I purpled my hair, because I like to think that I’m a little bit punk rock from time to time.
I loved Frank Portman’s book King Dork. Tom Henderson, otherwise known as the title character, King Dork, has such a brilliantly cutting view of school and the world. He sees through the BS and the condescension of adults and “normal” students who torture him. When he declared that all you need to do to ace a high school honors course is be able to make a decent collage, I knew I was in love. It’s been a few years and The King has returned in King Dork Approximately. I have only started the book (I’m on page 73 of 332), but I didn’t want to wait to post.
King Dork is everything I look for in a Young Adult book and main character. He’s a kid who nobody is fooling. He’s facing serious problems, and is coping through a wicked and irreverent sense of humor and rich fantasy life, and taking bold actions when forced. The fact that he loves music is a fantastic bonus. In the new book, Tom picks up where he left off.
Tom’s situation and standing in his world hasn’t changed, though. He’s a thinker and has a lot of ideas about the world which he shares relentlessly. He presents his “General Theory of the Universe” on page 26. Reading it was one of those great moments for me when I wanted to jump up off my seat and shout ‘YES!’ at the top of my lungs. I refrained from that as I was in my classroom during our silent reading period. I would have not only seriously disrupted my student’s reading, but I might also have given them one more reason to think I’m nuts. Instead I did what I have done before after reading something that rings so true – I ran around school (and then home) and made everyone who happened to make eye contact with me read it. Forcible sharing it was, and I am not sorry. I now share it with you.
Tom Henderson’s General Theory of the Universe from King Dork Approximately
“That the normal people who attack rock and roll misfits with tubas and put defenseless nerdy kids in garbage cans and throw gum in their hair and tease fat girls into suicidosity et cetera are merely the lowest foot soldiers in an integrated, extremely well-organized totalitarian social structure that extends through the student body, the school system, the city, the state, the country and its entire population and culture as well as those of the whole world, and, ultimately, to nature itself, all organized around a pseudo-Darwinian principle that may best be described as Survival of the Cruelest and the Dumbest, and just barely masked by an increasingly threadbare curtain of pretty lies, which-the curtain of lies, I mean-is most prominently exemplified by this godforsaken hellhole of a book called The Catcher in the Rye.”
YES!!!! This. This is why YA books with real and self aware characters hit me in the gut. The cruelest and the dumbest don’t just go away afte high school. They go on to be our bosses or co-workers or political leaders and any confrontation with them can go terribly wrong. However, those who recognize the machine and help themselves and others to throw monkey wrenches into it – via rock and roll, protests and demonstrations, and daringly honest criticism of the powers that be – are helping all of us misfits and righting wrongs. Nobody has full constitutional rights as a minor and even less so within the walls of a school building. If we don’t let that crush our spirits, we can keep fighting to disrupt the totalitarian structure and give other misfits hope.
If that rings true to you, then you should sit by me, join the conversation here and run away with the circus — this here blog.
Welcome Tom Henderson to our circus. Freaks like you are our kind of people. You give us hope and let us know that we’re not alone.
It’s been a rough couple of days at our house. I won’t get into details, but suffice it to say that I will never understand teachers, guidance counselors, or administrators who seem to derive joy or a perverse charge out of belittling students. There is at least one of these trolls at every school. You know the one who prides herself on making tests that nobody scores higher than 75 on or makes belittling comments just because they have authority in class and because they’re the adult. Why would you use your authority to do that? I don’t know why, but I know that there are too many of them out there. Two of these small minded ogres met with two of my children this week. I suppose that they assumed that my children don’t know that they shouldn’t be treated that way, that they wouldn’t tell me about it, or that my husband and I wouldn’t make our displeasure clear. They were wrong. Nobody of any age deserves to be treated like that. People do it to teenagers because they view them as “less than” full people. The two adults at my kids’ school have been made well aware of their errors. I don’t hold out much hope that they’ll change their ways, but they may be more thoughtful in the future.
Painting youth as less than full people is again a theme in the Washington Post opinion post http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/15/why-the-message-of-the-hunger-games-films-is-dangerous The whole critique smacks of condescension. This paragraph sums up the argument and the tone to me.
