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The Age of KidLit

Parents lament that their children don’t read enough, but occasionally, I have parents who tell me that their child reads “too many storybooks”, reading past bedtime and under the blankets with a torchlight, even!

In recent years, we have indeed had an explosion of really exciting stories and it doesn’t hurt that many of them, including The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game and Divergent has been adapted into a movie. Some of these titles have even made it into the official reading list of many schools. However, beyond the story and occasional outbreak of violence, is there any merit to having children read young adult fiction?

The answer, from various sources, myself included, is a resounding yes. Mary Kole, an established literary agent in the United States, writes that children need to have a shared imaginative landscape, reading what their peers read and being able to share in the triumphs and tribulations of the characters within the story and to identify with the characters. If I might add, books such as the Percy Jackson series also serve to introduce young readers to some of the most ancient stories we can find: myths. In a way, these books give a modern reinterpretation of mythology and provides a critical introduction where the original sources have proven too daunting.

John Green, who recently published a gripping story featuring a protagonist diagnosed with cancer (The Fault in Our Stars, 2012), responded to criticisms that he was writing exploitative “Sick Lit”, opined that young children are often much assumed to be “not smart enough” or “not critical enough” of a reader to understand difficult issues of loss, grief or terminal illness and thought these assertions were rather condescending. Kidlit makes these serious issues accessible for young readers and allows them to form their own thoughts and opinions about the issues.

One student recently recommended the Divergent series by Veronica Ruth to me. I am no publishing agent, so I had to take Mary Kole’s word for it and share in the imaginative landscape of my students and I was pleasantly surprised. It proved to be such a gripping read that I finished the first two books in one sitting! It is accessible, features a protagonist that has the same worries about her identity as many young children her age tend to do, and while the book can be violent or sappy at times, I can understand why children would love the series -it speaks to them in a unique manner and entertains them along the way. Given the opportunity, Kidlit could even be a viable teaching tool – I can see it as a way to introduce the idea of complex villains (the antagonists in Divergent aren’t cardboard “I-want-to-dominate-the-universe” baddies), or continually raising the stakes so that we want to know what happens next and so on.

We are in a golden age of excellent fiction for young children, and it would be remiss of us to stop them from accessing these books.

Bring back the Shakespearean insults!

When we think of Shakespeare, we think of a stuffy, English bard toiling away at his plays, writing in meandering sentences such as “conceal me what I am” rather than the modern, straightforward “hide me!” It might surprise you to know that in between the meanders, the rhymes and the puns, there exists a treasure trove of insults, some too racy to be produced here! Perhaps we can look at working some of these into our conversations next time, when the occasion arises:

1. I must tell you friendly in your ear, sell when you can, you are not for all markets.

Where it occurs: As You Like It, Act III, Scene 5

It’s Valentine’s Day today, and if you have the misfortune of checking your Facebook feed, you are bound to come across an acquaintance who’s holding out for just the right partner. Ideally, you’d like to say, “please just settle – you’re turning 30!” but that would be extremely unkind. Perhaps the same words, couched in the bard’s magic, might do the trick?

2. You scullion. You rampallian. You fustilarian. I’ll tickle your catastrophe.

Where it occurs: King Henry IV, Part II, Act II, Scene 1

Maybe it’s the obsolescence, but there is something oddly charming about these insulting terms that make them much more endearing than their modern equivalents. I am reminded of a short story by Mark Twain, wherein the narrator, having botched the job as an editor of an agricultural journal but who fancies himself having done a great favour instead, lashes at his friends in what can only be described as a litany of punny vegetarian insults: “Tell you, you corn-stalk, you cabbage, you son of a cauliflower? It’s the first time I ever heard such an unfeeling remark.” If we try hard enough, rapscallion might find itself back in common usage to describe mischievous boys again!

3. I wonder that you will still be talking. Nobody marks you.

Where it occurs: Much Ado about Nothing, Act I, Scene 1

It’s a very handy way to tell people that they should stop talking, and that whatever they are saying is so worthless that no one is listening.

4. Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit, for I am sick when I do look on thee.

Where it occurs: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1

Uttered by Demetrius to Helena, this line essentially mean “don’t push your luck; I feel sick whenever I look at you”. However, if you are looking to comment unfavourably on someone’s looks rather than their very existence, read on.

5. They lie deadly that tell you you have good faces.

Where it occurs: Coriolanus, Act II, Scene 1

I remember how, during our secondary school days, girls would react in mock indignance whenever they were described as “cute”. “It means I’m adorable but ugly, right?” I also remember the days when I was too polite to abandon the connotations of adorable-ness yet in want of a better adjective to describe a girl. Now I wished I had read Coriolanus.

6. More of your conversation would infect my brain.

Where it occurs: Coriolanus, Act II, Scene 1

Also in the same scene (and by the same character, Menenius), this insult can be reserved for vapid rants that quickly degenerate into conspiracy theories about how society and the new bourgeoisie are in cahoots with the government to bring you down.

7. I do desire that we be better strangers.

Where it occurs: As You Like It, Act III, Scene 2

To round up our insults, let’s go back to where we started. I suppose if you actually do have friends who dabble in conspiracy theories and genuinely believes that Bruce Lee faked his own death so that he could retire from showbiz to work as a waiter in a Hong Kong restaurant, this last insult would sound more like a plea.

In all seriousness, The Bard was a great master of storytelling and the written word. That his works have endured is a testament to his genius, even if the works are seemingly unapproachable. I hope these diversions will get people less apprehensive about Shakespeare and realise that he, like so many writers before and after, was simply spinning a tale with great finesse. If this enterprise proves popular, perhaps we could have a post on Chaucerian insults!

A Workable Secret to Success

Through fairly tales, social studies and a lot of conditioning we encounter in life, we have often been taught to be brave, that if we are to succeed in life and love, we ought to face up to our problems and challenges. That is generally logical advice. Most problems don’t go away if you simply ignore them: you’ll remain overweight if you do nothing to change your lifestyle; and as unprepared for an examination if you resolutely not think about it, instead of hunkering down to study.

But “problems and challenges” aren’t the only obstacles in life, neither are they always the most formidable ones. Some of the greatest enemies of success, keeping us from being the best that we can be, can loosely be classified as “temptations and distractions”. If we can be mindful of them, and not respond to them as we would our problems, we can have a much greater chance against sidestepping from our goals at critical turning points, or being mired in addictions with which we are powerless against. The key, instead of resisting temptation, is to recognise our powerlessness in the face of temptation. Then the proper cause of action is not to confront or wrestle with temptation as we would our problems, but to hurriedly turn the other way, and flee!

This is gleaned from This Will Make You Smarter, a collection of essays by scientists and eminent thinkers from various disciplines centred around the theme of thinking. Briefly:

In the late 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel began a simple experiment with four-year-olds. In a tiny room with furnished with just a desk and chair, he asked the children to pick from a tray of treats – marshmallows, cookies, etc. The kids were then told they could either eat one treat immediately; or if they could wait while he stepped out a few minutes, have two when he returned.

At that time, psychologists assumed that the ability to wait out for the second depended on willpower. Some have it more than others. Some people just have more patience, endurance than others, able to resist the temptation for instant gratification, hence sticking with wiser choices in life. Seems a reasonable theory.

However, after watching hundreds of kids go through this experiment, Mischel came to a different conclusion: our willpower is actually very weak! Many of the children who simply tried to wait it out for the second treat, soon lost the battle, often within 30 seconds. Of the tiny fraction that succeeded, all, without exception, relied on the same strategy: they found a way to not think about the treat at all. Some covered their eyes to not look at the treat, others played hide-and-seek, sang songs, some even repeatedly tied their shoelaces: anything to take their focus and attention from the immediate temptation on hand.

Here then is the answer to resisting the many temptations that life throws our way: if we labour over it, wrestle with it, high chances are, we’re going to lose. To win, we have to look away. It’s about picking battles we can win; and our innate desire for immediate gratification is a very hard opponent to face head-on.

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