When you’ve read as many YA and middle grade books as an adult as I have over the last year, you begin to pick up on some patterns. And when many of those books were written decades ago, some of those patterns begin to feel especially outdated, problematic, and, well, annoying.
A lot of those patterns make me feel like doing this…
Here are five tropes in middle grade and YA that I find especially worthy of an eye roll.
1. Nice girls being mean to the mean girls and that somehow being okay.
(Because it’s not.)
I picked up on this trope almost immediately when I started the podcast. In the very first episode of SSR about Harriet the Spy, you’ll hear me and my guest Brittney get extremely fired up about how mean main character Harriet is to her classmates. Yes, we know that we’re supposed to think that those classmates are snobby and stuck-up and annoying… but did that really give Harriet and her friends the right to say and write horribly damaging things about them?
I saw a similar dynamic emerge in title after title — The Princess Diaries, Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock, and Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, to name a few. I’m all for putting an end to bullying and I know how sweet revenge can be, but I just don’t think that modeling this kind of you-were-mean-to-me-so-I’ll-be-mean-to-you behavior for kid readers is such a great idea. You just end up with a lot of mean kids and very few likable characters.
2. Girls “surprising” people by succeeding at certain things.
If I had a nickel for every time I read a line in one of these older kid lit titles about how a girl character can do something “just as well as the boys,” I would own a thousand books and Irving would have a thousand bones.
I don’t have much else to say about this. I know it’s most often reflective of the time period in which these books were written, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it!
3. Kids hating school.
Maybe I only say this because I was once a teacher’s pet and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to wake up every day and hate going to school, but can’t we make more kid characters enjoy going to school… or at least feel neutral about it? I understand that there are unique circumstances that make a classroom setting especially challenging for certain students — learning disabilities, classroom bullies, challenging situations at home — but I do find that all too often, hating school is the baseline state for characters in middle grade and YA books. I’d love for it to be the exception and not the rule!
I also get frustrated when I see kid lit portraying school in a scary way for kids. Matilda is a great example of this. Ultimately, of course, Matilda is a character who loves to learn, but Roald Dahl sets up her school as such a terrifying place that I can’t help but wonder if it made certain young readers worried about what their own school experience would be like. We talk about this a bit on Episode 3!
4. Girls needing to be rescued by dudes.
Twilight is the first book that comes to mind with this one! Not only did Bella need to be rescued from her whole lackluster existence by Edward, but she also needed to be rescued from her own clumsiness time and again throughout the story. Come on, Stephenie Meyer — let the girl have a few of her own wins! (You can hear more of my thoughts on Bella, Edward, and Jacob on Episode 17).
We see this trope popping up in all kinds of ways in other kid lit titles. In the first book in the Boxcar Children series, Violet and Jessie seem to require their brother Benny and Henry to do most of the heavy lifting if they’re to survive after losing their parents. Little Women — which is, admittedly, one of my all-time faves — contains all kinds of mixed messages about what women can and can’t accomplish without the help of a man. Book One in the Sweet Valley High series has Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield requiring male rescuing in all kinds of situations (which is really only the tip of the iceberg of issues we talk about in Episode 54).
The good news is that I think this one is definitely losing steam in more recent YA and middle grade books! I can’t remember flagging it in any of the titles I read for last year’s New Reads November. My fingers are crossed it doesn’t come up in this year’s round of newer titles, either!
5. Any and all plotlines that harp on weight and body image.
I wouldn’t consider this an unnecessary trope in any book in which weight, body image, or eating disorders are the central issue. While I haven’t read it myself, I would call Dumplin’ a good example of this. In Speak (which we talk about on Episode 39), Melinda’s struggles with her body are symptomatic of the trauma she’s dealing with in the months after a sexual assault — again, I wouldn’t call it an unnecessary trope here, either.
What does bother me is stories in which the author seems to have tossed in body image issues or relentless dieting as a generally arbitrary part of a character’s, well, character. I noted this in Go Ask Alice, Sweet Valley High: Double Love, and The Face on the Milk Carton, to name a few.
Part of my sensitivity to this is, of course, my own personal experience with disordered eating and body dysmorphia, but I also hate the fact that pop culture of all kinds has a tendency to suggest that dieting constantly and/or feeling bad about your body just comes with the territory of being a teenager (especially a teen girl).