Friday, July 16, 2010

If you read this whole post, mazel tov and here's a cookie!

(That is not a picture of me. I believe that is a man.)

It’s early Friday morning and I’ve just been sitting around thinking about books. Especially books about teenagers. Because you know, I used to be a teenager a few years ago, and now I still read about teenagers, so I feel a connection. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how teens have been portrayed in YA, and whether or not these portrayals really, accurately depict teens or if they are convenient stereotypes. I’ve also arrived at the conclusion that I was a sucky teenager. Yeah, apparently, there are all these things that teens do (says the media, which in my definition includes books) that I did not do. Apparently, when I was a teen, I was supposed to party, I was supposed to experiment with drugs, I was supposed to drink, I was supposed to throw myself at every guy I came into contact with, and I was supposed to have sex, too. Hmm. I guess I fail the teen-test. Lately, it seems like there have been only a handful of authors with books that come close to portraying anything like my teen years (Lisa Mangum, Stephenie Meyer, Bree Despain… *crickets chirping*). And I can’t help but feel a little intimidated and inadequate because of that. I feel so weird to say it, because you usually don’t see this in YA literature, so apparently it doesn’t happen much, but I had a great high school experience.

To be sure, I love YA. It’s probably my favorite genre, and the bulk of what I read comes from there. That does not mean that I enjoy every book, or agree with every message, or support every author. Like other every other genre, YA is plagued with common and recurring issues, and one of those has to do with the audience. It’s one thing to entertain teenagers, but it’s another thing to enable them. So many times it seems like authors purposefully screw up their characters for no other reason or purpose than to just do it: a character is on drugs, a character drinks, a character parties, a character is sexually active… that’s why when I read a book with MCs who actually have their s--- together (my dad’s crude but honest phrase), it makes me all the more appreciative. I guess I just don’t like, can’t relate to, and have no sympathy for screwed up characters. But here’s the typical reaction: “Oh! That’s so judgmental Everybody’s screwed up! It’s normal to be screwed up!” Yeah, some teens are into the behaviors that I mentioned. When I was a kid in the good ol 90s, it was “just say ‘no’!” and “don’t do something just because everybody else is doing it.” Now, apparently, the fact that some teens do participate in these behaviors is a ‘go’ invitation for them to keep doing it. Yeah, some teens do drugs, but when have we decided that that is acceptable? If we’re talking about stereotypical activities associated with (some) teens, what about drinking and driving? Hmm, as of yet authors/screenwriters/songwriters haven’t gone so far as to glamorize that, but pretty much every other bad/delinquent/harmful behavior has just been pretty much excused. And you may say, ‘No, Amelia! Authors aren’t excusing it! They’re making the point that *said behavior* is bad!’ You’re right, some of them are. Three cheers to Sarah Dessen. But not every author is Sarah Dessen. And the majority of teen books have some kind of questionable behavior attributed to teens. And it’s not used as a lesson or teaching tool or even as something to generate discussion. It’s just a blunt ‘that’s the way he/she is!’ flare, and I can just picture a few authors shrugging their shoulders and giving me the finger. That’s the problem. Teens will read this, and coupled with the messages they’re getting from television and Hollywood (ABC Dysfunctional Family), they will begin to think that this activity is acceptable. You don’t think so? Are you more or less likely to experiment with something if you’re under the impression that ‘everybody’s doing it’ and ‘this is normal, age-appropriate behavior’?

I buy ‘age-appropriate’ behavior in some cases: body image, anxiety about the future, inadequate communication with parents, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. That stuff is usually on an internal level, though. One of my favorite authors said on her site that the best characters (as in well-rounded) are the ones with their issues below the surface, not external, physical stuff. Food for thought.

