Compare and Contrast: Twilight and Pride and Prejudice

Yesterday I listened to a lecture from the Kid You Not Podcast in which Clementine and Lauren discuss the appeal of dark paranormal romance among teenage girls. This reminded me of a lecture delivered by La Trobe University’s David Beagley.

Fiction For Young Adults, Lecture 9: What it is to be young and in love, available on iTunes U.

 

The Importance of Romance in Pop Culture

The lecture opens with a clip from South Pacific, Some Enchanted Evening

About 95% of all pop songs are about romance, the pairing up of people.

Twilight by Stephanie Myer is one of the most popular YA romances of the last decade or so

Pride and Prejudice is arguably the most popular romantic novel in the English language.

A lot of the elements – the crowded room, the fly to her side – can be found in Some Enchanted Evening. These are nowadays clichés, the standard building blocks of the romance story which are used over and over.

References

Lee from Marvels and Tales Guilty Pleasures: reading romances as reworked fairytales (2008) looks at the form and structure of the typical romance novels.

Greenfield’s Absent Minded Heroine or Elizabeth Bennett has a thought, looks specifically at Pride and Prejudice and looks very much at the idea of absence: how to fall in love when the person isn’t actually there. The idealisation of the other person, love at first sight, the unreliability of appearance.

Leisha Jones writes about Bildungsroman and the ‘prosumer‘, a new word which has come out after analysis of the Twilight series. Jones looks at how the modern stereotype of the girl in love is a carefully manufactured product that is marketed very heavily toward its target audience, and how the target audience is starting to take control of that image, with the fan fiction, the blogs, sharing their impressions of the story without that mediation of the commercial product (the prosumer – a proactive consumer). (Here is a blog post about the article from Latinas Coming Of Age.)

Jasna, the Jane Austen Society of North America, looks at the Twilight movies and their relationship to Pride and Prejudice.

 

About Jane Austen

One of the few drawings we have of Jane Austen done by her sister Cassandra. One of the problems with studying Austen is that despite her copious letters, her family destroyed them soon after her death. There are only a few remaining, so it’s difficult to get prime evidence about her as a person.

Austen died at 42 which was not particularly old but not all that unusual for her time, though it was still young for her class. She was a clergyman’s daughter.

Pride and Prejudice [at time of broadcast] has just reached its double century and is now considered one of the best books of all time, just behind Lord of the Rings in big polls. There have been many adaptations.

 

The Bildungsroman

Originally ‘bildungsroman’ meant a romantic story but we’ve narrowed the definition right down to refer to a type of  story which follows a character as he or she grows from adolescence into adulthood. Harry Potter is very much a bildungsroman. Pride and Prejudice probably isn’t because it only takes place over the course of a single year, but it does show a change of character.

Bella Swan, in Twilight, is followed from late adolescence into adulthood so the Twilight series is indeed a bildungsroman.

 

What do Pride and Prejudice and Twilight Have In Common?

A young adult girl as protagonist

Independent minded, pretty, intelligent, speaks her mind. (Bella Swan is an unsubtle use of names. Think of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. Bella means beautiful, swan shows that she is beautiful – it is only to herself that she is less than beautiful, yet she is popular with boys [and suffers no prejudice regards beauty], so within the world of the story is obviously beautiful  and exotic from anyone else’s point of view.)

This is similar to Elizabeth Bennett, who sees Jane as the beautiful one.

These are characters who are the standard bearer of what it means to be an attractive female in their own milieu.

Both protagonists live in rural backwaters, not quite the loving, supportive family. Each is the sensible one who keeps it all together.

Family of Lizzie Bennett is not rich within he social circle of Hertfordshire, in a little village Longbourne, out in the sticks (even though these days easy to access by train from London).  Bella lives in Forks, North Washington, moved there from Phoenix Arizona, a totally different place where you get to wear short shorts and tank tops – she’s moved to the misty mountains, miles from the decent shops, she has to plan a shopping visit for a full day to do some decent shopping for dresses. Her parents have separated. Mum’s got a baseballer boyfriend for a second husband and Bella is having to choose between her mother and father. She is the one being sensible and deciding. Instead of the sisters she’s got the ditzy fashion mad boy crazy friends at school. All they care about is who is aligned with who.

Well-meaning but ineffective fathers. Mr Bennett and Charlie Swan are very similar, each locked into a lifestyle that prevents them doing much for their daughters. Charlie is so used to being on his own that he can’t even cook. All the parents in these stories are largely ineffective.

Both meet a dark, brooding, handsome man. With Lizzie it’s Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy. Both Fitzwilliam and Darcy are names that imply a station within the nobility. Darcy would have originally been D’Arcy, an old French name, just as his aunt Lady Catherine D’Burg was named. They were not Germanic peasants. To have a name with French origins meant an old, established family. The Fitz of Fitzwilliam means that one of his ancestors was the illegitimate son of a noble. It was better to have an heir than not to have an heir, so illegitimacy wasn’t seen as a major problem, mainly because most marriages were not for romantic love but for convenience. If one wife can’t produce a male heir you just keep going through wives until you get one.

Edward Cullen. Something mysterious about Darcy and Edward when first appearing. So much emphasis is put on the appearance of Edward, very little on Bella. We only get brief physical descriptions of Bella, mainly from other characters, but every couple of pages there’s something about Edward’s muscular, fine appearance. Darcy is defined by his facial expressions and his moods.

At first Cullen appears to dislike Bella and she him. Same with Darcy and Lizzie. Darcy is out of sorts at the party because he’s just had to buy Wickham off after Wickham got his younger sister into a heap of trouble, and his rudeness towards Lizzie is displaced. Edward Cullen appears to be distant but really he finds Bella irresistible and is feigning disinterest. Both stories are about the unreliability of initial appearances.

The absent-minded heroine: she is thinking of absence. Lizzie only falls in love with Darcy when he is not there. Between her rejection of his proposal when apparently he was the ‘last’ man she would marry and then his reappearance at her house having solved the problem, Greenfield has worked out that Lizzie has seen him for perhaps three hours total. Yet she has fallen in love with him. She builds her epistemology upon how things appear, and it’s only when there’s no appearance there that she learns what Darcy is really like.

Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth when he sees her in her natural state, after tramping across a muddy field. Likewise, when Elizabeth sees Darcy again after reassessing his character he is walking across a field (unlike in the BBC adaptation in which case we have Colin Firth in a wet shirt).

Similarly with Bella it’s when she’s being tracked by a group of guys intent on raping her who is saved by Edward who takes her to a coffee shop that Bella is separated from her ditzy friends who are off shopping. The two are alone, and later they’re in among the flowers in the woods. In both stories, the natural environment is important. Get rid of artificiality then let nature take its course.

But, there are warnings. Lady Catherine D’Burg is a very snobby and titled character who intervenes. She wants her own daughter to marry Darcy (her nephew). Just because you have a title doesn’t mean you have a never-ending supply of money. It’s important that her sickly daughter marries rich.

In the case of Bella the warnings come from a slightly related connection of her father – Jacob and his grandfather Billy’s warnings. Not social suicide but literal suicide – it will kill you. Both characters realise they are in love and they press on. With Bella the predator is James, another vampire, who turns up when they’re all playing baseball in the middle of a storm. (Woebetide any guy with a blonde ponytail – look at that character from the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice – they’re playing the same trope.)

