The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War cover

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier was not written with a young adult audience in mind, but class sets of the book found their way into English departments all over the world. Though this is not my favourite Cormier novel, it remains his best known. Heavy in symbolism and discussable themes, The Chocolate War also makes for a good case study in juxtaposition. The novel begins with a juxtaposition in the title — chocolate is sweet and comforting; war most certainly is not.

There are many resources for teaching and studying this book in a high school literature class. This blog focuses on the storytelling: What writing lessons can we take from this young adult story from 1974, banned and beloved in equal measure?

Content Note

I feel readers deserve a content note about Robert Cormier novels, and about The Chocolate War in particular. This novel has been widely banned, but my reasons for the content note are probably different and girl readers in particular deserve this acknowledged: Cormier writes consistently from the male point of view and objectifies female characters as part of his commentary on how awful boys can be. Cormier never proved he could write well-rounded girls, to be fair. Even when he writes a female character (not in this book) she self objectifies or she is murdered or both. The Chocolate War contains implied rape of girls at the nearby girls’ high school. Archie, a psychopathic character, ‘usually manages to persuade one of them into his car’. He gives them a ride home ‘with detours’. The older I get the more icky I find this. Here’s my exact beef: Robert Cormier and many other writers who imply/describe sexual assault feel the need to include girls — otherwise absent in the story — in order to amplify the awfulness of a particular boy character. This is done for characterisation reasons, yet that’s not how sexual assault works in real life and I expect a bit of mimesis here. Despite his heterosexual orientation, a character as awful as Archie does not need to prey on the girls at a different school entirely. If ever there was a clear psychopath in young adult fiction, Archie is it.

Archie was always puzzled about whatever there was inside of him that enjoyed these performances — toying with kids, leading them on, humiliating them, finally.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

There are plenty of boys he can pick on to assert his sexual dominance, without leaving his own school. My problem here is the extent to which writers are comfortable with the implication of male on female sexual assault, but can’t seem to even fathom male on male sexual assault. Written in the 1970s, going this far may not have even crossed Cormier’s mind, or maybe he self-edited, who knows. Archie carries out his own version of sexual assault on Emile, pretending to take a photo of him after finding him in the toilets masturbating. But it’s never implied that he does to the other boys as he does to the girls. And I don’t think his heterosexuality has anything to do with that. Archie’s 1970s pretend camera would be an actual camera in the 2010s. This kind of timelessness is why some schools continue to study The Chocolate War with modern teenagers, though I think the objectification and assault issue requires a discussion. Though uncomfortable to talk about, the problems with glossing over this aspect of Archie are two-fold:

  1. As a culture we underestimate the rate of male on male sexual assault (important emphasis: rape is about power over others, not about orientation);
  2. We become uncomfortably comfortable with the image of the assaulted female, to the extent where, as a culture, we have now learned to look the other way. To what extent is the male gaze designed to be titillating? Does it matter really if it’s not meant to be, and still is? At no point are readers encouraged to find descriptions of the boy characters titillating, regardless of the reader’s orientation.

These are not the exact reasons The Chocolate War has found infamy as a frequently banned book. This novel has been banned  due to:

  1. Frequency of sexual references
  2. Detail included in the sexual scenes e.g. masturbation
  3. Physical violence
  4. Bribery
  5. Negative portrayal of the institution of school
  6. Catholic schools in particular get a bad rap

But mostly? The issues in this book are so heavy they are difficult to discuss with 30 teenagers, some of whom will have been sexually assaulted themselves, some of whom will sexually assault/have already assaulted. I find it far easier to write about these issues on a blog than to manage a class discussion, and to have that discussion go in the right direction. When schools ban books, that’s sometimes a factor. The Chocolate War is one of those novels which requires the reader to bring their own morality to the table. We’re to look at these boys as an example of treating people badly. But what if some readers do not have morality to bring? What then?

Three Types of Young Adult Novels

Further to the banning, it’s important to note that Cormier did not intend The Chocolate War for a young adult audience. The reading age happens to be twelve, however. That seemed to be Cormier’s natural writing style.

The American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories:

  1. Books Written Specifically for Adolescents
  2. Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Main Characters
  3. General Books of Interest to Young Readers

The Chocolate War belongs to category two and was seen by many as a good text to study in schools.

THEMES IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

There are many. Here’s a big one:

“Do I dare disturb the universe?”

from T.S. Eliot, in a poem he wrote in his early 20s.

At its heart, this question “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is about power. It serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves. Jerry Renault takes up this question in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974).

Jerry hangs in his school locker a poster of a man walking alone on a beach that bears the caption “Do I dare disturb the universe?”: “Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.” The Chocolate War explores the question of whether Jerry can disturb the universe—of what will happen to him if he dares assert his personal power. […]

In The Chocolate War Jerry Renault has power in agreeing to exist in harmony with the forces of oppression at Trinity High School, The Vigils and the teachers. He is defeated by novel’s end because he has chosen to break the contract and so be oppressed by the power structure. Foucault would say instead that rather than possessing a certain amount of power to begin with, Jerry actually exists in a chain of power, a chain that involves the selling of education as a commodity and that results in the commodification of the chocolates. Their sale is a means of production for the students. Jerry’s power in the situation is fluid: he both has and does not have power, depending on his relationship to the market forces at specific points in the novel’s time. When he overwhelms the market by providing a model for the other boys’ non-participation in the means of production, the market retaliates by attempting to obliterate him in a “war.”

Foucault even supplies the term “war repression schema” as a synonym for the “domination repression” model of power; he makes much of the notion that “power is war, a war continued by other means”. […]

The Chocolate War is the same sort of dark adolescent fantasy that Lord of the Flies is: when adolescents achieve total control, they become totally corrupt. Both novels are metaphors for the concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

[…] Anne Scott Macleod argues that what happens at Trinity is a microcosmic metaphor for American politics. […]

Perry Nodelman interprets the chocolate war as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. […]

Jan Susina interprets The Vigils as the Mafia. […]

Cormier himself has identified big business as the central metaphor of the novel.

At the heart of all these interpretations is the recognition that The Chocolate War is a political novel. It is an investigation of social organisation and how individuals interact with that organisation. The novel communicates that institutions are more powerful than individuals, but that individuals who engage their own power can affect the shape of the institution. Cormier implies that as social organisations, institutions are not to be trusted. […]

When ideologies in YA novels focus specifically on government, they tend to convey to adolescents that they are better served by accepting than by rejecting the social institutions with which they must live. In that sense, the underlying agenda of many young adult novels is to indoctrinate adolescents into a measure of social acceptance.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

But is The Chocolate War any more political than your typical young adult novel?

Few adolescent novels are as direct as Cormier’s are in addressing government as a form of social organization, although almost all adolescent novels are informed by ideologies that are political in nature. That is, all novels are influenced by their authors’ sociopolitical beliefs.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Juxtaposition and Irony

The Chocolate War is a story of irony and juxtaposition, which makes the title so apt. Examples from chapter one:

  • ‘A terrible stillness’
  • ‘Suddenly he loved that voice, “Show up tomorrow”.’
  • ‘A strange happiness invaded him.’

And in chapter two we get all the ironies of Archie:

  • ‘Archie the bastard. The bastard that Obie alternately hated and admired.’
  • Archie looks like an All-American Boy but it turns out he’s atheist, which is not very American at all, especially in 1974.
  • ‘That’s what baffled everyone about Archie — his changes of mood, the way he could be a wise bastard one minute and a great guy the next’
  • Although Archie is really mean, he ‘disliked violence’.

Norman Stanton: ‘a blustering bragging character with wild red hair and eyelids matted with yellow crap’

Roland Goubert: The Goober. Juxtaposition: Very tall yet like a child.

Brother Leon: Can control a class but Archie sees vulnerabilities. Assistant Headmaster but in Archie’s eyes he is simply an errand boy for the head. Not worthy of respect. However, like Archie, this man has two juxtaposed sides to him. “In the classroom, Leon was another person altogether. Smirking, sarcastic. His thin, high voice venomous. He could hold your attention like a cobra. Instead of fangs, he used his teacher’s pointer, flicker out here, there, everywhere. He watched the class like a hawk, suspicious, searching out cheaters or daydreamers, probing for shortcomings in the students and then exploiting those shortcomings.’ This man will make a good shadow character for Archie.

Leon is an ambiguous character. In Chapter Six we see him carry out a cruel taunting on a student then tells the class he’s delivered a lesson. He hasn’t delivered a lesson without causing the boy in question grief, so is this similar to doing something really mean and then calling it ‘a joke’? Another juxtaposition.

‘Emile was a brute, which was kind of funny because he didn’t look like a brute. He wasn’t big or overly strong. … Wise guys usually sat in back. Emile didn’t. He chose seats near the front where he’d be in better position to harass the teacher.’

‘Emile, you’re a beautiful person’, says Archie, watching Emile steal fuel from a weaker kid’s car. But Emile never knows if Archie is serious or not — in fact, stealing fuel probably does count as beautiful in Archie’s eyes, because Emile can be useful to him. At the end of Chapter Six, Emile is ‘somehow disappointed’ that the owner of the vehicle hasn’t caught him stealing gas. This is a different kind of irony — an emotion the the audience wouldn’t expect in most people.

The sale of chocolates is such a cozy thing to do — this part of the plot could easily be used in a middle grade novel set in a genuine utopia. But here, the chocolate fundraiser is juxtaposed against the evil of the school.

Goober is the reflection character for Archie. Whereas Archie is delighted at chaos, Goober is utterly bewildered by it, not comfortable at all. We are set to root for Goober because he is such an underdog, but we are equally keen to see what Archie gets up to, because Archie is interesting. Without each other, this book would feel too pathetic or too mean. These boys balance each other out for the reader.

Jerry Renault is the Every Boy — most readers have not lost their mother to cancer, but we can empathise with him because we feel our lives would look like his if we did. Apart from the ghost of a dead mother, nothing much stands out about Jerry. He’s like the Jerry Seinfeld off Seinfeld actually — the characters around him are more individualised.

