'Tiger Eyes,' Judy Blume, and 'regular kid' lit
Davey Wexler is not a witch. She’s not a skilled huntress, fighting for her life as a rapacious crowd watches her every move. She’s not even a clumsy, moody wallflower inadvertently drawn into a sexy world of immortal bloodsuckers.
Instead, Davey’s just, well… Davey, an average 15-year-old dealing with average teenage problems: the sudden death of a loved one, a big move to a new town and a new school, a best friend who drinks just a little too much. Nothing about her life is sensationalized, not even the bloody holdup that abruptly robs her of her father — which is probably why Davey resonated so deeply with me when I first met her in the late ’90s. (Her cool, androgynous name and relationship with a mysterious dude named Wolf didn’t hurt, either.)
And when Davey re-entered my life a few weeks ago — via Lawrence and Judy Blume’s new film adaptation of Tiger Eyes — I realized something else about her essential ordinariness: In a modern YA landscape glutted with fantastical dystopias, supernatural romances, brand-name-soaked glamoramas, and hyperbolic tragedy, what makes this heroine remarkable is the fact that she’s not very remarkable at all.
It wasn’t always this way. In a time when books aimed at the under-18 set hadn’t yet became the most valuable brand in publishing (let’s call the period B.S.M.: Before Stephenie Meyer) — back when “YA” wasn’t even really a thing — young adult and middle grade fiction were ruled by authors like Blume, Paula Danziger, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Voight, Rachel Vail, Louis Sachar, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. These writers largely rejected magic, vast governmental conspiracies, and star-crossed melodrama in favor of more accessible material — the difficulties of dealing with a friendship you’ve outgrown, or parents who are divorcing, or being abandoned by your unstable mother in a mall parking lot. (Okay, so maybe Voight doesn’t totally belong on the list.)
The heroes of “regular kid” lit didn’t need high concepts to make their work compelling. (In theory, nothing sounds more boring than a story about four friends who like to babysit — and yet somehow, Ann M. Martin and Scholastic spun 217 bestselling titles out of that very idea.) Instead, they relied on recognizable situations and characters, written in a plausible vernacular and presented in a straightforward package.
And while the B.S.M. era also included its share of fantasy, sci-fi, and blatant wish-fulfillment novels, even the heroes and heroines of those stories embodied a basic ordinariness that kept their stories grounded — think of Madeleine L’Engle’s marvelously regular Meg Murry, Gail Carson Levine’s spunky but relatable Ella Enchanted, or even Meg Cabot’s awkward princess Mia Thermopolis.
But in the wake of Twilight — and Gossip Girl, and Harry Potter — things have changed. Just as glitzy series where everyone wants to be famous (and adults are largely invisible) have taken over kiddie TV, epic sagas about Chosen Ones navigating elaborate invented worlds, preposterously named characters, and life-or-death situations have supplanted Blume-ian ruminations on growing up. And forget novels that ape Blume’s short and sweet style; all those sagas must be told in multiple sprawling volumes, preferably three.
When contemporary YA tomes do take place in the so-called “real world,” they tend to focus on what my old Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul volumes labeled “tough stuff” — suicide, school shootings, rape, rape, rape, and rape. Even John Green, a literary rock star whose books are rooted in a credible universe, only reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list after he penned a highly stylized novel detailing a doomed romance between two cancer-stricken teenagers. “Issue books” are nothing new — my personal vintage favorite might be Life in the Fat Lane, in which a beautiful girl discovers that it’s harder to be overweight than skinny (gasp!). That said, there was a time when those trauma-filled stories weren’t basically the only option for young readers yearning to take a break from post-apocalyptic nightmarescapes and gritty fantasies.
Trends, of course, are cyclical. I have no doubt that someday soon, the tides could change, ushering in a new wave of regular kid lit that replaces the Katnisses and Trises with characters who are less flashy but no less fascinating. Until that day, I’ll cling firmly to my copies of Tiger Eyes, and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, and A Wrinkle in Time — and remember a time when being ordinary was enough.