And you know, what about normal kids? Where are their books? What books can normal kids who have their uhh…crap… together read? You know, kids who actually make good grades and are involved in extracurricular sports/activities, kids who have responsible friends and get along with their parents and don’t feel the need to experiment with blatantly bad behavior? What message are they receiving from the media? I’ll tell you. They’re receiving the message that they are the ones who are not normal. And that is just sad. If you’re writing realistic fiction and you’re making some kind of point about whatever behavior, that’s one thing. But in paranormal or fantasy stories, where real-life scenarios are really not the main theme, it just comes across as callous. But for one reason, it $$sells$$. Apparently, young women find bad, delinquent boys sexy. Don’t even want to go down that dysfunctional road. But other times, it’s more personal. My professor made a blunt comment one day, and some of the kids in class got all huffy with her, but I think she’ was absolutely right. With YA authors, she said (and she was meaning more exclusively teen fiction, not so much Middle Grade/Intermediate authors), a lot of the time they’re out of touch with their target audience. They don’t write teen fiction because they have teenage children, or teach teenagers, or even come into regular contact with teens. A lot of them, she reckoned, write as a kind of therapeutic exercise, and when they do, they hearken back to their teenage years, and the scenarios they set up are ones that were true for them. For an author to write what they know is okay, but I would like them to be mindful of the message they're sending. Are you enabling irresponsible behavior and ignoring/snubbing good behavior? Because to write something and then not take responsibility for it is just low. Maybe that's just me, though. True story: earlier this year, I had one of my teen girls come up to me after class and ask me whether or not drinking (at the ripe old age of 16) is really that bad. She said that ‘like every character in every book I read does it', and it actually made her question what she thought was right and wrong. I’m sure some authors find it amusing to question your beliefs, but that just really depressed and outraged me on so many levels (not to mention the fact that the behavior in question is ILLEGAL). Now here's where I need to swing in the opposite direction a little bit, a lot of you (those who have already commented) have made a very good point: just because you may read about something doesn't mean it will launch you off the deep end and make you question everything you believe and every lifestyle decision you've made. Yeah, sometimes it can even be interesting to read about "how the other half lives" and get a perspective on characters with different behaviors or attitudes. And that's cool. But when you hear/see the same message flashing at you from all sides, it can be intimidating. And if you're living differently, it can make you feel inadequate. And that's where accountability and consideration need to come into play. But I love reading about your success stories and memories :)

I’ll swing it back to the original thought. I love YA: I think YA is the place to be if you love highly creative, imaginative, fun and fantastical books. You can tell I mostly stick with fantasy, haha! YA realistic fiction is praise-worthy, too. Sarah Dessen! But just like every genre, YA is not without its…idiosyncrasies. I’m going to make a down-the-middle statement here, so be ready! I don’t like it when people dismiss YA literature as ‘childish’ or make implications that it is beneath one’s level or poorly written or whatever. However, much as I love YA (and I do, and I really couldn’t read any other genre – I’m just a sucker for Young Adult writing), not all of its criticisms are unfounded. So I’ve come to the end of my personal post. It is a little weird to feel like you were worlds-away different from the characters you read. I'll have to do a separate post on high school and other teen subjects. I guess what I want is more variety: I'd like authors (and the other parts of the media) to really get diverse and present several teenage portrayals, not just 'teens with bad behavior' or 'teens who break the law.' Let's have more responsible teen characters (girls AND boys) and let's try and actually correct some issues, instead of just spotlighting them.

I guess I’ll have to dub Fridays ‘Editorial Day’ because this is week 2 now of personal posts. Oh well! What do you think? Do you agree with any of my long, rambling points? Or do you disagree? And if you read the whole post, I’ll give you a cookie!

21 shout-outs!:

Monica said...

I GET A COOKIE!!! But I totally get you! I'm a teenager and I read a lot of these books and sometimes I'm like wtf? that doesn't happen. My best friend didn't go from fat ugly loser to hot cheerleader over the summer and ditch me leaving me all alone with no friends and I don't go to wild parties where people are having sex and doing drugs and drinking extreme amounts. And as for drugs an alcohol, I'll admit to one time because all my friends started so I figured it wouldn't be too bad to try it (peer pressure I know D: ). But I was like this is just stupid we all look like idiots. I'm like a good grades, good kid kinda girl and you really don't see that in books. And I totally agree with what your professor said about being out of touch with their audience and going back to their own teenage years. I feel like when authors do that they make it seem okay because they thought it was okay? If that makes sense.

