Discussion: Light vs. Dark Trend in Fantasy Literature

It seems to me that a common trend throughout Science Fiction and Fantasy literature is the war between the Light and the Dark, or  Good vs. Evil. No matter what world the story takes place in, or what species or race the characters are, the discussion of good and bad is something that is constantly stressed in stories in our society. It has been for as long as we’ve had stories: religious parables and myths, fairy tales, today’s science fiction all share this theme. It comes as no surprise to me that it would also be prevalent in fiction for middle grade readers. The idea of there being good in the world as well as evil is a lesson we’ve been trying to teach to our youth throughout history. A warning, almost, to try and make sure that we instill morals in our children so that they can be positive contributors to our societies.

The Tale of Despereaux delivers this same message, this time using mice and rats and the physical difference of light and darkness. In the world that DiCamillo has created, mice are creatures of the world of the light and are only sent to the dungeon (a world of complete darkness) when they are being exiled from their own society. They are sent there to die a terrible death by the hand of the rats, who are creatures of that darkness and despised by humans as creatures of disease and ugliness and death. It was, in fact, a rat who had unintentionally caused the death of the humans’ queen, who was frightened to death by the accidental appearance of a rat in her soup- a rat who had left the darkness of the dungeon for the light of the world above only to be shunned and sent back to the dark world from which he came. He had wanted to witness beauty and goodness, and leave the evil that the other rats held in their hearts behind, but because of the prejudice of the humans in the castle was forced to go back. While in that darkness, his plan for revenge was conceived and developed and put into action. A plan to steal away the Princess Pea from the world of light and make her remain in the darkness of the dungeon forever as punishment for sending that rat, Chiaroscuro, back to his home and showing him that humans would never accept rats in the world of beauty and light.

But then DiCamillo takes a turn. In the end, she allows the rats to partake of the world of the light. Princess Pea, moved by Despereaux’s devotion and gift of forgiveness, extends a sort of olive branch to the rats inviting them out of the darkness to partake in the beauty and enjoyment of the world of light for a taste of soup. Princess Pea’s invitation serves to showcase the idea that even when people are born in or come from that world of darkness we should still give them the chance to experience light and beauty and good, not shun them from it and ban them to their darkness and sadness and potentially evil ways. This reminds me of countless parables from new testament Christian texts (as well as many other religions’ writings and teachings): ideas of “love your neighbor” and forgiveness and being good to your fellow man. It’s no secret that humans do have an aversion to rats. Throughout history they’ve carried diseases that have been very detrimental to our societies (the plague in medieval times, etc.), and the word itself has quite the negative connotation. But mice can be cute. Especially very tiny ones with giant ears who can read and fall in love with princesses. I think that DiCamillo’s use of mice and rats, two very closely related animals that are thought of very differently, to show prejudice and good vs. evil was interesting and something on a level that children in this age group could latch onto and learn from.


Discussion: Tweens as a Media Construct

I find this idea intriguing. The category of “Tween” is most definitely something that the media created. We’ve read that point in multiple articles this semester. It was created as a marketing strategy to try to reach a new and more specific niche. Publisher’s realized that there was an age group that was between Children and Teen and wanted to capitalize on it, and Tweens were born. Now bookstores cater to these readers with categories called things like Young Readers (at Barnes and Noble) and Middle Grade (at many independent bookstores). This can still be quite the mix bag of fiction titles, since they tend to span readers from ages 8-14 and cover many different reading levels.
What I find so interesting based on readings from this unit is the fact that even though the media created this market, motion pictures have a really hard time figuring out how to successfully portray this most awkward of age groups on the big screen. Before reading Paul’s article, this was a fact I hadn’t thought of much before. But magazines and television shows can represent this age group just fine (as written about by Olson). Magazines like Bop, Twist, and J-14 chronicle the stars that spring forth from Disney and Nickelodeon programming and seem to bolster each other’s standing with the tween crowd. These types of media can play off of each other easily and continue to be successful, even in the Internet age. I don’t quite understand the disconnect when it comes to movies, but it’s true: I don’t remember many really good movies that feature leading roles in the 9-12 age. I think Matilda was good, but she had superpowers and that was many years ago. And Kick-Ass had a young lady character who was probably 11 or 12 and quite admirable, but she was slicing people open and that was definitely a teen/adult film. Granted, I haven’t been on the lookout for tween films over the past few years, but it shocks me that nothing comes to mind without some really hard searching.

