The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Monday, June 28, 2010

On the Decline of Young Adult Literature

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

This is the [slightly edited] speech I've been giving at various competitions all year. Next month, I'll be giving it at the "state" competition level, so I'm pretty excited. I would love to know what you think!


The first line of Jane Austen's immortal "Pride and Prejudice" reads, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Well, it is also a truth universally acknowledged, that a teenage bibliophile in possession of an empty bookshelf, must be in want of a novel. And if that teenager is me, I'll read almost anything I can get my hands on…except for young adult literature.

The Young Adult genre is a relatively new phenomenon. Teen literature didn't gain momentum until the eighties and nineties. Since the year 2000, the Young Adult Library Services Association—often shortened to "YALSA"—has seen a 76% increase in their membership numbers. As you can see, teenagers are flocking to books written specifically for them.

However, until now, I've been perfectly content hiding behind stacks of classics; of hardcore science fiction and post-apocalyptic dystopias. But for the purpose of this analysis, I forced myself to read a genre I've all but boycotted since I was thirteen.

My findings both shocked and disturbed me. According to Scholastic's BookAlike library assistant, most popular teen titles read below a fifth grade reading level. That's right; in genre that markets to 12 to 20 year olds, only the twelve year olds are being challenged. To put this in perspective, according to the Gunning-Fox Readability Index, this essay is written at about a 12th grade level.

The books I read as part of my preparations were: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Eragon by Christopher Paolini and Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. I chose these books because they all ranked towards the top of the YALSA's 'teen picks' booklist in the last five years. I will be talking about them in order from best, to worst, ranked according to literary merit, and common elements in teen fiction.

First I'd like to talk about The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games.This is an exception to the list, because, even though the writing was simple, the story was engaging. Between the fast-paced plot and relatable characters I literally had a hard time putting this book down. After losing myself between its pages, I would recommend The Hunger Games to anyone—teen or older.

Next we have Eragon. I guess the biggest problem here is the unoriginal story. It faithfully follows the post-Tolkien fantasy formula—that is, main character from nondescript family acquires an object that only they can use, and must use this object to defeat an evil force governing the land. Main character may or may not be related to said villain.

I'll admit I loved this book when it first came out… and I was twelve. But now? Well, the only thing I can see is how Eragon is an unabashed rehashing of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, with a dragon thrown into the mix. Add to that a whiny main character who always seems to be either passing out or relieving himself in the bushes, and I find myself laughing. Of course Paolini's young success makes him appealing to a young audience, but honestly, if you've read much of anything in the fantasy genre, you aren't going to be impressed.

I'm going to say Graceling comes next, even though I couldn't finish the book. Although this story didn't suffer from an unimaginative plot, getting past the simplistic writing was well nigh impossible. Almost every sentence started with "He", "She", "It", "The", or "They", as if the author wanted nothing more than to pound her story into our heads with terrifyingly finite detail. Unfortunately, much of this detail was wasted describing a particular male characters' unbuttoned shirt and luminous eyes. In less than 100 pages, the author had told us of his rolled up sleeves four times. The only reprieve from this monotony was the occasional passage of dialogue, which was, overall, better than the rest of the novel.

Our next contender, City of Bones, has more than a few things in common with the aforementioned books. For one, the unchallenging writing couldn't hold my attention. Like Eragon, this novel thoroughly followed the post-Tolkien fantasy formula—so thoroughly in fact, that I predicted page 406's big plot twist on page 31.

But City of Bones is more than just another book in the bag. In a way, it seems that Cassandra Clare tried to stuff every teen lit trend into one volume. In addition to the things I've already mentioned, we had vampires versus werewolves, magic, a love triangle, a vulnerable female protagonist and, perhaps one of the most prevalent elements since 2005—the hot supernatural boyfriend.

