I recently read an excellent post on a blog that I've enjoyed reading for years. It got me thinking about a problem I've often complained about that I refer to as "Useless Adult Syndrome." Elizabeth Burns makes an excellent point about teen books being for teens and not adults wanting to see themselves appear as saviors in a YA story. I agree that if you're reading Harry Potter or the Hunger Games and wondering why a bunch of children and teens are waging war instead of leaving it to adults, then you are missing the point. I'm not talking about Harry Potter and the Hunger Games when I complain of Useless Adult Syndrome though. Both stories have examples of adults that are useless: the Dursleys and Katniss's mother are not exactly parental role models. But, and this is the key, they are not just useless adults. They are characters with a bit of depth to them and have reasons for acting the way they do. Additionally, not all the adults are useless. Both series have adults that help the young protagonists out while allowing them to take center stage. It is possible to write stories for kids and teens that are engaging, empowering to youth, and still have well-rounded adult characters.
I don't necessarily mind books where adults are mostly absent. I joke about the orphan trope, but I can understand why an author would want to get adults out of the way so the children can have their own adventures. What really annoys me is when there are adult characters and they are universally and unrealistically incompetent, cruel, or just generally useless.
My main problem with this isn't that it sets a bad example or that I'm unsuccessfully looking for a mirror (It's been less than a decade since I was a teenager and I'm still more likely to identify with the teens than the parents.) My main problem with Useless Adult Syndrome is just that it's sloppy writing. I complain about two dimensional characters whether they are leads or supports, children or adults, protagonists or villains. I don't expect every character to be introduced with an exposition-heavy personal history to contextualize their actions. I do expect every character to make decisions that make sense for that character. If I can't discern a reason a character is acting a certain way other than that it moves the plot along or is convenient for the author, then that is plain bad writing.
The reason I have a name for when this happens to adult characters specifically is because it happens to adults so often. This is a problem. Whenever any group of people is routinely portrayed as two dimensional and written off in a certain genre or type of media, it is a problem. Yes, teens often don't understand adults. That doesn't give authors of teen fiction free license to ignore them. If anything it gives them more reason to provide well-rounded adults. Part of the power of fiction is that it allows us to understand each other better.
I admit that part of what annoys me so much about Useless Adult Syndrome is that I want the books that my students read to show them that even if some adults are absent and incompetent, there are also adults who can help them--especially if this is not what they feel to be their reality. That is why I love books like Bluefish where even though the main characters have parents that are mostly not dependable there are other adults that are helpful. Bluefish also does an excellent job portraying all of its characters as three dimensional.
I can see why the portrayal of adult characters wouldn't be a concern for a teen reader, but it is a concern for me. Teen appeal is a very important part of what books I acquire for my library, but it is far from the only consideration. Several of these factors are not things an average teenager would consider, such as the representation of people of color, whether or not a book ties into the curriculum, and what other similar books we have in the collection. Yet I feel completely justified in using these criteria. I appreciate reviews that mention these factors as part of a larger review including whether or not a book is appealing to teens because they help me decide what to order.
I'm not saying all books without well-rounded adult characters are awful. I've enjoyed many books without notable adult characters. I've even enjoyed and recommended some books that are afflicted with Usesless Adult Syndrome. Individual titles are not the problem. The trend across the juvenile and YA genres is.
I'm thankful to Elizabeth Burns for starting a discussion about this topic. This post was inspired by hers, but is not an argument against it. I think we may agree on several points and I have nothing but respect for her. Still, as one of those adults who reads teens fiction and complains about the adult characters, I felt the need to speak up.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Book talk: Have you ever wished that you had wings? Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be able to fly away any time that you wanted, and go anywhere you wished? Frenenqer has been many places and lived in many countries, but she has never felt free. Even when her father's not there Frenenqer can feel the pressure of his expectations like a tug on her spine leading her wherever he wants her to go. So she contents herself with small rebellions like reading books and dreaming of wings while she's trapped in her bedroom in the middle of the desert. She never thought that she could escape her father until she met a Free person. Regular laws of the universe do not apply to Free people. They can shape shift into anything they want and fly all over this world and others. The moment Frenenqer meets Sangris, she knows that he will only lead to trouble and that her father would want her to turn him away. But she can't resist the temptation of his wings. For once she ignores the tug on her spine and doesn't do what her father would want, whatever the consequences may be.
Rocks my socks: This book has everything that I love in a novel: foreign countries, bookish protagonists, themes of independence and individualism, an "interestingly wicked" love interest, talking cats, and heaping helpings of sass! I don't think I could have crafted a book that was better suited to my tastes. I enjoyed hearing about all the countries Frenenqer had lived in, her best friend was charmingly quirky and supportive, and I love the way she grew over the course of the novel so that she could embrace who she is and stand up for herself. Her father was the most disturbing antagonist I've seen in a long time as he controlled his household and psychologically abused his wife and daughter. The man/cat on the other hand was absolutely delightful as he wooed Frenenqer and waited for her to be able to return his affections while patiently enduring her sarcastic barbs. He reminds me a bit of Spike in the later seasons of Buffy. I absolutely devoured this book and enjoyed myself immensely while doing so.
Rocks in my socks: zip
Every book its reader: I'd give this to urban fantasy fans and those who enjoy books about other cultures. Fans of literary bad boys will particularly enjoy Sangris. The romance is pretty conservative and there's little violence although the scenes that describe the emotional abuse Frenenqer receives can be disturbing. I'd say it's fine for 6th grade and up.
Rinsai Rossetti has a website
Source: school library
The Girl With Borrowed Wings by Rinsai Rossetti: buy it or check it out today!
