Week Six Readings: Realistic Fiction

The students’ toilet was at the other end of the long corridor with the spinach-green classroom doors.  Racing against time, Bastian ran as fast as he could and just made it.
As he sat there, he wondered why heroes in stories like the one he was reading never had to worry about such problems…
“Probably,” Bastian now said to himself, “these things are just too unimportant to be mentioned in stories.”

I’m not sure that whether or not Flipped matches a common experience of tweens is really a useful question.  I don’t know that many tweens have raised chickens, tried to save a tree, or have a mentally disabled uncle.  Or that many have come to the realization that their dad is a bit of a bigot, have a grandfather living at home, and go to a middle school where the booster club auctions off students as a fundraiser.  I think, as in fantasy or science fiction, what readers often relate to in realistic fiction are the larger themes – like facing up to your mistakes and learning to understand others.

Granted, one could generalize the plot and say it’s about a changing friendship, families in crisis, and humiliation in middle school, and most tweens have certainly been through several of those.  But one could say the same of many genre books.

 

We tend to think of realistic fiction as presenting solutions to young readers real life problems, that is what the genre used to be called, after all.  But as Lesesne point out in Naked Reading, that’s not always what readers want, or what is best for them:

This process, called bibliotherapy, can have disastrous consequences. After my daughter died a few years ago, well-meaning teachers encouraged my grandchildren, Natalie, Cali, and Corrie, to read books where a main character died. What those kids did not want was to be reminded of their loss. Instead, what they needed was to find some relief from their sadness. We read books with gentle good humor, happy to find a reason to laugh. It has only been recently, some four years after their mother’s death, that the girls are reading books like The Afterlife by Gary Soto and The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher.

All readers want to be able to identify with the protagonists once in a while at least, but that doesn’t always have much to do with why people choose to read realistic fiction.

 

I think that in some ways realistic fiction is rather like fan-fiction in that instead of building a world yourself, you play in someone else’s.  Except that in this case the world is the one we all live in, not a figment of someone’s imagination.  Still, the issues are the same; realistic fiction feels realistic not because of how many readers have experienced what the protagonist has gone through, but because of how well the writer matches the accepted cannon.

I think the trick to writing good realistic fiction is not to make it like reality, but rather, to make it something slightly more – but still believable.

With that being the question, I can say that yes, I think that Flipped feels very grounded in reality and the characters in it are very relatable and recognizable.  While most tweens have not gone through what Juli and Bryce have, many would act as they did, given the same circumstances, and the circumstances are well within the realm of what is likely.

 

Quote from:

 

Ende, M.  (1984) The Neverending Story.  New York, NY: Penguin Books

Packaging Boyhood Redux: Brian vs. Julie

I ended up reading Hatchet and Julie of the Wolves nearly back to back this semester, and it made for some really striking contrasts.  While both are are about surviving on one’s own in the wilderness, Brian and Julie approach their similar predicaments in very different ways.

Hatchet reminded me of all the Jack London “man vs. nature” stories that I had a hard time getting into as a kid, in part because the protagonists’ relationship with nature was adversarial and the emotional lives of the characters was often only barely alluded to.  Paulson’s adventure story is not quite that stark; Brian’s parents are mentioned several times and emotions like fear play a huge part in the story.  At the same time, considering how difficult a time Brian is having dealing with his mother at home, and how much he is avoiding the interpersonal conflict that has torn his world upside down, you could even argue that crashing on that mountain was as much wish-fulfillment as it was a dangerous plot twist.
Then we have Julie, who doesn’t rely on a twist of fate to save her from sticky interpersonal conflict, but heads out for the wilderness of her own accord.  Once there, she doesn’t fight with nature, even though her landscape is clearly much more dangerous than Brian’s, instead she makes friends with a wolf pack and convinces them to care for her.  In the end, what Julie of the Wolves reminded me most strongly of is A Little Princess, in which Sarah Crew’s idyllic world is turned upside down first through nothing more than the virtue of her growing older, and then by the death of her father.  Much the same way that Julie is forced to leave behind the old ways, first through the death of her father and then as a result of the progress of civilization.  Even more, the climax of each story involves not only heroism on the part of our protagonists, but also someone else coming to the conclusion that she is family and deserves protection.

 

Despite being so different, I enjoyed both stories a lot; I’m glad I read both of them and I will recommend both to all kinds of tweens.  I just really wish that it wasn’t always Brian that was avoiding emotional conflict and Julie that was willing to reach out and ask for help.  Although there is still more to be done, we’ve started making some really good progress showing girls that they can rely on themselves and don’t need to wait for others (just compare Julie to Sarah).  Boys, however, still seem to always be asked to be little Jack Londons*; told they are little men before they can even walk and, most of all, taught that vulnerability is not something that boys admit to.  It’s important that we have books like Hatchet; firstly because it is simply a good book, but secondly because it particularly speaks to the boys that have already internalized the idea of boyhood that we sell ourselves.  However, it’s just as important that we have examples of boyhood that are not so closely tied up in the myth of boy as an island and emotions as nothing more than weaknesses.

*The Jack London story that stuck with me the most was not any of the ones about the Alaska Gold Rush or the like, but a short story he wrote based on his own experiences as a child laborer at the twilight of the industrial revolution.  Like many oldest children at that time, Jack’s own childhood was sacrificed in favor of feeding his younger siblings.