Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Real World

I am always the last to know about trends. I was wearing day-glow and scrunchies as flannel and frowns became popular. I started to take care of a Tamagotchi, an electronic pet that I had to feed and walk, as most of my friends let their pets fade away with dignity. I am currently on the second season of Lost (after starting the show three days ago) and I feel like I am the last to know about this "must-see" show. One trend I regret missing was the emergence of realistic coming of age stories in the late 60s and 70s. Books like The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967), Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970), and Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars, winner of the 1971 Newbery Award, are unrepentant in their accurate portrayal of young adults. And it has become more than a trend; it is become a staple of young adult literature*.

Sara Godfrey's moods are like a summer storm, calm one moment, turbulent the next. Anyone can relate to the seesaw of emotion that she experiences. Not only does Sara have to compete with her perfect and beautiful sister, Wanda, sidestep her Aunt Willie's overbearing demands and ministrations, bear the responsibility for her younger brother, Charlie, who has special needs, but she has to bear the weight of everything changing. Sara is full of "discontent, an anger about herself, her life, her family" (46). She has yet to come into her own and learn to accept her tall, skinny body, quirky personality, and place in the universe. It is no wonder that Sara is fascinated with the visiting swans, who represent a bright future where she sees herself as beautiful and content. Only after Charlie gets lost and she finds an unlikely ally does Sara realize her value and knows that she will weather the shaky steps of her adolescence. I love how Sara is irrational and temperamental and thoughtful and whimsical - all at the same time. She feels so familiar, so true, as though she could be any of us when we were teenagers. Her relationship with Charlie is also particularly poignant. This books stands out as a forerunner of quality literature about children with special needs. Just as Sara's adolescent angst is raw and unflinching, the issue of Charlie being "retarded" (the book's wording - it was published before the proper terminology was refined) is addressed from many angles, making Charlie a well-rounded character. The people who mistreat Charlie for being different are part of the cast of characters, as well as those who can see beyond the surface. However, Sara and the other characters who value differences are the ones whose influence will be felt long after I read the last page of the book.

As long as we're on the topic of literature about children with special needs, I want to recommend some excellent books that deal with the subject.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

* Modern writers like Alex Flinn, Barry Lyga, and David Levithan (some of my favorite writers) excel at writing about teenagers as they are, unafraid to deal with sensitive and difficult issues.

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