Diary Of A Wimpy Kid And The Buddy Comedy

Diary Kid banner morons

Jeff Kinney’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid was first published in 2004. The twelfth in the series is due November 2017. Kinney originally planned ten, unless the quality dropped off. At this point he plans to continue indefinitely, so long as they’re still popular.

Television tie-ins, film versions and highly illustrated diaries of the Wimpy Kid ilk are all consumed in abundance. Such books should not be despised as merely unchallenging, or even pernicious (as Enid Blyton once was by disapproving parents and teachers); welcoming, accessible work, full of deftly harnessed silliness and engaging illus­tration, plays a critical role in the reader’s deve­lopment, teaching by stealth the power of a punchline or a single phrase or word, and makes the act of reading pleasurable in a way that ­data-driven literacy objectives often do not. Predictable formulae, comforting, unchallenging narrative arcs and repeated re-reading allow a child to build a solid foundation of enjoyment from which he or she can go far.

Imogen Russell Williams

The adult buddy comedy has a specific kind of audience, mainly comprising young men.

I’ve never found kicks to the groin particularly funny, although recent work in the genre of the buddy movie suggests audience research must prove me wrong.

Roger Ebert

THE AUDIENCE OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

By this point in his career, Kinney knows his audience really well.

“Kids usually discover my books around seven or eight. Once they are nine they really understand them. They read them until about 13, when they grow out of them.”

“You can’t really write for kids or you might write down to kids.”

ON WRITING FOR CHILDREN

I still write for adults and I write with the idea that maybe my brother or my father will read what I’m writing. Every so often, I’ll come up with a joke that isn’t as good or maybe is a little bit broad, and I’ll think, “Hey, that’s not up to my standards,” but then I’ll think, “Maybe kids will like it.” That’s when I always pull back. That’s where my line in the sand is. I figure if I keep thinking that way and start writing for kids, that the quality will erode and self-destruct. I keep my eye on that line.

Jeff Kinney, The Atlantic

Kinney started writing for adults and found that his audience was actually kids.

Similarly, Lauren Wolk wrote her critically acclaimed Wolf Hollow thinking she was writing for an adult audience. It was the publisher who realised it was for a middle grade audience, and the revisions turned it into a children’s book.

And when I was writing I was thinking about an adult audience, somebody who would like to look back on childhood. So I was surprised when my publisher said, ‘You know what? This would work as a children’s series

“I like things that kids like. I like the food that kids like unfortunately.”

“I actually feel like it’s pretty easy to get into the mind of a kid. I think what’s hard is coming up with something that’s original. It’s very easy to come up with something that’s derivative or it’s been done a million times tropes, but it’s hard to come up with a real nugget, you know, something that really that people haven’t seen before.”

For more opinions on the differences between writing for adults and children, see this post.

GENRE/CATEGORY OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

Buddy Stories

The buddy story is actually a combination of three genres:

  • Action
  • Love
  • Comedy

Blake Snyder lists three categories:

  • Love
  • Action
  • A Boy And His Dog

The Boy and His Dog gives us a “catalyst” character who enters the hero’s life, changes him, then leaves. The movie ET is like this. And stories like Rain Man and Lethal Weapon give us a main character who changes drastically while the secondary character changes little or not at all.

But, in general, the Buddy Love plot involves two characters who start off hating each other, realise that they need each other (and work well together!), hate that even more, conflict conflict conflict, have one big final fight… and then “surrender their egos to win.”

Snyder includes in this category such gems as Wayne’s World, Thelma & Louise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Finding Nemo. They all share the dynamic of two characters debating “important story issues.”

A Buddy Love story consists of an “incomplete hero,” who does not know what or who he is missing to make his life whole.

Raison d’être Of The Buddy Story

The buddy story results in a kind of spoof of the earnest love story, in which we learn that life is better when you are part of a couple. The buddy story aims to make the audience laugh but usually also to go ‘aww’, because the relationship between the buddies is probably quite sweet, after going through some trials.

The buddy strategy allows the writer to cut the hero into two parts, demonstrating two different approaches to life and two sets of talents. These two characters are ‘married’ in a metaphorical sense.

Characters You’ll Find In Buddy Stories

Usually you fill out the character web with at least one outside, dangerous, ongoing opponent. And because most buddy stories use a mythic journey, the buddies encounter a number of secondary opponents on the road. These characters are usually strangers to the buddies, and they are dispatched in quick succession. Each of these opponents should represent a negative aspect of the society that hates the buddies or wants to break them up.

There will be a snag in the relationship that keeps interfering. This allows an ongoing opposition between the two leads in a traveling story where most of the other opponents are strangers who quickly come and go. In any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent.

As in the love story, one of the buddies should be more central than the other. Usually it’s the thinker, the schemer, or the strategist of the two, because this character comes up with the plan and starts them off on the desire line.

Often one’s a cop, the other’s a fed, or one’s a cop the other’s a crook, or one’s a by-the-book detective and the other’s the precinct’s resident loose cannon. They have to work together to get something done (like solve a crime). Buddy cop movies are a slightly different genre mashup: Action+Love+Crime (without the comedy).

Occasionally you get a female buddy movie, like The Heat (2013)

The  ‘buddy movie’ equivalent in MG literature is also pretty popular and Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the stand out example, with Greg Heffley as the main character who has a more naive and light-hearted best friend. The same combination is used in Monster House (the film). Usually, girls form the opponents, and are seen as a different species. This is supposed to result in humour, to a greater or lesser extent.

Though not really a kids’ story due to the advanced age of the narrator, The Wonder Years gives us Kevin Arnold and his best friend Paul. The comedy that results is of a melancholic kind.

Female friendships and the problems within are almost always treated in dramatic/serious fashion, though the female buddy story is becoming more popular.

Illustrated Novels For Middle Grade

Kinney’s books with their “drawings that provide moments of relief and comedy” are a bridge between picture books for little children and the more serious young adult fiction favoured by teenagers. Kinney thinks there should be a lot more books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid that help transition young readers.

Publishers and author/illustrators have taken note.

There are good and bad results that occur when a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid hits the stratosphere. On the one hand, suddenly publishers are a lot more open-minded about breathing life into books that mix text and images in new and unique ways. The door opens a little wider for unconventional titles that straddle a variety of writing genres and styles and (normally) don’t win any literary awards. That’s the good. The bad thing is that as a result any book that tries to make any headway in the market using pictures as well as text (and PARTICULARLY if it has a diary/journal format) is on some level going to be slapped with a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid Wannabe” label by the critics out there unwilling to read it closely.

Betsy Bird, from her Goodreads review of The Popularity Papers

Big titles in this category of books include:

  • Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
  • Dogman is also by Dav Pilkey and is an off-shoot of Captain Underpants in which the boy characters draw the comic
  • Big Nate series by Lincoln Pierce is perhaps the most similar
  • The Treehouse series from Australia
  • The Terrible Two series by Jory John and Mac Barnett
  • Stick Cat by Tom Watson
  • Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life, written by someone in the James Patterson franchise
  • Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis

Others are aimed squarely at girls, indicated by pink and pastels on the cover.

I could be wrong, but when you have a purple book with doodled flowers and ladybugs and two female characters on a cover, boys sometimes tend to go screaming in the opposite direction. This is a shame since I think guys could get a huge kick out of this storyline. If boys read the pinkness that is Babymouse (and they do, they do) then they should read Ms. Ignatow as well.

