Episode 10: Sex in Teenage Literature

Everything you always wanted to know about sex in teenage literature, but were too afraid to ask your local librarian…

In Episode 10 of Kid You Not, which is available to download

1. HERE     

(29 minutes), or on iTunes, or in the sidebar of the website, we discuss the omnipresence of sex in teenage literature past and present, and its dark ideological undertones…

In this episode you’ll hear about

  • the shift from didacticism to eroticism in the representation of sex
  • chastity, virginity, NSBF, and other sexy instances of no-sex
  • pregnancy, suicide, and other merry consequences of sex in (most) teenage literature
  • why adult writers are so ambivalent about teenagers doing it, not doing it, losing it, keeping it and thinking about it.

And here are some of the books we’ll be discussing…

As always, email us if you have any questions at kidyounotpodcast@gmail.com, and follow us on Twitter @kidyounotpod!

We hope you enjoy the episode. See you next time for a special interview!

Lauren & Clem x

In Defence of the Present Tense

On September 8th, at Homerton College, Cambridge, Philip Pullman gave a lecture on Philippa Pearce and Tom’s Midnight Garden, choosing the concept of time as his main focus.

As expected, the lecture was brilliant: funny, erudite and confident. Judging by the questions asked after the lecture, the most controversial aspect of Pullman’s talk was his take on the current ‘trend’ for narratives for children and teenagers in the present tense.

‘I see texts in the present tense everywhere,’ he declared, ‘whereas when I was young they didn’t exist. Recently, I visited a Creative Writing class at a university and almost all students were writing in the present tense. When I asked the teacher why that was the case, he admitted he hadn’t even noticed.’

While not directly attacking such narratives, he made no mystery of the fact that he was in favour of the ‘conventional’ past tense. The audience’s responses were interestingly mixed. Someone said – strangely – that she was currently writing in the present tense, despite the fact that she didn’t like reading in the present tense. Other people made bold assumptions that ‘young people’ now preferred the present tense because of the immediacy and the spectacular aspect of that tense. Translation: young people now live solely in the present and need constant stimulation to be able to read (if they manage it at all). Finally, someone laid the blame on a vicious circle at the level of the authors, who ‘feel obliged’ to write in the present tense. Pullman elegantly refrained from making any definite judgement on the matter.

I’m ambivalent. The present tense has never bothered me, either when I read, or as a ‘concept’. In French, my mother tongue, you can write a narrative in more tenses – two different forms of past, and the present (not mentioning the very experimental future tense). Writing in the ‘simple past’ (which is ironically absurdly complicated) makes for a ‘classical’, formal narrative. Writing in the ‘composed past’ is the most informal, relaxed form of narrative (Young Nicholas is an example). Writing in the present tense isn’t connotated either way – you can mould it to make it sound grand, philosophical and nouveau roman, or to make it sound fun, immediate and energetic. A neutral tense, in other words.

It’s a bit easy to assign a form of ideology or social commentary to the present tense. Yeah, it’s tempting to say that it will appeal to people who live in the here and now, refusing to look behind and to pay their respects to their elders. It’s tempting to blame reality TV and live events and the Internet (vade retro).

But we can also look at it another way. Suspension of disbelief in the present tense may actually be more difficult than in the past tense. It might require more imaginative skills than the past tense, and a better ability to navigate between different temporal levels. Especially as narratives in the present tense are often full of flashbacks and flash-forwards. What if narratives in the present tense were actually more complex and demanded more sophisticated reading skills?

Being multimodal young adults constantly plugged in to our iPods, constantly receptive to current affairs, constantly reactive, might very well enhance our ability to imagine ourselves everywhere and everywhen at the same time. Reading and writing in the present tense isn’t necessarily a blind declaration of carpe diem.

by Clementine

Review: Angel, by L.A. Weatherly

If you’re the ‘Oh please not another supernatural romance!’ type, just close this window and go tweet/ play Angry Birds/ do something with your life instead. I’m like that sometimes, too. I think everyone is pretty much fed up to the back molars with supernatural romance.