Among the teachers, too, we have a replica of the classroom, with the Brothers responding in contrasting ways to the same event. Brother Eugene is the grown up Goober — sensitive and emotional and vulnerable. Brother Leon understands Archie the best, though Archie does not have a sociopathic equivalent on staff, which is good for him. The teachers have power by virtue of being teachers, so Brother Leon is still a formidable opponent for Archie.

STORY WORLD OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR

The Chocolate War is an American novel with a USA setting.

Obie describes the school as ‘a lousy little high school like Trinity’. This is a Catholic school. The culture revolves around sport. Football is everything. It is clear from this that we’re talking about a boys’ high school, with its particular brand of hyper-masculinity. Boxing turns out to be other other big sport at Trinity — another dangerous, combative pastime.

The Trinity brothers wanted peace at any price, quiet on the campus, no broken bones.

This is a run-down school — the football field needs seeding and the bleachers need replacing. This needs to be a run-down school because if it were wealthy the need to sell all those chocolates wouldn’t be as dire.

Within this school we have something akin to the mafia:

The Vigils kept things under control. Without The Vigils, Trinity might have been torn apart like other schools had been, by demonstrations, protests, all that crap.

The school is populated with a variety of teachers, some good, some not so good. Brother Eugene: one of the good brothers who teach at Trinity. ‘A peaceful sort’. He exists to contrast with Brother Leon.

The Vigils meet in a small room behind the gym.

Obie works at the grocery store stacking shelves for a part-time job. A friend of the family owns the store, suggesting a cosy, small town where everyone knows everyone.

But this version of American suburbia is an snail under the leaf setting — underneath, things are rotten. Case in point: The Vigils. The gang headed by Archie. These boys run the town. Lead by Archie. President is another bastard called Carter. Obie is secretary and underdog.

For fun there’s the Teen-Age Canteen where the boys have the opportunity to meet girls, referred to as ‘broads’, because these boys objectify female characters as if they’re an entirely different species.

NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

In a novel, even the unseen narrator can be considered a character. I feel the narrative voice is masculine, perhaps someone who knows these boys really well, a stand-in for a fellow student at the school. He talks about girls as if they are a different species: “The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.” (Not the way girls usually describe each other.) However, he is also closely emulating the voice of the characters themselves. ‘Close’ third person.

This close third person narrator reminds us occasionally that he is telling a story. Here, he lampshades some pretty obvious symbolism. Perhaps as he was writing even Cormier thought the cross symbolism felt a little heavy handed:

The shadows of the goalposts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes. That’s enough symbolism for one day, Obie told himself.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Cormier’s narrator is an all-knowing, misanthropic, pessimistic character who can zoom right into the psychologies of the characters as if he knows them better than they know themselves (he does), and that’s because he sees through their eyes. The narrator is one of them. However, The Chocolate War does not have the immediacy of voice common to most young adult novels. Most are written either in first person right after the events, or occasionally in third person right after the events. Perhaps because this was never meant for the young adult audience, Cormier’s narrator seems much older, as if he’s looking back in time as an unnamed student in this school, but with the psychological insight of a 40 year old man. The advantage of this kind of narrator is that his wisdom can fill in the gaps for an audience who has yet to give much thought to how social groups and dominance works. A teenage narrator would seem preternaturally gifted in psychology to believably write this stuff.

The Chocolate War does not ask the young adult reader to trust in the voice of a single speaker or to accept a single, unchallenged view of events. In alternating chapters we are given thirteen different characters’ perspectives on events. Within some chapters, especially chapters twenty-five and thirty-five, the reader gets multiple points of view. Although Jerry Renault’s views are those most frequently shared, they do not account for even one third of the book. Despite the fact that no adult’s thoughts are represented (we never see into Jerry’s father’s or Brother Leon’s or Brother Jacque’s thoughts, for instance), the book does not limit itself to a single adolescent’s view of the world. The reader develops a sense of a complicated world through the recognition of competing positions and perspectives that are quite different from each other despite their all being “young adult”.

The Chocolate War is not written in first-person address, though the narrator reports throughs from the position of the characters being portrayed. We are told, for instance, that “The Goober was beautiful when he ran”. We understand that Goober himself considers this to be true in contrast with the rest of his life, including the moment under narration in which he attempts a terrifying “assignment”. Here we see what Gerard Genette would call indirect address.

Mike Cadden, The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR

QUESTIONS AND REVELATIONS IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

Cormier is a master of this technique:

If you have too many scenes that just set up questions and knock ’em down, then the story will seem plodding and episodic, and it won’t build a larger narrative. So you have to mix quick payoffs with longer mysteries. Usually the question that ends the scene is a practical one that’s instantly answered by the circumstances of the next. But you should keep your audience looking further ahead, breathlessly wondering how the events they’ve just witnessed will affect the rest of the story.

Matt Bird, The Secrets of Story

Cormier was a master of the question and revelation sequence. He makes readers work just the right amount before handing over the information. I started to make detailed notes on how Cormier was achieving this, but it soon got so complicated I gave up the task. Just know that this book looks simple at first read but is extremely intricately plotted, with set ups and pay-offs, perfect foreshadowing and expert subtleties. If I planned to write a book similar to this I would persevere with my detailed notes.

SHORTCOMING

Our protagonist (in its original, Greek sense — the character who gets the story going) is Jerry Renault. We see him getting beaten up in the first scene, straight into ‘action’, in its most widely used sense.

Hey Coach, you pit on me, Jerry protested. Stop the spitting, coach. What he said aloud was, ‘I’m all right, coach,’ because he was a coward about stuff like that, thinking one thing and saying another, planning one thing and doing another — he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

He is not the right body type to be playing football. Too skinny. Ironically, this is his dream.

Chapter two flips to Obie.

Obie was bored. Worse than bored. He was disgusted. He was also tired.

There we have them — Obie’s main psychological shortcomings in the very first line. Cormier is masterful the way he combines unexpected emotions. We can imagine how someone would mistake disgust for boredom, though may not of thought of this before.

The alternating points of view establish that this is not a story about any one character or hero, but about a community. The community itself is the main character, and this community has a dark, seedy underbelly.  Another story like this is Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Another is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

The boys in this story each has their own shortcoming, except for Archie, who demonstrates better than anyone in YA literature how psychopathy is an evolutionary advantage.

DESIRE

Archie is kingpin and has a very specific goal. It’s Archie’s goal which drives the story, making him the ‘main character’ in a sense. His aim is always to inflict as much psychological pain as possible on those around him.

Certain other boys desire the approval of Archie. Emile is another sociopath, though not quite as smart. I suspect circumstances have deprived him of empathy, whereas Archie seems ‘born evil’.

Goober just wants to be left alone to run.

Jerry doesn’t want anything at first but gets sucked into the drama and wants to passively aggressively claim some status for himself. He doesn’t have to do much to earn that — in fact, he has to do the opposite of something — nothing, so the little rebellions prove too tempting.

So in these characters we see the whole range of desire, from ‘leave me alone’ to ‘I’m going to turn this little community upside down.’

OPPONENT

The coach is Renault’s first opponent, though it remains to be see whether he is an ally. Teachers can swing either way — in fiction as in real life, they can seem mean but actually have students’ best interests at heart. This coach is a stereotypical mean guy. He looks like ‘an old gangster’ and even has a movie-star scar on his cheek. ‘But a helluva coach, they said’. Turns out the meanest looking coach isn’t the most dangerous adult in the school.

Obie’s arch nemesis is Archie. Archie is depicted as an ‘all American boy’, with blonde hair blowing in the wind, sitting in the bleachers. ‘Archie turned and smiled at [Obie] benevolently, like a goddam kind passing out favours.’ Archie is soon set up as the main force of evil — the true, evil villain of the story. Even the title is drawn from him — minions must buy him Hersheys or else get on the wrong side of him.

There’s no true friendship in this novel. When a pecking order is being established it has to be constantly maintained. Everyone is everyone else’s opponent. Though it appears Goober and Jerry could have been friends, they weren’t for the entirety of the novel.

PLAN

Each character has his own plan in an intricate big struggle for top of the hierarchy. The boys are each a different example of one way of going about gaining dominance within an institution. For instance: Jerry — passive aggressively, by refusing to do as asked, then getting a bit addicted to the adrenaline of rebellion and taking it further. Archie — like a sociopath, taking power from others, killing their spirits Goober — Just trying to get along unnoticed, manoeuvring around the power plays of others These characters are mirrored in the characters of the teachers.

BIG STRUGGLE

The minor big struggles of the pranks and the refusal to sell lead up to the big fight — a literal big struggle scene which we suspect may have killed Jerry Renault. (You have to go back to the first sentence of the book to be sure, but it’s metaphorical — his spirit has been killed.) This fight has been set up by Archie to get Jerry back for refusing to start selling the chocolates again. He is pitted against Emile Janza, a strong physical opponent. Students can buy raffle tickets. They write on the tickets who gets to hit who and where. Things get out of hand when Emile loses control of himself.

ANAGNORISIS

Jerry is almost dead when he comes to some kind of understanding:

The knowledge, the knowledge: what he had discovered. Funny, how his mind was clear suddenly, apart from his body, floating above his body, floating above the pain. ‘It’ll be all right, Jerry.’ No, it won’t. He recognized Goober’s voice and it was important to share the discovery with Goober. He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. … They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.

The Chocolate War

When writing anagnorises: Make your character come to the absolute brink of (spiritual/actual) death before giving them their epiphany. Otherwise it won’t feel like they earned it.

Seelinger Trites makes use of the word ‘epiphany’ when describing the revelation that takes place in this novel, and points out that the anagnorisis experienced by Jerry in The Chocolate War is completely typical of young adult literature:

[The] intertextual question that lies at the heart of The Chocolate War — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature form children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read…much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home.

Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of Self and her or his personal power. But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death. […]

In The Chocolate War, for example, Jerry Renault must negotiate his place within a family, in terms of a religion, and in his school.. Jerry’s epiphany is a recognition that social institutions are bigger and more powerful than individuals. The lesson he learns is a primary one in Young Adult literature.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

YA literature reassures readers that the world is your oyster if only you can find the power within yourself to rise above it or up into it.

