A Rare Treat: Great Parents in YA Stories

Guess what Hubby got me for Valentine’s Day? Great YA lit in movie form!

We stumbled across Easy A about a month ago when we were surfing the cinema channels on Dish Network (because that’s what our lives have become: no chance to get to the theater without three kids in tow, just waiting for movies to come to us via satellite while the little monsters are sleeping). The reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (“smart,” “witty”) immediately reminded us of one of our all-time faves, Juno, so we paid the six bucks for instant access and settled in, two thirty-year-olds watching a high school movie — and loving it.

Emma Stone is fantastic, of course, and is the perfect blend of self-assured and vulnerable with this character. But what absolutely sold the show for me was the first moment we meet Olive’s parents. The casting said it all. When I saw Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson on the screen, I fell in love. Could a young adult character have any better parents? No! Every line they gave just made me love them more.

I have to include at least one clip:

(And in case, like us, you kept rewinding to figure out what the “clever word play” is that she says, I finally caught it on my tenth time through: “grist.” So the movie gets bonus points for improving my vocabulary.)

The day after we saw Easy A for the first time, Hubby asked, “So how can we be as cool as those parents in the movie?”

“I was thinking exactly the same question,” I said. “But I haven’t figured it out yet.”

I’ve thought about it a lot, actually. For one thing, it’s dang unusual to see cool parents in a coming-of-age story. The protagonist generally has a lot more leeway for adventure if he or she has been orphaned, either by death or neglect. In this case, Olive Penderghast gets leeway by having parents who are . . . what would you call them?

They don’t freak out about her lingerie-esque wardrobe, but they do point out to her that they are becoming concerned about it. They don’t freak out when she takes a boy up to her room and closes the door, but at one point when she’s alone with the door shut, growling because she’s mad, her dad comes in and says, “Are you okay? It sounds like you’re having sex in here.” It’s a funny line, but enough to show us that her parents are aware, and it becomes touching when Olive doesn’t reveal the source of her frustration and the dad doesn’t push her to, just saying, “Give ’em hell.”

On the one hand, I’ve wondered if her parents should have stepped in more. Not for the sake of the story, which as I mentioned sort of requires parents to be hands-off. Just for the sake of good parenting. Or is the space they give her part of what makes them admirable to Hubby and me?

I’ve been aware of “space” in the family a lot lately. As I’ve learned more about nutrition I’ve been changing up our diets a lot, which, with four boys in the house, is enough to cause some grumpiness. You know, the way to a man-boy’s heart and all that. Food is important. And I soon learned that my best approach was to back off from everybody a bit. The six-year-old especially needed space to come around on his own. If I insisted he try a new food, he would cry and we’d have a battle. If I waited, he eventually discovered that whole wheat corn bread didn’t actually taste that different from white flour corn bread.

Today he even shocked us by saying, when his dad offered him banana bread for dinner, “No, I need to eat something healthy.”

(Never mind that the banana bread has no sugar or white flour and so is actually healthy in that sense.)

So maybe hands-off parenting really is the way to go. Let the kids learn for themselves.

But I think the secret is also to let them know that you’re aware of them, watching out for them, ready to talk with them when they’re ready. Joke with them, let them know you know what’s up, spend time with them.

Yeah, I think if Hubby and I can be like Olive Penderghast’s parents, we’ll be doing pretty well.

What do you think? What great parents have you encountered in YA movies or books? Any you want to be like?

Leave a comment!

Woefully, Thoroughly, Embarrassingly Spaced: A Case for Adverbs (and Swears)

If you stopped by on Friday, or Saturday, you may have wondered what happened to me this past week. Is she still alive? Is everything okay? Has she collapsed into postpartum depression?

Everything’s fine except my brain.

(Thursday was rough with the babe, but that’s because he was almost six weeks old. This is my third kid, and with all three I thought to myself right before six weeks hit, “Damn it! I can’t do this anymore. I can’t hold a baby this many hours a day. I can’t feed him this often. I can’t handle this much crying and fussing.” And then six weeks hit and they magically became good babies. So really on Friday I didn’t have an excuse anymore, other than recovering from Thursday, which I’ve dubbed Day of Massive Tears. Anyway.)

On Saturday, I began typing a tweet about spacing the post so thoroughly that “spaced” needed extra adverbs, but then my brain must still have been out to lunch because I couldn’t think of any clever adverbs to add to the tweet, so I deleted it.

But it made me think about adverbs in general, which IMHO have gotten a bad rep. Writing teachers love to rant about them and circle them with red pens: “No -ly words!” And really, what have the adverbs done to deserve this?

