The class session today was all about graphic novels. Normally we break up into groups who read the same book and we discuss the works. By the end of the hour I leave class with a whole new perspective on the books. I get to hear how the books affected people who bring their own backgrounds and life experiences to the class. However, we all have something vital in common: we are no longer teenagers! We come to class every week with the solid knowledge that life continues after high school. We remember with uncomfortable nostalgia the feelings of inadequacy, rejection, depression, etc. But we know there is no way any of us can truly understand what teens are going through today. Today’s class was different.
A local high school English teacher brought a class of about 30 teens to the campus. They were there to see what it was like on a college campus, to participate in a college level class, and to teach us a few things. We all had the choice of reading My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, or Smile by Raina Telgemeier. These titles really only have a few things in common; they are graphic novels, they are written for teens, and they deal with acceptance and rejection. Although they are written for a teen audience, they vary greatly in appropriateness. I knew the teens showing up ranged from freshman to seniors but had no idea which book the majority would choose to read. So I read all three to prepare for the class and I decided I would join whichever group needed another college student. And I’m really glad I did read all three. Like I said, they were done so differently that I feel like the novels themselves taught me much about the genre as a whole. This helped me during our discussion of Smile.
I was in a group of five teens and one of my college classmates, Brian. The teens consisted of 4 girls and 1 boy, ranging in grades from 9-12. They were all a bit hesitant at first, unsure of how to react to being in a discussion with a couple of adults they’d never met before. I could imagine Raina from Smile in a situation just like this. The book is all about Raina’s journey of self discovery through awkward and embarrassing situations with her family and friends. As we asked the teens questions, I could see the same looks on their faces that I saw on Raina’s in the different illustrations. I could also see, as we continued talking and the teens started to feel more comfortable with us, them shifting to a more confident manner. They started to look us in the eye and tell us how they felt about the book with confidence. It was amazing to see them realize that their opinions mattered to us and that we weren’t going to take the conversation away from them. However, what they were saying was troubling at times.
We discussed how people alienate others because of the way they look and what their interests are. It seemed as though they felt that it was inevitable for people to treat other people badly to make themselves feel better. There were a couple of girls in particular who felt that nothing could be done about this, including in their groups of friends, and that they just needed to get through high school to move beyond this stage in their lives. Brian and I tried guide them to an understanding that books like Smile are out there so kids might actually try to change some of the cruelty that might happen in the midst of their peers. They didn’t quite grasp onto that concept right then but I feel like they might think about it the next time they see someone being rejected. They just might think aboutRaina in Smile and reach out to that person.
This class session really brought home to me that these books are being written for these teens. They are discovering who they are and what kind of person they want to be. Teen literature today is here to show them that they’re not alone in their experiences as well as to give them examples of different types of people that they can be. They can either choose to be the “friend” who pulls down someone’s skirt in front of the whole school or the friend who is supportive when someone gets their braces off after 4 years.