Teachers in children’s stories can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In young adult literature, teachers can (problematically) be love opponents.
Why is it that English, drama and music teachers are most often recalled as our mentors and inspirations? Maybe because artists are rarely members of the popular crowd.
It’s January 1986. The launch of the Challenger is just weeks away, and Cash, Fitch, and Bird Nelson Thomas are three siblings in seventh grade together in Park, Delaware.
Cash loves basketball, Dr. J, and a girl named Penny; he’s also in danger of failing seventh grade for a second time. Fitch spends every afternoon playing Major Havoc at the arcade and wrestles with an explosive temper that he doesn’t understand. And Bird, his twelve-year-old twin, dreams of being NASA’s first female shuttle commander, but feels like she’s disappearing.
The Nelson Thomas siblings exist in their own orbits, circling a tense, crowded, and unpredictable household, dreaming of escape, dreaming of the future, dreaming of space. They have little in common except an enthusiastic science teacher named Ms. Salonga—a failed applicant to the Teacher in Space program—who encourages her students to live vicariously through the launch. Cash and Fitch take a passive interest, but Bird builds her dreams around it.
When the fated day arrives, it changes everything.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TEACHERS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES
The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these characters, dishing out advice to help the main character get through the story.
TEACHERS IN BOOKS FOR YOUNGER READERS
Most picture books are today published for preschoolers, and in stories which include schools, the function of the story is to reassure preschoolers that school will be a happy, welcoming and nurturing place, full of fun and joy, where new friends will be made. The teachers are most often smiling and welcoming, as almost all teachers of kindergarten children are in real life.
In books from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature featuring girls, the main characters who become teachers learn to humanise their childhood images. (See Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie). The good teacher has no faults. The bad teacher has no redeeming qualities.
In the 1970s and 80s, fictional teachers who broke convention tended to leave their jobs/get dismissed at the end of the story, but today’s non-conformist teachers tend to be a bit more successful in staying in their jobs.
TEACHERS IN YOUNG ADULT FICTION
In young adult novels published before 1980 favourable treatment of teachers outnumbered the unfavourable.
Contemporary young adult literature sometimes juxtaposes a ‘good’ teacher against a ‘bad’ one, enforcing a good/bad binary view. Other young adult novels challenge this binary and achieve subversion, or even humanise the teacher.
Modern young adult novels feature more successful non-conformist teachers. Teachers who rebel against norms are seen as the most favourable.
Iconic teachers in films often leave their schools at the end of the movie, sometimes without wanting to go. But modern iconic film teachers are more likely to keep their jobs.
MCLAREN’S THREE TEACHER ARCHETYPES
Education theorist Peter McLaren said in 1988 that the ideal teacher plays the part of the ‘liminal servant’. Less effective teachers fit the mould of the ‘hegemonic overlord’ or ‘entertainer’.
In the first two roles students are spectators and don’t participate. The knowledge they gain is outside lived experience. These classrooms will look like teachers pretending to teach and students pretending to learn.
The Entertainer Teacher
a propagandist or evangelist for dominant cultural, economic or ethical interests. Suppresses individuality and conditions students for sameness.
The Hegemonic Overlord Teacher
Information is transmitted perfunctorily, like it’s a bit of food pushed under a cell door. This teacher follows lessons strictly and mordantly by the book, and not interested in student empowerment. Standout example: The Trunchbull in Matilda by Roald Dahl
The Liminal Servant Teacher
The ideal. Empowers students to question domination and their own assigned places. Students respond with immediacy or purpose and are the primary actors within the ritual of instruction. This is student-based learning. Students will be involved, emphasis will be off the chalk-and-talk. Teachers remove obstacles to let students let through active questioning of dominant ideologies. Lessons will be in a flow state with students totally involved. These teachers are social activists and spiritual directors. The teacher is a co-participant or co-creator. Standout example: Mrs. Sauceda in The Jumping Tree by René Saldaña, Miss Honey in Matilda. (The self-sacrificing, inspirational teacher who almost martyrs herself for the sake of the students is heroic but not sustainable in a long-term teaching career.)
OTHER TEACHER ARCHETYPES
The Kindly But Frustrated Teacher
Think of Ramona Quimby’s middle-aged teacher, who is obviously a kind-hearted person but who is regularly exasperated by Ramona’s failure to conform. This is usually a female teacher, perhaps in her 40s or 50s, who we are to imagine has been dealing with children over many, many years.
‘Mrs’ from the Junie B. Jones series is also a kindly but exasperated type.
The Kindly But Beginner Teacher
Ramona’s first teacher, however, is brand new to the school. Miss Binney. Miss Binney’s lack of experience leads to a different kind of comedy. The kindergarten children, most notably Ramona and Howie, misinterpret Miss Binney’s words which leads to chaos. Had Miss Binney been a more experienced teacher she would have made Ramona the wake-up-fairy, but instead she picked the goody-two-shoes who needed nothing in the way of encouragement to behave well.
For the dual audience we have Edna Krabapple who is a more cynical version again.
Bad Ass Teachers
Mad-Eye Moody would be the straightest example. Both, the real Moody, even though he never gets a chance to actually be a badass while a teacher, and the fake Moody, who manages to do a great job of impersonating a badass.
Dumbledore gets special mention, as the one and only time he rebuked Professor Umbridge was when she started physically attacking one of his students. And the one and only time he ever got angry with Harry Potter was when Harry thoughtlessly suggested that Dumbledore was leaving the school unprotected. There is also his Unstoppable Rage when a bunch of Dementors showed up at a Quidditch match.
As does McGonagall. Mess with her, and you get a disapproving glare. Mess with one of her students or colleagues, and she takes fourStunners to the chest at age seventy and bounces back with only a walking stick to show she was hospitalized for a month.
Then, for an encore, she and Slughorn help an Auror take on TOM RIDDLE HIMSELF and live to tell about it.
Let’s not forget Severus Snape. He was a spy for Dumbledore, could fly without a broom, and during his spying days he lied to Voldemort’s FACE for years. And he was an innovator, too. He is in fact the Half-Blood Prince who was behind a number of innovative—and sometimes nasty—spells. And when he actually does teach, once you get past his Jerkass-ness, he is focused; he teaches with a purpose.
Miss Wilson in the Chalet School series. Leading a group of kids to safety through a secret passageway, with a gang of angry Nazis in hot pursuit? I’d say that’s pretty Badass. Doubles as a Mama Bear moment.
Mr McCarthy in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is covered in tatts and for part of the story we think he eats soup with drugs in it. He has the appearance of a badass teacher but is actually pretty conventional, just with a smart-alec comeback for whatever his students say to him.
The Stern Teacher
Minerva McGonagall from Harry Potter. So strict that she tends to subtract more points from her own students when they do wrong because she holds them to higher standards. Madame Hootch is another, mostly forgotten example from Harry Potter. Since her subject (broom-flying) is so dangerous, the penalty for breaking rules in her class is expulsion. Not point loss or detention. Expulsion.
(Subversion: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodiesubverts the trope all to hell, specifically the “tough but fair” part. Miss Brodie deliberately designates one of her girls as a “stupid” victim, marking her for life. She’s a charming, intelligent, and vivacious fascist.)
In Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1974) we have Ms Desjardin. If you’ve seen either of the film adaptations you’ll notice the teacher from the book is more hardened than as played on screen.
She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.
Downright Nasty Teachers
The teacher characters in the Captain Underpants series, however, are rarely nice. In fact, they’re downright nasty, with school principal Mr Krupp playing the role of villain (along with Professor Tinkletrousers and many others).
‘Most of the teachers I had in elementary school, or primary school, and in high school were very vicious and cruel people,’ says Pilkey. ‘However, there are some good grownups in the Captain Underpants series and that’s the parental figures.’
Principal Trunchbull of Matilda, reputedly used by Roald Dahl as a surrogate for all the cruel tutors he had over the years. Her treatment of children, as Matilda deduces, is deliberately so extreme and outlandish that no kid’s parents will believe the truth even on the off chance any child got up the courage to tell.
Captain Lancaster in Danny, the Champion of the World is a more realistic example. He’s obviously based on one of Roald Dahl’s actual teachers, Captain Hardcastle, described in his autobiography Boy.
It’s bad enough is you have a Sadist Teacher, but misery ensues if you have a Sadist (Vice) Principal who doesn’t just kick you around, but he kicks all the students. That’s right, meet Vice Principal Nero who runs a boarding school in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not only he was generally mean to the students and tortured them with hours of awful violin playing, but he also had a bunch of outrageous and stupid punishments: For example, if you went to the office building and you weren’t an adult you’d have to eat your food without a fork and knife. And if you missed a class or got there late you weren’t allowed to have a glass from which to drink, you had to lick your milk from the tray. And if you didn’t go to see him play his violin, he’d force you to buy him candy and watch him eat it. I don’t want to even think what would happen if you’d skip a class.
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heroines almost always fall victim to this teacher. Probably the worst offender was Miss Brownell, of Emily of New Moon. She takes Emily’s manuscripts in class and reads Emily’s poems to the rest of teh class in a mocking voice, with snide comments, occasionally accusing Emily of passing off other authors’ works as her own. When Emily refuses to apologise for writing poetry in class, Miss Brownell comes to New Moon and tries to convince Emily’s guardian to force the girl to kneel to Miss Brownell and apologize.
Mrs. Gorf in the first book of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series turns her students into apples when they do anything wrong. This includes sneezing in class. The students manage to outsmart her by forcing her to turn them back into humans and tricking her into turning herself into an apple, which Louis then unknowingly eats.
Wendy Nogard in Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger is a more subtle (but even more insidious) example: while she appears to be a sweet, considerate teacher, she uses her mind-reading abilities to humiliate and turn her students against each other—all without ever compromising her “nice teacher” facade. An example of this is when, during a homework-checking session, she deliberately calls on the one student who has the incorrect answer for each question, and using the resulting slew of wrong answers to retract her promise of no homework for that day. Every student ends up hating all the others for being idiots who cheated him/her out of a homework-free afternoon, even though in reality none of them missed more than two questions on the assignment.
Sexual Interest Teacher
Though more common in YA, we also have teachers such as Miss Edmunds in Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:
The somewhat unconventional and controversial music teacher, whom Jesse greatly admires. She invites Jess to go to the Smithsonian Museum, which leads Leslie to go to Terabithia by herself. As a result, Leslie is alone when she falls from the rope and drowns. She is played by Annette O’Toole in the 1985 film and Zooey Deschanel in the 2007 film. In the 1985 film, Mrs. Edmunds seems to take the role of Mrs. Myers. She tells Jess the story of a relative dying after Leslie dies instead of Mrs. Myers, and she, instead of Mrs. Myers, gives the homework assignment of watching a show on television.
From Holes, we have Miss Katherine, whom many of the townfolk was after. (From the Hot Teacher page at All The Tropes) Another hippie teacher would be Barbara Finney from The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger.
Falling in love with your teacher is a solid way for a writer to keep lovers apart for the entire length of a story. This is harder and harder these days, where in real life at least romance is permissible across cultural, socio-economic and geographic boundaries. People can sleep with each other without much in the way build up. The student-teacher relationship recreates the 1700s erotics of abstinence Jane Austen depicted so well (and which, more recently, Stephenie Meyer utilised in her vampire series.)
TEACHERS IN REALISTIC NOVELS
The realistic novel “emphasises truthful representation of the actual”. ‘Realistic’ fiction supposedly corresponds closely with the real world. In a realistic novel, readers bring an expectation that representations of humanity will somewhat mimic real, rounded humans.
When teachers in realistic novels are presented in an unrealistic way, this undermines the realism of the story.
GOOD TEACHER/BAD TEACHER IN MODERN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE
The more favourably depicted teachers help students develop their identities and resist dominant and oppressive educational paradigms; the less favourably perceived teachers often represent the authority against which the adolescents and good teachers rebel.
YOUNG ADULT NOVELS MAKING USE OF THE GOOD/BAD BINARY
Anne of Green Gables — Miss Stacey replaces an ineffective, uninspiring, authoritarian male teacher who plays (inappropriate) favourites.
The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck (2004) — set in 1904. Weaker teacher Myrt Arbuckle dies, succeeded by the more effective Tansy Culver.
Scat by Carl Hiaasen (2009) — Similar to The Petition, students assume teachers who mark hard must be bad teachers. Hiaasen inverts reader expectations of a good/bad dichotomy, in which the demanding teacher, Mrs Bunny Starch, is the effective one. In contrast, Dr Wendell Waxmo is a comedic caricature of an unqualified, eccentric substitute. He is basically an extreme Entertainer Teacher archetype.
The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher (2005) — English teacher Mr. Sanford Tarter represents the hegemonic overlord type. Mr. Tarter intrudes excessively in the life of Eddie. The other English teacher in The Sledding Hill, Ms. Ruth Lloyd gives students choice and power. Crutcher’s own ideology is no doubt influenced by the fact that his books have been widely banned by Mr Tarter types. Chris Crutcher’s coaches fall into good and bad categories. The good coaches let kids figure out what they need for themselves and provide them with backup to let them make their own discoveries.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999) — Mr Freeman is a shamanistic archetype and gifted artist who models what he expects of students and exposes the reality of the institutional power structure. But Mr Neck the social studies teacher is bigoted and unprofessional.
The Petition by Anne Schraff (2001) — Mr Pedroza is the best teacher and initially seems like a hegemonic overlord but turns out to be a false opponent ally and liminal servant. In contrast, Ms Corey is both Entertainer and Hegemonic Overlord. Schraff subverts archetypes by challenging the reader’s first impressions of these teachers. The young, relatable funny teacher who gives out easy grades is proven to be the less effective teacher. Superficial niceness covers bigotry.
The problem with the good/bad binary in a realistic novel is that teachers are dehumanised. Humans are more nuanced. Characters such as Matilda’s Trunchbull are clear comedic archetypes, but in a realistic novel, shouldn’t the characters be presented realistically to achieve the effect they’re going for?
MOVING BEYOND THE BINARY
The most interesting characters are not morally binary at all. To that end, some authors assign good and bad attributes to the same teacher.
Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills (1998) — the biology teacher Mr. O’Neill embodies all three of McLaren’s models depending on the moment.
No More Dead Dogs by Korman (2000) — The teacher changes from mixed good/bad to good, and has their own character arc alongside the students, with the effect of humanising teachers for readers. Everyone’s attitudes change for the better. This is achieved via narration from various perspectives including the teacher’s own journal entries and memos to himself.
AMERICAN TV TEACHERS
Many of the most memorable TV teachers are single women. There was a time only about 50 years ago when teachers were expected to give up work after getting married.
There have been fewer shows set in a tertiary institution but there is a lead woman lecturer in How To Get Away With Murder. There are even fewer women. Unlike most shows starring a teacher, this one isn’t a ‘family show’.
There are far more female high school teachers/administrators in real life than there are on screen.
Room 222 is from the 1960s. It was huge in America back then — a 30 minute sitcom. These were years where most houses only had one TV in them so everyone was watching it. It was made by the creator of the Mary Tyler Moore show, which is perhaps better remembered. Denise Nicholas was Liz McIntyre, an educated woman well-respected by her peers. She plays a counsellor. There’s also a student teacher who became a permanent character. Room 222 had a more diverse cast than many shows today.
Friday Night Lights stars Connie Britton. This is a sexist environment set in a football oriented community. She is the school counsellor and at times called actual counsellors to ask them how they’d advise on tricky issues. This show, like The Waltons, gives a family with young teens plenty to talk about.
There was a TV show in the 80s called Fame, based on the film, about a dance teacher and her students.
Square Pegs – a 1980s time capsule. Sarah Jessica Parker is in it.
Good Morning Miss Bliss — about a fictional high school in Indianapolis. The show was renamed Saved By The Belland lost Miss Bliss. It just didn’t work.
DeGrassi Junior High morphed into DeGrassi High – teens don’t want to watch anything with ‘junior’ in the title. It focused pretty realistically on teen life. There is a teacher who is lesbian. This was breakthrough stuff in the late 80s.
In the 90s there weren’t as many female authority figures on TV.
Moesha was a quality sitcom which featured an African American cast. Her step mother played the principal.
The Bionic Woman — a teacher with supernatural powers. It aired in the 1970s and was a spin off from the Six Million Dollar Man, itself a breakthrough hit. Jamie Summers is the lead character – a tennis pro turned teacher who was injured in a sky-diving accident. Jamie is a government agent going undercover to complete all sorts of assignments to repay the favour of keeping her alive bionically. In her spare time she teaches classes on a military base in California.
Freaks and Geeks — Bill loves Bionic Woman and dresses up as her for Halloween. Freaks and Geeks features a number of teachers, though the memorable ones are all male. This was typical for the 1990s. There’s the male hippie counsellor, the jock P.E. teacher and the mean bald guy.
Only three students had access to a teacher’s racy photos before they went viral.
There’s Mouse, a brainy overachiever so desperate to escape his father and go to MIT that he would do almost anything, legal or not. Then there’s Drew, the star athlete who can get any girl’s number—and private photos—with his charm but has a history of passing those photos around. And finally there’s Jenna, a good girl turned rebel after her own shocking photos made the rounds at school last year, who is still waiting for justice.
All three deny leaking the photos, but someone has to take the fall. This edgy whodunit tackles hot-button issues of sexting and gossip and will have readers tearing through the pages to reach the final reveal.
Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA
In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.
THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.
Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.
In no particular order:
Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female shortcoming was well understood, and made for a good psychological shortcoming. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological shortcoming is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.
THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES
For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:
Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly — nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.
SETTING OF ANNE OF GREEN GABLES
Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favourite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.
Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.
It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air. Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.
Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.
…illustrations in children’s books contribute to our perception of character, giving an instant and immediate external portrait. Even when a novel is not illustrated, a cover picture may be revealing enough. Even a very brief examination of a number of covers to classics such as Anne of Green Gables shows how a visual portrait of a character can influence our expectations. In existing covers, Anne is portrayed sometimes older, sometimes younger, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes very pretty, which contradicts the text, and sometimes plain, in consistency with the text. In any case, the cover signals that the protagonist is a young white female. This may make adult, male, and non-Caucasian readers reject the novel.
As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog.
Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.
Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.
Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s shortcomings has a flipside strength:
She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.
Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:
Stay at Green Gables
Grow darker hair
Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.
The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.
On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.
Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.
The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in which men control the fertility of women, I have more sympathy for Mrs Hammond as a victim. The 1980s miniseries starring Megan Follows almost encourages the viewer to read Mrs Hammond as lesbian, about to move in with her possessive, shoulder-rubbing female friend as she accuses Anne of basically killing the husband herself, with her failure to deliver lunch on time. What if Mrs Hammond was gay? What if she never wanted any children at all, but was stuck with all those twins? In a pre-contraceptive age, Mrs Hammond is arguably as much as a victim as Anne Shirley.
Marilla is an opponent who turns into Anne’s firmest ally by the end of the book.
Miss Shirley is a Miss Honey archetype (used by Roald Dahl in Matilda), an ally in every way.
Soon a pattern emerges — Anne is universally liked by good people, even if those people are crotchety on the surface. Diana’s auntie is the best example of that. Anne is a bit of a travelling angel trope, though rather than leaving town for good, she is pulled away to complete different parts of her life’s journey, returning every now and then.
In any love story, the desire and opponent are the same person. This is specific to love stories. So, Gilbert Blythe is both desired and an opponent. Same for Marilla, actually, because this is a story about a girl falling in love with her (substitute) parents.
There is a romantic triangle in Anne of Green Gables, since it is clear from the start that Diana Barry admires Gilbert Blythe. But because readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the first character they see, we are all rooting for Anne and Gilbert, even though Diana probably ‘deserves’ him more, if you think about it. We can see Diana isn’t quite smart (or educated) enough for Gilbert though, who is obviously more interested in fiery women like Anne. How does Montgomery manage readers to the point where we don’t end up mad and frustrated at Anne for her stubborn resistance to Gilbert? Diana realizes Gilbert isn’t her destiny. After a conversation with Anne near the end of the book, we are left with the impression that while Diana will pursue Gilbert if Anne doesn’t want him, she’ll happily give him over to Anne.
Josie Pye is a different matter — Josie is that snobby, girly character found in most popular books for girls — a girl who thinks she’s better than other people (the worst thing a girl can possibly be). Josie is rich but not academically inclined. She is well-dressed and confident and sees Anne as her rival, setting up a rivalry even before Anne has noticed she exists. This ensures the audience dislikes Josie Pye. Josie is not all that interested in Gilbert — she is mostly keen to deprive Anne of him.
Anne’s childlike, episodic adventures at Avonlea culminate in a ‘near drowning’ (which is no such thing), but the suggestion of death is there. A common storytelling technique in middle grade is to have another character come to the rescue of your protagonist. In this case it’s not a true rescue, more of a farce, as if acted upon a stage (where Anne often imagines herself, in fact). The rule here is that your main character still has to help themselves when it comes the character arc. They can be helped out in some sticky plot situation, but ultimately, change is up to them.
By the way, is there a deeper meaning to Anne’s obsession with The Lady of Shalott? Since it occurs at a climactic moment, I suggest there is. Doomed to view life through reflections, the Lady’s life is a mere shadow with no experiences of her own. Like The Lady of Shalott, Anne is inclined to live vicariously via women whose lives she has invented inside her head. This is the very thing preventing her pursuing anything in real life with Gilbert, right there in front of her.
Anne’s obsession with Tennyson’s poem isn’t really helping her get over her red hair issues, because it encourages us to focus on form over substance. The leak in the boat symbolises her psychological shortcoming — it will be her undoing — she needs the love of Gilbert to teach her she is in fact worthy in her own right. Signfiicantly, Gilbert has said he prefers brains over beauty anyway.
Anne learns that she truly belongs to Avonlea, even if she started out as an unwanted orphan. She has won numerous people over and spurred their own character arc (especially that of Marilla and Matthew, but also that of Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry’s mother and the crotchety old maid aunt*).
*As a side note, why is Diana’s old maid aunt so much richer than Diana’s natal family? My own guess is that Diana’s extended family is aristocratic by heritage, but perhaps the father made some bad investments and they have since lost most of it, which is why the aunt is the only one still able to pay for Diana’s music lessons. In this sense, Diana is very much like Jane Bennett — not only docile and beautiful and kind but also in a financially precarious position unless she marries well — and she will be expected to marry well in order to haul the financially failing family back into Prince Edward Island’s gentry class.
The Romantic Subplot
When Gilbert reveals that he and Anne tied for first in the Queens exam it is clear to Anne, seemingly for the first time, that they are true equals. This will eventually lead to a full-blown romance and marriage, but not in this first book.
After the death of Matthew we are left with Anne and Marilla together — Anne wants the best for Marilla and Marilla wants the best for Anne (college). These two goals will continue to butt heads and we’re not quite sure exactly what happiness will look like for these two, but when Gilbert offers to walk Anne home we know those two are going to end up together and we know for sure that Anne is going to look after Marilla in her old age.
If I Stay by Gayle Foreman is a young adult novel published 2009. This book is beautifully plotted, and makes an excellent case study if writers are planning a story with an ‘alternating’ plot.
WELCOME TO THE THIRD GOLDEN AGE
This book is an excellent example of ‘The Third Golden Age Of Children’s Literature’, as described by Amanda Craig:
The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye and many more. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
While I’m a little uncomfortable with the pejorative connotations of the term ‘sick-lit’, it works for critical purposes.
YOUNG ADULT SICK-LIT & FEMINISM
There are parallels between Mia Hall and Bella Swan. Twilight is part of this movement — a girl who must make a decision between life and (un)death in an environment that’s largely blueish and grey (though due to rain rather than snow).
Adam is always amazed at how even in middle of summer, even after the sweatiest of encounters, my hands stay cold.
If I Stay
That line reminds me of Bella’s deathly white skin — strangely white even though she hails from Phoenix.
“Aren’t people from Arizona meant to be, like, really tanned?”
“Yeah. I guess that’s why they kicked me out.”
Forman’s work, I would argue, is a little more feminist than that of Stephenie Meyer, though part of me feels Forman is going out of her way to distinguish herself from those silly girls when Mia narrates:
I never expected to fall in love. I was never the kind of girl who had crushes on rock stars or fantasies about marrying Brad Pitt. I sort of vaguely knew that one day I’d probably have boyfriends…and get married. I wasn’t totally immune to the charms of the opposite sex, but I wasn’t one of those romantic, swoony girls who had pink fluffy daydreams about falling in love.
That could pretty much be the self-description of any teenage girl. Like Bella Swan, Mia Hall is The Everygirl, apart from having one main standout quality: Her prodigious ability with the cello, though even then, most of her ‘talent’ comes from sheer hard work, passion, and a full decade of practice. Bella Swan has no standout talent apart from smelling good to hot vampire boys. So Mia is more like Rory Gilmore in this respect.
This movie adaptation of If I Stay was released in 2014 and stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Mia. I’ve heard a movie reviewer say of Moretz that she always looks like she’s detached from her story, as if she’s looking on as an observer. This positions her closer to the audience who, likewise, are observing an unfamiliar environment. It also makes Moretz an excellent choice of lead in this particular story.
Rotten Tomatoes says of the film, “Although Chloë Grace Moretz gives it her all and the story adds an intriguing supernatural twist to its melodramatic young adult framework, If I Stay is ultimately more manipulative than moving.” (This is an excellent example of ‘melodramaic’ used as an insult.
Movie review websites aren’t kind to films and TV series made for and by women. I’ve also noticed that the word ‘manipulative’ is a gendered concept, far more likely to be applied to both women and media aimed at women. (I’m sure Joanna Russ would have something to say about this.) I would call this story a ‘tearjerker’ — it is what it is, and many readers enjoy reading stories like these for the cathartic power of sobbing, I think. Which is just as valid a reason to read/watch a movie as the chance to be ‘thrilled’ or ‘scared’ (emotions more robustly embraced by men).
Although the film follows the book quite closely, I’m writing here about the book.
GENRE BLEND OF “IF I STAY” BY GAYLE FOREMAN
At the beginning of the book, 17-year-old Mia already has a boyfriend of six months and is therefore not entirely new to relationships. In a straight romance the partners meet in the first few pages, something keeps them apart for the length of a book and then they get together at the end. At one point Mia narrates that her romance with Adam is a lot more complicated than that which means that, despite the romantic subplot, this isn’t a straight-up romance. More properly this is a love story.
The out-of-body half-dead narration makes it supernatural, though some may read it as religious. This is not a religious story so much as a spiritual one, borrowing the state of limbo from earlier Catholic teachings, in much the same way as the horror genre also loves Catholic symbolism.
Mia states at one stage that if there’s a God he hasn’t shown up. Readers are therefore free to imbue the story with their own philosophies (though atheist nihilists aren’t well catered for in popular American young adult literature).
Mia’s family is the sort of cool, rocker family who tend to get sent up in Portlandia (although this family lives elsewhere in Oregon). The father doesn’t even get a driver’s licence until the mother makes him get one, so I imagine he’s a bit like the guy in this Portlandia send-up of hipster cyclists.
The nice thing about setting a story in Oregon is that a writer can make full symbolic use of the distinctly four seasons. If I Stay opens in the season of winter. This is significant to the plot (the car presumably skids on black ice or something) but is also highly metaphorical — this is the darkest hour of Mia’s life so far. When she looks back on her earlier recent past we’ll be taken with her back to happier times in warmer seasons. “It was warmer then”, we are told, when she went on that first date to see Yo Yo Ma with Adam.
As with many American stories, there is the whole Glamorization of New York thing going on. New York is the only place where things can happen. The not-so-subtle assumption here is that even if you make it back to your hometown, you haven’t really made it til you’ve been to New York.
STORY STRUCTURE OF IF I STAY
Here’s a very typical sequence in a young adult romance. Summarising from Roberta Seelinger Trites:
Two teenagers feel sexually attracted to one another
Something will keep them apart. During this period, each character thinks the attraction is unrequited.
They’ll eventually share their feelings with each other and learn that it’s mutual.
However, they don’t immediately get into it. They will agonise about what happens next, scared and worried about sex.
They do end up expressing their passion with some sort of sexual contact.
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.
The two characters may end up together at the end of the novel, or they may break up.
The present — on a snow day the family take a drive and everyone but Mia is killed. Mia narrates as an out-of-body ghost following her sick body around as she is helicoptered to the hospital, then suffers through a succession of visitors.
Flashbacks — how she started dating Adam, how her parents met, how she always feels like the odd one out, family history
Each of these two threads has its own fully-developed story arc. The Setting, Mia’s Shortcoming/Need and the New Situation are common to both of them.
Mia has this nagging feeling occasionally that she was swapped in the hospital — not helped by her father’s jokes — exacerbated by the fact that Mia is into classical music while her family are punk rockers from wayback. This difference is expressed in her physical appearance: Mia is dark haired and dark-eyed while her parents and younger brother are blonde.
Mia is trying to work out who she is, which is probably the need of every single young adult protagonist. Here, more specifically, she wonders if she should even continue playing the cello which she has been obsessed with for a decade.
Mia needs to ‘find her tribe’, basically, which is ironically more difficult for a nerdy type kid who is born into a ‘cool’ family, and for an introverted girl who happens to find a boyfriend with friends so different from herself.
The author sets up a mystery for this thread — Mia knows that her parents have been killed, but where is Teddy? Mia desperately wants to know this information but because she is a ghost she has no ability to ask.
She desperately wants to see her boyfriend Adam. Although she is visited by a succession of relatives, none of these people manage to persuade her to live rather than die.
The staff at the hospital are set up as opponents, from the grey-haired nurse to the doctor who roughly opens her eyelids to the guards. Willow is the only ‘goodie’ here.
The problem Mia has is one teenagers will relate to; although Mia’s relationship with Adam is as significant as that of an old married couple, Adam is not allowed in to see her because he’s not family.
*However, this book is not for fans of strict literary mimesis. It bothers me that the father’s brain on the road looks like a ‘grey cauliflower’. The flesh of fresh brains is pink, not grey. It’s not Seinfeld who wears the puffy jacket — it’s George.
There is a lot of running around the hospital, evading guards and what not, and eventually the teenagers make it to Mia’s bedside.
It’s been said that every movie (adaptation) could be called ‘Trapped’. This is because all popular stories seem to have a sequence in which the main character sees no way out. Mia’s trapped scene happens after she realises Teddy is dead.
I race through the hospital like a trapped wild animal. Teddy? I call. Where are you? Come back to me!
But he won’t. I know it’s fruitless. I give up and drag myself back to my ICU. I want to break the double doors. I want to smash the nurses’ station. I want it all to go away. I want to go away. I don’t want to be here.
This is an outward scene of the turmoil going on inside Mia’s head. (The author very sensibly wrote the book with some big scenes, making it good to go as a movie adaptation.)
I’m not sure this is a world I belong in anymore. I’m not sure that I want to wake up.
Mia wants to get into Julliard after other people sort of suggest to her that it might be a possibility. This isn’t a girl with a burning desire, but a girl who wants to please other people. Although the desire to get into Julliard is more burning than initially revealed, Mia is beginning to establish a nice adult life in Oregon and has a boyfriend based in Oregon. Mia’s desires are conflicting. The parents — cool as they are — serve as a vision of her future she does not want. She wants a life built around music, not the other way around.
Some writers would refer to the Julliard thing as the ‘outer desire’.
Mia’s ‘inner desire’ is to not be lonely. In both threads, Mia is consistently alone. She is alone in her family, alone here on stage during her audition, and if she gets in, she’ll be totally alone in New York, with the rest of her family hailing from Minnesota, the author makes sure to tell us.
A lot of young adult books feature parents as caring opponent figures but this book shuns that trope altogether with the cool, understanding parents.
Appropriately named Adam is Mia’s first boyfriend, and with this guy Mia must learn how to negotiate and communicate in a relationship. There are plenty of opportunities for disagreements along the way — there’s the cool rock chick he plays with (ultimately revealed to be lesbian in the film adaptation and therefore no threat at all), there’s a Pride and Prejudice sort of beginning in which Adam mistakes Mia’s attitude towards his gigs for lack of interest in him.
We also have an ally and sometime opponent in Mia’s best friend, the one she had a fisticuffs with back when they were eleven. Now they’ll fight to the death for each other. This history means the bffs have an honest, open communication line going between them — in contrast to the shutdown between Mia and Adam — and Kim also fills the role of challenging Mia when she considers giving up the cello. You can’t give up the cello, Kim advises, because she can’t possibly imagine Mia without a cello ‘between her legs’. In other words, Kim points out what the reader has already realised — that Mia’s road to happiness must, at all costs, include the cello.
Mia will go through the Julliard application process and avoid making any big decisions until — and only if — she gets in.
She will also spend the year working out who she is, and this at one point involves a makeover scene. In a Betty/Veronica scene readers will instantly recognise, Mia realises she is not the fun blonde chick.
Mia gets into Julliard, as must happen to make a successful story. The reader knows this will happen but it’s not a problem, because the real question we want to know is: Will she choose her boyfriend over New York? (And also, did her little brother die?)
The big big struggle scene of this thread is the argument with Adam, who feels Mia has lied to him, mainly by omission, not letting him in on her thoughts as she goes through the process of Julliard acceptance.
There’s a bit of a feminist message to young readers in this big struggle: Hopefully readers will notice the double standard that’s going on here — Adam expects Mia to do a lot of waiting around for him, busy with his performing and band practice, but he doesn’t want to do any waiting for his girlfriend, while she’s away pursuing her own musical dream. That said, the breaking up big struggle takes place off the page. Instead we have a very-much ameliorated boyfriend situation, with a guy who realises the double standard and concedes rather than — more realistically, in my opinion — a girl who works out the double standard for herself and points it out to him.
The message for both Mia and to young readers: Even if he’s got a lop-sided smile, live your own life before settling down. Otherwise you’ll end up like Mia’s mother — happy in her own way, but suppressing her own creative dreams for the sake of family, stuck in safe suburbia, (symbolically dying first because you’re a bit of a martyr).
This book has a bittersweet ending characteristic of the Third Golden Age. Although she’s alive, Mia has lost her entire family and will need a lot of physical therapy. (Fortunately there is a sequel. We get to see how Mia does in her recovery.)
This book is, at its heart, a celebration of life over death. (All themes sound cheesey when you put them in a single sentence.) But what will the Fourth Golden Age of Children’s Literature bring us? An evolution on this type of story would surely be the glorification of death over life? Or perhaps there will be a backlash all the way back to full, Enid Blyton-esque health.
Finally, what is all this life and death stuff all about? What’s the main message here? Surely, surely, it’s about more than the opportunity to have a good wallow for a while, contemplating our own mortality.
Ultimately, there may be a strong feminist message in If I Stay, and that’s where this story is nothing like the Twilight series. For Mia, ‘life’ = ‘her own life’. On the flip side we have ‘settling down in Oregon with a band boyfriend’ (who will probably end up ditching his musical dreams by the time he hits his 30s), which for her is a kind of ‘death’.
THE RECIPE FOR A YOUNG ADULT DARK PARANORMAL ROMANCE BOYFRIEND
In a white kind of way
Muscled but not too muscled — not like he works at it
Well groomed and fairly nubile — not much body hair
Remarkable eyes and gaze
A bit older than the female protagonist
A bit taller
Maybe a bit richer (though sometimes he’s an underdog, financially speaking). All of this ‘a bit more’ refers to ‘hypergamy’ — the longheld view that husbands should be a little more more of everything (except beautiful) than their wives.
Not like other typical guys — interested in literature rather than sport
Though he’s not the uncoordinated, klutzy type either
Loves reading, though he may be embarrassed to be seen doing something so sensitive and girly
Perhaps writes poetry in his spare time
May be on the periphery of a group of guy friends but is basically a loner
Inexplicably falls instantly in love with the beautiful (though sometimes just girl-next-door looking) female protagonist
There will be some reason why he cannot be with her right away (he’s a teacher/vampire/she’s already taken…)
But he must be with her nonetheless, though their love is based on very little really
This might lead to some stalking
Or otherwise taboo/unethical boundary crossing
And will definitely lead to much brooding
Because he is not fully in control of his own sexual impulses
Cannot stand seeing her with another boy
Even if they’re just friends
There will probably be a lot of mansplaining, in which he explains things about love and life to the female, and even if she balks occasionally, the reader/viewer will actually see he has a point
He is experienced in love. It helps his attractiveness that he’s had previous girlfriends; as long as this girl is his last, that’s fine.
Unless you are — or have been — a heterosexual adolescent girl, the appeal is a little hard to understand. Even if you ask an adolescent girl, she might not be able to tell you. If she is woke she’ll be keen to point out that he is only a fantasy, and fantasies are just that. She knows he is not real.
Still, it’s an interesting exercise to consider where sexual fantasies come from. Especially when they’re commonly held throughout a culture. Even fantasies do not exist in a cultural bubble:
The Erotics Of Abstinence — lengthy months of yearning, which is at least half of the fun. Stephenie Meyer’s books are well-known for this aspect, and are thought to stem from her Mormon background, which preaches abstinence before marriage.
The Expectation Of Hypergamy — in which the man is always a little bit more of something — a bit taller/richer/older/streetwise.
The Fantasy Of Being Looked After Unconditionally And Forever — a return to the safety of the early years and I’m sure we could get all psychoanalytic right here. The girl only has to exist — he doesn’t ask anything of her.
The Fantasy of Being Delivered From Obscurity by a Dazzling, Powerful Man — like one of those classic novels in which the ordinary but pretty common girl is chosen by the lord of the castle or something. Because until very recently, that has been a woman’s only hope at social mobility. (In Titanic you see the same thing but the economics are in reverse.)