Betsy Bird
  • Dork Diaries by Rachel Renée Russell
  • Dear Dumb Diary by Jim Benton
  • Amelia’s Notebook by Marissa Moss
  • Ruth McNally Barshaw’s Ellie McDoodle
  • The Popularity Papers by by Amy Ignatow

WHAT DOES KINNEY’S WRITING PROCESS LOOK LIKE?

Kinney spent about eight years working on Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. Once the first book took off the deadlines shortened considerably and it now takes him about nine months to create a book from start to finish.

He usually ends up dropping a major storyline. Sometimes the book is too short so he has inserted a new character. (This character was the most loved by the publisher in the end.)

January: Starts writing jokes. Types them into his phone because it’s always on him. At first they are not cohesive at all, but eventually he picks there’s a theme to them and builds a plot around that.

May: Takes all the 350 jokes and start writing the actual manuscript. That takes about a month. He knows he needs between 350 and 400 image ideas. Then he can ‘whittle it down’.

June/July: Because he still has a day job, Kinney does all the illustrations in two months of 14 to 17-hour days.

ILLUSTRATING DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

I couldn’t draw like a professional cartoonist and I knew it and I couldn’t do anything about it.

So eventually I found — it was sort of like a Peter Principle sort of thing where I said well, if I draw like a seventh grader then, you know, I’m going to act like I’m doing that on purpose. So that’s where the idea for Greg Heffley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid came from.

For anyone drawing in this style, they need to walk a fine line between “believably childlike” and “unbelievably good”. One way other illustrators have achieved this is by using childhood writing implements such as crayons (see The Popularity Papers), collage (Charlie and Lola) or dye (Eric Carle).

After coming up with the jokes Kinney classifies them e.g. a single image joke, a four image joke.

He actually starts drawing very late in the game.

Each drawing – 320 is the ideal figure he’s arrived at per book – takes an hour to do.

Kinney uses Adobe Flash for drawing software and a massive Wacom tablet. He does a rough sketch then goes over the top more slowly and carefully. Each illustration takes an hour to do It takes about 350 to 400 hours to do the illustrations for one of the Wimpy Kid books.

BETA READERS

“Humour is such a subjective thing that I’m constantly polling people to see what works and what doesn’t.”

“I turn in probably about eight drafts of my book. It’s pretty labor-intensive and  And I often hand out my first draft to about four or five people from different walks of life because people respond to different things. And I try to find where there’s consensus. So that’s a big part of the process.”

Kinney has always used his boys as beta readers, though when he first started the younger boy was a bit too young yet.

Once the book is “on the press”, he launches into a minor but important ritual – reading the new book to his sons aged 11 and 14. I can’t imagine either of my lumbering teenagers with their china-crashing propensities sitting still long enough for this. “My older one is 14 now and he’s 6 ft 1 — my height. So yeah, laying in bed next to him is kind of weird. I’m sure he won’t be doing that next year,

JEFF KINNEY’S INFLUENCES

Kinney is also a big fan of World of Warcraft, which influenced the interactive storytelling he does in his day job.

STORYWORLD OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

Diary of a Wimpy Kid opens with Greg just about to start middle school. Also known as junior high, it’s a two-year bridge from elementary school and high school in the US education system, where 11- to 13-year-olds are stranded in a kind of no-man’s land between childhood and adolescence. It seemed to Kinney to be a perfect setting. ‘Our junior high was separate, you had to drive quite a way to get to it, and it always felt to me like we were being segregated from the general population. It’s as if society kind of hides you in middle school while you’re in this larval state.’

The Telegraph

Jeff Kinney himself lives in Plainville, Massachussets, New England. His family has the financial means to live somewhere more glamorous and expensive but chooses to stay in an ‘ordinary’ American town, partly because he likes it there, partly because moving to somewhere like Beverly Hills or Paris would change the nature of his stories. This indicates that Plainville itself is no doubt an influence on the setting of Wimpy Kid.

The film adaptations are filmed in Vancouver, Canada.

STORY STRUCTURE OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

I have heard Jeff Kinney’s work described as ‘plotless’.

The humour is gentle, the plot negligible

The Guardian

This view is echoed by the author himself:

With my Wimpy Kid books ironically I don’t care that much about story. I see my books as joke delivery mechanisms.

But if I’ve learnt one thing over the course of writing this storytelling blog it’s this: Every well-known, widely-loved story follows classic story structure, whether the author realises it or simply intuits it. Even people like David Lynch, who insist they don’t follow any story structure, end up following it despite themselves.

Jeff Kinney’s novels really are more like a book of cartoons when it comes to story structure. Like, say, Calvin and Hobbes, the books comprise a series of interlinked vignettes. Each vignette has a fully formed story structure in its own right.

See: How To Structure Any Story (or vignette)

ABSENCE OF CHARACTER ARC IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

One thing absent in all sit-coms and comedy series is the character arc. The plot is not character based but action driven. If Greg Heffley were to grow up we wouldn’t have anymore books.

“Greg is in this state of, you know, pre-adolescent amber in a way. He’ll never grow up. He’s going to be frozen in this state for the rest of his life so you’ll never see much character development there.”

“What I came to appreciate is that Greg’s DNA is in comics. And the best cartoon characters never grow up. Charlie Brown has a first day of school every year. So in The Ugly Truth, which is about puberty, Greg can see all of his peers growing up and he’s so ready to cross the threshold, but he can’t and he doesn’t know why. Because he’s a cartoon character, he’ll be in a state of arrested development for ever.”

Jeff Kinney

SUPPORTING CHARACTERS IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

The Mother

As for Susan Heffley, ‘I think of her as being an everymom. I get ideas from all around me, and then I just hang them on the archetypes that exist in my books. But a lot of the inspiration for that character comes from my wife. For example, on my son’s sixth birthday party, she wrote on the invitation that everybody should bring a book. She didn’t want a lot of junk in the house, so my poor kid got a ton of books on his birthday.’

The Father

“When fathers appear in children’s picture books, they’re angling for laughs, taking their sons on adventures or modeling physical strength or stoic independence. There is the rare exception in children’s books where a father baldly demonstrates — without symbolic gestures — his love for his son (a few are “Guess How Much I Love You” and “Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!”). Just as women’s studies classes have long examined the ways that gendered language undermines women and girls, a growing body of research shows that stereotypical messages are similarly damaging to boys.”

Andrew Reiner, The New York Times
Greg’s Brothers

“If you’ve ever lived with a teenager, you know what it’s like to have Rodrick in your house, and if you have a younger sibling then you know what it’s like to have Manny. But what I’ve done is take all of the crummy things that I did as a kid, and that even my younger brother did as a kid, and I’ll hang all of those things on Rodrick.”

Adult Opponents

“Gathering jokes is the hardest part of the process, and he finds himself leading an odd double life, empathising with Greg about the unfairness of adults – while laying down similar boundaries with his own boys. ‘In my books, for example, Greg picks the Scout troop that does the least community service, and in my real life I’m the Scout master who is always trying to get them to do community service projects.”

VOICE

Markedly absent from the Wimpy Kid books: Dialogue. There are few speech bubbles in the illustrations and because this is a summary of a boy’s day, he does not render people’s dialogue. Instead, he writes two matter-of-fact, understated sentences then draws a picture. Two sentences, a picture. That’s the general pattern. Naturally, being a diary, the stories are written in first person.