SYMBOL WEB

To help lead a character (and readers) towards a anagnorisis, authors often make use of a symbol which they return to again and again. In YA novels, it’s quite often photos. But it can just as easily be something else. In The Chocolate War, it’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prucock“. Jerry sees a poster with Do I Dare Disturb The Universe? (the inspiration for Seelinger Trite’s book on YA literature) every time he opens his locker.

This is a classic case of: The reader has the anagnorisis even if the character doesn’t. When the character doesn’t have any revelation, the author has to use recursive tricks like a photo, a line from a poem, a stamp on a hand (in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy) to ram home the message for readers.

NEW SITUATION

I would like to point out that Jerry’s advice to Goober can be read two ways. It can sound like he’s saying, ‘buckle in, do what they tell you.’ But Seelinger Trites believes the message is yes, do disturb the universe:

Jerry’s final words in the novel echo the novel’s opening statement, “They murdered him.” His final lines are unspoken thoughts that he directs to his friend Goober: “Do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too…. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober. Although Jerry appears defeated and is even possibly dead by novel’s end, the book still answers the question affirmatively: yes, he can disturb the universe. In fact, he should disturb the universe. Doing so may be painful, but Jerry has affected other people with the choices he has made.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

RELATED

  • The events in this novel ring very true to me. They probably ring true to you, too. Weird things happen in schools. This viral thread about the bread reminds me of the incidents in The Chocolate War, though doesn’t end as darkly.

In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier

in the middle of the night

In The Middle Of The Night is a young adult horror novel by American author Robert Cormier. Written in the mid 1990s, this was one of his later works.

PARATEXT OF “IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT”

The cover reads like the poster for a horror film and gives us a horror tagline: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.”

Although Goodreads reminds me I read (and reviewed!) this book back in 2013, I have zero recollection of ever picking it up. This probably says more about my memory than about the book, though I do have strong memories of some of Cormier’s other work, particularly Fade, which I read as a teenager and which left a strong impression.

I’m reading In The Middle Of The Night again making read-along notes as I go, hoping to learn what I can about horror and suspense from a master of the form.

This time as a learning exercise I am reading a thriller/horror taking notes as I read. I want to see how a master storyteller controls his reveals and reversals. You’ll see I was wrong about a few things, and had trouble working out what was going on in the beginning. This is the book’s biggest shortcoming. Another look at Goodreads reviews tells me other readers had the same trouble. Why did I have trouble? For some reason, Cormier used the name Dennis twice, for two separate, unconnected people. The first was a minor character, Dennis Denehan, brother of Lulu’s best childhood friend. Later I was confused by the name Denny, the name of our main character. Why did Cormier do this? I guess it makes sense that within the world of the story, Jean Paul might have named his own son after one of the boys he felt responsible for killing, but it really did affect my ability to work out what was going on.

The other factor for contemporary readers picking up this book from the mid nineties, both the ‘contemporary’ world and the ‘past’ world of the story feel a bit retro now, so the usual markers that stand out as markers of time don’t work quite as well — I had no idea really about screening eras of I Love Lucy.

Prologue

Beginner writers are often told not to write prologues, which stands in direct opposition to the fact that a lot of popular books open with prologues. (There are problems with prologues and other people have explained all the reasons why. Bear in mind, it’s #NotAllPrologues.) Cormier, too, opens this story with a prologue. He ticks a few things off in this prologue:

  1. Some of the novel is written in first person, and ideally, with a first-person homodiegetic narrator, the reader gets a reason why all of this is being written down. “I am writing all this down. I have never kept a diary or a journal or anything like that. My thoughts and memories were enough, but now that she has begun to assert herself. I find that it’s necessary to keep a record. Why? For my own good, my own testimony, in case anything happens.” Likewise, readers are given a reason why Greg Heffley writes his Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and why two girls are writing The Popularity Papers (by Amy Ignatow). I am constantly amazed how authors come up with original reasons for why their storytellers are writing things down. (You’d think there would only be a couple of reasons, right?)
  2. The middle grade examples I gave are comedies, but Cormier has given us a creepier reason for writing something down: We immediately feel the character might die. And that is another function of this prologue — to introduce the creepy tone. Cormier even lampshades the story problem he has just created for himself — the problem EVERY writer creates for themselves when they want to do two incongruous things, making us wonder if the character will die but also having that person still alive to write the story — he writes “Stop pretending, she says. You know what’s going to happen.”
  3. Cormier also introduces a slightly creepy brother/sister relationship. Anyone who has previously read Fade by the same author might be wondering if this is going to be a story of incest.
  4. Aunt Mary is introduced. Cormier contrives a situation where adults won’t be a problem; first of all these kids are orphans. Second, their spinster aunt is well-meaning but busy, with a childlike naivety. So she’s not going to stand in anyone’s way.
  5. We get some idea of the time. This is a time when kids are play-acting I Love Lucy. As a non-American reader I’m a bit confused about the setting — this is a show from the 1960s, but perhaps kids of the 90s watch re-runs? Mention of the ‘phonograph’ makes this a bit clearer. Yes, this boy is writing as an adult.
  6. Lulu is established as an unreliable character. She likes to make up stories to cheer her brother up.
  7. The narrator is established as Lulu’s mirror character. Whereas Lulu is loud and lively and makes friends easily, the narrator is bookish and quiet.
  8. We’re introduced to Dennis — the brother of Lulu’s best friend and neighbour, Eileen.
  9. We have basic details about the geographical setting: A town called Wickburg with its own local traditions. They live on the second floor (of low income housing?) below a big family of kids.
  10. Foreshadowing: The magician likes to make people disappear. Who else is going to disappear?
  11. Clues about the horror genre of this story: The parents who died apparently went to see a horror film at the drive-in. That’s a good clue that this story, too, is a horror.
  12. Sure enough, by the end of the prologue, Lulu is dead.

Why was this written as a prologue and not Chapter One? Because the rest of the novel has its own structure, with four parts. Chapter One switches to third person narration.

PART ONE

Chapter 1

We don’t know this is about Denny (briefly mentioned in the prologue) until a page and a half in, but Denny is now 16 and his family gets a phone call in the middle of the night every year, starting a few weeks before the anniversary (of Lulu’s death).

I remain confused about the name Denny for a while. Is the older Denny the younger Denny’s uncle? Why has this name been recycled? Or is it the same guy?

Chapter 2

The Power Of Not Naming A Character

We’re back to first person. Interestingly, we don’t know this guy’s name. Who is he? At first I haven’t picked up the switch in generations. Am I the only one with this particular problem, or would the story have benefitted from something like ‘Twenty five years later’ under the chapter heading, to show this guy is no longer a kid?

At this point we only know the first person narrator by the nickname Lulu bestowed upon him: “Baby” , or “Baby-Boy”. This in itself seems weird. Is he really messed up? Lives alone as a serial killer? An possibly incestuous background, obviously full of the trauma of death?

Is This A Ghost Or Is This A Nutter?

It’s clear pretty immediately that Lulu is a ghost, which explains Cormier’s decision to avoid conventional dialogue punctuation in favour of italics for Ghost Lulu. (Ghosts can’t talk in the conventional way, or so we would assume.) Alternatively, this could be a setting in which ghosts aren’t actually a thing — perhaps our main character simply thinks they’re a thing — and Baby-Boy is having some kind of hallucination, and will act on what he imagines to be Lulu’s behalf. His reliability is not yet established. (I mean, he hasn’t even told us his name.) “A sigh escaped me, like a ghost abandoning my body” encourages that interpretation. Lulu tells Baby-Boy that it’s time to stop calling and time to do something by way of retribution. Baby-Boy tries to persuade her not to.

Revenge Theme Established

In stories (as in real life) vengeful characters suffer the consequences of their actions. This is obviously going to be a story about revenge. What will Cormier have to say about revenge?

Chapter 3

Now that we’re back to Denny’s third person narration it’s clear this book is going to take the form of alternating points of view by chapter.

We have a classic 1950s-esque scene with the mother in the kitchen watching coffee percolate while the father reads the newspaper. This is your classic ‘cozy kitchen’ scene. Denny’s life is safe and normal. But we know from the phone call at midnight that this is not a genuine utopia but an apparent one.

Denny’s eating tasteless shredded wheat, which is a sign of the era. (Eras can be marked pretty clearly according to what characters eat for breakfast.) This is the 1990s. With the mother standing watching the coffee rather than cooking the breakfast and being all cheerful, I detect some nostalgia on the writer’s part about what a morning should really look like (and it is dependent upon the mother’s emotional and domestic labour.) In close third person point of view, the son gives us a critique of how old his mother looks. (I assume the mother, ideally, should look pretty and young, to boot.)

Cormier gives us something similar to a ‘looking in a mirror’ thumbnail sketch of Denny: “Himself: what did his mtoher and father see when they looked at him? The obvious: dutiful son, good student — not brilliant, not a genius (definitely not a genius), but a regular kid. Did not give them cause for alarm. Polite. Oh, sarcastic sometimes, when things piled up and no one spoke or said anything. Unco-ordinated, awkward at sports, quiet. Spent a lot of time in his room. Reading, mostly jink but some good junk too — the 87th Precinct novels he was racing through./That’s what someone would see, peeking through the window: a regular family.” In short, Denny is the boy equivalent of Bella Swan — very useful as the main character of a horror/supernatural story because this boy can function as The Every Kid. He has zero distinguishing features, at least according to him.

A horror story Every Kid is especially terrifying — This could happen to you, too, young readers. It also means Denny doesn’t have much in the way of distinguishing Shortcoming or Need. Instead, we are given surface details about him. Denny is portrayed as quite different from his own father — whereas the father is small and neat, Denny seems to attract grime and creases. Will this prove metaphorical? Just as likely: Readers are being reminded that Denny is not his father, and sons should not be punished for their fathers’ wrongdoing.

This hasn’t always been the case. It’s a modern, Western idea that children are separate from their families. Throughout history, and in other parts of the modern world, people are very regularly punished for something a family member has done. This is more likely in less individualistic societies, where family members are considered different facets of the same ‘person’.

