Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Persepolis": My Two Cents on the Chicago Issue

Hopefully by now, you've heard at least in passing that on March 15th, the Chicago School District banned the graphic memoir Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, from its classrooms and libraries. Persepolis is Satrapi's memoir of growing up during a dangerous period of political unrest, Westernization, and discrimination during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Satrapi tells her story of clashing cultures in graphic novel form, and yes, her story includes things like torture, a man urinating on another man, and images of exposed body parts. Because of these images the Chicago School District came to the conclusion that its students were not capable of handling the book, and banned Persepolis from its district (although since then it's backpedaled to only restrict its inclusion in the 7th grade curriculum. 8th and 10th grade curriculums are still up in the air).

The Chicago Teachers' Union, National Coalition Against Censorship, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, the PEN America Centre and the National Council of Teachers of English, among others, have spoken out against the ban of such a powerful work of literature. Many opposed to the ban argue that really, this is the perfect age at which students should be introduced to stories like Satrapi's, since they are the approximate same age as the protagonist, and may be facing some of the same struggles at a time when they are caught between childhood and adulthood and can often feel helpless, directionless.

Yes, I think that Persepolis belongs in the hands of readers young and old alike. But I also think that whether or not the book should be taught is too shallow a question to ask when there is a much bigger issue lurking just below the surface. I'm talking about facing some of life's most difficult situations and working your way through to a plan of action.

Teenagers, even young ones and "tweens," are smarter than you think. Immature, yes, but smart. They know what goes on in the world, about war and violence and discrimination and rape, no matter how much you think you've sheltered them, no matter how much you'd love to think they will never have to face any of these difficult things. It's there on the evening news, in video games and song lyrics, in popular tv shows. These kids know about these horrible things even if their parents or teachers never say a word about it. They know these things exist, but do they know how to handle them?

Books like Persepolis provide the perfect opportunity for open discussion about these harsh realities, and healthy ways in which to address them. Teachers can be trained to use stories like Satrapi's as valuable guides for critical thinking and situational analysis from a third-person perspective, guiding the students through the protagonist's struggles with an eye toward constructive problem-solving. Analysis of this could take place through open class discussions and exploratory writing exercises to identify positive and negative actions taken by the protagonist, the impacts of those actions, and how and how a student can or can't relate to what the protagonist is thinking and feeling.

By overcoming the cultural gag order on controversial issues in our public school systems, we can guide students in the direction of healthy decision-making to prepare them for when they face their own seemingly impossible situations. And this opportunity is not limited to using Persepolis. Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian features a teenage boy who learns to view women as valuable individuals, instead of just sex symbols and objects of desire. It also includes a reference to masturbation. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, depicts the struggle of a teenage rape victim as she tries to accept what happened to her and tell someone about it. It involves teen drinking, delinquency, and rape. But these are the realities of teens in the modern age, which is why they appear in so many YA authors' work.

Public schools, however, need to consider whether a book is going to offend their community. This is a major stumbling block for the "teaching the situation" approach that I've outlined here. Some parents may insist that their child is still in need of being sheltered from the world, and for those people I really have no polite or diplomatic response at the moment. For the rest, who are concerned about how the book in question is to be taught or whether a single reaction to that book is going to be forced upon a child, I suggest that this is an incredible opportunity to be involved in a child's education. Especially knowing that a student is going to be reading and talking about some emotionally tough subjects, a parent can really seize the moment to talk with their child and ensure that they are getting familial values and ethics out of the book. Communication with teachers, too, can reassure parents that the book is indeed being taught as a constructive tool for handling future life challenges. An open dialogue between parents and educators with the child's education at the center of everything? What could be better?

Additionally, a parent volunteering to openly talk with their child about rape, violence, discrimination, and other tough issues in books shows a child that they're interested in what the child thinks on those issues. By talking about drugs in, for example, Go Ask Alice, a parent signals to a child that they are a "safe" person to whom they can address questions or concerns not just about the book, but in real life as well. The topic of drugs, or where they can lead, is no longer a forbidden topic because that topic has been broached by the book.

This is my idealistic, ever-hopeful, rose-tinted vision of what our education system could be like someday. We're nowhere near to reaching it, but that doesn't mean someday it won't be possible. For the time being though we're still stuck in a rut pitting teachers against school districts over an image of male genitalia or the word "bitch." And students keep watching their shows, playing their video games, without knowing that it's okay to talk about the harsh realities pictured there. This isn't just about Persepolis: It's about how we approach our children, what we trust them to be able to handle responsibly, and who's going to step up and teach them how to make it through the tough parts of life. Right now in Chicago, it looks like the ones who are really suffering because of this book ban are the students. And I sincerely hope that this changes soon. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review: "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

Archaic codes and cutting-edge technology collide in this present-day tale of espionage and adventure. After Clay Jannon takes a job at San Francisco's strangest bookstore, he becomes curious about the unusual customers who check out the large tomes from the back shelves at odd hours of the night. His curiosity leads him into secret cults, the technological omnipotence of Google, and possibly to true love and to the secret to eternal life?

I was really impressed by the initial subject of this book: the intersection of traditional book reading and the new advances in reading technology. As someone who works at this crossroads nearly every day (as part of the Village Books eTeam) this subject is of personal interest to me, and to many others with one foot in literature and the other in the computer age. Sloan does a great job of depicting the huge leap between traditional book reading and the new technology of e-readers. The speed with which these developments are being made is truly incredible, and most of us can't even imagine the true technological might of a company like Google or other companies behind many new reading methods.

While the story in "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" is full of old codes, new kinds of books, methods of reading and a simultaneous love for antiquity, it gets strange really quickly. While I loved the RPG references and cherished fantasy novel memories on the part of the protagonist, it got hokey with the advent of an actual secret society as part of the story. That plus the unsatisfactory culmination of the society's centuries-old mission combined to form a real letdown at the end of the story.

However, the research that went into the font, and the idea to use it as a basis for a business/secret society was truly inspired. It brought to mind another recent book, this one nonfiction, about the history of fonts and their creation. A little bit about "Just My Type" by Simon Garfield can be found here if you're interested.

I'd recommend "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" to people who are interested in the cutting edge of reading technology but who still have a fondness for good old paper books, especially if you don't mind a little bit of cheese in exchange for some really cool technology. If you share Jannon's memories of high school fantasy obsessions, that helps too. This novel is available now at your favorite local bookstore! Also, did I mention that the yellow books on the cover glow in the dark? Awesome.