Archive for April, 2011

April 28, 2011

viruses, prions and how we decide

by Sara Gran
ROK Protest Against US Beef Agreement (US beef...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking a lot about viruses lately. I think Douglas Rushkoff coined the term “media virus,” or at least he was the first to publish a book with that name. This was a pretty big idea in the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s–before Rushkoff’s book viruses were already a bit of a counterculture meme due to William Burrough’s fascination with them (which I won’t pretend to understand). The idea Rushkoff presents in the book is, if I remember right, somewhat different than the way it was often repeated–a media virus isn’t just a thing that replicates itself. It’s a kind of Trojan Horse that repeats itself without you knowing, under the cover of something else. For example, every few years Calvin Klein comes out with an ad campaign so shocking, risque, and child-porn-y that the ads generate protest and are pulled from TV and magazines. This isn’t an accident. The people who do advertising for Calvin Klein know exactly where that line is, and they cross it on purpose. Your media immune system wouldn’t let in just any old Calvin Klien ad, becuase you’re too hip for that, right? But your immune system will, maybe, let in a story about censorship or child pornography. So it lets in the news about the Calvin Klein ad. But you’re infected all the same–now in the back of your head is forever the idea that Calvin Klien is so groundbreaking and daring their ads get banned from TV. Last year’s media flu shot included the technology to fight “advertising,” but you didn’t get the shot innoculating you from “news items.” Does that make sense? Calvin Klein is using this idea for not-so-productive ends (advertising blue jeans and underwear), but all of us in media and the arts can use this idea for our own ends, too.

Grant Morrison, comic book artist and all-around magician, took this idea a step further: in an interview I read with him he said he wanted his work to be not like a virus, but like a prion. A prion is the thing that causes Mad Cow Disease. A prion is similar to a virus, but deadlier–it can do its damage for years before you even know you have it, and by the time you find out, your brain is permanently altered. There’s no going back. It’s a virus times a thousand.

As many of you know I’m a conspiracy buff.  Generally when we talk about conspiracies we talk about bad conspiracies–people working behind the scenes, in the shadows, to kill presidents and control the world economy and plant stupid ideas about Calvin Klein in our head. But there are good conspiracies, too–people working to plant viruses and prions in our culture that will help us expand our consciousness and expand our conception of what’s possible. I like thinking that we can take technology and tools designed to narrow our perspective and sell us crap and instead use those tools to expand ourselves. I like the idea that even out of the dumbest corporate stuff–a Calvin Klein ad campaign–we can find something to help us change the world.

A few years ago I felt like I was floundering a little and I decided to make a mission statement for my work, which came down to defining my virus. I write my novels because I love to, and I write other stuff for money (and I love writing that stuff, too), but I felt like I needed some clarity about what my mission was. Why was I writing all this shit? To give the world a peak into my filthy little nutjob subconscious? To make money? That’s not a very satisfying plan for life! I think we need something a bit meatier than that to be happy! When I was young and depressed I had a lot of ideas about how literature can offer solace and friendship, and I still have those ideas, but that’s not something you can happen on purpose–you just bare your soul and hope that someone out there, someday, feels less lonely for having seen it. That’s not really a goal you can work towards. And important as that is, I needed something more immediate than that to make sense of my life and my work.

So I made a mission statement like business people do. I’m not gonna tell you what that mission is, because that would take all the fun out of it. But it’s not about business or money. It’s about how (and when) we think and how we understand the world around us. So now, even when I’m working on something for hire–that is, not my original stuff but stuff I’m getting paid to do–I know what my mission is and I sneak my little virus/prion in there when I can. To be clear, I’m not talking about an overt or “subtle” (quotes ’cause it’s never really subtle, is it?) political or social message in my work. I think that almost never works. Instead I’m talking more about spreading a certain point of view about the possibility of things and the nature of the world and its boundaries. Knowing my mission (to spread my virus) has made working more enjoyable and made it easier to make decisions about which projects to take on and what direction to go on in the projects I’m already working on. For example, when I’m offered the chance to work on big mass media projects where I’ll have some creative freedom, that’s almost an automatic “yes” for me, because spreading my virus to the widest possible audience is on mission. And while making money is not the core of my mission, my mission is better served if I’m solvent. I always have a million things I want to write about, and I’ve always been a little frustrated about having to narrow these impulses down–there just isn’t time for me to pursue every creative project I’d like to. Now that’s much easier; of all my ideas (assuming I’m attracted to all of them equally) I pick the ideas that are on mission to work with. If I’m overwhelmed in a book and don’t know where I’m going, my first question is how the story is best served. But if there’s more than one answer to that question, as there often is, I can narrow it down further by asking which direction best serves my mission.

Of course, if I really wanted to work on an idea that didn’t align with my mission, I wouldn’t hesitate–the point of this exercise is to serve my writing process, not hinder it. As I’ve said before, my New Year’s resolution this year was to put my intuition first in all decisions, and I’ve been sticking to it. And I treat my writing as an art as much as a craft, so my inspiration is also up there in my decision making. So my decision-making hierarchy would be something like survival-> inspiration -> intuition ->  virus-spreading. If all of those things are in line, sweet. If not, I know survival comes first (if I’m living under a bridge that’s not very good for my mission!), then inspiration (in other words, what I feel like doing), than gut instinct/intuition (the two are closely related, so presenting “inspiration” and “intuition” as two categories here isn’t quite correct, but it’s the closest I can come), then the chance to spread my virus. Of course, other factors also come into play–possible collaborators, time and space constraints, obviously money–and the math on every project is slightly different. Knowing my mission–to spread my virus–helps make all these decisions easier. If it seems like I should make these decisions based on profitability rather than esoteric instincts, well, that’s actually not possible–it’s pretty hard to predict which projects will bring you out ahead financially in the long term.  So while that’s certainly a factor, it falls more under “intuition” than anything else.

Writers, artists, anyone else out there have a mission statement? Or a virus/prion they use? If not, how do you decide what to do when you hit a fork in the road, creatively and financially?

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April 27, 2011

she couldn’t have, she must have

by Megan Abbott

Last August, I wrote a piece for the splendid Mulholland Books blog. The post was motivated by my response to Janet Malcolm’s  much-talked about New Yorker piece, “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” (May 3, 2010), which chronicled a crime that took place in my own neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens.

A local orthodontist was shot to death in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a cousin to kill her former husband, with whom she was engaged in a tumultuous custody battle.

The original Malcolm piece has now bloomed into a book and I can’t wait to read it because I find Malcolm a fascinating, frustrating writer (see In The Freud Archives and The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes).

And I’m captivated by the notion—central to her article—that she herself can’t fathom her own reaction to the case. Specifically, Malcolm knows the doctor is guilty of her husband’s murder and can’t quite reckon with her own intense sympathy (identification?) with her.