Paul’s take on how girls in this age group are portrayed on-screen is telling:

“Even battling evil warlocks, when tween girls leave the page for the screen, they largely hew to an awkward caricature of preadolescence. They tend to be sassy beyond their years but at the same time resolutely presexual. They are usually tomboys. And often, as in the case of both the Nancy Drew and Judy Moody movies, they have more visible male friends than female ones. Hollywood tweens are also, oddly, antiheroines. Rather than smart, they are smarty-pants: smug, priggish and set up for a pratfall.”

And who really wants to watch that for multiple hours? And maybe the awkwardness of the tween years just is too hard of a topic for us to want to sit through again after we’ve already experienced it or are currently going through it. If movies are supposed to be an escape, why would anyone want to revisit that often dreadful time of their lives? Paul also observes that “Portraying the delicacies of a girl’s first period is hard enough on the page. It’s quite another challenge on the big screen. Whereas the humiliations of preadolescence are fodder for comedy in male characters — the squeaking voice, the pimples, the delayed growth spurt — in girls it’s an age often avoided.” And I understand why. After spending this semester revisiting writings directed at this age group for the first time since being a part of it myself, I am reminded of what a tumultuous time in our lives these years really are. I don’t think anyone really enjoys going back to it in the very public and in-your-face way that movies can and do visit tough issues.

At least there are the independent films out there. The Little Miss Sunshines that give us an honest, awkward young lady who is admirable in her struggles and even manages to make us laugh along the way. Maybe the major studios should just stop trying to produce things other than High School Musicals. Leave the adolescents to the creative types that linger as the outliers in the medium. For now they seem to be the only ones making any real progress in that area.

Olson, E. (2007, May 28). OMG! Cute boys, kissing tips and lots of pics, as magazines find a niche. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/28/business/media/28fanzine.html?pagewanted=1&sq=tween%20magazines&st=cse&scp=4

Paul, P. (2011, June 3). Girls of a certain age challenge hollywood. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/movies/hollywood-challenge-portrayals-of-tween-girls.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&ref=movies&adxnnlx=1353776443-YYzvao5YxXyS/Qq+XENEoA


Discussion: Alternative Formats

I feel my brain stretch more when reading in alternative formats. To me, it’s like exercising multiple parts of my mind all at once. I’m seeing and interpreting the text, but also images at the same time. It’s much more like my everyday interactions with media (news channels that have talking heads and tickers and multiple on-screen graphics at once) and human beings than traditional reading. And while I will always love traditional reading and the escape that it offers, I will praise and promote quality graphic novels with passion until the day that I die.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret achieves something that I never really thought possible: there are times while reading where I actually feel like I’m watching a movie instead. It achieves this through the beautifully sketched drawings that take up entire two-page spreads and involve no words at all. The complete separation of word and text makes it exist somewhere in Limbo between a traditional book and a commonly defined graphic novel, and is what helps it achieve those moments of film-like experience. Although by definition it probably fits in the graphic novel category, since it involves extensive images and text, it will be found in bookstores and libraries alike in with all of the traditional middle grade fiction books. I agree with this fact and find the physical location more fitting because those visual and textual parts of your brain are not exercised in tandem. Also, because of that physical location on shelves in bookstores and libraries alike it will probably make it into the hands of more children than if it were segregated with the graphic novels. The parents who are loathe to accept this non-traditional book format will more likely be willing to let Hugo slide because of its physical association.