But now that I’m left with readers who have a slightly higher degree of tolerance for the accursed genre, let’s go on.

Angel is the story of a young girl who is a bit witchy and a bit rebellious, and who might possibly perhaps not be quite exactly human. And she’s in grave danger, because some people who are not human at all have noticed that there’s something strange about her. And the person they send to hunt her down unfortunately finds himself strangely drawn to the way she holds her hair and wears her tracksuit bottoms. A road trip and a final battle ensue, and between the two, a change of allegiances.

Sorry, this has been a bit of a dismissive and cynical review so far. The truth is, this book is so American, and so YA. By that I mean that it is full, firstly, of derelict cars and shabby motels, and secondly, of rebellious behaviour and sexual tension. Neither of which I have a lot of patience for, but you may do, and I’m just so totally cool with that.

However, this is not – no, really – to say that Angel is not worth reading. It is gripping, it is dramatic, it is enjoyable. But most of all, it has a very interesting and original feature – its depiction of ‘angel churches’ inspired from televangelical Christians in the US. This, I think, is truly where the interest of the book lies, and it is L.A. Weatherly’s best idea.

(The following paragraph gives away some information from the book, but nothing crucial past the first half.)

The ‘angels’ in the book are bad angels, but they are beautiful and hypnotic, and they feed on human souls. In order to sustain this diet, they entrance their ‘food’ into creating huge angel churches for the rest of the nation to adhere to and to be, in turn, fed on.

(End of spoilers)

The book truly succeeds at depicting a bureaucratic, impenetrable, mysterious, sectarian organisation which is almost a perfect mirror image of the American evangelical Christian churches with their factory-sized buildings and their governmental lobbies. A daring move, I think, on Weatherly’s part, whether or not she was fully aware of it, and one that, to my knowledge, no angry American evangelist has yet picked up on. Willa and Alex’s struggle against this battalion of beautiful, well-meaning monsters makes for a really quite neat condemnation of corporate and aggressively propagandist organised religion.

In other words, despite the deprecatory tone of the first part of this review, I did enjoy Angel and I would recommend it. There is a real social and political critique lurking in the margins of the clumsy romance, and I am looking forward to reading the next volumes to see whether it delivers.

by Clementine







Review: Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson

When I was a real girl my best friend was called Cassandra…

Novels about eating disorders always disconcert me, as they are so hard to get right.  It is vital that the disease is portrayed sensitively, in order that the book offers the opportunity to understand what can seem an incomprehensible state of mind. Yet it is also important that the book does not act as a trigger to existing or potential sufferers, validating their behaviour or reopening old trap doors in the mind. This could mean that although the writing is responsible, it is not as ‘real’ or authentic as it could be. However, given that incidents of eating disorders are on the rise, both understanding and responsibility are vital when reading texts about eating disorders for young adults. Wintergirls (Scholastic) provides a vivid and sensitive portrayal of a recovering anorexic’s relapse and eventual ‘awakening’ into a healthy life, tracking the damage she causes to those around her on the way.

Lia is not always a likable character. A ‘typical’ selfish teenager anyway, the selfish nature of her affliction cannot be hidden, and it is grating to read of her treatment of her step-sister and parents. She shuts her mother out of her life, lies to her step-mother, and at one point succeeds in giving her little step-sister nightmares.  Through her the disease is not glamorised, she becomes a pathetic, pitiable creature the reader longs to slap. Or at least hurry up and realise what she is doing to both herself and her family. What I found the most convincing aspect of the novel was the depiction of depression. The metaphor Lia uses to describe anorexia sufferers poetically illustrates the disease: it locks the sufferers outside of society, into the cold. They become wintergirls: numb and trapped in a state of suspended animation as their bodies no longer grow and their future is postponed. What this metaphor suggests about mental health and depression is vivid and illustrative, striking a particular chord with me. The theme of isolation is repeated throughout the novel, as Lia describes herself as living on ‘the borderlands’, her memories are ‘ghosts’ and she is in ‘the dark’.

