Yesterday, I put off writing a blog post because I wasn’t sure what to say. After a week that included the Boston Marathon bombings, the terrifying manhunt that shut down Boston, and a massive fertilizer plant explosion, it felt wrong to post about the relatively mundane details of teaching or writing. And yet who am I to offer up thoughts on the sad, scary events of this week? Yes, I ran a few marathons a while ago, so I know how joyful, loving, and chaotic the crowds are, and I can’t bear to think of the horrifying scene that unfolded when two bombs went off near the finish line on Monday. And my brother lives in Cambridge, so I was especially shaken by the lockdown and search for the remaining suspect on Friday. But so many other people are so much closer to these events than I am. What could I possibly have to say about them?
But then today, I woke up thinking about April Morning, the Revolutionary War-era novel my seventh grade students are reading, which takes place during the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The novel is set in the Boston area in an April long ago, and the fifteen-year-old narrator, Adam, both recounts the terrors of war and describes people’s courage and generosity in the face of fear and killing. Adam recalls, “Many people were kind and gentle on that day; it wasn’t unrelieved horror, and fewer were cruel than you might have thought.”
And then I thought about the op-eds that my eighth grade students have written, after reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article “Darkness Too Visible”; and Alexie’s response to Gurdon’s article, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.” I asked students to think about the tone and subject matter of Absolutely True Diary and consider Gurdon’s points about how intense and disturbing some young adult novels have become. Then, they each wrote an op-ed in which they took a stance on whether or not people should be troubled by the trend toward darkness in young adult literature.
I’ve been grading their pieces, which they turned in just before the marathon bombings last Monday, and many of the students have written about how it’s impossible to shield teenagers from grief and trauma (a statement that feels especially true after this week), so why shouldn’t books explore difficult events and show how some people cope with them? A few of them have also commented that dark young adult novels can be inspiring because they portray the mental and physical strength of individuals who confront horrifying circumstances. They suggest that it isn’t fair to condemn the Harry Potter or Hunger Games books as too violent and death-filled without acknowledging the courage and compassion of the characters in those books.
So now, on this April morning as I look back at the past week, I am struck by the importance of stories that explore the human condition, in all its fear and devastation and goodness and joy. I am glad there are books that explore sad, scary events, and I am glad there are authors who have created characters who are as heroic, brave, and kind as so many people have been this week.