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Happy Indie-pendence Day! Celebrate with a Free Book!

I’m celebrating the fabulousness of indie and small press books today along with the folks at The Indelibles’ blog.

Image  One indie YA worth checking out is IRENE ROSE’S CHARCOAL AND HOT CHOCOLATE 

  Image because it features the awesome couple you are about to meet below.  But first, a little about the book itself

College life is a breath of fresh air for 20 year old Ellie Baylor, a painfully shy but beautiful art major. She has her canvas and charcoal and that’s more than enough. Her choice to go to school far from home and the watchful eye of her strict parents seems like the perfect thing for smooth sailing into an easy life. But when River Daniels, a charming artist with eyes the color of hot chocolate, asks her to join him in a project for class, Ellie may get more than just an A. She might find out how to live.

So let’s meet Ellie and River.  I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down with them recently, and here is what they had to say about life, love, and art:

(1) It’s always exciting to meet a young couple in love –and it took you guys long enough! What do you think was holding you back?

 Ellie – Well, for me, it was my parents. I mean, I was what you might call “sheltered.”
River – “Sheltered?” Understatement of the year.
Ellie- Oh hush. I’m not that sheltered.
River- Okay. (laughs) I just had to convince this beautiful girl that she could let me love her. (kisses Ellie)
Ellie- You’re pretty sweet. And a little cheesy. But yeah, I just had to come into my own. River helped me get there without losing me. I became me, I guess.

(2) Would you say you’re able to express some of your feelings better through your art than your words?

Ellie and River- Art. (both laugh)
River- Go ahead.
Ellie- For me, definitely art. I don’t have to talk then.
River- My canvas is definitely a place I’m not shy or awkward. I can get my point across without having to worry about saying the wrong thing in the wrong way.
Ellie- Damn. That was a good answer. What he said.

(3) How is your art similar to or different from one another’s?

Ellie- Um, I definitely am a hybrid. My drawings usually mean one thing much have real shapes in them. Realistic impressionism I guess you’d call it.
River- You made that up. There’s no such thing.
Ellie – I’m an artist. We create.
(both laugh and River kisses Ellie’s cheek)
River- First, she’s a drawer, I’m a painter as far as favorite medium. But yeah, I like to put the impression of something there. Ellie is much more literal with hidden meaning in her art.

(4) What drew you to each other? (Pun unintended!)

River- (blushes) Ellie is very attractive. (nervous laugh) But she was so quiet and shy but then she had this artwork that screamed at you. I had to unravel the mystery that was Ellie Baylor. Then once I got to know her, everything I found out about her made me fall in love with her. She’s bright, funny, a little weird about the 90’s TV and 80’s movies, but you know- quirks.
Ellie- Okay, Kerouac. I swear. You should see his copy of On The Road. Literally taped together, notes in the margins, highlighted. It’s ridiculous. And he works in a bookstore. They have new copies, you know?
(both laugh)
Ellie – I noticed River right away. He’s…well, look at him. (River blushes) But he’s so talented and nice. There was no way I could say no when he asked me to do the project with him. And he was always there for me. He’s genuine and I love that about him. He accepted my friends and my difficult family. And his family is great too.

(5) Do you guys have a song (as in “they’re playing our song”)?

Ellie- The song I think of when I think of River is “Ice Cream” by Sarah McLachlan.
River- See? 90’s.
Ellie- It’s just such a perfect representation of my feelings. I love him more than my favorite things even though where I’m at is chaos.
River – When I think of Ellie I think of “Home” by Phillip Phillips. That’s it in a nutshell.
Ellie- But do we have a song?
River – The theme from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
(both laugh)
Ellie- I was thinking “If You Leave”.
River- From Pretty in Pink? No way. No 80’s movie anthems. (laughs)
Ellie- “Kissing you” from R&J then.
River (kisses Ellie) That works for me.

Awwwwww.  These two are almost too cute together.  See how they finally got that way by entering to WIN A FREE E-COPY! Leave a comment below about why this book sounds awesome OR an artist you could see yourself crushin’ on (Dali! That mustache!) You have until July 10 to enter.