I got a chuckle out of when you said "ABC Dysfunctional Family". My dad is always going off about that channel whenever it's on. Especially if it's something like The Secret Life of the American Teenager. My secret life is pretty much just a book blog that I haven't told really any of my friends about, not talking about sex 24/7.

Anyway I agree with your post like 100%.

molly (a dazzling distraction) said...

Hi Amelia - FANTASTIC ideas here! I am not a teen anymore either, but it sounds like my teen years were similar to yours. HOWEVER - I was definitely not alone in abstaining from drinking, drugs, and sex. My friends and I did plenty of crazy things, but it was more like driving to a town 45 minutes away because they have a 50s themed restaurant with rootbeer floats.
I enjoy reading YA more than most genres, but there are times when it would be nice to see some characters with lives more similar to mine (well, my teen life). I have read a few books lately that have characters with "tamer" lifestyles (Pure and Into the Wild Nerd Yonder), but even without drugs and drinking, the books were great! Pure even talks about a girls decision to abstain from sex - which is awesome!
Ok, I've ranted too, so I'll stop with one comment for Monica - I absolutely agree with you about ABC Family's "Secret Life." I like the fact that they are encouraging teens to talk to their parents, but they literally say "sex" like a million times a show. I can't think of one person I knew in high school who talked about sex as openly and frequently as they do on that show.
And on that note - happy "editorial" Friday!

Jamie said...

I'm not a teen anymore and apparently I didn't fit the normal teen mold either! I didn't do any of those things! lol. I had a strong group of friends that didn't do those things and I spent most of my time with them because I just felt so comfortable. We did crazy things and I was always laughing and always having fun weekends. I mean, we went dumpster diving at McDonald's when they were giving away free things. You wouldn't believe how many people left them on there!

I watch The Secret Life and I think it is trying to send a good message but in a way it is overkill. All they talk about is sex--almost putting it even more into the mind of a teenager. And I don't remember ANYBODY in high school being as open about half the crap that they are.

Chelle said...

Mmm, cookies! I loved what you said here about regular old fashioned just-going-about-my-business teens: "They’re receiving the message that they are the ones who are not normal." I couldn't agree more. I am constantly running into the same gripe with YA, which I love. I don't like the assumption that every teen is into exploring extra risky behaviors and that those who don't aren't interesting enough to write a book about. I don't know why authors think a good story must have illegal and risky behaviors. And I've read very few which address the serious side effects that more often than not accompany risky behaviors. A very thoughtfull post with a great point!

Blueicegal ♥ said...

Ohh Amelia you know this is why i love you right? you always challenge others and think outside the box! well im 18, and those that say oh but i had no choice is complete bs! you don't have to be a screw up like come on im 18 im surrounded by people who are messed constantly, your only a screw up if you want to be there is no excuse im the living example of that, so i agree everyone has a choice, kudos for this fantastic post, i completely agree, now where is my cookie biotccchhh hehhehee xD

Anonymous said...


That is all.

Can I have a cookie?

Amelia said...

Cookies for all of you! thanks for your wonderful comments :)
@ Molly & Jamie: I really like the point you brought up about doing fun, crazy things that don't fall into the stereotypical "bad/delinquent" behavior. Molly, your trip sounded so fun, and Jamie, if you guys ever go dumpster-diving again, I want in on it!
One time my friends and I went cow tipping. Another time we climbed on the roof of an abandoned building and had a smores party. Fun, a little crazy, but not delinquent. Great point!
And @ Aly - I just love you girl. Here's your COOKIE :)

Adriana said...

I hate to say this, but I could actually relate to some of those "messed up" characters in YA. I went to the parties in High School were everyone was getting wasted, only difference was I wasn't joining in. I was pretty much the fairy baby-sitter staying with my police friend in the bathroom who's passed out on the floor at a Halloween party. Those smart girls who got straight A's were also out drinking and sometimes doing drugs. It's weird looking back now and seeing my brother going into High School. I still see him as a baby and wouldn't want him doing half the stuff I did. I caught an episode of The Secret Life... and I think that show is way more ridiculous than anything in YA. Everyone is pretty much screwing everyone and they're so casual about it. Also, I'll give you a teen girl asking about drinking and raise you my second grade student telling me she's going to have sex at 12!!! Maybe, I just live in a messed up little town. Also, may I have cookie now?