“She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it,” Malcolm writes.

I think this sentence speaks volumes to our fascination with true crime. A few weeks ago on this blog, we were discussing Fatal Vision, the story of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, M.D., who was convicted in 1979 of the murder of his pregnant wife and his two daughters. In the comments section, I found myself embarrassed to admit my knowledge of MacDonald’s own defense claims, all these years later.

At age 13, I was so transfixed by both the book and the movie, by something in them, something in the story, that I became obsessed with the case, reading everything about it. I see now I was operating on two levels.  The story works, captivates because this Green Beret doctor, handsome and perfect with a perfect life, seemed to have exploded one night in an uncontrollable rage, committing unspeakable acts.  Those aspects tantalized me.

But somehow, at the very same time, I wanted MacDonald to be innocent, deeply. Not, I don’t think, because of some romantic, crusading notion of a man wrongly convicted but…but…but because perhaps I didn’t want to believe I could be so fascinated by a person (which is to say, really, a story) that is so ugly.

Without yet reading Malcolm’s book (but based on her article) I think this is different in tenor from her relationship to her murderer, with whom she seems to identify (what she calls her “sisterly bias”)  in ways I did not with Jeffrey MacDonald. But she seems just as swept up in the swell, drama, sorrow and heat of it all. The case speaks to her aesthetically and emotionally. And she goes deeper into her own response, permits herself that inward gaze. She is not afraid.

Ironically (or not), one of the first books I read by Malcolm was The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), her book about the “immorality of journalists” as framed through the relationship between Jeffrey MacDonald and Joe McGinniss, the journalist who wrote Fatal Vision. Originally, MacDonald was working closely with McGinniss, hoping the book would exonerate him. But ultimately McGinniss came to believe in MacDonald’s guilt and hence Fatal Vision makes the case for MacDonald as a pathological narcissist, a sociopath, a man capable of butchering his family.

Malcom sees it differently. Though she offers no stated feeling of her own view on MacDonald’s guilt or innocence (it’s not her interest), she believe McGinniss slowly realized MacDonald was just plain boring. In the absence of character (not everyone is as lucky as Truman Capote, with the mesmerizing Perry Smith), McGinniss fashions one—one who is in fact a murderer.

And, as McGinniss sells out his subject, Malcolm eviscerates hers. Ultimately, we see, the writer is, as Joan Didion famously said, “always selling someone out.”

Of course, reading The Journalist and the Murderer, years after my fixation with MacDonald dissipated, I had all kinds of responses. Hustled by McGinniss, hustled again by Malcolm. Relieved in some part to know my holding-out-for-hope with regard to MacDonald’s innocence wasn’t perhaps as hapless as I’d come to believe.

And wondering the extent to which we ever really know anyone anyhow. Aren’t we always just reading into ourselves? Looking for ourselves?

There was something I wanted when I read Fatal Vision. And I read and read and read until I got it. (Though what was “it”?)

Maybe Malcolm, sitting in that courtroom, watching the accused woman, trying to penetrate the enigma of the case, was watching herself, was looking for something, a clue.  Asking, without asking, “Tell me: what is it about YOU that matters so much to me? Who are you, to me? What does this—this yearning and curiosity and fascination inside me—mean? What does it say about me?”

April 24, 2011

SUCKERPUNCH!

by Sara Gran
Comic-Con 2010 - Sucker Punch panel

Image by popculturegeek.com via Flickr

OK, I promise this is my last post on media for/about teenaged girls for, I don’t know, at least twenty-four hours. But, SUCKERPUNCH! SUCKERPUNCH! SUCKERPUNCH!

I thought this movie was tons of fun, and I had no idea how much people were hating this movie until my friend Tom Piccirilli mentioned it on twitter. Since then I’ve been skimming the reviews, which are abysmal. Fine, don’t like it. But what strikes me here is the strange and assured claim that this movie is sexist, misogynist, anti-girl, and has set us women back thirty thousand years. “Snyder is just a big boy with lots of toys. These, unfortunately, include his actresses.” I can’t imagine referring to my fellow grown women as “toys,” but we are, as always, assured that it’s the filmmaker, not the critics, who has a problem with women. “There certainly are no characters…It’s as if Snyder saw Inception while drunk or high and immediately sat down to write Sucker Punch…The actresses were apparently chosen more for their physical attributes than for their thespian talents or box office appeal. First, I admit I’m astonished that someone thought Inception had characters. Second, I’ll say it again–it’s the filmmaker we’re supposed to think is misogynist here? Seriously? I mean, true, very little dialogue here, but I was thinking that was because it’s an action movie, not because the girls weren’t good actors. The filmmaker, Zak Snyder, hired these women and paid them presumably millions of bucks to be in this film. It’s the critic, not the director, who has dismissed them in one clean stroke.

I think the critics are completely wrong here. Yes, there are girls in cute outfits, sexy girls, hot girls. It’s saddening to realize for how many critics, professional and amateur, the girls are now somehow reduced or degraded due to their attractiveness. Sure, we’d all like to see more movies where fat middle-aged people take home the prize (or at least we pretend we do, because when people make those movies very few of us actually go see them), but this isn’t that movie, and it isn’t supposed to be that movie. More to the point, I don’t think the fact that the girls are sexually attractive means that the girls are bad, or “unfeminst” (whatever that means, and truthfully I don’t really care), or “unrealistic,” or in any other way unworthy heroines. Babydoll, our heroine, is a classic Joseph-Campbell-ian hero, a point every reviewer, even those few who liked the film, seem to have missed. She is, as all great action heroes are, on The Path.

Being an object of men’s sexual desire is an almost universal experience for young women. It’s sweet when it’s the boy next door. When it’s your teacher or the boy-next-door’s dad, it’s not so sweet. It can be frightening and it can be a very shaming experience. I don’t mean to overly simplify what can be a complicated relationship. But often inappropriate attraction from men (in part because, for mysterious reasons, no one warns you about all the creepiness to come once you hit, say, twelve) can leave a girl feeling ashamed or as if she herself is the one who has crossed a boundary or done something wrong. It’s an experience that often leaves girls feeling like they’ve been kicked out of the club–the club of “nice” girls, the club of “ordinary” teens who don’t have to deal with full-grown men and their often frightening (to a young girl) sexual desires, the club of kids who are still kids. I guess the critics would like us to think this phenomena sprung full-grown, like Athena, from Zack Snyder’s mind. Do they think men don’t hit on girls? That that’s a directorial flourish? I think it’s powerful for girls to see, up on the screen, girls who have had this experience and aren’t ruined, passive victims but active and strong agents of their own destiny.