Difficult to read at times, and yet I was unable to stop, Wintergirls became compulsive and I read it in only one sitting. Part of me was annoyed that Lia was such an aggravating character, but this is clearly part of the depiction of the disease. As I reader I wanted to wholly sympathise with her, and yet this was tempered by my frustration with her attitude towards those around her. It is also fair to mention that there is a mystery involved to hold the reader’s attention – which it does – but anorexia dominates the book as it does the lives of sufferers and their families. There is compulsive calorie counting, suppressed urges and hallucinations. Beautifully and lyrically written, Halse Anderson takes the reader with her to ‘the borderlands’, as the poetic nature of the prose adds to this sense of isolation from reality and everyone else.

Engrossing and powerful, Wintergirls is definitely worth a read. Its depiction of the thought processes of an anorexic is extremely convincing, and helps illuminate the ‘logic’ behind a disease generally misunderstood. But it is a story about anorexia first, and a story second. The disease sets the pace, the tone, the mystery, the action. Everything about the book is surrendered to anorexia. Which, I suppose, is kind of the point.

By Lauren

Reality check: the Oslo massacre and the Hunger Games

A friend and fellow PhD student is currently reading the Hunger Games trilogy, and she’s reading it compulsively, as required by the book itself.

When we first heard about the terrible Oslo massacre of July 22nd, she sent me the following email:

it is watching things like this on the news that make me never want to think about how i ‘enjoyed’ the hunger games!

It is a controversial thing to say, but I was immediately struck by how true it sounded. I hadn’t even thought of making such an association, but now that she’d made it, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Of course there is absolutely no direct link between the Hunger Games and the shooting perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik. But watching the news and listening to the horrifying testimonies of the teenagers and young adults present on Utoya island during the seemingly neverending shooting, I cannot help but think, just like my friend did – This is what a cold, organised, mass killing of a country’s young people really looks like, and really feels like.

This is the kind of circumstances when you realise that the enjoyment of fiction can powerfully anaesthetise us to the real equivalent of what it portrays. The Hunger Games plays on both modern and ancient fears to force us to watch a horrible, but oh-so-compulsively-watchable, theatre of child and adolescent sacrifice. It is an artificial construction, of course – no less than a chimera to be enjoyed and feared at the same time. The teenagers in the Hunger Games are unnaturally equipped to deal with thoughts of death. They face it, they give it, they fight against it. Our fear and delight in reading about their endeavour is safely enclosed within the dystopian universe of the books.

And as a friend pointed out recently during a conversation, the hype surrounding the upcoming Hunger Games film is giving rise to a strangely morbid display of young actors and actresses whose roles are just numbers, on the model of ‘Laura Smith, n.3 – runs into trouble at the Cornucopia’. Understand: this pouty Californian blonde dies within the first ten minutes of the movie. But look at her! It’s her first big Hollywood part! She doesn’t die, of course – only her character, so that’s ok.

And suddenly we are interrupted in our desensitised reading of adolescent death by the occurrence of the unimaginable: scores of real, tangible, material adolescent deaths. Deaths that will entirely rewrite the history of the country, that will forever prevent hundreds of friends and relatives from living a normal life.

Of course there is nothing wrong with reading the Hunger Games. Of course we need catharsis, and we need fiction to meddle with our vision of reality and deal with its excesses. And of course the Hunger Games does not defend murder – it denounces it.

But when faced with such a brutal reality check, I am uncomfortable and uncertain. I will draw no conclusions other than ‘This is what the mass killing of a country’s young people really looks like.’

by Clementine – first posted on the Cambridge Children’s Literature Students’ Blog