Aloha to Youth

As I write this, the Chicago Park District is hosting a luau for little kids in the park across the street from my apartment. It’s not that I don’t love the song “Wipeout.” And I’d be the last person to argue that the song’s already considerable charms aren’t enhanced by the sound of a dozen kids drumming along on plastic buckets and milk crates. They’ve been going at it for hours, and they are definitely getting better. Maybe, then, it’s the group chants of “Aloooo-HA!” that are getting to me. I keep hoping it means “goodbye,” but so far it still means “hello.”

Now on to books.

Actually, if you’ll indulge me a moment longer: I can understand why they would want to overstimulate a large group of under-eights by feeding them greasy food and then leading them in aerobically challenging games in the hot sun to the nonstop accompaniment of amplified music – it makes perfect sense. Children, when confronted with an environment low on noise and chaos often display undesirable attributes like long attention spans and an interest in imaginative play.

That the music should be loud is also understandable. Back when I was a 14-year-old punk rocker, I dreamed of having a PA system as large as these kids are enjoying. But we played indoors, in small rooms that were easily filled with sound. When attempting to fill the great outdoors, more robust sound reinforcement is necessary.

But why must they play music from the 1950s and ’60s? These are babies, not baby boomers. If anything, being relatively new on the planet, I’d imagine they would like to hear something new. Perhaps the new solo album by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke?

(See, that last reference saved me from sounding like a you-kids-get-out-of-my-yard old fogey. Or was meant to, anyway.)

Okay, on to books.

Right after this: isn’t it weird that music from the 1950s and ’60s is now seen as perfect for kids? Granted, it sounds poppy and naive today, but in its day, it was the music of rebellion. If we start kids out on “Rock around the Clock,” no wonder they’ll be ready for death metal by the time they’re teens. It’s as if they’re getting a crash course in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, starting when they wiggle to “Tutti Frutti” on floor mats at nursery school.

Okay, books:

On Monday, thanks in part to the 50 pages I read while my cranky-from-the-heat three-month-old passed out on my chest, I finished Anthony Swofford’s Exit A (which I started discussing on Monday). It got off to a great start, but the second half was a letdown. While the two main characters are confused teens in the confusing world of Yokota Air Force Base, outside Tokyo, Swofford does a great job with setting, characterization, pace, and plot. Once they’re adults, the story loses momentum. In particular, a lengthy part exploring Severin’s troubled marriage to a professor in San Francisco feels like another book entirely – and a less interesting book at that. In the second half, I was never sure where Swofford was going, and it felt like he didn’t know, either.

This reading experience reminds me a little bit of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. The first part, about Dylan Ebdus’ boyhood in Brooklyn, was achingly good. The second part, when he becomes an adult, felt a bit flat. It’s a special challenge for writers to have multi-year time spans in their stories, and it’s an even greater challenge for them to capture characters’ changing viewpoints. Add that to the fact that it’s easier to start a book than to finish one, and a little act-two letdown makes sense.

Also, frankly, the adolescent mindset (Fortress of Solitude) and the teenage mindset (Exit A), convincingly portrayed, feel like foreign lands, and offer opportunities for emotional totality and discovery. When next we meet the character and he’s working a lame job and struggling with a relationship (Exit A), the adult years suffer by comparison.

(What the hell is “emotional totality”?)

Anyway, Swofford is not as good as Lethem, but the parallel is interesting. Maybe it says more about the writers – after all, there are books where the characters’ youths seem unconvincing and their adulthoods seem rich and full-fleshed. Examples escape me at the moment, but you know what I mean.

Okay, time for my guest drum solo on “Wipeout.” Unless this “aloha” really means goodbye.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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