Smile is a full-blown middle grade graphic novel, but it is also autobiographical. This fact is rarely played up and I actually did not realize the truth behind the story until my second or third pass through the book. When reading graphic novels I tend to react more to characters like I do in the people I meet in real life: I have trouble remembering their names. I’m so much more of a visual person in reality that I frequently forget names, but will easily remember what new acquaintances look like or specific physical attributes. It’s something I need to work on, and I acknowledge that fact about myself. But in comparison, when reading text-only books each character is often only a name in my mind and my mental pictures are blurry and non-specific with the details. I often have no idea the color of a character’s hair or eyes or skin because even if I read the detail once, their eyes are not how I recognize them. Instead I know them with text by their name. To me, graphic novels work better with my way of viewing the world. I can follow a set of interesting eyes or a specific haircut through their world and know that I’m seeing it the way that the author/artist intended the story to be seen. There is less room for interpretation when the details cannot be read and forgotten immediately.

Discussion: Reading Up

I am a huge believer that The Giver should be required reading, but in high school. Not because I don’t think that middle grade readers can handle it, but because so much more will be gained from reading it at an older age. Being someone who was made to read it as a 10-year-old, I can definitely report that I did not get much out of it as a child. There were whispers of ideas in my head as I read the book, and I definitely enjoyed the experience of it, but even the guided class discussions that we had  in my 5th grade classroom did not shed much light on the ideas of individuality and freedom for me. It wasn’t until I returned to The Giver years later that I realized the depth of the questions that Lowry is posing. But for an inquisitive tween, this book is very much accessible and functions as a great introduction to a dystopian society. I would recommend it highly.

Teens and adults can all appreciate the drama surrounding Katniss and the two young men that she is not yet sure about. And the violence is something that, while disturbing, is nothing that members of these age groups have not seen before. The violence and relationships are the things that make it questionable for a younger audience, but I do not think that they make it completely inaccessible. Tweens want to know about what Teens are feeling and doing. And although this is a fantasy novel set in a futuristic dystopian society, Katniss is still experiencing feelings towards boys that she does not understand, she is still a strong example of someone who is trying to do good and provide for her family but sometimes makes mistakes, and she is still a positive role model for young girls and boys who are trying to figure out who they are. While I would not necessarily suggest The Hunger Games to a middle grade reader, I would also not dissuade them from reading it if they really want to try it out. There would definitely be a conversation about it though, discussing the fact that it is violent and at times disturbing, but an assurance that I would love to hear what they thought of the book and answer any questions they might have about it while reading or after.

I do believe that the dystopian setting of both of these books helps to make their underlying questions more accessible to a wider audience. Because the world is not exactly like our own, it is safe to draw the darkness out and really inspect it. An older or more experienced reader will realize the similarities between the supposedly-fictitious dystopia and their own world, but for children this fictional landscape can create a barrier between the book and their own experience that will make these darker questions more acceptable to think about. When the close the book they can separate the more frightening aspects of the worlds presented in books like The Giver and The Hunger Games from their own and eventually learn to think about those ideas in the context of their own society as they are ready.

I “read up” constantly as a child- the small library available at my religious elementary school was not enough to keep me busy, and the public library did not have the same kind of watchful eye as my teachers. Somehow, I acquired the novelization of the movie Batman (with the Jack Nicholson as the Joker) when in the third grade and devoured it. I loved it so much that the librarian actually gave me my own copy to keep. Now THAT storyline was terribly inappropriate for an eight-year-old, and yet I managed to survive. My heart lies in the realm of: “If the child really wants to read it, let them. If you’re worried about the content, have a discussion with them about it during/after, but don’t try to block them from it. If you make it seem forbidden, they’ll find a way to read it anyway and then you will miss you chance to talk to them about it and see their reaction to it.” In my mind The Giver is not as much an example of reading up as I have a great desire to encourage people to “read down” to it. It was written on a level for the middle grade age group and can introduce some very challenging ideas. But those ideas can be appreciated even more once we’ve experienced more of the world.