The Florence Nightingale effect — in which a caregiver develops romantic and/or sexual feelings for his/her patient, even if very little communication or contact takes place outside of basic care. A depressed/melancholic/damaged man seems appealing because in order to be attracted to someone as a partner you have to feel you can improve their life in some way. Our ghosts make us vulnerable. Vulnerability is attractive. Of Edward Cullen it has been said that “His anguish makes him volatile enough to keep things interesting but dependent enough that he will never be tempted to leave.”
Stockholm Syndrome — feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a captor
The Wish To Have A ‘Real Man’ — in a culture in which men and women are increasingly similar in life expectations
The Wish To Have A Fantastic Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Pressure You To Have Sex — related to the erotics of abstinence above. A boyfriend who can’t/won’t have sex with you is a safe person to have when you’re both terrified and curious.
The Desire To Be Dominated — not always in real life, but quite often in fantasy, as was discovered by E.L. James. There are various opinions on this. Some argue that the desire to be dominated comes from emancipation. When women take on more responsibility in their real lives, they like to fantasise about having no power in their sex lives. Which leads me to the question: What are the fantasy lives of women living in strongly patriarchal societies? Do those women also have domination fantasies, when they are not allowed to drive, or leave the house, or decide who they’re married off to? That would be an interesting comparison.
The word ‘goth’ is used in various ways in various contexts. When applied to a person, what does it mean? Might you be a goth and not really know it?
If you need pictures of a goth, here’s a blog which features pictures of Goths Up Trees. Or try Goth Or Not website — a cousin of the Hot Or Not website — where you rate photos of people who are wondering whether they qualify. Or whatever.
YOU KNOW A GOTH WHEN YOU SEE ONE BECAUSE OF THE BLACK CLOTHES, WHITE FACE OR SIMILAR, BUT WHAT DO GOTHS ACTUALLY BELIEVE?
Goth lifestyle allows for both commonalities AND differences from the dominant culture. But generally, goths hate the mall, mass media, popular fashion and hate doing things they’re told to do by marketing gurus.
Goths live their whole lives ironically. The most popular age group to be a goth is teens to mid-twenties — the goth subculture evolves as each generation of young people come in and out of it, each bringing their own particular ideologies and rebellions.
It has been said a number of times that ‘goth has made a comeback’, but goths tend to resist this, because it was never popular in the first place, so can hardly be ‘back in fashion’. On the other hand, The continually accelerating cycles of consumer fashion means no one is really ‘in style’. Except goths.
Each generation is slightly different. Goth subculture in the 90s was heavily influenced by automata, dissection, prosthesis.
Goth subculture is basically a kick back against mainstream culture, in which everyone wears what they’re told to wear, buys what they’re told to buy, listens to the music they’re told to listen to. Goth is anti- the passivity of the majority.
Of course, goth chic itself has become commercialized and somewhat mainstream, which is what happens when a subculture takes off, and now looks like pseudo-individuation. Goth is now also just as consumerist and commodity orientated as mainstream culture. This wasn’t meant to happen. ( See: An Assortment Of Spooky Goodies To Delight Your Inner Goth from Gala Darling.) Most people buy what they’re told to buy. The goth ‘appropriates’. The goth ‘selects’.
Goth is anti commercialisation, anti-The System and resistant to hegemonic capitalism, symbolic or otherwise. It has this in common with the hipsters. (See: Things Goths Hate, a blog in the style of Things White People Like) Goths know they’re dressing up as a kind of costume/performance. If hipsters dress a certain way, they don’t intend for it to be anything other than the way they dress.
Goths don’t like malls but do like second-hand shops, market stalls and mail-order services.
Goths feel inequalities keenly. They may be angry about things that happened in the past but also about the inequalities of the present. Goths are anti-violence and anti-prejudice, but because they share some tastes in music and fashion with the Trenchcoat Mafia (the Columbine types), they tend to be vilified and misunderstood. The media has been particularly unkind to goths since the late 90s when the Columbine shootings happened.
If goths are interested in the supernatural (vampires, ghosts etc.) it’s because as Anne Rice has said of her writing, exploration of the supernatural is the best way of telling the truth about reality.
Goths see beauty in the sinister, the arcane, the cadaverous, the morbid and the funereal, but also have a healthy respect for it. It’s not death that goths covet, but rather escaping everyday life. They desire some other world, not like this one. Dressing up lets them live a fantasy.
If goths turn sadness into a fetish, it’s only because mainstream turns happiness into a fetish. There’s a perverse pleasure in propagating gloom when the culture feels like it’s on Prozac. Goths don’t smile; they smirk. But most goths downplay the miserable aspects and are instead positive about goth stuff.
Goths pride themselves on having a creative personality and a strong aesthetic sense.
That said, a lot of young people are drawn to the goth movement not for any political reasons, but for the camaraderie and the aesthetic alone.
MIGHT WE THINK OF GOTH SUBCULTURE AS A KIND OF RELIGION?
To be a religion, there needs to be some sort of supernatural power, or other spiritual beings, in which case goth subculture can be described as a parareligion at best. While most goths tend to be a bit skeptical about religion, being a goth doesn’t mean you can’t also be a Christian or belong to some other world religion. Parareligions are like religions in many ways, but lack the supernatural, powerful being (god).
Hanging out in goth spaces may involve psychotropic drugs and frantic dancing which lead to ecstasy-like experiences commonly associated with religions such as Pentecostal.
Goth nightclubs are a kind of church because they evoke a certain atmosphere. Smoke machines emit an odour which adds to the vibe of the place, in the same way that incense might be used in a church to remind the church-goer of place.
There’s a lot of religious iconography in goth subculture, but mostly it doesn’t signify anything.
Vampires have a bit of parareligious feel about them: The drinking of blood is sort of like a perverse Eucharist. Vampires are transgressive and reject death. Religions are pretty heavy on death, thinking about it a lot, performing rituals. By imagining vampire-like existence, that’s one way of mulling over death. Fantasy is pivotal for goths. The level of emotion vampire enactments/stories/imaginings can evoke parallel that of the world religions.
Before we had goths provoking reaction by running against the grain of mainstream culture we had dandies.
Like Wilde and Bowie, D’Aurevilly and his crowd “cultivated a kind of dandyism based on subtlety and subversion in their personal lives as well as in their creative works,” says Humphreys. For D’Aurevilly, appearance mattered as much as words. Humphreys writes: “Masquerading in outlandish garb and pinkie rings made the dandy the father of clash. Such dress was meaningful only if it provoked a reaction and ran against the grain of mainstream culture. Attire was a superficial manifestation of the expression of genius, but it too had to reflect the cutting edge of irony.”
Goth was at first barbaric, then romantic, then there was goth subculture.
Goth subculture emerged with the decline of Thatcherite politics late 1970s Britain once punk itself started to be exploited as a commercial thing. (Commodification is one way a subculture can disappear.) Goth subculture grew out of punk, which itself drew on fringe cultures: Dada, garage rock etc. Goth is the first form of rock which couldn’t be traced back to rhythm and blues.
The goth scene, however, emerged n the 90s, post 80s punk. By the mid-1990s, goth subculture had mostly disappeared from public view but was left with a number of true devotees. But big money could no longer be made from the trend.
While goth subculture have its roots in punk, but whereas punk is militant, asexual anarchy, goth is romantic, obsessed with death, darkness, perverse sexuality. It is carnivalesque and androgynous.
The most important starting point of Goth was Bauhaus, especially the single ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ (1979). Northampton. The song features macabre, funereal, lyrical references to the undead, deep-voiced eerie vocals, a dark twisted form of androgyny. Bela Lugosi was a Hollywood actor born 1882, famous for playing Dracula.)
Joy Division was one of the first post-punk bands which is gothlike in its melancholy. When one of the band members killed himself on the eve of their first USA tour, the band seemed even more embraced by the goth community. Joy Divison’s promo material and record company seems to draw attention to absences in the same way as Freud describes melancholia.
Related to Melancholy: Saudade, a word with no direct equivalent in English.
Unlike grief after the death of someone or something known, melancholy is the feeling you get when you’re grieving for something and you don’t know what that something is. Goths find a certain pleasure in that very feeling.
The Velvet Underground, The Doors and other 60s dark psychedelic rock
the mysterious and supernatural
David Bowie (for his androgyny and deep voice)
Before the Internet there were goth fanzines: Kaleidoscope, BRV Magazine, Tomb Raver, Meltdown, Gothic Times, Dawn Rising, The Black Box, Naked Truth
NME and Melody Maker were music mags from the 1980s
Whitby Gothic Weekend, The Bizarre Bazaar is part of the Whitby Gothic Weekend, where goths can buy their gear
WHY THE BLACK CLOTHES AND THE WHITE FACE?
The dark hair/white face goth dominatrix persona was popularised by Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees. Sioux is famous for her ice queen persona. Their whiteness has nothing to do with white supremacy — it’s all about death.
This kind of makeup is the inverse of traditional youthful beauty: rosy cheeks, red lips, healthy complexion. It’s a finger up to those who tell others what they should look like. It’s saying, I don’t exist to please your eye.
Death chic has its roots in Victorian invalidism. The female body has historically been pathologised — a diseased object. In Japan, this takes a slightly different form — or perhaps only the name is different: Ganguro.
The interest in ‘sickness fashion’, when taken to the extreme, looks a little like Body Integrity Disorder, in which someone wishes for illness. In Japan, there is the bandage fashion.
Specimen started the ripped fishnet stockings, mesh tops, and other see-through fabrics. Dark hair, pointed boots, tight black jeans, shades comes from The Sisters Of Mercy.
Goth clothes are mostly stripped of their sexual connotations, even if they’re purchased from sex shops (PVC, fishnets). If Goths buy or wear anything that happens to be popular, they’re only doing it ironically.
Whereas female goths rebel against feminine beauty with the Siouxsie Sioux make up, the best way for male goths to rebel is by dressing as women. This is a rebellion against the pressure to conform to the mainstream culture’s idea of masculinity, which is very narrow and restricting. For males, androgyny offers a way to manipulate the straight male gaze, but first inviting it, then turning it on its head. It’s a way of dealing with the domination of other men. (Men are as much contending with the partriarchy as women are)Goth is resistant to gender and sexual norms that have upheld capitalism since the 18th C Goth subculture is ideologically against the gender binary, embracing people of all genders/sexualities/sexes. When male goths dress in traditionally feminine clothes they are often mistaken for cross-dressers/transvestites/gay, but in fact they’re aspiring to androgyny, David Bowie style. Bowie made no effort to pass as a woman on stage. He aimed for no gender in particular.
There is no female androgyny because there’s nothing masculine about a woman in pants.
Types of goth fashion:
secondhand trash or a combo
An excellent example of a Goth: The artist Jeffrey Catherine Jones.
DOES THIS MEAN GOTH SUBCULTURE IS MORE FEMALE FRIENDLY THAN MAINSTERAM CULTURE?
You would hope so, and this is probably the aim. Goth men are more likely to touch each other, and there is a veneration of sexual ambiguity.
While the industrial scene and goth rock is male dominated, the goth-scene is indeed more even in terms of gender representation. Goth culture allows men to display sensitivity, emotion, theatricality and artiness, whereas the hyper-masculinity of the dominant culture does not, but what often happens is that androgynous men take up the spaces which might otherwise have been occupied by women. Women are pretty much absent from certain subgenres of goth music (heavy metal), for example. The stage is occupied entirely by androgynous men.
Nick Cave is a good example of an Australian goth influencer whose work is ironic and also sexist. The irony doesn’t take away from the sexism, because ironic sexism is still sexism.
But overall, the case can be made for goth subculture to be slightly less sexist than mainstream culture, at least in the music scene. There’s better gender balance in the goth music scene than in other styles and in other styles the women are almost always singers. In pop music, the role for women in general is that of ‘fan’, but in goth world, about half of women making stuff were in clothes. There’s still few female DJs. Some prominent women in goth world: Siouxsie Sioux, Danielle Dax.
In the end, each goth meeting place has its own subculture. Many goth night clubs in big cities are a relatively safe space to come out if you’re trying out a different sexuality or gender. Putting on a goth costume which all but masks your real identity helps in that.
(Examples of popular clubs: Slimelight a London goth club, also The Phono, Toreador, the Mercat, The Barrel Organ, Full Tilt, The Deviant Society, The Batcave, in London)
CRITICISMS OF GOTH SUBCULTURE
Goths can sometimes emphasise the irrational and supernatural at the expense of accurate historical analysis and rationality, preoccupied with psychology rather than history.
Some critics think that goth subculture suits teenage girls, who are all doomed romantics, and self-obsessed, passive and inward looking, while punk is a more masculine subculture. This reinforces gender stereotypes, of exactly the kind that goths want to break down. It’s often said that they’re ‘faking’ being miserable because they’re often white middle class and can’t possibly be all that miserable.
