deborah: Kirkus Reviews: OM NOM NOM BRAINS (kirkus)
[personal profile] deborah
My posts have a tendency towards the Fully-Formed Opinion model of essay, but this one is more of a request for you guys to help me formulate my opinions, and my burgeoning discomfort with a new form of exceptionally clever ™ young adult and middle grade fiction.

This post contains one minor spoiler for Adam Rex's Fat Vampire, in that it mentions where one scene takes place. Comments may well contain more substantive spoilers.

I've always been of the opinion that children and teens need not be patronized, and they are smarter than we give them credit for. This is hardly a subversive idea. Daniel Handler's snide comments about children's books called The Pony Party aside, darling sweet books for twee ickle children were not the mainstream when I was a child, when Dan Handler was a child, or now. Certainly there is a historical spectrum from Pollyanna, through Anastasia Krupnik, to Coraline, but these days there's nothing standout about middle grade or young adult books that treat their readers with respect for their intelligence and subtlety. (Note: I said this badly; sanguinity clarifies.)

Where I am concerned, though, is the growing number of books that seem to me to be treating their readers as adults. That is to say, as inexplicably pimply people who happen to be incarcerated in schools but who have all of the history and experiences of the adult teachers, librarians, and booksellers who are heavily influencing the decisions about what books appear on their shelves. It's not just the snide, post-ironic nudging and winking that's getting me down. It's the assumptions of adult experience.

In Adam Rex's Fat Vampire, for example, there's a scene that takes place in a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. One character is rewarded for bad behavior by some other characters in the text who are usually seen in a positive light. There's no voice of condemnation, from the narrative or from the other characters, of the character's bad behavior. One character becomes progressively more silent and uncomfortable, but the representation of that character's discomfort is subtle -- and in my opinion, much too subtle.

The adult reader of the books such as Fat Vampire has a high likelihood of knowing the culture of RHPS well enough to recognize why that character's behavior, seemingly appropriate for the context, is actually quite bad behavior. But the middle school reader of the book (and make no mistake, a book about young high schoolers is probably being read primarily by older middle schoolers) has almost certainly never attended RHPS. That middle school reader, like the badly behaving character in the text, is probably a Rocky Virgin, ignorant of the social conventions of the cult phenomenon.

More power to a text which wants to bring middle schoolers to a cult experience like Rocky, but the text can not assume the readers already know about it. If there is a social experience that has different rules than the ones readers have already been learning at school, at home, on the Internet, then the text should not be acting as if the students already know what is good behavior and what is bad behavior.

Fat Vampire is an extreme example, because it's easy to point to The Rocky Horror Picture Show as having a set of mores which are likely to be completely inexplicable to young readers. (And because of my vast and abiding love for Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday, which made me read Fat Vampire extremely closely.) But it's certainly not the only example. More and more I'm finding that young adult and middle grade fiction seems to be leaning on an artistic subtlety which assumes its readers are going to have the reactions of adults. Although of course right now I'm looking over a list of books I read in the last couple of years and I can't come up with any good examples, so maybe I'm lying. Maybe Fat Vampire just really, really pissed me off.

Date: 2010-07-27 03:31 pm (UTC)
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
From: [personal profile] sanguinity
I was a little confused there, too. I understood [personal profile] deborah to be tracing out a historical shift from Pollyanna (which I know only by reputation) through Anastatia Krupnik (which seems fairly typical of its era to me, where families are deliberately shown as having cosmetic flaws but are still fundamentally loving and trustworthy), to Coraline (which I haven't read, but I understand to be fairly dark, with the family not only having more-than-cosmetic issues, but the plot calling into question whether a loving family is really all that good thing in the first place).

Date: 2010-07-27 04:06 pm (UTC)
cathexys: dark sphinx (default icon) (Default)
From: [personal profile] cathexys
Oh, duh :) That makes sense. i didn't know the middle book and thus couldn't quite parse the statement 9or thought I'd missed an obvious reading :)

Thanks!
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