This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on December 2, 2016
Aiden Chambers, in his immensely influential critique of children’s reading, The Reluctant Reader, was able to write convincingly about “the commercial impotence of the publisher and bookseller” (Chambers, 1969, p. 19). Although Chambers goes on to discuss the popularity of teen magazines, he remains convinced that when it comes to marketing fiction to teen readers, booksellers are at a loss to know how to make books appealing and desirable.
That was in 1969. In 2002, Jack Zipes made an equally foreboding but almost diametrically opposed claim: far from being impotent, booksellers and publishers, he suggests, are so skilled at making books desirable that they are using these products as a means of “socializing” and “homogenizing” American children into ideal consumers and Capitalist machine-cogs (Zipes, 2002, pp. 1-13). Zipes argues convincingly that the publishing industry has become simply one more facet of a multi-industry leviathan in which food, entertainment, education, politics, and every other aspect of life, are carefully controlled and interrelated commodities. This post builds on the perspectives of both Chambers and Zipes to suggest that much of what is popularly available to the teen reader represents a deliberate acculturation of young people as consumers and dependents of social media culture.
To illustrate this idea, I want to discuss a particular young adult novel which I chose not to review for The Children’s Book Review this month: Double Eclipse, the second book in the Summer on East End series by Melissa de la Cruz. The series is predicated on the idea that Norse Gods became accidentally trapped on Earth when the pathway to Valhalla was destroyed; the heroines of the series are Mardi and Molly, goddesses born on earth to the tempestuous god of thunder, Thor. This is fantastic material – the Norse legends are full of rousing stories, complex characters, and fantastical creatures and settings. Sadly, the book does little with this wonderful source material, and after reading only thirty pages or so, I was forced to make a choice between putting it down or throwing it out of the window.
The theme of this blog at the moment is multiculturalism, and this post is very much a diatribe against its opposite: acculturation. This case, that acculturation stemmed from the interweaving within Double Eclipse of consumer culture and digital technology. Early on in the novel (it had to be early on because I did, in the end, throw the book out of the window), joint protagonists Mardi and Molly learn that their long-lost mother is also Molly’s favorite sport’s hero. This should have been a moment filled with Pathos and deep character exploration. Instead, it sees the two girls glued alternatively to the television set and their smart phones, filtering the emotions and complexity of this key plot event through layers of trite ‘text-speak’ as the girls alternate between fending off the conventionally-surprised responses of friends and family via Twitter and Facebook, and attempting to discuss this life-altering moment via text-message. Not even the imminent arrival of the girls’ father, Thor, and his attack by a giant supernatural whale manages to prise the girls from the screens where they dilute the exploration of familial tensions by worrying about clothing, boys, and hairstyles Googled on their smart-phones as they wait.
The message is as insidious as it is nauseating: not only does this depiction equate technology with success, beauty, wealth, and popularity, selling a ‘brand’ of lifestyle to the targeted teenaged female audience; it also suggests more subtly that even the most complex and challenging situations can be rendered ‘safe’ through the distancing of social media. After all, these scenes suggest, why feel alone and afraid when your huge circle of friends and followers can reduce your dilemma to an emoticon and a shopping spree?
Of course, the situation is more complex than this for most readers: it is unlikely that every reader is a girl, nor is it likely that every reader invests wholesale in this pretty commodity package. There are always readers who read against the text, but the danger with this type of fictional marketing is that it targets those reluctant readers who are most vulnerable: the readers who are at the cusp of giving up on reading altogether, and who desperately need to be shown the value of meaningful engagement. With this in mind, what is troubling is the barely-disguised intent to use one commodity as a means of selling another, packing the whole lot together in a one-size-fits-all brand of literature which exploits the vulnerability of this type of reader. Teen books such as these flood the market and crowd both the online and in-store shelves. They offer a monotonous depiction of what it is to be young, female, and even human. What they do not offer is a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the creative and expansive ways in which young people can build a multiplicity of cultures using digital and social media. Both Chambers and Zipes were right: by succumbing to the allure of these easy-to-produce and easy-to-swallow novels, publishers are showing themselves powerless to sell a more realist message as they choose the easy option of acculturating rather than educating young people.
So, how does this relate to multiculturalism? Well, the thing about acculturation is that it takes the whole gamut of wonderfully rich and diverse culture available to young people – such as the Norse history and culture that underpins the mythology on which Double Eclipse is built – and waters it down into a mere vehicle for a standardized culture of American consumerism. I, for one, find this depressing at best.
Luckily, this is not the whole literary picture. There are plenty of books available by talented new writers who do engage critically and creatively with the possibilities provided by social and digital media culture. However, unless parents, educators, and other informed readers bring them to the forefront of desirability and popularity, it is unlikely that their message will win out against the drive to turn young women into screen-junkie, attention-seeking, fashion-addict consumers. Let’s not let this happen, hey?
Chambers, Aiden (1969). The Reluctant Reader. New York: Pergamon Press Ltd.
De la Cruz, Melissa (2016). Summer on East End: Double Eclipse. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Zipes, Jack (2002). Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York: Routledge.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.