This post is regarding a column I recently read in our local newspaper. It was originally written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and can be read here.
Reading this kind of annoyed me. I understand Ms. Heller's point- the "Gossip Girl" books should never, ever be compared to Jane Austen, kids are reading books far above their age level... but who is she trying to blame here? The Gossip Girls and A-List books (both of which I have read) may not be appropriate for young girls, but, as she said herself in the article, they're supposed to be marketed towards ninth grade and up. Sure, these books will do more for increasing a girl's vocabulary of designer brands than they will for her SAT vocabulary. But who's to say escape literature is entirely wrong?
It bothered me that much of Ms. Heller's argument seemed to center around the fact that girls, in particular, are reading about older girls' lives. "High school students... are reading "The Gossip Girls"/"It Girls"/A-List series or have graduated to grown-up titles entirely." As she admits, "Much of popular culture is like that. Disney's breakaway smash is 'High School Musical,' not 'Fifth Grade Rocks.'" I guess what I wonder is... how is this new? I have always looked up to people older than me. Seeing the priveleges that older kids are given make growing up appealing, and from where I'm sitting, pretty much always have. How many 9-year-olds play with just Skipper barbies? And how many Barbies are given 9-year-old lives? Come on-- in my typical playing, a Barbie would marry a Ken and drive her car to the mall to go shopping. Even before the days of "shop lit," girls read above their age level. I had long since stopped reading the Babysitter's Club books (about high-schoolers) by the time I entered high school. Dreaming about more grown-up life is common.
Even further, dreaming about the impossible or improbable is more common. Why are shows like Cribs, Laguna Beach, Sweet Sixteen and Desperate Housewives so popular? Part of the allure, I'm sure, is that the lives of the people or characters featured are incredible- hard for the normal person to fathom. Part of the allure is in the distance from one's reality. It's almost like a fiction book about a foreign country or even distant world- and it's desirable. Who wouldn't love to escape their boring life once in awhile to vicariously live a more exciting life of a rich, beautiful, and spoiled person? It's the same old "grass is greener on the [older and richer] side."
I see the author's point, that parents need to know what their kids are reading... but I don't see how "shop lit" is so very dangerous. Ms. Heller glosses over the possibly argument that "at least they're reading," but I don't think it's that easy to ignore. With the entertainment she references ("the tube, the screen, the Internet and iTunes"), there are worse things kids could be doing with their time. There are certainly better things kids could be reading, but I think I would rather my kid read the A-List series than hate reading.
I guess part of what annoyed me about this article was the direct impact she assumed for this kind of literature. The moral implications of this type of book, it seems, encourage promiscuous and bad behavior. I'm by no means perfect, but... I've read multiple books from at least two of the series mentioned (Gossip Girl and A-List), and, if anything, these books have taught me that this kind of crazy life is anything but normal. I understand I'm a lot older than some girls that are reading this kind of literature, but... if you're to say that reading about sex or sneaking out or getting away with things teaches bad behavior and shouldn't be read, then many of the classics would be out as well.
I think a lot of the problem is the marketing-- many times the books for high school and older girls are grouped in with those for middle school and a little younger. When series like the "shop lit" ones are popular, they're prominently featured. The titles sound fresh and current; the book covers look new and modern; the girls on them look mature, beautiful, and sophisticated. In comparison, my copy of Sense and Sensibility features lots of serif font, an old and somewhat ugly painting, and a slightly wordy title. Which one looks "cooler" to a young girl?
The thing is, while TV, movies, books, music, and all other parts of culture certainly contribute to kids' perceptions of normalcy, they can't be fully blamed. Parents don't need to prevent their kids from reading certain books; instead, parents just need to parent. So long as the parents instill good moral values in kids, culture alone is not going to sway them. Parents should, as the title in our paper said, "be wary of what their kids read." But instead of wary, I'd say... be aware. There's a slight difference, and I think it's important. Parents should know what their kids are reading, and discuss the reading with them if they feel it's inappropriate. But they shouldn't be afraid of what their kids are reading- even if characters do wrong things, the kids are reading, thinking about the situations before they are thrust into them, in some cases seeing the consequences, and the parents are often given an opportunity to bring up the topic.
I guess I just thought that Ms. Heller was trying to play two roles here- the shocked and overprotective parent who's afraid of her little girl growing up, and the pompous columnist and literary critic who's trying to fight consumerism with vocabulary and references to the classics. Maybe it's my age (19), but her call to arms made me annoyed more than anything else. I've read Jane Austen novels, but I've also read and enjoyed Gossip Girl novels. I have read lots of "shop lit" and seen "Sex and the City" without resorting to even caring about designer labels, much less reckless spending. I've read about or seen in shows people having casual sex as teenagers, and I'm a virgin. I've listened to rap and rock without ever doing any kind of drug, and barely doing any drinking. Sure, these "children's publications" might be doing some harm, but they're not to blame for the problems of society's teenagers.
(I realize this wasn't a very organized or well-written rant, but I don't feel like going back to fix it. So... enjoy. :)