Sunday, September 25, 2011

Of Peculiar Children and Fringe Geeks: Bridging YA Lit and Social Commentary

Two distinctly different genres bookended my summer: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins, a book I read on my Kindle in early June and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, which I finished just before returning to the classroom in September.

Aside from their obvious genre differences--Geeks is social commentary and Miss Peregrine's is YA literature--both books possess haunting similarities.

Both books focus on the lives of marginalized children and the ways they negotiate their worlds. In her insightful analysis of "the cafeteria fringe," students who don't fit into the school culture, Robbins examines the lives of eight individuals in various school settings. Each exists on the fringe of the popularity grid, including a cheerleader who finds herself at odds with the mean girl crowd in which she runs.

Similarly, Miss Peregrine's Home tells the story of a group of children who live in a time warp off the coast of Wales. Jacob's relationship with his grandfather's secret past propels him to investigate his family's secret past. When he arrives at the home Miss Peregrine runs for "peculiar children," he discovers that society's notions of peculiarity include character traits and skills others might label gifts.

This theme that children's quirks make them the most gifted, and ultimately the most successful adults lives on the pages of both books. In Geeks we meet the Band Geek, the New Girl, the Loner, the Gamer, the Nerd, the Overachiever, and others. In Miss Peregrine's the peculiar children include a levitating girl, an invisible boy, a contortionist, and others.

Both books remind us that we should embrace one another's quirks, that what makes us unique doesn't just make us special but capable and successful in managing life's mazes.

Both emphasize the importance of point of view when considering ways children experience the world. Jacob, whose peculiarity is his ability to "see" monsters, narrates Miss Peregrine, while Robbins allows each student a voice in reconstructing their experiences in reportorial style.

“Adults tell students that it gets better, that the world changes after school, that being ‘different’ will pay off sometime after graduation,” writes Robbins. In contrast, Riggs, through the character of Jacob's grandfather, suggests that even in the adult world, we find the peculiar among us. 

Even Robbins's inclusion of a lesbian teacher, Regan, contradicts her premise that adolescence ends and life gets better. That's not always true, at least not for the adults who live on the fringe of the teachers' lounge in our schools, especially in our era of homogenized curriculum. 

The message that life gets better after high school needs rewriting, reconstructing. "If the alternative is to wait and just hope...I say that's no alternative at all," says Millard, one of Riggs's peculiar children while he awaits a particular escape from danger. 

Children need the epiphany Jacob experiences in Miss Peregrine, the one some of the cafeteria fringe Robbins writes about come too late in their school journeys. "I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was," says Jacob.