UNRELIABLE NARRATION IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

“When you read my books, you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit because Greg sometimes has a big adventure during the day and he goes to bed at 3 in the morning and yet he’s still writing his journal entry from that day. I think that with this series you have to understand that Greg is sort of an unreliable narrator in a way. Oftentimes what he’s writing will contradict what you see in the pictures. That’s a lot of fun I have with that is to show conflicting points of view and to show that Greg isn’t always on top of things.”

“I was a little bit concerned because Greg is an unreliable narrator, not a great role model but I think kids really get that. What I found is that they are not going to imitate Greg, much in the way they don’t imitate Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace. “I think you like to see somebody behaving badly because you know you can’t really do that. And you also like to see somebody punished for behaving badly,” he says. “My books are not morality tales but they allow kids to see their own lives through this character; what could happen if they made certain choices.”

What has made them so popular is how acutely he observes tweenage life. From the finely differentiated grades of coolness to the politics of school lavatories, he describes a world that is nostalgically familiar to most adults, and Greg handles it all so ineptly – while remaining blissfully oblivious to his own failings – that younger readers can enjoy laughing at him, safe in the knowledge that they are coping slightly better.

The Telegraph

HUMOUR IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

“[As a kid] I liked the humour [in Judy Blume’s Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing] which was realistic and not outlandish.”

When Kinney started writing for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, he spent about four years trying to remember what it was like to be a kid, recalling as much detail as possible from his childhood. He was trying to remember what it was like to be a child.

“I don’t have fond memories of middle school, but I think bad memories can make for good comedy.”

Therefore, much of the humour comes from Greg’s perspective. Kinney makes an effort to get inside his head and imagine how he would interpret a situation.

“I’m trying to get as many laughs as I can per page. And if I can figure out a way to get a good story out of it or something credible, then I’m very satisfied, but really I’m trying to keep the kid laughing and oftentimes if I have a lot of plot, it gets in the way of the jokes and it burns through too many pages. So I will sacrifice a good story for a good joke anytime.”

Jeff Kinney

Kinney is aiming for two jokes per page.

The writers of The Simpsons are also very mathematical about the joke calculation of every episode. People have made graphs on that. The Crepes Of Wrath episode from season one of The Simpsons was 23 minutes long and contained 47 verbal jokes, 36 visual gags and 7 cultural references. It also contained 6 ‘callbacks‘. A callback refers to a joke that refers to a previous episode. It’s a reward for regular viewers and treated as a bit of an Easter egg. Seinfeld was one of the first shows to make heavy use of callbacks.

ABSENCE OF MORALS IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

People ask me all the time if there’s a moral or a lesson to my books and I would say that I don’t feel that that’s my job is to moralise to kids or bake in some sort of a lesson into my books. You know, I’m really trying to entertain kids with those books. And I figure that if there is a lesson, it’s that reading can be fun because adults read for fun and for entertainment and why shouldn’t kids? There’s no better lesson than that. I think that if you open a book and it feels welcoming and it doesn’t feel like work, that a kid can really feel comfortable with that and then move on to bigger and better things as they usually do.

I actually feel conflicted about the world of literature as handed down from adults to kids because I think that it’s very important that kids have a filter that somebody can tell kids what quality reading is. And, you know, my books are candy and they don’t have a lot of vitamins. I think that kids need their vitamins too, but I think that sometimes adults miss the mark. They hand kids books that maybe they were forced to read as kids. Forced is maybe too strong of a word but, you know, books they were asked politely by their teachers to read that really have no — they have no relevance to the kid’s life.

Some people criticise him for being a bad influence on kids and I don’t really understand that because I think that Greg is an average kid or at least he’s like I was as a kid, which is not fully formed, not always making the right decisions, but thinking of yourself because you can’t yet see outside of yourself. You know, a kid in middle school doesn’t have such a great awareness of the world around them.

Absence of morals doesn’t equal absence of ideology.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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The Snail Under The Leaf Setting

apparent utopia

In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
Beatrix Potter 'A Snail and its Young' 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Beatrix Potter ‘A Snail and its Young’ 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail

The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.

 Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish, 1856 - 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs
Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish, 1856 – 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs

The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:

  • emphasises the evil of the universe
  • and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
  • ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.

Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.

  • In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
  • In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.

The best visual representation of this concept is by Australian picture book creator Shaun Tan:

Shaun Tan

But in this post I feel a little bad about dismissing snails, so I include art in which the beauty of snails comes to the fore:

I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
Polish illustrator  Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019) snail
Polish illustrator Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019)

What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?

As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.

Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.

Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:

Pines
By Blake Crouch

The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)

A SHORT HISTORY OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:

There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.

This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’

But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.

A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin

The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.

Sunday Morning ( spider on the wall ) Michael Sowa , 1945. The snail under the leaf setting might just as easily be called the spider on the wall setting.

THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA

Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.

“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.

FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.

Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.

Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)

Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.

This is a scene from a completely different story — Hell or High Water. The horror comedy cartoon series utilises a scene highly recognisable from other types of story.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.

Pretty Little Liars, based on a series of young adult books, marketed as Desperate Housewives For Teens. Interestingly, when adapted for TV, Pretty Little Liars makes use of many of the same landmarks as Gilmore girls, because they are both filmed in California at the same place.

The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.

Get Out, a 2017 film. A young African-American visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.

The film Get Out is an archetypal snail under the leaf setting. its horror is only visible to those who are not white.
The film Get Out is an archetypal snail under the leaf setting. its horror is only visible to those who are not white.

Anyway, if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.

Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”

Ginia Bellafante, NYT

INVERSIONS OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.

SUBURGATORY

Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst and so do we because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.

GILMORE GIRLS

This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)

SCHITTS CREEK

Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.

In defence of snails, not everyone finds them unpleasant. The artist below incorporates their beautiful structure into a highly detailed ornamental design.

Anton Seder - The plant in art and commercial - Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf
Anton Seder – The plant in art and commercial – Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf

Everyone knows that magic and trouble go hand in hand…

A dangerous spell cast over an unsuspecting village.
An enchanted painting locked in a hidden room.
A desperate race against time to break the spell before it’s too late…

It should have been a fresh start for the Widdershins. Finally free from the misty gloom of Crowstone and beginning a new life. But all is not as it seems in their postcard-pretty village. Their neighbours are acting strangely, and why do they flinch at the mere mention of magic?

The Widdershins sisters have their own secret: a set of enchanted nesting dolls with the power to render their user invisible. The sisters must use their wits – and their magic – if they’re to break the dark hold over the village, and save one of their own . . . but have they met their match this time?

RELATED TO THE SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING

RELATED TO SNAILS

If our sympathy for Ripley has deepened over time, so, perhaps, has our ambivalence about his author [Patricia Highsmith], though her literary star has, quite rightly, only risen in the decades since her death. One of the stranger details in Highsmith’s biography is the fact that she went through a phase in which she carried her pet snails with her to dinner parties in a large handbag (her 1957 novel, “Deep Water,” soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, features a scene in which snails crawl over the murderer’s hands, stately and sinister). 

How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting, NYT
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Menstruation In Fiction

Menstruation is depicted rarely in fiction. Perhaps you are rattling off half a dozen stories which feature menstruation right now, hoping to prove me wrong. But when you consider the impact of menstruation on lives, and how frequently it occurs, menstruation is heavily underrepresented across storytelling. We need more of it. People going through female adolescence in particular need to read more of it. Menstruation is one of the last taboos.