We all know that, generally, when we see such girls in films–girls who have been sullied with the stain of male desire, as if we all haven’t been so stained–they’re victims. Even in the most compassionate film, they exist to be rehabilitated into good girls again. Megan touched on this in her conversation with Gillian Flynn in the LA times. The only hope for these girls is to somehow de-sexualize themselves, as if such a thing were possible, or desirable, for any human.

But as all of us not-so-nice-girls know, rehabilitation doesn’t always work. That’s why Suckerpunch is great. The girls in this movie are both sexualized beings and action heroes–true, in real life I hope for a wider range of motion for all of us, but this isn’t that movie. The movie takes place in a series of collapsing/alternating realities, and in one, the girls are prostitutes, forced against their will to work in a kind of brothel/netherland/nightclub, unable to escape. A new girl comes in and leads them to try to save themselves, as she does in the other realities these girls inhabit. The girls fight for their own freedom and for each other. The girls sacrifice themselves to save each other.  As anyone who’s read my work knows, I do love a hooker with a heart of gold. But to see a girl who is explicitly portrayed as being a prostitute (ie, a girl who is “dirty,” “spoiled,” etc, as so many girls feel) take one for the team–not for the man in her life, not for the big brave detective (and don’t get me wrong, I love that story, too)–but for the other girls; well, I think that’s meaningful. I think it says something kinda cool and I’m not sure I’ve seen it before. Likewise the girls in this movie, though not perfect, are brave and loyal and stand up for each other. Every review I’ve seen, ironically, writes about the girls in terms of how attractive they are to teenaged boys (and the director). And yet in their accusations of sexism, they all seem to have completely glossed over the actual females they claim to be sticking up for. Because the girls in the movie, unlike the critics, don’t really seem to care about boys or sex or outfits at all. They seem to care about fighting for their mental and physical freedom, which develops into a fight for their lives. That seems to be where the girls are. It’s the critics who seem nearly obsessed with the fact that these girls are “hot,” and therefore somehow–what? Not feminist enough? Degraded? Impossible to take seriously? I don’t feel that way about attractive human females, and I bet you don’t, either.

The other really cool thing in this movie is the whole set-up, from beginning to end, is a bit of a trick–who you think is the star, isn’t. Again, one of the girls has/will sacrified herself for one of the others. A lot of reviews I read trashed this story line for its “fake profundity.” I rarely read criticism but in the little I do, this clever li’l analysis to be rearing its head a lot. An early review of  my own book, in fact, called my detective “self-important” (thanks, Kirkus!). It’s somewhat shocking how you can pretty much guarantee at this point that any attempt in pop culture to go even an inch deeper than, say, a typical episode of Matlock will result in a steady stream of insults. I actually think this narrative twist was, if not profound per se, thought-provoking, and certainly a little narrative jag I haven’t seen before.

Suckerpunch? Yes, SUCKERPUNCH!

April 22, 2011

Boys Will Be Boys

by Vince Keenan

[Editor’s note: Today we have a guest post from Vince Keenan, whom I met many years ago in Seattle and with whom I  have been talking noir, Mack Sennett, the Mets and other matters ever since. A renaissance man married to a renaissance woman, the lovely Rosemarie, Vince is a screenwriter,  journalist, video game designer and cocktail enthusiast. His blog has its seven-year anniversary this week. –MA]

Megan was kind enough to ask me to represent a male perspective on young adult fiction. Because boys do read. Not openly and not often, but they do.

I could start with a sepia-toned reminiscence of the mail order Scholastic Book Club, which sounds so archaic now I might as well say that in my youth I was a regular user of the Pony Express. Amazon before there was Amazon, it was the best way to feed my reading habit in a section of New York identified on maps as Darkest Queens, where bookstores were thin on the ground. I could then follow up with some signature titles fished out of the packages delivered to Sister Maureen’s office every six to eight weeks. Like Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, about a silversmith’s apprentice crippled in an accident who winds up at the center of the American Revolution. (Bart Simpson said it should be called Johnny Deformed. He has a point.) Or A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith, in which a young boy dies as a result of an allergy to a bee sting and his best friend spends the rest of the summer learning to grieve for him. It seemed so adult, a book about death, and I read it more than once in the hope of growing up faster.

But that wouldn’t be accurate. I’d be projecting my current neuroses onto my youthful reading habits. Yes, I did enjoy those books, but I’d be pointing them out to make me seem interesting and well-rounded, the way I’ll casually mention that I’ve recently finished some award-winner.

The truth is that then as now, I consumed heroic quantities of crime fiction. And that meant The Hardy Boys. It’s fashionable to mock the series in all its gee-whiz, asexual glory. But I refuse to do that. I come here to praise Frank and Joe Hardy, not to bury them with scorn. The boys put me on a glide path that led to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, to Lawrence Block and James Ellroy. For good and ill, they made me the reader that I am today.

The series is a remarkable American narrative in itself. Created by Edward Stratemeyer, the pioneer of book packaging. Cranked out by countless ghostwriters. (I never believed in Santa Claus, but it crushed me to learn that Franklin W. Dixon wasn’t real.) The first 38 entries were substantially revised beginning in 1959 to simplify them in the face of television’s popularity and to eliminate racial stereotyping. As a result, two completely different novels with the same title could be in simultaneous circulation, a lesson I learned the hard way. Buying the “wrong” version of The Missing Chums (#4 in the series) prompted a crash course in typefaces. I soon discovered that the original editions had denser text in every sense.

Yes, the novels are deeply square, replete with outdated technology (#24 is called The Short-Wave Mystery, for crying out loud) and cardboard characters. Joe was only differentiated from older brother Frank in that he was dark of hair and hot of temper. Their friends were designated by ethnicity (Jewish, Italian) and weight (Chet Morton, forever branded “chubby” and my surrogate). I read the books over and over anyway. Screw Middle Earth and Narnia. I wanted to be in what I thought of as the real world, solving real problems.

That sense of engagement fuels every Hardy Boys story. The brothers hero-worship their famous shamus father Fenton Hardy, a remote figure who represents the dark and separate adult universe they agitate to be a part of. OK, sex was a mystery neither bright boy would ever solve; while Frank and Joe have girlfriends, their idea of a date is taking them out in a jalopy for hamburgers. But in the best of the books, sturdily constructed mysteries studded with local color, knowledge is power and the globe there to be trotted. High school familiarity with German explains The Clue of the Screeching Owl (#41). I still remember how to say thank you in Greek thanks to The Shattered Helmet (#52) – it’s efharisto, pronounced “F. Harry Stowe,” not “Harry F. Stowe” as poor hapless Chet mangles it – and learned that residents of the French section of Marrakesh roll pieces of bread into tiny balls as they eat in The Mysterious Caravan (#54). Some day that factoid will come in handy.

Even better are the spinoffs. My copy of The Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook, consisting of short stories illustrating authentic police techniques, eventually fell apart from overuse. The Handbook had to be extensively revised by an FBI agent when the original consultant was indicted on corruption charges while an official with the Newark Police Department, the kind of case the brothers somehow never investigated. Repeated readings of their Seven Stories of Survival taught me how to produce water in the desert with nothing more than a hubcap, a rock and a dry cleaning bag. That tidbit has so far proven as useful as the Marrakesh bread balls, but it’s there when I need it.

Eventually I abandoned Frank and Joe for more sophisticated pre-teen crimefighters. The Three Investigators featured better writing (Edgar Award winner Dennis Lynds penned several series entries under the name William Arden), a team member I could emulate in that his sole skill was research, and a show business angle; Alfred Hitchcock introduced the first 30 or so books and appeared in the closing chapter as Jupiter, Pete and Bob wrapped up each case. Their adventures were in every way more sophisticated than the Hardy Boys’, but looking back I can’t recall the name of a single villain or any plot turn as memorable as Frank and Joe’s solution to The Disappearing Floor (#19). (The Three Investigators have proven hugely popular internationally, with a particularly fervent following in Germany. There are even Austrian movies. Here’s a trailer.)

There was no subtext to speak of in the books of my youth, which is a subtext in itself. My friend George’s father pressed a copy of Clifford B. HicksAlvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day on me by saying, “At least you’ll learn about politics while you’re reading it.” A boy couldn’t waste time with a book. He had to get something out of it. That relentless pragmatism is the entire point of another strain of YA fiction, about making, building, doing. The Danny Dunn series strove to make technology interesting, even positing the notion of a computer that could help you with your homework. The Mad Scientists’ Club stories, written by Lockheed systems analyst turned career army man Bertrand R. Brinley, had a troop of boys with names out of Damon Runyon (Freddy Muldoon, Mortimer Dalrymple) meeting every challenge with soldering irons.

Reading the posts at the Medicine Show this week has been eye-opening. The boy books of my 1980s childhood didn’t have much in the way of angst and existential dread. They seem almost quaint, offering a steady drumbeat of advice that could come from a disinterested guidance counselor. Learn a trade, son. Get out there and be productive. It’s shocking to compare them to contemporary variants like Frank Portman’s King Dork, packed with references to sex, drugs and, mirabile dictu, popular music. Would it have killed Frank Hardy to pick up Callie Shaw, crank up some Queen and get his freak on? But perhaps that’s the ultimate form of escapism as well as a critical life lesson: planting the seed that someday you’ll live in a world where there are no bullies or bad lunch tables, and the biggest problem is facing down a gang of smugglers.

April 22, 2011

who would win: the great brain vs. encyclopedia brown

by Megan Abbott

[Editor’s note:  Today we are supremely lucky to have a special post from the multi-award-winning writer and cartoonist, Ed Brubaker, the man behind the dazzling Criminal series (which is how I first discovered him–it’s every noir-lover’s dream). Today, below, he writes about a series I remember well (Encyclopdia Brown, a favorite of my brother’s) and another I had read but long forgotten, The Great Brain. As soon as I saw the cover below, it came hurtling back. I even remember seeing the movie and I’m sure I’m not the only one. What a time machine this week has been.–MA]

WHO WOULD WIN IN A FIGHT—THE GREAT BRAIN OR ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN?

By Ed Brubaker

I grew up reading comics and watching old noir films, which explains a lot about my career so far, but I rarely talk about my favorite Young Adult characters—Encyclopedia Brown and the Great Brain.

I think I discovered them both at around the same time, snooping around in my big brother’s room. He read more books than me, and I mostly read comics, but the drawings on the covers of these ones really grabbed me, so I started flipping through them. A kid who is super smart and is a private detective? A kid who is super smart and is basically a conman? They didn’t make comics like this.

The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald takes place in 1890s Utah, but is based on Fitzgerald and his siblings, who were actually born about 20 years later— so it’s a strange fiction/real life hybrid. The books are narrated by a young JD, who’s always cleaning up after his brother Tom—known as the Great Brain in the family—who is constantly swindling the Mormon kids out of their Christmas presents or allowances. It was a bit Tom Sawyer-y, sure, but it was darker and more fun, and you got to follow The Great Brain’s progress as he grew up and tried to reform his wicked ways.

I’m pretty sure it was the only kids’ book series in the 60s where the star is actually a crook. “It’s like Parker meets Tom Sawyer” isn’t a pitch I can imagine going over well at the average children’s book publisher back then.

And as it turns out, the entire series came about by accident. Fitzgerald had written a few popular fiction books about his family in the 1950s, Pappa Married a Mormon and Momma’s Boarding House. What became The Great Brain was supposed to be the next in that series, but by the time he finished the manuscript, adult tastes had changed. As the book went from publisher to publisher, collecting rejections, an editor suggested cutting out over half the text—all the stuff about the adults—and just leaving the parts about the kids.

So Fitzgerald rewrote the book and it ended up becoming one of the most popular young adult series of its day. They even made a terrible movie starring Jimmy Osmond.

I’m sort of stunned people don’t know about these books today. The Great Brain at the Academy is probably one of my favorite young adult books ever. Right up there with Harriet the Spy and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Sent to a boarding school, the Great Brain immediately sets out to profit from all the rich kids, working out schemes to get extra candy and sneak out at night. And in the other books in the series he even solved crimes, stopped a corporation bilking the town out of their savings, and escaped kidnappers.

I can’t think of a kid I’d rather have been friends with than the Great Brain. But I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown. I wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with him because he’s a narc-y little nerd. But being him would have been cool.

The Encyclopedia Brown series is a strange one. You remember the characters more than the crimes. You remember flipping the books over to read the solutions, and you remember feeling cheated by them pretty often—“What? He couldn’t have been playing guitar at the time of the theft because he didn’t have calluses on his fingertips? Are you fucking kidding me?”

But that’s not a knock on them, because Donald J. Sobol’s characters were so much fun that I didn’t care. Encyclopedia and his partner/bodyguard Sally, who is tall and pretty and can beat up anyone who messes with our hero. Bugs Meany, the town bully who never gets away with any of his pranks or minor crimes, but who has a gang called the Tigers, who will do anything he says. The town of Idaville felt like a strange island off the coast of California somewhere—fake and too small—and its emptiness reminded me of the military base homes of my childhood. So I could read these books and imagine myself as some kid detective riding up the lane to solve the case of the candy shoplifter (it was my brother).

Of course, Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series has never gone out of print in almost 50 years (it was so popular that John D. Fitzgerald even tried his hand at a kid detective in 1974 with Private Eye) while the Great Brain books have been basically forgotten. But both of them meant a whole hell of lot to me, as both a kid and a writer.

April 21, 2011

Steffie can’t do much of anything: teen prostitutes, great clothes, and boredom

by Sara Gran
The Facts of Life (TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

In an earlier post I wrote about how, despite growing up in one of the book capitols of the universe, going to a fancy private school, and living with parents who may be the only people I know who own more books than me, few books, shows, or movies made quite such an impact on me as trashy stories of kids who moved to New York City and fell into trouble. And that trouble was usually prostitution, drugs, or both. But it was prostitution that was the biggest threat–you could go to rehab for drugs, but you could never wash off the stain of having sold yourself. Iris in Taxi DriverChristiane F. Angel. A dozen after-school-specials. Tootie’s encounter with a teen prostitute on The Facts of LIfe (thanks, google!). Dawn, Portrait of a Teenaged Runaway. Go Ask AliceMary Ellen Mark‘s haunting Streetwise. Thousands of made-for-tv movies, hundreds of paperbacks, a million low-budget exploitive/educational flicks. From 1976-84 (somewhat arbitrarily), teen hookers seemed to be taking over the world. Or at least New York City.

What was the late seventies/early eighties obsession with hookers, especially young ones, all about? Let me be clear here that I am in no way talking about the lives of real prostitutes (of course, most street prostitutes have short life spans and come from a history of physical and sexual abuse and poverty and few options, while a small minority of working girls choose prostitution willingly as their chosen career). I am instead talking about the mythologized prostitutes, especially children, who came to us through popular culture (and also not-so-popular culture). It wasn’t just trashy runaways in Times Square–look at Louis Malle‘s Pretty Baby, for example.

To paraphrase something Megan said the other day, what were the eighties trying to tell us with these stories? I just re-read Steffie Can’t Come Out To Play, one YA teen-hooker tale that has kept with me all these years. I read this book entirely too young, maybe ten or eleven. A Publisher’s Weekly blurb inside the cover gives you a hint about the teen-hooker obseesion of the era:

“Let’s hope it won’t be banned where so many cautionary tales are, right where they could do the most good–in small towns where girls of Steffie’s age [14!], hardly more than children, leave home in droves for reasons like hers and fall into the same sordid trap.”

Really? 14-year-olds were leaving respectable small-town homes in droves to become Times Square hookers? I don’t think the statistics exactly bear that out.  I think there was a big dose of denial in this child-hooker hysteria–a denial of the reality that there were children who were indeed prostituting themselves, not because they felt like leaving their happy home on a whim, but because life had dealt them a very raw and unfair hand. There are now a lot of homeless children and teenagers in the Bay Area, where I live. Almost everyone I know denounces these kids as “fake,” whatever that means. It causes us pain when we see people in need and don’t help, so we make up elaborate stories to counteract that pain–those young homeless prostitutes have all kinds of options, they’re just spoiled brats!

But then, why the media obsession? Let’s look at  Steffie: Steffie is from Clairton, PA, apparantly the worst place in the world. “Clairton, Pennsylvania is a black-and-gray town. Even though most of the steel mills are closed now, you still can’t get rid of the black and gray.” Stephanie takes care of her parents, her pregnant sister, and her little brother, cooking, cleaning, and constantly wiping soot off the walls, with no end in sight. Who’d want to stay? I wouldn’t. She dreams, absurdly, of being a model, so she gets on a bus and goes to New York City. In NYC, she is almost immediately picked up by a pimp named Favor. Favor is insanely wealthy–three Cadillacs with custom-made hood ornaments, fur coats, giant apartment, gold jewelry, cash falling out of his pockets. Steffie and Favor have a whirlwind courtship (“I just kept shaking my head, imagining how lucky I was, running into this beautiful man so quickly, as soon as I got here!”) after which, you guessed it, there’s a price: “‘It’s not a free ride for you, baby,’ he said, shaking his head slowly. ‘You want a whole lot of nice things … you have to earn them. Everybody does…'”

We will set aside  how oddly reminiscent this line is of Debbie Allen’s famous bon mots from Fame, the TV show (“Fame costs, and right here is where you start paying–IN SWEAT.” And of course Cocoa in Fame, the movie, had her own teen-porn storyline.) So, Steffie becomes a prostitute. Which basically means a few yucky minutes a day and the best outfits EVER. Sex in this story, as in many teen hooker stories, is glossed over to the point of not existing. By the end of the book you get the impression that being a teen hooker is more about having the best clothes than about actually having sex. There’s usually a few sordid moments that highlight the young lady’s extreme desirability (the girl in question is almost always a top earner, not just any old hooker) and maybe one or two scenes of erotic and interesting kink, but rarely any actual sex (the “dirtiest” scene in Steffie involves the highly attractive and eroticized Favor watching her get dressed).

But listen to Steffie describe a shopping trip with Favor, a reward for her first trick (which she’s entirely forgotten, hazy as it was to begin with): “It was lovely and fun!…He bought me French jeans. They were skintight and looked wonderful. And he bought me a short skirt that looked like it was made of leopard skin and felt like it, too. And shorts the same material. And another skirt and another pair of jeans in a different color and a pair of high silver boots that came all the way up to my knees practically. They were the most fabulous things I’d ever seen. And they had high heels, too.”

Dipping back in, I’m struck that these books and media made being a teen hooker seem like basically the best life in the world. Lots of cash, attractive pimps, glamorous lifestyle, and all those clothes.  Hot pants and high heels, halter tops, miniskirts, spandex.  Can I still apply for this job? And is it possible what we thought was a sexual fixation was really a clothing fixation? Later, Steffie meets a hooker even younger than her in a jail cell and they compare boots. Even Christiane F., who was an actual child prostitute, devotes pages of her autobiography to her tight jeans, slit skirts, garter belts, and, of course, boots.

Another focal point of teen-prostitution stories seems to be the interactions among the girls themselves. Christiane F. devotes page after hypnotic page to gossiping about her cohorts. Angel, if I remember right, is on a mission to avenge the death of a friend. And Steffie’s downfall, ultimately, is not the grown men she has sex with, it’s the other hookers, who don’t like her. The teen hooker is in many of these scenarios in danger of being cut, scratched, pinched, or otherwise unkindly invaded by older prostitutes. I think there is something very telling in there about our relationships with our mothers, aunts, sisters and teachers–especially the way they can sometimes force entry into our very own bodies.

But back to Steffie. Steffie pisses off the other hookers for being younger and prettier (none of us have ever experienced THAT, right ladies?), a cop takes an interest in her and beats up her pimp Favor, and she’s thrown out of the stable with, tellingly, only the suitcase of awful clothes she brought with her from Pennsylvania: “Nothing else. None of my new jewelry, none of my new coats or jackets, nothing. The only new things I had were what I was wearing: jeans, a blouse, sandals. Even my pairs of boots weren’t there, Just my old clothes … my old Clairton clothes. My blue dress for Anita’s wedding … my old pumps…” (All these ellipses, by the way, are in the book.)  A cop points her toward a Convenant-House type place (minus the pedophiles, we hope) and the kind if frightful people there help her get home.

“There wasn’t any other place in the world for me to go. I really didn’t have any choice. But oh, I wanted to put it off. Just picturing actually being there … in my own house … made my stomach turn over.” Well, the thought of Steffie back in Clairton wiping soot off the walls kind of makes my stomach turn over too. Being a hooker didn’t work out for her, but don’t we have some better options? Couldn’t she, I don’t know, go to college? Learn a new skill? Go on an adventure?

And I think that might, ultimately, be the point. Life in the seventies and eighties was often grim.  Us girls didn’t have all the options we have  now. (And I’m not saying things were so great or even any better for boys–you had and have your own set of problems, but that’s for you to write about.) I can’t think of a single female writer we read in school other than Jane Austin and maybe a little Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’ve written before about my obsession with Three’s Company, where the pretty women bordered on deaf-mute (and we’re not even going to talk about the horrifying specter of Mrs. Roper). Being pretty and smart was not on the program and niether of those options, frankly, was too appealing to being with. You could be the smart girl and spend you life buried in books and never have sex or you could be the pretty girl and be the deaf-mute object of desire, but at least you got to leave the house. The teen hookers in books and film were well-dressed and glamorous and tough and worldly and experienced and (Steffie aside) smart. They were no dummy like Chrissy or Farrah, and they weren’t boring like Janet or Sabrina. They wore bright colors. They had fun. They had sex. They knew things.

In the end, I think these mythologized child prostitutes were a spot our culture found to release the pressure of seventies grimness and limited choices and find something new–a new way of looking at girls, a new way of being in the world, and most of all, maybe, a new way of dressing–that is, a new way of describing ourselves, as women and girls, and showing ourselves to the world. I think our teen hooker obsession–mine personally and ours culturally–isn’t really about sex. I think it’s about clothes and how women treat each other and what we do with our lives  and how we make choices and the perilous times and good outfits that await us when we deviate from the plan and “run away from home.” We are often faced with a choice in life: safe, or interesting. I think our mythology of teen hookers is a mythology of choosing “interesting,” and I think the mythology tells us that we may not come out so clean and pure, but we can still come out of it wearing our favorite boots. And that’s pretty good, I think.

April 20, 2011

through the keyhole

by karolinawaclawiak

I came to know V.C. Andrews at a young age. Eight years old, actually.

My sister, five years older, was always a voracious reader. She brought Flowers in the Attic into our house clandestinely, from a friend. Or, perhaps she used her babysitting money to buy it at the grocery store from one of those spiral racks of paperbacks. I’m not sure.

All I know is that my sister treated the book like a secret and naturally I wanted in on it. I usually snuck into her room to read her diary and when I saw the book in its place, I knew it had to be something good.

The book’s keyhole cover was unlike anything I had ever seen. What was this ghostly girl’s face doing locked behind that attic window? Opening the front cover led to an even more shocking discovery. There were other ghost-faced children lurking behind the cover of the house. All in white, they looked dead to me. Powdery and frightened and beautiful. These were the four siblings, Cathy, Chris, Carrie and Cory, who spawned the Dollanganger series.

I was so enamored with the heroine Cathy that I used to sneak into my sister’s room and stare at her for hours. I wanted to be her, with her hair parted down the middle and perfect nose. I didn’t even want to open the book and read. The cover was enough.

The oldest brother, Chris, had a protective stare that made me fall for him immediately … years before I knew that Cathy had fallen for him too. I asked my mother to do my hair like little Carrie’s, pinned back on both sides with barrettes and she did without question. Cory looked like he could be my twin. I belonged with them. I was blonde too!

Flowers in the Attic was my first foray into the world of the Dollangangers and I didn’t even know V.C. Andrews’ version of their story until a few years later. I had constructed my own narrative for these children and let it play on a film reel in my mind day in and day out. They were mysterious while the other children in my suburban landscape seemed ordinary and without secrets. I wanted to live in a hush-hush world.

When Petals on the Wind arrived in my sister’s drawer a few weeks later I couldn’t take my eyes off it. This cover was even more sinister! A foreboding flower with crimson petals, three suspended in falling! What could it mean? And what of the two faces in the center of the petals, where the stigma and other reproductive organs of the flower should have been?

I stared at them and recognized her immediately. My Cathy. It had to be her. And Chris? He seemed older and worn. They both did. I hesitated to open the keyhole and then, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I did. I was unprepared for what I saw. Satin ballerina dress. Satin robe. A corpse lying on a bed. Where was Cory? I wasn’t ready to think about it.

They were all colorless and gaunt. What happened? I took notice of how Chris held Cathy’s waist. He was mine, not hers. I felt a tinge of jealousy seeing their closeness and resigned myself to heartbreak in my own version of their story.

More books followed and in I snuck, bringing them into my closet with a tiny desk lamp, and locking myself in to daydream about this family and their secrets. If There Be Thorns with its prickly flower and little lost boy staring out at me. Seeds of Yesterday with another flaxen-haired girl looking at me with an attitude among scores of what I believed were grapes. Inside, Cathy and Chris were old, a new guard of terrifying children surrounding them.

photo courtesy of araik91

I devoured cover after cover until I decided to break the spell and read them myself. It was a different story than what I had constructed and my pre-teen brain couldn’t comprehend what I was reading. A mother starving her children? Incest? Torture?

I was too shy to ask my sister about any of it. What If I was misreading? I would implicate myself in some kind of perversion and have to spend longer hours in confession. I would finally have something more sinister to confess than the standard sin I had been using for years – being a liar. No one could find out about this. I couldn’t fathom that my sister had spent so much time reading these books and didn’t know what was going on inside of them. I looked at her with a new kind of suspicion. I looked at her like she knew everything and I was still a child.

I even went so far as to convince myself that the “V” in V.C. stood for Victor. It was incomprehensible to me that a woman could write such things. Could envision these things! I was always reaching for darkness but didn’t understand the true limitless nature of it until I read this series. It served as a kind of awakening for me. I never thought women could write this kind of violence, inhabit such darkness. We were supposed to nurture, not destroy.

I was wrong and thrilled to have learned that lesson early in life. “V” stood for Virginia and Virginia was fearless in her writing. She helped me embrace my darkness and channel my destructive tendencies onto the page. I can thank her for that now.

April 20, 2011

Judy Blume, Vincent Bugliosi and Me

by alisongaylin

[Editor’s note: Today, we have a special guest post by writer  Alison Gaylin. Not only is Alison the Edgar-nominated author of a string of terrific thrillers, she is also the co-author (with me!) of the upcoming graphic novel, Normandy Gold, a sordid 1970s tale of small-town sheriff who comes to Washington DC to avenge the murder of her call girl sister (forthcoming, DC-Vertigo). Alison’s upcoming novel, And She Was, comes out next year. And she used to work as a tabloid reporter, which is so exotic and wonderful I feel extra lucky to count her as a friend.–MA]

When Megan first mentioned to me that it was YA week at this wonderful blog, I thought, ‘Great!’ As the mom of a nine year old, and a veteran Edgar judge in the children’s book category, I felt reasonably qualified to discuss what I’ve discovered to be a vital and exciting genre, and a real pleasant surprise for me—especially since I didn’t read many YA books as a kid.

Then Megan said, “I’d love for you to write about the YA books you read as a kid.”

Okay…

My first thought was, Does Helter Skelter count?

Because when I was in fifth grade, I stumbled across that book—my very first true crime—while trolling my parents’ drawer of grown-up books in search of The Joy of Sex. I can still remember the paperback book—the lurid title bleeding off the cover in that enticing raised red foil.

I thought it was going to be about The Beatles—until I flipped to the pictures section and saw the inside of the house on Cielo Drive, what had happened there…

I read it cover to cover, in secret. It gave me horrible nightmares. I loved it.

That book, along with all the Edgar Allen Poe stories my dad had introduced me to a year earlier, showed me an ugly, fascinating side of human nature—intricate and real as the underbelly of a bug. I couldn’t look away. While my other friends were obsessed by dragonslayers and castles—shimmering fantasy worlds they could escape into, the stories I was drawn to were the darker, all-too-real ones that made my life seem better by comparison. (No matter how horribly I’d bombed that math test, at least there wasn’t a dead body under my floorboards.)

That was the type of book I liked as a kid, and it’s probably why I went on to become a crime fiction writer myself. But I knew Vincent Bugliosi and Edgar Allen Poe wouldn’t qualify as Young Adult writers, nor would my other early favorite, Xaviera Hollander

But then I remembered someone who would.

From fourth through seventh grade, I must have read every Judy Blume book—and the strange thing is, I believe I loved them for similar reasons as Bugliosi and Poe. I never was a fan of romance or fantasy. Xaviera aside, the fictional escapes I craved were the ones that made my own life seem better, or at least, more understandable… and that’s where Judy Blume came in.

While most all the other books for girls my age featured beautiful shiny-haired heroines that oozed confidence (and yes, I’m looking at you, Nancy Drew) Blume wrote about girls with zits and weight problems and scoliosis casts and crippling anxiety. She wrote about girls who so desperately want to fit in, they find themselves—as Jill Brenner does in Blubber—becoming the very people they hate.

In short, Blume, too, was a type of dark escape. While she didn’t write about murderous cults or hidden dead bodies, she tackled the horrors of adolescence—the awkwardness, the ugliness, the cruelty and the shame—in a way that made you physically cringe while turning the pages. (While reading Deenie, I swear I could feel that scoliosis cast, digging into my sides…) But she did it with a remarkable sense of humor and a voice that was all too human.

Rather than dragging you into the tortured mind of a psychopath, Blume allowed you to make friends with a kid who was entertaining and funny, but maybe just a little bit more screwed up than you. (What was with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret’s  heroine wanting to get her period? Was she insane?)

After reading Margaret, or  Blubber, or Deenie or even that slumber party favorite, Forever, which detailed sex in a way that romance novels never did—for all of its awkwardness and silliness and potential for heartbreak—I would come away feeling satisfied, and strangely relieved to be back in my own flawed, adolescent skin.

I’ll be honest with you: Not many people made me feel that way back then, even on occasion. Judy Blume always did.

April 19, 2011

Escape from New York v. Sweet Valley High: young adults, class and books

by Sara Gran
The Smith/Ninth Street station at the IND Culv...

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I’m going to begin by telling you that I had an uncommon upbringing. I went to a strange experimental private school in Brooklyn for first through twelfth grade–when I gradutated, there were 40-odd kids in my grade, and that was the biggest it had ever been. The school was a kind of hippie-eugenist hybrid run by a charismatic man who was at times brilliant (he had us reading, and loving, Greek classics in eighth grade) and at times idiotic (racial and gender equality were not part of the program) and at many times just crazy. I liked him. I didn’t like the school. Despite the theatrics, our lives were fairly narrow. We were supposed to be “gifted,” to be intellectually inquisitive (but not so inquisitive about the real-life Brooklyn around us), and to take our place among the upper, if eccentric, classes. The school was in Brooklyn Heights, a genteel, WASP-y little outpost where Mayflower decendants lived on Garden Place and Roosevelts lived on the water and you could almost forget that most of Brooklyn was poor, diverse, and pissed-off.

At home, I grew up on a block of brownstones that had been owned, mostly, by people who worked on the  Gowanus Canal, with a few artists, middle-class adventurers for Manhattan, and white-collar workers mixed in. My closest neighbors were, I kid you not, Mohawks who worked in high steel. Other than the newcomers like us, the men in these families worked for someone else and the women stayed home and cooked and cleaned. And cooked and cleaned and cooked and cleaned. (Jesus, how clean can one house be?)  My mother was not that kind of mother and my father was not that kind of father. My father had his own firm in the city and my mother worked for him, wrote, and stayed home and  did not clean and when she did cook made sushi or coq au vin. Our working class neighbors probably had more cash than us most of the time, but they didn’t have the aspirations for their children that my parents had for me. They didn’t expect their kids to go to college or become professionals. They thought their kids would work in the same kind of working-class union jobs they did–of course, by the time their kids were grown those jobs were gone, but that’s a whole other story.

So I didn’t really fit in at school, and I didn’t really fit in around the neighborhood, where everyone was poorer than me, and I didn’t really fit in at home, being substantially smaller and quieter than the rest of my family (who I love to death, lest that be misunderstood). I don’t think my parents, who are not from New York, ever really understood that they were raising their kids in Brooklyn.  They seemed to think we could be in it, but not of it–somehow we would live in New York City but it would be the New York City of Columbia of Greenwich Village, not the New York I actually lived in, and came to love, of graffiti and broken subways.

Young adult (YA) books were for me very mixed up in this mess of shifting class boundaries and overheated academics and the general oversexualization of everything in the seventies and eighties.  At the fancy private school we did  not read YA books. YA books were for public school kids. YA books were not for kids who read the classics. We were reading Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austin and Hemmingway (all great writers, but why anyone would do that to an eleven year old girl is a whole other question). There was a small window–say, 10-13–when a little Judy Blume or Norma Klien were acceptable and encouraged. It was wordlessly acknowledged that us girls needed help understanding, oh, you know, tampons and bras and groping hands and all the other accoutrements of young adult life, and Norma and Judy, with their good college-bound little white girls, could guide us somewhat (not to knock Blume or Klien, who were wonderful). And there was a campiness and luridness (and, probably, sexiness) to V.C. Andrews, Judith Krantz, and other adult-but-loved-by-teens writers that made it seem foolish but acceptable–everyone needs some light reading, right? But Sweet Valley High? At home or at school that would have been beyond the pale. It would have been more acceptable for me to read Lolita at twelve than a Sweet Valley High book.

