Thursday, July 1, 2010
The Twilight of Young Adult Fiction
At today’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar had the following exchange with Supreme Court candidate Elena Kagan:
THE SENATOR: Solicitor General Kagan, you had an incredibly grueling day yesterday and did incredibly well. But I guess it means you missed the midnight debut of the third TWILIGHT movie last night. We did not miss it in our household, and it culminated in three 15-year-old girls sleeping over at 3 a.m.
THE CANDIDATE (laughing): I didn't see that.
THE SENATOR: I just had a feeling. I keep wanting to ask you about the famous case of Edward vs. Jacob or the vampire vs. the werewolf.
THE CANDIDATE (smiling): I wish you wouldn’t.
TWILIGHT! It’s everywhere these days. On the cover of every magazine, on the lips of every social commentator and TV talking head. I got a drink at Burger King tonight and there were pictures from THE TWILIGHT SAGA : ECLIPSE printed on the cup.
I was just glad I’d ordered a Diet Coke and not tomato juice.
Although I’m sick of all the bloody hype, I have to admit -- as someone dedicated to books for young readers -- that I was tickled to hear TWILIGHT mentioned on the floor of the Senate. I’m almost certain that this was the first time a young-adult novel was cited, even tangentially, during any Supreme Court confirmation hearing. (I say “almost certain” because it would be just my luck to say “I am certain” and then have some smart aleck consult the historical transcripts and snottily inform me that Oliver Wendall Holmes actually expounded at length on REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM during his own confirmation hearings.)
I should admit here that I have not kept up with the Stephenie Meyer vampire series. I started to read TWILIGHT when it was first published, but my interest waned somewhere around, oh, page 1184. I did not even pick up NEW MOON or the other books that followed. I was certainly aware the books were popular with young readers, but never anticipated they’d become this huge or that all kinds of adults would jump on the bloodmobile..I mean bandwagon...making both the books and movies a true cultural phenomenon. I don’t really understand it. Frankly, I’m not even sure if minds as wise as Oliver Wendell Holmes’ and Elena Kagan’s could figure out what has made fans so insanely devoted to this series. And since I can’t ask them (Oliver’s dead and Elena’s otherwise engaged), I decided to go right to the source and ask the fans themselves. This evening I waited outside a movie theater offering a sold-out (of course) twilight (of course) showing of ECLIPSE and asked several people in line about their devotion to the books.
First I approached a teenage girl clutching a dog-eared copy of ECLIPSE in her hand.
ME: Hi, I’m Peter Sieruta of the Collecting Children’s Books Blog—
ECLIPSE FAN: Never heard of it.
ME: --and I’m curious to know your reaction to the Twilight phenomenon. What do you think of the books?
ECLIPSE FAN: I’ve read every one of them twice! They are the best books ever written.
ME: What was your favorite part of the book?
ECLIPSE FAN: I loved the part where Kristen Stewart—
ME: You mean “Bella Swan,” don’t you?
ECLIPSE FAN: Yeah, I loved the part where Kristen meets (long sigh) Robert Pattinson.
ME: No, that’s not the character’s name. It’s Edward. Edward Cullen.
ECLIPSE FAN: Whatever. My next favorite part is when Taylor Lautner—
ME: Thank you for your time.
I then moved on to a male college student holding a thick psychology texbook.
ME: Hi, I’m Peter Sieruta of the Collecting Children’s Books blog—
STUDENT: Never heard of it.
ME: And I’m wondering why you’re a fan of the Twilight Saga.
STUDENT: I’m not. My psych professor told us we should see the movie for class.
ME: What class?
STUDENT: Abnormal Psychology. He wanted us to try and figure out the mystique these books and films hold for teenage girls. Why are they so attracted to the idea of being chased and rescued, being bitten, being drained of blood, and being gender-stereotyped victims of vampires and werewolves?
ME: Have you come to any conclusions?
STUDENT: No. My prof says that whoever figures it out will probably win a Nobel Prize someday.
ME: Good luck.
Next I approached a middle-aged woman who had several young adult novels in her bookbag –- none written by Stephenie Meyer.
ME: Hi, I’m Peter Sieruta of the Collecting Children’s Book blog—
BOOKBAG WOMAN: Love that blog!
ME: Thank you! What brings you to see this movie? Are you a fan of the books?
BOOKBAG WOMAN: I can’t stand the books! I’m a writer. In fact, my books are also for young adults—
ME: Oh my gosh! You’re—
BOOKBAG WOMAN: Shh, don’t say it.
(To protect her identity, I will only refer to this prize-winning author as the “Bookbag Woman,” but trust me when I say she’s one of the big names in YA books. Think Printz.)
ME: Can I have your autograph?
BOOKBAG WOMAN: Of course. (Signs name.) That will be ten dollars.
BOOKBAG WOMAN: Sorry, a gal’s gotta make a living. Baseball players charge for their autographs. Why shouldn’t writers? Especially poor writers like me, who can’t get published anymore.... (Stifles a sob.)
ME: You can’t get published? You’re one of the most famous authors out there!
BOOKBAG WOMAN: I was. I spent years studying my craft and was so proud of every book I ever published. Then this young upstart Steffi Meyer comes along and writes this mammoth UNEDITED mess of a vampire novel, sells a billion copies, and changes all the rules for YA publishing. Have you seen a list of current young adult books? Every other title is about vampires. There’s no room for anything else. I spent the last three years writing a novel very close to my heart. It was based on my relationship with my younger brother, who died when he was nine and I was twelve. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I submitted it to my editor last week and today she called to say she didn’t think the book was “quite right for her list.”
ME: I hate that phrase.
BOOKBAG WOMAN: But get this: she said she might be willing to look at it again if the brother died halfway through the book...then came back to life as a vampire in the next chapter. She said we’d change the title from WHISPER ON THE WIND to BROTHERS CAN BE A PAIN IN THE NECK!
ME: Typical editor. ...But if you hate the vampire genre so much, can I ask why you’re here today?
BOOKBAG WOMAN: I’m a writer. I need to be published. Heaven help me, but I’m thinking of following my editor’s advice. I’m here to pick up some vampire tips from the movie. If you can't beat 'em....
Finally, I saw a middle-aged woman getting out of her car wearing a Robert Pattinson T-shirt and a Taylor Lautner baseball cap. Her personalized license plate said “TWI-MOM.”
ME: Hi, I’m Peter Sieruta of the Collecting Children’s Books blog—
TWI-MOM: Never heard of it.
ME: Well, you look like you’re a huge fan of TWILIGHT.
ME: Why are you screaming?
TWI-MOM: Because I always scream hysterically whenever I heard the word TWILIGHT. EEEEEEEEEEEEE!
ME: Why are you screaming now?
TWI-MOM: Because I just said it.
ME: Well, can you tell me what you like best about Tw— (stopping just short of saying it)
TWI-MOM: EEE— (stopping just short of screaming again.) What do I like best about it? Everything! The way Kristen Stewart understands, really understands Robert Pattinson, and the way he’s so gentlemanly but conflicted and potentially violent, yet oh-so-romantic.
ME: Actually, I’m most interested in hearing how you feel about the books.
TWI-MOM: Books? Did they make books from these movies???