Outside basic instruction for adolescents, it seems adult women don’t read or talk about something that, for most of us, occurs every single month for more than thirty years of our lives. No one ever gets her period in a novel or a film, unless it is her first period, which is typically a part of the plot if it’s shown…even the famous Kinsey and Hite reports don’t mention sex during menstruation.

Mentioning the Unmentionable, from In Context
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Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

As an adolescent I was keen to get my hands on the complete works of Judy Blume, but unfortunately only a select few were available to me. I’ve only just read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

Margaret Simon, almost twelve, likes long hair, tuna fish, the smell of rain, and things that are pink. She’s just moved from New York City to Farbook, New Jersey, and is anxious to fit in with her new friends—Nancy, Gretchen, and Janie. When they form a secret club to talk about private subjects like boys, bras, and getting their first periods, Margaret is happy to belong.

But none of them can believe Margaret doesn’t have religion, and that she isn’t going to the Y or the Jewish Community Center. What they don’t know is Margaret has her own very special relationship with God. She can talk to God about everything—family, friends, even Moose Freed, her secret crush.

Margaret is funny and real, and her thoughts and feelings are oh-so-relatable—you’ll feel like she’s talking right to you, sharing her secrets with a friend.

BASIC CHARACTERISATION OF ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET

PREMISE

An 11-year-old girl moves to the suburbs where she must make new friends and face the challenges of puberty.

SHORTCOMING AT BEGINNING

Naive, poor judgment of character, self-absorbed, a follower rather than a leader

BASIC ACTION

Interacts with a number of different peers and attends a variety of churches

CHANGED PERSON

Realises she doesn’t have to have the world all figured out, that she’s still pretty young. Realizes also that she shouldn’t believe everything she hears.

MARGARET IS THE BEST MAIN CHARACTER BECAUSE…

  1. Like the reader she is new to the setting and is trying to work things out. This is why ‘moving house’ stories are so popular in middle grade and young adult literature.
  2. Margaret is flawed but not so flawed that she is borderline unlikeable (e.g. Nancy Wheeler). Not all characters must be likeable but in a story like this, Margaret really does have to be relatable/liked. As is common in children’s stories with female main characters, Margret also has physical imperfections — sticking out ears, kinky hair that’s growing out).
  3. Margaret learns the lesson that is the moral of the story: Think for yourself, don’t believe gossip. Probably the two most important lessons for middle graders to learn before going to high school.

HOW MARGARET IS INTERESTING

She does funny things like:

  • stuffs her bra with cottonwool
  • uses a sanitary pad even though she isn’t yet menstruating
  • visits the store to buy supplies and gets embarrassed when there’s a male clerk serving
HOW THE AUDIENCE IDENTIFIES WITH MARGARET
  • Her embarrassment/shame/impatience/fear surrounding puberty
  • Her unhappiness at family disharmony
  • Her disappointment at losing the trip to Florida
BUT NOT TOO MUCH

Margaret goes above and beyond the normal preparations for puberty, nad does some wacky thing e.g. “I must, I must…” The audience laughs at her sometimes.

HOW THE READER EMPATHISES WITH MARGARET

We understand what Margaret’s exact worries are because:

  1. We have first person point of view insight into her thoughts
  2. We see her do wacky things due to insecurity.

In other words, we are always shown why Margaret acts as she does.

MARGARET’S NEEDS

Psychological Need: To be accepted by peers and to develop physically in a way she considers ‘normal’, which is itself a symbol of her normality, and is the thing that she feels will lead to the peer acceptance.

Moral Needs: She must avoid judging others based on gossip, and stop listening to every wacky bit of advice from her ‘Queen Bee’ friend, focusing on friendships with nicer people like Laura and the other girls in Nancy’s posse.

MARGARET’S DESIRES

To get her period and grow ‘a bust’. The story ends as she gets her period. This is the sustaining desire line, though it’s the surface level one. She really wants to be normal to fit in, as expressed by the psychological shortcoming.

MARGARET’S MORAL CHOICE

  1. Margaret can go along under the guidance of the controlling Nancy Wheeler and be part of Nancy’s gang.
  2. Or Margaret can be true to herself by permitting herself to like the people who are truly likeable, and generally thinking for herself.

This particular moral choice rings so true to my experience of going to a new school in Year 7. I vividly remember having to make that choice in a very public way. One group of girls sat on the far side of the classroom. The other sat apart. Someone challenged me to ‘pick a side’. “Don’t sit with those girls, they’re dicks,” said one girl from the prettier, more coiffed group. I had enough to make my decision — I wasn’t going to be part of the group who called the other group ‘dicks’.

Chapter One

Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. We’re moving today. I’m so scared, God. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me, God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.

Margaret has several key big struggles in the story, and the first is an argument with her faux-opponent Laura. After this conversation, Margaret has learned that she shouldn’t judge other girls based on how they look; nor should she be jealous. Laura teaches Margaret a little empathy. Margaret apologises.

‘I don’t know, I said. ‘I never thought about it.’

‘Well, try thinking about it. Think about how you’d feel if you had to wear a bra in fourth grade and how everybody laughed and how you always had to cross your arms in front of you. And about how the boys called you dirty names just because of how you looked.’

I thought about it. ‘I’m sorry, Laura,’ I said.

But Margaret still has a few things to learn before her moral shortcoming has been corrected. Next she has the showdown with Moose, in which she learns that she shouldn’t listen to hearsay, even if it comes from her (ostensibly) best friend:

Nancy told me that Evan told her that you and Evan—’ I stopped. I sounded like an idiot.

Moose shook his head at me. ‘You always believe everything you hear about other people?’ he asked.

I didn’t know what to say.

Moose kept talking. ‘Well, next time, don’t believe it unless you see it! Now if you’ll move out of my way, I’ve got things to do!’

I didn’t move. ‘You know what, Moose?’ I asked.

‘What now?’

‘I’m sorry I thought you were a liar.’

Finally, Margaret experiences her first period. The wish to start menstruating (and fill out a bra) is the main desire line throughout the novel, so when she gets a clear marker that puberty has properly begun, we have the end of our story.

FURTHER READING

Menstruation In Fiction

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Sex In Stories For Teenagers

Flash from an Old Flame, Cosmopolitan- January 1957 Illustration by Bernard D'Andrea

The prevalence of ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ in young adult literature and schoolyard banter is enough to make a feminist mother weep. Our daughters learn early the same sexually oppressive messages that we learnt: that female sexuality is a prize to be given to (or taken by) a man.

Daily Life

First of all, consent training starts young, way before the teen years.

Meet Doug, an ordinary kid who doesn’t like hugs, in this fun and exuberant story which aims to spark discussions about bodily autonomy and consent.

Doug doesn’t like hugs. He thinks hugs are too squeezy, too squashy, too squooshy, too smooshy. He doesn’t like hello hugs or goodbye hugs, game-winning home run hugs or dropped ice cream cone hugs, and he definitely doesn’t like birthday hugs. He’d much rather give a high five—or a low five, a side five, a double five, or a spinny five. Yup, some people love hugs; other people don’t. So how can you tell if someone likes hugs or not? There’s only one way to find out: Ask! Because everybody gets to decide for themselves whether they want a hug or not.

These are notes from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 10 combined with my own.

You won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.

A Librarian

Keeping our children innocent is certainly not protecting their innocence, because they are more vulnerable to believing any other kind of story they are told.

