect, however, that the majority of last semester's students would beg to differ. They told me that my generation (I graduated from college in 1970) liked people who were mixed up and bucked the system. While few of the students actively disliked Holden, most of them stated that Holden's problems were largely (if not solely) of his own making, and that he was a uniquely disturbed individual whose confusions were remote from any normal person's experience. According to the class consensus, Catcher in the Rye belonged not in Adolescent Literature, but rather in a course called "Abnormal Psych."
A few weeks before I taught this, I glanced at the syllabus to check the date to start discussion of Emily Bronte's brooding masterpiece. I found it listed as "Withering Heights," an inadvertant but apt foreshadowing of what lay ahead. Students who had found the characters of John and Lorraine (in Paul Zindel's The Pigman) endlessly fascinating thought that Catherine and Heathcliff were about as interesting as a pile of dead leaves. Or rather, it wasn't that Catherine and Heathcliff (or Cathy and Hareton) bored my students (most of whom planned to become high school teachers), but that they believed that the occupants of the Heights and of Thrushcross Grange would bore their future students. Wuthering Heights belonged back with its own kind, those long, albeit interesting, novels studied in courses on Victorian Literature.
I'd be the last to argue that this novel ought to sit on the shelf beside Pulitzer or American Book Award winners, but its enormous popular success, epistolary form, witty first-person narrator, problematic sexual politics, and picture of turn-of-the-century college life merit attention and interest. But not according to most of the students in a recent semester's Adolescent Literature course. Opinion wasn't unanimous; five or six students commented that they liked the book because it was light-hearted and "innocent," the very qualities that prompted some of their classmates to classify it as a book for children, rather than a book for teen-agers. Other students thought that if Daddy-Long-Legs had been popular, then it should be studied in a course on Popular Culture, or perhaps, if the book's sexual politics were to be considered, in Women's Studies.
In presenting these examples, I am not suggesting that the books aren't good, or that they can't really...