Beyond Titillation: Sexuality and the Young Adult Novel

2010 Young Adult Literature Symposium

Beyond Titillation: Sexuality and the Young Adult Novel
Contemporary young adult literature provides a vast range of representations of young adults as sexual beings. Books like these intimately show the feelings and experiences of evolving adults and acknowledge the emotional and physical worlds contained within sexuality. The place of sexuality in YA literature can be controversial for adults attempting to understand authors’ intentions in crafting books that depict emotional and physical boundaries. This session explores the place of sexuality in YA literature and the role of the author, librarian, teacher, parent, and student reader. Presenters: Jason Kurtz, Dr. Nicholle Schuelke, and Jamie Kallio.

"My Sword Hand is Singing" the Praises of the Nook...

I have been looking forward to reading something by Marcus Sedgwick for quite a while.  A galley copy of My Sword Hand is Singing has been on the top of the "To Read" stack but I just hadn't picked it up.  Then I bought a Nook, the e-reader from Barnes & Nobles.  I decided to combine these two enterprises, and read My Sword Hand is Singing on the Nook.  What a pleasant surprise, on both fronts.  The Nook was easy to use and navigate, and after about the tenth page, I barely noticed I was reading an digital book.

I was greatly surprised and delighted at the complexity and historical accuracy of Sedgwick's novel.  The strange vampire legends that Sedgwick cobbles together make for a compelling read.  The book is fresh in this time of vampire tripe and a quick read, yet had a very grounded feel to it.  The Gothic setting and authentic atmosphere adds an element of anxiety  for the reader, and an urgency to the plot.  Frankly, it reminded me of Michael Cadnum's The Book of the Lion, in the way the fantasy/historical fiction aspect of the novel is appealing, and are not wrapped up in the tropes of the genre.

Getting the Eternal Sunshine Girl

During the few days I was reading “Getting the Girl” by Markus Zusak, I happened to watch the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” written by Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth.

The similarities are amazing. Both protagonists, Cameron Wolfe and Joel Barish are quiet, reserved individuals who escape into their journals to find meaning in their lives. Both characters fall in love with alternative style girls, Octavia and Clementine respectively, and the stories are interwoven with Neo-surrealist imagery and poetic language.

The “words” that Zusak uses at the end of each chapter exude a strangeness that is poetic and surreal. From page 171: “I imagine myself in a room, where some / shattered pieces are strewn on the floor, / in front of me. […] These pieces on the ground. / Are made of me.”

I really think Zusak’s book would make a great teen movie, especially if a director wove in some of this imagery. It would definitely take the teen movie to new levels, which is something the genre desperately needs. Gondry handled it masterfully in “Eternal Sunshine” and even incorporated images and words from Joel’s journal into the fabric of the narrative.

Wouldn’t it be great to take a great piece of YA literature like “Getting the Girl” and then making it into a cutting edge YA film?

Great book, great film.

Review - 33 snowfish - Adam Rapp

The Blurb: On the run in a stolen car with a kidnapped baby in tow, three kids with deeply troubled pasts and bleak futures struggle to find a place for themselves. They will never be able to leave the past behind. Yet for one, redemption is waiting in the unlikeliest of places.

With the raw language of the street and lyrical, stream-of-consciousness prose, Adam Rapp hurtles the reader into a world of lost children, a world that is not for the faint of heart. Gripping, disturbing, and starkly illuminating, his hypnotic narration captures the voices of two damaged souls - a third speaks only through drawings - to tell a story of alienation, deprivation, and ultimately, the saving power of compassion.

Opening Line: "On top of everything else, Boobie's got the clap."

The Review: “33 snowfish” is at the literary pinnacle of YA fiction. This is a novel that really takes to task some of our expectations about humanity. Physical and sexual violence are part of the lives of these characters, and it is told with brutal honesty and without a hint of sentimentality. He just tells it like it is for the characters he has created: A patricidal arsonist (age 17), a drug addicted prostitute (age 14), and an emotionally damaged former kidnap victim (age 10).

Rapp’s poetic (and often visceral) writing is peppered across every beautiful page and adds so much depth and lyricism to the text that one can get lost in a poetic turn of phrase and almost forget the horrible acts these characters are suffering through and participating in.

I have had a few days to think about this book, and I am still in awe. Rapp understands how to weave realism and lyricism together in a way that is unprecedented. I am saddened that this book has not received more acclaim, it deserves it. One can only assume that because of its violent content and risqué subject matter, it was quietly passed over as a contender for the major awards. This book appealed to me as a writer, and also as a reader.