By mentioning the imaginary audience looking in through the window I am put in mind of a horror film camera technique whereby the camera sort of follows a character as they go about their ordinary business. The scene thereby seems to almost be taking place underwater, with the camera as some kind of shark, floating without sound towards its target, waiting to surprise. An opening scene of Broadchurch uses this technique, and you’ll see it in Panic Room and various other horror suspense films. The ocean has two distinct parts to it: the ocean surface, which you can see, and the ocean deep, which you can’t.

The mother suggests they take the phone out. “Especially this year.” Unfortunately I’ve already read spoilers on the back cover and so I know this year is significant because Denny is sixteen — the same age Dennis was when he did something which lead to the death of Lulu. This says something interesting about back cover copy. When Cormier wrote this book did he mean for the publisher to give so much away on the back? (While the inside of a book is created by the author, the cover illustration and copy belong entirely to the publisher.) Did the publisher forfeit suspense in favour of selling more copies, or was theirs a literary decision? Did they think Cormier wasn’t giving enough away, early enough, so helped readers along?

The horror genre is furthered in the reader’s mind when we see Denny has assigned horror monster names to the kids at the bus stop. This is similar to ‘genre parody’, except there’s no comedy element here. Instead it becomes simply metafictive: The character in a story immerses himself in the genre of the story he himself is in. This is done for comic effect in a completely different kind of story — Jane The Virgin. In that story, Jane immerses herself in telenovelas. The story Jane The Virgin itself is a spoof of a telenovela, using conventions from that genre such as a high number of coincidences, melodrama and a character web who become more and more entangled with each other.

At the bus stop Denny is cast as a sympathetic underdog — he’s the eldest by far (and therefore alone), and also humiliated somewhat, as his father won’t let him get a car until he’s seventeen. Nor will he get a licence. Humiliation is one of those top-tier emotions readers can easily identify with: when a reader feels humiliated for something out of their control we are on their side. The younger kid knows Denny is old enough to have a licence. As well as reinforcing his humiliation, we as readers now know Denny’s exact age without having to be told directly. Is this story going to espouse the dominant ideology of underdog stories?

We also see from the bus stop scene that Denny is passive. He lets a younger girl step in to break up a fight (a kiddie fight which nevertheless foreshadows a high-stakes big struggle to come). “See?” Denny tells her when she confronts him, in unsympathetic, bossy-boots fashion. “It’s like a war. You win one big struggle and the war still goes on.” This sounds like it might be a theme in a nutshell. We are also reminded that Denny has been running from something his whole life and has basically given up the fight. I predict a Call To Adventure which he won’t be able to turn down, because the safety of his family will be at stake. Later in the story he will double down on this and fight to ‘the death’ (spiritual death, coming out a different person).

The girl — a bluestocking, Hermione Granger type — sits next to Denny on the bus. I’m disappointed in this dynamic, or rather, sick of seeing it. Why do men write attractive fictional who seem sexually interested in boys who have just proven themselves to be hopeless?

The narrator briefly alludes to a character called Chloe. Who is Chloe? A girlfriend he had at a former place, before the family were forced to move?

Chapter 4

School Buildings As Haunted Mansion

Norman Preparatory Academy, introduced in chapter four, is the perfect example of ‘school as haunted mansion’:

Normal Prep.

It was the nickname for Norman Preparatory Academy, named for Samuel J. Norman, a deceased Barstow millionaire, whose former home, a three-story mansion, now served as the academy’s administration building. It was so damn normal, which is exactly what Denny liked about it. And hated about it. Both at the same time.

The school looked almost too normal: two class-room buildings, located at right angles to the mansion, bright red brick with clinging climbing ivy, two storeys in height. The lawn between the buildings was mowed to such perfection that it resembled artificial turf, although no one would dare play football on its surface or even walk across it. An iron gate guarded the entrance to the academy.

We knew as soon as we heard ‘Normal’ Prep that this was going to be no ordinary school. Like Denny’s house, the school, too, is introduced as a possible snail under the leaf setting.

(By the way, my expectation that this novel was going to alternate points-of-view by chapter has been foiled. I’m pretty glad actually, because every time the narrator change it pulls us out of the story.)

Rich and Poor Together

I have assumed — naturally — that Denny comes from a rich family if he’s being sent to this fancy school, but Cormier correctly predicts my erroneous assumption and tells us that his father has to work overtime at the factory in order to send him there. This could introduce another interesting dynamic: Denny is now a working-class boy attending a school full of rich boys. Whenever writers put rich and poor together they get instant conflict — interesting kinds of conflicts, because the values are very often different.

A Geographical Setting That Gets More Specific As The Story Progresses

We’re told Denny’s family used to live ‘down near the Connecticut border’, which gives us a more precise location within the American continent. (Perhaps American readers have already worked out exactly where this story takes place?) On the other hand, this ‘zooming in’ slowly on the physical setting turns the reader into a kind of ghost in our own right — like the ghost of Lulu, if we get a little more information about this family, we too will be able to follow them around and haunt them.

(Though there are places in America called ‘Barstow’, is this particular Barstow supposed to be a real place?)

Ghost Metaphor

Cormier uses a ghost metaphor to describe the way Denny moves through his day — at school in body, but not in spirit. Nobody ‘sees’ him. This aligns him with the actual ghost who presumably plots to kill him. The reader can see this — the characters themselves cannot. Revenge related message: The person you hate the most is more like you than you think.

Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends

We’re given the backstory of Chloe. She was his first sort-of girlfriend — Denny is so passive that he lets girls make all the moves. Like the girl at the bus stop, Chloe was also full of action.

Well-intentioned Opponent

On the steps, Denny is ‘stopped by’ a guy called Jimmy Burke. At first I expect Jimmy to be your classic school bully (also, bullying incidents often take place on stairs). But no, this is a different sort of Opponent. Jimmy is well-intentioned — presumably inviting Denny onto the student council for the specific purpose of including an outsider, helping him to make friends. That said, an opponent in fiction doesn’t have to be ill-intentioned. Jimmy is an opponent because he stands in opposition to what Denny wants from school: To blend in, unnoticed. Parents in young adult fiction are also quite often well-intentioned opponents, standing in the way of the young adult with the intention of keeping them safe or whatever.

Chapter 4 ends with Denny on the bus wondering if he’s up for a big struggle. This is in reference to joining the school council, standing against some bad stuff going down under the surface of the snail under the leaf setting of school, but speaks to the bigger big struggle to come. There is nothing subtle about this story structure (and ‘not subtle’ is not a bad thing).

Chapter 5

Denny is back in his apartment now. The phone is ringing.

Symbolic Character Quirk

The mother has ‘a strange approach to labelling’. She writes ‘coffee’ on the cookie jar. This little character quirk has a deeper meaning: Denny’s mother is constantly hiding. Her homelife is literally ‘not what it says on the tin’.

When Denny finally answers the call and it’s a mysterious girl. She says something mysterious about them not being friends ‘yet’. Cormier describes the voice in ambiguous terms — Denny can’t be sure whether the voice comes from a girl or a woman or what. (This could therefore still be the deluded alive brother acting on Lulu’s behalf.)

Chapter break.

Flashback scene. Angry father in kitchen telling Denny to never, ever answer the phone.

Another flashback scene to when Denny was seven years old. Shifts in settings are easy in horror: This scene is introduced with the sentence fragments, “Seven years old. Third grade. Home from school.” Mom is sick in the bathroom — she says it’s a 24 hour bug. Denny answers the phone for the first time, presumably.

We learn the father’s name: John Paul Colbert.

Mother comes up behind Denny and scolds him for answering the phone, momentarily at least turning the mother into her own sort of monster. With both parents lying to him or hiding things from him Denny is totally alone in the world. We are even told in this scene that he’s never even had a babysitter. Denny realises ‘he’s never been really alone’, which is the opposite of reality — Denny is nothing if not perpetually alone in the world.

Double carriage return, back to the present. ‘Answering the telephone’ are the two incidents that link this scene to the flashback scenes.

Desire Is Solidified

“Suddenly he was eager for the telephone to ring.” This marks a change in Denny. He desires something. Until now he has been completely passive. He has been hankering for some kind of big struggle, and this person on the other end of the line is going to provide him with one. Ironically, as soon as he wants the phone call it doesn’t come in the middle of the night.

Jump Scares

“But something had awakened him.” Turns out to be his father. This is almost mandatory in a horror story: Once the main character starts to be scared they are on edge (as the audience is). Something will happen but it turns out to be benign. In the Australian crocodile horror movie Black Water, something nudges ominously against the tin boat, but it turns out to be a petrol can. Minutes later the entire boat is overturned by an evil croc. Audiences know this trick as used in horror stories, but it works anyway. It may even be mandatory, though I’ve yet to explore that sufficiently.

Against Subtlety

Cormier does not shy away from stating symbolism which may be obvious to an experienced reader but not to many younger ones, and this is perhaps what makes this a young adult novel. Of Denny’s father:

Sitting there, forlorn, in the middle of the night. But he and his father and mother were living in a kind of middle of the night even when the sun was shining.

Thus, the double meaning of the title is explained, and I learn that writers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from that.

Chapter 6

The story switches back to Baby-Boy. We know this not because it’s sign-posted at the top but because of the presence of Lulu and the first-person point of view.

Possession

Wait, what? In a flashback to the scene of the accident in the theatre, we get a surreal, white scene in which we learn Lulu never died at all. She made a ‘miraculous’ recovery. “I’m not Lazarus,” she tells her brother. I don’t know anything about Lazarus, apart from the idiom ‘back from the dead’. Bible readers will know the Raising of Lazarus story from the Bible. Jesus restored him to life four days after he died and he became a saint. The subtext of Lulu’s words: She is no saint. It is implied at this point that she died, then came back as a kind of vengeful machine, perhaps sent instead from the Devil. She has come back with one mission: To get even with whoever caused the balcony accident.

The horror genre is full of Biblical references and, honestly, most of what I know about the Bible I’ve learned from looking something up after watching a horror.

The end of this chapter, and of part one, provides the Evil Monster (Lulu, back from the dead) a clear motivation for wrong-doing, and makes us wonder how she’s going to exact revenge upon young Denny and his family.

