My friend Christine Heppermann’s book POISONED APPLES: POEMS FOR YOU MY PRETTY released this week. This collection is an unabashedly feminist look at girls, body image, and eating disorders told through the lens of fairy tales, designed for young adults.
The book is arriving at an interesting cultural moment; when the already ridiculous should-adults-read-YA conversation, has taken a bizarre turn. Did you know the patriarchy was dead? It must be true, as I learned that by reading it in an essay printed in the newsletter of the patriarchy.
For New York Times columnist A.O. Scott, the patriarchy’s demise is not even significant in and of itself; no, it symbolizes a greater issue: “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Now, the equation of the death of the patriarchy and the death of adulthood is a problematic one at best, and if you’re expecting Scott to address the troubling implication here or at the very least explain himself, well, he won’t. Because apparently the fact that patriarchy=adulthood, too, is something we can all agree on.
Part of the essay takes on YA, of course, because apparently we have to do this again. Scott pats the head of everyone who gets offended when people put them down for reading YA, saying that of course they bristle; people don’t like it when someone else attacks, in his words, “the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers.” Scott also spends a lot of time talking about women in the arts, ascribing to them some kind of plucky-but-aimless adolescent rebellion:
Why should boys be the only ones with the right to revolt? Not that the new girls are exactly Thelma and Louise. Just as the men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive at a stage of infantile refusal, so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression.
He later asserts that the predecessors of the “modern man-boy” had “something to fight for:”
…A moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt. The founding brothers in Philadelphia cut loose a king; Huck Finn exposed the dehumanizing lies of America slavery; Lenny Bruce battled censorship. When Marlon Brando’s Wild One was asked what he was rebelling against, his thrilling, nihilistic response was “Whaddaya got?” The modern equivalent would be “…”
Author Laura Ruby, in her response to this essay, says it well: "The implication that our art, our characters, our stories, represent nothing but a certain adolescent pleasure in bucking the system, that only white men can be truly serious in their subversion, is as laughable as it is enraging. "
Yes. Scott’s assertion is remarkable in so many ways, but I suppose if you’re going to argue that the patriarchy is dead then obviously women can’t be making conscious political actions, because whatever is there to fight about? Women, by nature, cannot be intentional in their art. It’s almost like he’s infantilizing them
Pulling up his own big leather armchair in Club Patriarchy is Christopher Beha, who wants us to know what he thinks of this whole conversation. In his New Yorker essay, “Henry James and the Great YA Debate,” Beha muses on what makes a book YA. “It does seem,” he writes, “that many books have the YA label slapped on them purely because of their subject matter. (After all, there is little cost to a publisher for labeling something YA if the label doesn’t put off adult readers.)”
This is a rather adorable conception of how publishing works, but, okay. He continues:
On the other hand, the label is sometimes wielded to make a real literary distinction. It is obviously possible to give a subject a treatment that is more appropriate for a young audience. For the most part, this involves simplifying things—first the diction and syntax, but finally the whole picture of life. There is nothing dishonorable about this simplification—it is a way to make material accessible to children.
Wow, thank you! Gosh, I’m so flattered! I don’t think your simplifications are dishonorable either.
Beha is speaking with a lot of confidence for someone doesn’t seem to have any exposure to YA, but part of having an endowed chair in Patriarchy HQ is no one asks you to question your assumptions much. Though apparently it’s perfectly fine to call yourself a completist and yet make blanket statements about a field for which you’re vaguely familiar with three books.
But the real problem in this essay is Beha’s assumptions about the creation of these books—and here he uses Henry James to show where YA books fail. According to him, James makes for great reading because, “…there is always a governing intelligence at work behind the page. I missed this intelligence when I read novels by other writers, which so often gave me the enervating sense that things were happening for no reason except that it had occurred to the author to make them happen.”
