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Posted at 10:31 AM ET, 11/12/2009

Blasingame: When ‘Twilight’ author Stephenie Meyer visited my class; Why Edward Cullen & other vampires attract readers; What the next big thing is in adolescent lit

By Valerie Strauss

Twilight: New Moon (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

My guest is James Blasingame, associate professor of English Education at Arizona State University, and the 2010 president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English. With next week’s movie premiere of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” his piece on vampires, zombies and angels couldn’t be timelier.

By James Blasingame
Get ready to groan.

Today, I will explain why I don’t think we’ll ever see a stake driven through the heart of the young adult vampire novel (Sorry about that, but I couldn’t resist).

“New Moon” will be out soon, not a new moon, but The Twilight Saga: New Moon (the movie), and I can’t help but think back to when the book had just come out [in 2006.]

Stephenie Meyer [author of the four-book "Twilight Saga"] was a guest in my Young Adult Literature class at Arizona State University that month (and it will be a blue moon before Stephenie can easily make public appearances like that again). She asked if we could put on the Eclipse Prom for her at ASU in a gymnasium that would look like the Forks High School gym, or at least like the gym most people would imagine as they read the book.

We had just the right athletic practice gym at ASU (smell of sweat socks, little pieces of masking tape stuck on some of the bricks, petrified potato chip escaping years of notice behind a volleyball net standard, perfect!), and would we ever would want to host a fantasy prom for fans of the book!

She was planning on authentic decorations, hired actors to serve as Edward and Jacob, and a reading of the first chapter of Eclipse, which wouldn’t be out for another month after the prom.

The prom sold out online in minutes and Stephenie asked if we could put on two proms in a row, which we did, one from 2-5 p.m. and one from 6-9 p.m.

She asked everyone to wear vintage evening wear or come as a character from the books, or as a generic vampire or werewolf. Little Brown, publisher of the Twilight Saga, was kind enough to foot the bill for the evening’s food and costume contests, while ASU English co-sponsored the event along with “Changing Hands” book store.

Everyone had a fabulous time. Stephenie and Changing Hands' book buyer (and Stephenie’s friend), Faith Hochhalter, put on quite a show, with a carefully choreographed evening that introduced the fantasy Edward and Jacob, as well as music, dancing, food, and book sales.

People came from all over the world (London, Germany, even Tucson), and as soon as they had their new books, they were seated (multiple petticoats fluffed up about them) and reading, while big smiles played across their faces.

In my years as a high school teacher, principal and university professor, I have chaperoned 22 proms but this was a prom like no other. Everyone was fascinated by the books and had a great time personally engaging in the fantasy, as a prom participant and as a reader.

So what is at the heart (OK, that one was not intentional) of this fascination with vampires?

To begin with, there is the gothic romance aspect. For years and years, the romantic tale of a young woman who is drawn to a dark, mysterious stranger has been popular around the world and the thirst (Ha! That one was intentional) for these stories appears unquenchable.

What young woman in her right mind (well, in her daydreams, anyway) would not prefer the impossibly handsome, but possibly dangerous, alleged bad boy who drives through the McDonald’s drive-through on his motorcycle over the definitely nerdy-but-nice, good boy who finishes her shift at said McDonalds with her and asks her to the prom while saturated in vegetable oil?

The fact that this bad boy fits in with other perfectly coiffed and statuesquely built kids at school doesn’t hurt either. People are social climbers by nature, even if their society includes vampires.

And Edward loves her to death (sorry, I just can’t help myself), or more accurately, he refuses to love her to death; in fact, he would commit suicide rather than harm her. OK, how crazy is that for just being a lab partner and having a few weird dates?! But who doesn’t dream, literally, of being loved like that?

Loved beyond limits, and for no good reason; I mean come on—it’s not like they did two years of Peace Corps duty in a far away land and become soul mates over their common devotion to their fellow man! They barely know each other, and he’s what, 100 and something years older than she is? Yikes! Talk about a spring-autumn relationship?! He could be teaching their Civil War class from memory! But, it doesn’t matter. He’s hot beyond compare, or at least he is until Jacob comes along, who is hot and hairy beyond compare.