Disaster threatens but all is saved by the handsome brooding misunderstood man. With Lizzie disaster is averted because her younger sister is no longer living in sin – she’s at least married (which is a happy ending for the times, even though Lydia is married to a man of questionable nature). Darcy saved the social standing of the Bennett girls. In the case of Bella it’s Edward who solves the problem in that they entrap James and rips him into pieces and burns them. (The dance studio burns down so we assume that’s what’s happens.) Who actually has the capacity to enact change? In both cases it’s the dark, brooding, handsome man. The girl is passive. Edward has the power over Bella. She is the bait to catch him. Darcy is the one who goes away and solves the problems. Lizzie doesn’t even know what he’s up to. She only finds out later, just in time for the big celebrations.

In Lizzie’s case it’s the wedding and in Bella’s case it’s the high school prom, which is almost as big in American cultures.

Has Stephanie Myer simply copied P and P or are these standard elements?

Both characters are outstanding – gorgeous, intelligent, able to solve problems… but don’t think they are.

There is something at first sight… not necessarily love. But yes, I notice you, you’re something.

Appearances are deceiving. Love at first sight is too corny even for most novelists, so there’s misunderstanding to begin with.

Lizzie Bennett needs three hours to fall in love with Darcy. Edward need only ask Bella to sit with him in the canteen and wow, we’re in love. How gendered is this? The girl has to wait for the boy to solve the problem until they can live happily ever after.

How set up for sequels is each story? Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice (possibly because she died five years later?) but others have done so. [My favourite synopsis is Colleen McCullough’s version, in which she doesn’t think Darcy is the perfect hero, but rather a grumpy old sod, in which case the marriage is a disaster.]


The Appeal Of Dark Paranormal Romance

The following notes are from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode Five: Why Do People Read Paranormal Romance?

The following books come up, and I’m sure you could have predicted at least a few of them!

  1. The Ravenwood Mysteries by Mia James, in which the first is By Midnight
  2. The Fallen Trilogy by Lauren Kate
  3. The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer

 

One of the hosts of this podcast (Clementine) doesn’t like paranormal romance whereas the other reads them with a ferocity that ‘is very strange considering’ Lauren is aware they’re not the best quality. Lauren is a fan of Twilight and has read them numerous times. (She does say that New Moon is the boring one of the trilogy and explains why further down.)

First, they read an excerpt from the paranormal YA romance novel By Midnight by Mia James, in which the romantic vibe comes through in a way typical for this genre.

It would be easy to criticise dark romance book but this podcast is about why people read them.

NECESSARY ELEMENTS OF PARANORMAL ROMANCE

It’s not just the writing in these books which is not up to par – even the plots are repetitive. Their appeal is to do with wish fulfillment. The books are strangely addictive.

The unvaried plot is comforting to the reader. Readers expect certain specific things: a love story with a twist, appeals to girls, more scary than a normal love story, and supernatural elements which provide excitement and danger. A recurring theme is that no matter how much danger the girl is in, you know a heroine will ultimately be protected by the immortal or supernatural boy she has ‘chosen’ to be with. Readers want romance. If the book is going through a non-romantic sequence, sometimes the readers will skip it. The main character is not fully fleshed out enough to provide any interest in her own right. The Love is a character in its own right. It’s not about the female character per se.

 

LOVE ACROSS THE SPECIES

Central to all of these paranormal romance books is ‘forbidden love’. This is also how romance in non-supernatural romantic tales starts — a traditional plot. People have always read romance with forbidden love in it. But times have changed. Parents no longer get to decide who their daughters marry. There are fewer obstacles when people get together, unless the story is set in a more restrictive setting such as a country which has war, or with different political configurations. A paranormal romance gets round this issue by having a human girl fall in love with a man from a supernatural species, which is forbidden for reasons explained in any given story of this genre.

[See my notes on a documentary I watched about romantic cinema. Rom-coms have this same problem because there has to be something in the plot which keeps two lovers apart, otherwise there is no story.]

 

AN ANCIENT TRADITION

Although there has been a recent swing towards supernatural love stories, this is actually an ancient tradition. Greek mythology is full of such stories. Zeus impregnates different types of human females. Readers are aware of this. From looking at fansites, readers of paranormal romance are actually quite demanding regarding what they read. They’re not going to read indiscriminately anything – there has to be a twist for it to be interesting. There must be some kind of alchemy between romance and mythology, and the twist might be in setting it in a modern setting such as a school etc. This completely offsets the mythological and romantic element.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show in the 1990s which was part of this trend, which came from the work of Anne Rice, which itself comes from a very long tradition. [See The Evolution Of The Vampire In Fiction, again, notes from a lecture by David Beagley.]

THE SPECIFIC NEEDS OF A READER

A reader review of By Midnight on Amazon shows that the reader appreciates this particular story for avoiding a ‘gooey’ female character, embedding the plot in a kind of reality. [Reality can obviously be placed on a very broad continuum.]

There are so many of these paranormal romance novels now that readers have generally honed their specific wants and needs. It’s a rapidly evolving genre as a consequence. They’re a bit like the teenage Mills and Boons, but updated for today’s teens. The love is also supposed to be very angsty and significant. They replicate the intensity of first love and teenage infatuation, making them more than hormone driven. There’s usually a worldwide significant event which has the ability to change the lives of everyone. [This fits the definition of ‘high fantasy’ as explained by David Beagley in his lecture Harry Potter and High Fantasy.]

 

WHY DOES THIS GENRE SPEAK SO WELL TO A TEENAGE, FEMALE READERSHIP?

A lot of other teenage books don’t validate these feelings. Paranormal romance takes a ‘hormonal fact’ and gives it an almost spiritual dimension, as if confirming to the insecure teen that their feelings are so real and tremendously important that they have to live them fully. This concords with the completely narcissistic view on life that adults often conclude teenagers have, [and one could argue that these books encourage it].

The physical symptoms of the protagonists blushing/heart palpitating/breathing patterns and so on is not really described in any other genre. The love is therefore interpreted as all-consuming: the love is not just in your head; it’s in your whole body. This lends the love more significance. Teenage girls can really relate to this.

These feelings that feel uncontrollable to the teenage reader are validated: These feelings you have are from some supernatural event which is indeed outside your control. Or, you inherited them and it’s not your fault. This is comforting, and allows the teenager to access a feeling very powerfully. Love is presented as something that happens to you rather than a choice. It’s as if the love is predetermined.

Like the young heroine in a book, a reader is preconditioned to fall in love with a supernatural man. A lot of the stories make an attempt to explain the love interest’s appeal. Often it’s his handsomeness, which is a very uncomfortable fact given the lack of choice the female protagonist feels she has.

 

‘COMMITMENT PORN’

Why do people respond so well to these troublesome ideologies? Is it a response to living in a society which is full of sexualised images of women? Because ironically, paranormal romance is incredibly chaste. There’s no sex until after marriage. This storyline is escapist if a teenage girl feels her body is constantly being judged. Girls perhaps like these stories for the same reason teenage girls prefer non-threatening, boy-like, almost asexual partners a la the members of Hansen. [I have heard this referred to as ‘the erotics of abstinence’.]