To which I might suggest he read more children’s books, because our readers don’t have any patience for that masturbatory crap. But I digress. Beha continues:
What is being lost here [in the “Great YA Debate”] is a distinction that James himself insisted upon, between the artist’s subject matter and his treatment of that matter. In “The Art of Fiction”, he noted, “Of course it is of execution that we are talking, that being the only point of a novel that is open to contention… it is in the execution that the fatal weakness is recorded. ”
So, Beha posits, the problem with YA novels is in execution and in a lack of governing intelligence, and that’s why it’s “strange” that adults read kids books. YA books are necessarily simpler, and therefore cannot possibly contain the same aesthetic or intellectual pleasures as reading literary adult books.
Here, he is tacitly agreeing with Scott; YA writers write without vision or intent—and Beha adds artistry on for good measure. We must—we’re infantile.
So, what makes a work adult, then? Beha gives us a pretty good clue: “If we really are,” he writes, “living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art.”
Ah, here we are. Appropriate subjects for sophisticated narrative art. A serious novel is about things these gentlemen find serious—like the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male. It astonishes me how endlessly fascinating some men find themselves.
Both writers cite Leslie Fielder’s Love and Death in the American Novel, a work of literary criticism from 1960 that is in Beha’s words, “a long engagement with the fundamental childishness of American fiction. Fiedler saw Twain’s Huck Finn, Melville’s Ishmael, and countless other canonical American literary characters as boys who refused to be civilized, who preferred a perpetual, homosocial boyhood to the responsibilities of adulthood—in particular the responsibilities of mature heterosexual relationships.”
It’s funny (haha/hmmm) that they are basing their ideas on a book published in 1960, before post-structuralist/ postmodern/ feminist/ postcolonial critique, before people started getting all weirdly rebellious about this patriarchy thing. But, really, it was a simpler time back then, at least for some people.
(For further analysis, please see Sarah McCarry at The Rejectionist.)
According to Fielder classic American fiction is, in essence, not about adults either. Or, as Scott says, “…notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction.”
And there it is. ”Boys adventures and female sentimentality” defines YA fiction. Because even though this book was written in 1960, we still use the phrase “female sentimentality” like it’s perfectly appropriate.
But apparently when describing YA fiction, it is.
Because this is the insidious undercurrent of all this head-shaking. YA literature, after all, is thought by anyone with a three-book-deep knowledge of the field to be the province of female authors and the silly teenage girls they write for. The books are simple, with simple world views, and they definitely do not address “appropriate subjects for sophisticated pieces of narrative art.” Because how could literature written for and about teenage girls be sophisticated pieces of narrative art?
If there’s one thing our culture tells us, again and again, there is no one sillier or less significant than a teenage girl.
We know the drill. Boys don’t read. Girls read. Boys certainly don’t read YA, because it’s all women writers writing about girls, and we absolutely cannot ask of boys that they read about girls, and we’re going to keep telling boys that they don’t do that in case they accidentally do.
A piece ran in the London Times this year with the headline: “Are Boys Not Reading Because of All Those Women in Publishing?” The article, only half-available in its original form, but recapped here, is an extensive interview with children’s author Jonathan Emmett who asserts: “But there is a literacy gap – boys are underachieving, boys do not like books as much as girls. I am arguing that this is because the industry is dominated by female gatekeepers.”
And women, apparently, ruin everything.
Julia Donaldson, another children’s author agrees: “Emmett probably has got a point,” she says. “He wrote a book where there was some bad character who bashed up people, but a gentle female editor thought we couldn’t even show someone bad doing bad things or doing destructive things.”
Gentle female editors? She sounds like she’s arguing that women shouldn’t have the vote.
As for girls, according to an unnamed editor in a breathtakingly sexist 2011 New York Times essay by YA writer Robert Lipsyte, they want “to read about mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies, and vampires.” Lipsyte juxtaposes this assertion with a quote from a male librarian that says that boys want to read books that invite them “to reflect upon the kind of man they want to become.”
Unlike girls, see, boys want serious, important stuff.
As for the authors (the ones who aren’t him), Lipsyte says:
The current surge in children’s literature has been fueled by talented young female novelists fresh from MFA programs who in earlier times would have been writing midlist adult fiction. Their novels are bought by female editors, stocked by female librarians and taught by female teachers.