“Despite these heady sentiments, the film’s depiction of revolution is astonishingly simple, an adolescent vision of toppling an “evil” authority figure. Sure, this isn’t surprising as it’s meant for young adults, but in the context of political spillover this anti-authoritarian vision becomes more troubling.”
The whole thing makes me seethe. I haven’t seen the Mockingjay part 1 movie, but I do know that the story of the Hunger Games is not “astonishing simple” by any measure. In the first two films, President Snow is definitely a villain, but he’s not seen as the only problem. Nor do any of the characters indicate that removing him will fix everything. The author in the post tears down a work of fiction adapted into a film, not a political text or a revolutionary handbook. His analysis gets it wrong on every point.
Things that are meant for young adults aren’t simple. Neither are young adults themselves. When we consistently underestimate young adults, they underestimate themselves and stop taking risks of trying to make a difference and the whole world suffers. Instead of preparing them for making an impact, we tell them they can’t understand the world and that they should wait until they are older. We pretend that we know what’s best for them and that they don’t know themselves or the world. What a disservice we do when we tell them they can’t understand and we silence their voices.
Which brings me to DC by way of Ferguson. At the March for Justice last week, several young adults took to the stage to speak. They had not been invited to speak and they were angry about it. Those of us in the crowd did not know what was going on and the scene seemed showed discord and in-fighting. To me, it didn’t fit with the day, but I didn’t know what was happening. Now I do.
The full story in their own words can be found here. http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/56473447
Young protesters explained that when they started their protests and making their voices heard in the immediate aftermath of Mike Brown’s shooting death, they faced tear gas and rubber bullets as well as threats and other dangers. They kept protesting and fighting making noise. They thought that they would receive support and training quickly from established civil rights groups like the NAACP and others. They did not. When the established groups arrived in Ferguson, they did not speak to the young people who had been making a difference, they instead held their own events and didn’t invite or include the young protesters. The March in DC was more of the same. Many groups and speakers who have had no involvement in the ongoing dangerous and continuous protests in Ferguson were asked to speak and issued VIP passes. When the young Ferguson protesters arrived at the march, they were denied an opportunity to speak. Again, shut down by the older people who shushed them. They are refusing to be silenced and are continuing to make their voices heard. They stormed the stage and demanded to speak. They were grudgingly allowed to do so.
Young adults who understand their world and who are refusing to accept the status quo. We need more of them to make us all think and to add their voices to the world. Shutting them down is cowardly and wrongheaded. We can do better and if we do, they’ll make our world better.
Like a lot of people I found solace in books growing up. I try to explain to my students today that when I attended Washington Irving Middle School down the street from the Middle School where I teach today, there really weren’t YA books. That just wasn’t really a thing. They do not get this concept at all or grasp the gravity of what they have access to today. My middle school reading was Judy Blume (Forever terrified me) and Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die made me sob into my pillow for many nights. I had read all of the Madeline L’Engle that existed and I had loved everything Katherine Patterson wrote. I felt that I had run out of books to read and I didn’t want to go back and read the kid chapter books that were being released. There weren’t books out there, that I knew about anyway, written about people my age who were going through what I was – even in general – school, romance, puberty and general confusion and angst.
I still read. For me, the intermediate step in reading was the magnificent Agatha Christie. I had read really fun mystery books by E. W. Hildick when I was younger. They now seem to be out of print, which makes me sad. They ignited my love of mysteries. Instead of neighborhood puzzles of missing bikes and turtles, my new sleuthing turned to murder.
There was very good news for me in Agatha Christie’s books. First of all, there were tons of them to read. That was important. I needed companionship. Second, the sleuths were weird and didn’t take steps to hide their freaky obsession with crime and murder or their talent in reading people. Both Miss Marple and Poirot were outsiders who were held in some suspicion whenever they showed up. Another trait they shared was that they listened to no one and followed rules only when they served their purposes. This disregard for the rules or what has always been done is a part of them that I’ve always loved. They not only didn’t listen to local police officers or anyone else who got in their way, they simply charged ahead without regard for warnings or scoldings to follow procedures.
