I read a fair amount of young adult fiction—both as part of my job as a professor of secondary education and as a parent of two girls ages 11 and 14. I just finished reading Moon over Manifest, the 2011 Newbery Award winner, by Claire Vanderpool. I liked it, although perhaps not as much as some of the other Newbery Award winners I’ve read. I’ll recommend it to both my girls. The 11-year-old might read it; the 14-year-old will definitely turn her nose up at it.
Moon over Manifest is about a girl named Abilene Tucker who is sent by her father to spend the summer in Manifest while he works the railroad during the Great Depression. From there, it follows a fairly common plot arch—Abilene makes some unusual friends (including Miss Sadie, a “diviner” from Hungary and Shady Howard, a bootlegger and saloon owner), learns some important lessons, and grows up a bit.
As I was reading it, I couldn’t shake the thought that there was something amiss—or something unfamiliar to my modern-day sensibilities. After finishing the book, it dawned on me that what felt strange to me was the way in which Abilene and her schoolgirl friends have all sorts of intimate, unsupervised interactions with adults. And then I realized that this is fairly common in young adult fiction.
In Because of Winn Dixie, Opal befriends Gloria Dump, an alcoholic who Opal thinks is a witch the first time they meet. In The Higher Power of Lucky (loved this book), Lucky Thimble listens in at AA meetings (which contributed to the sh*tstorm of crazy from book banners when this book was announced as a Newbery Award winner in 2007). In Everything on a Waffle, Primrose Squarp similarly befriends restaurant owner Miss Bowzer, who serves everything on a waffle. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem and Scout interact regularly with Miss Maudie and Miss Stephanie Crawford. Shoot—they run all over Macon unsupervised and even watch hours of courtroom drama–and no parent is hovering over them!
Maybe it’s just my family, but my kids don’t run around unsupervised—ever. The most they do is ride their bikes in a loop in our neighborhood that’s 1.25 miles around. They don’t go over to adults’ houses during the day like these book characters do and chat it up. And they certainly don’t hang out with “diviners” and bootleggers.
And yet—the most powerful lessons in these books emerge from the kids’ interactions with these adults. I love it that the kids grow to love these adults like Gloria Dump and Shady Howard—adults who have been largely dismissed by other adults. These kids learn powerful lessons about not judging people according to the way they look, what their house/apartment looks like, how they talk, or what they wear. All good lessons.
My kids have virtually no interactions like these with adults. They interact with teachers at school and at church. But those are very supervised, formalized interactions. I generally take great pains to shield them from the kinds of unsupervised interactions with adults that they (and I) read about in young adult fiction.
Are my kids (ages 8, 11, and 14) missing out? Or am I just keeping them safe? Are we right to constrain kids’ movement and social interactions as much as we do? Is it even possible in 2011 to give kids as much free rein as these adolescent book characters have, or is that kind of autonomy a thing of the past?