A side note from a text I read in another class: This passage is talking about the panic that rises with regard to children and computers or the Internet, but I think it applies also to books that make adults nervous.

“John Springhall (1998) offers a historical context for the current fear surrounding computer games and the Internet, focusing on the phenomenon of “moral panics” that arise in response to youth culture. …Springhall argues that the forms of amusement that adults chose for youth often rely on a romantic ideal of childhood, while the entertainment youth choose for themselves often challenge this ideal, making adults uncomfortable” (Richman, 2007, p 184).

Now tell me, as a child, who didn’t enjoy feeling a little rebellious? And what’s a more widely acceptable act of rebellion than reading a book that someone might find questionable or even attempt to keep you from accessing? There will always be individuals who fear for the morality of those around them, especially children because these individuals tend to also think that as “less-than-adults” these children need more protecting than anyone else. And these individuals are often those who are most worried about “reading up” and children reading about things before they are actually ready to handle them. But isn’t it safer to have the experience first in a book? To see how someone else handles the situation, whatever that situation may be? It’s like doing research on life choices. The more examples you can see before you come into contact with that situation yourself, I think you’re bound to be better prepared.

Quoted research:

Springhall, J. (1998). Youth, Popular Culture, and Moral Panics. New York: St. Martin’s.

From the essay (in our textbook):

Richman, A. (2007). The outsider lurking online. In A. L. Best (Ed.), Representing youth: Methodological issues in critical youth studies (pp. 182-200). New York: New York University Press.


Discussion: Diversity

The great thing about reading is that you can enter the mind of another human being (or cat, or owl, or whatever is telling the story for that matter) and see their deepest thoughts. The thoughts and feelings that no one else in their world can see are laid out, right in front of you, with astonishing and otherwise impossible honesty.

This experience is why reading about the lives of characters from other backgrounds, countries, walks of life is so important and can be so beneficial. What other medium allows us to completely know the thoughts in someone’s head? I am a white middle-class American, rarely having lived in situations where I was the minority. So by reading Bud, Not Buddy, I can get a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of a young African-American orphan who was homeless during the depression. Or by reading Esperanza Rising I can see how a 13-year-old Mexican girl from a wealthy family deals with losing everything she’s ever had or known and working as a field laborer. Tales from the outsiders’ point of view give us insight into what those individuals are thinking and feeling, and often having that insight is the eye-opening first step to experiencing empathy for them and eventually accepting them and learning from them.

I was talking with a friend over dinner last night, discussing the increasing presence of GBLTQ characters in YA fiction (I had given her a copy of The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth -lowercase intentional- which talks about a young lesbian growing up in Montana and dealing with people trying to “fix” her) and how excited we were at the possibility of an eventuality where kids might grow up reading stories about people like themselves and knowing that they are very much okay and just as normal as anyone else. The same goes for people of different races or belief systems. The presence of more stories by and about individuals who have experienced different walks of life is invaluable, and we have to demand it of both publishers and authors. Because if these books are available, more people will read them than just those who identify as black, asian, GBLTQ, or athiest. People who know nothing about those backgrounds will read them too. And then maybe we can finally start to understand each other a little earlier in life, and learn to appreciate each other as human beings sharing an experience together- the sum of which is truly greater than each of our individual parts.

Discussion: “Tough Issues” and the Importance of Advocacy

Bridge to Terabithia is a story about death. And not just death, but the passing of someone incredibly close to you, your best friend. For a lot of children, their first experience with death may be a distant relative that they did not know well and will not really miss in any every-day way. But for the others, who deal for the first time with the loss of a family member or friend (or even a pet) who was an important influence in their lives, this is going to be a very confusing and disorienting time. Jess’s reaction to Leslie’s passing goes through multiple stages of grief, and even though that portion of the book is rather short and not explained in great detail, it is explained vividly and in words that tweens can understand. Jess’s reactions range from confusion to disbelief to severe sadness to acceptance, with lots of thoughts both nice and ugly in between. The fact is that we all as humans will act unpredictably when faced with a great loss. It can be comforting to see an example of someone facing that same loss and not knowing which way is up, how they should feel or what they should do.