THE NATURE OF THE FEMALE PROTAGONIST

The female protagonists are created in such a way that as many readers as possible are meant to identify with her. A lot of her attributes play on the insecurities of teenage girls. A very common trait is the heroine is never popular. She’s never someone surrounded by close, real friends. [Genuine female friendships in YA are rare, as explained by Kate DeGoldi in her review of Code Name Verity – a rare example of female friendship well done.] She’s always a bit of an outcast, that she doesn’t fit in. [She feels she isn’t beautiful enough – there has to be something wrong with her. This isn’t limited to this genre, but is common across all YA genres. Here are my views on that.]

Coincidentally, the male love interest in paranormal romance is the only character who has ever really understood her.

A ‘Mary Sue character’ is a term given to female characters who are basically devoid of character traits. [The term is used in various different ways, as explained at TV Tropes.] She is generally weak, clumsy, insecure. Empty shells allow the reader to comfortably fit inside.

 

REASONS NOT TO DISMISS THE READERSHIP

Many fans of paranormal romance are very articulate. They explain very well on forums why they like one book over another.  Posts can get quite close to literary analysis.  For this reason it would be a mistake to dismiss readers of paranormal romance as unsophisticated. They are enchanted by these books but can be critical of them. The books obviously offer something upon which to base critique. Breaking Dawn came under heavy criticism from Twilight’s most hardcore fans, who subsequently wrote an open letter to Stephanie Meyer via her blog. Fans had problem with the ideology behind the ending. This proved that an author can’t just wrap up a story in babies and weddings and vampires.

Readers will say they like these books for the ‘danger’. But these books are dangerous in another way, if the reader fails to read them critically and discerningly. You can be asked to absorb viewpoints that can be damaging to your development as a teenager. It’s worrisome that these books are sometimes held up as a romantic ideal. They’re best when viewed as a complete fantasy. But in 2008 and 2009 when Twilight was at its most popular, girls were apparently dumping their boyfriends because they weren’t enough like Jacob or Edward. The story sets up an ‘ideal’ that real teenage boys are never going to live up to. The stories can also set up an expectation for how girls are to be treated by boys, which is not just unrealistic but damaging.  It is presented as good to be overprotected and have a boy who controls you.

 

RELATED

An article in The Guardian about Bollywood Film and depictions of sex shows how much viewers want romance and erotica in fiction, and Indian film makers go to great lengths to get around censorship, to the point where visual metaphors are now arguably more sexual than brazen Hollywood depictions:

There is the popular misconception that Bollywood films do not show scenes of a sexual nature: they do. However, when comparing the screen time or manner in which kissing (or more “bedroomly” activity) is portrayed in Bollywood versus Hollywood, Bollywood is a blushing ballerina, whereas Hollywood is as brazen as a pole-dancing stripper.

- In Bed With Bollywood


Death In Children’s Literature

The following notes are from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 4.

  • In many stories death is the beginning of the book rather than the ending.
  • Death is an on-limits topic in books for all ages, from picturebooks to adult.
  • Western children are otherwise completely protected from death. It’s common these days to reach adulthood without ever having witnessed death. Yet children’s literature is replete with references to death, with family members and friends dying all the time.
  • In the Victorian era death was far more a part of life than it is now, but the rate of death doesn’t seem to have gone down much.
  • The reality is children still have to deal with death. Grandparents are the most common.
  • Many believe the function of kidlit is to prepare them for all eventualities. [Bibliotherapy is discussed in detail by David Beagley.]
  • There’s definitely a demand for books on this topic. Ask any librarian. Parents want help introducing this topic to their children in a way that is safer and less personal.
  • There are many, many books looking at the death of animals, as a more indirect way of learning about this topic.
  • My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece uses the death of an animal as an overt device through which the male protagonist finally understands his father’s grief for his sister, who died five years before. This book deals not with death itself but with the characters who are left behind dealing with it.

  • Artichoke Hearts by Sita Brahmachari is one of the best YA books of the past few years and in this story we see the day-to-day life of a girl who is slowly losing her grandmother to cancer.
  • In fact, most children’s books are not tackling death; they tackle mourning.
  • Big philosophical questions about what happens after you die are avoided. Mourning is easier to tackle, and such stories are perhaps selected for publishing because they have a therapeutic effect on young readers. The stories have endings which are not final. Phillip Pullman’s Lyra saves death in The Amber Spyglass (aka Northern Lights) because she essentially ensures that people become part of everything after death. This is a comforting idea because nothing feels final. Your life or at least your essence will continue to be part of the world.
  • This is not specific to kidlit, e.g. Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven [or Proof Of Heaven etc]

  • Still, there is a difference between the treatment of death in children’s and adults’ literature. The difference is that in literature for adults it is okay to not be able to mourn. It is okay for a death to be completely meaningless, completely unfair and devoid of any possibility for the people who are left to grieve and achieve a wholeness in grief. In kidlit, children must at least find some sort of solace.
  • The Reformative Value Of Death. This is the idea that with someone dying you can somehow gain value. This a horrible idea when you think about it, but there are numerous examples of this in children’s literature: Jacqueline Wilson’s Vicky Angel is about two best friends (extrovert/introvert). The louder child is killed in a car accident. The quiet child begins to come out of her shell. The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson begins with Lenny grieving for her sister who died completely randomly. The novel explores Lenny’s neuroses. She was so in awe of her sister that she didn’t try anything. In both stories, death gives the girls the gift of empowerment.

  • This kind of story is controversial, because the reader is encouraged to empathise wholly with the character left behind and put aside the (fictional) fact that another character has completely gone forever. Perhaps this kind of storyline is again trying to clothe death in meaning, since death almost always feels premature and unfair in real life.
  • One problem with the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is that it anesthetizes the reader rather than preparing them for adolescent death. Another issue is that on the one hand the TV game show encourages the reader to consider adolescent death a terrible thing, but on the other hand the reader wills the protagonist to kill some of them. So some of their lives were worth more than others — a ‘lazy and convenient technique’ because, conveniently, all the characters who are killed happen to be unpleasant while the ones who survive are pleasant. [I'm reminded of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.]
  • Death is therefore not only a theme in a lot of stories for children; it is also a plot device.
  • The incredible success of Hunger Games calls into question the degree to which fascination with death works with adolescents.
  • In the book Before I Die by Jenny Downham, death is used as the sole plot device. A 16 year old girl is dying of cancer. You may find yourself in tears even if you don’t think this is a particularly good book — it is incredibly manipulative of emotions. An important distinction: The reader is crying because a 16-year-old girl is dying, not because of the writing.

 

  • Manipulation is very important. Death can be an easy way to elicit emotions from a young reader. If we consider different forms of death: accident, homicide, terminal illness and suicide, of those, suicide is perhaps the most highly problematic. Books for adolescents are completely full of references to suicide, whether people actually commit suicide or entertain suicidal ideas. There is a long tradition in literature of young protagonists who contemplate suicides. It was thought after the publication of The Sorrows Of Young Werther lots of  young men were committing suicide after reading the book. [Incidentally, this is like the plot of Gloomy Sunday, a small, arty film which inexplicably took off in my hometown of Christchurch in the late 90s and had an extremely long running period at the Arts Centre cinema.]