Writers are advised to set up the rules of the setting early on. It’s interesting that I’m still not sure about the rules of the supernatural in this particular story. I had thought Lulu was a ghost but now she is a different kind of ghost — more like a vengeful zombie. It’s probably enough that I know this story contains supernatural elements, and it’s okay if I am slightly wrong about these, amending my vision of the world as I progress.

PART TWO

Chapter 7

Finally we get some questions answered.

This is what Denny’s father, John Paul Colbert, thought about in the middle of the night: how his life changed for ever at the age of sixteen when he became assistant manager/head usher at the Globe Theatre in downtown Wickburg, Massachussetts.

Naturally, we’re expected to have worked this out for ourselves by now. Cormier was a fan of making readers work a bit. Eventually we’re told whether we’re on the right track or not. The reader should have had this question: How is thread A of the novel related to thread B? It’s a safe question to assume readers have asked. Readers always want to know how two different stories are related.

This is still third person point of view, but the ‘camera’ has homed in on Denny’s father.

This chapter takes us to the part where the balcony has just collapsed.

Chapter 8

Mostly an action chapter, concluding with John Paul waking up after six days in hospital. His parents show him a newspaper article and we learn that John Paul is to be questioned.

The reader now has a question: What could the 16 year old usher possibly have done to be thought responsible for the collapse of a balcony? My experience of real life news makes me think of a tragedy in my own country, in which a group of tertiary students were standing on a balcony in a National Park. The platform had not been made for that many people. New Zealanders know it as the Cave Creek disaster. That happened in April 1995, coincidentally the same year this book was published. Given the lag in publishing, Cormier no doubt wrote this story before the Cave Creek disaster.

Could the character of John Paul be guilty of allowing too many people onto the balcony? Did it collapse from overweight? I’m keen to find out, and also wondering from a writers’ perspective what kind of theories other readers might have regarding John Paul’s culpability.

Chapter 9

The details of the disaster continues to be conveyed via John Paul reading newspaper reports. This is a writing technique that no longer works — now it would be the Internet, with far more theories and much more information for someone to sift through before getting to any semblance of ‘truth’. A young audience today reading about John Paul on the Internet wouldn’t necessarily believe the Internet news in the way that we and John Paul are obviously meant to believe the journalists.

In this chapter we also have the emergence of another ‘ghost’ like character in the form of a woman who points at John Paul with a long, bony finger. “You killed my Joey!” she screamed (whether she’s real or hallucinated.) What is it about the gendering of these accusing apparitions? Notice that in stories, characters are less often tortured by a male character pointing an accusing finger. Paranormal creatures who kill us are more likely to be gendered male. I believe this narrative gendering comes back to that old truism: Men are terrified women will laugh at them (disapprove of them); women are terrified men will kill them. This woman is terrifying because she disapproves.

It becomes clearer later in the chapter that this ghostly woman is not a ghost at all, but a real woman. (Other people can see her and they talk about her.) This is the second time Cormier has played this trick on us, making us wonder if a female character is an apparition, then telling us she’s actually real.

My theory about a balcony collapse has more to it — there’s a fire. We are left at the end of this chapter knowing John Paul had something to do with a fire. The fire weakened the structure. How did John Paul start a fire? Was this pyromania or entirely accidental?

As John Paul leaves the hospital we can see he’s a crucified young man. People are holding pickets up in protest of whatever it is he did.

Notice Cormier has given John Paul the revelation before he’s given it to the reader. John Paul knows exactly what he’s done wrong, but we readers will have to keep reading to find out. If Cormier does this well, readers will have our own kind of revelation, applying John Paul’s mistake to our own lives.

Chapter 10

John Paul is going through a depressed phase of his life. Cormier does not shy away from a bit of pathetic fallacy:

The coldness of November greeted him as he stepped out of the house, and he raised the collar of his jacket. The sky, dark and low, pressed down upon him. Tree branches, stark and leafless, were like spiderwebs climbing against the greyness of the sky.

Cormier has used the symbolism of the seasons to match up with John Paul’s inner state. He was happy in summer, with his plum summer job and the pretty girl, but now his life is terrible and sure enough it’s also winter. It’s rare to find a happy main character in winter. A writer can still subvert this convention by contrasting a downcast character against the happiness of a blue sky and people going about their summertime activities.

The scene with the librarian and the microfiche took me right back to the nineties. Ah, microfiche. University students no longer need to be inducted to the joys of research with the microfiche machines as I was in 1996.

We learn that John Paul has been ‘cleared of responsibility’ for the tragedy. But John Paul was still ‘a part of it’. Because this is a character with a conscience, being legally in the clear doesn’t count for much. This aspect of a character endears them to a (non-sociopathic) reading audience.

The nice letter from the girl — Nina Citrone — shows just how much this male character puts stock on what girls/women think of him. This seems to be a theme running through Cormier’s work (at least, those novels that I have read so far); Cormier’s teenage boys are very, very concerned about what women and girls think of them. A glance from the right girl can make or break his year. (When girl characters are written this way, readers tend to think the girls ‘pathetic’ and the books are thrown into the romance category, even when the romance is a subplot.) This is why the phrase ‘strong female character’ has become problematic in recent years — it comes from an acknowledged double standard that female characters have to be strong. Strong does not equal real.

When there are no big headlines about John Paul being cleared of wrongdoing, Cormier is saying something about the nature of the media. The media loves a witch hunt, but stories fizzle out and the protagonists of those real life stories are left to deal with consequences and clearances on their own. Also, plotwise, if John Paul was never publicly cleared of wrong-doing, this explains why there are people who can never move on.

We are told that John Paul has a difficult relationship with newspapers. This takes us back to the first time the reader met John Paul — ‘hiding behind’ a newspaper in the kitchen but not really reading it, from Denny’s point of view. The newspaper in this story is serving as a character motif. What does it symbolise? When John Paul ‘hides behind’ the newspaper, it stands for his public reputation as contrasted with his private self.

Chapter 11

John Paul goes back to school. No one is paying attention to him. Remember the logline for this book: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.” A large portion of Part One was dedicated to showing the reader how invisible his son is — actively invisible. (That’s actually a useful concept — even the most passive characters in a good story are ‘actively passive’ — they go out of their way to do nothing.)

John Paul meets Nina — like the son, John Paul attracts actively romantic girls. He now has a sort of girlfriend.

Question: Is this Denny’s mother? (In real life, unlikely. In stories, however, teenage romances are more likely to last.)

Notice how Cormier ends this chapter. He’s sent John Paul on an emotional, heart-soaring high, but an anonymous quip calling him a ‘killer’ brings him plummeting back down to earth.

Question: Who sent that to John Paul. (We kind of know, don’t we? Baby-Boy or his sister.)

PART THREE

Chapter 12

We’re back to Denny’s point of view. Cormier makes sure we know this by starting the first sentence with ‘Denny Colbert’. He’s waiting for the telephone to ring. Whereas his father is symbolically connected to newspapers, Cormier is going out of his way to connect Denny to phones.

After yet another mention I’m moved to look up ’87th Precinct novels’. I learn that ‘the 87th Precinct is a series of police procedural novels and stories written by Ed McBain (pseudonym of Evan Hunter).’ They were published from the mid 1950s to the mid 2000s. Perhaps this series was important to Robert Cormier, and because they continued to be published, perhaps American readers are familiar with this series. I’d never heard of them. Now that Cormier has started talking about a mystery/detective series, I’m guessing this novel is going to metafictively switch tracks — I am now expecting Cormier to make use of some conventions from the detective genre.

We get a bit of backstory about when Denny first began his job at the theatre — an insight into the relationship between Denny and his own father. This is a story about the connections between fathers and sons.

Chapter 13

The point of view switches back to Denny. Denny is teased about his ‘girlfriend’ on the bus. Cormier provides us (and Denny) with the girl’s name after a few pages. Dawn is an unsympathetic character to this ‘girl’ reader — the classic guy’s gal, who thinks girls are too bitchy and boys easier to get along with. (Does this endear her to boys, though? Does this make her the perfect Cool Girl?)

Cormier really rams home how passive Denny is: He fails to get the number of the girl he has fallen instantly in love with. He walks past a fight where he could have stepped in. He avoids giving an answer to the guy who wants him to join council and make a difference. The difference is, now he’s starting to get angry with himself.

He finally does something active by applying for a part-time job. The man at the convenience store is looking for someone older, though. The wish to be slightly older is probably pretty common when it comes to sixteen year olds (though I never felt that way personally). Most YA readers can probably relate.

Something exciting has to happen in this chapter after all that passivity and disappointment. Trouble comes with a knock at the door. A smarmy reporter wanting the ‘human side’ of John Paul’s story, through the son. We know that he’s untrustworthy because Cormier has him hand over a grimy business card.

On the way to church Denny has a conversation with his mother about his father and how nice he is, visiting the dead kids’ cemeteries as his own version of church. The chapter ends quietly.

Chapter 14

Another quiet chapter. Why does this chapter exist?

The council guy is still keen for Denny to run. This guy’s enthusiasm contrasts with Denny’s reluctance to do anything much at all. Though Denny does want something. He wants money and a learners’ permit. (Freedom.) Denny’s desire is entirely selfish — he hasn’t yet learned to look outside himself.

The chapter about Denny having trouble even getting a part-time job contrasts with his father’s getting a plum job at the theatre at the same age. This is Denny assuming his father is going to be against him getting a job at all (because his own experience turned out so tragically) but being pleasantly surprised to learn that John Paul is a reasonable man.

So this chapter was about reinforcing contrasts. I feel neutral about Denny as a person — he hasn’t inspired empathy yet. Is he going to turn out a hero or is his passivity going to lead to his downfall?

Chapter 15

Okayyy, so Denny is actually a stalker. I had a feeling this might happen. Cormier definitely has voyeuristic interests, at least in his work.

One afternoon, [Denny] stood outside Barstow High School in another attempt to find Dawn. He had discovered that Normal Prep’s school day ended aa half-hour earlier than Barstow High and that he could, with luck and perfect timing, reach dawn’s school a minute or two before hundreds of students burst out of the place as classes ended for the day.

