In grade school I would skim the readers for something intriguing, passing over stories of everyday American life and fun science facts for narratives about other countries. As junior high student I soaked up Jules Verne adventures in distant places such as the famed Around the World in Eighty Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and the lesser known Michael Strogoff: Courier of the Czar. As an adult I discovered he chafed under the formulaic requirements imposed on him for writing these shallow adventure novels. But they were the right stories to get me hooked on reading at that time. (Maybe, if these same requirements were followed by some of today’s YA novelist their works would actually improve).
Often in secondary education, we foist the best works of classic authors on students when they are not ready for the abstract thinking required to appreciate it. There is another option to turning off students or only giving them modern authors to read. It is introducing them to the more accessible, popular early works from which classic writers went on to build their reputation.
Many American authors start their career by describing their travels, and returned to novels set in their own backyard later. These works are largely autobiographical with little or no symbolism and deep meaning to uncover – just a record of their own real life. Three of the most famous started off writing on long passages on the sea:
Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame, first wrote largely autobiographical works such as Redburn and White-Jacket to describe his adventures as a sailor.
Mark Twain wrote Innocents Abroad, a humorous view the naiveté of Americans on a cruise to the Middle East and Life on the Mississippi to describe his own days as a river man.
Jack London wrote the purely adventurous John Barleycorn before completing The Call of the Wild and Sea-Wolf on which his fame rests.
Sometimes, however, travelogues are the work of a mature writer, John Steinbeck, widely known as for his stories of the Great Depression also chronicled his 1960 trip across the country in Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Steinbeck doesn’t simply describe the new scenery, he reflects on his own life, and the flood of changes that had washed over the country that he knew as a much younger man. But this nostalgia is a more recent one that students may be able to connect to.
One of the more current travel novel for adolescents is Into the Wild by John Krakauer. The journalist traces the path of a self-disenfranchised wealthy young college grad as he attempts to reinvent himself in a quest to live a life free of society’s trappings. Despite initial success, Chris McCandles’ follows the lure to go farther into the wild, which up ends up being deadly. Not particularly optimistic – but real.
Into the Wild also discusses Chris McCandles’ connection with transcendentalist philosophy. Most teenagers become bewildered trying to pin down the defining elements of this intellectual revolt against traditional religion. A quick look into the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (or any other member of the Transcendental Club) can help to enrich this book. However, students will discover that although the Transcendentalists idolized nature and decried the negative influence of society in their writing, they never managed to live off of nature separate from society. And learning to see the difference in what is said and done is a good introduction to abstract thinking.
Photo of Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC