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Posted at 11:39 AM ET, 12/ 4/2009

Blasingame: Vampires vs. angels in adolescent lit, why schools are removing Laurie Halse Anderson books--and more

By Valerie Strauss

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. His long, fun piece addresses the question of whether angels will displace vampires in adolescent literature, why author Laurie Halse Anderson is so popular with kids even while some school libraries are removing her books from shelves, how different the novels “Twilight” and “Hush Hush” really are, and more.

By James Blasingame
Thousands of English teachers converged on the Pennsylvania Convention Center, in downtown Philadelphia, last week for our 2009 National Council of Teachers of English Conference.

The annual NCTE convention is the high point of the year for lovers of literature and its teaching, and the high point of the convention for several hundred teachers, librarians, professors, and other lovers of good books was the two-day ALAN Workshop (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE).

Seventy authors were there to talk about their life experiences, what drove them to write, read from their most recent books and mix with the audience at various functions.
Just as it happens every year, my head is still spinning and I don’t expect the euphoria to dissipate for another month.

Please understand that these are living, breathing authors, whose work is read by millions of young people, both in and out of school every day.

I taught high school English for 20 years, and I love “Moby Dick,” but I will never be able to ask Herman Melville anything about Queequeg or Ishmael or experience in person the author’s wry sense of humor.

Another of my favorite books is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but I’ll never be able to ask Ken Kesey about the Chief or McMurphy, or place the author in a headlock and see if he can get out of it.

Sadly, I can no longer listen to the late Frank McCourt use his wit to make high school English teaching feel as important, comical and gratifying as he describes it in Teacher Man.

Over these past many years at the ALAN Workshop, however, I have sat with Gary Paulsen and listened to outrageous stories about practical jokes the mushers play on each other in the “Iditarod Sled Dog Race”; I have posed a friend in a wrestling position with Joseph Bruchac, when we featured Joseph in The ALAN Review; I have gotten fishing tips from Will Hobbs and romantic advice from Sarah Holbrook, and on and on. But most importantly, we have talked about books.

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We read books for many reasons. Sometimes we read books to access information and to broaden our knowledge.

Sometimes we read books just for fun, to escape from the world for awhile and indulge our imaginations.

And sometimes we read to make sense of our lives, to better understand the world and our place in it.

Laurie Halse Anderson has been writing books that help young people make sense of their lives for 10 years now, and the most moving experience for me of the 2009 ALAN Workshop in Philadelphia was listening to her keynote address in front of 700 people at the ALAN Breakfast.

Over the years, Laurie has chosen some pretty tough topics for her books, including rape (“Speak,” 1999, Farrar Straus, Giroux-also a major motion picture in 2004); death and dysfunctional families (“Catalyst,” Viking, 2002); anorexia (“Wintergirls,” Viking, 2009), and the consequences of good and bad choices (“Twisted,” Penguin, 2007).

In addition to being on the New York Times Bestseller list, she has been a finalist for the National Book Award more than once and won almost every award the American Library Association give to young adult authors, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime contribution to young adult literature.

I cannot count the number of times in my visits to high schools across the country that students have identified Laurie as their favorite author. I know that she does intensive research into the topics she writes about, and I know she writes to help young people live better lives through their own self understanding and self-determination. The evidence of this has never been more poignant than in this passage from a young woman’s letter to Laurie, which she shared in her speech in Philadelphia:

“For the past ten years, you’ve given young people a voice. You’ve told our stories to a world that rarely understands us. (Not that I blame them- we don’t even understand ourselves half the time.) With ‘Wintergirls’ especially, you took a stigmatized, isolating disorder, something that most people find baffling and revolting, and made it human. And by telling us our own stories, I think you help us better understand ourselves. You give us words and metaphors for things we can’t always articulate. For all of that, I can’t thank you enough."

Recently, Laurie’s book “Twisted,” the story of a young man who makes a very difficult but moral decision, has been the subject of removal from public high school libraries and curriculum.

This is especially significant to me because I placed “Twisted” on the English Journal Honor List last year as one of the eight best books for young adults.

Well-meaning adults who want to spare our young people from difficult emotional experiences often challenge books that deal with the sort of real world evil that real kids face every day.

They want to protect them from the world for as long as possible. The problem with this strategy is that it completely negates the power of literature, the power of books, to arm a young person, or any person, against a world that offers harm.

