One of my first experiences of profound disappointment in a book (that I didn’t read for class) that I can remember was with Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn. Yes, reader, I was a Twilight fan; you can laugh if you want. But the thought of 13-year-old me being obsessed with Twilight isn’t ridiculous to me at all. I was, after all, a lonely teenager who felt “different” from his peers for some reason (just like Bella, omg!) and had very idealistic ideas about what romance was, and I just happened to love vampires. Of course I liked it. Meyer, for all her faults as a writer, was incredibly good at weeding out specific little details about teenage loneliness and grabbing the reader with them. I felt understood and comforted by Bella’s wannabe Dorothy Parker observations, even if I didn’t always find them funny.
Like any fantasy, however, it wasn’t meant to last forever. Upon reading Breaking Dawn’s nightmarish Xenomorph baby-filled conclusion, I was made painfully aware of the series’ faults: the repetitious and clunky prose, the lack of true lasting conflict with real consequences, the racism, the bizarre and creepy ideas about what constitutes a healthy relationship, the racism, the glorification of women’s suffering, and did I mention the racism? I was horrified. I liked this? Why was I okay with this before? I had to figure out why I felt the way I felt. So I did something I thought I’d never do before: I started reading criticism of Twilight on the Internet. It’s not that I hadn’t been aware of the backlash to Twilight. I’m not sure how anyone could have been unaware: it was just as omnipresent as the fandom. The form the backlash often took, however, was what completely turned me off. Most of it amounted to little more than calling Edward a fag or saying that the series was gay and sucked because the vampires sparkled (which turned me off for…obvious reasons), or various flavors of misogyny ranging from calling Bella a bitch because she “friendzoned” Jacob to calling women in general bitches for liking things, because men have never enjoyed anything weird or gross or awful.
The whole thing was definitely a learning experience, kind of a Baby’s First Women’s & Gender Studies. I did manage to find some more intelligent and insightful critiques on the series (most written by women, imagine that) that actually talked about the issues I’d brought up before and a lot more that I hadn’t even thought of, but the bad or even thoughtless ones were so toxic that they complicated my feelings. I didn’t feel entirely ready to abandon Twilight just yet; after all, I did spend a lot of a formative period of my life reading it and identifying with it, or at least parts of it. Was it really so simple as just loving or hating something?
Turns out, it wasn’t.
The Twilight movies only cemented this. The first came out in November of 2008, a mere three months after the infamous “Sparkledammerüng” (as the Internet so hilariously dubbed Breaking Dawn and its fallout), and fairly early in my “wrestling with Twilight” phase. I’d wanted to see it before Breaking Dawn, and I figured I might as well stick to my guns so that I didn’t look like a complete idiot who got suckered. However, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it, and not in the “three glasses deep in wine” way I expected to (Er, wait. I was 14. Three bags deep in Kit-Kats). Director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (once again, women. Hire women, goddammit, they know things) didn’t quite manage to make the fact that Edward watches Bella while she sleeps not creepy somehow (I mean, who could), but they created a spark of awkward teenage chemistry that I wanted more of from the novel, and also managed to flesh out the supporting characters nicely and give it a more coherent through-line that emphasized Bella’s oh-so-relatable isolation and intellect. I left that theater glowing and giggly but somehow more torn than ever: I thought I’d hate it, because that’s what I was supposed to do now. That’s when I realized: I liked this movie because not just because it was better than its source in terms of being a good story and not being completely awful for women, but because it showed me what I did like (in theory or practice) about the source material. It was, like, a complex thing. I’d heard of those; outside of the Internet, anyway.
I feel like this sort of thing, learning to see the world differently and changing your perspective via the lens of fiction you love or used to love, is something pretty much every young adult goes through. Hopefully, they’re engaging with real-world political events as well, but studying the fine print of actual policy can often be a bit over the head of a 13-year-old. It often evades comprehension for most adults, to be honest. So in this way, fiction can be a great bridge for young adults to addressing real-world issues, provided that they’re given the tools to analyze it in a way that takes into account the complexities of real life and our own personal preferences: tools that online communities often don’t provide. Despite the few pockets of well-behaved people I found online, there was still something of a resistance to discussion of more thorny issues (for instance, whether or not Breaking Dawn expressed anti-choice views) for fear that it’d attract trolls. They weren’t wrong, per se, but still I was frustrated at having to dance around a topic I wanted to dig into. Having complex material to start with also helps, but when you’re writing for young adults, complexity is sometimes hard to achieve without alienating your audience.
And that’s the biggest reason why I ended up moving on: Twilight just didn’t have much there for me to talk about in relationship to bigger ideas, other than as a mirror for the gross sexism that often pervades perception of Things Women Like. So began a great undertaking that no one asked me to do: I wanted to find more great young adult books with actual interesting subject matter, as well as good movies based on them. (Yes, young adult stuff got me into film analysis. Make of that what you will.)
At first, I was successful: the gritty, bloody faerie urban fantasies of Holly Black and the paranoid reality TV-centric post-apocalypse of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games bore fruit, with their well-rounded, prickly heroines, diverse casts and thoughtful treatments of issues like homelessness, drug addiction, PTSD and state violence. I jumped for joy when The Hunger Games was given a big-screen adaptation that had mercifully little interest in its ever-lucrative love triangle, but I’m still waiting in vain for Holly Black’s much less easily marketable stories to reach a wider audience. It didn’t help that not much else I looked at impressed me after such a strong start: Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series was just Buffy-lite (as in, Buffy but wholly terrible), Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures dashed its admittedly amusing genderswapped-Southern-Gothic-Twilight-with-witches premise on the rocks of some truly horrific misogyny and racism (which was soft-pedaled in the much more enjoyable but deeply flawed and campy movie), and Veronica Roth’s Divergent was just…limp. But the biggest failure, to me, in both film and book form, was Stephenie Meyer’s attempted follow-up to Twilight: The Host. There was a book that was actively trying to be everything I wanted after I’d fallen out of love with Twilight, and I hated it. Its idea of engaging complex issues was to vaguely gesture in their direction, then snap back to cooing over the terrible braindead characters and their awful unromantic romance. It was everything I loathed about books aimed at my age group.
Of course, by that point, I was starting to move on from young adult books in general (I’d picked up Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad for a class assignment and fallen in love), and it’s not to say that I didn’t like anything that wasn’t authored by Collins or Black. But those two authors, at their best, had tapped into something real, something tense, something that spoke to current anxieties of the real world that teenagers engaged with constantly. They introduced me to concepts and values and issues that I still examine and re-examine and hold dear to my heart now.
So now, in an age where it’s more important than ever for young adults to be engaging with politics (and for authors of YA books to reach out to them), my question is: what are they reading, and how will they read it?
I don’t quite know for certain, personally: I stopped reading young adult books years ago unless in preparation for seeing a film adaptation of them. And now that the bubble’s burst on big-budget films based on YA blockbuster hits, I’ve been shut out almost entirely. I’ve heard that Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, about a Black teenage girl who becomes an activist after witnessing the death of a friend, is a hit, which gives me a lot of hope. Maybe we’ll have a wave of stories like that for a young audience, something like the deeply empathetic works of Judy Blume that aim to discomfort and empower at the same time, something to give the next generation some hope and courage. Or maybe we’ll shrink further and further into denial and reactionism, a scarily likely possibility. More likely, it’ll be an even split between fluff and polemics, and there’s certainly a place for both. But I hope for the best, because I want the best for our kids, and for our future. And hopefully, I can add my own drop to that ocean of voices as well.