Can we just stop and unpack this one for a second? Why are these women destined to be mid list? Is it their female sentimentality? Is it their inherent lack of artistry? Is it just that women can’t write important books?
So, anyway, girls read YA and write YA, and no one is doing the serious work of taking care of boys. Everyone knows this. Never mind that eight out of ten current NYT YA bestsellers are male authors, or that the last four Printz winners have been men and the last five have had male protagonists. That’s irrelevant when truthiness in on the line.
It’s remarkable how both of these articles end with the authors talking about their own work, which is exactly what boys like, and their own struggles with publication as proof of their theses— that this oppressively matriarchal system is to blame for not just ruining boys in general, but keeping them from having the success they deserve. What does that sound like to you?
Now, all of these arguments are equally offensive to boys, but no one making them seems to realize it—it might interfere with their own self-promotion. And to the outside world none of it matters—YA is written by women, for girls. And with its sparkly vampires and “female sentimentality” it can’t matter because it’s not doing the important, serious work of telling male stories.
I heard a teacher joke that forcing boys to read Pride and Prejudice in high school was turning them off from books for life. And, haha, hilarious. It’s an important work and gives students plenty to analyze. But we just can’t expect boys to appreciate the merits of the book, to engage with it, to grow as readers, because, girl book. We cannot ask boys to think outside themselves. They won’t do it, say these particular men who refuse to think outside themselves.
The girls, though, everybody believes the girls should read Huck Finn and Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies and The Old Man and the Sea, because those books are Literature. They are Serious and Canonical, and a book becomes Canonical simply by objective worth, certainly not by a system of biases that keeps self-perpetuating like an undead Ouroboros. And the girls, they’re all right. They’re reading. We don’t have to worry about them.
Except the girls aren’t all right. Not at all.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Assorted Disorders, 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight by dieting, 22% dieted “often” or “always,” and 25% of college-aged women binge and purge as a way of controlling diet. 1% of female adolescents are anorexic, and 20% of anorexics die from complications of their eating disorder. Hospitals are now reporting cases of anorexia in girls younger than ten.
Girls are told in ways large and small, that they are silly, that they do not matter, that their job is to become invisible. And so they become invisible.
The way women get treated in the media, on the internet, casually, is, among many other things, a serious failure of empathy in our society. Women who speak out, who dare to exist and have opinions, get rape and death threats, get slut-shamed, get pictures of their bodies leaked on the internet. The failure of empathy gets repeated, again and again, by organizations and institutions that see rape threats (or actual rape) as a cost of doing business and nothing worth acting upon.
You don’t matter, these institutions say.
And girls hear the message, again and again.
The girls are not all right. They wage wars on their own bodies, and should they dare to speak out about something, people will wage war against them.
Books for girls matter. Books for kids, teenagers matter. And that’s why we write them.
That’s why we tend to bristle when people come in to eruditely piss in our sandbox. It never occurs to people like Scott and Beha that we might be choosing to write for young readers for reasons other than money or our own mediocre skills. (Or as some kind of female hobby, like pianoforte and needlepoint.) But, see, to those of us who write for children and young adults, men and women, this isn’t a market. These are people. We are writing for someone. And they deserve the best we can give them of ourselves.
We write for young readers because we care deeply about our readers. We work hard because we give a damn. We pick our words and sentences and forms to serve our stories in the best way we can—not to talk down to readers, but to talk up to them.
Me, I find the idea of writing for someone to be much more adult than wistfully sighing about how much more grown-up you are than everyone else. Though I suppose this idea of taking care of children is, to the glass clinkers in that particular corner of Patriarchy HQ, women’s work. Separate spheres and all. And, so not really that adult, if you know what I mean.
Scott and Beha are advocating a certain literary solipsism as “adult,” while proudly demonstrating an incuriosity about an entire field of books. I don’t believe I could give them or their very grown-up friends a single children’s or YA book that would change their minds about the field, but I also don’t think that has anything to do with the books. And I can’t help but think that people who can’t find a single YA or children’s book worth their time also have serious issues with empathy.