To me, knowledge is comfort. At any point in my life that I am feeling anxious about a situation, I try to learn as much as a I can about what is going on or what has caused it or what will probably happen from said situation so that I can prepare/react accordingly and put my mind at ease. It would be hard for me to believe that others don’t act in this same manner, benefiting from learning about what is happening to them or others around them in their world.

The articles I read this week had to do with various tough issues. A study on bullying (Villarica, 2010) revealed that the peak years for bullying are actually from 10-13, and the most popular kind has to do with relational aggression. Not surprisingly, there is also a correlation, between popularity and the amount of bullying one can get away with, and also how bullying can make non-popular students even less so. The study pointed out that often those who are victimized by the bullying of popular kids often go on bully others. These children can be very difficult to deal with, and are therefore often the only individuals in the cycle to get caught and be punished for their actions. The study pointed to the difficulties that these students are dealing with and the importance of letting these victimized students know that they are not alone in their hardships and that things will get better. One way for us to do that is to offer students both nonfiction and fiction resources that will let them see examples of how they are not alone, and how the cycle can be broken and they can emerge from it none the worse for wear.

In her lecture for this week, our professor stressed the importance of making the library a space where kids can receive access, respect, and support. I cannot agree more that these are by far the three things that children in the tween years need more than anything else. Give a child respect, show them that their thoughts and feelings are important, and you will learn so much about that individual that you would never have otherwise been given access to. By having that relationship with them, they will be less fearful of asking questions and gaining a more complete access to those offerings you have for them. All of this can act as a vital part of their support system, but that will hopefully extend beyond the library walls and into the other important places in their lives. We can only help them when they are under our roofs, and when they are there we need to make sure that we are giving them our all are ready and willing to act as their voice when they otherwise would not be heard.


Villarica, H. (2010, December 3). The tricky politics of tween bullying. Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2010/12/03/adolescents-anonymous-are-tweens-the-new-mean-girls/

Discussion: Gender and Reading

The idea of ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is not something new. I remember it from when I was a child. And as a young 5th grade girl who dressed up as Jack London on the day we had to present about our favorite authors (I was OBSESSED with Call of the Wild and White Fang both for well over a year), I was often mocked for liking those boy books more than the books that were meant for me. I never got into the Baby Sitter’s Club, or Sweet Valley High. I wanted mysteries and adventures and science fiction instead. It never mattered to me whether the people I read about were boys or girls, as long as the story kept me interested I stayed with it through to the finish. When it comes down to it, I think anyone that enjoys reading feels the same way.

Both the Baker and Guys Lit Wire articles touched on something that you can’t help but notice if you work in a bookstore: teen books are promoted to girls. Even the stories told from a male perspective or those on topics that might appeal to boys are covered in images that only appeal to girls. Try to tell a boy that they will enjoy An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, a story about a young man suffering after a breakup with his latest girlfriend (one in a long line of Katherines he has dated) who embarks on a summer road trip with his best friend and they’ll probably be interested enough to hear you out. But then hand them a book that looks like this:

and they might question your sanity. Who cares about the story itself…why would they risk being seen reading that? The original paperback cover is slightly better:

But then they finally scored something great when John Green and his publishers decided to host a contest for a cover for the new paperback edition. This was designed by a fan, and I think really does the story justice:

And it was done by a girl. And she designed it in a way that could appeal to anyone, and lets the story speak for itself. Huzzah!