Edward and the Cullens have power, power over humans, power over society, power over life and death. They just don’t have power over love, and that’s the greatest power of all. If you don’t think so, think back to a time when you were so madly in love with someone it actually kept you awake at night. That’s power.

Young and old readers love stories in which the protagonist, the character with whom they identify, gains power, and this is another aspect of vampire stories that is undeniable. Vampirism means power although it comes with a great and painful change, a change of physical self, a change of emotional self, and a change of place in the world. If this isn’t a powerful metaphor for passing into and out of adolescence, I don’t know what is.

Various authors are taking diverse takes on the vampire story, but the appeal remains.

P.C. and Kristin Cast’s vampire protagonist, Zoey, lives (that’s not exactly the right verb, but you know what I mean) in a vampire matriarchy. The Cast’s vampires worship a female deity and have a harem of boyfriends. [P.C. Cast and Kristen Cast, a mother-daughter team, write the “House of Night” book series.]

L.J. Smith’s vampires [in the “Vampire Diaries” series], on the other hand, do experience love but may not feel worthy of the object of their affection.

Richelle Mead’s vampires [in the “Vampire Academy” series] go to a private school and experience the exact same problems with self concept, relationships and everyday life that all teens face, while Heather Brewer’s Vladimir Todd [in “The Chronicles of Vladimir Todd” series] must figure out how to fit in with mortal kids, including his best friend and drudge (ergo the peanut butter and blood capsule sandwiches his aunt packs in his lunch). These are only variations on a common theme.

Vampires will not be giving way to zombies.

Although zombies are moving onto the scene (or should I say “shuffling” onto the scene), and there are some really enjoyable zombie books (“You are so Undead to Me!” is a good one), they are only a brief interlude until the next big thing, which we’ll examine before I sign off.

Although Edward may be a little cold and hard when Bella hugs and kisses him, his lips aren’t putrescent and his arms don’t come off when she pulls on them. Zombies are simply cursed (ha!) to play background roles and not starring roles. They will always be shuffling along en masse to ruin the prom or eat the neighbors’ brains, but they will never be able to play a love interest or manifest happiness ever-after on the final page.

So what does come next?

Angels, definitely angels.

My favorite read of the past year has been Cynthia Leitich Smith’s “Eternal,” which revolves around 18-year-old Miranda, and her guardian angel, Zachary.

As the book begins, Zachary is distracted from Miranda for a split second and in that moment, the King of the Mantle of Dracul makes Miranda his own. Penalized by the Archangel Michael, Zachary must save Miranda without wings or radiance, nothing but his own wits and courage to take into battle against the king of the undead.

Where does he find Darcul’s (replica) castle? In Chicago, of course. Cynthia has paid homage not only to various vampire classics, from Bram Stoker to Nosferatu, but also to Chicago lore (Dracul is a Cubs fan, and Zachary comments in Blues Brothers fashion that he is “on a mission from God”).

Like Edward Cullen, Zachary is handsome beyond compare, forever youthful, and in love with his fellow protagonist. Unlike Edward, he is intrinsically heavenly, but when he fails in his role as guardian, he questions whether or not heaven will have a place for him, which is very much like Edward.

If the next big thing truly is the angel as romantic hero, then Becca Fitzpatrick’s “Hush, Hush” is the next big book.

I will be having dinner with Becca next week at the National Council of Teachers of English and the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents convention in Philadelphia, and by that time I will have finished reading the book.

This is what I know so far: The protagonist, Nora, is not terribly interested in boys until she meets Patch in her high school biology class. Patch is very easy on the eye but also very mysterious. As anyone who has seen publicity on the book knows, Patch is a fallen angel and what is about to happen to Nora is nothing should could have ever dreamed.