So guess which one I wanted to read? In fact, a Sweet Valley High book was probably my first teen contraband. Long before I started stealing sips of liquor and pocketing stray pills and hanging out with the “bad” kids, my first trangression against my class boundaries was I think a Sweet Valley High paperback. A public school friend who read them all (her parents were just happy she was reading!) lent me one to take home. God was it boring! Boring in the most fascinating way possible. Suburbs, gentiles, cars, blondes–Sweet Valley High was another world. I still remember one scene in that book–a boy drives the girl home from a football game or pep rally, they get caught in the rain, and she takes their letter jackets in and her mother puts them in the dryer for them. Every word in that sentence could have been Greek for all it applied to my life–cars, moms, dryers, games. I didn’t read another SVH novel. But it stayed with me, not entirely pleasantly.

But there was another line of YA books that did relate to my life, if in a roundabout way. I’ve written before about what I will hereby officially deem the New York City Feedback Loop–the strange experience of growing up in Brooklyn while watching The Warriorsand Escape from New York and twenty-five thousand made-for-tv movies and sit-com episodes about  the dangers of New York City.  It didn’t exactly lead to a sense of safety in everyday life. And while these movies and books were of course highly exaggerated, they did portray a gritty, genuinely frightening aspect of living in the city back then. It certainly wasn’t The Warriors. But the dads in Sweet Valley didn’t sleep with a shotgun in the closet because the last time they called 911, with a burglar actually in the house, the cops never came. So Escape from New York was a fantasy I could relate to more than the SVH fantasy. And of course, better to take pride in making it through another day in the most dangerous city in America than to sheepishly tag along as the weirdo wearing all black at Sweet Valley High, right? Now I’m a little more selective about how I choose my identity, but I think that’s asking a lot from a twelve-year-old.

The YA versions of Panic in Needle Park  were books about kids in trouble who ran away to New York City where, generally, terrible things happened to them. That made sense to me. We saw these people sometimes, these people who weren’t from New York City, tourists on the subway wearing light colors with big bellies and their wallets ripe for the taking in the rear hip pocket, where no New Yorker would keep a paperclip. It made sense to me that when these people came to the city bad things happened to them. Bad things happened to us, and we were real New Yorkers. If we sometimes couldn’t safely navigate our way through the streets, those people from out of town, always looking up, up, up at the height of Manhattan, didn’t have a chance.

Besides, I didn’t want to be one of Norma Klein or Judy Blume’s nice girls. Sure, they got all the period stuff straightened out and learned how to deal with that scoliosis brace, but what did they do next? Did those girls ever leave their house? Their neighborhoods? Did they ever talk to kids who weren’t white and middle-class? Meet interesting people and see miracles and eat snails and travel on airplanes and wear sexy clothes? Travel around the world in a yacht? Ride trains with hobos? Did one of those girls ever just turn down a street they’d never turned down before on the way to school and find themselves in a new world? Not to my memory, although I haven’t reread them to find out (and again, no disrespect intended to two wonderful writers). My feeling is that these girls went right from middle school to high school to college to a brief career-gal turn in the city and then got married and started all over agin. No thanks! And the kids in Sweet Valley High were, I was almost certain, aliens. So the genre of YA books that resonated for me were the stories about teens who, generally, moved to New York City (or another big city) and became hookers or otherwise got into trouble. These were the kids wearing cool clothes and having adventures, and at least they were meeting people who didn’t live on their cul-de-sac or in their brownstone. Sure, they got VD and were cut on a regular basis by razor-wielding tricks, but at least they weren’t bored to death. (Death before disinterest!) Boys had Jack London, S.E. Hinton, and other tales of adventure. We had Nancy Drew (lovely, but beyond outdated) and baby prostitutes in Times Square. I’ll take the Time Square baby hookers, thanks.

By seventh or eighth grade I’d stopped reading the books assigned me in school (hippie school=not  a whole lot of discipline) and picked up V.C. Andrews and Go Ask Alice. A few years later I started reading the “trashy” books my parents read when they took a break from “real” books–celebrity bios and hard-boiled mysteries. Very slowly, I started to understand who I was, and that it wasn’t who I as supposed to be. Well, who is?

One YA kid-in-trouble book was different. I can’t for the life of me remember the author, title, or even the cover. Maybe you can help me find it again (hey kids! a real life mystery!). This book, probably from the early-mid-seventies, was about a girl around 16 who moved from the suburbs to New York City and did not become a hooker. She also didn’t become an addict, get raped (almost!), get cut, get VD, or otherwise sustain harm. She stayed at a “crash pad” for a while, then got a job and got an apartment in the East Village. She looked up an old friend who’d moved to the city from their Squaresville suburb and they reconnected and the friend helped her out. Scary things happened–she was mugged, she was broke, she was frightened–but she knew what she wanted out of life and she stayed the course.  And things turned out good for her. She got a steady job and a tiny apartment. She even got a cool serene hippie boyfriend, who got her back in touch with her parents so they’d stop worrying and she could start her new life as a free, responsible, adult. The hardships were there but she was tough and smart and made it work.

I think we needed more books like that.  My suspicion is that, with the explosion of quality (and trashy) YA literature over the past few years, kids today have them.

Now I’m 40, and some of my friend’s kids are approaching YA age. I try to tell these kids, when their parents aren’t listening, that they don’t have to be someone else. They don’t have to try to find a box, or a category of books, and fit into it. They can make their own category. If they’re supposed to be a good little genius like I was supposed to be be, they can throw that away for a life of V.C. Andrews and pulp fiction and bad spelling. It’s OK if they want to read Evelyn Waugh and Proust and OK if they don’t.  You really can choose your own adventure. They never believe me, but I have faith that someday they will remember their crazy aunt’s advice and make a wrong turn on the way to school one day, and veer off the Judy Blume cul-de-sac and into the rest of the world, where all good things await.

April 18, 2011

Lois Duncan book giveaway!

by Megan Abbott

The occasion of this post on/interview with Lois Duncan is the reissue/updating of ten of her classic YA suspense novels, complete with Saul Bass-inspired covers. Thanks to Lois and the good folks at Little, Brown, I have in my hot little hands copies of these reissues: Stranger with My FaceDown a Dark Hall and Summer of Fear. If you’d like them, just drop me an email. The first three to respond get one copy of each book and many night terrors to follow.