The Book Owl said...

Great post Amelia!

I'm 16, almost 17, and I'm happy to say I haven't participated in any of what YA often calls the "norm." I like to think I have a pretty good head on my shoulders. That's what helps me. When I read a book about drugs or partying or whatever, there's really small moments that I think it isn't too bad. But as soon as I'm done, I know that it's stupid. So I never worry too much about being impressionable. But you're right - I would like to hear more about regular teens. Ones who study, go to school, play sports, and have common sense.

Sheri said...

I swear... this baby weight is never going to come off if you keep going on about cookies! ;o) Anyway... I'm in complete agreement with you. I wanted to say nothing more than a big, fat AMEN! I had a blast during my teenage years - which did NOT include any drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or sex. I even liked my parents. I guess that's a bonus to being raised in Mormonville. The "popular" lifestyle has always been a clean one. Great post! I would have enjoyed reading it, even if I wasn't promised a cookie. I like the way you think!

Natalie said...

Better keep baking, because I get a cookie too! :) Lol. I was a "good girl" in high school. Didn't drink, didn't do drugs, didn't sleep around, got good grades, was involved, etc. But I also had friends who were the complete opposite of me. I think that both kinds of teen are out there (and I know you're aware of this). But I also think you have a point: there seems to be a lot more fiction out there featuring the stereotypical "bad" teens. I enjoy reading about both, but I completely understand what you mean, and it WOULD be refreshing to see a little variation that better fits with what teenager are actually doing.

Lesa said...

I may have skimmed a line or two-- 43 year old eyes, you know. Teens have been experimenting maybe forever-- have you ever watched the movie Reefer Madness from the 1930s-- funny but surprising how topical it is.

I just can't get too worked up about what fictional characters are doing-- I was one of those wild teens from age 16-18-- also in all AP classes-- I wasn't wild because of anything I read-- that was just the time for me to be wild-- I married at age 19 so couldn't very well be wild after that. ;o)

From my own perspective maybe I give teens too much credit...

Okie said...

** Read it all...and making an appropriately lengthy comment. ;)

When I was a teen/kid, I often felt the same way as this post describes...that a lot of the stuff portrayed by the media in general (TV, movies, books, etc) didn't portray teenage life that was much like mine at all...or like that of any of my friends.

The wild and crazy stuff happened, sure, but it was a rarity and was off on the periphery.

I agree that it's odd and troublesome to read a book or watch a movie or whatever and try to relate to a protagonist that is so "out there" in terms of behavior and norm.

I can see where writers and publishers are coming from...conflict is what makes for good story...and some of the easiest conflict comes by taking characters to the extreme. Unfortunately, the struggle then comes in how the reader relates to the character...and there's some responsibility on the author to help with that. The character will often still have "real" elements that many/most teens can relate to. But what happens if the reader relates too closely to this "bad" character and starts doing these things....drinking/drugs/sex/etc?

Society seems to suggest more and more that this kind of behavior is the norm. Books are (sadly) just picking up on the same thing that movies, tv, magazines, etc have done for years.

The YA genre has really started to flourish in the past few years (yes it was around a decade or more ago, but it was sort of "YA lite"...think "Leave it to Beaver" versus "90210").

As an adult, I have a hard time (even in adult novels) to relate to a protagonist who has behavior too different from mine. I don't drink, don't smoke, don't do drugs, etc. I can make allowances for some of this in my reading, but if the protagonist is some huge partier or always has a beer or drugs or whatever hanging around, it just makes it hard for me to get close to.

Admittedly, there are some novels where that sort of character is necessary...I just don't think it's as necessary as publishers/etc think. Plenty of books would be just as good (maybe better?) if their characters didn't drink/smoke/sex/drugs/etc. Especially in YA.

Jen said...

I liked reading your entire post. And would also like a cookie.

