October has been designated as National Bullying Prevention Month. What does it say about society that we have a month designated to raise awareness about something as basic as human kindness?
I realize that I can’t change the cruelties in this world. No matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to prevent murder, hunger, or disease from affecting millions. Despite my nudging words and invitation to see from another perspective, I can’t always flip a switch and change a person’s perspective or heal a broken mind. I don’t always say the right things or give the best advice. But I’d rather die trying to make the world a better place than passively sit by and watch people suffer.
While we should always focus on preventing bullying, this may be a good month for readers to read books to begin conversations about bullying. We might begin in elementary school by reading The Featherless Chicken (Heryin Books, 2006) by Chih Yuan Chen, then follow in the upper grades with Thank You, Mr. Falker (Philomel Books, 2012) by Patricia Polacco, and keep reading into young adulthood as world views and personal philosophies develop.
Reading wisely selected literature, we can give readers the resources and powers they might not otherwise possess, powers to stand up for those who are treated with cruelty and confidence to speak out against prejudice when they see it. We can also conduct conversations about difference--sharing the notion that difference is not a defect, simply different. Furthermore, in young adult literature (YAL), readers can find solace and support by reading about others who have lived challenging lives and found ways to survive.
One book with the power to serve as a catalyst for sparking conversations on complex social issues like bullying, diversity, and the effects of prejudice is Alan Gratz’s novel Code of Honor (Scholastic, 2015). Using a sports story to explore the contemporary topic of cultural collisions, Gratz raises social consciousness and invites collaborative conversation about these tough topics. It also embodies my definition of Cultural Identity Literature (CIL).
I coined the term CIL to enlarge the traditional term multicultural literature. As a category of literature, CIL also addresses issues of power and oppression and provides an opportunity to view these issues from a different perspective, thereby inspiring empathy-building. The force of such literature is in its ability to engage the reader and to break through barriers. CIL can facilitate the rethinking process because it encourages readers to expand their notion of diversity, thereby normalizing the idea of difference.
Gratz stretches the reader’s vision through his protagonist Kamran Smith, a high school senior whose life at the novel’s beginning seems charmed. A star running back, Kamran is homecoming king and dates beautiful homecoming queen, Julia Gary. He has dreams of going to West Point to follow in his brother Darius’s footsteps as an Army Ranger. All of Kamran’s dreams are destroyed, however, when Darius is accused of being a radical Islamic terrorist and Arizona congresswoman rescinds Kamran’s letter of nomination.
In the wake of Darius’ acts of apparent terrorism, Kamran becomes a target for the hatred and bullying of others who call him “towel head” or “camel jockey.” But he’s Persian American, not Arab, and Persians are often Shi’a Muslims, not Sunni Muslims like al-Qaeda. Still, Kamran can feel the suspicion in the eyes of his classmates, feel the way people watch him simply because he has “the same nose and skin and hair as some monster who’d once hijacked a plane” (23). Because he’s olive skinned and because people care little for the facts, Kamran experiences the derision and hatred of the ignorant.
Despite video evidence that shows Darius attacking the US embassy in Turkey, Kamran refuses to believe that his brother is a traitor to his country. After all, the two boys grew up reenacting mash-ups of old Persian legends in which Rostam and Siyavash vanquished contemporary villains. They lived by a Code of Honor, seven rules that focused on strength, bravery, loyalty, perseverance, truth, helping the helpless, and killing monsters. Living a kind of faith, the two boys would rather die than break their Code.
As evidence against his brother mounts with additional videos released to the American public, Kamran remains adamant that Darius has been brainwashed or that he is a prisoner being used as a pawn. Although Kamran shares his theories with his parents, they are too sad and numbed by shock to listen. When Kamran is captured and detained by the Department of Homeland Security, he repeatedly discloses his theories to government officials, but they have twisted the Code to fit their version of Darius, a radical fighting against American tyranny and punishing the infidels for their crimes against Islam. Their theories plant a seed of doubt in Kamran’s mind, and Kamran wonders if the brother he thought he knew is capable of such betrayal.
The glimmer of hope reignites when Mickey Hagan, an analyst with the CIA who was born in Northern Ireland, befriends Kamran. A kindred spirit of sorts, Mickey tells Kamran about his own brother, Conor Hagan, who joined the Irish Republican Army and what that experience did to alter his life. Whether Mickey believes Kamran or simply wants to help him accept the truth about his own brother, together the two translate the multiple clues that Kamran finds in the videos, clues that form a kind of code that only Kamran would understand. Consumed by his mission to prove that Darius is not a traitor and to live out his Code, Kamran eventually decides he needs to escape his captors, to find and rescue his brother.
Using his football training and his coach’s words, “No doubts. No second guesses. No distractions” (27), Kamran sets out to vindicate his brother and to set right again, his world gone rotten. He wants to return to simpler times, when he wasn’t thought of as a terrorist. He wants to be “Smith, number 13, running back” (32), part of a team, cheered for, encouraged, and judged only on his efforts and accomplishments. Although he won’t give up on his brother, Kamran isn’t sure what he will do with the truth once he discovers it.
Readers will likely find Gratz’s action-packed story both compelling and enlightening. The analogy drawn between the prejudice Kamran encounters and that Mickey experiences with the Protestant and Catholic conflict in Ireland provides a learning tool and opens discussion about what prejudice feels like and how we might mitigate human cruelty and the tendency to hate, reject, or ignore what we don’t know or even try to understand.
With this novel, Gratz encourages cultural border crossing, seeing from multiple perspectives, challenging dominant modes of knowing, and producing knowledge from facts. As CIL, his book works to dispel some of the myths and misperception about diverse cultures. Reflective of our ever-growing diverse society, young adult literature includes a growing body of work—like Gratz’s—that represents different ethnic and cultural groups. Providing access to these texts potentially increases understanding of self and others because CIL can stretch our vision of ourselves and our world.
Through Kamran, readers accept that life hurts and it’s hard, but that unless we put aside our fury and have hope, life can’t progress positively. Winning begins with attitude and with our choices. Inevitably life will throw curves; they’ll come out of nowhere, but these challenges are best met by adapting with grace, opening our minds to alternate perspectives, and abandoning ignorance and rage.