The books I read as a teenager were decidedly adult. I wasn’t into comic books so much and there just didn’t seem to be much else out there. So, I turned to the books we had to read for school. I was assigned to read three books during the summer before my freshman year of high school. We moved from Springfield, Virginia to Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, my dad was assigned to attend Air War College with military people from all over the world. My brothers, who were in sixth and first grade, attended the base elementary school. They were in classes with children from Sweeden, Saudi Arabia, and countries all over the world. In stark contrast, I attended Saint James School. Saint James is a private school. When we moved to Montgomery, my parents were told that the public schools there held dozens of pregnant girls, knife fights in the hallways and all manner of depravity. Of course, these schools were attended by mostly black students, so racist parents had told my parents these fairy tales. Since my mom had a zillion things to consider on the move and since we would only be in Mongomery for a grand total of 11 months, she made the easiest decision and sent me to the school that most other kids on base would attend.
As it turned out, Saint James School that was a dodge for desegregation. Basically, if you could afford to send your white child to Saint James, you could be sure that they would never be forced to encounter a black student, teacher or any black person of any sort. It was horrible.
The reading I had to do that summer was typical for the time, I think. We had to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, and Billy Budd by Herman Melville. I spat on the floor when I wrote Billy Budd just now. I have a deep abiding hatred for that book. I think everyone has one of those books that someone tried to make them read that haunts them with its arcane language and stupid characters and insufferable plot. For me, that book is Billy Budd *spit*. The damned thing is only 116 pages, but I could not force myself to read it. It sucked. I can’t even remember why I hated it so much. I have erased it from my mind and experience. I’ve expunged it from my psyche. I loved the other two books. I really enjoyed reading them. The end of A Tale of Two Cities was so beautifully romantic and tragic. I cried and felt like a better and braver person. I understood the lessons from both books and hoped to be the type of person who would look beyond beauty and fight for the less fortunate. Billy Budd could kiss my ass.
I read off and on for years after that. I loved Madame Bovary and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I found Albert Camus’ The Stranger thought provoking and disturbing. I fought not to run away from home the minute I finished reading On The Road and wished I had friends and a life like Jack Kerouac. I read all of those books that many teenagers dislike reading both then and now. I was a huge literature nerd and went on to study more books and writers in college.
In my late thirties, I was in graduate school when I discovered Young Adult literature. I took a summer class at George Mason University about Multicultural Young Adult Literature. It changed my life and my reading life.
I had an unhappy, if not tragic, adolescence. My parents and I did not get along. I was a great student and I had a group of great, mostly male friends. I loved my teachers and enjoyed myself at Hampton High School. It was a great school full of amazing people. The school was in my memory about 55% black and 45% white. I don’t remember racial problems. I befriended whomever I wanted to and am friends with many of those same great people today. Being at home was horrible and I was grounded all the time. My mother once threatened me with family therapy and I was so excited that I think I screamed, “Fantastic, when!” She never made good on that threat. I suffered clinical depression, though nobody knew it then and I still do. I had what can only be described as a major depression/nervous breakdown during my sophomore year in college and took six months off from school. It was tumultuous. I spent the next fifteen years getting my mental health in order, getting married and starting a family.
In that grad school class I found some of the best therapy I could have found. It was amazing. Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes changed everything. I had never read anything like it. For those of you who haven’t read it, please stop reading this right now and go find it. NOW. It’s the story of Eric and Sarah Byrnes. They’re both circus freaks at their school. Eric is fat and everyone calls him Moby. Sarah Byrnes in the cruelest twist of fate has a horribly disfigured face from horrible burns. Eric has started training on the swim team and is slimming down and becoming less freakish. He and Sarah fear that their friendship won’t survive his change in status and he does his best to stay fat.
