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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Must Read Teen Misfits

There are no misfits like teen misfits, and YA literature is full of them. Besides making us laugh, cry and cringe in self-recognition, many literary misfits show us our own societal and personal hypocrisies, prejudices, blind spots and failings. Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl features a sixteen-year-old girl who is an innocent misfit. She has the innocence and guilelessness of a young child. Having been homeschooled her entire life, she now attends public school wearing odd costumes, singing to people in the cafeteria, playing a ukulele, talking to her pet rat and sending birthday notes to strangers. The other teens tolerate her for a while before turning on her. Like most misfit tales, though, there are clues that her alienation by others isn’t final or irreversible. This is a wonderful, thoughtful story for middle schoolers, teens and adults.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon shows us the misfit who is extremely human, loyal and in search of meaning. Christopher is a completely different type of misfit than Stargirl. He is British, autistic, mathematically gifted and extremely disadvantaged at figuring out other people’s motivations and emotional states. His father’s troubled personal life is baffling to him; the reader, better at deciphering psychological nuance than Christopher is, sees that this is both a blessing and a curse. When he finds a murdered dog, he sets out to find the killer, even though the reader senses that Christopher would be better off leaving certain messes alone. In Britain, the book was marketed towards young adults, but it was marketed as adult lit in the U.S. This book has great appeal for older teens and adults.

My personal favorite misfit is Arnold Spirit, also called Junior, in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Junior, a Native American teen living on a reservation, has an abnormally big head (literally), a host of physical disabilities, alcoholic parents, no money and a sharp wit. He reminds us that he gets beat up at least once a month. After hurling an ancient textbook at a teacher in disgust, Junior is convinced by that same teacher to seek out hope – to get a better education by attending a predominantly white high school 22 miles off his reservation. It’s a given that Junior will be misunderstood, mocked and patronized. And he is. But Junior is also hilarious, tenacious and wise. He survives in spite of us, not because of us. For all the wrong that’s been inflicted on him, he’s resilient, loyal and lacking in vindictiveness. Junior is a misfit we should all aspire to emulate. I highly recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for older teens and adults.

- Carey Hagan, George Mason Regional Library

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