Isn’t this really the marker of adulthood? Learning to look beyond yourself to others? Isn’t a marker of intelligence a hunger to see the world outside your own experience? Isn’t that maybe why so many people outside of traditional power structures are draw to this lit in the first place? Everyone who insults reading these books is not just denigrating the quality of the books themselves, but of the very act of using your time to give a crap about kids and the things they give a crap about.
And here, from inside the HQ, C.S. Lewis turns around in his swivel chair, clinks his glass, and tells everyone in that particular corner that they are full of crap:
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. … But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
-“On Three Ways of Writing for Children”
We do not fear childishness, and so we write for children. We write with intention. We write with awareness. We write with artistry. And sometimes we write about girls. And in this culture, as the essays above prove, writing about girls is a political act.
I wish every single teen and adult in this country would read Brandy Colbert’s Pointe and Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Both books do an exquisite job of letting the reader live in the bodies of girls who are getting told again and again how worthless they are, and both meticulously demonstrate how girls might come to feel that way. They do the work of art. Pointe shows how girls are taught to internalize shame over abuse, Yaqui Delgado unflinchingly demonstrates how bullying can destroy a girl’s sense of self. I suppose some people might call this “female sentimentality;” I call it giving a damn.
Now that the patriarchy is dead, Poisoned Apples might seem out of date to someone, since, you know, there’s no beauty myth anymore, no sexual shaming, no more eating disorders. It might seem small to someone of Scott and Beha’s, as its concern is teenage girls, and infantile, because it uses fairy tales. Personally, I think it’s one of the most adult works of art I’ve ever seen.
Like her peers, Christine Heppermann has decided that the best way to be a grown-up is to help those who are just about to become grown-ups—to give them emotional vocabulary for so many unnamable things. (And, with fairy tales, she allows them the ability to live in metaphor.) It’s challenging to write narratives of eating disorders in a way that isn’t seductive to a disordered mind, but by using the language of fairy tales Heppermann can engage with the compulsions while at the same time laying bare their brutality.
From Poisoned Apples, reprinted with permission from the author:
Blow Your House In
She used to be a house of bricks,
point guard on the JV team, walling out
defenders who could only huff and puff
and watch the layups roll in.
She traded for a house of sticks,
kindling in Converse high-tops and a red Adidas tent.
At lunch she swirled a teeny spoon in yogurt
that never touched her lips and said
she’d decided to quit chasing a stupid ball.
Now she’s building herself out of straw
as light as the needle swimming in her bathroom scale.
The smaller the number, the closer to gold,
the tighter her face, afire with the zeal of a wolf
who has one house left to destroy.
Girls matter. Books like Pointe, Yaqui Delgado, Poisoned Apples tell the young female reader: I see you, I see what’s happening to you, I see how you feel, but it does not have to be this way. Let me show you.
I would buy every middle and high school library and classroom a copy of this book if I could. It deserves to be read, studied, discussed. By girls, yes—given them a space to converse about the issues this brings up freely. But boys too.
Just as we can tell girls that they are worth poetry, we can tell boys that they are worth our faith in their empathy. We can give them credit for the ability to step outside themselves and their own concerns. We can show them not just that we expect them to care about issues other than their own, but that we believe they’ll want to. They are worth that.
It matters, that boys read about girls, that they engage closely with books that speak to what it is to be a girl today. It matters that they understand how it feels to be catcalled, to be touched in a way you don’t want to be touched. And that they understand how it feels to wake up every morning desperate to be skinnier, having that desire consume you like fire. How it feels to get by on 1000 calories a day, 500, 100. How it feels to schedule your whole day around exercise, or around eating meals and then throwing them up. It matters that they engage deeply with the forces in society that might cause a girl to feel this way. This is a human issue.
It matters, greatly, that we all engage with literature that treats girls like people, so perhaps we can we actually can celebrate some small crumbling of the patriarchy some day, so more boys are equipped to take on the rampant misogyny in the world, so that everyone understand a feminist critique of, say, video games, isn’t designed to threaten anybody, but to better us all.
It matters greatly that YA literature exists, that books like Poisoned Apples exist, that girls and boys and even some enlightened grown-ups read them.
Then, maybe, we can all be better adults.