Something Extra: Adam Rapp and Chris Lynch were interviewed in ALAN magazine by Ann Angel. They discuss violence in YA literature, and the importance of realism in YA fiction.

The Bottom Line: This is one of the best examples of what literary YA fiction CAN be. One of those books where you read it and just think, “Gosh, if only I could write like that…”.

Grade: A+

Exploring the Uncanny Valley of “9”

The film “9” directed by Shane Acker was one of the most innovative films of 2009, maybe of recent history. With stunning visual effects and a style that was unique and creative, “9” instantly gained a place in my Film Criticism class, just on visuals alone. But something really intrigued (or bothered) me about “9”. The Uncanny Valley.

The Uncanny Valley is a theory that holds that “when robots and other facsimiles of humans (homunculi) look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's lifelikeness.” Basically the Uncanny Valley is when a non-human object takes on human characteristics and either performs them so poorly as to appear garish and unreal, or too well causing an uncomfortable feeling of all too familiarity. It is easy to understand the Uncanny Valley. Compare R2-D2 to Wall-E. Which seems more human? I’d have to argue for Wall-E as he has more “human” qualities. Now compare Wall-E to a Terminator…

In the film “9” we have what Acker calls “stitchpunk” characters that are made up of burlap sack like material and clockwork gears. There are nine characters all together, and *spoiler alert* they are comprised of fractions of the Scientist’s soul (he was their creator, and one of the last living humans). Because these little creatures are imbued with human spirit, they act and behave as fractions of that spirit. It makes one think when boiled down to bare essentials, what are we? One of the more disconcerting scenes is when the burly and brutish character with the designation of “8” is deriving some kind of pleasure from running a magnet over his head. Whether it was like a drug, or sexual in nature, we as an audience quickly learn it was a bad idea, because “8” does not survive the next five minutes. But of all the dystopic scenes throughout the film, Armageddon, skeletons, Matrix-esque robot killers and so on, this scene seemed to disturb me the most. Also the scenes with “6”, the demented artist portion of the group, were also specifically creepy. I think it is due to the fact that these characters are doing some very human things.

Films like “9” can be inspiring for writers because the world of “9” is so rich, that our imaginations begin to fire on all cylinders. But also, the little things, like getting high from a magnet, can make us really consider Character, and how our characters are illustrated and portrayed in our own work. What basic human needs are being fulfilled? Denied? When you see something “uncanny” or disconcerting, it might be wise to explore those feelings, name them, and write them into our work.

The Modernization of the Gothic Romance: Twilight

Stephanie Meyer follows a well known formula in “Twilight”. The Gothic Romance has been around since 1794, and for simplicity, we’ll quote Wikipedia, defining it as “a genre of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance” but part of the further definition that I think specifically applies to “Twilight” is that “Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror” that Meyer really tapped into.  It doesn’t have quite all of the Gothic themes, as Edward wryly asks, “What did you expect? Coffins, dungeons, and moats?” Yes, actually.  However she does stick to the rules for the Gothic novel.  “The literary Gothic embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest for atmosphere.” Meyer modernized the form with “Twilight” but the classic elements are still present.

Meyer finds extreme emotion in the classic Romance trope, paramour love. Lancelot and Guinevere are probably the most classic best example of paramour love, the secret, excruciatingly passionate love that MUST be denied at all costs. Knights would declare their love for unobtainable noblewomen, and then go on crusades to prove the purity of their love.  Paramour is from the Middle English ‘par amour’, for the sake of love. Bella and Edward definitely (at least in “Twilight”) epitomize this type of love, much like Jake Sully and Neytiri in the movie “Avatar”. Both examples are from different species entirely, yet find a love that is wildly passionate and world shattering. 

I’m not sure if I’d call the vampires in “Twilight” sublime, but she does claim that their beauty is awe inspiring and they are formidable and fearsome.  Bella is certainly dazzled, and so were most of Meyer's female readers.  Her "fearlessness" in face of the sublime vampires is definitely a character trait to which many readers responded.

Meyer uses the “scene in the woods” with Bella and Edward to try and establish some of that Gothic atmosphere.  I think the baseball scene in the film version actually does a better job with atmosphere, but we are talking about the book here.  A creepy old cabin would have really iced the Gothic cake in that scene but then again, she was modernizing things a bit.  The dreary beach scene at La Push also really is a page right out of some of the classic Gothic English fiction.
Quality of the text aside, I think writers would do well to remember that just because a novel might be for modern young adults, modern YA fiction can have classic elements.