Saturday, November 5, 2011

Covers, Judging By: Snap Judgments on YA Fiction

The Top Ten Teen Reads this year, according to a recent poll, have been announced by the Young Adult Library Services Association, lovingly known as YALSA. As in previous years, the apocalyptic siege continues. Check out these covers and see if you don’t want to start knitting yourself a noose. No wonder teenagers are so listless; if I read this stuff all day I’d be ready for a long nap, too. I can’t blame teens for the trend, however. Adults are the culprits who write, publish and assign the books in school.

The prevailing educational theory seems to be that it’s never too early to start harshing everyone’s mellow. Around fourth grade, I noticed that my daughters’ required reading included a one-two punch of the Big M’s – misery and mayhem. I wondered if someone shouldn’t slip a supply of antidepressants into the Coke machine in the teachers’ lounge, because the books they selected for class were so freaking unhappy, they could make kids want to hide under the desks until it’s all over.

What's available for "free time" reading isn’t much better.  After spending some time with my eighth-grade daughter, browsing the shelves of the local library with the assignment to help her find “anything I can read before bed without crying,” I was able to conclude that there are basically three sorts of books being written for young people today:

Dystopia, Fantasy Version:  Horrible world of the future, or horrible world of the present, with the addition of supernatural antics from vampires, zombies and/or nuclear Armageddon. Covers:  fangs, red eyes. Dust jacket intro: “When MK-12 was thrown into the Offenders' Camp of Big Brother World, she knew that only her smarts and her hidden atomic ray gun would help her escape into The Woods Beyond.”

Dystopia, Reality Version: Addictions and tragedies, all with a “ripped from the headlines” spin. Covers: Tendency toward microscopic body part photography. One wrist (cutters). One number on a scale (fat girls). Dust jacket intro:  “When Mary Kate’s parents got divorced and her mom lost her job, older sister Ellie started vomiting up dinner and younger brother Elwood took to huffing. Once the family began living under an overpass, only Mary Kate’s plucky smarts (and her drug counselor) helped her deal with the new burdens of teenage pregnancy, AIDS and a teensy smidge of cholera.”

Biology Class Meets Retail Therapy:  OMG I have a va jay jay! I’d better start using it pronto, as soon as I try on this supercute dress at the mall!  Covers: Hot pink, hot bodies (usually with the heads cropped out and shown only from the neck down). Dust jacket intro: “When EmKat’s socialite mom moved her all the way from Tribeca to Beverly Hills, she thought her credit rating and social status would plummet. But she soon met up with a superhot producer’s step-cousin-in-law, and made friends with a posse of shopping buddies, so things are looking brighter than ever on Rodeo Drive.” 

Of course, there are variations.  There’s historical dystopia:  “When MannaKato’s Shoshone tribe was driven from their encampment, only her knowledge of native lore could keep the group from starving to death in the Winter of the Howling Wolves.” Covers: uniformly tan. 

There is also a more PG-13 version of the Biology Class genre:  “When Mary Katherine went to spend the summer working at the beachside day care, she never dreamed she’d meet a cute lifeguard. But, would she get up the nerve to let him hold her hand before Labor Day?”

Frustrated during the library search, my daughter offered her own take on what an ideal novel would include. Here, then is her list:

Cover: polka dots, confetti, or both (no tan, no gray, no dragons, no fangs, no shopping bags)

Story: Big crazy families, general chaos, minor lawbreaking, hijinks, plenty of sassy gay boys and their wisecracking galpals

Bonus points: Everyone dresses up and puts on a show

Finally, no concentration camps, addictions, misery or reality.  “That’s what school is for,” she says.

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