Jenny Walsh, Talking to your kids about sex, Daily Life

The sex in TV and movies can be simultaneously explicit and evasive. Sex, particularly non-committed sex, is typically presented as fun and advisable; rarely is it awkward or silly or challenging or messy or actively negotiated or preceded by discussion of contraception and disease protection. There’s always plenty of room in the backseats of those limousines, and nary a pothole in the road.

Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex

One way to discover what Americans are concerned about is to delve into the books they read. Or more tellingly, the ones they reject. […] “America seems to be very exercised about sex,” Mr. LaRue said.

Banned Books Week, NYT

You may have heard the phrase, “Children’s literature is both a mirror and a window,” meaning when children (indeed anyone) is exposed to someone else’s story, two things happen:

  1. We get a glimpse into someone else’s experience via the ‘window’
  2. We see ourselves reflected back via the ‘mirror’.

Since stories function as windows, they also function as ‘super-peers’ — teaching us not only how others live in the world, but also providing scripts on how to live a good (or a not so good) life.

Though writing about porn in particular, Peggy Orenstein’s description of the nuanced interaction between ‘media’ and ‘consumer’ is explained below:

Media has been called a “super peer,” dictating all manner of behavioural “scripts” to young people, including those for sexual encounters: expectations, desires, norms. In one era, they learn that you don’t kiss until the third date; in another, they learn that sex precedes an exclusive relationship. Bryant Paul, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington who studies “scripting theory,” explained, “I’ll ask students, “Think about how you learned what to do at your first college party. You’d never been to one, but you knew that couples would go off to someone’s room.” And they’ll say, “Yeah, from American Pie and all those movies..” So where are they learning their sexual socialization, especially in terms of more explicit behaviours? You’d be foolish not to think they’re getting ideas from porn. Young people are not tabulae rosae. They have a sense of right and wrong. But if they’re repeatedly exposed to certain themes, they are more likely to pick them up, to internalize them and have them become part of their sexual scripts. So when you see consistent depictions of women with multiple partners and women being used as sex objects for males, and there’s no counterweight argument going on there…” He trailed off, leaving the obvious conclusion unspoken.

Over 40 percent of children ages ten to seventeen have been exposed to porn online, many accidentally. By college, according to a survey of more than eight hundred students titled “Generation XXX,” 90 percent of men and a third of women had viewed porn during the preceding year. On one hand, the girls I met knew that porn was about as realistic as pro wrestling, but that didn’t stop them from consulting it as a guide. Honestly? It pains me to hear that the scatological fetish video Two Girls, One Cup was, for some, their first exposure to sex. Even if what they watch is utterly vanilla, they’re still learning that women’s sexuality exists for the benefit of men. So it worried me to hear an eleventh-grader confide, “I watch porn because I’m a virgin and I want to figure out how sex works”; or when another high-schooler explained that she watched it “to learn how to give head”; or when a freshman in college told me, “There are some advantages. Before watching porn I didn’t know girls could squirt.

Peggy Orenstein, Girls And Sex

Porn-viewing teenagers are not tabulae rosae and neither are book-consuming children.

  • When children see only white people in books (with the odd token black kid) they learn that white is the norm.
  • When children are heavy readers and find, without counting, that 2 out of 3 characters are gendered male, they learn that when women and girls take up 50 per cent of the space, they are taking up too much space.
  • When children see that only men read newspapers in picture books they learn that newspapers — and keeping up with current affairs — is a male concern.
  • When children see only heterosexual parents they learn there is no other upright way to live.
  • When children don’t see doing their share of caring and housework — in books as in real life — they learn that women are naturally better suited to household duties.

To writers I would say: To what extent must this particular story be a window on this real, imperfect world, and to what extent can you provide a better, aspirational one while maintaining a recognisable milieu?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEX IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

AN EARLY 20TH CENTURY EXAMPLE

Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the semi-autobiographical Little House series with her daughter Mary from the 1930s, had a real life which wasn’t quite the fairytale depicted in the stories or in the Disney miniseries. Laura Ingalls married “Manly” Wilder at the age of 15. Manly was at the time 25. This age difference and the marriage of a bride so young was common and acceptable in that time and place, but by the 1930s had become a taboo subject in a feel-good story for children. The real age difference was therefore never mentioned.

Would this age difference be acceptable in a book for children today? We see in children’s literature what is considered acceptable at time of publication, with an extra tendency to sit on the conservative, didactic side of acceptable. In other words, children’s books tend to be slightly more conservative than the dominant culture, then move on. A bit like churches.

(For more on Laura Ingalls Wilder, listen to Stuff You Missed In History Class Episode December 23, 2013.)

Anyhow, that choice — to leave the age gap completely off the page — is a telling writerly decision.

THE 1970S: JUDY BLUME

In many young adult novels, teenage sexuality is defined in terms of deviancy — even when the message to the reader is a Judy Blume special: “Your masturbating/wet dreams/desire to have sex/(fill in the blank) is normal.” Such novels reflect cultural norms that tend to define teenage sexuality in terms of deviancy in an attempt to control adolescents; nonetheless, reassurances to teenagers that their actions are normal still start from the assumption that someone thinks their actions are not.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Seelinger Trites is very good at explaining that thing where authors try to say one thing and accidentally (inevitably) end up saying something else as well. This reminds me of a real-life incident recounted to me by a friend: An older woman approaches a younger woman and says, with earnest sincerity, “You’re lucky you’re so pretty.”  Maybe this older woman saw that as a compliment, but the fact she saw the need to say it suggested there may be people in this world who don’t think it, or that the younger woman needed to hear it, because she may have been getting a different message. In any case, the younger woman didn’t feel comfortable about ‘the compliment’, because here’s a sad fact of life: It’s impossible to offer reassurance without also making (implicit) reference to the troubling side.

That aside, Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) revolutionised the way sex was portrayed in teenage literature. Forever wasn’t actually a groundbreaker — there were books which came before and they did the same thing. Before Forever we had novels by Norma Klein and others. They equalled Forever in content though weren’t quite so well written. So Forever is the groundbreaking book best remembered today.

(When you look closely at a Judy Blume novel you’ll be struck by how perfectly they are plotted. In this post I take a close look at Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret. You can’t fault it.)

The striking thing about Forever is how clinical and de-eroticised the sex actually is. There really is nothing titillating about it, despite how often it was banned at the time of publication.

Forever looks super conservative by today’s standards.

  • First you seek advice by going to the clinic like a good girl and get yourself some birth control
  • The book describes vaginal examinations and how to have them (in the United States)
  • It also describes penises
  • Premature ejaculation
  • Impotence
  • Intercourse during menstruation
  • STD (called VD back then)
  • ‘Broken hymen’ (in fact hymens don’t break — they stretch)
  • Premarital pregnancy
  • Giving babies up for adoption
  • Play-by-play on how to have sex (or one kind of sex)
  • The young woman is assumed to take sole responsibility to take birth control.

The text tries to liberate teenage sexuality by communicating that curiosity about sex is natural, but it then undercuts this message with a series of messages framed by institutional discourses that imply teenagers should not have sex or else should feel guilty if they do.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Although this ideology is very much of its time, this book provides a sensitive treatment of sex, and helped quite a lot of young women worried about the hygiene and practicalities of the sex itself. Even though sex is much more a part of young adult literature these days, it’s still hard to find stories which address young girls’ concerns in such a practical manner rather than the emotional side.