  • Similarly, the Romeo and Juliet plot is found everywhere. We find it in Twilight, Noughts and Crosses by Malory Blackman, Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma, Harry Potter (with the self-sacrifice at the end). A lot of the time it’s clothed behind the fact that she isn’t actually dead — she becomes a vampire. Harry Potter is very Christian — very like Jesus. Self-sacrifice. Suicide is often presented as the noble option in children’s literature.
  • Suicide is the third biggest cause of adolescent death. It is glorified in adolescent novels, if not for being a noble act in its own right, but for helping others to see that life is worth living. This may be problematic when adolescent brains are hardwired for risk-taking.
  • There’s also an argument that adolescents like living vicariously through reading these books. The books provide the distance and can help them get through the teen years.
  • The problem with suicide is that hearing about it triggers the risk in people who are depressed or otherwise at risk. We can’t always hide behind the idea that vicarious experiences are safe ones.
  • At the opposite extreme, death is sometimes treated in a comical fashion. Examples: Casper the Friendly Ghost, Harrybo by Michael Rosen
  • If death is treated humorously this may be a better way of helping children deal with death, de-dramatizing it but at the same time acknowledges it is a thing.
  • If children are excluded from real-life funerals perhaps this encourages a fascination with death.
  • Paranormal romance is a genre which seems to indulge a teenager’s fascination with death. Death is not the end in any of the stories — they’re completely escapist. The premise of Fallen by Lauren Kate is reincarnation. Everytime the character dies she is reborn. Twilight is literally an ode to living forever. They seem very gothic but in fact they evade the theme of death completely.

 

  • By putting so much death in their children’s books, adult writers are taking the easy way out, clothing their own fears in pretty words and images. One day there will be a true text which deals with death in a meaningful way. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch is a beautiful (but controversial) picture book because it presents the inextricable link between a person and death.

  • Could children’s literature even exist if there were no such thing as death? Is part of the reason adults want to tell children all about life (through stories) because they know that they are going to die?
  • Perhaps adults simply think that children can’t cope with death. It’s the easy way out and it’s very often what adults believe themselves.
  • Remember, we don’t see the books that don’t get published. Publishers are less willing to take risks on books that won’t sell. Parents are the book-buyers. Librarians and teachers are other gatekeepers. There’s a huge amount of adult pressure outside the publisher and author regarding what children will read. Kidlit is a sample of what adults think children can deal with. It seems adults think children need to understand that there is ‘transience’ but few are willing to really get into the nitty gritty harshness of death.

RELATED

Some lists on Goodreads:

The kid(s) die!

Best Children’s Books About Death

Children’s Grief

Picture Books Where Someone Dies


Is the world of The Problem Novel a constructed, artificial society?

The following are notes from Lecture 03 of Fiction For Young Adults, delivered by Prof David Beagley at La Trobe University. Lectures are available on iTunes U.

 

Are Teenagers Portrayed as Troublesome Rebels Because They Are, Or Are The Rebels This Way Because We Stereotype Them?

Today’s lecture is about The Problem Novel: How teen books consider serious social issues.

Martin Weddell (Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?) also wrote The Beat Of The Drum, set in Belfast at the height of the troubles. The protagonist is faced with the problem of whether he should become the leader of the annual parade after someone is injured. Will I, or won’t I? Will I take sides in blame? Will I just leave? This is quite a confronting book, first written under the name of Katherine Sefton. There is some suggestion that he needed to do that because he’s a Northern Irishman himself, and might have been seen to be taking sides.

Once, Then and Now – three stories following a boy Felix through the second world war and the Holocaust.

Looking for X by Deborah Ellis is largely set in a single night where a girl is desperately trying to find an old homeless woman who can help her family, because her younger siblings are autistic. The family is trying to stay together despite expectations

Pervana is set in Afghanistan. Pervana is the name of a girl, whose father goes missing. This means her mother can’t leave the house, so Pervana has to dress as a boy. There are two sequels.

The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis

Tiff and the Trout is an interesting study of family dynamics dealing with divorce. Tiff has to decide between her mother and her father. The father is a quiet teacher, the mother is an active social figure who wants The Gold Coast. Dad wants the mountains. Set in a small town a bit like Mount Beauty of Victoria. The mountains and the sea symbolise the two extremes in the family.

Helicopter Man by Elizabeth Fenchem won the younger reader’s book of the year award, unusual because it deals with an adult theme of schizophrenia.

Dear Miffy some years ago shocked John Marsden’s readership when it first came out. This time, unlike previous ones, it’s not a teenage girl dealing with problems but a boy, and has sex, drugs, strong language.

 

Today’s readings:

Sheila Egoff’s set of books called Only Connect which she edited over several decades. Rather than just being an updating of the previous editions each one is really a completely new text (which should probably have different names). See The Problem Novel. This is quite hard to get now.

Pam Harvey, Australian Journal of Teacher Education 2010, Bibliotherapy used by welfare teams in secondary colleges is a very different way of looking at the role these problem novels play for the readers. Who constructs the meaning? The author, fixed in the text, or is it totally the interpretation of the reader?

Hawks looks at Sonja Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo, looking at the environment and the writing style.

Maureen Nighman from South Australia looks at the selection of texts by adult mediators (parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers) from ACCESS Realism in young people’s reading: the line between selection and censorship. At what point can kids choose for themselves?

Patty from children’s literature and education looks at a novel which came out about 1999 called When Geoff Comes Home, a very confronting story. It highlights the criteria by which so many of these adult mediators make these choices, about what is or is not appropriate for child readers.

 

Realism Is Requisite

(See the Realism lecture from Genres in Children’s Literature.) The characters in a so-called Problem Novel are people you could meet in real life, set in a place you might visit (even if the place isn’t actually real). There are no magic or supernatural elements. These settings will quite often directly influence the plot. The plot is often driven by the situation of those characters – how the character approaches, faces and makes choices. The key characters develop as a result of those choices.

Even stories set in other worlds, of fantasy, must begin with the probable, then later moves into something disrupting that. Even a movie like Shrek starts with the mundane, every day before moving into fantasy/adventure.

It’s become a common element over the last few decades that realism deals only with the worst aspects of life, not the normal, not the probable, not the everyday. Modern realism often deals with furtive, groping sex, war, abuse, incest and similar.

Is the sensational the only way to explore reality, though? Must we go to the extremes? Must we focus on the grim reality rather than the likely reality?

 

The History Of The Problem YA Novel

Little Women is often seen to be the first teen novel. A group of girls try to live their lives as normal. Problem is, it’s the middle of the American civil war. Their father is away and they are desperate for his return. Famous Five, The Three Investigators etc – we are just on holidays from school, let’s get back to normal by solving the crime problem.

The problem novel developed after this – instead of being a normal, everyday life, the unusual, the danger, the disruption IS the normal situation. Rather than solving the problem of poverty or whatever the dramatic element is, it’s simply a matter of coping with it and surviving. The protagonist is the victim rather than helping the victim. It can probably be traced to something like My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel in 1969, about teenage pregnancy. The title comes from the health counsellor who tells the girls that to derail a boy from sex is to encourage him to eat a hamburger instead.