Now, granted, I do understand the point. I am a writing teacher, and I have cringed at plenty of “-ly words” myself. But maybe just because I love adding a new perspective to debates, I’m going to throw out the idea that it’s not the adverb itself that is bad; it’s the usage.

For example, think of the words we label as “bad” words. Go ahead. Think of a few of them. It’s sort of fun to let them roll through your head. They have a pleasingly rough sound to them, a hard consonant ending that stomps down to help us feel a little better just by slipping them out. I mean, when you’re upset, it’s natural to feel like you want to punch something, and an expletive is the verbal equivalent of that punch.

(My favorite is the mild-but-still-explosive “damn,” which I justify by only damning the pronoun “it,” never “you” or “him” or any other undeserving pronoun; somehow “it” just seems to ruin my life often enough to merit the curse.)

Anyhow, now I want you to think of a scenario where one of those bad words is really the only word that could possibly fit.

Maybe it’s because that word sums up a load of misery the size of a landfill; maybe it’s because that word perfectly fits the person/character saying it; maybe it’s because that word is just ironic enough in the context to shock everyone present into much-needed laughter.

(We named our baby after his great-great grandfather, and asked my husband’s grandparents to tell us about the namesake, and one of the first things Grandma Mantyla told us about her dad was that he loved to swear. I asked her if it was in anger or in jest, and she laughed and said it was always to be funny, because he was that kind of a character.)

See where I’m going with this?

I think there could potentially be a place for adverbs.

We try to avoid them on the principle that if your verb needs an adverb, you’re not using a strong enough verb — and therefore the issue is word choice. A writer’s job is to choose the best word possible for every situation, and that’s a challenge.

So maybe that’s why I bristle a little at the idea of being limited in my choices. I want to have every word at my disposal without being limited by ones that are supposedly “bad.”

Today I want to celebrate adverbs and give them the credit they are so often denied.

To the words “magically,” “thoroughly,” “pleasingly,” “perfectly,” “potentially,” and “supposedly” that slipped unintentionally into this post, thank you for adding that touch of emphasis I wanted in each place. (Note: There are more adverbs than that in this post, but these are the most obvious culprits that would offend certain past teachers of mine the most.) Sure, there might be a better verb that could eliminate the need for you, but since this post is already two days late and is written in your honor, I’m going to let you stay.

And perhaps we’ll make a game of it.

I’d love to hear your ideas. What words could I use to ditch the above-mentioned adverbs, or which of them do you think fit best and don’t need ditching? What are adverbs you’ve groaned over upon encountering and how would you have replaced them? What are your favorite adverbs and when could you justify using them? And best of all, what are some funny situations that just beg for a great swear word?

Leave a comment!

UPDATE 8pm: Okay, Hubby and I were chatting and suddenly realized that this movie clip below absoluteLY had to be part of this post. You might not understand at first, but you’ll hear it when you get to 1:37 and 2:56, and it’s awesome (IMHO). The movie is 1776 (the musical), and this is Ben Franklin and John Adams sending Richard Henry Lee off to convince Virginia to initiate the vote for independence. Enjoy!

UPDATE 5/2011: Sadly, the clip is gone and I can’t find another one from the movie, but you can find stage play versions on YouTube if you search for “1776 Lees of Old Virginia.” 😥

Women’s Lib, Strong Female Characters, and YA Lit

Does it seem to anyone else that feminism, which was meant to be freeing for women, somehow instead became restrictive, limiting our idea of what makes a strong woman?

I feel as though I lack a complete perspective, since I was born after the movement for women’s rights, but I have read The Feminist Mystique and I have read plenty of contemporary literature. It seems to me that somewhere along the way feminism adopted the attitude that we needed to reverse the old hegemony and actually have women be stronger than men and almost hostile toward them. It seems like feminism expected women to reject femininity, because it’s a “weakness,” and also to reject traditionally female pursuits, because they’re “less worthy.”

Similarly, it seems like feminism suggested that wanting to marry or have children made you less of a woman. To really show the world women are equal, we all have to be top executives or top scholars and the female equivalent of confirmed bachelors.


I haven’t actually met any feminists of this degree in real life, but where I do meet them far too often is in the “strong female characters” of YA lit.

Too often, these strong females don’t seem at all female. They seem like what we once criticized men as being: obtuse. They seem emotionally disconnected, leaving the more “pathetic” role of relying on feelings and intuition to the supporting male characters in the book. They seem driven by a single purpose without regard for those around them, because being caring and nurturing are weak feminine traits. They reject the idea of allowing others to help them because a strong woman, apparently, doesn’t believe in team work. And too often, in the end they reject romance and men altogether in favor of careers and independence.