Many goths aspire to death chic. It challenges dominant beauty ideals which are based on health, and on femininity. (The beauty of men is less noticed.)
Unfortunately, men who are into the death chic look only end up contributing to the fetishization of such a body. There is a lot of fat hatred too, especially of female goths, in a subculture which fetishizes death chic. Goth subculture may well spurn traditional beauty standards, but instead they’ve supplanted it with their own: tall, thin, pale, no body hair, part Asian — that’s the ideal. Other types of bodies do not escape scrutiny, especially when dressing in PVC. There’s a lot of body-hatred among teenage goth girls.
There are also rules, even though Goth subculture likes to think they’re rebelling against rules: Goths who are too much into the horror/vampire stuff are looked down upon by the community — too serious, too stereotypical. So it’s definitely possible to be Not A Proper Goth. Marilyn Manson is blamed for the proliferation of ‘baby goths’ — 15 year olds jumping about in Marilyn Manson t-shirts with short hair and a little bit of eyeliner. Conformity is the rule, in a way:
Other girls wear different gear every weekend ‘plurality of selves’. They really need to make their minds up about who they really are.
The political stand of inclusiveness and equality doesn’t mean there aren’t extreme right-wing, racist views among some goths, including some high profile goth influencers. Before he killed himself, Ian Curtis of Joy Division voted conservative and was sometimes openly racist. Although the whiteness most often associated with goth subculture is most often depicting the pallor of a dead person, it might also be interpreted by some as emphasising whiteness.
WHAT DO GOTHS LIKE?
All goths are different but here are some typical examples:
Canonical and avant-garde gothic writing: Anne Radcliffe, Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, H.P. Lovecraft
“The Turn Of The Screw” by Henry James
Vampires (sometimes ironically)
Contemporary gothic writing: Anne Rice, Storm Constantine, Ian McEwan, William Gibson, Poppy Z. Brite, Nick Cave
The illustrations of Edward Gorey and art by Andy Warhol, who managed The Velvet Underground
Bands such as Play Dead, The Birthday Party, Alien Sex Fiend, UK Decay, Sex Gang Children, Virgin Prunes, Specimen, The Sisters Of Mercy, The Mission (the acrimonious off-shoot of The Sisters Of Mercy), The Danse Society, the Cult
Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy are no more. They’ve been replaced by newer bands: Lycia, Faith and the Muse, Type O Negative, Nine Inch Nails, Interpol
Industrial music was also pretty popular among goths
Other bands: Fields of the Nephilim, All About Eve, The Cult, The Cure. (The Cure doesn’t self-identify as gothic, but goths see it as such.)
Depeche Mode, Dead or Alive, Echo and The Bunnymen have a tenuous link to goth subculture.
Nine Inch Nails fuses goth rock and industrial dance music.
Marilyn Manson is “Alice Cooper reincarnated” and is heavy metal rather than goth, but his androgyny makes him gothy.
Many goths look down upon Nick Cave, Neff and Skeletal Family
Clothes made from: leather, velvet, silk, PVC, chains, lace
Clothes may include: sunglasses, top hats, capes, corsets, cravats, riding crop, lunchbox purses
Hair: red, black, purple, Kabuki inspired
The 1983 film The Hunger is an arty Hollywood vampire film which is big in gothworld. (Soundtrack: Bela Lugosi’s Dead)
Edward Scissorhands (1990), which has achieved cult status with a few different groups, including goths. This is because it “restages a familiar tale of teenage alienation by exploiting a filmic nostalgia that paradoxically locates moral and psychological authenticity in the amateurish technologies of Tim Burton’s beloved 1950s and 1960s monster movies.” (from Goth: Undead Subculture)
Romantic poets, Pre-Raphaelite painters, vampire-aristocrats, decadent aesthetes are hallowed icons.
Things that transform themselves into something else. Vampires are one example, which explains the popularity of Dracula, who transforms himself into a flock of crows.
Even some fantasy has been called goth: Terry Pratchett, Anne McCaffrey, Isobelle Carmody — they all use the word ‘miasma‘ at some point.
Crucifixes, churches, graveyards, bats
Black pet cats
Extended black eyeliner
Cheekbone accentuating blusher
18th and 19th century fashion for females: dark corsets, bodices, lacy/velvet tops/dresses
Fake fangs, coloured contact lenses
WHAT ARE SOME OTHER SUBCULTURES SIMILAR TO GOTH?
“Industrial” subculture is like goth but more masculine than androgynous
punk — goth has survived better than punk, which takes an angry sort of glee in displaying the swastika and other repulsive signs simply for shock value. Punks seek to empty such signs of their historical value, seeking to turn them into irony, but perhaps the world isn’t well-attuned enough to such irony.
grunge — has all but gone since the mid 90s, but goth lives on
crust punk — goth may have most in common with this kind of punk
beatniks — black shades, black turtlenecks, long black dresses with layers of meaning. With goth there’s a darker side: a bit sexy, a bit evil, somehow threatening, not wholesome.
emos (Real Emo Has Nothing to Do With Hot Topic from Good Men Project). From Urban Dictionary: In the early 90s there was a movement in the hardcore genre that came to be known as “Emotive Hardcore,” spearheaded by Rites Of Spring. Harder-core-than-thou kids, who swore by Dischord Records a la Minor Threat, actually coined the term “Emo” as something of a put-down for the kids who really liked Rites Of Spring, Indian Summer and this new wave of “Emotive” Hardcore bands. How Emo Got Political.
WHAT IS SOME SPECIFICALLY GOTH TERMINOLOGY?
Goths call people of the dominant culture “normals” and speak of “mainstream culture” or “trendies”
Mainstream music is sometimes referred to as “bubblegum music”, compared to “serious music”.
Capitalist is used as an insult.
Goths who only adopt certain parts of the subculture are labeled ‘part-timer’
‘Gother than thou syndrome’ — sleep in coffins and then tell everyone they do it
Unheimlich is a Freudian term which means ‘uncanny’ and refers to the class of things that lead us back to what is known and familiar. Its counterpart is heimlich, which means canny or homey.
Gothadelic — a superlative meaning something is wonderfully Goth
Bambi Wicca — a type of modern witchcraft which focuses on the ponies and rainbows side of life
What about goth sexuality? Anything different there?
Goth subcultures can fetishize certain objects – anything at all can be fetishized of course, but it’s often the fashion and accoutrements and the props. People with sexual fetishes are often thought to be hypersexual but in fact a fetish can stand in for intercourse. Mainstream interpretation of this kind of fetishistic outlook is in direct opposition to say, the hippies, who get naked and have lots of intercourse, but goth sexuality may have more in common with a Catholic sort of taboo on sexual activity, in which the forbidden becomes more erotic. Goth subculture eroticizes asceticism. For example, goth fashion often (but not always) covers the entire body (long skirts, not mini skirts), boots (not bare feet). The ubergoth would be a necrophiliac, but they are very rare.
There is no irony in fetishism. Fetishists are very serious about it.
So what does Goth subculture have to do with the 18th and 19th C goth?
Critique of bourgeois culture.
WHAT DOES GOTHIC SOUTHERN AMERICAN LITERATURE HAVE TO DO WITH THOSE YOUNG PEOPLE DRESSED IN BLACK?
Irony, from what I can gather. And a preoccupation with death and the supernatural.
Southern Gothic does not actually exist as a Library of Congress subject heading, however widely used the term. The following writers have been called ‘Southern gothic’, and if you’ve read any of them you should have a general sense:
Shirley Ann Grau
Poppy Z. Brite
Nick Cave, who writes parody of the genre. (I’m not sure how many of those authors dressed in black.
The following is from an essay from Goth: Undead Subculture:
Snakes in the trees, plantations on every block — these images, though at odds with each other, are familiar components of the southern mystique. Writers working in the southern gothic tradition, notably William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, have simultaneously contributed to and undone this fantastical construction of The South. It makes perfect sense to us that Faulkner and O’Conner set their fiction down south; where else would they, and why would we want them to set it anywhere else? What seems more surprising is that so much contemporary fiction associated with goth subculture is set in the South. Southern gothic writers appeared to have no choice but to write about the South, to voice some truth about their region: what, then, is the South’s appeal for goth writers, and what does it look like in their work?
“Ah Am Witness To Its Authenticity”: Goth style in postmodern Southern writing
That final question is an important one, and here are some further points from the essay:
In the popular imagination, the South is deep and dark, and so writers don’t need any further justification for including violence set there. Same goes for supernatural.
Dark humour depends on “a distancing of social actuality” — lack of attention on the origins of class oppression.
Goth writing depends on the supernatural. Southern goth writing is more realist. What’s figurative in Southern goth writing is literalized in plain goth writing. The South is America’s ‘ideological other’. Anything is expected ‘down there’ – why not ghosts and vampires also?
The gothic trope of the haunted house is translated, in southern literary terms, as the haunted plantation. Southern gothic is often a ghost story without the ghost.
Goth writing includes: parody, pastiche. Parody is maybe the only type of power available to a writer/critic living in this age, where nothing is original because it’s been done already. [Goth chic is a parody of the Western beauty standard, so that makes sense.]
Southern goth writing takes the supernatural as its very subject.
By humanizing the inhuman — animating houses, making flesh-and-blood heroes of vampires, turning a hunchback mute punching bag into the star of a big book — goth writers reverse the southern gothic’s concealed dehumanization of the South.
Southern gothic encourages our “alienated and unsympathetic” response to the South, whereas goth writing solicits sympathy for the traditionally unsympathetic, inhuman (or sort of human) subjects. In this way, goth writing tries to rouse us from our rote approach to reading the South.
Goth writing has given Southern writing a shot in the arm. Goth might achieve its aim in exploding the myth of the South by completely overdoing the supernatural.
Are there goths in Australia? Why?
The more mainstream culture tries to define what’s Australian, the more scope there is to rebel against the definition. There has been a lot of talk about what’s ‘un-Australian’ in recent years, which by default defines what’s ‘Australian’.
The next essay in the same book of essays is about Australian goths. If goth subculture is anachronistic, goths in Australia seem in the wrong place as well — nothing contrasts more with black garb than bright blue skies. Yet there is a definite gothicness about Australian literature which stretches right back to convict times, “emerging at the origins of settlement and consolidating itself in the 1890s in gothic romance based both in the bush and the city, and then underwriting the subsequent canonical works of Christina Stead and Patrick White as well as more recent literature from Louis Nowra, Peter Carey and Elizabeth Jolley, among many others”.
Daniel Nettheim’s film Angst (2000) is the first Australian film to feature a goth as one of its protagonists. (Um, it’s got 5.9 on IMDb.)
The Music Of Razors is an example of an Australian goth sub-cultural book. Then you’ve got the books of Nick Cave, the latest of which was written entirely on his mobile phone. (Judge from that its quality, if you’re inclined to pre-judgement.) See also Kim Wilkins, author of speculative fiction for adults and YA.
Goth subculture has influenced The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hot Topic (a “counter-cultural” shopping mall chain), Emily The Strange, Sid and Nancy (the movie), Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Edward Scissorhands.
GS has featured less in pop culture since the 1990s, after a series of Columbine-like murders — there’s been a swing toward hypermasculinity
The Matrix detaches goth style from goth sensibility.
Donnie Darko does the reverse — Donnie doesn’t wear goth clothes even though the film is set in 1988, at the height of goth fashion
Buffy is popular because it privileges the communal ideal outside the family values sit-coms, unlike Anne Rice’s books which privilege individualism.
Trends in Finnish children’s literature mirror trends in the English speaking world, but Finland is possibly more keen to keep its unique culture alive via children’s books.
The Moomin stories are some of the weirdest and most inventive children’s books out there, and much beloved, especially in the Moomin family’s native Finland, where there is an entire theme park called Moomin World. Something rational tells us that we might want to work on getting the entire existing oeuvre readily available in the states before we start clamoring for more, but we feel like clamoring nonetheless.
Though best known outside her home country of Finland for the series of children’s books she wrote featuring the Moomins, Tove Jansson was also a wonderful writer of adult fiction. Featuring an old woman and her six-year-old granddaughter, The Summer Book retains the warmth and quirkiness of her children’s stories, but adds a layer of Nordic melancholy to the mix. There is no plot to speak of – Sophia and her grandmother simply share a summer on an island, talking, eating, laughing and exploring – yet this remains a charming and beautiful book, with prose that sparkles from beginning to end.
