“Once upon a time there was a princess.” As I recall it, that’s how all my father’s bedtime stories started. As far as I was concerned, I was that princess, and the stories about their endless suitors, the impossible tasks, the happy endings, were all about me.
Of course, the princess stories eventually gave way, as they must, to the real-life dramas of friendships made and sundered (“Jennifer slapped me! For no reason!”), of dating (and not dating!), of growing up and going to work and living what they call “real life.” Dad stopped telling me the stories, and I started reading all kinds of other books to myself.
But I still read fairy tales. Because, as I’m pretty sure I’ve said before, I think fairy tales still have a lot to do with real life. I didn’t marry a prince (thank goodness — the real life ones who make the news don’t seem all that appealing to me these days) or set anyone on a quest or fall asleep for a hundred years, but I do know what it is to deal with sibling rivalry (Puss in Boots), hunger (though not as severe as Hansel & Gretel’s), and anxiety about the future (Cinderella, to name only one). Fairy tales are a mainstay of my thinking about children’s literature, even if they weren’t originally written for children. And they structure much of what I know about young adult literature as well.
YA, or young adult literature, is the bastard step-child of children’s literature and serious, or adult, literature. (Notice I didn’t say adult books, which are sold with brown paper wrappers in seedy shops.) It’s a relatively ignored genre, often skipped over in favor of “real” (that is, “adult”) literature by readerly kids and their parents both. I suppose it’s skipped over in favor of TV and movies as well, for better or worse.
It’s a genre with an honorable enough pedigree. The turmoil of adolescence provides subject matter for novels from Austen to Dickens, Brontë to Joyce. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), written before the marketeers devised the label, stands now as YA lit’s founding text. But while nostalgia and escapism might justify an adult passion for children’s literature, an interest in YA lit seems, well, either slightly prurient or a case of arrested development, like those middle-aged guys still wearing their high school rings, for whom the teen years were the pinnacle of development. Lately I find, though, that YA literature just gives me a new take on the old tales, a new way of thinking about fairy tales and happy endings. It’s an edgy, anxious way, sometimes, but these are edgy, anxious times. It fits.
My reading has been tracking my daughter’s for several years now. She brought me back to children’s literature in her earlier childhood: I rediscovered old favorites — The Hobbit, the Little House books, the Chronicles of Prydain — with her on my lap, and together we found new classics from Harry Potter to His Dark Materials. But she found YA literature on her own, and in following her to it, I have to admit I did at first feel as if I were eavesdropping, trying to get access to a teenage mindset that seemed foreign to me — and, I hoped, to her as well. While The Princess Diaries is mostly just good fun — one of those stories in which the heroine finds out she’s a princess, in fact! — in Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat I met a heroine who has a child before she graduates from high school. And in Speak , by Laurie Halse Anderson, a silent girl confides a harrowing tale to her journal and us, her unknown readers.
Since I’m both a former teenage girl and the mother of one, Melinda, in Anderson’s Speak , has especially preoccupied me. She’s a teenager whose rape the previous summer has left her speechless and alienated. She called the cops from the party where the rape occurred but, unable to talk to the 911 dispatcher, simply ended up getting the party busted — and herself ostracized. Melinda bites her lips and remains silent — not asleep like Snow White after she tastes her stepmother’s apple — but nearly catatonic nonetheless.
No dwarves take her in. Having lost her friends, she settles instead for the “new girl” who befriends her, not yet knowing she’s toxic. Their unlikely friendship can’t last, doesn’t last, but Melinda remains silent.
No evil stepmother has marked her for death; she’s not in danger, but neither is she nurtured. As she sleepwalks through her days at school and her evenings at home, her parents leave notes on the counter for her, for each other, caught up in their own unspoken dramas. “I write when I need school supplies or a ride to the mall,” Melinda tells us. “They write what time they’ll be home from work and if I should thaw anything. What else is there to say?” (14).
What else, indeed? I begin to yearn for the dwarves of Snow White, the fairy godmother of Cinderella, the prince of Sleeping Beauty — someone to help her, awaken her, lead her to her future. But in YA literature few if any hero(in)es find a deus ex machina; they’ve got to help themselves, or find help in unlikely places. And, for the most part, they do: YA novels, despite their bleak situations and “problem” adolescents, are usually hopeful.
As Melinda struggles, over the course of the novel, to regain a sense of identity, her parents stay out later and later, responding only perfunctorily to a call from the high school guidance office, failing to see what’s right in front of them: their damaged daughter. As they meet with the principal and guidance counselor, Melinda retreats into fantasy:
“They sing a show tune: ‘What are we to do? What are we to do? She’s so blue, we’re just two. What, oh what, are we supposed to do?’
In my headworld, they jump on Principal Principal’s desk and perform a tap-dance routine. A spotlight flashes on them. A chorus line joins in and the guidance counselor dances around a spangled cane. I giggle.” (115)
Although fantasy sustains her at times, it’s not enough. Like Snow White, Melinda tastes an apple that she shouldn’t. She’s in biology class, and the apple is a project.
“I bite my apple. White teeth red apple hard juice deep bite.
David [her lab partner] sputters.’You’re not supposed to do that! She’ll kill you! You’re supposed to cut it! Didn’t you even listen? You’ll lose points!'” (66).
The teacher doesn’t kill her, of course, and the apple doesn’t put her to sleep. It wakes her up. It brings her to life. Though she’s not Snow White, the resonance is clear: Melinda has to stop living a fairy tale life, stop hoping someone else will awaken her, stop waiting for things to change. The scene with the apple happens fairly early in the novel, but it’s a harbinger of things to come, of choices Melinda will continue to make that will, in the end, help her to heal.
It’s a powerful scene, the kind of thing that keeps me reading YA novels. Anderson’s subtle, implicit fairy-tale motif reminds us of all the other stories we’ve read with silent, waiting girls, and she turns that motif newly to accommodate the reality she brings to Melinda’s story. I read YA novels for the hope they offer, then; not that children won’t suffer, or make bad choices, or experience pain — fairy tale children face all this as well, after all — but that they can find their way out, without the deus ex machina of dwarves or fairy godmothers or princes, all on their own.