And when a female character in YA lit isn’t written that way, it seems like the character (and by extension, the author) gets criticized.

It frustrates me. I didn’t participate in the movements for Women’s Rights, but if I had, I would have been fighting for all my rights — including the right to be both strong and feminine, to choose both career and children, to have feminine pursuits considered just as worthwhile as traditionally male pursuits. I would have been fighting for the right to be considered an equal partner with my spouse/love — not better than him or stronger than him or more capable than him.

It’s a battle of ideology, and if our characters in literature didn’t win, I worry for our whole sex.

I’m not saying that all female characters are this way. I do read plenty that find ways to overcome the stereotypes. I just worry when the accolades seem to side with the excesses of feminism.

I don’t want to list negative examples here, and I do admit that I still find merit in “feminist” books. I’ve enjoyed many of them; I simply worry about the message it sends when those are the only female characters worth our praise.

Let me instead give an example of the kind of character traits I wish would receive more attention. Last week I finished Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, so it happens to be fresh in my mind, and I think that at least in this area it’s a useful book to consider, regardless of the fantasy elements.  [UPDATE: A comment alerted me to how unclear I was in this paragraph. I would rewrite it without the critical-sounding words “at least” or “regardless” — I simply meant that I don’t intend for the fantasy elements to matter for this discussion except as details of the story. :)]

I want to discuss it without creating spoilers for those who haven’t read it, but I also want to discuss a key element that will definitely spoil it, so watch for the spoiler alert to follow.

Wicked Lovely hinges on the conflicting desires of the two main characters.

Keenan is the Summer King of the fey, but he cannot come into his full power as king until he finds the mortal girl who is meant to rule next to him as Summer Queen. (Right there, you have to love it already, right? They have to share the responsibility, and it will take both of them — a guy and a girl working together — to have full power.)

Aislinn, as it quickly becomes obvious, is the one who is meant to be the Summer Queen. But she is in love with Seth — her mortal boyfriend — and Seth is in love with her. Aislinn is a strong character: she’s been enduring the awful struggle of dealing with Fairy Sight her entire life, able to see all the cruel things faeries do but having to pretend that she doesn’t see them. The last thing she wants is to be their queen. She wants to stay with Seth and go to college.

Still without spoiling too much, here’s what else I love about the setup. Seth and Aislinn help each other. They rely on each other for strength and support. They treat each other as equal partners. Similarly, Keenan has Donia, who is also strong but still feminine and who also helps and supports him. No one is made lesser by being in love. Love actually makes them stronger.


My favorite aspect, though, and where the women’s lib ideas really won me over in this book, is where Aislinn makes the choice we never expect: she chooses to view her role as Queen as a job and continue to love and be with Seth, continue to pursue college. She doesn’t let herself get boxed in by traditional expectations.

I cheered so hard: Yes! Yes! Yes! She stands up for herself and what she wants. She understands that she is the Summer Queen, that it feels right — that it’s her calling, her career — but she doesn’t let that dictate what else she can and can’t have. She chooses also to keep what is most important to her: Seth. And Seth stands by her, because regardless of what feminism may tell us, loyalty in relationships still counts.


To me, the heroines of literature need to be more like that. They need to help us see that relationships are important, that team work is important, that there are always compromises.

I still credit a literature professor of mine for helping me see outside the box as far as career-and-family compromises. He simply mentioned an example of somebody he knew where the husband worked Monday through Thursday and the wife worked on Fridays, so that way they shared the responsibility of being home with the kids. Before then, I had seen the choice as either/or: either I work full time and put my kids in day care, or I stay home full time and sacrifice my own career until they get to school. Because of a literature professor (and I suspect, though I can’t remember for sure, that his comment arose from whatever text we were reading and studying), I looked at my life choices differently, and now I teach two evenings a week while my husband’s home with the kids. We found our compromise.

I don’t believe literature needs to be purposely didactic. I don’t believe it should set out to teach young adults certain lessons about life. But I do appreciate the literature that happens to show out-of-the-box thinking — that reinforces good things, relationships being one of the top good things.

And I certainly don’t think we as a book community should be lauding only the “strong” female characters who shun men and all things feminine.

Just a thought.

What do you think? Is there a perspective I’m missing here? I’d love to hear more thoughts on the subject and more examples of strong heroines that you think get it right. [UPDATE: Here’s a link I just stumbled across to a discussion with Maggie Stiefvater and others about strong characters, if you’re interested. Love what Maggie says about resilience and how real strength is doing what needs to be done, no matter how hard it is.]