Best Loved Children’s Books In Finland
books by Tove Jansson (who writes in Swedish). Tove was Finnish-Swedish, part of the Swedish speaking minority of Finland. She wrote her books in Swedish. The first ones were translated into Finnish after the English translations Many Swedes identify with settings and character as much as Finns do, though in some of her books her Finnish heritage is clear. Take Farlig midsommar (1954). This book shows that Tove was a Finn because the traditions of midsummer differ greatly between Nordic countries. In this book Tove depicts a Finnish midsummer rather than a Swedish one.
The popular Heinähattu ja Vilttitossu (‘Hayhat and Fluffshoe’, illustrated by Markus Majaluoma, Tammi) series of children’s novels by the sisters Sinikka and Tiina Nopola has now been relaunched for picture-book readers.
Timo Parvela’s novel Ella ja Äf Yksi (‘Ella and F One’, Tammi), part of his Ella series set in a primary school, reached the silver screen last year in a film version directed by Taneli Mustonen.
Dystopia, fantasy that reaches out into the future, is clearly on the way to becoming a new and trendy subgenre of domestic fantasy. The best examples include Annika Luther’s De hemlösas stad (‘The city of the homeless’, Söderströms), as well as Routasisarukset (‘The frost children’,WSOY), the splendid opening volume of Anne Leinonen and Eija Lappalainen’s fantasy trilogy…The realistic novel for young adults is clearly going through a critical stage.
Kirsi Kunnas (born 1924) is the queen of Finnish children’s poetry.
General Notes On Children’s Literature In Finland
Finnish picture books for children have long been reliable export goods around the world…Now young adult literature has also blazed a trail on to the international market. (Books From Finland)
There’s not much in the way of ‘anarchy’. (The first children’s book by Alexandra Salmela, who has previously published a novel for adults, brings some sorely needed anarchy to Finnish storybooks. – Alexandra Salmela: Kirahviäiti ja muita hölmöjä aikuisia [Giraffe mummy and other silly adults]
Most Finnish board books have been following the contemporary trend for strong colour palettes with pared-down character designs. – from a review of Toivon talvi [Toivo’s winter] .
The buyers of Christmas presents favour books written by Finnish authors.
All new mothers in Finland receive a ‘maternity package’ from the state containing items for the baby (including bedding, clothing and various childcare products) intended to give each baby a good start in life. This tradition, which started in 1938, is believed to be the only such programme in the world. Each package also contains the baby’s first book, traditionally a sturdy board book by a Finnish author. – from Future, fantasy and everyday life: books for young readers
Novels for beginning readers often carry an indication of the publisher’s recommended age range on the front cover. This has led to confusion among young readers as well as library staff who recommend books to readers. The first decade of the 21st century was a time of upheaval in Finnish reading culture, with diagnoses of various reading disorders, more entertainment options competing for children’s attention and the increase in the number of children from immigrant backgrounds all putting new demands on children’s literature. (from same source as above)
Sci-fi/fantasy writing now appears to be taking over from realism in Finnish young adult literature. A number of authors who previously favoured realism (Salla Simukka, Laura Lähteenmäki, Anne Leinonen & Eija Lappalainen) have now turned their attention to dystopias, though the themes of independence and growth are still present in their new works. Supernatural romances with vampires and trolls are also making their presence felt in Finnish literature. (same)
Modern picture books are influenced by traditional Finnish folktales such as the Kalevala, a Finnish folk epic. (See here for an online collection.) The Kalevala and other mythological subjects appear in Louhi, the adventure-packed final book in Timo Parvela’s Sammon vartijat (‘Guardians of the Sampo’) trilogy, in Reeta Aarnio’s children’s fantasy Veden vanki (‘The prisoner of the water’), and in Sari Peltoniemi’s Hämärän rengissä (‘The servant of darkness’), which is an imaginative combination of alternative history and fantasy. (reference here)
Families in stories are increasingly diverse. Of the Finlandia Junior Prize, the chief judge said in 2010: ‘‘It caught my attention that in none of the six shortlisted children’s books are there any so-called nuclear families, at least not for long. The main characters constantly live and grow without something – the lack of parents or the attention of an adult is a serious matter to a child. However, in these books there is always someone who cares, not perhaps a stereotypical mom or dad, but an adult nevertheless.’
The retro fad, with its interest in the lifestyles of previous eras like the 1960s and 70s can be seen not just in fashion and interior design, but also in children’s book illustrations, the delicate tones of the 70s can be seen both in the visuals and in the earnest didacticism reminiscent of 70s children’s books.
Before modern science took hold, when humans were still trying to classify everything we saw around us, people really did believe in the chimera. Take the example of the Scoter duck. No one could decide whether this bird was a bird or a fish. he Abbe of Vallemont even took it out of the bird category and put it in the fish category, and in the 19th century Catholics were allowed to eat Scoter duck on Fridays in lieu of fish if they wanted.
The chimera is important in the horror and speculative fiction/sci-fi genres.
The term chimera may be about to undergo a renaissance in modern parlance, because scientists are using the word to describe a single organism composed of cells from different zygotes. Animal chimeras are produced by the merger of multiple fertilized eggs.
WHAT IS A CHIMERA?
A creature composed of body parts from a variety of (at least two) different creatures.
Examples of hybrids in well-known tales:
angels — human bodies, wings of birds
centaurs — the head, arms, and torso of a man and the body and legs of a horse. Symbolises the essential duality of humans.
bucentaur — half man, half ox/bull. Like the centaur, the bucentaur symbolises the essential duality of humans, however in the bucentaur, the baser (animalistic) part is stressed.
devils — human plus goat
sphinxes —woman’s head, lion’s body
tritons — trunk of a man and the tail of a fish
mantichore — the man beast
gorgon — from Topsell’s Historie of Fourefooted Beasts (Topsell was the 16th century version of Arthur Mee)
dipsa — so small that when you step on him you don’t see him
pegasus — a horse that can fly, so a horse/bird combo. (Though creatures with wings are not always considered chimeras — sometimes they’re symbolically considered just creatures… but with wings.)
mermaids and mermen — half human half fish, or the French version, melucina (singular: melusine)
sirens — Sirens have changed a lot over history, from freaky bird women to seductive femme creatures more akin to mermaids. What’s so sexy about a chimera, though? This sentence sums it up: ‘The true allure of the Siren … lies in their status as in-between creatures, bridging the human world and the unknown afterlife with a powerful knowledge that both attracts and repels the onlooker.’ (Vice)
unicorns — horses plus the horn from some other animal
The spectrum of hybrid creatures can be beautiful, with lovely wings, or they can be monstrous and deformed, evoking a wide range of moods.
Gaston Bachelard points out that creatures with shells are regarded suspiciously by us:
And the fact is that a creature that comes out of its shell suggests daydreams of a mixed creature that is not only “half fish, half flesh,” but also half dead, half alive, and, in extreme cases, half stone, half man. This is just the opposite of the daydream that petrifies us with fear. Man is born of stone.
Poetics of Space
E. Nesbit was no stranger to the chimera. As well as children’s stories she also wrote horror, such as “Man-sized in Marble“. In that case, she is making use of the same axis of horror.
Drolleries — What, now?
Bachelard, being French, offers the example of Les heures de Marguerite de Beaujeu by Baltrusitis, The Book Of Hours of Marguerite of Beaujeu, (around 1320-1330) as an example of a work full of such creatures. (Marguerite of Beaujeu was the daughter of a lord and the book was made for her. The real work is now kept at The British Library.) This book contains lots of ‘drollery’.
A drollery — yes, it’s related to the word ‘droll’, is a decorative thumbnail image in the margin of an illuminated manuscript. They were most popular from c1250-15th century. The most common types of drollery images appear as mixed creatures: several different animals, part human, part animal, or part animal, part plant. Or even other, inorganic things.
Without chimeras, many of the most memorable science fiction and horror films would have been impossible, writes Howard Suber. A chimera was an ancient Greek monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent.
Dragons are a subset of a chimera, being made up of lions, serpents and birds. A great number of characters in myth, legend and folk tales are chimeras.
Drolleries often have a thematic connection with the subject of the text of the page, and larger miniatures, and they usually form part of a wider scheme of decorated margins, though some are effectively doodles added later. Here’s an example from elsewhere:
THE FUNCTION OF CHIMERA IN A STORY
Throughout history, hybrid creatures have functioned as remarkably versatile vehicles for the expression of abiding cultural anxieties. On many occasions, they have been rendered just about tolerable by the sublimation of their uncanny anatomies into so-called “curiosities.” Yet, this has frequently led to a paradoxical situation, insofar as our attraction to those beings’ intractable alterity is never conclusively anesthetized: much as we may seek to domesticate the threatening connotations they are held to carry, by relegating them to the province of the abnormal or the repulsive, the sense of menace abides as a vital component of their bizarre, monstrous and fearful beauty. In other words, hybrids’ attractiveness is inextricable from their intimidating power.
Dani Cavallaro, Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study
The most important thing to understand about these metaphorical creatures (and other metaphorical symbols in general) is that they also represent something within the hero.
One way to tame the fearsome chimera is to turn it into a sexual object. This happens regularly with femme coded chimeras but this occasionally happens with the masculo-coded centaur as well. There is a chapter in “The Wind In The Willows” about a sexualised Pan, sometimes left out of editions marketed to children.
In modern vampire stories, e.g. Twilight, the male werewolf might be considered a kind of sexually objectified chimera. In this case, the human turns wholly into a beast, then wholly back again. Apart from in the process of transformation itself, the body is complete.
But what, exactly, is the appeal of this eroticised centaur? What’s that about?
The feet are where the body ends and the ground begins. They are part of the lower body, the belly, the genitals, the anus, and associated with all three. This is one reason why feet and legs are eroticized in many cultures. Such bodily lowness is also symbolized by the fact that many of the odd feet of demons are animal feet; classical mythology abounds with creatures whose lower bodies are animal and their upper bodies human; satyrs, centaurs, fauns, silenoi, and the god Pan, are all associated with sexual licence.
Diane Purkiss: Troublesome things: A history of fairies and fairy stories
The winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz are a kind of children’s book chimera. The novel by L. Frank Baum is famously open to interpretation. Everything seems like a symbol.
The flying monkeys is a tern now used in pop psychology when talking about narcissistic abuse:
Flying monkeys … are people who act on behalf of a narcissist to a third party, usually for an abusive purpose (e.g., smear campaign). The phrase has also been used to refer to people who act on behalf of a psychopath, for a similar purpose. The term is not formally used in medical practice or teaching.
Abuse by proxy (or proxy abuse) is a closely related or synonymous concept. The term is from the flying monkeys used by the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film Wizard of Oz to carry out evil deeds on her behalf.[
WHAT ARE THE BESTIARIES?
A bestiary, or bestiarum vocabulum, is a compendium of beasts. They came from the Ancient world, and became popular in the Middle Ages. Illustrated volumes describe various animals, birds and also inanimate things like rocks. Each beast gets its own illustration, a natural history and tends to end with a moral lesson (similar to Aesop fables).
Bestiaries are Hellenic, Asian and Egyptian in origin. Each illustrator from the 8th century onwards has added flourishes and sometimes given them weirdly humanised faces.
Nearly every animal in a Bestiary was symbolic of a human virtue or vice. So these beasts tend to be divided in binary fashion into good and wicked.
Beasts like minotaurs, harpies and centaurs belong to stories of gods and heroes that have been translated into English without being changed or used, apart from the kind of imaginative transference whereby a poet like Gavin Douglas could make the Aeneid sound as if it were happing in Scotland.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
In the old days, chimeras were mostly made up of different animal parts.
For example, the minotaur is a creature from Greek myth with the head of a bull and the body of a man.
Heraldic creatures or mythical mixtures of parts are supposed to have been created that way, complete and finished. But creatures that have grown warped and monstrous with time and misfortune symbolise too much that is warped in human nature for comfort.
THE CHIMERA AND HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY
Nicoletta Ceccoli is an artist who paints a lot of chimeras. Here she explains why she is drawn to them:
I often depict lonely weird sad creatures. Half woman, half monster. The characters in my pictures are kind of my alter ego. I’ve never felt comfortable with my own body, and I have fought with these feelings all my life. When I was an adolescent I often had the sensation of being a ‘freak’; I felt a sense of isolation, of being lonely and closed in my own thoughts. This brought me to feel a connection with those people who looked foreign to society. The word ‘normal’ scares me a little. In the film ‘Freaks’ by Tod Browning, the idea of man and monster is reversed: the human cruelty of so-called normality is monstrous, not the morality and goodness of the ‘others’. I feel an affection towards creatures that are unusual.
Modern chimeras are different: Frankenstein is a man merged with different bodies.
