Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Where the White Kids Are

My brain is rotting. All the tv and teen novels and frozen pizza. Really, it has been an exhausting summer of "research." I've read dozens of teen novels. I've even watched Laguna Beach. Many of them are quite interesting. And many of them are also somewhat predictable. Almost everything I've read has been incredibly entertaining (that's genre fiction for ya). And I can't say enough about the value of reading as diversion. That nose in a book thing is pretty soothing. Some of my recent faves? Smack by Melvin Burgess, Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. I also read books like Lisa, Bright and Dark and Please Don't Kill the Freshman and Our Band Could Be Your Life. I even dipped into books on adolescence from the psychology section. And boy are they white.

I need to read more. All the books I've picked up from lurking on teen reads message boards and browsing listmanias composed by teens have been pretty similar: white, suburban, angsty. Over and over again. It raises some interesting questions about the audience for this genre. And, I've yet to encounter -- in any of these books -- a high school as diverse as my own. There's an article by Jonathan Kozol in the September issue of Harper's ("Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's educational apartheid," adapted from his forthcoming book The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America) about the re-segregation of public schools in urban America. It's depressing.

The governmentally administered diminishment in value of the children of the poor begins even before the age of five or six, when they begin their years of formal education in public schools. It starts during their infant and toddler year, when hundreds or thousands of children of the very poor in much of the United States are locked out of the opportunity for preschool education for no reason but the accident of birth and budgetry choices of the government, while children of the privileged are often given veritable feasts of rich developmental early education.

and later

The achievement gap between black and white children, which narrowed for three decades up until the late years of the 1980s -- the period in which school segregation steadily decreased -- started to widen once more in the early 1990s when the federal courts began the process of resegregation by dismantling the mandates of the Brown decisions. From that point on, the gap continued to widen or remain essentially unchanged; and while recently there has been a modest narrowing of the gap in reading scores for fourth grade children, the gap in secondary school remains as wide as ever.

I find it interesting that the high school I attended from 1989-1993 in the northeast suburbs of Columbia, SC, which had almost 3000 students and was 50% black, was what they called "re-zoned" in 1995 when a new high school opened. The new high school was opened to reduce "overcrowding." This of course, also drastically reduced the "diversity" at my old school. I wonder if the lack of diversity in the teen books I've been reading -- many of which are from the last five years -- is connected to the trend that Kozol descibes. My all time favorite teen read, Weetzie Bat, published in 1989, is by far the most diverse of the books I've read (though Born Confused does contain an interesting look at the experience of non-white immigrants and their children in the suburbs of New Jersey, and many current teen books deal very openly with sexuality. And I should say that most of the books do have either a Hispanic character or an Asian-American character in there somewhere. Also, I should note that the absence of minority characters in prime time television has been well-documented).

I just find it sad that in the wake of increasingly "edgy" and "progressive" teen reads (reads that even have parents gearing up to put Parental Advisory labels on the covers-- yikes) I haven't come across one that really takes up any of the issues in Kozol's article. And I want to know how many black teenagers read these books. And I want to know, simply, what black teenagers are reading, because there just are not very many of them in the books I've come across on the "teen fiction" shelves. And I don't see too many of them at the high school and university I've taught in (a public high school and a state university where most minority students are Hispanic) here in Hays County, Texas (a state that recently became a "majority minority" state). But I'm looking for them.


Anonymous said...

Hey Michelle,
Your article got me straight onto Amazon looking for good books. I found 3 that you might like. Here are the links:





femme feral said...

Wow, thanks! Those look very good. I'm def. into suggestions.

femme feral said...

Also, I'm wondering where the books linked above are shelved. It's interesting how teen fiction -- a relatively new genre -- started as sort of an offshoot of YA lit, and has recently been described as severely under the influence of chick lit (I posted on chick lit and class a couple of months back) Anyway, I've yet to read any of the teen chick-lit. There's a series called Gossip Girl that tons of girls seem to like. And when I've combed the shelves of the teen section in every bookstore that I've been in over the past three months, I've seen LOTS of gossip girl books. But I've never seen any of the books linked above. What's up with the layout at the bookstore and genre designation? I love how WATERLOO, a local record store here in Austin, has all the CDs -- regardless of genre -- arranged alphabetically. It not only makes it incredible easy to find what you are looking for, but creates the opportuniy for some surprising juxtapositions. One of the cool things about online book shopping is that the sense of *physical* distance between books of different genres is diminished. But sometimes I can't help but wonder if the genre designations are simply idiotic anyway.

Elka said...

Hi Michelle,

I was wondering if you are seeing a lot of "fear" fiction, as I tend to think of it, in the teen sections. I remember reading a LOT of teen books when I was 13 or 14 that were about teens who got pregnant or became drug addicts when they were 16, etc., and I'm wondering if this phenomenon has disappeared much....

Also, I think this subject would make a GREAT article for my section in Kitchen Sink. Wanna write a piece?? We could take it straight out of your posts. Also I want S.B. to write about AM Talk Radio. Should I call to arrange/coerce/beg?

zp said...

Hope you find this: Danzy Senna, Caucasia. I'm sure you've read this. It is one of of, oh, about 5 pieces of contemporary fiction I've read in the last 10 years.