Leave a comment!

Morality in Fiction Is a Strange Beast

Here’s something odd I’ve been thinking about this week: Why do parents object to what they object to in novels?

Take for example Shannon Hale’s books. It blows my mind that anybody could complain about anything in her fiction, and yet she gets mothers who tell her they loved all her books up until they read fill-in-the-blank with such-and-such a kissing scene. Now they refuse to have that book in their home or let their daughters touch it for fear of contagion.

A kissing scene! Heaven forbid!

Goose Girlenna-burningbook of a thousand days

But the part that really boggles me is that they say they’ve loved Shannon’s books up to that point. Did they skip the parts in Goose Girl or Book of a Thousand Days that describe outright nudity? Or the parts in Enna Burning where Enna murders hundreds or thousands of people by burning them to death? They didn’t blink an eye at those huge moral issues, but they won’t have their daughters read kissing scenes?

I thought about this with The Hunger Games, too. After all, there is zero sex or swearing, and at first I caught myself feeling relieved. But then I woke up. Hello! Exactly how much violence is in The Hunger Games? More than in any other book I’ve ever read.


John Green recently wrote a post reacting to the challenges of his books in a Florida library, and he said something interesting:looking for alaska

Let me make this clear: An individual scene from a novel cannot be read out of context. It won’t make sense. It will seem other from what it is. You cannot know whether a novel is obscene from a screenshot of a single page on television news.

ALASKA is a novel about radical hope and the power of forgiveness, not about oral sex. The scene between Lara and Pudge–that humorous, massively unerotic scene–exists to argue AGAINST casual sexual encounters.

Strange, isn’t it? That having something “immoral” in a book can actually be an argument against that particular act?

But I think that’s true in Enna Burning, for example. Shannon’s certainly not endorcing burning people to death, and I think even the outraged-by-kissing-scenes parents could recognize that instantly. Enna is dealing with a complex moral dilemma in the book. So is Katniss in The Hunger Games. When your choice is kill or be killed, how do you preserve your own humanity?

Novels are a place to wrestle with those impossible scenarios in ways that strengthen our own morality, ironically enough.

I cheer for writers who can deal so honestly with the complexities of moral choice, and I think this goes back to censorship issues again. Do you want to shield your children from every little bad thing, or do you want to give them the better protection of being able to recognize things for what they are? If teens don’t encounter moral choice in novels, sometimes even seeing the consequences of *gasp* bad choices, how can we expect them to make good choices themselves?

forest born

Strangely enough, one of the kissing scenes objected to is the one in Forest Born that Rin remembers and hates herself for. The character isn’t justifying her own actions at all. She’s saying how much she regrets acting like that. Wouldn’t we rather have our daughters experiencing a regretable action in fiction than experiencing it in real life?

(A kiss, of course, being pretty far down on my list of worries as a parent, but the idea being that the vicarious experience helps prompt wiser choices in general, which I touched on somewhat in an earlier post.)

I realize it’s complicated. Not every “immoral” scene in a book or movie or TV show deals with legitimate consequences for bad behavior, but I think the media that does should be applauded, not criticized.

I welcome feedback from any perspective, however. Tell me if my thinking is off somewhere!

Literary Merit

TwistedThis blog of mine isn’t about reviewing books, but about questioning the way we read, write, and teach. And not questioning in the sense of finding fault, necessarily, but in the sense of exploration.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I read for Banned Books Week: Laurie Halse Anderson’s 2007 novel Twisted.

On her blog, she gave an update on the challenge in Kentucky, saying that now instead of the book being objected to by parents on the basis of content, it’s being objected to by the superintendent on the basis of literary merit. The class trying to use the book is an AP literature course and so, according to the superintendent, should only be reading books that would be taught in college.


Does anyone else have a hard time wrapping their head around that? I mean, I took an adolescent literature class in college where our “assigned” reading was 30 young adult lit books of our choice. That was the semester I finally got around to reading the Harry Potter series, thanks to that teacher. I think I also read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. So, if they teach young adult lit in college, wouldn’t that mean any YA book would qualify to be taught in an AP class?

And here’s my other thought: Does a book have to be hard to understand in order to be college-level and have literary merit?

Literary merit, to me, is that it shows a side of humanity I might not have considered before and does it in a way that opens my mind to new ideas and new tolerance of people.

This book does that.

