In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Realistic kid behavior in fantasy worlds

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm sorry you've been down with a cold this week -- hope you're feeling better!

I've been thinking about YA and chapter books, and the qualities that make a child or teenage protagonist feel realistic, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.  I started on this tack when talking to Jeff earlier this week.  He's currently reading The Hunger Games, which I devoured last year, so that we can go see the movie together next month.  Jeff was struck by a couple of points he felt were unrealistic.

First: in their initial training, the Career Tributes (the teenagers who come from the richer districts and have been training for their whole lives for the Hunger Games) band together and form immediate alliances, while the other Tributes, who were chosen from poorer districts and are far less prepared, don't band together, and remain loners.

Second: this is a world in which everybody has grown up watching the Hunger Games on TV, and seen how the social dynamics play out multiple times.  Would Katniss really be so surprised when Peeta declares his love for her in his live TV interview?  Wouldn't she be prepared for, and understand, the reasoning behind playing up a romantic connection between them?

While I see his point on both counts, neither of these moments made me pause as a reader.  This may partly be that I read more YA literature than my husband does.  But it's more than that: I spend a lot of time with teenagers, and the teenage behavior Suzanne Collins describes feels true to me.  I've been teaching creative writing for 12 years, and have read enough stories of lost friendships and romantic entanglements and entanglements that they're not sure are romantic, but might be, to believe that Katniss would honestly be caught off guard by Peeta, no matter what she'd seen on TV before.

As a teacher who watches cohorts of students cycle through high school, I've become familiar with the tropes of teenage life, with what happens to a class when they hit junior year, and when they then become seniors.    To some extent, my students are aware that the paths they're taking have been trodden before, that the plots of their stories aren't brand new.  But they are brand new to them. 

So yes, I believe that the weaker Tributes wouldn't immediately band together like their own little armed Breakfast Club; in an atmosphere of suspicion, and in their untrained state, they wouldn't make that early move to connect, or even see connection with the other "losers" as a strength.

This week, Eleanor and I are reading The Borrowers, which came in your latest wonderful package.  We're loving it -- such suspense!  Such pleasure in imagining where Borrowers might live in our own home, and what they might be taking!  I hadn't read it in years, and one of the things I'd forgotten was the intensity and discomfort of Arietty's first meeting with the human boy.  She's 14 years old, and a few inches tall; he's 10, and a giant.  When the boy spots her, his first move is to threaten to squash her -- he thinks she's a possibly evil fairy -- and the rest of the interaction isn't much better.  He's threatening and pushy, and she's brave, but thoughtless about revealing information to him.  In short, he acts like a 10-year-old, and she acts like a 14-year-old.

There's something wonderful about reading child protagonists who feel emotionally plausible in this way.  A recognition: yes, I know that kid.  I've been that kid.  That kid speaks to me.

Love, Annie

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