Friday, December 23, 2011
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"What Do You Think the Author Is Trying to Say?"

We've all been asked that question. In English class, usually. Perhaps as part of a group discussion, or maybe as an essay prompt on an exam. We're supposed to analyze the text, looking for symbolism and imagery. We're supposed to tease out the themes, the message.

But what if we don't want to tease it out? What if we want it served to us on a platter, like steak with a loaded baked potato on the side?

There's a spectrum, of course. From "I painted it gold and made it tap dance for you" to "buried so deep in the earth's core that not even Indiana Jones could dig it up." There's a lot of gray area in between those two extremes. So our question is: Where do you like your literary themes to fall?

Two Examples

In THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, a teenager named Clay listens to the confessional tapes of a classmate, Hannah, who committed suicide. On these tapes, she explains why she took her life. Keyword: EXPLAINS. There's nothing subtle about this book. Hannah is giving people a roadmap to her actions. She wants them to know what they did wrong, why it hurt her, and how it contributed to her suicide.

This book has been a HUGE beacon of light for many readers. People on both sides of the equation have had their eyes opened, their lives changed. People who have been hurt, bullied, ignored, or broken. People who have done the hurting, bullying, ignoring, or breaking. But also, people who may not have any awareness of these problems, or who don't fully realize the effects of their actions. People who don't realize that inaction is as much of a choice as anything else.

While Asher's message felt too obvious to us at times, we have to admit, the story has had an amazing and important impact, and we applaud that wholeheartedly.

On the other end of the spectrum is THE THINGS A BROTHER KNOWS by Dana Reinhardt. Levi has been anticipating the return of his military hero brother, Boaz, but when Boaz finally gets home from his tour of duty, he's different. Quiet. Withdrawn. Secretive. When Boaz takes off again, on some mysterious pilgrimage by foot, Levi is determined to follow his brother. To understand him. No matter what dark places their journey might lead to.

Readers could debate the themes of this story for hours. Brotherly love? The effects of war? Rebelling against social and cultural expectations? What the author is trying to say isn't perfectly obvious. Instead, she tells a story filled with real characters and genuine emotion. She lets them guide readers to their own conclusions. That can be very, very powerful too.


sonje said...

No, I don't like to be hit over the head, but I also consider it a problem if I can't make any sense of why a character is behaving the way s/he is. In other words, like many, I like to be given the clues to figure things out for myself but I don't want it to be too hard LOL.

Carrie Mesrobian said...

I started Thirteen Reasons but I was a bit put off. The suicide theme is a tough one, and all the spy-game stuff seemed a little crazy.

The Things A Brother Knows was spectacular. Beautiful. I loved the mystery aspect so much, and the way that she portrayed families. You can live so close to someone and only catch glimpses of who they are sometimes.

kaye (paper reader) said...

To be fair, I like both. Not everyone can do both, so they choose either or and that's okay with me. If you can be creative and subtle but still in a way where I can interpret what's going on - perfect. If you can be forthright and realistic - also okay!

I just need to be able to believe it.

We Heart YA said...

The happy medium. We like that area of the spectrum too.

"You can live so close to someone and only catch glimpses of who they are sometimes."

YES. Exactly. So poignant. So real.

You have a very good attitude about it!

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Stephanie, Ingrid, Sarah & Kristan — we read, write, discuss and celebrate Young Adult lit.



on the shelf

The Bitter Kingdom
Wild Awake
The Raven Boys
Mind Games
Eleanor and Park
The Shattered Mountain
The Shadow Cats
Froi of the Exiles
Days of Blood & Starlight
Every Day
Jellicoe Road
Finnikin of the Rock
Guitar Notes
The Dead-Tossed Waves
The Crown of Embers
New House 5: How A Dorm Becomes A Home
The Fault in Our Stars

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