Monday, January 9, 2012
Yummy vs. Sign Language
Definition of SMACKDOWN
1: the act of knocking down or bringing down an opponent
2: a contest in entertainment wrestling
3: a decisive defeat
4: a confrontation between rivals or competitors
OK. So, I’ll start this out by admitting that going into this, while I understood the whole literary blog thing, I was a little fuzzy on the concept of “Smackdown.” As a boy I was busy reading poetry, petting dogs and getting my ass kicked, while my classmates were watching WWF and perfecting various forms of playground torture, so you’ll forgive the initial ignorance. When I tracked down the above definition I thought that item #4 was most useful as a way to consider what we are doing here.
And then I read my books. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri and Randy Duburke, and Sign Language by Amy Ackley both fall under the broad banner of YA literature and both feature young protagonists who are damaged by circumstances beyond their control. Beyond those connections, it is hard to imagine two books that are more different in tone, subject matter and, I suspect, target audience. This makes the process of voting one of them off the island painfully arbitrary. I see now that my eyes lit upon the wrong definition initially; this will really be “a contest in entertainment wrestling” with the opponent being my conscience. Here is a quick overview of each book:
Yummy is a short graphic novel (94 pages) that depicts the true story of the life and death of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer (Here is the link to the Time magazine article that brought nation-wide attention to the story http://www.gregneri.com/Time_magazine.html) a young boy who was both a perpetrator and a victim of gang violence in Southside Chicago. The story unfolds through the perspective of, Roger, an eleven year old classmate of Yummy’s, who serves as our narrative thread throughout the novel. Roger is our guide through the story, but Neri allows for a number of voices to be heard, and these often disparate pieces of dialogue add to the poignancy of a story that we are forced to bear witness to. Duburke’s black and white palate adds a starkness and a sharpness to images that are meticulously detailed (think Craig Thompson level of craftsmanship with a grittier feel befitting the subject matter) to capture the emotional weight of each moment. This is a novel that can – and in most cases, will –be consumed in one sitting, but it also will encourage and reward re-readings. The novel forces us to not only deal with the “truth” of a central character for whom a teddy bear and gun are both accurate symbols, but also with larger issues of representation of truth that are complicated (in a really great way) by the graphic novel form.
The subject matter of Amy Ackley’s Sign Language is no less serious: 12 year old Abby’s father fights – and loses –a battle with terminal cancer and this becomes the frame –and distorting lens –for Abby’s coming of age (Amy is 14 at the novel’s close) story to play out. Rather than the mean streets of Yummy’s Chicago we get the calm lakeshore and middle-class sensibilities of Highland, Michigan. Throughout this long (391 pages), but carefully crafted, novel, we will revisit a host of familiar teen novel tropes: crush on brother’s friend (Check), close friend of opposite sex who is, of course, much more (Check), very public experience of first menstrual period (Check), Etc. I realize that the previous sentence sounds dismissive, but to Ackley’s credit these experiences are clearly Abby’s – not some generic teen construct ‘s–and the presence and, later, the absence of her father lends nuance and depth to scenes that we may initially feel like we’ve seen before. Ackley is at her best when dealing with the complex emotional and intellectual discourse that emerges from the juxtaposition of the “normal” trauma that is being 13 and the abnormal trauma of losing a parent in a slow and painful manner. Midway through the book, it was so clear to me that Ackley had nailed what Abby was going through that I actually looked to her biographical details to see if she had experienced it herself. Not surprisingly, Ackley’s father died of kidney cancer when she was a teenager, and there is a depth and poignancy to her handling of Abby’s – and to a lesser extent the family’s – multi-faceted grief that rewards a careful and attentive reader.
So, as I noted at the outset, we are faced with two novels – two very good novels –that offer very different reading experiences, although they also offer some remarkably common ground. Reading these two books together in a short time period forced me to grapple with some compelling questions relating to medium and message: How do the “facts” of Yummy’s story change when presented in sequential image? How does Amy Ackley’s own story shift when it is transformed into Abby’s story in a work of fiction? Were I forced to decide between these two books for my classroom, I suspect that I wouldn’t and would rather, as I’ve already started to do here, explore the possibilities that emerge when we bring these two works together. For the purposes of the Smackdown, however, I don’t think I can get away without declaring a winner. Ultimately, I’ll have to go with Yummy, despite my respect for Sign Language. It would be a disservice to Sign Language to dismiss it as vacuous “chicklit”, because it is a lot more than that, but it is also hard for me to picture many teenage boys – and a number of teenage girls- reading Sign Language from start to finish, even though they would probably emerge from the experience with a better understanding of an important dimension of the human experience. I think I could realistically hand Yummy to anyone of any age and feel confident that they would be intrigued and quite possibly moved by the experience. Read them both if you can, but we’ll see Yummy in the next round, and, I expect, well beyond that.