But if you can’t wait that long — and I don’t blame you — you can buy Charcoal and Hot Chocolate on Goodreads, at Amazon, and on your Nook. Also at Kobo!  And you can meet Irene Rose (aka Angi Black) on Twitter.

Grab a copy and check out the fireworks within!  Happy Indiependence Day and happy reading!


New Blog

If you’re looking for my blog, it’s moved to World’s Oldest Fledgling at

Bumped and Thumped: Commodifiying Teen Pregnancy

Megan MacCafferty, popular author of the Jessica Darling series, released two books this April*about a not-so-distant future America in which a worldwide virus has wiped out most of the population’s fertility by the time they’re eighteen years old.  This makes fecund adolescents a hot commodity and provides the source of the books’ satire.

McCafferty’s heroines are Melody and Harmony, identical twins separated at birth and living vastly separate lives. Harmony lives in Goodside, a fundamentalist Christian community with Amish and Hutterite overtones, where she has been just married to Ram — after years of spinsterhood, at age sixteen, she was considered a failure at her duty as a female, marrying and producing children.  She was taught by her adoptive Ma to live for “JOY: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third.”  She “has God” and lives an irreproachable life, except for the secret non-consummation of her marriage, but she wants to find her sister, and so runs on the day after her wedding night to Otherside, where Melody lives the life of an upscale Surrogette who has been hired out to a couple to produce their baby with a Reprofessional.  She’s been raised by her adoptive parents to be perfect surrogate material — she’s Princeton Academy educated, athletic, attractive, accomplished — and when she scores the hottest Repro around, Jondoe, her status as teen queen is set.  Nevermind that she doesn’t really want to “bump” with Jondoe (get it? He’s a John Doe, but in this world, sperm donors are celebrities, and Jondoe appears to be as big a “fame gamer” as any).  Or that she would sort of like to bump her best friend, Zen, who is smart, cute, funny, and principled but too short to make it as a Repro– bumping with him is not an option according to the rules of Melody’s world.  For teen in her world, relationship are about sex, and sex is about procreation (for fame and/ or money),  so it’s not only recreational sex that is out of the question — love is, too.  Until a twin switcheroo puts Harmony in Melody’s place and Jondoe falls for her.  The first novel ends with Harmony running back to Goodside, ashamed of her attraction to Jondoe and convinced he’s just used her to get the job done, while Jondoe pleads with Melody to help him find Harmony and his unborn child.

Thumped begins with Harmony cutting off her braid in defiance of her order and about to give birth to twins that she and Ram will pass off as their own (as we discover, Ram’s been hiding a secret himself).  But when she’s about to be excommunicated and have her twin girls taken from her, she runs to Melody in Otherside. Melody has been sporting a realistic “fun bump” (even better than the preteens wear to pretend to be  “preg”) and shilling all sorts of products as the hottest of the Hotties, the season’s number one preg teens as she secretly plans to support Zen’s plan for revolution.  As the deceptions get sorted out, often quite humorously, McCafferty shows an America which has gone from commodifying sex while simultaneously commodifying abstinence (see the purity movement and their rings) to commodifying the thing that liberals and conservatives fear alike:  teen pregnancy.  Harmony, Melody, and Jondoe come to recognize how they have been exploited by a system (including their parents and teachers) that sees them more as breeders in some nationwide human  puppy mill than as individuals, as kids.  It’s a disturbing premise to be sure, and McCafferty presents it in a satirical way that does not detract from the seriousness of her critique.  She captures the language of this world so well as it morphs from its origins in corporate product speak to teen slang but maintains the same focus on the hyper-importance of products, whether  they’re ProPreg Bars or uteruses or fetuses.  Everything and everyone can be bought and sold here to support a seemingly wholesome ideology of serving God or the nation —  and it’s not hard to find parallels in our real world to the one Melody and Harmony try to escape.

*Bumped was re-released in April, actually.

A thoroughly awesome interview with A. S. King!

