Student Blake Mellencamp discusses young adult literature after Skype session with author Eliot Schrefer

In Dr. Susanna Benko’s ENG 414: Young Adult Literature class this past Spring semester, students read Eliot Schrefer’s novel Endangered. Afterward, she asked him to speak to the class on Skype. In this post, student Blake Mellencamp discusses the visit and his views on young adult literature. 

Young adult literature has achieved a troubling reputation in academic culture of being seen as less than literary. If you’re one who’s settled into this mindset, though, then think again, because young adult literature may just be some of the most dynamic writing of today. The books digested by adolescent readers are anything but watered down. In fact, many esteemed novels of the genre are pushing literature to new frontiers. These books deal with real, tough issues and diverse settings across the world ranging from the little-studied Balkan Genocide to futuristic dystopias to the dismal conditions of American Indian reservations.

On April 8th, Ball State’s Young Adult Literature course was fortunate enough to Skype with author Eliot Schrefer about his popular novel Endangered, a finalist for the National Book Award. This novel takes us to a setting remarkably foreign for the average American young adult reader: the war-torn Congo. While in academic circles we may find most of our cursory knowledge of this region coming from Heart of Darkness, I must admit that Schrefer’s well-researched portrayal of Congo might trounce Joseph Conrad’s. In our “classic” literature, we are provided a biased view of imperialism that gives no consideration to the African mindset. We are confronted with a limitless savagery that in no way resembles the world as we know it to be. Endangered turns this view on its head, giving us an immersive cultural experience in which the reader can be exposed realistically to an unfamiliar setting.

When Schrefer first proposed the title, his agent asked if the author was writing a dystopian novel. With The Hunger Games and Divergent dominating book sales, the agent made a fair guess. However, Endangered is distinct from its peers in terms of subject matter. Endangered follows Sophie, a young Congolese-American girl visiting her mother’s bonobo sanctuary who rescues a baby ape named Otto from a vendor on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. When military conflict surges through the nation, Sophie and Otto must escape through the dangerous jungle. Through the story of Sophie and Otto, the audience absorbs the tangled geography and political conflicts of Congo. We are shown the consequence of imperialism firsthand and are guided by empathetic characters.

Schrefer told our class that the first inkling of Endangered was born when he purchased a pair of pants from an online retailer called Bonobos. At first, he thought that the brand was just a nonsense word, but after searching online, Schrefer became acquainted with the bonobo: a great ape closely related to the chimpanzee and sharing a great deal of its DNA with human beings. Indigenous only to the Congo, the biological research on bonobos led to a great deal of historical research on the country itself. Eventually this research brought Schrefer to a bonobo sanctuary – and you can find some YouTube videos of this experience that are to die for.  A few internet searches led to the creation of Eliot Schrefer’s Great Ape Quartet, the second of which, Threatened, was released in March. Threatened deals with chimpanzees, and there will be an additional two novels revolving around gorillas and orangutans.

Schrefer left our class with a remarkable insight. For years, evolutionary psychologists studying chimpanzees have looked at the apes’ war-like social structure and have deemed human conflict as perhaps being inevitable. However, we are equally related to the bonobos, who curiously lack war and live in peace. Amidst the most violent region in the world, Endangered offers hope in the form of an alternative view of humanity’s heritage. If this is what our young adults want to read, I’m all for it.

To learn more about Eliot Schrefer, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

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