It was the first book I had ever read that treated teenagers as full human beings with fully valid feelings, opinions and problems. The kids in the book were real and genuine and flawed and needed to be listened to. All of them. Every time somebody reached out, found a way to really get heard, or decided to defy the controlling people in their lives, it felt like a small piece of me was healed. That may sound like too much, but it really is true. Chris Crutcher gets people and he really gets teenagers. They are people. They feel things deeply and need the space to feel, make mistakes and to help each other. Sarah Byrnes and Moby are amazing. There are fantastic well meaning adults, too. Ms. Lemry made me want to go hug a random teenager and make them feel better. I don’t want to give you a plot summary as you can find them in lots of other places. Reading that book was a huge moment and revelation for me. I had always loved teenagers and thought they never got the respect or credit they deserved. Here was someone who felt the same way about Moby and Sarah and about my badly bruised and unheard teen self.
I couldn’t believe it. I met Chris Crutcher unexpectedly at the NCTE conference this year. When I saw him at a session, I knew who he was immediately. I made my way to him and when I got to speak I said, “Thank you so much for Sarah Byrnes,” and immediately burst into tears. I explained that the book was just so important to me and I was just so grateful. When I told my 17 year old daughter the story when I got home, she shook her head and told me that I am, indeed, a mess. Fortunately, I was able to talk with Mr. Crutcher the next day before a session and apologized for my blubbering and then had a normal tear free conversation with him.
So, that was my introduction into the tribe of what I’ve come to think of as ‘real’ teens in Young Adult fiction. I’ve met many more of them over the years, but Sarah Byrnes and Moby really were the first members of ‘The Tribe’ of weirdos that made me feel less alone. If they could help each other and love each other through their missteps and through the cruelty and judgment that they had each encountered at school and at home, there was hope for so many more of us.
Welcome to the Hippodilly Circus. Pull up a chair or a pair of stilts or a tiny car full of everyone you’ve ever met. All are welcome.
What is the Hippodilly Circus, you ask? This site was founded because I am an avid reader of Young Adult fiction and a fan of teenagers in general. This may be because I have an adolescent sense of humor, because I’ve spent so much time with teenagers in my teaching career, or because I never really got over high school. Who knows? The fact is that I love to read YA. There wasn’t really any YA when I was a teenager in the olden days, so reading it today is therapeutic and reassuring to me. When I think about why that is, my answer is that it reassures me that adolescence is difficult for everyone in very specific and individual ways.
YA is popular. There are loads of blogs, websites, and other media publicizing the superstar books and authors of YA. So, why start another?
- Because teenagers are undervalued and underappreciated by adults and consequently they tend to undervalue themselves.
- Because the “machine” sells teenagers images of perfection, normalcy, and happiness that are unattainable.
- Because stories of real teenagers battling through real struggles offer hope, comfort and escape that many teenagers don’t find anywhere else.
Young Adult books that are raw and that ring true are overlooked and underpromoted by publishers. They often deal with subjects and behavior that is viewed as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘too challenging’ for teen readers to experience in a book. Knowing teenagers and having been one, I think that this is stupidity. Teens need coping skills – not content warning. They need more autonomy and choice in what they read. They don’t need anyone to tell them what they can and can’t handle. Guidance? Yes. Censorship? No.
This is where we can talk about and laud those books.
Why is it called the Hippodilly Circus?
Circus because it has always been a place of refuge for people who feel outcast, misunderstood or not valued. The circus is a place where the outside ‘normal’ world can come to see freaks. It’s also the ‘big tent’ where freaks are welcome and able to support each other, support each other and form a community. Hippodilly – for a few reasons. 1) I love hippos. They kill more humans than any other animal in Africa each year. They kill because you pissed them off and they have territory they protect. I love that about them. 2) A hippodrome is the Roman circus. 3) It sounds like Piccadilly Circus and it’s fun to say.
So, here we are and we will talk about books which:
Honor that life is hard and our struggles are important.
Help us to celebrate our weirdness value other people’s weirdness.
Show that we don’t need to be ‘normal’ because nobody really is.
Show us that most people are doing the best they can and when we ask for help, offer our help, withhold judgment, listen to each other and make ourselves heard, we are less alone.
There aren’t any magic wands, manic pixie dreamgirls or guys, or other invented ‘fixes’ out there. We don’t need fixing. We need to be heard and to know that we’re OK.
What do you think?