He had stationed himself in front of the school near the nine orange buses whose engines throbbed while waiting for their passengers. Denny figured Dawn would be getting on one of the buses.

Have you noticed that Denny is not the only stalker in this story? But, so far, Denny’s stalking is presented as ‘the normal thing to do if you’ve missed out on getting a girl’s number’, whereas the stalking done by the female character — the vengeful ghost chick — is crazy. This is a common dynamic employed by Hollywood screenwriters. While stalking behaviour in male characters is rewarded, women are killed. Will Cormier subvert this trope? Please don’t let Denny ‘get the girl’. I do see what Cormier is doing — I have already established that Lulu and Denny are mirror characters, so they must both also do their own version of stalking.

He doesn’t find Dawn (this time) and goes home alone.

Chapter 16

Finally, with no good reason, Denny picks up the phone. The smokey voice on the other end of the line has a lot to tell him — specifically him, not his father. Denny hangs up, at first thrilled but suddenly terrified.

Chapter 17

Point of view switch to Baby-Boy, describing his sister, the crazy stalker woman, Lulu. As Lulu and Baby-Boy talk about how it’s not the father’s fault, it is clear that Lulu is a horror machine — she won’t be stopped, not by reason, not by anything. She has a ‘cruel slash of a mouth’ and her face is ‘taut’. The old Lulu is gone. This is the archetypal horror genre monster. Cormier has linked her to the Christian church by talking about Heaven/Hell/Limbo — horror tropes come straight from the church.

Part Three ends with Lulu doubling down on whatever horrible thing it is she plans to do.

PART FOUR

Chapter 18

Halloween is approaching — a great time for horror happenings in suburbia, especially in children’s stories. It kind of makes me wish we had Halloween here in Australia — it would be nice to feel a frisson of fear. Note that Cormier has specified ‘no rain yet’. (No tears yet — no catharsis of emotion, but just you wait…) The wind blows the leaves in swirls — another kind of pathetic fallacy indicating change to come.

Denny is sullen and pessimistic about Halloween, disapproving of all the pumpkins. Denny is anti-childhood, and will be until he is confident he himself has left childhood behind. At the moment he’s stuck in his own kind of limbo — along with his mirror character, Lulu — between adulthood and childhood. He doesn’t like the painted faces on other peoples’ pumpkins but he still wants his father to carve him his own.

Denny finds something nauseating when he gets home. He has to clean it up. Cormier withholds from the reader what he has found. I’m thinking maybe a dead animal, small enough to flush down a toilet. No, it is human poo.

Now Cormier reveals that Denny and Lulu have had a number of conversations that the narrator hadn’t told us about. It seems Denny is falling in love with her a little. Cormier made sure to show us that Denny is the sort of boy who falls in love in an instant, so this makes sense.

Lulu is using her sexuality — basically a version of literary phone sex — to control Denny. This is where Cormier really makes the most of the season symbolism already introduced — Lulu categorises women according to season — summer is a voluptuous woman, Halloween is a witch. It’s clear Denny is responding to her only because of her sex appeal because the middle-aged male reporter tried to get Denny talking, to no avail. So here’s another gender trope: Women use their sexuality to get what they want from men.

Back to the present — Denny waiting for Lulu to call him on the phone, but she does not.

Chapter 19

The horrible twelve-year-old boy at the bus stop tells Denny that Dawn works in a certain shop at the mall, and comments lasciviously on the size of her breasts. Denny is apparently disgusted by this phrase, but probably only because another boy is saying it — he has objectified her similarly himself.

Denny has undergone an overnight character change and for once in his life he’s proactive. He goes straight to the counter where Dawn works. Dawn is delighted to see him. Turns out she even called him a few times, though Denny didn’t answer.

Okay, so now our alarm bells are supposed to be going off, right? How did she get his number? Normally I’d assume from the phone book, but the Colberts have an unlisted number. This has been established. Is Dawn Lulu? Somehow? A tool of Lulu? Possessed by Lulu? Significantly, Dawn works at the perfume counter — a symbol of bewitching femininity. In stories perfume can work almost like a poison, or a magic spell — always women casting spells upon men. (Well, I’ve yet to read a story about a women bewitched by Lynx, though the marketers of Lynx inverted the trope to comic effect in their The Lynx Effect series of commercials — which nonetheless still manage to sexualise women.)

Anyhow, by now we are supposed to be suspicious of Dawn. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be, but now I am.

Lulu asks Denny, “Would you like to know what I look like?” This is masterful on Cormier’s part because he now knows I want to know if Dawn is Lulu, somehow. A few pages later the narrator tells us “But Dawn Chelmsford was not the voice on the telephone,” thereby answering the question I had at the exact right time. If Denny himself had not started to wonder, I would have considered him stupid and irritating as a character. Denny says the voices are different, but I’m thinking of all the horror films I’ve seen and I know that when someone is possessed, the demon changes their voice.

Denny rushes home from school for his afternoon session of weird ghostly phone sex but is momentarily delayed by the reporter, who this time tries to garner his sympathy by saying he has a wife and kids and mouths to feed. Denny still does not talk to him.

Chapter 20

A creepy conversation between Lulu and Baby-Boy. Baby-Boy is the conscience, telling Lulu off for enjoying playing with the emotions of a teenage boy. In a faux-feminist way, Lulu asks him if it’s wrong to enjoy what she’s doing. She’s never had a sexual relationship with anyone. I have suspected she is grotesque after her injuries from the accident — now I’m more sure. The exact nature of her injuries will probably be revealed later… In stories a deformity equals malice. I previously normal-looking character who subsequently becomes deformed becomes malicious. Let’s see.

Chapter 21

The previous creepy scene juxtaposes with this scene: Denny bored to tears in history class.

Between classes, Denny runs into the guy who didn’t fight back. Denny asks why he didn’t fight back. The guy tells Denny to think about it, thereby forcing the reader to also think about it. Why don’t people fight back? Also, why is Lulu so intent on fighting back? That afternoon we get a theme of the book imparted via this guy’s dialogue:

“Know what? I didn’t figure I was the victim that day. They were. Those guys avoid me now, they look ashamed like they did something dirty. And you look at me almost the same way…”

There’s a small reveal: Everyone at Normal knows Denny’s secret. Denny had assumed he was anonymous, but he’s been exposed the entire time. I sense this small revelation is prelude to a larger but related one.

Cormier is using Halloween as a bit of a ticking clock device now, telling us that Halloween is in just three days and the reporter’s deadline is tomorrow, after which he risks massive exposure again.

This chapter is divided into two parts. In the second part Denny and Jean Paul are up at the same time in the middle of the night. They have a rare heart-to-heart and I realise why Cormier has made the father an immigrant — to put a mild communication barrier between them. (Though it’s unrealistic that the father wouldn’t speak native-level American English, having immigrated so young.)

Denny has a anagnorisis:

“Sixteen, Dad. You were sixteen when it happened! You were my age.” The knowledge overwhelmed him. He didn’t know how he would have handled such a thing. All those children dead an all those accusations. But his father had handled it. Had endured, had survived.

In short, Denny realises he’s not so old after all, and that things aren’t always as bad as you fear and that people can endure a lot before breaking. Denny realises that not fighting is one way of ‘dealing with’ things. (This goes back to what I earlier noticed about how Denny is actively passive himself.)

Cormier puts Denny’s anagnorisis into action by sending him to a telephone box to tell the reporter (in that passively-active way) “No comment”. So there’s a writing tip: if the anagnorisis happens during a conversation, have the character do something — however small — to put that new awareness into action. This scene also marks the end of the reporter subthread. We won’t be left wondering what happened to Les Albert.

I’ve started to really wonder if Dave in the store is Baby-Boy. I’m confident Cormier wants me to think this. Dave has flu the same day Lulu does not call, and as we know, these two are always together.

Lulu calls the following day and sure enough, Halloween is D-Day. They arrange to meet on Halloween night at the corner of Denny’s street. No, Denny! Don’t do it! Remember the shit stain!

Next we have Les Albert’s article, where the reader is told exactly how the blaze started (well, sort of? I don’t see why the match was lit? As a torch?) There is a moment of tenderness between father and son. The mother pops in to suggest they go away for the weekend and avoid the attention but father and son are united: they’re staying right where they are. This story began with a huge emotional wedge between father and son but the relationship itself has undergone a character arc and now they are close.

Chapter 22

The big reveal! Dave is at the wheel. (I guess ‘roof’ is an American word for ‘toupe’?)

This is the big struggle chapter. Dave turns out to have a conscience, and sacrifices his sister to save Denny. A reveal at the end of the chapter tells us he took his own life, too.

I suspect Cormier struggled a bit to come up with sufficient motivation for Lulu. The idea that Lulu was terrified by the nothingness of ‘death’ is at odds with my own thoughts on how it works. I’ve read Elisabeth Kubler Ross, who said that two types of people tend to have the least problem with death: the very religious and the confidently atheist. It’s that murky middle part you want to avoid. I do remember Christopher Hitchens saying, right up to the last, that he was comforted by the idea that there would be nothing.

But this is fiction, after all.

I appreciate that Cormier did not give Lulu a deformity. She was grotesque because she was old, though she didn’t have use of her legs due to the accident, not because she was old.

The chapter concludes with another anagnorisis — maybe home is the place you go to because there’s nowhere else to go. However bleak that sounds, having a home at all is a fortunate thing.

Chapter 23

Since the big struggle scene is over all that’s left is for us to get a sense of the new situation. Oh no, hang on, we need to know if Dawn is connected to any of this business.

The chapter opens with the jostling at the bus stop juxtaposing with the sorry scene with two deaths. But this return to normality has an interesting change: there’s a creepy new kid there, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. This boy immediately feels like a symbol — a new ‘cancer’ in Denny’s life.

We’re told the phone keeps ringing. At first it could be that the evil didn’t die with Lulu. But then I learn that this is reporters.

As the book ends we’re told — as if it’s important to us, like it is to Denny — that Dave’s name is Dave O’Hearn. Plotwise, Cormier is making sure we’ve connected the dots, I guess. Baby-Boy is to be replaced with a more ordinary, human-sounding name. Also, knowing the guy’s full time achieves a kind of verisimilitude, and a sense of real closure. When you know someone’s full name there is the illusion that you really know them.