1976 Open The Doors was the first novel aimed at a non-adult audience to deal with sex. It was difficult to get hold of, either because librarians didn’t want it on the shelves or because it was always on loan.

I Came Back To Show You I Could Fly (1990) deals with another unmarried teenage pregnancy but in this case the girl is a drug addict as well.

Sleeping Dogs by Sonja Harnett, Tiff and the Trout… in all of these books the key character is the victim.

This is what Sheila Egoff was referring to in 1980 when she wrote her article The Problem Novel. Egoff is not a fan of this style of story. She is having a go at the very formulaic way these novels have become a construction industry, in a way. She identified several key elements in this type of YA book. She argues that:

  • These stories are not well written, pumped out because they are sensational.
  • Most feature a shocking ‘rite of passage’ which changes the character from a carefree child to a careworn adult. There is some specific thing which causes a change.
  • Therefore, these books focus on externals, and how things look to others – oh dear, I’ve been thrown out of society. S.E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders ‘’Oh dear, there’s been a stabbing! I must run away!”
  • The protagonist is laden with grievances and anxieties, focusing on the alienation from the adult world, to which he or she is usually very hostile. The narrative is almost always in the first person, and its confessional tone is rigorously self-centred.
  • This focuses a childlike concern about ‘me’. These are all very ‘me’ books.
  • The biggest problem in all of these novels are adults, who rarely if ever offer a loving, constructive solution.
  • These books have to almost outdo each other by becoming more and more sensational.
  • Writing style: Trite, stereotypical, patronising, presuming the readership cannot understand the real problems, wanting only the senationals of the real problem.

To be clear, Egoff does not have a problem with such problems being dealt with. There are two quite separate issues we need to consider when evaluating a YA novel with grim subject matter:

  1. Are the topics appropriate for the readership of the books?
  2. Are the books actually well-written?

 

What is the point of The Problem Novel?

YA Violence and Abuse Problems – a Goodreads List

Best Teen Books About Real Problems – a Goodreads List

Sheila Egoff would argue that most are simply trying to achieve sensationalism as a marketing tool.

Patty’s article about When Jeff Comes Home (Disturbing the peace…) makes a similar argument to that of Egoff. It’s not only a stereotype of the story but of the YA as well. A template defines the reader as this standard teenager.

When Jeff Comes Home is told in the first person (surprise, surprise!) about a 16-year-old boy who has been held prisoner after being kidnapped at a bus station by a sexual sadist, kept as a sex toy for three years. This is not an uncommon story – there have been several cases of it, particularly in Europe over the past few years. The American Library Association immediately put it on a best book list, which raised a lot of hackles.

Harvey argues that these stories give young readers coming from an unfamiliar environment strategies to understand and deal with all these nasty things.

Patti quotes Michael Cart – The Problem Novel is an exercise in iconoclasm, taboo busting, shibboleth shattering. (Iconoclasm refers to the tackling of the boundaries. A shibboleth is a password at the boundary.) The problem is, in order to be realist, there is the implication that these taboo topics are normal – that it is normal to be kidnapped, to become pregnant while very young, to be abused.

Does Problem Literature create the stereotype, or does it reflect the reality? As each book pushes a boundary, the next ones have to go further. Where are the boundaries and how do we define them?

 

Bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy is used by welfare teams in secondary colleges in Australia. ‘We read to know that we are not alone’ is from C.S. Lewis. The aim of bibliotherapy is to elicit change in the attitude or behaviour of the reader. The prescribed book is deliberately aiming to change the reader in a cognitive way, to the reader’s benefit. There are no bones made about its intention. The aim is for the reader to have a physical/emotional reaction to something fictional. When it becomes too confronting simply shut the book, returning to it when you’re ready. Literature is thought to serve a purpose – it implies that there is somebody who knows better than you do and that they have the right and the tools to make that change that needs to be made. So what is the difference between bibliotherapy and propaganda?

This is a contentious issue, because it rests upon a premise that this time of life is a particularly dangerous and destructive period.


What Makes A Book For Young Adults?

The following notes come from Lecture 2 of David Beagley’s course at La Trobe University: Fiction For Young Adults.

Little Women, L.M. Montgomery – we now look at these books as historical but Little Women was written about current affairs, about finding a husband while a father was away at war. Pride and Prejudice was also about finding boys. These elements don’t seem to change all that much. Puberty Blues, a contemporary novel set in Newcastle, is again about a group of girls finding boys.

 

Reading for this week:

A major report was done in 2000 on what and why and how teenagers in Australia (esp in Victoria) read. Insider Dog website http://www.insideadog.com.au/

(The name of the website comes from a quote by Groucho Marx – Outside of a dog a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.)

An award has also come out, publicly voted (The Inky Award)

Maurice Saxby’s Books In The Life Of A Child. A chapter toward the end is about YA reading. He is one of the first to define this area and express it clearly.

Nicholas Tucker looks more at the younger adolescent (11-14), that point of transition into teenagehood, defining elements typically found in the books themselves rather than focusing on the youth themselves: typical genres, formats.

Voskuhl (sp?), from Access Journal, the professional journal of the school library association of Australia. There are a lot of books about encouraging reluctant readers. One of the things about the selection of texts for school reading (especially later school years like VCE) is that the lit is usually adult lit – Shakespeare, Orwell, Aristotle. This was raising the question, why aren’t we looking at books targeted at teens when it’s a teen audience?

 

How Old Is A ‘Young Adult’?

Young people are all so different. When a profit can be made from a young person (e.g. a ticket on public transport or to a movie or to entry to social media such as Facebook) the definition of ‘youth’ changes depending on the seller’s profit.

What is the problem with children fighting wars? They do pretty effectively in Africa but we see that as wrong. We happily send 18 year olds off to war, but not 16 year olds (though they are allowed to join the military).

If we use the term ‘teenager’ we define it by number, between the ages of 13 and 19.

The ‘young adult’ is defined by the end of it, implying that they are almost adult.

This leads to the ‘deficit model’. See Nan Barr – adolescents are defined by what they are not as much as what they are.

 

From: The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Writing For Young Adults

In this book there is a list of what a YA book must have.

  • A YA protagonist (so obvious it barely needs saying, though not all protagonists aged as a YA is necessarily for YA audience e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This book is a stand-out though, to this rule.)
  • Subject matter to interest of YA, or within their experience
  • The protagonist is in conflict with the key protagonist and their normal wider world. (Conflict is so important that it is required to be specified. Not falling in love, not anything else – conflict)
  • Reading level of a young adult, including using a young adult’s vocabulary (This is problematic. You’ve got reading level and then you’ve got vocabulary. There is an immense range of reading capacity around the numbers that we assign to age. And an adult writer can easily sound ridiculously artificial by trying to write in a YA voice. By the time a book is published, teen-speak will have changed, and it is also highly regional.)

 

Examples Of YA Books With A Pattern Emerging

Midnight Zoo by Sonja Hartnett stars protagonists who are younger than the readership, but has complex philosophical musings about war and morality and the interplay of different groups, some of those groups being animals, others people, not all present in the story. So it’s quite a complex book in terms of subject matter.