Katherine Paterson, United States Library of Congress Living Legend Award winner, once explained that literature allows young people to prepare for life’s difficulties by experiencing them from the safe distance of reading.

And for those kids who have already been harmed, as Chris Crutcher, counselor for dysfunctional families and also winner of the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime contribution to young adult literature, once said: "There is no better medicine for downtrodden souls than a healthy dose of I am not alone."

By the way, one of the very same schools that has pulled Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted from the curriculum has also pulled Chris Crutcher’s book “Deadline” from the curriculum. This is triply aggravating to me because Chris and Deadline were the focus or our two-day Arizona English Teachers’ Association 2008 State Convention last year. More on that next week.

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Let’s move on to books we read for fun and answer the question I promised to address in my previous post here:

Are angels on the verge of replacing vampires as the romantic heart throb of choice in young adult literature?

As I also mentioned last time, I was scheduled to have dinner with Becca Fitzpatrick, the author of “Hush, Hush,” a new book that Simon and Schuster Publishing has great faith in (and rightly so! The book is being published in 13 countries and 10 languages), and one which has many similarities to Twilight. I did meet Becca, and I also finished “Hush, Hush” just in time for our dinner. Becca is a delightful person and a talented writer.

She grew up in North Platte, Nebraska, and earned a degree in health from Brigham Young University. Becca and her husband and two little boys live in Fort Collins, Colorado, but recently the author has been very much in demand for appearances and signings far from home.

Speaking of book signings, Becca’s signing in the Pennsylvania Convention Hall, had a line stretched out the length of a football field; in fact, as she entered the great hall, she asked people what they were in line for.

"You!" they informed her. Becca has a wonderful website at and she has endorsed fan sites in the U.S, http://www.fallenarchangel.com/ , and Brazil,. Her popularity is growing by leaps and bounds.

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So, how do the two books--“Twilight” and “Hush, Hush” compare?

Rather than a vampire as the unachievable romantic interest, Becca’s main character, Nora, falls in love with (BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT!) a fallen angel.

Bella has Edward (and also Jacob), and Nora has Patch (and only Patch). Patch is similar to Edward and Jacob in that he is physically perfect and also irresistible. He is unlike them, however, in that he has evil intent, at least as the novel begins.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I will say that Patch begins the novel as a fallen angel with heavy emphasis on "fallen;" however, the characters grow in surprising ways throughout this book and the ending is ingenious and justifies the rest of the book completely.

Will angels displace vampires? I don’t think so.

One will not replace the other but rather both will flourish according to the quality of each individual author’s character portrayal. The one thing both have in common is "hotness" (more on this later when we talk about "New Moon.")

But all things being equal, and by "things" I mean hotness quotient, I think readers will be attracted to individual characters, and not those characters’ paranormal persuasions, based on personal taste. Part of the conundrum is that some vampires behave more like angels and some angels behave more like devils.

We might expect Stephenie Meyer’s vampire, Edward, to be the exact opposite of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s guardian angel, Zachary, but not so.

Even though he is definitely a member of the walking undead and believes that he has lost his immortal soul, Edward doesn’t have an evil bone in his gorgeous (but rather cold) body. He would prefer the destruction of his physical being to placing Bella in harm’s way and would commit suicide to accomplish his goal.

In much the same way, Zachary would willingly venture into hell itself to save Nora. He is 100 percent pure of heart, divinely handsome and forever youthful in appearance. He just doesn’t drink blood; in fact, I’m not sure he eats at all, but I could be mistaken. Like most brooding leading men, both Edward and Zachary are riddled with self-doubt. Both worry that they will fail their loved one and sentence her to the fiery pit.

But then there’s Patch, in “Hush, Hush,” a former resident of heaven, who is supremely confident (cocky even), annoyingly so, in fact.

Although Edward may have a bad boy mystique and panache, his heart is pure; he will neither drink human blood nor place Bella’s soul in jeopardy.

Patch, on the other hand, really is a bad boy. He rides a motorcycle and hangs out in a pool hall where he places bets on games of chance and enjoys fist fighting with assorted reprobates. Patch is in the situation he is in to begin with because (ADDITIONAL SPOILER ALERT!) he chose to fall from heaven in hopes of fulfilling his lust for a mortal woman. For most of the novel, his intentions toward Nora are not at all honorable; they are, in fact, demonic.