Monday, February 17, 2014
Book talk: The year is 1947, and a big change is coming to India. After years of colonial rule, the British government is withdrawing and Partitioning the country. Soon there will be a new country, where Muslims are the majority, called Pakistan. The move was meant to create peace, but the opposite is happening. Bloody riots are becoming routine as religious tensions rise and millions of refugees flee one country for the other. In a town near the border, three people who should have never met will change each other's lives: a Muslim boy whose family is leaving for Pakistan while he dreams of attending Oxford, a Sikh girl affected by the violence who is preparing to welcome family members fleeing to India, and an English girl whose father is helping draw the line that will separate the two countries. Will they be able to put their differences aside to help each other survive, or will they fall victim to the violence that is sweeping the nation?
Rocks my socks: I knew next to nothing about the Partition before picking up this book, so I was excited to learn more about this period of history. It made a lot of current events make more sense and it was fascinating in and of itself. The Partition is still a controversial period of history as people speculate about what could have been done differently and who may be at fault. A Moment Comes takes a balanced view of the issue by switching the narration between three characters on different sides. Bradbury did a wonderful job personalizing the tragedies that occurred and showing how complicated this period of history is. I grew to care for the characters even as they made decisions I didn't agree with. I could see that difficult times were forcing them into difficult circumstances and leading to decisions that would have been unimaginable in times of peace. There was a bit of a love triangle, but it wasn't played up so much that it got in the way of the narrative.
Rocks in my socks: The setting was fascinating and the characters engrossing, but the plot was pretty predictable. The plot wasn't what made me pick up the book though, so it didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the novel.
Every book its reader: The book mentions acts of violence that while historically accurate make me hesitate to give the book to anyone younger than 7th grade. I'd give it to anyone interested in learning about other cultures and fans of historical fiction.
Jennifer Bradbury has her own site
Source: school library
A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury: buy it or check it out today!
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Book talk: Have you ever thought about what it would be like to live in a town with a monster? Sure it would be scary at times, but admit it: you think it would be pretty cool! A good scare can be fun every once in a while, like a ride on a roller coaster. But it might not be as cool as you think if you live in a town like Stoker-on-Avon. In a world where towns take pride in their local monster and even sell souvenirs with their image, Stoker-on-Avon got the short end of the stick. Their monster hasn't terrorized the town in ages and his sighs can be heard from miles away as he mopes around in his cave. If its citizens want to have any pride in their town or attract any tourists they're going to have to whip their monster into shape!
Rocks my socks: I love the way this comic turns the idea of a village monster on its head. I know my students are far more likely to react with shouts of 'cool!' than screams when I describe monsters to them. The way the monsters have been commodified like Disney characters and the excited looks on the villagers' faces when they attack is hilarious! Even more funny is the angsty teenager in a monster's form: "I have no skills. No talents. I'm bloody worthless. I am, essentially, the un-monster." Even the body language is perfect as the monster slouches and flops down with its arm draped over its eyes. Plus the monster's companions are a grouchy old doctor whose license was revoked for questionable experiments and an enterprising newsie--what's not to love!
Rocks in my socks: zip
Every book its reader: I'd give this to anyone looking for a humorous fantasy comic and fans of monster fights 4th grade and up.
Rob Harrell has his own site
There's great behind-the-scenes extras over at forbidden planet
There's an interview with Rob Harrell at New York Comic Con on YouTube that includes his pitch for the book:
Source: school library
Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell: buy it or check it out today!
Sunday, February 2, 2014
Book talk: Have you ever been on a roadtrip that seemed like it would never end? Well, at least there was a road to travel down and places to stop and get food. No such luck for this boy. He is stuck on a boat in the middle of nowhere with no land in sight, with only a bear who is probably lost and possibly completely insane. 'I spy' gets boring pretty quickly when the only things to see are the sea and the sky, and the only comic book on board isn't even in English. Through monster attacks and ghost ships, things look pretty bad for the boy and the bear. But despite it all they keep sailing to horizons unknown.
Rocks my socks: This book is like a cheerier, children's version of Waiting for Godot. Its title describes the contents of the book well. The novel starts with the boy boarding a boat with a bear for a captain and that's the way things stay for most of the novel. There's an occasional big event, like the monster attack, but for most of the novel nothing happens. And yet, it is absolutely hilarious! The most entertaining thing I've read in a while. Much like Godot the humor stems from the comedic timing of the two leads and the way they play off one another. Much like Godot it is suffused with dramatic irony as the audience increasingly feels that what the leads are waiting for (in this case, arrival at their undisclosed destination) is unlikely to ever arrive. Unlike Godot however the effect is somehow cheerful and ends on an optimistic note. The boy and bear get to know each other and develop a sweet friendship. The complete absurdity of the lovable but incompetent bear prevents things from getting too serious. Then there's the absolutely delightful illustrations drawn by the author that are sure to get a smile. It was the perfect Absurdist novel. The boy and bear are lost without any hope of land (or meaning for their journey) in sight and yet they keep on rowing and facing whatever life throws at them because what other choice do they have? The completely ridiculous nature of their circumstances makes it hard not to laugh even when things are looking grim. This is one of my new favorite books!
Rocks in my socks: nothing!
Every book its reader: I'd give this to kids 3rd grade and up looking for a funny story. Adult fans of Absurdism will appreciate this clever title as well.
Dave Shelton has his own site with a blog and a portfolio of his artwork
You can find instructions on how to draw a boy and a bear in a boat at the Guardian and they're exactly what you would expect from someone with the dry wit of Dave Shelton
You can see Dave read an excerpt from the book on YouTube:
Source: school library