Also, the idea that health of the family is the girl/woman’s responsibility has hardly gone away. You can find daily examples of advertisements, for health food, for dentists, for glasses, which are aimed at women. Just this morning I had a newsletter in my inbox advertising a (dodgy) app which helps to ‘educate mothers’ about health for the sake of our families:

THE 1990S AND THE AIDS EPIDEMIC

It’s only now that I’m middle aged that I realise the extent to which the AIDS epidemic influenced the messages my generation received about sex, coming-of-age in the 1990s. We received no real sex education; we received scare mongering. We put condoms on bananas and took notes about all the different kinds of STDs. We were made to line up boy-girl-boy-girl in a shockingly heteronormative exercise, then told that this was a visual representation for how disease and infection can spread through a community like wildfire. The clitoris was not mentioned once.

There wasn’t much to be gleaned from young adult literature of that time, either. That, too, was influenced by the AIDS epidemic, and authors became leery of writing sex scenes in their books for teenagers. The 1990s was when the Sex Novel evolved into the AIDS novel. An early example was published in 1986. It was called Night Kites, by M.E. Kerr.

A classic young adult novel from this era is Weetzie Bat, published 1989.

Weetzie Bat… is predicated on the notion that sexual expressions of love are good, whether they are expressed between people of the same or opposite sexes. But Block cannot escape the trappings of our culture: writing within a post-AIDs culture, she only sanctions sex that occurs between committed, loving couples in permanent relationships.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

(I wouldn’t call 1989 a post-AIDs era… 1989 was right in the throes of it from what I remember. But I get the point.)

POST-WESTERN AIDS

Fast forward to 2004. AIDS is under control in the West, or at least feels like it. It’s only now that we get Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, with a gritty exploration of sexuality. This book would have been unthinkable in the 1990s. My own sex education in this decade consisted of sexually transmitted diseases and the labelling of the reproductive organs. We also learned how to put a condom on, using our fingers as stand-in members, but even that is related to avoiding diseases. There was nothing whatsoever about relationships, consent, or the idea that sex can be pleasurable. Perhaps adults just assumed we would know this already, and it was their job to provide ‘protection’? But it wasn’t at all obvious.

RETRIBUTION AND SEX IN MODERN YOUNG ADULT NOVELS

Sex is no longer a taboo subject and is therefore more common. But it is never, even today, something that just happens; it’s almost always a key aspect of the plot and there are always consequences. If the sex is reckless then invariably the female protagonist has a pregnancy scare or ends up pregnant. Despite the fact that now it is more common to depict protagonists having sex, it has not become normalised.

An example of this kind of morality occurs in a subplot of Numbers by Rachel Ward. The male character dies, then lo and behold, the female character is pregnant. [I’ve noticed a lot of war stories contain this plot. The male has to go off to war, and it’s discovered that the woman left at home is going to have his, or someone else’s baby.] Sex cannot pass by unnoticed.

In Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, the two main characters who are deeply in love have sex. The boy dies; the girl gets pregnant.

In Twilight Bella and Edward get married, have sex, and Bella dies (sort of).  Again, huge consequences. In Twilight, the absence of sex is the sex. [The Erotics Of Abstinence.]

With the notable exception of the Twilight Series, the culture has moved on from the idea that sex must only happen within marriage, but hasn’t moved all that much further; sex is still something you do only within a loving, secure relationship. You must think carefully and deeply about birth control first.

In the literature of antiquity, sex is almost a last resort for the expression of love, and it seldom ends well. It’s the classic pitfall of the Old Testament.

Paris Review

YOUNG ADULT NOVELS AND SEXUAL IDEOLOGIES

Some of these ideas seem so ‘obvious’ that they do actually need to be pointed out as ideology.

Seelinger Trites points out that even when there is no obvious ideology in a young adult novel which deals with sex, there is usually the following power dynamic:

the character’s sexuality provides him or her with a locus of power. That power needs to be controlled before the narrative can achieve resolution.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

POWER = GOOD SEX AND SATISFYING ORGASM

Well, who would argue with that?

Sexual potency is a common metaphor for empowerment in adolescent literature, so the genre is replete with sex.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

It’s worth pointing out because then you’ll start noticing how rare it is for teenage characters in young adult novels to achieve satisfying sexual experiences.

Seelinger Trites points out that teenage characters in young adult novels agonise about almost every aspect of human sexuality:

  • decisions about whether to have sex
  • issues of sexual orientation
  • issues of birth control and responsibility
  • unwanted pregnancies
  • masturbation
  • orgasms
  • nocturnal emissions
  • sexually transmitted diseases
  • pornography
  • sex work

The occasional teenage protagonist even quits agonizing about sexuality long enough to enjoy sex, but such characters seem more the exception than the rule.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

HAVING SEX MAKES YOU A GROWN UP

Sex is a rite of passage. This is a weird one, because it often occurs alongside the message that…

SEX IS POWERFUL SO BE CAREFUL WITH IT

STRUCTURE OF A YOUNG ADULT ROMANCE NOVEL

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but here’s a very typical sequence in a young adult romance. Summarising from Roberta Seelinger Trites:

  1. Two teenagers feel sexually attracted to one another
  2. Something will keep them apart. During this period, each character thinks the attraction is unrequited.
  3. They’ll eventually share their feelings with each other and learn that it’s mutual.
  4. However, they don’t immediately get into it. They will agonise about what happens next, scared and worried about sex.
  5. They do end up expressing their passion with some sort of sexual contact.
  6. Maybe one character or the other regrets the action, because there are unwanted consequences. This might be pregnancy, family/peer group repercussions, or one character might betray the other.
  7. The two characters may end up together at the end of the novel, or they may break up.

The message in this case: Sex is powerful and can hurt people, so be careful when you mess around with it. Make sure you’re ready.

THIS IS HOW TO DO SEX, YOUNG FOLK

Many young adult novels seem to assume that the reader has a sexual naivete in need of correction. Some young adult novels seem more preoccupied with influencing how adolescent readers will behave when they are ot reading than with describing human sexuality honestly. Such novels tend to be heavy-handed in their moralism and demonstrate relatively clearly the effect of adult authors asserting authority over adolescent readers.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

BE CAREFUL, GIRL GATEKEEPERS

This idea isn’t dead, so writers still need to be careful to avoid the message expressed in your typical 1970s young adult novel:

Sexual liberation is a good thing, but … it is the girl’s job to make sure that male sexuality is not so liberated that she becomes victimized.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Classic examples of these books include:

  • Forever (1975) by Judy Blume
  • My Darling, My Hamburger (1969) by Paul Zindel — a teenage girl is hurt by her own lack of control. Zindel condemns the character he creates who has an abortion.
  • Edith Jackson (1978) by Rosa Guy — another teenage girl is hurt by her own lack of control. Guy seems pro-choice and applauds her character she creates who has an abortion but, like Zindel, her book implies that promiscuous sex in the first place is the real problem.
  • Weetzie Bat (1989) by Francesca Lia Block — Weetzie gets beaten up and date-raped when she does not carefully guard her sexuality early in the novel.
  • It Happened to Nancy (2004) by the editor of Go Ask Alice — an egregious example of victim-blaming. A 14-year-old date-rape victim contracts AIDS and dies.

DRUG USE LEADS GIRLS INTO SEX WORK

Go Ask Alice (1971) is a good example of the idea that drug use leads directly to (terrible) sex. The narrator of the journal ends up prostituting herself to buy drugs. Go Ask Alice is well-known for being anti-drug, but it’s easier to gloss over the ideology around sex.