All that can change, however, and isn’t it the guilty pleasure of many women to imagine a gorgeous bad boy who changes into an angel out of love for them? I can’t wait to see the comments on that one.

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I can’t sign off without checking in on my teenage friends and getting the lowdown on “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” the movie. The professional critics have had their say, but what they think is immaterial. What matters is what the intended audience thinks; they’re the real experts. As predicted, the young women place character development (male actors’ hotness) above plot, and the young men wish there was a better written screenplay (more vampire versus werewolf fights). Let’s check it out.

Nick (15):
I thought that “New Moon,” the movie, was not as good as “Twilight.”
“Twilight was much better at delivering the story in general while “New Moon” seemed to focus solely on the romantic aspect. It felt like all I ever saw was a close up of Bella and either Jacob or Edward talking about feelings. It did get exciting a few times throughout the movie, but in general seemed to be more of a romantic thing than anything else.

Alex (18) :
I’ve never read any of books in the “Twilight Saga.” I had seen the first movie and only went to “New Moon since my sister forced me to. However, I ended up really liking New Moon. My favorite part of the movie was action between the werewolves and vampires. The only part I didn’t like was romantic love stuff.

Katelin (21):
I thought the movie New Moon was great! So much of it was similar to what I had envisioned while reading the book. Having enjoyed the first movie, “Twilight,” but liking the book better, I went into the movie without high expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find that “New Moon” did a wonderful job of bringing the book to life. Out of all of the people who I have talked with about the movie, not one has had a negative comment about it. I think the movie is definitely one worth seeing even if you haven’t read any of the books, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Shelby (15):
I liked “New Moon” and thought it was better than “Twilight” because it followed the book more closely (And the male characters were really hot!).
I was glad they didn’t add that many scenes or leave too many out. My favorite part was when Jacob was helping Bella build the bikes until they were finally ready to ride. I would put myself on Team Edward, for sure (He is so hot!). But I also like Jacob. New Moon was funnier than Twilight and also it seemed more realistic; dialogue in Twilight seemed cheesy, not like real life conversation, at all.

Kiah (15):
“New Moon,” the entire film, was better than “Twilight” (And the male actors were really hot!) In particular, I think the special effects were better and the dialogue sounded more realistic. My favorite scene was with Edward at the end where he is stepping into the sun before the fight. The ending was really filmed well. I am definitely on Team Edward! He is so hot! But I also like Jacob. “New Moon” compared well with the book, and the animated wolves were better than I thought they would be. Obviously, it’s not as good as your imagination but they were still pretty cool. I especially enjoyed the CGI wolf fight, that was cool.

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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.

For more on Education, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education

By Valerie Strauss  | December 4, 2009; 11:39 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Reading, Teachers  | Tags:  James Blasingame, adolescent literature  
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Comments

Katherine Paterson, United States Library of Congress Living Legend Award winner, once explained that literature allows young people to prepare for life’s difficulties by experiencing them from the safe distance of reading.
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We have moved far from when books were a means to enjoy oneself with the pleasure of reading a well written story.

No mention of the Harry Potter books since these are still taboo in the public schools, while One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest and Moby Dick are safe preparation for life on a whaler or in an insane asylum.

Julius Caesar is no longer taught as too revealing about local politicians.

Posted by: bsallamack | December 4, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

I am a librarian in a K-8 Catholic school and I am very conscious of the content of the titles that my students have access to. I never thought of Ms. Anderson's books as something that I shouldn't have on my shelves.

Posted by: kodonivan | December 4, 2009 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Am I the only one who is getting the impression that parents are suspicious of any book that a youngster enjoys? I'll bet if sixth-graders suddenly developed a craze for looking up places on a map and planning imaginary trips, there would be a movement to get maps and globes out of the schools and libraries!

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 5, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Parents are more likely to become uncomfortable about their children's reading when they choose "problem" books exclusively. Since those books grab the childrens' attention with their shock value (in addition to the plotting, character development, engaging language, etc that other books do), they have an advantage, and are more likely to take over a child's entire reading life. I have to say I sympathize with those parents; there's a sense in which reading a steady diet of "Problem" books is kind of like getting hooked on horror movies. No long term damage, probably, but a depressing lack of emotional range and hopefulness.

Posted by: jane100000 | December 5, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

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