Escape in a World of Mirrors

I have two broad goals for my ELA classes: 1) I want my students to become life-long readers and 2) I want them to be able to communicate clearly in writing. In order to try to achieve goal 1, I model what it means to be a reader. I read with them, talk books with them, recommend books to them, take their book recommendations, and talk about my reading life. I think it’s important that kids know that Readers read for a variety of purposes—one of those might be for escape. I read for entertainment, as well, but in my mind escape is different from entertainment. Reading for escape happens when life gets too intense or causes too much stress or anxiety. I use books that I can fall into as my coping mechanism. These escapist reads might have strong setting, strong plot, strong characters or any combination of those three. If I struggle to get into the book in the first 10 pages, it is put aside until my brain is quiet enough to return to it.

The last ten days has caused me to do more escape reading than normal. The current political environment is stressing me out. In order to get away from fact-checking outrageous (and often hate-fueled) comments and the tone (yelling) in which these statements are delivered, I need something that allows me to unplug. This week’s YA reading found me finishing the Delirium trilogy by Lauren Oliver, Like No Other by Una Lamarche, and Theodore Boone: The Abduction by John Grisham. While I really enjoyed all of the books, I would not recommend dystopian fiction as a genre to read during this presidential election.

While dystopian fiction has had strong appeal with YA, this year, I noticed a curious trend in my classroom. My students were more attracted to realistic fiction a la John Green and mystery/suspense. I thought this was really interesting since dystopian fiction was HUGE through the end of the 2014-2015 school year, and then suddenly it wasn’t. I was over dystopian writing long before the students were, so in a way, I was happy to see my students branching out with their reading choices. I didn’t think too much of it. I thought dystopian writing, like books about vampires, was a fad, and the fad was over. Students found The Fault in Our Stars and moved on. Case closed.

Then I started reading through the backlogged YA titles on my office floor. I had Pandemonium and Requiem (the second and third book of the Delirium trilogy) to read for my class library. I wasn’t a fan of Delirium, so these books sat (for a long time) waiting to be read and brought to school. I was completely surprised to find myself enjoying Pandemonium. There was a lot of action and the characters had much more depth than I found in Delirium. I read Pandemonium in a day shortly after school got out. This week I found myself reading Requiem. While I enjoyed it as much, if not more, than Pandemonium, I found myself reading in short bursts, then putting the book down to do something else. I couldn’t figure out why until I got to the last page and read this:
“Take down the walls.
That is, after all, the whole point. You do not know what will happen if you take down the walls; you cannot see through to the other side, don’t know whether it will bring freedom or ruin, resolution or chaos. It might be paradise, or destruction.
Take down the walls.
Otherwise you must live closely, in fear, building barricades against the unknown, saying prayers against the darkness, speaking verse of terror and tightness.
Otherwise you may never know hell, but you will not find heaven, either. You will not know fresh air and flying.
All of you, wherever you are: in your spiny cities or your one-bump towns. Find it, the hard stuff, the links of metal and chink, the fragments of stone filling your stomach. And pull, and pull, and pull.
I will make a pact with you: I will do it if you will do it always and forever.
Take down the walls” (Oliver, 2013, p. 391).

Yes, the reference to building walls is quite closely linked to the current promise by Trump to build a wall between the US and Mexico. It also links to his idea to ban Muslims. And while the idea of breaking down the literal and metaphoric walls between us gives a spark of hope, the reason for the walls in the trilogy were eerily similar to the walls discussed so far throughout this presidential election.

In Oliver’s trilogy, walls are built around cities to keep the Invalids (those who would not accept the cure for love) out. To protect citizens from being “infected” by those who are “unclean.” But what happens if love isn’t some terrible disease? What happens if the “cure” is simply a way for the government to control its citizens? What then?

The difficulties I had reading Requiem had nothing to do with the novel. It had everything to do with my purpose for reading. I was reading to escape. I couldn’t because the central themes and conflict of this novel were in striking similarity to debates happening in the US right now. Acknowledging this has helped me gain an appreciation for the novel. And once again, I’m seeing literature as a mirror.

But it also brings up a question I don’t have an answer for.

What happens when an assigned text creates an unintended mirror for a student? What happens if the text mirrors a difficult (personal) situation for the student?

Pondering this question brings up more questions: What if the student is averse to the text but doesn’t know why? What if the student knows why but isn’t in a position to process it? What do we do to help the student process emotions created by the text? How do we handle a book a student doesn’t want to read but doesn’t explain why?

I don’t think I’ll ever have a clear, one-size-fits-all answer to this. However, I think it will present interesting conversations about the power of reading, why we read, and why we like (or are averse to) certain books.

Posted in Dystopian Fiction, Independent Reading/SSR/Reader's Workshop, Read the World, Series, Window or Mirror | Tagged as: , ,

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