Friday, December 19, 2008

How to Talk to Girls

I'll admit, a little part of me is jealous of child authors. Why did no one pluck my creative writing gems from the obscurity of a Langwarrin primary school classroom, send them to HarperCollins and put me on the talk show circuit to exploit my precocity? Perhaps because it would have been an unlikely phenomenon in the '80s to place a child author through the publicity mill and because no such array of marketing opportunities exists in Australia. And also possibly because my writing was not extraordinary. In fact, the writing and ideas of each and every eight-year-old cannot fail to be ordinary, comparatively speaking. Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein at 18, but it's a hard stretch to think of titles of literary note or longevity first begun when the writer was eight. But what the pre-teen writer can be is cute in book publicity. Cue Alex Greven.

His guide to primary school romancing apparently began as a school project, but it has now taken him to the bestseller lists. The book currently sites inside the Top 200 titles sold on Well done to him for his success, but watching the promotional video from the publisher incited a disturbed twinge from my conscience, as he appears rather coached (in the bizarro Bindi Irwin way). I'm sure that he devised most of the book, but I wonder if the unintentionally comedic elements have been inserted by adults during the publication process? Or are we dealing with a special episode of "Kids Says the Darndest Things" dedicated to one child? Did he really offer the bracketed comment about sugar to the following advice?

"The right thing to do when you have a crush is:
Never show off too much
Don’t be silly and goofy
Control your hyperness (cut down on sugar if you need to)
Make sure you have good friends who won’t try to take the girl you like."

While I can only too well remember the awkwardness and pain of first crushes and rejections, the casting of the whole process as boys learning the magical secret to "winning" girls grates a little on this grizzling, overanalytic feminist:

"If you do get a girl to like you, that is victory.
Winning victory is a dream for most boys, but it is very rare.
What does it take to win victory?
Read on and find out!"

Now I know Alex is only eight and hasn't single-handedly propagated this idea, but can we lose the idea that a woman is there to be won? Sure, comb your hair and wear your best size 6 pants to increase your chances in the dating stakes, but is there not an element of medieval village conqeuring to this idea that girls are there to be "won". Will we see a book from a girl author about how to "win" the right guy? Of course, there is a fixation on appearing attractive so as to achieve the same for girls, but I don't know that the language of "victory" would ever come to the fore should a little girl ever submit a school project on the topic.

Alex remarks on the status of gender power: "You also have to be aware that girls win most of the arguments and have most of the power. If you know that now, things might be easier." Best enjoy wielding all that power on the slippery dip and monkey bars now girls, as you'll have disappointment ahead when you learn that the "king of the castle" in political and corporate terms is almost invariably a king.

Alex now has another book title out called "How to Talk to Moms", so he's got the gamut of women in a young boy's life covered. The question is, has HarperCollins got every opportunity to milk this little boy of every inch of his cuteness before, like Macauley Culkin, he starts aging and disturbs the bejesus out of everyone for resembling a malformed version of his former baby-faced self.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Purity is Back...Alright

Purity is perhaps less welcome back today than even the Backstreet Boys. It is possibly as welcome as the return of New Kids on the Block. That said, NKOTB actually does have a new album out, inventively called The Block, and apparently thirtysomething women have been turning up to their concerts in screaming droves, reliving their teenage idolisation of the first superstar "boy band". But I digress.

Those au fait with contemporary children's literature will have heard of a little series called Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I currently have the three or four Bible's worth of paper stacked at home awaiting some holiday reading, thanks to my lovely colleague Kris. Now the religious comparison there is not without reason. Today's Age is running a story about virginity being "back" in vogue, combining a few real-world examples of young people who will "save themselves" for marriage (sourced from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and invoking Meyer's vampire quartet of novels for girls as indicative of a turn back to purity after decades of sex obsession because of vampire Edward's refusal to have sex before marriage.

The article takes an intriguing turn when we hear from a "counsellor" who did not even kiss her husband prior to marriage: "Julieanne Laird, a counsellor with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students at Melbourne University, waited until marriage before having sex. To avoid temptation, she and her husband didn't even kiss until they were engaged; pledging not to kiss or even to dance with a man other than one's father or brother is not uncommon among the more devout pledgers." Wait a minute. We hear from an eighteen-year-old man who pledges to save himself for marriage in this article, but is there any obligation on males not to even dance with another woman other than his mother or sister?

While I'm certain that Twilight and a small number of religious groups exhibiting conservative tendencies with regard to girls' sexuality are not indicative of a radical societal shift toward abstinence, both of these examples seem to allocate males with a responsibility for controlling girls' developing sexuality, even through relatively benign milestones such as school dances.

Now I gave this post a silly title because I was thinking of a Backstreet Boys' song, but I now realise I can relate these things, as boy bands show the need for girls to gradually channel their emerging sexual feelings somewhere. Even if it is by putting it into plastering their walls with posters of men pretending to be boys. To place "promise rings" on the fingers of young girls before they've even had a chance to work through the confusing trauma of teenage desire seems a recipe for certain divorce when "the one" just doesn't live up to the marketing.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

I am behind the times somewhat. But specialising in children's literature written more than a century ago will do that to you. While marking student essays this past semester, I found that many had chosen to write about what sounded like a fascinating book, Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere (2006). The premise of a passageway to life after death being a kind of cruise ship minus the Salmonella-infused buffet proved too intriguing to pass up.

And the first two-thirds of the book did impress me for the sheer originality of the concept of an afterlife in which people age backwards until, upon their eventual reversion to babyhood, they can once again return to life on Earth. The captain of the ship that the protagonist, Liz, takes to Elsewhere, is aged only six or seven, but with the sum total of his years in life and and in Elsewhere, he's got more experience than any sea captain who ever sailed.

The essence of the plot is Liz's struggle to adjust to her premature death aged only fifteen and then to accept how little time she will have in Elsewhere as a teenager given that she is not ageing backward from her twilight years as most of its residents are. All of the wonderful potential to engage with ideas of life experience and reincarnation are lost to a degree when a romance plot slowly overtakes these ideas. While the complexities of the world of Elsewhere never entirely disappear, I was disappointed that they were subordinated to a standard romance plot.

That said, this opinion is coming from the position of an adult reader who read plenty of teen romance at the age of about eleven or twelve. I don't think I even realised that this was the category of novels I was reading (and I never sought them out in the way that Harlequin Mills and Boon readers covet their titles), but I certainly wasn't leafing through literary classics in the summer holidays. So perhaps Zevin is adequately catering to her intended readership. This almost-thirty was hoping for a resolution that suggested that on-Earth love would transcend time and death, but to say more would spoil the plot. And for Zevin to write my closure to the novel would have seen the book filed in an area of the library where "young" is not a prefix to "adult".