By the end of the book, I was tired of hearing about our half-angel's "finely muscled arms, downed with golden hairs, fine as pollen"; I couldn't read another sentence about his arrogance, quick wit and devilish smile. To compound this issue, most of the characters in City of Bones were hotties from other dimensions, so there was no distinguishing between them. They all blurred together mid-story. And then at the end, we find out that our main character and her love interest are actually siblings. What you're left with is a melting pot, and nothing more.

Finally, we come to Twilight, a book that somehow took every negative in teen fiction and amplified it tenfold. You've heard of it; you're grandmother's heard of it. Raise your hand if you know the story of ordinary Bella Swan falling for the dangerous but dazzling vampire Edward Cullen. Twilight has transcended all reasonable boundaries and I can't for the life of me see why; it epitomizes every flaw in teenage literature.

Sometimes I have to wonder if Stephanie Meyer honestly tried to write a sincere romance. Instead, she gives us a story that's… unnerving, to say the least. Vulnerable female protagonist Bella Swan has no life of her own. She repeatedly sacrifices her happiness for those around her, and then regrets it. No friends; no social life. But they say misery loves company, and so she soon attracts Edward Cullen, a vampire who breathes life into poor Bella. Or does he?

Now, despite what most teenage girls will tell you, I've always thought Edward was a creep. But as if being undead and sparkly wasn't enough, I now see how abusive and downright disturbing he is. From the moment he meets Bella he's toying with her. Laughing when she's frustrated, mocking her when she gets something wrong. He drags her into his car when she won't come of her own free will, and threatens her when he doesn't get his way. He can be disconcertingly affectionate, but only on his terms. Slowly, over the course of the novel, Edward consumes Bella—not physically, as vampires are wont to do—but mentally, and emotionally.

Did you know that Edward Cullen matches almost every description of an abusive boyfriend?

Did you know that Bella describes him as "beautiful", "godlike", "perfect" or "marvelous" over 45 times? And the nicest thing he says about her for the entire duration of the book is "your blood is like a drug to me" and, "you're like my own personal brand of heroin."

How would you like a boyfriend who threatens to kill you, even as he says he loves you? How would you like to be 17, dating a 108 year old man whose sole purpose in life is to repeat high school over and over again, while trying not to eat his fellow students? How would you like to find your boyfriend standing over your bed at night, having broken through your window to watch you sleep? That doesn't say "romance." It says "restraining order." If you cast aside Twilight's amateur writing, gaping plot holes and love of adverbs, what you're left with is a 'romantic' read about girls who ought to submit to and idolize a man who will 'protect' them. What kind of message is this sending to America's youth? I've seen girls in elementary school practically worshipping Twilight, after all, it's written at a 4th grade level. Are these girls going to base their future relationships on Edward Cullen?

Thanks to the media, these are the books young people see when they walk into the bookstore. These are the characters we emblazon on our walls and model ourselves after. These are the authors we shower with our allowance money, and find beneath our Christmas trees.

Why are we investing in characters that make Spongebob look intelligent? Hello teenagers: we're the future of this country—of the world. Our forbearers had Dickens and Hemmingway to look to for guidance. How come, more often then not, we find ourselves looking towards Paolini and Meyer?

I've often heard people say, "I don't care what kids read, as long as they're reading", but if they stopped and looked at what was on the shelves today, would they change their minds? Perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said, "A man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them at all." Because frankly, if I had to choose between popular teen literature, or nothing at all, I think I'd stop reading.

-J. P.


Anonymous said...

Concerning City of Bones, I think it's relevant to mention that Cassandra Claire used to be a big fan fiction author. She wrote a rather famous Harry Potter fan fic trilogy, centered around Draco Malfoy, and later based Jace's character on her representation of Draco.


J.T. Oldfield said...

It's tough to say that something is a rehash of Star Wars, because George Lucas deliberately based the story on The Hero's Journey. And as much as he denied using any symbolism, Tolkien's set up is a pretty classic quest story, too. Compare it to the Odyssey, or Hercules, they fit the patter, too.

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