Those of you that are familiar with Behind the Book’s regular programs and events are likely aware that we run an almost monthly reading series at the cozy KGB bar in the East Village, which in the past year has featured such writers as Joshua Ferris, Colson Whitehead and Pulitzer prize-winner Paul Harding.
This month, we heard excerpts from Jessica Francis Kane‘s debut novel The Report, and Monique Truong‘s new novel Bitter in the Mouth. The former is an imaginative recreation of the Bethnal Green tube tragedy of 1943, while the latter is a lyrical narrative about a woman with a rare form of synesthesia: the ability to taste words.
I caught Monique Truong after the readings for a bit of a chat about Young Adult Literature and the importance of reading. I was particularly interested in her views on the appropriateness of ‘dark’ thematic material such as sex, drug use, and violence, seeing as we at Behind the Book are currently in conversation with one of our high schools about why it is important to teach literature with such controversial content.
Ms. Truong drew the line at 13. Kids younger than that, she thought, are too young to be exposed to really hard themes. She also noted, however, that most kids are now exposed to sex, drugs and violence very early, through various pop-culture media. The difference between literature and pop-culture, she said, is that such material isn’t gratuitous in literature; it’s relevant to lived experience. One might also point out that such controversial content is far better presented in literature, where it is often rooted in a comprehensible context, and discussed with a concern for morality. Indeed, Young-Adult literature seems to have taken on the challenge of addressing such ‘difficult’ material particularly. The darkest books at the National Book Awards, Ms. Truong observed, were YA books.
When asked about a book that was foundational to her, growing up, Ms. Truong immediately identified To Kill a Mockingbird, from which her most recent novel draws its epigraph. She describes herself as always having been a voracious reader and says that, as a young person in a small town, books were her salvation, her friends. They opened her up to other possibilities, and reassured her that “the now wasn’t the only thing”. This, she says, is very important for children trapped in unfortunate circumstances. “They need to know there’s more.”
And that is indeed the reason Behind the Book insists that reading is crucial to the education and development of young people everywhere, and why it is committed to bringing the joy and release of reading to those who may not have had the opportunity to discover it on their own.