The Pop YA Novel
When teens sported spiked and colored hair, when pixie princesses dressed in 1950s prom dresses and cowboy boots, when Cyndi Lauper was singing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” . . .
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Around the start of the 1990s, two remarkable books ushered in the pop young-adult or y.a. novel. When teens sported spiked and colored hair, when pixie princesses dressed in 1950s prom dresses and cowboy boots, when Cyndi Lauper was singing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Francesca Lia Block introduced her punk heroine Weetzie Bat in the novel by that name. Weetzie was the immensely popular new kid on the block, and Block would eventually publish more Weetzie stories, then bring them all together in her collection Dangerous Angels. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, in Japan, the hot adolescent book was Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. With its references to Col. Sanders’ Chicken, Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts,” and other trendy kitsch, Kitchen was very “kokusai” (international) and a sensation; by the time it reached these shores (in a translation by Megan Backus), the book had already gone through 60 printings.
Block’s Weetzie Bat has been described as a “punk fairy tale” and an example of “pop magical realism.” The story of Weetzie and her boyfriend (a.k.a. My Secret Agent Lover Man) and of their pals (including the gay couple, Dirk and Duck) is largely realistic except that the story is shot through with fairy-tale events (like the appearance of a wish-granting genie in Los Angeles or a film-inspired but real witch). In its “pop” tone, and in its mixture of the “magical” and “realism,” it most resembles what may still be the best young-adult film: Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. There is a cheerful unreality to the book, and it is no accident that mention is made of another work that shares its tone: the television series “Bewitched.”
Yoshimoto’s Kitchen also mentions “Bewitched” and shares with Weetzie Bat the same mixture of the everyday and fantastic. The heroine, Mikage Sakurai, is left an orphan when her grandmother, her last blood relative, dies. Then, out of nowhere, she receives an unexpected invitation to move in with an unconventional family: Yuichi Tanabe (a young man who sold flowers to her grandmother but whom Mikage doesn’t know) and Yuichi’s beautiful mother Eriko (who, before a change prompted by the death of his spouse, was once a man and Yuichi’s father). Like adolescents gathered around a Ouija board, like this invitation “out of nowhere,” other psychic and bizarre events befall the perky Mikage, who is open to the irrational and the cosmically whimsical.
But in both books, this cheerful lightness is threatened by an encroaching darkness. This is the borderline situation of adolescence. As Block has observed, “During adolescence we are powerfully in touch with two realms: Still close to our childhood, we are innocent enough to perceive the fantastic all around us. . . . But we are also almost adults and very aware of the harsh world we are about to enter.” Despite Peter Pan’s wish to never grow up, the adolescent can’t remain in twinkling Neverland forever.
So, despite its quirky and upbeat manner, Kitchen is a story also riddled with genuine losses: Mikage is left an orphan when her grandmother dies; Eriko, the grieving transvestite, still mourns the loss of a spouse; then Eriko is murdered, and Yuichi is left a parentless orphan as well. Likewise, Weetzie’s fairy-tale life begins to fall apart when her lover leaves, friends are torn apart by the AIDS epidemic, and her junky father dies. For a punk princess tripping the light fantastic, this is a hard introduction to something else: “Grief is not something you know if you grow up wearing feathers with a Charlie Chaplin boyfriend, a love-child papoose, a witch baby, a Dirk and Duck, a Slinkster Dog, and a movie to dance in.”
In both books, this evaporation of childhood’s golden innocence, and these encounters with real losses and grief, prompt the same remedy. Shoring up their defenses against the encroaching darkness, in the absence of parents, these young adults form “constructed families” with their friends. Bereft, Mikage and Yuichi will lean on each other. Wounded, Weetzie gathers all her likewise wounded pals into a new household in a Hollywood bungalow and where everyone is pretty much the same age.
Here are two delightful and terrific, pop and trendy novels for adolescents–and recommended reading for that age set. But what can’t escape a thoughtful adult’s notice is that–despite their extravagant incidents and exaggerated imagery, in stories both of lost parents and of new families constructed of peers–what is pictured is the very state of adolescence: when the young leave childhood, parents, and family behind; and when they switch their loyalty and attention to like-minded and like-aged friends.
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This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (June 2006).