Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire

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Dead girls, dream boys, and dark secrets: some thoughts on YA today.

I read what could charitably be referred to as "a lot" of YA. And by "a lot," we mean "essentially a metric fuck-ton," sometimes with an assload or two on the side. I have favorite authors, I have favorite series, I love the drama and the craziness and the sheer freedom of it all. Despite my occasional threats to write a book about sexy teenage wendigo living in Key West (YOU KNOW IT WOULD BE AWESOME), I seriously want to break into YA, and have finished several YA books.

This means I also read a lot of discussion of YA literature, because you can't have fandom without fanatical dissection of the meaning and motives behind every little thing. It's fun!

And sometimes it's also troubling.

Rachel Stark wrote a fascinating, and chilling, article about a current cover trend in YA fiction. Why chilling? Because, as she says, "The trend is dead girls." And she's right. Even more than the girls in wafting gowns, or the girls without heads, we've been seeing lots and lots and lots of girls who look like they've already shuffled off this mortal coil. I've read several of these books. Putting a wilted waif in a beautiful bower on the cover is the equivalent of putting a wilted waif in a beautiful bower on the cover of Sparrow Hill Road. Yeah, Rose is long dead when the series starts, but why is that the image we need to focus on? Why is that the moment that sells the book?

(And in case you're thinking that Rachel has just combed a huge stack of books and pulled out the only possible examples, here's Allison, a teen services librarian, with even more dead girls on book covers waiting to stare at you with their dead but pretty eyes. It's like a corpse-themed episode of America's Next Top Model around here.)

I love a good YA romance, but a lot of the time, we seem to focus on the "boy wants girl, girl isn't sure she wants boy, boy makes damn sure girl wants boy, boy gets girl" arc, rather than "boy meets girl, girl and boy actually have interests in common, girl makes an informed decision, boy gets girl." And yes, I made bad dating choices in high school, including one guy who thought he was a werewolf, so there's my "maybe you shouldn't date the crazy" moment. But there's a difference between "bad choices" and "every girl, ever, makes the bad choice, because it's also the exciting one." I've had this fascinating, and troubling, essay on misogyny and rape culture in YA bookmarked for a while. Warning: it may be triggery for some people, and while I disagree with the conclusions drawn about at least one series, the points are valid and interesting.

Meanwhile, In Which A Girl Reads has summarized her thoughts on YA romance, and some of the ways in which it needs to change, better than I ever could. This bit, especially, got to me:

"And from all the books I'm reading, I'm getting this from YA romance:
1) Girls should judge guys off of their looks
2) Lust equals love
3) It doesn't matter if a guy is rude to you, it just means he likes you
4) At the tender age of 16, 17, 18, your boyfriend is your undying, forever, and ever SOUL MATE.
6) If you're a girl with problems, make sure to find a guy who will solve them for you
7) Guys in a relationship should push you around
8)etc. etc. [insert bad messages about relationships here, I'm sure some book in YA will glorify them at some point]"

Pulling pigtails and frogs in desks. I guess some things never change. She also made a followup post, to clarify a few of her statements; I seriously recommend reading both.

And so it's said, because both of these links have been specifically critical of certain books, some of which I haven't read: I don't think any one book is a problem. IT didn't make me spend all my time in a sewer hunting killer clowns, and the endless stack of Lurlene McDaniel books that I read as a teenager—you know, those "inspirational" ones with titles like She Died Too Young, and Mother, Help Me Live—didn't make me pray for a wasting disease so that I could find true love. The issue is wide-ranging trends, because those can become a serious problem in the way we look at things, both individually and as a society. If every hot boy worth loving is abusive, and every parent is neglectful, we're going to start having issues.

(Oh, and as a side note, I found a blog totally devoted to recapping Lurlene McDaniel books. You're welcome.)

I think these are things we should be thinking about, as readers of YA, as writers of YA, and as people who wind up recommending YA to others. We need the Edwards and Bellas; there's clearly a market for them, and they just as clearly strike a deep chord with some readers. But we need other models for relationships, too.

And maybe a few more living girls on book covers would be nice.

ETA: Here are some more thoughts on the subject by the lovely glitter_n_gore.
Tags: contemplation, literary critique

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