Saturday, August 29, 2015

Friend and Foil

I can think of few (good) books that lack character foils. I am thinking now of friend­-foils, not foe-foils: Huck and Jim, Ralph and Piggy, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Watson and Holmes. The best children’s literature features odd couples, too: where would Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, and The Wizard of Oz be without the mismatched-pals dynamic?

As my summer of stellar young adult literature winds to a close, I have dog-eared many passages of highly-burnished writing, grabbing my otherwise-discarded teacher hat to note specific techniques I want students to emulate. The friend-foils component spans all of the books on my list: Matt de la Peña’s I Will Save You and Mexican Whiteboy, Terry Spencer Hesser’s Kissing Doorknobs, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.

Uniquely, I Will Save You’s foil is a shadow, that archetypal embodiment of a protagonist’s darker inclinations—more frenemy than friend.  But like any good friend-foil, Devon contributes an essential ingredient to his buddy Kidd’s development, in this case a destructive world-view that Kidd must learn to reject. In Speak, Melinda's bubbly foil ditches her to preserve her social status, but Melinda's two eccentric teachers arguably fulfill the role of her foils, too. Their baffling, often-outlandish expressivity speaks to the heart-heavy, tongue-tied hero. 

The rest of the gang—Mexican Whiteboy’s Uno and Kissing Doorknobs’ Donnaexert  more straightforwardly-constructive influences on their counterparts (however wholesomely or unwholesomely-delivered).  Each supplies his or her friend with a vital piece of themselves—the quality of perseverance, an optimistic attitude, a thick skin, introspection, extroversion. However tenaciously the protagonist questions or rejects her friend’s offering, however long it grates, bemuses, or embarrasses her, the hero ultimately acknowledges her deficiency and allows the friend-foil to help make her whole.
If stories are, as Jonathan Gottschall writes in The Storytelling Animal, thrillingly crucial life-simulations, the friend-foil element mirrors our abiding need for difference in our relationships, however challenging or counterintuitive it feels. As Susan Cain argues in Quiet, our increasingly-extroverted world needs the caution, self-reflection, and deeply sustained thought of its introverts. In Jefferson County, Kentucky, public school-children mingle across socioeconomic and racial lines because their parents, first-generation products of busing, want the same social education for their children.  They recognize that each child brings a different dimension of the world to their community, making one another whole with each new piece of human experience.

It is hard to understand the paradox that couples our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual need for diversity with our tribal instinct, the source of much human division. The characters in these young adult novels, at least, come out on the moral-growth side of this struggle—taking a chance on challenging attitudes and traits despite their discomfort and fear. However gritty the journey, this is an outcome I can endorse, whether in YA life-simulation or in real life.

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