Like my students, I hate spoilers! More, I hate that some people like to post spoilers just to be jerks. But, I figure that if information is given on the first page of a book it’s fair game, so here goes: on the very first page of Bone and Bread, Saleema Nawaz’s first novel, narrator Beena refers to the fact that her sister Sadhana struggles with an eating disorder. She also refers to the fact that Sadhana is dead. How the two statements fit together… well, that would be the spoiler.
The book itself is a good read, and I enjoyed the references to Montreal, and the idea that there are unbreakable bonds between people, no matter what we might desire. The book has merit, and is filled with characters that piqued my interest, even though they didn’t always maintain it. But after I finished reading, I couldn’t help but feel ambivalent toward Beena. Part of me admired how she devoted her life to trying to help her sister deal with anorexia; and another part of me grew increasingly frustrated at her ability to turn herself into her sister’s whipping boy, or to be turned into it by her sister. On the surface the story is about an eating disorder, but at its core, the book is about power dynamics, more specifically between two sisters who deal with tragedy in very different ways on the road to adulthood.
This means that Bone and Bread is a good choice for YA readers, but by saying that, it brings me to the most important idea I want to address in this letter, that has nothing to do with the book, and everything to do with what I consider the ultimate problem with books considered YA: reading for social issues over story.
Choosing literature for students is a problem I face every year when I put together my independent reading lists. People are constantly saying that we shouldn’t teach only from “the canon” (DEAD WHITE MEN); we should read across cultures, world views, gender spectrum, and cultural and social issues. I agree. However, specifically in terms of issues-based reading, we run the risk of reading and teaching books ONLY because of the issues they raise, not because they are great books. In a perfect world we have a perfect marriage of plot and issue, but this is rarely a perfect world.
In reality, I choose a book that has great reviews and recommendations, is well-written, with attention paid to the craft of writing as much as the content. And I hope that the book has “real-life” teachable content. That’s how I believe we SHOULD choose books. Because the alternative is to simply type “bulimia novel” into Google and go from there. And if I can search by keyword, doesn’t that mean someone can be writing by keyword too?
I’m sure some people out there are capitalizing in a big way by writing issues into their stories. And many of them have good intent and personal experience. But I also have the terrible suspicion that there are many out there who tack on violence and mental illness to have ‘appeal’. They probably have a list of topics that are pinned above their workspace. It’s probably endorsed by the big publishing houses, and it probably goes by the title “Alphabet for the mass market”. And it probably starts like this:
A is for anorexia
B is for the bully
C adds cyber to the B or simply deals with cutting…
- Review: Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz (robertnathan.wordpress.com)
- Schoolgirls call for curriculum to teach pupils about anorexia (thetimes.co.uk)