As Margaret Blount writes in Animal Land:
Minotaurs and others of half-human appearance do not seem to have travelled well enough to transplant themselves into stories. But they, and other animals made up from a mixture of parts, seem to have been accepted as facts in the popular Bestiaries; the descriptions proliferated in the telling with all the force of apparent eye-witness accounts, permeated with religious symbolism which lends them awe and wonder.
Chimera in Victorian Children’s Literature
Edward Lear invented quite a few creatures, and we’re not sure what they’re made up of:
The Dong — Edward Lear’s “The Dong with a Luminous Nose”
The Quangle-Wangle — Edward Lear also wrote a poem called The Quangle Wangle’s Hat
Mock Turtle — from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — named after ‘mock turtle soup’, a dish popular in the Victorian period
These made-up creatures were particularly useful to writers who loved to make up words: Lear, Seuss, Carroll and Sendak.
Psammead — from Five Children and It — a sand fairy who can grant three wishes (Nesbit)
Melvyn Peake, who wrote Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor in 1945 also made up a bunch of animals for the story such as the Yellow Creature.
The Mr Neverlost books by A. Turnbull (1932-1934) are early Dr. Who stories. Impossible creatures show an interest in humans as specimens. (Science fiction treated as fairy tale.)
Then of course we have the strange creatures from Dr. Seuss, such as The Lorax, who might be a cross between species — a land dweller who looks like of like something from the deep ocean. One reviewer describes the Lorax of the film adaptation by saying “Danny DeVito voices the Lorax, a mustachioed, tangerine-coloured being that looks like a cross between Wilford Brimley and a potato with a spray tan.” Or maybe The Lorax is a type of walrus without the tusks.
Chimeras In Modern Film
Chimeras in Picture Books
Not all chimeras are scary. Today there are ‘toy books’ with split pages in which the young reader is able to create their own chimera by pairing an animal head with a different animal’s body/legs.
Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Gruffalo also seems to be a kind of chimera, and a portmanteau word made from a blend of ‘Gruff’ and ‘Buffalo’. Gruff, of course, is not a creature but an adjective. But this is still a riff on the ancient chimera.
In general I would say that entirely made-up creatures are less terrifying than real ones. Contrast The Gruffalo with Blackdog by Levi Pinfold, in which a massive dog looks in through the window of a cosy house.
The Chimerical Home
In Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard briefly mentions the term ‘chimerical home’, which obviously means a bit from one type of dwelling added onto another type of dwelling. An example of a chimerical home would be a house boat. Another would be a tree house.
ADDITIVE MONSTER: In contrast with the composite monster, mythologists and folklorists use the label additive monster to describe a creature from mythology or legend that has an altered number of body parts rather than body parts from multiple animals added together. For instance, the Scandinavian Ettin, a troll or giant with two heads, is an additive monster. Sleipnir, the magical horse in Norse mythology, is a regular horse, except it has eight legs. Deities and demons in the Hindu pantheon often have multiple arms or eyes. The term has also been loosely applied to fantastic creatures that have modified limbs as well. For instance, the gyascutis is a fantastic medieval beast that resembles a sheep, except its limbs vary in length. Its front legs are drastically shortened, and its hind legs are drastically lengthened, which allows it to remain level as it grazes on the incline of steep hills.
Sixteen images to flip, mix, and match in a Wire-O bound hard cover book. Sixteen bizarre creatures are combined in extraordinary ways in Edward Gorey’s Mélange Funeste, which could be translated as “The Dreadful Mixture.” Each intricately drawn figure has been divided into three parts and mixed up. Flip the parts and make the figures whole again…or create new combinations of head, torso, and legs.
THE EXQUISITE CORPSE GAME
Exquisite corpse, also known as exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis), is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule (e.g. “The adjective noun adverb verb the adjective noun.” as in “The green duck sweetly sang the dreadful dirge.”) or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed
Header painting: Les petites faunesses (The Little Faunesses) by Eugene Grasset
We like to be scared. Rather, fear sends a rush of adrenaline, and we like that. Scratch that. Maybe it’s the relief we feel once the rush of adrenaline is over.
For the same reason, social media can be addictive. That rush when we hear a reply coming back from a tweet? That rush is partly borne of fear.
Some people have wondered if horror stories are addictive.
Marina Warner argues that the extremes of participatory performances such as rock concerts, orgiastic jubilation such as experienced at raves, and spectator entertainments such as horror films can be viewed as rites of passage, testing endurance. They “define…the living, impervious, sovereign self” as well as providing the ecstatic “high” of surviving. The adrenalin high Warner refers to may account for the addictive quality of these activities and narratives.
Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
Howard Suber also writes about horror and its special appeal with young adults:
The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives.
Is ‘fear’ the best word for the emotion horror evokes in its audience? An alternative is ‘horripilation’, which describes the feeling of hair rising on the back of your neck.
Disgust may also be necessary for the fun horror recipe. In children’s literature (designed for an audience too young for horror) there is a vast selection of ‘gross out’ stories, which are basically proto-horror stories.
Raison d’être of Horror
Can horror films add value to our ways of thinking? Can they challenge us to see the world in a slightly different way? Horror, along with Westerns and the entire speculative fiction category is highly metaphorical. Metaphor can be utilised to excellent effect. The best horror adds value.
Starting with Aristotle, the Greek philosopher introduced the concept of ‘catharsis’. The idea is that a scary story can release repressed scary feelings in its audience. (Debatable as to whether that actually works. It may not be the fear itself which is cathartic, but the increaseds sense of in-group intimacy which comes from watching a scary movie with other people.)
Let’s go next to Freud, who believed that horror taps into our collective subconscious. Horror stories can tell us what we’re afraid of. There are commonalities to what we all find reprehensible. Hansel and Gretel taps into the collective fear of an unnurturing mother. Almost all of us have a mother figure in our lives, making this a universally shared experience. We all fear food insecurity; we all fear getting lost. Freud used the word ‘uncanny’, and published a famous paper about that in 1919.
More recently, Noel Carroll (film scholar) has talked about the negative emotions of distress, displeasure and disquiet manipulated by horror films into something that feels like pleasure.
What are the big questions horror tends to deal with? All narratives are about our desire to know something we didn’t know before, but what is the knowledge that horror adds?
Why do monsters exist? What is a monster?
Horror is different from other types of story because horror monsters, by their supernatural, unassailable natures, are inherently unknowable to us.
Horror is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman.
The horror genre is about the fear of the inhuman entering the human community. It is about crossing the boundaries of a civilized life—between living and dead, rational and irrational, moral and immoral—with destruction the inevitable result. Because horror asks the most fundamental question—what is human and what is inhuman?—the form has taken on a religious mind-set. In American and European horror stories, that religious mind-set is Christian. As a result, the character web and symbol web in these stories are almost completely determined by Christian cosmology.
In all horror stories, the opponent wants to belong. They want to enter the human community but we won’t let them.
Not all horror is from the West, of course. If you’ve ever watched Japanese horror, for example, you’ve probably noticed a distinct difference. Japanese horror does not make use of Christian symbolism because Japan has its own super creepy folklore from which to draw. Naturally, Japanese horror draws from western traditions and, increasingly, vice versa.
Japanese horror is Japanese horror fiction in popular culture, noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre in light of western treatments. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror and tension building (suspense), particularly involving ghosts and poltergeists, while many contain themes of folk religion such as: possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai.
Chinese horror is similar to Japanese though often includes some comedy elements. Given that certain tricks — such as mechanical behaviour — are used in both horror and in comedy, the link is more natural than at first it seems. A comedic scene can also heighten the terror that follows, and give the audience a break before enduring more.
Bollywood also produces horror films, and they include lots of singing and dancing!
How The Horror Genre Is Evolving
The origin or horror can come from:
Whatever lies beyond death (Dracula)
Demonic forces (The Exorcist)
Fooling around with Mother Nature (Frankenstein)
Or the horror can be supernatural in a different sense, without religious connections at all but still not what we customarily think of as “natural”. It can, for example, be the super science of The Terminator or the biological horror that seems “unnatural” in Alien. Sometimes, what’s unnatural is merely a warped mind, as in Psycho and Friday the 13th.
Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Different people watch horror movies for different reasons
Here’s one taxonomy of reasons for watching horror. Marvin Zuckerman was all over this at the end of the 1970s.
Later, in the mid 1990s, Dr Deidre Johnston came up with four reasons adolescents watch graphic horror:
1. Gore-watching — low empathy, strong identification with the ‘baddie’
2. Thrill-watching — high empathy, high sensation seeking motivated by the suspense
3. Independent watching — high empathy for the victim and with positive feelings at the end of the story
4. Problem-watching — high empathy for the victim but negative feelings of helplessness at the end of the story.
In the mid 1980s we had Gender Socialization theory by Zillman, Weaver, Mundorf and Aust. They compared a group of 36 men with 36 women (using a now-outdated gender binary, of course) and concluded that the men found the horror films fun while the women were distressed. (Did the young men enjoy the movie more because the women were distressed? Is it possible to tell from someone’s outer reaction how scared they feel on the inside?) There’s a whole lot going on there.
The Target Audience Of Horror
Netflix is well aware of their target audience when it shows us three distinct categories of Horror:
Gory (Let The Right One In, Teeth, Let Me In, You’re Next) — believe it or not, Ten Little Indians was the play and 1965 film that started the Slasher genre. This film is itself not listed as horror on IMDb — it’s a blend of crime, mystery and thriller.
Supernatural (Splice, Insidious, End of Days, Mirrors)
Teen Screams (Troll Hunter, Hansel and Gretel, Playback, Hellraiser)
I haven’t yet come across the category for Middle-aged Woman Screams. However, as Howard Suber notes, some filmmakers have learnt how to harness the allure of horror and modify it for a different audience:
Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.
What Most Horror Stories Have In Common
Horror requires tension. That’s such a broad spectrum word. How does a storyteller create tension?
Mystery (the identity/nature of the opponent is often kept from the audience)
Horror-like mise en scene in film (costume, incongruous SFX, high and low camera angles, tracking shots, variation in closeness of camera to subject).
Lighting: uplighting, silhouette, spotlighting, underexposure, chiascuro, emphasis of shadows
Common Symbols In The Horror Genre
Light and Dark is important in horror. We all know that light = good, dark = bad. (Compare to the white hat, black hat symbolism of Westerns.)
Since Christian symbols form the basis of horror stories from the West, we often have the cross, which has the power to turn back even Satan himself.
Before Christianity, though, there was horror in myth. In myth, animals were symbolic in a similarly binary way. Good animals:
snakes (believe it or not)
In myth, if you came across these animals, they had the power to lead you to behave properly and become a better person. But this all changed once Christianity came along. The devil kind of ruined any sort of creature with horns.
Other picture books make use of horror symbolism but are designed, ultimately, to comfort. The Dark by Daniel Handler and Jon Klassen is one example.
Some picture books are genuinely horrific even though they are picture books. The Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean is one example.
This is commonly used in horror, as it is also used in comedy (refer to The I.T. Crowd: “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” and in Meet The Parents, with the airport woman who won’t let Gaylord Focker board the plane early even though there is no one else waiting).
Whenever the sun sets the Wolf Man/vampire appears
Bates in Psycho ‘can’t help’ himself, and becomes the cog in a horrible psychic machine
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Audiences don’t scare as easily as they once did. Not only have they seen just about every conceivable brand of horror movie—from torture porn to alt-history vampires—they’ve seen real-life terrors that Alfred Hitchcock never had to compete against. Considering this desensitization through saturation, it’s a marvel that one of the biggest horror phenomena of the last decade comes in the historically tame format of a weekly anthology series.
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.
First of all, consent training starts young, way before the teen years.
Meet Doug, an ordinary kid who doesn’t like hugs, in this fun and exuberant story which aims to spark discussions about bodily autonomy and consent.
Doug doesn’t like hugs. He thinks hugs are too squeezy, too squashy, too squooshy, too smooshy. He doesn’t like hello hugs or goodbye hugs, game-winning home run hugs or dropped ice cream cone hugs, and he definitely doesn’t like birthday hugs. He’d much rather give a high five—or a low five, a side five, a double five, or a spinny five. Yup, some people love hugs; other people don’t. So how can you tell if someone likes hugs or not? There’s only one way to find out: Ask! Because everybody gets to decide for themselves whether they want a hug or not.
The sex in TV and movies can be simultaneously explicit and evasive. Sex, particularly non-committed sex, is typically presented as fun and advisable; rarely is it awkward or silly or challenging or messy or actively negotiated or preceded by discussion of contraception and disease protection. There’s always plenty of room in the backseats of those limousines, and nary a pothole in the road.
Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex
One way to discover what Americans are concerned about is to delve into the books they read. Or more tellingly, the ones they reject. […] “America seems to be very exercised about sex,” Mr. LaRue said.
