By Karina Reyes
What does it mean to be a literary citizen? It’s a concept I haven’t truly explored until Brendan Kiely mentioned it in his presentation. Social engagement and social responsibility can be fostered in young adult literature. Writing and reading books that foster this is the first step to responsible literary citizenship. And by this measure, his books are meant to promote literary citizenship. And if books can be the vehicle for social change, then Kiely’s novel, All American Boys, written in collaboration with Jason Reynolds, charges forth with painful eloquence that should make its readers pay attention.
Kiely’s presentation on Literary Citizenship gave me a new lens in which to evaluate the books that I include in my high school collection. “I care about literature and how it affects our young folks…we have these books that can help us think about issues today,” Kiely said. I echo his sentiments and appreciate that many books are now being written that speak to the difficult issues faced by our students.
Kiely also reminded us to ask how a character “deconstruct(s) your normal.” What does a character do that makes us think about what we perceive to be normal and yet may be far from it for that character or vice versa? In the novel, the characters are responding to a “cultural moment,” something in our current society that tends to be so difficult to discuss such as racism. Brendan Kiely wants us to use books as a safe way to start a conversation and the conversation always starts with listening. He admits there will be many uncomfortable moments and as he said in his earlier speech, “[i]t is easier to talk about race in a historical context, but if I can’t get uncomfortable now and keep talking about how I’m part of that system (oppressive racism) and not just a bystander around it…then that’s part of the perpetuating of injustice.” Instead he recommends that we sit still and listen. Such is the power that literature with a social message can have: the ability to make readers better citizens by giving them the power to understand, to empathize, and to listen to difficult truths.
On a prescient turn of events, All American Boys was chosen as the battle of the books selection for the 2018-2019 school year. http://www.brendankiely.com/all-american-boys-1/
http://www.brendankiely.com/about-2/ We should all use this as a starting point to becoming better literary citizens.