Looking For Alibrandi has a mid-late teen concerned about personal identity and relationships with her family, and looking for boys.

Twilight – a mid-late teen concerned about personal identity in relationships with boys and the boy’s family.

Pride and Prejudice – mid-late teens, same concerns.

Deadly, Unna? – same again.

Divine Wind, Hunger Games, Jinx… a pattern emerges.

 

Relationships and Identity

Relationships and identity are closely related. These could be specifically the relationships of authority, and conflict with authority. Where is the change over point that gives the youth the ability to control their own identity? If the youth feels ready for control but society sets the point elsewhere we have automatic conflict and opposition. This is most likely to occur with those authorities that are close by: parents and school.

Then there are the peers – those of an equivalent status – and plots about conflict with them.

Some stories are about sex and sexual orientation (identity).

These stories encourage readers to ask questions. Which rules do I continue to obey? Do I continue with the religion I was brought up with?

This is the age people start thinking about politics, about what is right and wrong.

It all comes down to self-conflict, choosing who and what I am.

A lot of the stories are about social groups – are you in or are you out? Social status to do with wealth/ethnicity or in Twilight are you human or are you a vampire? Pride and Prejudice is about belonging to a higher status of family, in manners and in wealth. Here, it’s not so much about what the protagonists choose but what other people choose for them. Racial groups form the in-or-out decision in Deadly, Unna?  In the Hunger Games, do you accept or do you reject the social and political environment that you’ve been born into?

 

Another commonality: Where are the parents?

If parents and caregivers are not actually causing the problems then they are largely ineffectual in trying to solve them. They may be there, or may not be.

There has to be a practical and alternative offered to social issues/lack of identity/war and all of those problems. The alternative may be either negative or positive. Dystopia: A world which is not the ideal, in fact it is something you try desperately to avoid e.g. Hunger Games, The Divine Wind (WW2), Deadly, Unna? (intense racial prejudice and divide), Midnight Zoo is a declared war. It may simply be that the alternative society is just different. In Pride and Prejudice it’s the very wealthy people the Bennetts aspire to be but can’t.

(Maurice Saxby gives a lot of examples of books, though he was writing about this in 1997 so his examples are not particularly up-to-date.)

 

Turmoil

YA books often examine the point of turmoil in a person’s life, and the changeover so often happens to young adults, which is why we have YA fiction. Life at this point has the potential to go somewhere. The story might point to a particular direction, and what sort of choices might be made. The protagonists in YA make their own choices. The reader doesn’t have to identify with the situation of the protagonist, but does have to identify with the life stage, of making choices.

A YA novel offers possibilities rather than concrete answers and widens the vision of life.

Sophie’s Choice from Woody Allen is a good example of this kind of story.

 

The Why Is The Important Thing

Why do these characters choose? Not necessarily what they choose, but why.

 

Profound Identification With The Reader

This is a requisite for this category of fiction. Adult readers don’t necessarily identify strongly with a protagonist, but the youth reader is really living the story, far more than other types of fiction. Even in children’s literature, the parents are more present.

 

What defines YA compared to Kidlit?

There is more capacity to decide, more desire to operate, more experience, putting things in context, analytical capacity. The desire is to make the decisions without waiting for the parent or teachers to choose.

 

Surely That’s Not A Children’s Book!

The following notes are from Episode One of Kid You Not Podcast, which is entitled: Surely That’s Not A Children’s Book!

The podcast opens with excerpt from two different books: One is published for adults, the other for young adults, yet the excerpt for young adults is more disturbing in content. There is no discernible difference between the styles.

The following points are subsequently made:

  •  Adults like to think of children as innocent beings even if those children are plunged into a world of violence and danger.
  • It’s almost impossible to say one book is a children’s book and the other is for adults.
  • Many adults are not aware of how graphic many books for children and YA are. Perhaps they remember rosy stories full of moral values. In fact, every theme under the sun is open season: Incest, drugs, kidnapping etc.
  • What we’re witnessing at the moment in kidlit and children’s publishing in general is ambivalence about who books are for. Publishers are aiming for a crossover market.
  • Like Prof Beagley, the presenters of this podcast trace this phenomenon back to the publication of Harry Potter.
  • Harry Potter has become a modern classic. This ‘modern classic’ feel is reflected in the latest covers, which have a creamy look as if to emulate old paper. The drawing style is a modernisation of the sort of drawings you’d see in old fairytale editions.
  • Why so many crossover novels, apart from the obvious economic ones? Publishers realise that these stories are just good stories. It’s only when social convention steps in that adults might feel as though they shouldn’t be reading a book that’s been published for children.
  • What does it say about adults that they have such an ambiguous relationship with children’s literature? It’s not real, it’s all cute and full of bunnies… it’s generally disregarded. That said, children’s literature is one of the most profitable parts of publishing today. J.K. Rowling can be partly thanked for that. After Rowling became very rich, the money itself gave children’s literature more respect.
  • Perhaps adults suffer from an interesting complex — adulescence — they see themselves on a path of discovery even though they might be 30 or 40 or 50. (Was ‘adulescence‘ coined by French advertising companies?) People are growing up later and later. The workplace is not the same, people’s lives are longer, a job isn’t for life, there’s no pressure to decide what you want to do forever at age 21. Really we are living an extended adolescence right up into our mid thirties these days.
  • Now adults are freer to see themselves as being on a path rather than having arrived in adulthood. Yet it’s still not acceptable to be reading these books, which is strange, given the climate just described. ‘Transformative experiences’ apply not just to young adults (teenagers).
  • With the rise of eReaders, readers are free to read whatever they want without worrying about who is looking at the age category of the chosen book. The secret reading world of the Kindle.
  • There’s a difference between the intention of the author, the intention of the publisher and the readers who these books actually appeal to.
  • In literary criticism the Intentional Fallacy describes the problem of trying to judge the merit of a work according to the perceived intention of its author. The challenge for critics is to consider the author as ‘dead’ when regarding the work. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to judge a book without considering who the book is for: No one would buy it, retailers don’t know who they’re supposed to be selling it to. There’s a huge demand in our culture for everything to be carefully categorised, especially when it comes to age-groups in children’s books.
  • In the same way, you have to see yourself as a man or a woman, or in other categories.
  • There’s a tension between the publisher’s decision to categorise — we end up with ridiculous age categorisations such as 8-10, 10-12 and so on — and between writers who often just write stories. People read what appeals to them. This creates complicated adults who feel the need to hide that they are reading children’s books.
  • Adults have an interesting tendency to push away everything that is childish. But if ‘children’s books’ are really for children, surely they wouldn’t speak to adults. So are they really ‘children’s books’?
  • Children don’t do the same with adults’ books. Children never say of a book for adults: This appeals to me — therefore it must be a children’s book. Yet adults systematically claim ‘children’s books’ as their own, by saying that if a book speaks to them, then it’s not actually a children’s book at all.
  • There is a lot of literary criticism arguing that there’s no such thing as children’s literature.
  • There are few books for adults that focus on transformative experiences and growing-up, so if an adult skips kidlit, that adult is missing out on a huge chunk of what literature has to offer.
  • Children’s books often follow a mythical structure — essentially things that the adult mind needs, and always will need. The publishing industry might be seen as helping adults to shake free of expectations, judging books on their literary merit.
  • Will Self wrote an interesting article about Harry Potter and how childhood lasts much longer.
  • This podcast aims to persuade listeners that children’s literature contains things that adult literature does not. Also, children’s literature contains things that adults might not expect would be found in children’s literature: They are not all innocent, saccharine, Beatrix Potter-esque.
  • Fortunately, publishers are already aware of how awesome many children’s books are.