The ideas that the writer for Guys Lit Wire had for teen books she would like to see really made me think. More nonfiction- at the bookstore I’ve worked in we’ve rarely had much of a nonfiction section specifically for teens. For kids, yes. But once you’re out of that children’s department, if you want nonfiction that isn’t about how your body is changing, making religiously-influenced choices, or diet/make-up for teens you’ve got to fend for yourself in the big wide bookstore full of books. And choice is good, but also daunting. A reluctant reader may not be willing to fend for his/her self without the guidance of a sign saying: Here Are Those Nonfiction Books That Are Perfectly Suited For You. And I think boys may be more interested in some nonfiction topics than girls normally would be, like sports. There are sports bios for middle grade readers, why not for teens? I also thought that her emphasis on the importance of talking genres instead of boy or girl was spot-on. Where are the YA Mysteries? What about Adventure Stories? What about Romance? The store I work in now is too small to do this, but at my last bookstore we made the decision to break certain sections out of the general YA category. We had Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and then the remainder was pretty much Real-Life or anything that didn’t fit into those other 3 broken-out categories. I think this definitely helped both boys and girls find what they were looking for, without having to be pigeon-holed into a gender specific position on their reading choices.

My final response to the Guys Lit Wire post is that I think there is a major Catch-22 happening in the publishing world. Because there is a drop-off in the number of avid male readers in the YA category, publishers promote books more to girls because they want their books to be purchased- so they can make money, pay their employees, and keep publishing books. But because those books that might appeal to anyone are being promoted to girls, boys are having trouble finding those books that they might enjoy and therefore are frustrated and finding other ways to entertain themselves than by reading. So if the data was there to show that more boys were reading, publishers wouldn’t be so adamant about promoting stories to girls, but that data will not appear without a major change of action. As a bookseller, I have to read up and talk to people and do my research to really know what is out there for young boys to read and enjoy. I have no qualms about recommending stories with strong female leads to boys if the story is genuinely something that I think they could relate to or enjoy. But it takes work to find those stories sometimes, and as a profession (librarian and bookseller) not everyone is willing to put that effort in. But I fear that without work on our part to get those quality/enjoyable books into boys’ hands and get them reading again, publishers will not be changing their ways anytime soon.


Baker, K. (2010, April 5). Sweet valley high, the great retweening and why boys wont read. Retrieved from http://www.theawl.com/2010/04/sweet-valley-high-the-great-retweening-and-why-boys-wont-read

Colleen. (2010, September 22). [Web Blog]. Retrieved from http://guyslitwire.blogspot.com/2010/09/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about.html

Discussion: Classic Literature

For our discussion on Classics, I read A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeline L’Engle. There are certainly aspects of this book that appeal to older readers: the mix of religion and science, the larger question of what a society is willing to sacrifice to obtain perfection or happiness. But it is also written on a level that is accessible to people in the ‘tween age group. I think this is most directly achieved through her development of the main characters.

The main characters are around ages 13 (Meg), 14 (Calvin), and 5 (Charles Wallace). Calvin is in the 11th grade when our story takes place, and he is by far the most mature character of our traveling trio. Who better to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of this group of characters than ‘tweens? The individuals in this age range are looking forward to being in Meg or Calvin’s shoes in the near future, but can probably also remember what it was like to be close to Charles Wallace’s age. In addition, all three characters are outsiders at heart, even if they aren’t perceived as such by each other. They find common ground with each other and band together to achieve their goal. This is exactly what children are trying to do with their peers at this point in their lives. Things are constantly changing (physically, emotionally, etc.), they have very real fears of not fitting in at school or being “outsiders”, and they are forming (and forgetting) friendships almost daily, all of which was discussed both in our text and in this week’s lecture.

One of the great things about this novel is that it appeals to ‘tween readers with its main characters, but then also introduces these readers to ideas about society that are really quite advanced. It was probably able to do so so easily because there was no “Middle Grade” boundary for L’Engle to feel hindered by when it was written. Those topics are what really expands the interest range of this novel beyond the ‘tween age group. Even adults can find something in this book to really make them think.