I have sometimes wondered if I was just way boring as a teen, because like you, there are a lot of characters in YA books that I just can't relate to. That being said, I wasn't a super-straightlaced teen. I drank occasionally, for example. But, no one ever had parties like the ones in books I read now. I just can't relate to that at all.

Maybe this is because my high school years were spent in boarding school. And by the way --- my boarding school, while it had some rich kids, was not all rich, beautiful kids at an "exclusive boarding school." And my boarding school didn't have vampires, either. I guess my teen years really were pretty boring, huh? But I did have some great friends, and we had a lot of fun going to school hockey games, or walking to the $2 movie theatre downtown, or just playing on the playground equipment in the nearby park (they had awesome slides and tall swings).

Anonymous said...

Cookies for me! :) This is a great post, Amelia, and definitely sparked some thoughts for me.

Growing up, specifically in elementary school and jr. high, I was teased a lot for not being "popular" and for reading books and being smart. I wasn't "normal." It wasn't until I got to high school that things actually changed significantly for me. After joining marching band in jr. high, I continued on in high school and finally found my niche. And the funny thing was, being a band geek was a GOOD thing in my school. I went to a fairly big school and our band (not to brag) was AWESOME. We were the smart kids, the polite kids, the kids who weren't getting into trouble (unlike the basketball team and the cheerleaders that got busted for an underage party) and the kids who had a lot going for them in their futures. So, as a teenager, I finally felt normal. But a lot of the YA I read led me to believe otherwise.

One thing in your post that definitely resonated with me was the fact that it made me feel (and still makes me feel) inadequate to some degree. I've always been uber self-conscious and here I was again, after finding out that I finally fit in, only to be reading stories that told me I wasn't. I was really self-conscious and shy about alcohol and sex, specifically. It upsets me looking back. Authors should be supporting healthy attitudes towards all of these topics so teens don't have to feel out of place or backwards. Teens should be encouraged to make healthy decisions and to learn to love and respect their bodies.

Phew! I had a lot more to say than I thought I did. I hope I didn't talk your ear off!

The Critic said...

Well, here's my take on it.

When I read the backs of books like Pretty Little Liars and The Clique and After and whatnot,I really start to lose confidence in author credibillity and teenage feminism *cough cough* Pretty Little Liars *cough cough* has a girl having sex with her teacher and banging everyone else in America and getting popular and stealing and doing all that jazz, do I feel encourage to do these things? Not at all. And to be fair, I don't think other teens do either. In fact, I read reviews about these books and I can tell you that all the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads are disgusted by it. However, these things DO happen (some of them EXTREMELY RARELY and some of it DEFINATELY dosen't happen at my school) However they do happen. It's not an author's job to go out and say: Oh look the world's full of prancing fawns and candy-colored sky and whatnot (It's one of the many reasons I detest, abhorre and spit in the face of the idea of banning a book). Now again, it is true that most of this has to deal with money money money. But take a look at Shiver, a book we've both read and loved. That deals with normal teenagers who are not popular and who don't do disgusting stuff (with the exception of that one scene.) It stayed five weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list. They came off as pretty normal to me. I don't think they encourage it at all. It just depends on how it was written.

The thing is, in real life, everyone is NOT drinking and driving (although unfortunately it's a real problem.) They are not having sex with vampires and werewolves (for obvious reasons) and do all these terrible horrible things, even though it is quite frequent. Now maybe kids do have sex and drink and do drugs kids are doing that a lot these days. Reading about it is a good way to face these demons and think back on that sort of behavior. To me, I think of three questions as I read these books: a) is it logical what they're doing? b) Does the book justify these intentions? c) What do I think of this character as a whole and d) Is it something I should be doing? For me, the answer to d is always NO. Call me crazy, but as an author that's your job to write about the real world and real issues (I'm not a huge fan of Sarah Dessen, but it's true she does not atone for anything illegal and horrible). To me, an author who is sucessful at writing the stuff is when at the end of the day, the author conveys the message that: "You can't get away with sex or drinking or whatnot." Now I don't hate the author who dosen't convey that message, but I do find it extremely odd that said character slept with a teacher and after everyone in the school knows about it the teacher isn't fired or arrested right away. Because that's just common sense, it's what I would do, and it's what everyone else would do. But that dosen't make me GO DO IT, first of all, I'm not that type of person unless if I was really horny, secondly, everyone knows it's bad. As an author, you have to tell your audience that Karma does exist. But that dosen't make it a bad or horrible or un-influential author.