What Is A Child?

These are notes from Fiction For Young Adults – the fourth in a series of units offered at Bendigo’s La Trobe University

delivered by Professor David Beagley, available on iTunes U

Introduction

YA is now defined as a market, in fact it’s a market that defines most other fashion, including clothing.

The crossover novel is a concept that first became clear with Harry Potter, when Bloomsbury (the publishers) realised they should start publishing this children’s story with adult covers. The adult versions are dark and sombre. This was so successful that the final two books sold more copies with adult covers than with those designed for children.

 

What exactly is a child?

The labels themselves have the result of setting boundaries: child, adolescent, teenager, young adult.

Historically, during the Renaissance (1400s onwards), society’s thinking changed hugely, starting with religion, into ideas of government. Art changed, music changed. All of these things happened over a couple of centuries. The change in attitude towards the child is typified by this painted icon of Madonna and Child (1228), and conveys the idea that the child is simply a smaller version of the adult.

The baby Jesus is being held by his mother, in terms of the proportion of the arms/legs/head is an adult figure. [Might this simply be a bad painter, or reflecting the idea that the baby Jesus was never a normal baby? However, I get the idea.]

 

A different but related idea:

I think the way we’ve constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It’s bad for children, too, but it’s also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.

-          The Moving Castle

 

What is a naughty child?

When you see a child throwing a tantrum in the supermarket and the carer smacks the child – should you use violence on a child? Is the child being naughty or is the child simply doing what the adult doesn’t want? Does the child have the capacity to make the moral judgement between good and evil? Before the Renaissance, it was assumed. Humans were thought to be inherently evil, because we were descended from the evil Adam and Eve. Therefore every child ever since is sinful and accepts responsibility just like everybody else. John Locke and others presented the idea that the child became not the adult but the baby Jesus, essentially innocent and pure, corrupted by the world. This is a huge change in thinking.

 

Should children be treated differently?

A couple of the gospels from the Christian Bible: Mark 10:14, repeated at Luke 18:16. A group of children were trying to get to Jesus. They were being held back, but said that the children are special and let them come to me. The bible says unless we humble ourselves like little children we’ll never get into heaven. This was recognition that children could not and should not be treated as adults, but it took the rest of the Western world another 1500 years or so to wake up to this idea, but wake up they did, in the Renaissance.

Schooling became a structured, organised social activity, not just something parents passed onto their children. Before the Renaissance, if your father was a weaver, you were a weaver. Schooling became a social construct between the 1700 and 1800s. It was originally provided by the church, in Britain and then copied in Australia. Eventually schooling was compulsory – in 1872 both in Britain and in Victoria here in Australia. That separated children as a social group. They were not just part of a family, but part of the group of ‘school children’.

Before this were labour laws prohibiting children from being employed, originally when they were 12, then 14. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, most people left school after about the age of 14 (what we would call Year 8) and go to work. Only a few would go on to specific qualifications to become professionals. Anne of Green Gables finished school at about year eight. Next year she’s back as the teacher, teaching the class. After a couple of years of doing that she goes off to university to become a teacher.

There were laws about when a person could marry, engage in sexual activity, when they could inherit and so on. These laws gradually started coming in to protect the child and childhood. The middle class came about after leisure came about. People had money to buy books, for example.

Teenagers, or the concept of ‘teenagehood’ came about much later, in the 1950s.

[Rock around the Clock]

Huge social upheavals happened. Disposable income, compulsory schooling – all of those elements were leading to this point, and probably should have happened earlier, but the World Wars and Great Depression inserted turmoil. Gender roles were also important. Women were required in the workforce and therefore unable to look after the children as they were able to before.

All of a sudden there was a jump between the child to the 18 year old adult, fixed by warfare, because you were unable to fight before the age of 18. This gave birth to ‘the teenager’. Rock and Roll occurred because there was a group who couldn’t yet fight or do other adult things.

When do you pay full fare to the movies or on the plane? (When you fit into a seat rather than on someone’s knee.)

When can you leave school?

When can you work?

It’s blurred there, because there is an upper limit on hours for teenagers. When can you smoke, marry? Between 10 and 16 children can engage in sexual activity, as long as the two partners are both consenting and within two years of age. If you’re over 16 there are still some limits, if you’re over 18 open slather, with anyone. Anywhere between about 3 and 25 for certain inheritance laws. Is a 19 year old the same as a 13 year old? They’re both ‘teenagers’. The word ‘adolescent’ implies that there is growth but it is not yet there.

Reading

Bahr, Nan & Pendergast, Donna (2007) The millennial adolescent. Australian Council for Education Research, Camberwell, Victoria.


Allow Room For Imagination

Always think of your audience. Never think for your audience.

- Mo Willems


What Is Quality Children’s Literature? What Is Trash?

These are notes from Kid You Not Podcast Episode 2: ‘Quality and Trash

The concept of quality vs trash gets a lot of people quite worked up. Are these labels even helpful?

When the presenters asked a young primary school teacher how he determined the value of a book his answer was utilitarian. He said he had to consider what he was trying to achieve by using a particular text: decoding or inference and understanding.

Publishers pay attention to what teachers want because publishers know that schools and teachers will buy them. This is good for sales figures. [And crucial in a smaller publishing market such as Australia.]

In this way, teachers are influencing what is labelled quality and what is labelled trash.

People like and enjoy trashy books. They are made because they sell really well. The sales of trashy books support the production of literary texts, which don’t sell as well. Kidlit world is different because there are a lot of children’s literature awards, and if a book gets one of those awards, certain parents will buy that book because they want their child to be reading high quality literature in order to open their minds. Adult literary texts on the other hand only have a select readership.

But trash isn’t simply ‘what sells really well’. This isn’t a definition.

‘Trashy’ novels tend to feature princesses, ballerinas, ponies and at the moment vampires, zombies. There are football and monster stories for boys (at least in the 1990s with the Goosebumps series). Trashy novels don’t win the awards.

Trash is interesting for a literary critic. Like any piece of popular culture it says something about who we are and what is valued or not valued in our society. The attitudes towards love/sex/death within say things about our attitudes towards romance and what we value.

Literary critics tend to rehabilitate trash. The gothic novel is now explored because it says a lot about the time in which it was produced. Back when it was new, it was trash.

The most praised work of children’s literature in the past few years is Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. No one could contest its literary worth, with references to Milton, full of metaphors and images very challenging to young readers, and yet it’s sold extremely well. Every publisher wants to publish a book like this. People are worried that if a child only reads less literary texts they’ll somehow fall behind. The books of Patrick Ness are like this too – high quality and big sellers.

