Thursday, April 28, 2011
Through the beauty of a pink slip I have spent the last year teaching high school English @ our district's continuation high school. An avid reader and self-professed bibliophile, I believe I am honor bound to put books into the hands of my students. I discovered early on that my high schoolers were a different breed: Many have never read a novel; most don't read for pleasure, and for those that do, their genre of choice is very specific. Unlike my former fifth and sixth grade students who read voraciously, preferring fantasy over anything else, these students crave contemporary fiction and little else. I've pondered this and believe the reason for this difference is that many of my students are lost at sea. Unsure of their path in life, they cannot imagine a world of fairies, dragons, and demigods. They crave validation and take comfort in knowing that the pain they are likely experiencing is not unique.
Authors such as Walter Dean Myers, Sandra Cisneros, Laurie Halse Andersen, and Andrew Smith write of the journey to adulthood with realism that is unsurpassed in the field of Young Adult literature. No author, however, chronicles this more accurately than Ellen Hopkins. Written in free verse, her novels address controversial subjects such as teenage pregnancy, drug use, incest, homelessness, homosexuality and rape. The latest addition to her impressive body of work is Perfect. A companion to Impulse, and told from the perspectives of four protagonists; Cara, Kendra, Sean and Andre, Perfect examines the pressure we all feel: to fit in, to measure up, to be the best, and to find ourselves before we become lost.
Emotional investment is important to Hopkins (she told me so in a tweet), and Perfect takes readers on an emotional ride like no other. Family dynamics play a critical role, as her young people receive conflicting messages about the need to maintain decorum, the importance of physical beauty, the price to be the best and familial obligation. Each unique voice, oftentimes seeming to speak in unison, runs the gamut of emotions. Readers will share laughter, tears, and gasps; all the while marveling at the resiliency of Hopkins' characters. With each turn of the page readers will mourn loss, celebrate bravery, and, very often, be struck by a reflection long-forgotten.
Aside from the subject matter, one of the appeals of Hopkins novels, when they are first picked up by my students, is their scarcity of text. Yet this scarcity of text creates an intensity that is unsurpassed by more voluminous novels. I have yet to read a Young Adult author whose prose is as purposeful as Hopkins'. Readers will find themselves mesmerized by her word choice, reading many pages a second and third time, drinking in the imagery. Wordsmiths will appreciate the poems within the prose and will be awed as Hopkins further reveals her craftsmanship; seamlessly weaving the individual stories together oftentimes through the use of one or two strategically placed words.
As a high school teacher I will continue to champion tirelessly for authors like Ellen Hopkins. Her powerfully chosen words create a voice that speaks for too many. Her contemporary novels serve as a beacon for all who are navigating stormy seas and provide a lifeline to many who have contemplated giving up hope; hope that their own journey will ever be acknowledged or validated. Her voices are the voices of us all; voices filled with pain, confusion, frustration and hope. It is critical that we acknowledge them. It is imperative that we never stop listening.