I was blown away by how real this protagonist and his family felt. His father is referred to as a grade-A jerk, and yet the reader can tell that there’s more to him than that. He’s never the stereotypical jerk. He’s a father who doesn’t know how to be a father any more than his son knows how to be a “man.” Their relationship is complex, dipping low to points where the son imagines killing his father and then reversing completely, like when Tyler is up on the roof pulling down Christmas lights and his dad comes up the ladder to hand him pliers and experiences vertigo, and Tyler helps him down one shaky step at a time. Without giving away the ending, all I can say is that I teared up twice.

On a different note, I learned new sympathy for all the teenage guys in the world as I experienced through a book what it’s like to have to hide an erection so often. Yeah, this book is real in that sort of raw, uncensored way, too, which might be part of the reason for the challenges, but it’s also part of what gives it merit. It validates the story and experience of adolescence.

Life isn’t neat and tidy, life is raw and uncensored. And a book that will make teenagers think about life in new complex, complicated ways and reconsider people and themselves through new perspectives is a book that deserves to be read and taught.

[UPDATE: I just read Chris Crowe’s September 2001 article in English Journal called “Young Adult Literature: AP and YA?” which defends thought-provoking YA books as potential references for the open-ended question on the AP test and also points out that AP students dissect complex young adult novels with as much fervor as they do classics, pulling ample meaning from both. I’ve excerpted a bit and provided a link in the Quote of the Moment on the right.]

Homophones, Nazi Cows, and Other Banned Books Dangers

speak your mind

It’s a little funny at first, the whole concept of reading banned books. I mean, it feels dangerous, right? It feels like you’re doing something you shouldn’t, peeking at something you have no business seeing.

Until somebody explains to you that Little House on the Prairie has been banned. Or The Giving Tree. Or Alice in Wonderland. Or The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.ACLU Freedom Concert

Then it just seems plain ridiculous.

I think my students recognized this yesterday when I introduced the concept of Banned Books Week to them.

Their first reaction was confusion, since they thought I was telling them Harry Potter is a “band” books (oh, the joy of homophones).

Their second reaction, after I showed them the PTA meeting clip from Field of Dreams below (“Step outside, you Nazi cow!”), was laughter mixed with a tinge of uncertainty. After all, aren’t banned books banned for a reason?

Their third reaction, when I showed them the covers of the children’s books I mentioned above, was a collective gasp. 

“Wait a second,” that gasp clearly said. “Something’s not right.”

Read Banned BooksIt seems to me that this is exactly what Banned Books Week is all about: showing people what censorship really looks like.

The trouble is, of course, that it’s complicated.

Does my freedom to have books available at the library impinge on your right not to walk into something offensive? If I want my children to read the picture book And Tango Makes Three, does having it on the library shelves endanger your children by exposure to the idea of gay adoption?

I live in a conservative community. I can’t pretend that I don’t understand that side of it. We all want to protect our children. But a lot of people don’t see it the way I do: that there are books and ideas out there that can save our children–except that if those books are banned, the children and the books might never meet.

For example, Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Twisted was challenged in at least two school districts this past month. She shared with blog readers the letter she was sending to those superintendents, and it included excerpts from letters she’s received from teen readers who were thinking of committing suicide–one who had even attempted it twice–and decided against it after reading Twisted.

So, yeah–I meant it literally when I say that books can save.

One of the comments in class last night that I really appreciated was that the way things should work is that parents should be in tune enough to their kids that they can communicate about every issue openly, whether suicidal feelings or gay adoption or racist terms in To Kill a Mockingbird. But too often children and teens can’t turn to their parents about the things troubling them, and it falls to a perceptive librarian or teacher to choose a book off a shelf and hand it to that student and say, “Here. Try this. See if this helps.”I read banned books.

That’s what I’m fighting for this week. I’m fighting for the right to have the right book on the shelf when the right reader needs it.

At the same time, I believe that parents should still have a say–for their own children.

In high school I did many alternate assignments in the library while my history or English classes watched R-rated movies, because my parents and I decided that movie rating was inappropriate for our family. We didn’t try to dictate, however, that the other students shouldn’t watch Braveheart either.

After discussing it as a class last night, it was great to see how a little bit of information helped open minds about the topic of banning books. That’s my hope for this blog post and this week, too: that a little bit of information will help stop censorship from removing books that are on the shelves for a reason.


*                    *                    *

On a side note, I once heard from some librarians at our university library that there is a case of certain books they keep locked away.

“Whoa!” I thought. “Those must be the really dangerous books.”


As it turned out, they were books that had been locked away for their own safety.

It was the readers who were dangerous to the books. Writing over offensive words with a permanent marker. Ripping out offensive pages. Shredding whole novels.

So the librarians locked the books away to keep them safe from the efforts of censors, and you had to get special permission to check them out.

Interesting, huh?