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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Phasing the Gatekeepers

According to all reliable sources a hurricane is about to wipe out the city of New York and all its denizens therein.  With that in mind I feel it is time to ponder the ponderable.  We’re all gatekeepers here, yes?  Librarians, parents, teachers, etc.  Our job, as we see it, is to separate the wheat from the chaff.  The good from the bad.  The tawdry from the divine.  The curds from the whey.  The . . . but I distract myself.

Point of fact, many of us enjoy this job.  We deem what is acceptable, our children get the best of the best, and so it goes.  Recently, though, I’ve noticed a strange gatekeeper phenomenon that pops up every once in a while.  And it’s something I first noticed when my blogging was still in its earliest stages.

The year was 2007.  Gas was $3.38 a gallon.  Apple was introducing something called an “iPhone”.  The final Harry Potter novel was appearing on bookstore shelves worldwide.  And a young Jack Gantos . . . all right, a slightly younger Jack Gantos was publishing I Am Not Joey Pigza.  And librarians were mad at him for it.

Not just librarians either.  A whole host of folks were pretty peeved with Mr. Gantos.  To understand why you had to be familiar with the Joey Pigza series.  Following the life of a boy with ADHD, Joey saw a series of ups and downs starting in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key and continuing in Joey Pigza Loses Control.  By the time the third book, What Would Joey Do? finished the reader was safe and secure in the knowledge that maybe things were finally looking up for ole Joey P.  Adults were happy.  Then Gantos had to go and spoil it all.

In I Am Not Joey Pigza our titular hero backslides.  It’s not his fault, really.  His no good dad has won the lottery and his mother, now entranced with daddy’s money, lets the doofus back into her son’s life.  Dad’s just as ADHD as his son, but unlike Joey he doesn’t believe in medication.  What follows is a strange amalgamation of childhood dream and nightmare.  Imagine you had a dad who pulled you out of school to play crazy games with you during the day.  Now imagine that life getting sourer and worse as the days go on.  For kids reading the book, the story is told through Joey’s eyes and really, he doesn’t mind what happens to him all that much.  For adults, reading the book can be agony.

Here’s the situation.  Grown men and women of my acquaintance would rail again Gantos for writing this book.  These were people who loved Joey.  Who felt incredibly protective of him.  And for Gantos to allow that rat of a father back into Joey’s life . . . well, for some it felt like a personal betrayal.  How could he do this to Joey?  That kid was doing okay.  Why change that?

It was such an odd reaction to witness too.  It was like a personal betrayal to these folks.  So I tucked it into the back of my mind for a rainy day.

Fast forward to 2011 and the publication of two very different books.  In fact, as of right now they are my two top contenders for the 2012 Newbery Award.  On the one hand is the well received and much lauded Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt.  On the other, relative newcomer and dark horse candidate Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Both books are works of historical fiction.  Both contain father characters with questionable moral compasses.  And both raise the following question:

Since what I read into this is not the same as what a child would read into this, does that ultimately hurt the novel?

If you haven’t read Okay for Now this is as much of a spoiler alert as you are going to get, by the way.

You see, Okay for Now has everything going for it award-wise . . . except its ending.  It probably would be a shoo-in for Newbery gold even with the strange Broadway switcheroo.  Why not?  But then you get to the finale and the father’s supposed turnaround.  One minute he’s a monster capable of tattooing his own offspring against their will.  The next he’s crying over his sons and talking about how pretty the flowers on the table are.  Adults don’t buy this sudden change of heart, and well they shouldn’t.  Yet to my eyes this isn’t some miraculous new leaf being turned over.  This dad could easily wake up the next morning the same cussed scoundrel his always was.  We’re simply viewing a brief moment of peace.  But will kids read the ending that way or will they assume that everything from now one is going to be hunky-dory?  Which is to say, as an adult I can see how this is just a temporary fix, while a child might see it as a permanent change.  Is that the fault of the novel?

Now let’s look at Jefferson’s Sons.  In this novel the children of Thomas Jefferson with his slave Sally Hemings consider their lot in life and various potential futures.  Bradley cleverly makes it so that the point of views in this book always come from children.  While the characters age and grow the perspective is continually young.  And right at the beginning Beverly, the eldest child of Ms. Hemings, asks her if she loves his father.  She laughs and says “of course” which may immediately get a gatekeeper’s antennae whirling (or whatever movement it is that antennae indulge in).  “Of course”?  Does Hemings really love Jefferson and, if so, is that the kind of thing we want to see in a novel for kids?  Yet the book is far more complex than that.  You can’t pigeonhole it quite that easily and as you read through it you find it knows how to deal with morally ambiguous questions.  That said, an adult might go back to that earlier “of course” and worry that a kid would believe Ms. Hemings wholeheartedly.  And wouldn’t that be a bad thing, even if the rest of the book casts her relationship in a slightly different light?

