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What’s Good?

Category: The Teen Scene
Posted: March 9, 2018

By: Josh O'Shea, Young Adult Librarian

Teen girl sitting in chair reading a book.What is good? When it comes to art, books, movies, or other interactions involving feelings and ideas, the short answer is, we don’t know exactly. Humans tend to make general rules about how we can decide if something is good, such as saying, “The more diversity we have, the better life is.” What we can do, instead of trying to make a solid, static, hard-boiled definition of good, is to focus on moving toward an idea of what’s good. “Moving toward” means we may not know for sure, but we have ideas about what makes something good.

For example, we might not know exactly what our dream house looks like, but we know what rooms we want inside, how many bathrooms we need, that the ceilings should be vaulted for a tall guy (which I am), that there will be many shelves for book collections (and cats), that the windows should block the wind, and on and on. The ideas we have can interact with other ideas, and we can put them next to each other and say “Yeah, that’s starting to make a mosaic of what I think is good.”

This means we can’t have a set-in-stone idea of what’s good. We need to adapt and update our definition depending on our time or the people involved. We probably agree there are some things that are always good: everyone having access to food, safety, and equal treatment; those things have stayed constant for a long time and probably will stay constant.

There are many examples of people rejecting set-in-stone definitions. If you’ve seen Dead Poets Society, a powerful scene has a student reading the “rules of good poetry” from a textbook. After the student reads the rigid rules out loud, the teacher thanks him, then says “Rip it out!”

Teacher: [stands on his desk] Why do I stand up here? Anybody?Student: To feel taller!

Teacher: No! Thank you for playing, Mr. Dalton. I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way!

The teacher wants, above all else, for poetry the make the reader feel something. A reader should care about the feelings more than the rules or structures inside the poetry. Rules and structures need to serve the feelings and ideas. He teaches his class to look for adventure, to seek emotional depths, to read and write prose that cause the mind to soar.

What’s good for one person may not be for another, but we all want to feel something, or think in a new way, when we interact with things. When looking at a piece of art, one person might say “I saw …” and another person responds, “I didn’t see that at all; I saw something else.” Other times, we want to be able to apply our own meaning to what we see. I like Blade Runner 2049 because it gave me a chance to see my own emotions reflected in Officer K’s heart. One question I always have is “Can I put my feelings into the story?” If I can, then I’m likely to think the story was good.

We all have ideas of what good is, and we can agree on parts of what good means. We should be on the lookout for new ideas, for things that challenge us to see things differently, for ways to listen to different voices. Some things stay constant for us, and others change; both those things are good.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my recommendations of a few good YA novels with great and odd depth of character:

Check out The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij JohnsonThe Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Count All Her Bones by April Henry

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susana Clark