Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Highlight of #LRA14, Reading @SarahDarerLitt BACKLASH on Flight to Ft. Myers

Before you read this post, it might be wise to read a 2013 story about a mother who was accused of Facebook bullying or check out another story of a mother who used Facebook to call out her daughter's bullies. When I left the classroom, Facebook was a social network that allowed me to keep up with some of my students who left for college. For several years, Facebook was the territory of academic, career-focused young people partying their brains off while away at school. It was a worthy platform to keep up with alumni as they continued to mature into adulthood. Then, somewhere around 2007, the platform was hijacked by my generation...and the one before mine...and the one before that. Now, Facebook is a social phenomenon that captures all that is wonderful, but horrific, about human beings. It's an addiction and a major lifeline to friends, family, and the news.

This is exactly what Sarah Darer Littman takes up in her soon to be released Young Adult Novel, Backlash (2015). While I was away at NCTE, the author sent me an uncorrected proof to see what I had to say. I pulled it out at the airport in Hartford, and by the time I landed in sunny Ft. Myers, Florida, I was finished and ready to have a conversation with anyone, everyone, all who parent, who work with teenagers, and that recognize the ways social media has changed the nature of raising young people. Sadly, the book isn't in stores yet, so I had to hold my thinking until this post (the one I knew I was going to write when I didn't have to present research at a national conference).

Backlash explores what happens when petty jealousy goes too far and when one young woman (and her mom) decide it is okay to play a cruel joke on a neighbor, who has already had a difficult time navigating through her teenage years. Although the prank is extremely shallow, such cruelty is more common than not. Kids can be harsh - shoot, adults can be worse - and that is what Sarah Darer Littman initiates in this novel. She achieves the exploration with writerly expertise.

This is my first Sarah Darer Littman textual experience (blush, chin to chest, sadness, regret). Her style, though, pulled me in right away and, if I had a library of books for kids to read (which I do) I would recommend this text often and with reason. I'm a fan.

The novel traces the story of gossip, bullying, friendship, jealousy, teenage angst, attempted suicide, parental narcissism, and 21st century technologies in 321 pages. The chapters are divided into the thoughts of Lara, a girl who experiences sudden popularity after middle school issues of weight and popularity, Sydney, a little sister who wants to live a vivacious, theatrical life but has always been second fiddle to her older sister, Bree, a jealous old friend with a "Great White Shark" mom, and Liam, a younger brother who tries to make sense of friendship between two families that has gone adrift. The greater tension, though, arrives when Liam realizes he has feelings for Sydney, Lara's sister. It's thick, but Littman handles the tensions and perspectives with maturity, adult insight, and the necessary moral meanderings for making sense of bullying in a 'like'-status, Facebook world.

Who takes responsibility for online cruelty? What happens when the aggressive, go-getter mentality of adult, career women overlap the insecurities of early adolescent girls? How does the progression for wanting to belong work within the murkiness of cyberspace and the too-willing-to-share freedom of teenagers? Then there's the press. What do families do when they suddenly realize they are the epicenter of the nation's next, horrifying news feature on all major channels?

Without permission to share quotes from the text at this time (as the book won't be released until later next year), I write today simply to share that Sarah Damar Littman's new novel caught my attention. The story is complicated, but the writer achieves empathy and dimensionality for each character at the same time she asks readers to be patient with their judgements. Although we know Bree was wrong, her mother was even more at fault. Lara's mother, too, isn't innocent (after all, she might not get reelected and she has a family image to maintain).

Backlash is an achievement in Young Adult Literature and brings several social issues to the forefront, especially with how posting, messaging, and the ease of sharing information quickly  exacerbates ubiquitous gossip circles of young people. What stands as more severe in this novel, however, is the willing participation of a parent. It was horrifying to read --- so much so I knew it had to be triggered by real world events. Sadly, I found it to be true.

Teachers: this is a book to share with middle and high school students to initiate conversations about cyber citizenship and responsibility.

Parents: this is a book to put your own morality (and conscientiousness) in check.

Students: Although you claim that Facebook is 'ol-skool' and not a part of your reality, the truth is you all have accounts and lurk like the rest of us. Be responsible.

Additionally, my gendered self wondered why author Littman was so kind to the men in the novel. The fathers came across as rational and stable individuals who became trapped by the choices made by the women in their lives. This was something new - I'm used to fathers being the bad guys.  Even young Liam arrived to the story with  rationality - a stability that matched that of Sydney, a younger sister who simply wanted to be in a play. Rather than demonizing machismo: men as dogs, monsters, and abusers, Littman's male characters arrived to this story as mentors who questioned the actions of their wives and the young women that they love. It was an unexpected shout-out to fathers (and a characterization of them that is too uncommon in the stories we tend to read).

There are always reasons to be thankful....

...even more reasons to be able to forgive.

This is evident from how the worlds of Bree and Lara change overnight. They must recenter their lives and move forward in a world where social media can make you notorious with a few simple online remarks. Tools have changed and this is exactly the point of Backlash. 

The book will be released by Scholastic soon! Stay tuned.

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