My only question, a la Glenda the Good Witch [in "The Wizard of Oz"], is: “Is he a good angel or a bad angel?”

Next time: How good is “Hush, Hush,” and are angels as appealing as vampires?

James Blasingame is the 2010 president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English; the 2008 Arizona State University Parents Association Professor of the Year; the 2008 International Reading Association Arbuthnot Award Winner; and the 2007 Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Distinguished Teacher for the Humanities. He is a past editor of the ALAN Review, the on-line journal of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, a Scholastic Professional author and a former high school English teacher who pursued his doctorate degree after nearly 20 years of K-12 teaching. He is the director of the Central Arizona Writing Project.

By Valerie Strauss  | November 12, 2009; 10:31 AM ET
Tags:  Adolescent Literature, New Moon, Twilight  
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Actually vampires, who suck the lifes' blood out of their victims are metaphors for liberal Democrat politicians, who suck money out of their victims. The most successful of the latter species convince their victims they will do just the opposite, by selecting candidates who speak soothing words and phrases. Like, "we are the ones we have been waiting for."

Posted by: mhr614 | November 12, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Oh for chrissakes, give it a rest!! Do you have a life?

Posted by: kalixmd | November 12, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

The love of vampires and of angels are the fruiting bodies (think black, slimy mushrooms) of a fungus that is rotting our brains and our culture. I just don't understand, I really don't.

I also don't get, at all, how vampires are a metaphor for growing out of adolescence. I must say I have met metaphors in the past that were lost on me. The Fungus has got me already.

Posted by: trh123 | November 12, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

i don't think this is a new trend. i'm over 40 and started reading vampire/werewolf/fantasy books back in 10th or 11th grade.

Posted by: nall92 | November 12, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree with trh123.

Trying to get youth to identify with vampires is social engineering at its worst!

Posted by: Rubiconski | November 12, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Blasingame,

I hope your courses focus on the reading rather than the writing side of English, because your writing has been driving me up the wall. I'm sure that pointing out every stupid pun in this piece with cutesy little parenthetical asides may have seemed like a good idea at the time but which, take it from me, make your writing read as if it were written by the sort of squealinng adolescent who actually enjoys Stephanie Meyer.

As for the content, a roomful of insecure teens playing dress-up and pretending to be, for crying out loud, *vampires*, sounds more like escapism and avoidance of one's real issues than any real aid to handling the confusing transition to adolescence.

Here's a little hint: just because the Twilight series--or, god forbid, any of the even lower quality examples you mentioned--is popular doesn't mean it has actual merit, literary or therapeutic. Try giving a 4 year old a steady diet of chocolates and you'll see what I mean. There are far, far better books and movies out there. We don't have to stoop to this.

Posted by: rockopete | November 12, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

Not all, but some of the responses to this blog seem to be very pompous and rude actually. I read the puns and parenthetical remarks to be funny and appropriate to the content of which Dr. Blasingame is discussing. I saw the blog as very approachable, it is a blog afterall. The approachability relates to why many educators are excited about the Twilight Series and Young Adult Literature as a whole. These books get young adults excited about reading! Now, I don't want to make any assumptions on the privileged backgrounds of some of these commentors, but an overwhelming amount of youth in schools have, well, difficult, sometimes painful and sometimes violent backgrounds. Dr. Blasingame is aware that there is not a whole lot any teacher can do to interest such students in reading, unless the reading is engaging, meaningful, and relatable.

The Twilight books are just one example. Not all readers are interested in vampires, myself being one of them. My "avoidance of reality" lies more in mermaids and fairies. Do I still value texts that are not causing "fungus" to spread throughout my brain? Yes. But valuing canonical texts, or other purer works, was first sparked by my value for reading as a child and as a teenager. I think that's what Young Adult Literature is all about.

(Awesome blog by the way, Dr. Blasingame, I was interested even though I am not an actual Twilight or blood-sucking vampire fan).

Posted by: universe613 | November 17, 2009 10:15 PM | Report abuse

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