By John Gilstrap
I’m no expert in young adult fiction, but over the past ten years or so, I’ve consumed more of it than I ever did when I was a young adult. (I don’t think that “young at heart” counts in this context.)
I’m an avid Harry Potter fan—in fact, I already bought my tickets for the July 15 opening. I love the concept of the boy wizard who has no idea who he is, but even more than that, I love the interaction of the characters. They seem very real to me. They’re not the best-written books in the world (J.K. Rowling loves adverbs enough to create brand new ones on the fly), but that doesn’t matter because the stories are so compelling. The characters are so compelling.
There’s no doubt in reading the Potter books that it’s Harry’s story. Still, the secondary characters really sing. Hermione Granger is among my favorites. Smarter than any of the boys, she has a strong moral center, and she’s willing to fight for what she believes. Cupid delivers her a few tough blows along the way, but never once does she go to that self-destructive place that seems popular in other YA stories I’ve consumed recently. She never ties her self-actualization to the whims of a jerk.
Then there’s Bella of the Twilight series—whiner in chief. Never mind that she has no interest in Jacob, the guy who actually loves her and treats her like, well, a human being. Never mind that Edward is constantly pushing Bella away. Let’s concentrate for a moment on the fact that Bella has to die to be with the one she loves. Yeah, I know, dying is part of the construct of the whole vampire craze, but in the second of the Twilight stories (or, at least the second movie I watched), Bella sees self destruction—multiple suicide attempts—as the only way for Edward to pay attention to her.
If you’ve read this blog for any time at all, you know that I am 100% against censorship in all of its forms, but is this really the message with which American girls bond so thoroughly? Is there a purer form of narcissism than the gambit of “If you don’t pay attention to me, I’ll hurt myself”? How is this remotely empowering to young girls?
When did it become cool for girls to hand their emotional future over to some guy who treats her like crap?
Most recently, I read the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, in which young Katniss Everdeen (a girl) has to fight 23 other teens to the death in a contest that is televised as a sporting event. The Hunger Games is the new Big Thing in YA fiction. Having read and enjoyed Battle Royale—a Japanese version of a story that is strikingly similar—I thought I’d give Katniss and her adventures a whirl. It’s actually a pretty good book.
Katniss is no Bella. She can thread a needle with a bow and arrow at 50 yards, and she doesn’t take crap off anybody. As luck would have it, one of her opponents in the games is Peeta, a boy her age who fell in love with her at first sight back when they were both six or seven years old.
MILD SPOILER AHEAD
Peeta repeatedly saves Katniss’s life at the risk of his own, and he announces his love for her on national television, but she pays little attention because her heart belongs to another guy. It’s the conceit of the story that Katniss suspects that he’s merely using professed love as a strategy, but in the author’s hand, Katniss just comes off as obtuse at best, moronic at worst.
I know it’s all fiction, but for these stories to resonate as they have, there has to be some element of universal truth. Is this really how the adolescent female mind is wired? Do good guys have any chance at all—and in this case I mean that literally, as in guys who are good to others?
Okay, don’t answer that. Good guys are doomed—at least among adolescents and certainly in YA fiction. The romance of the “bad boy” is at least as old as the printing press. Certainly, as far back as my own high school days, really hot girls have always been drawn to the guys who treat them like crap. The good news is that like everything else about adolescence, most people outgrow the roles they play as teenagers and ultimately get their heads straight.
During that transitional time though, when the out-growing is underway, I hope there are some strong parental hands on the tiller.
When all is said and done, though, Hermione will have been a lot more help creating well-balanced young ladies than Bella ever was.
By John Gilstrap