Banned Books Week, NYT
You may have heard the phrase, “Children’s literature is both a mirror and a window,” meaning when children (indeed anyone) is exposed to someone else’s story, two things happen:
We get a glimpse into someone else’s experience via the ‘window’
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 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.
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.
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
Intercourse during menstruation
STD (called VD back then)
‘Broken hymen’ (in fact hymens don’t break — they stretch)
Giving babies up for adoption
Play-by-play on how to have sex (or one kind of sex)
The young woman is assumed to take sole responsibility to take birth control.
The text tries to liberate teenage sexuality by communicating that curiosity about sex is natural, but it then undercuts this message with a series of messages framed by institutional discourses that imply teenagers should not have sex or else should feel guilty if they do.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
Although this ideology is very much of its time, this book provides a sensitive treatment of sex, and helped quite a lot of young women worried about the hygiene and practicalities of the sex itself. Even though sex is much more a part of young adult literature these days, it’s still hard to find stories which address young girls’ concerns in such a practical manner rather than the emotional side.
Also, the idea that health of the family is the girl/woman’s responsibility has hardly gone away. You can find daily examples of advertisements, for health food, for dentists, for glasses, which are aimed at women. Just this morning I had a newsletter in my inbox advertising a (dodgy) app which helps to ‘educate mothers’ about health for the sake of our families:
THE 1990S AND THE AIDS EPIDEMIC
It’s only now that I’m middle aged that I realise the extent to which the AIDS epidemic influenced the messages my generation received about sex, coming-of-age in the 1990s. We received no real sex education; we received scare mongering. We put condoms on bananas and took notes about all the different kinds of STDs. We were made to line up boy-girl-boy-girl in a shockingly heteronormative exercise, then told that this was a visual representation for how disease and infection can spread through a community like wildfire. The clitoris was not mentioned once.
There wasn’t much to be gleaned from young adult literature of that time, either. That, too, was influenced by the AIDS epidemic, and authors became leery of writing sex scenes in their books for teenagers. The 1990s was when the Sex Novel evolved into the AIDS novel. An early example was published in 1986. It was called Night Kites, by M.E. Kerr.
A classic young adult novel from this era is Weetzie Bat, published 1989.
Weetzie Bat… is predicated on the notion that sexual expressions of love are good, whether they are expressed between people of the same or opposite sexes. But Block cannot escape the trappings of our culture: writing within a post-AIDs culture, she only sanctions sex that occurs between committed, loving couples in permanent relationships.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
(I wouldn’t call 1989 a post-AIDs era… 1989 was right in the throes of it from what I remember. But I get the point.)
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.
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
sexually transmitted diseases
The occasional teenage protagonist even quits agonizing about sexuality long enough to enjoy sex, but such characters seem more the exception than the rule.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
HAVING SEX MAKES YOU A GROWN UP
Sex is a rite of passage. This is a weird one, because it often occurs alongside the message that…
SEX IS POWERFUL SO BE CAREFUL WITH IT
STRUCTURE OF A YOUNG ADULT ROMANCE NOVEL
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but here’s a very typical sequence in a young adult romance. Summarising from Roberta Seelinger Trites:
Two teenagers feel sexually attracted to one another
Something will keep them apart. During this period, each character thinks the attraction is unrequited.
They’ll eventually share their feelings with each other and learn that it’s mutual.
However, they don’t immediately get into it. They will agonise about what happens next, scared and worried about sex.
They do end up expressing their passion with some sort of sexual contact.
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.
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 thelink 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.
WHEN EXPLICIT IDEOLOGY GOES SIDEWAYS: FROM TITILLATION TO VOYEURISM
I faced this issue when watching Mad Men, which hooked me in but annoyed me at the same time. I have friends who can’t watch it because, for them, watching sexism in action is not entertainment. Did Mad Men depict sexism in order to critique it, or did it promote it? For a few seasons there, titillation definitely won out. There’s nothing wrong with titillation in itself, though it often occurs alongside objectification and violence, sans the encouragement to critique. In the end, it’s impossible to make a distinction when it comes to Mad Men. The same can be said for many stories aimed at a young adult audience.
Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma is about incestuous sex between a brother and sister. In this case the brother ends up dead. Contemporary teen culture has no trouble with eroticism/titillation. Forbidden provides more than simply titillation, instead putting the reader in the situation of a voyeur.
Fade by Robert Cormier is another young adult book largely about an incestuous brother/sister relationship. The main character is able to turn invisible, which allows him the role of voyeur as he sneaks into houses. The reader, of course, accompanies him on this ride. Robert Cormier’s Fade presents all forms of deviation: incest, rape, prostitution, voyeurism, in an incredibly harsh and provocative way which truly questions the intrusion of sex in the lives of teenagers. This book provides no solace nor emotional understanding, but I was both highly entertained and disturbed by it as a 14 year old. I read it later and was slightly bored by it. This wasn’t because I knew the plot — enough time had elapsed for me to completely forget about that. I only remembered I had enjoyed it. (Perhaps you have had a similar experience revisiting children’s literature — a good reminder that stories affect teenagers differently.)
WHERE ARE THE BOOKS ABOUT THE TEENAGE MALE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE?
Most experiences of sex in young adult novels are female experiences. There’s the notable exception such as Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, mentioned above, but that was precisely so notorious because no other book before had presented sex from the perspective of a teenage boy. As erotic and explicit and pornographic as this book is, it’s still explicitly didactic: “This is not the way you treat girls.”
A large proportion of young adult readers are girls. Young adult romance skews even more female. Depending on your ideology, whether we like or not, to some extent the sex in young adult literature is gendered. A lot of the most commercial fiction seems to have the aim of tucking its girl readers into particular feminine roles — sexual and gender roles. For example, in young adult fiction that appeals to girls, sex is emotional. [Girls are often passive, too, waiting for boys to ask them out, not learning about themselves.]
The reasons for this are probably so obvious it’s hardly worth pointing out: There is an alternative for learning about sex as a teenager: The Internet. Pretty sure boys are seeking out their sex education somehow, though it’s not from young adult romance. Girls are doing that too, but perhaps it is not the ‘good girl’s option’ to look to those other types of media. Young adult romance is an acceptable way to learn about sex even in conservative homes. There is something more wholesome-feeling about reading a novel compared to watching a film clip, say. Also, the vast majority of Internet porn is made with a male audience in mind, and over 80 per cent of it depicts violence against women. (Yes, that statistic does include BDSM, which can be consensual — still scary for young people.) Internet porn is not a safe and welcoming place for girls to learn about sex. In fact, it is actively terrifying. (It’s not a good place for anyone to learn how sex is done. That’s not what porn is for.)
INTO THE RIVER BY TED DAWE
Into The River is a New Zealand young adult novel which caused a furore when it won a big literary prize. It would probably have otherwise gone under the radar, but first it was banned for under 14s then, after much discussion, the ban was lifted.
Although the book describes a number of “unacceptable, offensive and objectionable” behaviours, the board said the book “does not in any way promote them”.
This story is social realism done very well. Speculative fiction works so well in young adult stories because adolescence is an overwrought time. Everything is at full throttle. When that tendency is explored in social realism sometimes it becomes melodramatic. But in a magical world, that same drama seems almost persuasive.
Though explicit, the sex scenes are in context. The moral panic that came about is often directed at prize winners.
Compare the content of Into The River with Singing My Sister Down, the short story by Margo Lanagan. Why are more gatekeepers not outraged over that? Lanagan’s short story shocks equally, but it contains no sex. So it seems to be sex that shocks people. Also violence and drugs, but mainly the sex.
There is a real sweetness about the main character of Into The River. There’s no explicit and direct message, but Dawe holds a mirror up to society and asks the reader to take a hard look.
THE CULT OF VIRGINITY
The Gossip Girlseries 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.
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.
Sex in young adult fiction is largely heteronormative and has only recently started to branch out into stories about other sexualities and gender identities.
That said, one of the earliest (the earliest?) was published in 1969: I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth The Trip by John Donovan. Unfortunately, LGBTQIA+ novels of the 1970s always seemed to end with the gay character killed in a car accident. They became known as ‘Death by Gayness’ books. The lead character presumably died as punishment for being gay — not the sort of message anyone would have taken heart in.
The first young adult novel to deal with lesbian identity was Ruby by Rosa Guy in 1976. But Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden (1982) remains more iconic.
Vanessa Wayne Lee is a scholar who divided lesbian novels into three main categories:
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”
Stories that explore the formation of lesbian identity (coming out stories)
Stories decenter the sexual identity of the character. Gayness will still be problematized but identity isn’t the central issue. Wayne Lee calls these “post-modern”. When Wayne Lee made these distinctions, she noted that this last category tends to be found in novels for older readers, but that has since changed in young adult.
THE HOMOPLOT (COMING OUT STORY)
The traditional approach to [LGBTQ] stories is summarized in Esther Saxey’s Homoplot: The Coming-Out Story and Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Identity (2008).
The protagonist is “most likely . . . a troubled teenager”
the plot, resolution, and homoplot narrative itself create, change and shape new identities
discourses of sexual identity help to create what they purport to describe.
Thus the coming out story, which purports to describe a pre-existing sexual identity, is simultaneously contributing to the cultural construction of this identity.
CLICHES AND PITFALLS
Positioning non-cishet identities as a threat or problem
The LGBTQIA+ character not only suffers persecution, bullying, or other harassment because of their sexual orientation, but also fails to question the injustice of that treatment
The death as punishment story, in which a gay character dies because they are gay — avoid. (This is reminiscent of the pregnancy as punishment for sex story about heterosexual teenage girls.) In general, endings which serve as more cautionary than hopeful.
Less obviously problematic but still a problem: A story in which homosexuality is presented as just like heterosexuality. The aim here is to normalise, but this way of normalising homosexuality is highly problematic, not least because it uses heterosexuality as the basic standard and model. Anything outside that norm inevitably becomes a kind of deviation, undermining the whole intention.
There are some stereotypes which play into some highly problematic beliefs about homosexuality, for instance the domineering mother. It has been thought that gay men become gay because of an overbearing mother (and passive male role model), so bear that in mind when creating the character a gay teenager’s mother.
Related to that, homosexuality in a problem novel can sometimes seem like the author is saying that this problematic life event lead to the homosexuality. That’s the gayness as deviation and disorder mentality.
Gay sex as pleasurable is too rarely depicted in young adult. Stories tend to be all about the politics around it and not about the sex itself.
Stories about lesbians often stereotype lesbians as either butch or femme, as if those types are the only ways lesbians express themselves
Conflating issues of sexual orientation and gender identity
Even when traditional texts affirm LGBTQIA+ populations, authors may simply be concerned with making diverse orientations and identities visible, introducing it to heterosexual audiences as spectacle rather than addressing the audience most invested in self-discovery.
LGBTQIA+ tend to be presented as types rather than individuals, and as support to the protagonist rather than of primary importance to plot or reader.
In lesbian love stories, it’s not enough to simply take a cishet romance and switch out the boy for a girl. Progressive novels move toward celebrating the real differences in the experiences and subject-formation of LBTQIA+ teen characters.
There are other pitfalls, of course.
Am I Blue: Coming Out From The Silence (1994) was the first young adult anthology dealing with gay and lesbian issues.
These days many young adult novels include/star a LGBTQ character and the queerness is not The Problem. They more and more just happen to be gay. An example of this is David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003). In this story the homecoming queen is also the star quarterback. TV series Schitts Creek was also a wonderful example of this. Jacqueline Woodson, Nancy Garden, and Stacey Donovan depict lesbianism in far more complex ways than could be imagined in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Heart Has Its Reasons by Cart and Jenkins was published in 2006 and is a groundbreaking study of LGBTQ literature. The Heart Has Its Reasons creates an indispensable typology for finding and evaluating LGBTQ literature for young adults.
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.
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.
Scarleteen is an excellent online resource for teenagers. Tagline: Sex Education For The Real World
Key findings of The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment
Teens and adults tend to greatly overestimate the size of the “hook-up culture” and these misconceptions can be detrimental to young people.
Large numbers of teens and young adults are unprepared for caring, lasting romantic relationships and are anxious about developing them. Yet it appears that parents, educators and other adults often provide young people with little or no guidance in developing these relationships. The good news is that a high percentage of young people want this guidance.
Misogyny and sexual harassment appear to be pervasive among young people and certain forms of gender based degradation may be increasing, yet a significant majority of parents do not appear to be talking to young people about it.
Many young people don’t see certain types of gender-based degradation and subordination as problems in our society.
Research shows that rates of sexual assault among young people are high. But our research suggests that a majority of parents and educators aren’t discussing with young people basic issues related to consent.
Header illustration: Flash from an Old Flame, Cosmopolitan- January 1957 by Bernard D’Andrea