The scene with Denny in church, knowing about the blankness while his mother prays shows that Denny is now even more separated from his mother than he was before, and now he has several secrets he’ll keep from his parents, on his way to becoming a man.

Cormier pulls together the ghost theme, alerting me to some symbolism that hadn’t even crossed my mind: “He had loved nothing, loved nobody, because the Lulu who spoke those words to him had not been real, hadn’t even been a ghost or a phantom, only a fantasy.”

The story has to end with Dawn and Denny sitting silently, side-by-side on the bus. Because if he had ‘got the girl’, this would have been one of those stories where the crazy stalker woman gets killed, but the crazy stalkerish boy who has nothing to really offer a girl gets rewarded. I was pretty worried Cormier was going to let me down for a moment there, but I am breathing a sigh of relief that this is not one of those stories.

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

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

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
Films such as American Pie are where boys are learning about sex from the male perspective.
Films such as American Pie are not specifically for teenagers but about teenagers. In this franchise, boys are learning about sex and we see a male perspective.

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:

caring-is-for-mothers
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

Or in other words, 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.”

Melvin Burgess writes about sex from the boy's perspective

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.

LGBTQ 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, LGBTQ 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.
CLICHES AND PITFALLS
  • 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.)
  • 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.

There are others, 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.

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 Michael Cart was published in 2004 and is a groundbreaking study of LGBTQ literature.

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

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

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

Happy vs Sad Endings In Children’s Stories

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

Orson Welles

I want them all to have happy endings although I do realize this is not true to life. But I get attached to my characters and I don’t really want to do them in. And I think it is significant that the only book of mine that got a big literary award [the Pulitzer for Foreign Affairs] was the only one in which I’ve killed off a major character. Somehow tragedy attracts awards and comedy doesn’t.

Alison Lurie

I don’t think a happy ending should be one of the requirements of a children’s book. Kids want their books to reflect reality. They know that the bully doesn’t always get his comeuppance in the end.

Robert Cormier

It’s easier to identify with loss than love, because we have had so much more experience of it.

Roger Ebert

Do children require happy endings?

[Alan Garner] states that a writer must not offer readers solutions or happy endings, but instead make use of something he calls “the method of the open hand” where readers must discover for themselves what the writer has to show. It was the publishers who requested that The Moon of Gomrath (1963) be given a “happy” ending instead of an open and disturbing one.

from Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva

I do not necessarily claim that young readers need happy endings. Rather, they are conditioned to see conventional endings, which in our Western tradition happens to be a happy ending, reestablishing the characters in their power position.

The Rhetoric of Children’s Character by Maria Nikolajeva

Death by Newbery Medal: A Phenomenon

There is a Slice of Life story about childhood and coming-of-age. The main character has a best friend (an animal, another child, or a family member) who is a source of joy, wisdom, and understanding in their life. This friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more “special” than The Protagonist. Bonus points if the character is cute or adorable.At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. A favourite trick is to have the death happen entirely off-screen. The more horribly poignant, the better.All this is generally accompanied by lots of “end of the innocence” angsting from the main character, along the lines of “That was the day my childhood ended…” Really, it’s just the author’s way of having a child suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy.The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to American novels written for children. To win one, it helps a lot to use a story like this. The British equivalent is the Carnegie Medal, which has a similar reputation.

TV Tropes

Fairytales, Weddings & New Relationships

The “happy endings” of Hollywood films link them with the world of fairy tales, which are often about the achievement of perfection. Fairy tales frequently end with a statement of perfection, like “and they lived happily ever after”. Fairy tales bring the shattered family back into balance, back to completion.

Weddings are a popular way to end stories. Marriage is a new beginning, the end of an old life of being single and the beginning of a new life as part of a new unit. New beginnings are perfect and unspoiled in their ideal form.

pride-and-prejudice-1995-wedding-scene-jennifer-ehle-and-colin-firth-x-450

Striking up a new relationship is another way to show a new beginning at the end of a story. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart makes the difficult Resurrection sacrifice, giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves. His reward, the Elixir he brings away from the experience, is his new alliance with Claude Rains. As he says, in one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the movies, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Endings of Carnivalesque Stories

In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power. However, the very idea of carnival presupposes a temporal limitation. The child, who has been allowed to leave the security of home and experience breath-taking adventures, is taken back, and the established order is restored. This is what we sometimes call a happy ending. As Pat Pinsent demonstrates, excessive “coincidences” in children’s fiction, which sometimes irritate mimetically minded critics, should not be considered artistic flaws since they are part of this restoration of the initial order.

(In general, though, coincidences are okay at the beginning of a novel but not as a way of tying up the end.)

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

Do Unhappy Endings In Children’s Stories Endure?

We love heroes and heroines from Peter ­Rabbit to Harry Potter because we know that no matter how bad things get, they will return stronger and happier through what they’ve learnt, and that their experiences will enable them to restore justice. Every work of fiction that we take to our hearts, up to and including Jane EyreThe Odyssey or Pride and Prejudice, follows this template. A great work of tragic fiction brings about catharsis, but on the whole, we need the consolations of children’s fiction far more.

Not every classic has what you might call a conventional happy ending: the boy in Roald Dahl’s The Witches gets turned into a mouse, and never returns; at the finale of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Will and Lyra must be parted for ever; the hero of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas chooses to die in the gas chambers with his imprisoned friend. Though all have been made into successful films, my guess is that none of these novels will continue to be read with enthusiasm by future generations because of the way they end.

Doom-laden children’s books may impress prize juries, but it’s the ones that offer hope that will be remembered: Why has the Carnegie Prize honoured a work as depressing as ‘The Bunker Diary’

[L]iterary fiction tends to exalt the tragic, or the gloomy, while Mormon culture prefers the sunny and optimistic.

“When I was an English major, then getting a master’s, most of the literary fiction I read was tragedy,” said Ms. Hale, whose “Princess Academy” was a Newbery Honor book. The books she was assigned treated “decline and the ultimate destruction of the human spirit” as necessary ingredients for an honest portrayal of life.

But what if Mormons do not think that way?

– Mormons Offer Cautionary Lesson on Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness, NYT

Related

Realism In Fiction For Children

WHAT IS REALISM?

There is a spectrum of how real-world a story feels. At one end we have naturalism, all the way through to about ‘speculative realism’, after which we’re in speculative fiction realm:

  1. NATURALISM — This term is often used interchangeably with realism, but if you want to talk about realism as a group of terms, naturalism is at the MOST realistic of these different types of realisms. Basically, any hint of romanticism is completely stripped away. The subject is neither idealised nor flattered. God is also kept out of it. The tone is generally pessimistic. Realism/naturalism emerged in the 1800s. Sometimes the difference between naturalism and realism depends on the subject matter. In realism the main focus is on the middle class and its problems. Naturalism often focuses on poorly educated or lower-class characters, and on themes involving violence and the taboo.
  2. SOCIAL REALISM — ‘Kitchen sink realism’. Draws attention to the middle class and its problems. Use the term ‘social realism’ when you want to be clear that you’re not talking about naturalism.
  3. SURREALISM — Describes the ‘super real’. See this post for more.
  4. MAGICAL REALISM — Lately there is a movement among Latinx people from South America to keep the term magical realism specifically for South American writers using magical realism to write stories about the South American experience of colonisation. The argument is that another word exists which we can use for every thing else — fabulism. While I have some sympathy for this view, the fact is, magical realism did not begin in South America, and there are many reasons for making use of magical realism in storytelling. I am happy to call it fabulism myself. Here is a list of fabulist children’s books. Fabulism is especially popular in literary middle grade fiction, and I’ve noticed literary agents and editors are constantly on the hunt for it, and keep complaining that true examples of magical realism rarely crosses their desk.
  5. ‘DIRTY’ REALISM — This is a concept coined by the Granta Magazine guy, who is actually an American who moved to England. So the term is used in England, whereas Americans might call it ‘minimalism’. Dirty realism describes a specifically North American way of writing in which the author focuses on the seedier, mundane, nasty bits of everyday life. A lot of these writers are white men — Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver. But there are also some women. Take Carson McCullers, Annie Proulx. When you find dirty realism in a short story, it’s often called KMart Realism.
  6. METAPHYSICAL REALISM — There is a reality independent of humans’ conscious perceptions of it. The world is as it is and what humans think of it is irrelevant. If this describes your worldview, here’s your metaphysical realist card.
  7. SPECULATIVE REALISM — Okay, so are we still talking about realism now? This is a term suggested by a guy called Ramón Saldívar (an American professor and author) to describe work which is a hybrid between speculative genres and any of the different levels of realism. In children’s literature, the book American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a contender for speculative realism. American Born Chinese is an experiment in discussing minority racial identity through metaphor made possible through genre blending. The experiment leaves us ultimately with a parallel between a monkey god from folklore and a young adult American-born-Chinese in a realistic context. For more on that, see here.

REALISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Bear in mind, children’s literature is a recent form of literature and emerged with the establishment of realism.

Many of the notes below are from Professor David Beagley, La Trobe University, Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 13: Realism In Fiction For Children, available on iTunes U

REALISM FOR MIDDLE GRADE READERS

Set reading for this lecture: Bridge To Terabithia and The Naming of Tishkin Silk

American, 1977

My Girl (the film) is an interesting work to contrast with Bridge To Terabithia because the plot is very similar, and is about a girl and boy the same age. But the intended audience is adult.

Helicopter Man is another example of realism, aimed at upper primary school rather than high school aged reader.

Throughout the 20th century, British children’s literature is thought to have produced better and more lasting classic fantasy series than North America, which has leaned towards realism for longer.

