We got an e-mail the other day,
offering to send us a new YA book:
Mary Richards is a
normal 16-year-old girl living in Manhattan.
Well, almost normal. I mean, she goes to private school and lives on the Upper East Side with her adoptive family. And
she’s also slowly transforming into a cat.
Well that sounds good, I
thought. Sort of like Gossip Girls meets Animorphs. Besides, I'm a sucker for a fun, junky book, and Diana is a sucker for all things feline. I mentioned it to Diana, who said "That sounds great!" And we
accepted the publicist's generous offer, and they mailed it to us, and
all seemed well.
We got it a few days later, and Diana plucked it out of my bag and
carried upstairs. Two hours later, I found it lying in the hallway.
"Hey, aren't you reading this?"
"I finished it."*
"Well, how was it?"
hmm. Diana is phenomenally unwilling to be negative about things. And
this was a book about turning into a cat. What did OK mean in this context?
"So, you weren't crazy about it?"
"There weren't enough characters."
I gave a prim speech about how it wasn't the number of characters in a book that made it good, but rather…blah blah blah.
So then I read it.
dear. I don't normally think of myself as prudish. Or
over-protective. Or puritanical. But it turns out I am. Here are the things I found difficult to accept:
a scene in which what appears to be marijuana is found in the locker of a character, who then escapes any consequence;
a scene in which our heroine wriggles desperately against a boy she likes because she can;
a scene in which our heroine, having become a cat, is licked all over by another boy/cat, with special attention paid to being licked on the tail. Yes, on the tail. Licked.
Lots and lots of all of this.
Here I thought I was cool with the general expression of sexuality in books. "Oh sure," I've been known to airily declare, "sex in books and movies is fine. It's the violence that seems so disturbing." Also: "Oh that? That goes right over their heads, I don't worry about it at all."
Well, it turns out I was full of shit. I am not OK with the idea of my girls reading about turning into cats and being licked all over by boys. Not. At. All.
So what do I do now that it's happened? Oh yes, and happened with my own dopey "Here you go, why don't you read this whole book about turning into a cat and being licked all over by boys?" special brand of mothering. I think I don't do anything. In truth, probably a lot of it did, in fact, go over her head. That's one of the benefits of being pure of heart and also a hellishly fast reader*.
But my response really surprised me. I can't even name exactly what it was that I felt so allergic to, but it was something about a state of mind, and an attitude towards herself and life, that the book seemed ready to say was par for the course for a 16-year-old girl, that didn't feel OK to me.
Just for the record, I'm not exactly happy to be the prude that I've become. I want reading about, well, just about anything to be OK. I also want to think that my feelings have to do with the fact that the book—well, it's not a good book. It has an annoying present-tense anomie, and while the idea of the whole thing appealed to me, it never comes to life, never thrills or surprises. No one seems to live in its pages. The action scenes are hopelessly confusing, the description is self-consciously poetic, and the people—they never animate. It turns out that I more or less agree with Diana in some way, for all my prim speech: there aren't enough characters. What I think she means is that there isn't enough to care about.
But as high-minded and critically castigating as I try to be, the truth is that's not why it freaked me out. What freaked me out is what YA seems to have become: something I can no longer handle.
*Note: Diana is an intensely fast reader, who tends to some sort of turbo-charged skimming with books that don't fully engage her. It doesn't seem possible for her to read as fast as she says she does, but she can generally answer all relevant questions about a book after she's "read" it. She just doesn't seem to engage fully with the language or something.