In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On Twilight. Oy.

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Ah, Twilight. Yes, after realizing how many of my high school students had read the series (most of them in junior high), and after one of my all-time favorite students told me I needed to read them because the gender issues in them were really disturbing, I read all four books. They're not good books, but they are quick, gripping reads -- the kind of book you read obsessively for two days and then it's done, and while you're reading you keep thinking, ah yes, this was written to be turned into a movie.

What bothers me about the ubiquity of the Twilight books is the relationship dynamic they set up for the (mostly) tween (mostly) girls reading them. Because Edward is a vampire, and Bella is human, every romantic encounter they have is freighted with danger: he is so in love with her, so aroused by the smell of her blood, that if he loses control, they both know he might kill her. Because he doesn't want to do this, he is by turns emotionally cold and crushingly overprotective. While there's a logic to his behavior in the fantasy world Meyer has created, in our world, a relationship like this would be abusive. I worry about Edward helping shape the concept for so many girls of what it means to have a "good" boyfriend.

(Spoiler alert -- in the next couple of paragraphs, I'm going to reference major plot points in Book 4.)

This ties into the question of sexual desire, and who is supposed to feel it. A lot has been written about Twilight as a sexy abstinence book -- Bella and Edward don't have sex until after they get married, early in the last book. Before this, Bella wants to, but Edward won't go along with it. She desires him intensely, but knows that she has to keep a lid on her desire, because if she turns him on too much, he might lose control and kill her. There are a few scenes where she doesn't hold back while kissing him, then gets mad at herself for tempting him too much. Because, you know, boys can't control themselves the way girls can.

When they finally do have sex, it is reported to be mind-blowingly fantastic (we don't actually get a sex scene), but Bella wakes up covered in bruises. Edward feels terrible and never wants to touch her again; Bella reassures him that she's fine, doesn't hurt at all, and wants to do it again immediately. Then it turns out she's pregnant, and I don't know what happened to Meyers during her own pregnancies, but this one is horrible -- the half-vampire baby makes Bella violently ill, breaks her ribs, and brings her to the brink of death while ripping its way out of her. (Another picture I'm thrilled to have put in the minds of my students.) This paves the way for Edward to finally turn Bella into a vampire, which she's been asking him to do for three books. And the moral is? We're all happy, young, gorgeous, rich vampires who don't need to kill people. And did I mention we're gorgeous? And young? And rich?

I read my fair share of bad books as a kid: dozens of Sweet Valley High books, for one, which I borrowed from a friend in junior high. It was like eating junk food. I knew this at the time, knew that these were fun books but that they were essentially the same, and that I wasn't getting anything real from them. All I've retained is that the main characters were twins, and they had perfect size-6 figures and wore gold chain necklaces with their names spelled out so people could tell them apart. I'm sure if I re-read SVH, I'd find plenty of gender issues to object to as well. But like you, I think that when something terrible is part of the larger picture of reading, and if it gets kids going and interested in reading more, it's not necessarily so bad.

That being said, I'd like to know that there's some really good fantasy/fairy/faerie/vampire YA lit being written out there as well. Is there? What do you recommend when this question comes up?

Love, Annie


  1. I got into the Twilight series when I was in eighth grade, so it was before the whole movie deal blew the series out of proportion. The funny thing was, though, I hadn't read it for the romance-- I was really into vampires (and still am, actually, but recently there's been a dearth of good vampire fiction), and I was looking for the action sequences. Even the prologue promises a great fight scene.

    That being said, I am Team Jacob. My main issue with Edward is that he *suffocates* Bella--you can't do this, you'll die; you can't do that, you'll get hurt. He gives her no freedom whatsoever, and does everything out of the pretense of 'loving her'. If he really did love her, he'd respect her and trust her enough to make her own decisions. And the annoying thing about Bella is that she just goes along with all of it: Edward leaves, oh no, insert six-month panic attack; Edward buys an armored car, let's drive it around town without protest; etc.
    /end rant.

    I'm sure Jacob has just as many faults-- he's really pushy, and doesn't respect boundaries. He also tries to pressure--no, force--Bella into doing things she doesn't want to... Yep, lots of things. But out of the three of them, he feels the most realistic to me. As in, that is how a teenager would actually act.

    One series that draws (a bit too prominently) from Twilight is Maggie Stiefvater's The Wolves of Mercy Falls. The first book is titled 'Shiver', and is about a girl who falls in love with this werewolf named Sam. The first time I read it, I thought it was pretty good, so I preordered the second in the trilogy, 'Linger'. But after I tried to reread Shiver to prepare for Linger's release, I couldn't finish it. So Linger's still sitting on my bookshelf, unopened.

    Becca Fitzpatrick's Hush, Hush (also part of a series) seems based off of Twilight also, with a bad-boy fallen angel instead of a vampire. That was just really, really bad. But the book receives a lot of media attention, so.. /shrug.

  2. Now on to good books. :)
    This will be a response to 'YA Fantasy: Beyond Vampires' also, since that comment box isn't working for my computer. :(

    I *adore* the Gemma Doyle trilogy. Gemma is so strong, but so realistic. She is just as concerned about popularity and acceptance as the rest of us teens are, and does so many stupid things as a result of it (which we do too). But the whole time, she's learning from her mistakes, and trying to be a better person. And there's magic, which makes it that much better.

    Hunger Games is just plain amazing.

    I disliked Graceling though. It was released the same time as The Hunger Games, so maybe I ended up comparing them unconsciously, but despite its positive reviews, I felt like the book dragged. There was a lot of repetition, and the book doesn't stand out in my memory (I read it... two, three years ago?) the way The Hunger Games does.

    One faerie series that is incredible: The Modern Faerie Tales series by Holly Black. It started my faerie fad. Strong leading characters (girls, mostly), and a dirty, hardcore atmosphere. I think Tithe (the first book) was one of the proponents of the gothic faerie genre, since I've been reading a lot of faerie books with such similar plots. Holly Black is also the author of the more-famous Spiderwick Chronicles, in case her name looks familiar. :)

    And this author started me on the shapeshifter, vampire thing: Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. She's not too well-known, but she wrote her first book when she was 13, and was published at 15. In The Forests of the Night (her first book) has almost no romance in it, so it's pretty different from the romance-dominated fantasy genre we see now. Her subsequent books do begin to feature romance, but there is always so much more action going on. (This explains why I was looking for action in Twilight.) Her series, The Keisha'ra, is about shapeshifters. There's this whole world that she makes up, with fascinating politics and everything. The books are all typically just over a hundred pages each-- maybe worth a browse? :D

    (Wow, this was long. Blogspot didn't even let me post it all in one go. o_o

  3. Watching trailers this week for the upcoming Breaking Dawn Part 2 movie makes me remember how much I hated the Twilight books and the spirited "discussions" I had with my 13 year old daughter about how lame Bella is and how creepy Edward is. Daughter loved the Wolves of Mercy Falls books too. Yeesh.

  4. I totally agree on everything. I was 30 when I read them and only because I was bored and my friend had told me to read them. I was wrapped up with them at the time but the more time that passed after I read them, I started to hate them. Plus when I was in high school I was reading vampire and witch books from LJ Smith and they were so much better in my opinion.