Thursday, December 04, 2008

YA Novel & Twilight Popularity

Knowing how irritated I am by girl-coming-of-age novels, vampires, and popular culture in general, it is surprising that I like Caitlin Flanagan's essay in Atlantic. I am even going to forgive her for saying something nice about Judy Blume.

Perhaps it is because she notes in the first paragraph that children's books about problems, such as Mama and Daddy Bear's Divorce, that "the enterprise seems doomed from the title." Such creations, which are stuffed in the category of Children's Literature even though they aren't literature, and are written to comfort parents rather than children, are one of my favorite things to deplore.

The oblique reference to Bruno Bettelheim in the second paragraph also charmed me.
Divorce in a young-adult novel means what being orphaned meant in a fairy tale: vulnerability, danger, unwanted independence.
Using a problem to set character or to move the plot along is quite different from explaining to children how they are supposed to feel.

I do contest Flanagan's belief that children's literature has focused on intact happy families until recently. The opposite is true. All the way back to Little Women, The Five Little Peppers,Anne of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden, the families in children's books often have missing parents or other tragedies. Young girls were always being sent off to live with some relative because their mother was sick or their father was at sea. As Ms. Flanagan doesn't dwell on the point, this chroncentrism, the belief that only we moderns really get it, doesn't muck up the rest of the essay.

The problem with adolescent desire, both male and female, is that it is felt so strongly that it demands to be regarded as important, even when it is banal. The young person cannot put into words quite what the feeling is about; by the time s/he can analyze and explain, s/he is beyond it. We reach the stage where we no longer feel the importance so strongly. The feeling can be illustrated in literature and video, but it cannot be explained - thus the intense identification females who read fiction can have with the protagonists.

Caitlin Flanagan comes closer to "getting it" than most adults, and can draw the curtain back a bit.


Anonymous said...

It's been so long and with so much read after that I can't recall The Uses of Enchantment with clarity, but I can tell you with great emphasis that those of us with autistic children despise Brutal Bettleheim. He called us Nazis who destroyed our children's egos. After his death, former students told of his abusive behaviour.

Erin said...

It isn't just YA novels that are divorce-ridden. Think of Disney movies: Lion King, Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, etc. Do any of them have main characters whose father and mother are alive and together?

Boethius said...

I think the reason why YA books have characters who are always orphaned or from a divorced family is because a complete family provides protection and security. These books play on the greatest emotional fears for youngsters and that is: not having anyone to take care of them or even care. Let's face it, coming from a secure, mom and dad, home does not play on any human fears. That is precisely why we should scream the benefits of such a home from the roof tops. That kind of life is boring and boring is good.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You are correct lelia, that Bettelheim was one of the leaders of the school of thought which blamed autism on cold rejecting parenting (especially mothers). I offer no defense of them for that. It was the arrogance of the times and the profession. Psychiatrists and psychologists were convinced that they saw things accurately, and those who resisted their ideas just couldn't face reality.

I have been present over the last 30 years as these experts have had their ideas shredded, and watched their contortions attempting to save scraps of their theories. They have fared far worse facing reality than those they mocked.

Ben Wyman said...

It's not only true for YA books. I was pitching a short film at a church meeting once, and I was maintaining that the main character should have arrived alone to the art gallery the film was taking place in. One of the pastor's argued against it, saying "no one goes to an art gallery alone," to which my response was "film finds people in a place of solitude." I stick by this.

The characters in films are almost always alone in some sense when we first meet them. Luke Skywalker, Dorothy Gale, Oskar Schindler, Sister Maria, Rick Blaine, and certainly Citizen Kane were all completely alone at the beginning of their movies - and, depending on the movie, either safely nestled with a new family or completely alone at the end. Even movies about groups or families - The Godfather, for instance - the main character is still separate and alone.

John J. Coupal said...

Re: Erin's comment

We can go back to Disney's much earlier movies, such as Bambi, where the title character is orphaned, not by divorce but by a deer hunter. The father deer doesn't appear either.

Disney movies seem to have a common Child-Against-the-Tough-World theme. Maybe something in Walt's past led to that.