A lot of people assume that drug use is what leads women to enter the sex work industry in the first place. But those people have it ass-about. Women commonly enter the sex industry clean and of their own volition (bearing in mind that choices aren’t made in a vacuum). It is true that sex work and drug use are linked. But the sex industry itself lends itself to drug use and abuse. (Incidentally, the same can be said of homelessness. Homelessness leads to drug addiction, not the other way around.)

The real relationship and the link between drug addiction and sex work is much more complex than the simplistic causal attribution of sex work to drugs. Drugs and sex work are interconnected in a vicious cycle of violence and corruption and in most instances they affect the most vulnerable parts of society. This link between them does not imply that drugs are responsible for pushing women into sex work. Sex work and drug use can have a merely coincidental connection and both can be the symptoms of traumatic experiences in the lives of the women involved.

Unveiled: The sex industry and drug abuse

WHEN EXPLICIT IDEOLOGY GOES SIDEWAYS: FROM TITILLATION TO VOYEURISM

I faced this issue when watching Mad Men, which hooked me in but annoyed me at the same time. I have friends who can’t watch it because, for them, watching sexism in action is not entertainment. Did Mad Men depict sexism in order to critique it, or did it promote it? For a few seasons there, titillation definitely won out. There’s nothing wrong with titillation in itself, though it often occurs alongside objectification and violence, sans the encouragement to critique. In the end, it’s impossible to make a distinction when it comes to Mad Men. The same can be said for many stories aimed at a young adult audience.

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma is about incestuous sex between a brother and sister. In this case the brother ends up dead. Contemporary teen culture has no trouble with eroticism/titillation. Forbidden provides more than simply titillation, instead putting the reader in the situation of a voyeur.

Fade by Robert Cormier is another young adult book largely about an incestuous brother/sister relationship. The main character is able to turn invisible, which allows him the role of voyeur as he sneaks into houses. The reader, of course, accompanies him on this ride. Robert Cormier’s Fade presents all forms of deviation: incest, rape, prostitution, voyeurism, in an incredibly harsh and provocative way which truly questions the intrusion of sex in the lives of teenagers. This book provides no solace nor emotional understanding, but I was both highly entertained and disturbed by it as a 14 year old. I read it later and was slightly bored by it. This wasn’t because I knew the plot — enough time had elapsed for me to completely forget about that. I only remembered I had enjoyed it. (Perhaps you have had a similar experience revisiting children’s literature — a good reminder that stories affect teenagers differently.)

WHERE ARE THE BOOKS ABOUT THE TEENAGE MALE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE?

Most experiences of sex in young adult novels are female experiences. There’s the notable exception such as Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, mentioned above, but that was precisely so notorious because no other book before had presented sex from the perspective of a teenage boy. As erotic and explicit and pornographic as this book is, it’s still explicitly didactic: “This is not the way you treat girls.”

A large proportion of young adult readers are girls. Young adult romance skews even more female. Depending on your ideology, whether we like or not, to some extent the sex in young adult literature is gendered. A lot of the most commercial fiction seems to have the aim of tucking its girl readers into particular feminine roles — sexual and gender roles. For example, in young adult fiction that appeals to girls, sex is emotional. [Girls are often passive, too, waiting for boys to ask them out, not learning about themselves.]

The reasons for this are probably so obvious it’s hardly worth pointing out: There is an alternative for learning about sex as a teenager: The Internet. Pretty sure boys are seeking out their sex education somehow, though it’s not from young adult romance. Girls are doing that too, but perhaps it is not the ‘good girl’s option’ to look to those other types of media. Young adult romance is an acceptable way to learn about sex even in conservative homes. There is something more wholesome-feeling about reading a novel compared to watching a film clip, say. Also, the vast majority of Internet porn is made with a male audience in mind, and over 80 per cent of it depicts violence against women. (Yes, that statistic does include BDSM, which can be consensual — still scary for young people.) Internet porn is not a safe and welcoming place for girls to learn about sex. In fact, it is actively terrifying. (It’s not a good place for anyone to learn how sex is done. That’s not what porn is for.)

INTO THE RIVER BY TED DAWE

Into The River is a New Zealand young adult novel which caused a furore when it won a big literary prize. It would probably have otherwise gone under the radar, but first it was banned for under 14s then, after much discussion, the ban was lifted.

Although the book describes a number of “unacceptable, offensive and objectionable” behaviours, the board said the book “does not in any way promote them”.

This story is social realism done very well. Speculative fiction works so well in young adult stories because adolescence is an overwrought time. Everything is at full throttle. When that tendency is explored in social realism sometimes it becomes melodramatic. But in a magical world, that same drama seems almost persuasive.

Though explicit, the sex scenes are in context. The moral panic that came about is often directed at prize winners.

Compare the content of Into The River with Singing My Sister Down, the short story by Margo Lanagan. Why are more gatekeepers not outraged over that? Lanagan’s short story shocks equally, but it contains no sex. So it seems to be sex that shocks people. Also violence and drugs, but mainly the sex.

There is a real sweetness about the main character of Into The River. There’s no explicit and direct message, but Dawe holds a mirror up to society and asks the reader to take a hard look.

THE CULT OF VIRGINITY

The Gossip Girl series has been described as Sex In The City for modern teenagers. Although there is sex, it is littered with consequences and always for the girl. The character Blair spends the entire first novel gearing up to have sex with her boyfriend, who she has been seeing for two years.

(For more on the Gossip Girl series, series such as this have been criticised by Naomi Wolf. This paper further delves into the role of these books and the impact they may/may not have on teenage girls.)

A book of short stories called Losing It, written by many prominent different children’s authors, write about lots of different ways of losing virginity. So many books revolve the plot around two people having sex and one of them is a virgin. Losing virginity is like a gate through the door into adulthood. Virginity is a strong symbolic obstacle.

PREGNANCY AS REPURCUSSION

Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry is a rare example of a story about teen pregnancy that is not all about the girl. He doesn’t know his former girlfriend has had a baby when she turns up one day and leaves him with their baby.

Boys Don't Cry Sex In YA

The books featured above are the Big Books about sex and teens, and there are almost certainly lesser known books which take a more mature [less didactic, more naturalistic] view of teenage sex.

Before Margo Lanagan switched to writing fantasy, she was writing social realism. In one of her early novels, The Best Thing, a teenage girl is pregnant, but Lanagan subverts our expectation of motherhood as punishment; she instead simply becomes a mother. And everything is okay for her, no better or worse than new mothers of any age. Diablo Cody also did this when writing the screenplay of Juno.

LGBTQIA+ SEX

Sex in young adult fiction is largely heteronormative and has only recently started to branch out into stories about other sexualities and gender identities.

That said, one of the earliest (the earliest?) was published in 1969: I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth The Trip by John Donovan. Unfortunately, LGBTQIA+ novels of the 1970s always seemed to end with the gay character killed in a car accident. They became known as ‘Death by Gayness’ books. The lead character presumably died as punishment for being gay — not the sort of message anyone would have taken heart in.

The first young adult novel to deal with lesbian identity was Ruby by Rosa Guy in 1976. But Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden (1982) remains more iconic.

