Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I can so relate! Can you?

In reading this article at Boston.com on urban teens who read street lit, I was particularly intrigued by this quote:

Millner's 14-year-old niece had read the "Gossip Girl" and "A-List" series but yearned for books with characters with whom she could identify.


In addition to this article on street lit, the "Thrilling YAs" program I went to at the YALSA YA Lit Symposium addressed this same question. "Kids enjoy books because they can relate to the characters," was Patrick Jones's statement in a very small nutshell. My problem is that statements like this always make me wonder what a "relatable" character is. The only answer I have is "It's something different to everyone."

I guess if you held a gun to my head I would tell you that teens can relate the best to characters whose lives are sort of like theirs. That, however, is a flawed statement. Probably the most relatable character of the past 10 years of YA is Harry Potter, and the number of HP readers who live in a magical castle and were born to fight one of the greatest evil wizards who ever lived is, as far as I know, zero. What made Harry relatable was the relationships he had with Ron, Hermione, and his other friends, and how he always tried to do the right thing. His life had some high wizarding drama but he also worried about getting a date to the school dance. Despite his reputation as the wizarding world's savior, he had the worries about first love and identity that we all do. He fought with his friends but made up with them, just like we do.

It's this "just like we do" mantra that always made me wonder why so many readers of the Twilight series saw Bella as relatable. She has friends, just like we do! She participates in extracurricular activities, just like we do! Oh, wait, she doesn't do either of those things. She has no hobbies or interests, like any human being does, outside of her boyfriend. She's supposed to be "different" and "weird" but there's no proof of her being either of these things other than the author telling us it is so. Instead, she gets the perfect boyfriend because she smells good. Since none of us can smell blood or know what our own blood smells like, this is a gap between Bella and the reader. A huge one. The very reason for the romance around which the plot is centered is something that we cannot relate to because it's physically impossible for us to do so.

Going a little younger in children's literature, my favorite Newbery winner of all time (and my husband's, coincidentally) is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. I did not grow up anywhere even remotely near New York. I never saw the Metropolitan Museum of Art until I was 17. I don't have brothers. But I related to Claudia because I knew what it was like to want to see the world outside of suburbia while still being comfortable and wearing clean clothes. I understood what Claudia meant by wanting to go back to Connecticut "different." Claudia's adventure was about seeing the world outside of home and school and holding a secret that would set her apart from everyone else. Those are amazing things to have, and Mixed-Up Files is an amazing story of wanting. Claudia endures because we all want something special all to ourselves, and I'm not talking material possessions.

So maybe I have something more than "It's different to everyone." Maybe I also have, "It all depends on matters of the heart." Blair, Serena, and Massie don't have much in common with urban teens superficially. But let's be fair here: They don't have much in common with middle-class suburban teens, either. One could say that the Gossip Girl and Clique series are pure escapism, a fantasy set in the real world, but I think there's more to it than that. I think it's that readers of books about other teens, whether those teens are urban or suburban, rich or not, want to know that there are some experiences that are universal, or that there are experiences to look forward to. Really, how many teens see themselves in Tally Youngblood? Doesn't seem to matter; those books are crazy popular. If it's all about teens seeing themselves in books, then why are the majority of the Teens' Top Ten picks speculative fiction?

Obviously there's more to being relatable than a familiar environment or the "just like me" factor. It's about "just like me" and "just like I want to be" and "just like I could be." Perhaps even "just like I was."

1 comment:

Patrick said...

I think maybe you misunderstood or and at a panel like this with just a few moments, you have to generalized.

If you look at the list about the emotional reasons that teens "relate" to fiction found in Connecting3rd I think you'll get a better idea. It is not about relating to the external life of the character (tho often that is part of it), but the internal life. The central drives of teenhood. Actually, this teen says it much better:

http://smokeandmirroredlies.blogspot.com/2008/10/paul-johanna-kira-and-things-change.html