What these two books and the final Joey Pigza have in common is that they’re all have significant moments that are read and interpreted differently by adults than by children.  You could say that’s true of all literature for kids, and you’d be right.  The difference with these books is that whether or not you see them as weak or strong novels hinges on whether or not you think (A) That a kid is going to read some element of this book differently than a grown-up might and (B) That interpretation is wrong and therefore the book is wrong and this is a flaw that should have been remedied.

Curious thoughts for a windy day.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. This is like an inverted version of my longstanding objection to CATCHER IN THE RYE. To an adult reader, Holden is selfish, short-sighted, and generally insufferable … meaning the only good reading is one where we assume the author is subverting his main character. This fact, however, seems to be lost on most younger readers, who assume Holden is some kind of exemplar to be emulated. Whenever I meet a high schooler who tells me they love CATCHER, I suspect they’ve read the wrong book. (This is also my objection to ROMEO & JULIET.)

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Oh boy, teen literature is a whole different bag of fish, isn’t it? You’re right, I was only looking at this from a kid perspective but missed intentions have probably been discussed in the YA realm ad nauseum for years, don’t you think?

  2. Hmmm… to me, this feels like another facet of the discussion of the Newbery and “kid appeal.” Just as the rules don’t require Newbery winners to jump off the shelves, they don’t require a particular interpretation based on age, experience, or anything else. It’s what the committee decides is the “most distinguished” American book published for kids, period, and I don’t see that the committee members have to put themselves into the mindset of a ten-year-old — in terms of appeal, interpretation, or anything else — to make that decision.

    And isn’t one of the great things about any type of art that our interpretation of a piece changes over time? I love to reread, and I’m always finding “new” things in the words, depending what’s going on in my life. The most dramatic personal example I can think of is Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s THE WITCHES OF WORM. As a child, I believed the cat in the book was magic. As an adult, I have a completely different interpretation — one that makes the book much stronger, and which is probably closer to what Snyder intended. But I still enjoyed it as a child, and it made enough of an impression on me that I remember it years later… so where’s the problem?

    Arguably the best books are the ones that *can* be appreciated on multiple levels. And if kids are are missing the subtleties you’re discussing here, perhaps it’s not a “flaw” so much as an entry point for discussion. That goes for adults and adult books as well. Some books require more synthesis than others to fully appreciate them.

    To my mind, what would be “wrong” is a book in which there is no ambiguity, no room for (mis)interpretation, no place for readers to insert themselves into the story and experience it their own way.

  3. Like Lisa, I hope that committee members wouldn’t go too far into trying to parse elements like those you mentioned in terms of how a child reader would interpret them, because there’s a danger of going too far in that direction. There is no single type of child reader just like there’s no single type of adult reader, and your reaction to Doug’s Broadway debut or his dad’s turnaround depends on how you read the book as a whole. Reading it as straight realism might lead you to raise an eyebrow at those scenes, like the Thing About the Next-Door Neighbor in The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, but reading it as a notch below magical realism lifts some of the weight of expectation. Another great MG book from this year, Uma Krishnaswami’s The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, hinges on a series of coincidences that are modelled on the crazy plot twists of Bollywood films, so the “unlikeliness” is completely intentional.

    A child reader, who might have the view that adult behavior is often unpredictable, might not think twice about the believability of Doug’s dad’s behavior, because at that point they’re probably much more invested in Doug’s own story.

    The question to my mind is, is the plot believable (does it fit?) given the world that the author has created for it? In the case of Okay for Now, I see one path going upwards, in which so many things that seem unlikely are going Doug’s way, and one downwards in which his father’s behavior gets worse and worse, and the turnaround is where those meet. By the time it happens, is the reader willing to take it in stride, like so many recovered Audubon prints?

  4. This is interesting because I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days as I begin rereading a manga I adored as a teen. My library is also hosting a book discussion and one question will be about the difference you see if you read the title as a teen and then as an adult.

    It has been discussed somewhat in the YA realm, although less by librarians and more by readers (teen and adult). My mom pointed some blog posts out to me about the fact how teen readers and adult readers interpret books differently mainly from the romance aspect (TWILIGHT and HUSH, HUSH). I think this something that is coming into our librarian minds right now.

    I also find it to be a true issue in graphic novels. Case and point is the Printz winner AMERICAN BORN CHINESE. It is a GREAT graphic novel and I can see why it won, but in the last few years, this book has not circulated. In fact, I doubt teens are even interested in this book. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the book, I liked the message, and I like what he writes, but it doesn’t appeal to teens (I didn’t read it until I was an adult). In my last library and in my current library, this book has made it to my weeding list (no circs in two years). I also take a look over the Great Graphic Novel lists every year and am disappointed in the titles that made the cut and those that didn’t. Often, I find there is a huge disconnect between what librarians think are good for teens and what teens think are good for teens. The latest list was still a 50/50 (teens will/teens won’t like it) This is certainly something that needs to be looked into and discussed further.