Right around middle school, the fun books suddenly disappeared. Dreary realism replaced fantasy.Read Hatchet. Read ShilohRead Sounder. Read The House of Dies DrearRead about kids in the Great Depression, whose dogs always die. Read about the gruesome fact of slavery. Read about Anne Frank in the attic. Today, class, we’ll be reading a graphic novel! […] it’s called Maus. No wonder I kept my nose buried deep in Dragonlance novels and The Collected Calvin & Hobbes. Eventually I accepted that the mark of serious, grown-up books was joy turning into woe. Merry old Gatsby is really a huge fraud who bites it in a swimming pool and no one cares but his neighbour. The end. Jake Barnes is living it up in Paris with Brett Ashley, but he got injured in the war and they can’t have sex, so… the end. The older I got the more books seemed to skip the joy part altogether—they just went from woe to more woe. The Joads are starving in the Great Depression so they head West but find that everyone else is starving too and then somebody dies in the back of a truck… the end. Frank and April Wheeler are hopeful suburbanites who dream of moving to Paris but then she gets pregnant and dies trying to give herself an abortion. The end!

Why Children’s Books Matter

There is a certain kind of magic about realism in middle grade books, which is not magical at all, and not magical realism, either, but magic.

I think there’s a kind of kid for whom an adventure based in realism — even if it’s stretched almost to the breaking point of plausibility — is so much more satisfying than pure fantasy. Because I knew for sure that I was never going to end up communing with a gang of bugs inside the pit of a ginormous peach — and I loved that book, I did. I loved the Narnia books, too, and the Wrinkle in Time series. But I had a special fondness for stories that could actually happen. Which explains, I think, something about the plot of One Mixed-Up Night. It is certainly unlikely that two kids would spend the night alone in a massive Swedish furniture store. But it is not impossible. And I had spent enough time listening to my son Ben and his best friend Ava leafing through the IKEA catalogue to know that having the run of the place was high on their list of fantasies. Were they ever going to spend a semester at Hogwarts? Of course not. But IKEA! That was an actual place where we actually went. What if they ditched their parents? What if that stylish and birch-patterned world became their oyster? I mean, it wasn’t likely to happen. But it could…

Catherine Newman
HIGH SCHOOL READERS

Realism tends to be aimed at the high school reader. It began in earnest with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (1951) and has been followed by work from authors such as:

  • S.E. Hinton
  • Robert Lipsyte
  • Paul Zindel
  • Richard Peck. Peck sometimes writes realism, sometimes historical realism (e.g. The River Between Us), sometimes realism with a humorous, exaggerated touch (e.g. A Long Way From Chicago), sometimes he writes fantasy (e.g. his mouse stories).
  • Norma Klein lived from 1938 to 1989 and wrote about ‘the things real kids cared about’.
  • M.E. Kerr couldn’t find an agent for her realistic stories so became her own agent. She ended up with a lifetime award for her contributions to children’s literature. She wrote under a variety of different pen names.
  • Norma Fox Mazer and Harry Mazer. Norma lived between 1931-2009. The husband/wife couple had four children and were teacher/writers.  Although they both wrote the same sort of thing, they didn’t work together. Each has their own books. Harry was born in 1925 and died recently, in 2016.
  • Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War initiated a new level of excellence in young adult literature but also unleashed a storm of controversy. (Cormier didn’t intend a YA audience, actually. He wrote it for a general audience and it was marketed as YA.) Gatekeepers felt the subject matter was too dark. Cormier followed up with I Am The Cheese and After The First Death, in the same vain, ignoring the naysayers. He continued to get darker over the 26 years of his writing career. He definitely influenced other authors, who started to do the same.

If you notice more realism coming out of America, that’s because realism in children’s literature is largely American, whereas a lot of the most beloved fantasy comes out of Britain.

Australia has its own examples of realism in children’s literature. Australian literature for adults tends to be described as ‘gritty realism’. Take Helen Garner for instance, or the work of Christos Tsiolkas, who sometimes writes about young adulthood. The TV adaptation of Barracuda has a distinctly YA feel about it — more so than the novel upon which it is based.

The Valley Between by Colin Thiel is about the author’s own life, growing up in the Barossa Valley.

For more examples of realistic books themselves, search for Books in the category ‘Real Life’ e.g. at the Reading Matters website.

ACADEMIC READING ON REALISM IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Only Connect. Sheila Egoff died in 2005 but was an enthusiast for the proper intellectual consideration of children’s literature. Being Canadian, she had a huge impact in Canada. (A Canadian literature prize has been named after her.)

John Foster, Ern Finnest, Maureen Nimon: Australian Children’s Literature, an Exploration Of Genre and Theme, 1995 looks at family stories and the ‘problem’ novel.

Perry Nodelman’s book The Hidden Adult is about adults who read children’s literature without reminiscing, for the reading experience. Nodelman looks at what the adults can find in the children’s literature and the serious intellectual ideas that are there for children to discard.

See also Literature and the Child and Give Them Wings, by Maurice Saxby. Most general books about children’s literature include a chapter about realism.

From Romance To Realism by Michael Cart was published 1996. The author is an expert in YA literature.

THE INNER AND OUTER REALITIES OF REALISM

In a binary, the two things represented each require the other. For example, evil needs good. Light needs darkness. Each defines the other.

There is an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ reality. In realism, this idea of the inner world and outer world revolves very much around you as the reader. Whereas primary and secondary worlds are based around the text itself, inner and outer realities rely on the reader and what the reader knows about him or herself. Your inner reality is yours. No one can take it from you. Others can influence it, but only if you let them. The outer reality is anything you share with family, friends, people you know — the settings in which you find yourself, the actions that happen to you, the noises you hear, the dialogues you have with other people.

Fiction on the realism spectrum aligns the inner and outer realities and exposes them. In our real life interactions we rarely get a glimpse at the inner realities of other people because sharing inner realities depends on a lot of trust. But in a book you can share someone else’s inner reality — how they think, what they want, why they choose to do the things that they do.

THE INNER AND OUTER REALITIES OF FANTASY

In fantasy we start with the fantasy but then move strongly from the probable to the extraordinary. The extraordinary dominates. In fantasy, the inner reality is best related to the probable (primary world). The fantasy is related to the outer world.

In fantasy, a character’s outer reality is the focus of the story. A fantasy story is not so much about the actions of the fantasy world, but about the ideas that we have in our probable world. All fantasy works describe reality.

You’ll still read ‘probable’ and ‘extraordinary’ elements in a realist story, but in realism, readers will be able to imagine encountering these problems themselves. (Maintain the distinction between ‘possible’ and ‘probable’. In a realist story, something isn’t necessarily ‘probable’, but it must be ‘possible’.)

FEATURES OF A REALIST STORY

In a realist story, something must happen to disrupt the ordinary. This something must not leave the realm of likelihood. Characters have to be the sort of people you could know in real life.

The setting must be somewhere you could go. Bridge To Terabithia takes place an hour of two’s drive from Washington DC. The town in which they live may not be a real town, but it feels familiar. (Lovettsville, Virginia?)

The plot itself is often character driven.

But if the story is too mundane the reader is going to wonder what the point is. The Famous Five are a good example: These stories are now very dated. How come these kids are always on holidays? How do kids this age get so much freedom? Even young readers are now used to the realist tradition and have come to expect mimesis unless the setting is obviously fantastic.

Realist books can be didactic (not in a negative sense) in that we can ‘vaccinate’ our children by giving them a little dose of hardship in a fictional environment where they still have the safety of coming back out of the story. But this can lead to books which are so heavily didactic that they are a sermon: This is the way you ought to feel/behave, and if you don’t, the problem lies with you, the reader.

The problems in the stories must not be solved by adults. In fact the adults are quite often the cause of the problem, especially in YA. If not the direct cause, adults are opponents, setting the boundaries, setting the situations, causing the situation or by keeping information to themselves, leading to the children to jump to conclusions.

rugrats
Rugrats’ problems are caused by the adults. The plots are based upon the misinterpretation by the babies of what the adults say.

Plot: The sequence and plot structure of a realist story is pretty much the same as a fantasy story. That’s because all stories share an underlying basic structure.

The Hero: The main character is often a lonely outsider. A child hero might be new at a new school or looking for a friend or something like that. These stories are often formed around separation of some kind.

Theme: Justice is another common idea explored in realist fiction. What’s right? How do we decide what’s right? A big subset of the justice idea is, “When is it okay to lie?

Voice: Realist stories are dramatic, but not melodramatic.

Tiff and the Trout is an Australian story set in Mount Beauty (not called that in the story). The main character’s parents are splitting up. The father is a mountain person and the mother is a beach person. This symbolises their separation and Tiff is caught between. This story is neither melodramatic nor especially traumatic. There is one moment where the mum’s new boyfriend takes her fishing. She almost drowns. Apart from that, it’s ordinary, everyday stuff but is a very good exploration and discovery of how Tiff feels, not how the parents feel. In the end Tiff must choose which of her parents she goes to live with.

Endings: There is also a reasonably positive resolution, but not necessarily happy-ever-after. Characters are able to move on.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS WITH REALISTIC STORIES

Representation

If a reader hasn’t experienced a situation herself, the plot may feel a little bit exotic. ‘That’s not really going to happen to me’. The author can also accidentally promote stereotypical attitudes. In the case of Josie Alibrandi, it might be easy for readers to conclude, ‘This is how all people of Australian Italian background behave’. Likewise, when reading Parvana’s Journey, if would be easy to assume girls in Afghanistan are all like that.

In Looking For X, the MC’s brothers are both autistic. The girl tries to find another homeless person who witnessed something that happened so that her mother can keep the boys. Is that a little too far from a reader’s experience? Are all Canadian homeless people like this one?

Currency

When including modern slang/attitudes/brand names and so on, these things will date quickly compared to details in completely made up fantasy worlds. 15 years ago Specky McGee was a popular Australian series, but now the footballers mentioned in the stories are all retired. How current to make a realistic story? [Dated stories can make for very interesting historical documents.]

CONTROVERSIES THAT ONLY SEEM TO AFFECT REALISTIC CHILDREN’S BOOKS

How ‘problematic’ must the problem be? If a story is about sexuality or drugs or other grim realities, do the readers really need to know all about that just yet?

Perhaps this is because children tend to emulate the behaviours of viewpoint characters in books:

The findings from the study reinforce the idea that young children have an easier time exporting what they learn from a fictional storybook to the real world when the storybook is realistic. The leap from a fictional human to a real one is simply smaller than the leap from an anthropomorphic raccoon to a human.