Sunday, July 27, 2008
A universal American experience
Elisha Cooper has a new post up at Publisher's Weekly where he pokes a bit of fun at himself. Cooper's recent book, ridiculous, hilarious, terrible, cool: A Year in an American High Schoolwas one of the most interesting books I've read all year and I think the first literary documentary of high school ever written. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) Here's a bit of my review:
It can sometimes be frustrating to read young adult fiction as the adult authors often find it difficult to resist telling us who they think teens are or want them to be. Cooper sidesteps that minefield by going directly to the source in a manner both inspiring and refreshing. These are real teenagers and guess what -- they aren’t stupid or fashion obsessed or determined to conquer the world as part of some mean girls cabal. Mostly they are just trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Some of them have parents who are supportive, others have parents who are distracted and some have parents just as confused as they are. Nobody is perfect, but they aren’t train wrecks either. It’s the real world and Cooper offers it up to readers in a manner that makes you care a great deal about these kids, and about all the others out there just like them.
I also interviewed Elisha a few months ago and was particularly interested in how he accomplished his book - in other words, how he managed to get teens to be so honest. Here's what he said:
The kids were open, and not. I mean, how well do we all know what we feel as we’re living it? Add being seventeen. Add sharing one’s life with a stranger who’s writing down what you say. So our talks were delicate. It took some probing. It’s not that the kids were dishonest. But their feelings really shifted from one week to the next. Not even shifted. Disappeared. I’d ask Anthony to tell me more about the story from last week and get the blankest stare. In other words, I wish the students revealed more.
It was a struggle to piece stories together. Especially when they involved love triangles (love rhombuses!). I often had to ask them to look back on what they had been doing or feeling a month ago, to fill in the gaps. Then, at times, the students floored me by being disarmingly frank about something. So that was surprising. But it probably took time for me to get to this point with them.
American Teen is a new documentary that was just released in studios after doing very well at Sundance. It also follows a small group of teens over the course of a year and if you're familiar at all with the classic film The Breakfast Club (a movie that transcends time) then you will have an idea of how this one plays out. Here's a description of the movie:
But while the camera work and voice-over has the glossy fizz of fiction, it's nonetheless a real school, and while the kids we meet all correlate roughly to the archetypal teens of fiction, they're real too. We meet Hannah, the plucky, artsy outsider; Colin, the star athlete with a heart of gold; Megan, the prom queen whose school-spirit high-fives hide an iron fist; and smart, insecure, dorky Jake, all in quick succession. And while part of your mind reels at the clichés -- we're just one Judd Nelson-type away from a straight flush, for heaven's sake -- as Burstein's film unfolds, we realize that if there ever was a place cliché's were true, it's high school.
And here, by the way, is a general description of ridiculous, hilarious, terrible, cool from a Chicago Sun-Times review:
Daniel, a South Sider who's a smart-dressing go-getter, excels at extracurriculars. The icing on the cake for the student government powerhouse would be admittance to Harvard, but nothing's certain.
Zef is "pale and good-looking in a '70s punk rocker sort of way." He fuels himself daily on a Starbucks six-shot, half-decaf, no-water, iced venti Americano, but still can't seem to pull himself together enough to make it to class.
Emily's a focused soccer star, Maya a budding actress. Aisha's a Muslim with an international background and most recently lived in Cairo (Egypt, not Illinois). Diana, whose sisters chide her for being "book smart, street stupid" and going to a "white" school (Payton's student body is approximately one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic), finds solace in swimming. Anthony's more preoccupied with "the girl" who may or may not be carrying his child than with school. Anais, a dancer who aspires to be a professional, is graceful in every way. "When she stops at the traffic light a block from Payton her feet are turned out perfectly."
If crises seem monumental it's because in high school crises are monumental -- or at least they feel that way.
I can't help but think that this is a case where you read the book, watch the movie and then maybe take a step back and look long and hard at your high school and see how your reality fits into these other two American high school experiences. I haven't see the movie but I can tell you Elisha Cooper's book rang very true to me, but then again so did The Breakfast Club. Some experiences are very nearly universal and perhaps, in America at least, high school is one of them.