Yes we don't always relate to the drug dealers and the pot-addicts and the thieves and the sexually active. However, authors are there to TRY and make you relate to said person. To be honest sometimes the do succeed. Again, it depends on how the story is told and what message it is bringing.

So, yes I agree, and yes, I also disagree.
I'm sorry if I sounded bitchy, that wasn't my intention! :P

Liz said...

Hey Amelia,
I think this is a really interesting post. I agree with you that a lot of kids are normal and do have their crap together, but I think wherever you go there will always be a chunk of people that wants to drink and party, even if they are only 16.

Although I know you didn't mean it quite this way, I also wouldn't say every author that creates a character who drinks or is attracted to a bad boy is necessarily condoning such behavior. I think some of them try to use such material to get teenage readers to think more deeply about the consequences of partying or the effect it can have on one's life. Obviously this may not be the case with every author, and it may just be easier to say this since I'm of age and have learned that I don't really like to have m ore than one drink at a time, and that I don't really like crazy load parties where everyone is sweaty and the floor is sticky with beer.

This is an awesome post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

Amelia said...

Hi Liz,
I think you might have misunderstood me. I wasn't saying that 'every author that creates a character who drinks or is attracted to a bad boy is necessarily condoning such behavior.' In fact, I threw out Sarah Dessen's name twice, I think, as an example. My point is how OFTEN you see that, and why it is that out of normal characters and (let's call it what it is) inappropriate-behavior characters, one group usually gets more attention. In fact, the whole point of the post was my "plea" for authors to be more considerate of their potential message. If your message is to show how behavior has consequences, or to show that characters who engage in such behaviors are flawed, then that's great, because you're doing something productive. There's a character in the book I just finished who is (at the beginning) heavily screwed up, and it never once occurred to me that the author was promoting or excusing the behavior, because in the way the story was written.
Perhaps I didn't do such a good job of explaining my points in the post :S

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April (BooksandWine) said...

I'm not really sure where I fall on this issue. On the one hand, it would be great to see a nerd uprising in YA. On the other hand, I'm not phased or bothered by drinking or sex. I drank underage. Only in excess at graduation parties, and then in college. I still had my V-Card in HS, but mainly because I was never in a serious relationship in HS. I think had I been in a committed relationship, that ship would have sailed. I was actually the last of my friends to 'do it', but we were all normal kids, not in the popular crowd, but not from the wrong side of the tracks either. It's hard for me to take a stance, because who defines normal? Is normal the vast majority of my HS who drank on a specific person's farm field or the stone quarry? Or is normal my handful of non-drinker friends? Who gets to decide this? I'm not about to judge someone for not partying (hello Apples to Apples is awesome), but on that same level I'm not about to judge someone for liking to party.

Rae\ said...

Nom, nom, nom, nom, nom. Thanks for the Cookie :). Great post, and you raised several great points about current popular YA books. Why do authors nowadays seem to think that the only fiction teens (and those who aren't) will read is that with kids who drink, do drugs, have sex, and overall, just a bunch of problems that most 'normal' teens do not have! Why are we stereotyped like this? One of my favorite authors is Sarah Dessen- she is able to create REALISTIC scenarios (and romances) that may be a bit stressed from those of a teen living today, but people can really relate to her characters and the scenarios that come with them! If only more YA authors would realize what Sarah Dessen is doing right, maybe we wouldn't have such trash to read in the Realistic Fiction portion of our beloved YA books.
Now, please understand that I am not meaning to be rude to those handful of teens out there who do live those scenarios written about by the majority of the YA realistic fiction authors- just, most of the teens that I've met over the years are 'normal' they don't do drugs, they don't go out and party all the time, they don't drink......

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