This educational dimension in kidlit is probably the most important part of the debate around quality and trash. Kidlit is all about being entertaining as well as educational; aesthetic as well as pedagogical. Unlike adult lit, kidlit isn’t allowed to just be.

Children read a wide range of different things. Adult tend to stick to the same sorts of books once their tastes have solidified. But children have an open mind about these different types of books and perhaps this is where the worry sets in: This is the time you have to ‘catch’ them before they settle upon reading nothing but trash for the rest of their sorry lives.

Taste is acquired and constructed. The literary canon is constructed by the West to perpetuate Western views, particularly white male point of views. Children are aware of what we as adults perceive to be quality or trash. A Where’s Wally book would not be aware during quiet reading time.

Should there be rules about what a child should read?

There is a strong argument for telling children what is trash and what is quality, but not limiting their access to either.

Should children work that out for themselves? The presenters disagree about whether children should be told that some works are better than others, but agree that children need access to both in order to know the difference.

There’s no such thing as an ‘independent reader’. Readers are always a product of the reading culture they grew up in.

Librarians can see their jobs as being ‘guardians of children’s books’ since they are the ones who decide what goes into the library. Librarians can also use the term ‘gatekeeper’.  So even the most independent of readers is not truly independent. Everything that pertains to children is filtered via adults.

Most of the books considered trashy by virtue of their genre are marketed at women and, in the case of kidlit, girls. The only unisex genre of trash is the horror, but even adult horror novels are geared towards women as well. There are football novels for younger boys but there are fewer of them. There is pink all over the shelves. One of the reasons kidlit is not respected in higher academia is that traditionally it was a women’s medium. Education of children was a woman’s job, and was therefore seen in itself as a trashy medium.

Girls read more than boys, especially fiction. Non fiction is a completely different story, not dominated by the female reader. The dominance of female books may simply be down to the fact that they buy them.

Isn’t this imbalance culturally constructed, thus leaving kidlit to be the realm of women? Why are young girls more attracted to books than boys?

Trash is formulaic, represent expected motives and tropes. Children like repetition. Even adults like formulaic genres such as romance and crime. This recipe is associated with certain motives and values. Perhaps the problem with trash is that it normalises a certain set of values, considered not daring enough , a bit too conservative, lacking in challenge and sophistication.

Princess books are the most obvious example of trash which reinforce ideals regarding patriarchy and monarchy and marriage, which addresses an overwhelmingly female audience and can be seen as toxic.

Literary work leaves more space for imagination and interpretation.

An analogy is made between ‘balanced food diet’ and ‘balanced reading diet’ in which you need a bit of both to achieve a balanced diet. [I personally have no time for this argument, because I don’t believe a ‘balanced diet’ for children needs to include added sugar, transfats and seed oils, just as it needn’t include alcohol and cigarettes. In reading, I am strangely more relaxed.]

Publishers aim to sell a lot of copies, and so a feature of the protagonists of trash is that they do not have many distinguishing features. The most obvious example of this kind of character is Bella from Twilight, who is a rather bland character. This allows the reader to project their own personality into the space, so they fell it is they who is experiencing the romance with the vampire. This contrasts with a character such as the narrator of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time in which the voice is autistic and therefore highly specific. Most children will never be able to see themselves in this character.

Most children would enjoy both.

Identification can lead to addiction. A lot of trashy novels achieve a high level of addiction – a certain percentage of the readers will need to read the next in a series – in which publishers are very interested.

What is wrong with a child identifying with a character and wanting to buy the next book? Children like to return to the same.

What is quality? Quality leaves gaps for the reader to imagine. The reader experiences something new and unexpected. They are taken out of their comfort zones. They tend to deal with big themes: Patrick Ness’s novels are all about war and what that does to society. They use language that is complex and demanding. Quality books sometimes have open endings, or character personalities that are complex. We don’t necessarily understand their motivations. The ending of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy (not revealed here) is about the only example of such an ending in the history of children’s literature. Endings can challenge the reader’s idea of what they want to happen in the end. These books resist easy meanings. They’re closer to the complexity of real life, which again ties in to the safety that is often there in commercial or trashy books. In quality books, as in real life, anything can happen.

Therefore, the reason both quality and trash are important as part of a balanced reading diet is because the quality allows children to explore the new world, while trash allows them to retreat back to safety.

Trash and quality seem to depend on each other, from a business perspective, from a literary criticism perspective and from a teaching perspective.

 

 RELATED

See notes from David Beagley’s lecture on evaluating fantasy for children.

 


Colour Is Important But Can’t Fix Everything

First you have to catch them


3 Excellent Books About 9 Year Old Girls

The following three books are all about 9 year old girls and the reviews below are from Kate De Goldi on her regular children’s book slot on Saturday Morning With Kim Hill (Radio New Zealand).

Although these books have their protagonist’s gender and age in common, their ambience is different. All three of them are also books that have grown out of previous literary traditions, referencing other works. All of these books leave space between the lines, without over-explaining. This is partly what makes them seem more believable. [I can't wait to read them for myself.]

 

The gap between prize-winning books and books that are best-sellers, which are talked about and promoted a lot.

The two books on this list which have won big awards (the first two as yet) exemplify that gap. They are incredibly literary but also accessible. There is intellect and emotional intelligence behind them. These are the kinds of books that are really important for children because they teach children how to think about things in different things that may not otherwise come across.

The Higher Power Of Lucky by Susan Patron

This is a good crossover novel. There’s a musicality in the writing and the most endearing of characters.

There was a controversy around this book and it has been banned by certain libraries. The reason becomes apparent after reading the first two paragraphs which is about something overheard at an alcoholics anonymous meeting and includes the word ‘scrotum’, which is what got it banned.

We are thus planted firmly in the world of reality. This is a book peopled with true-to-life characters. Yet the writer brilliantly channels her idea and possibly her memory of a nine-year-old’s worldview. She has achieved a highwire act in balancing the informed worldview of an adult writer but making it seem totally through the eyes of a nine-year-old.

The premise of the story is that Lucky has misunderstood something her foster/stepmother has said and thinks she’s going to be abandoned.

The two sequels are pretty good as well.

 

Flora and Ulysses by Kate di Camillo

This is SF for children because Ulysses is a squirrel who has been given superpowers by being sucked up into the vacuum cleaner.

The language in this book is complex, and demonstrates wider understanding of literature, for example in the way comic books are not accepted as proper literature. The characters are excellent, as are the friendships.

But the genius here is that di Camillo has written something demanding but also accessible and very interesting to its target audience. There’s no reason why a book cannot be both of those things, as demonstrated by this one. An 8 year old would understand exactly what’s going on.

The adults are viewed with quite a lot of scepticism by the children.

 

Dappled Annie and the Tigrish by Mary McCallum

More beautiful writing: clear, clean but textured.

There’s an animism underlying the whole story. The protagonist has made friends with a hedge. This requires an imaginative leap on the part of the reader. Having hedges uproot themselves and run off could easily be twee or whimsical, but this story isn’t like that at all. The writing is so muscular, beautiful and persuasive. The visuals are beautiful.

The setting must be somewhere between the 50s and the 80s – because of the lighthouse — you can’t quite tell the exact era but this doesn’t matter, which is an achievement in itself. The story thus appeals across the ages.