Vanessa Wayne Lee is a scholar who divided lesbian novels into three main categories:

  1. Stories that assume lesbianism needs to be normalised. These stories often come across like information books with a bit of a story wrapped around them. (Like Judy Blume’s Forever is basically a sex manual.) She calls these “education texts”
  2. Stories that explore the formation of lesbian identity (coming out stories)
  3. Stories decenter the sexual identity of the character. Gayness will still be problematized but identity isn’t the central issue. Wayne Lee calls these “post-modern”. When Wayne Lee made these distinctions, she noted that this last category tends to be found in novels for older readers, but that has since changed in young adult.
THE HOMOPLOT (COMING OUT STORY)

The traditional approach to [LGBTQ] stories is summarized in Esther Saxey’s Homoplot: The Coming-Out Story and Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Identity (2008).

  • The protagonist is “most likely . . . a troubled teenager”
  • the plot, resolution, and homoplot narrative itself create, change and shape new identities
  • discourses of sexual identity help to create what they purport to describe.
  • Thus the coming out story, which purports to describe a pre-existing sexual identity, is simultaneously contributing to the cultural construction of this identity.
CLICHES AND PITFALLS
  • Positioning non-cishet identities as a threat or problem
  • The LGBTQIA+ character not only suffers persecution, bullying, or other harassment because of their sexual orientation, but also fails to question the injustice of that treatment
  • The death as punishment story, in which a gay character dies because they are gay — avoid. (This is reminiscent of the pregnancy as punishment for sex story about heterosexual teenage girls.) In general, endings which serve as more cautionary than hopeful.
  • Less obviously problematic but still a problem: A story in which homosexuality is presented as just like heterosexuality. The aim here is to normalise, but this way of normalising homosexuality is highly problematic, not least because it uses heterosexuality as the basic standard and model. Anything outside that norm inevitably becomes a kind of deviation, undermining the whole intention.
  • There are some stereotypes which play into some highly problematic beliefs about homosexuality, for instance the domineering mother. It has been thought that gay men become gay because of an overbearing mother (and passive male role model), so bear that in mind when creating the character a gay teenager’s mother.
  • Related to that, homosexuality in a problem novel can sometimes seem like the author is saying that this problematic life event lead to the homosexuality. That’s the gayness as deviation and disorder mentality.
  • Gay sex as pleasurable is too rarely depicted in young adult. Stories tend to be all about the politics around it and not about the sex itself.
  • Stories about lesbians often stereotype lesbians as either butch or femme, as if those types are the only ways lesbians express themselves
  • Conflating issues of sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Even when traditional texts affirm LGBTQIA+ populations, authors may simply be concerned with making diverse orientations and identities visible, introducing it to heterosexual audiences as spectacle rather than addressing the audience most invested in self-discovery.
  • LGBTQIA+ tend to be presented as types rather than individuals, and as support to the protagonist rather than of primary importance to plot or reader.
  • In lesbian love stories, it’s not enough to simply take a cishet romance and switch out the boy for a girl. Progressive novels move toward celebrating the real differences in the experiences and subject-formation of LBTQIA+ teen characters.

There are other pitfalls, of course.

Am I Blue: Coming Out From The Silence (1994) was the first young adult anthology dealing with gay and lesbian issues.

These days many young adult novels include/star a LGBTQ character and the queerness is not The Problem. They more and more just happen to be gay. An example of this is David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003). In this story the homecoming queen is also the star quarterback. TV series Schitts Creek was also a wonderful example of this. Jacqueline Woodson, Nancy Garden, and Stacey Donovan depict lesbianism in far more complex ways than could be imagined in the 1970s and 1980s.

See the paper Creating Realms of Possibilities from Dail and Leonard

Also Would You Want To Read That? Using book passes to open up secondary classrooms to LGBTQ Young Adult literature from Emily S. Meixner

And Creating A Space for YAL With LGBT Content In Our Personal Reading from Katherine Mason

Connecting LGBT To Others Through Problem Novels from Hayn and Hazlett

10 Of The Best Teenage Novels With Gay and Lesbian Characters from Books For Keeps

The Heart Has Its Reasons by Cart and Jenkins was published in 2006 and is a groundbreaking study of LGBTQ literature. The Heart Has Its Reasons creates an indispensable typology for finding and evaluating LGBTQ literature for young adults.

“I wanted something 100% pornographic and 100% high art: the joy of writing about sex by Garth Greenwell in The Guardian

Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He’s won skiing prizes. He likes to write.

And, oh yeah, he’s gay. He’s been out since 8th grade, and he isn’t teased, and he goes to other high schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that’s important, all Rafe really wants is to just be a regular guy. Not that GAY guy. To have it be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time.

So when he transfers to an all-boys’ boarding school in New England, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret — not so much going back in the closet as starting over with a clean slate. But then he sees a classmate break down. He meets a teacher who challenges him to write his story. And most of all, he falls in love with Ben . . . who doesn’t even know that love is possible.

This witty, smart, coming-out-again story will appeal to gay and straight kids alike as they watch Rafe navigate feeling different, fitting in, and what it means to be himself.

TEENAGE EROTICA

House Of Holes has been recommended in major publications as a good example of erotica for a teenage audience. Erotica, of course, is a different thing from ‘the odd sex scene that crops up in typical young adult literature’.

The good news is that there is nothing in House of Holes that we wouldn’t want our youth to read. Indeed it is exactly the sort of filth that you would want them to read first (if you don’t mind exposing them to something so decidedly heterosexual).

In the traditional sex talk, parents don’t say much about pleasure—presumably neither party wants to get into details. But wouldn’t it be nice for parents to have a way to convey our highest ideals on the subject? House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur.

The New York Review Of Books

TRENDS IN THE 2010s

In the past young adult novels have been very careful with their depictions of sex, usually alluding to it with a lovely romantic “fade out”. However, I’ve noticed a difference in the past few years as more and more novels are being more umm, specific, in the descriptions of sex. In addition to including these moments, characters have also had discussions about their feelings, whether positive or negative, towards sex and their sexual identity. I’ve also noticed an increase in a discussions of consent regarding sex as the couple in question has a healthy chat prior and often the subject of protection is addressed as well.

Rich In Color

The fade out trope when applied to sex is also known as ‘pan to curtain’.

FURTHER READING

What’s Going On Inside Of Me? Emergent female sexuality and identity formation in young adult literature, by Evelyn Baldwin

Emily Maguire is an Australian author, including of young adult novels such as Taming The Beast. In this article she explains what it was like to be a teenager, sex-drive-wise. It’s an awesome article.

Scarleteen is an excellent online resource for teenagers. Tagline: Sex Education For The Real World

Key findings of The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment

  1. Teens and adults tend to greatly overestimate the size of the “hook-up culture” and these misconceptions can be detrimental to young people.
  2. Large numbers of teens and young adults are unprepared for caring, lasting romantic relationships and are anxious about developing them. Yet it appears that parents, educators and other adults often provide young people with little or no guidance in developing these relationships. The good news is that a high percentage of young people want this guidance.
  3. Misogyny and sexual harassment appear to be pervasive among young people and certain forms of gender based degradation may be increasing, yet a significant majority of parents do not appear to be talking to young people about it.
  4. Many young people don’t see certain types of gender-based degradation and subordination as problems in our society.
  5. Research shows that rates of sexual assault among young people are high. But our research suggests that a majority of parents and educators aren’t discussing with young people basic issues related to consent.

Header illustration: Flash from an Old Flame, Cosmopolitan- January 1957 by Bernard D’Andrea

Lemon girl young adult novella

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