Full disclosure (which you would find out soon anyway):  I know A. S. King, knew her as “Amy”, in fact, when she was the not-at-all-“twerpy little sister” of a friend of mine in high school, back in the town that is thinly disguised in Please Ignore Vera Dietz.  Now, she is who I want to be when I grow up.

Knock Knock Pizza delivery. I’ve got one mushroom, onions and block olive with soy cheese here for the awesometastic Steph Wardrop…

A.S. King has not gone off her meds or her rocker. This is just a little bit of fun to promote her newest novel. (Official Rules here, if you’re the curious type.) A few weeks ago, my book Please Ignore Vera Dietz came out. It’s a pretty exciting time, but more exciting when you can traipse around to your friends’ blogs and  answer some really interesting questions. And for those of you who came over here but have never heard of Steph before, let me introduce you: She is an awesome writer, one of the smartest people I know and a hip hip hip hip lady. When I was like twelve, she was a high school friend of my older sister, and she was the kind of person I wanted to grow up to be. I know. Vomit, right? But it’s true. So deal with it. Now on with the show.


ASK: In order: I first wanted to be a writer when I was 14. I was standing in the lunch line in Jr. High (I know you can picture this…I was right outside the window that looked into the metal shop) and I’d been obsessively reading Paul Zindel books for a year at that point and I had this yellow legal tablet and I figured I would start writing a book “to help teenagers and their parents understand each other better.”
Which, coincidentally, is kinda what I do now.

I shared this I-want-to-write-books idea with an adult in my life who claimed that writers all have to work at newspapers. And that really bummed me out, man. I did not want to work at a newspaper. So, I gave up on the idea until I was out of the country a decade later. That time, I was voraciously reading about two books a day and after closing Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses I said, “I have to try this.”

I wrote three really horrible novels over the next two years. I did feel like it was my destiny, but at the same time, I pretty much knew that I was never going to get anywhere where I was (Ireland, broke, and sucking at writing novels.)
I have no idea if writers are born writers. The longer I write, the more I know I was born to do it.
And yes, I think it is very clever how you are fitting more than one question into the question.

YES YES YES where I grew up, Exeter township, is a HUGE influence on my writing. It’s probably wider than that. More like Berks County or even Pennsylvania as a whole. I write about characters from the area, I know them intimately because I’m from here. (Oh, hey, while we’re on the subject, let me be clear. NO REAL PEOPLE FROM BERKS COUNTY ARE IN MY BOOKS. NONE. ZERO. NADA.) After spending most of my adult life in Ireland, moving back to PA has really re-introduced me to the characters I was writing all along, and that was a HUGE change for me. A boost, even. And dude. I got to write the pagoda into a book. It talks. How cool is that?
As for preparation, I had a few really great teachers who I owe a lot to. I wasn’t a great student, but they didn’t seem to care. They were encouraging and kind and smart and they influenced me greatly.
(Photo credit: Matt Smith)


ASK: I found getting lost was the absolute worst thing. I delivered pizza before GPS, handheld computers and cell phones. So, getting lost was a major drag. Also, assholes. Assholes suck in any job, though. But I figured I should give them a mention. Close seconds: smelling like grease and pepperonis, not liking pizza anymore after about a week, and having to wear a baseball cap.

The absolute best thing about pizza delivery was spending huge chunks of time in my car listening to loud music all by myself, smoking as many cigarettes as I wanted (boo! do not smoke cigarettes) and spending my tips on Twix bars and Kit-Kats. Not sure there was anything all that surprising. Though at the time, for me, the best things that came out of working at that pizza place were the beginnings of my love affairs with lettuce and Philip K. Dick.


“To the as-yet unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, Deadeye Dick

Steph, asking for soy cheese was daring, which means you get a TRUTH OR DARE bonus question. (Yep–it’s just like truth or dare.)

Yes. You’ve got the gist of it. Um. No, I didn’t have a crush on Mr. Shank, BUT, I did give him and my favorite class with him, Modern Social Thought, a nod in Please Ignore Vera Dietz and I thought he was really boss. And sadly, I cannot fill the pool with Jell-O. And I sure as hell can’t talk about overrated YA books or writers. So, it looks like I’m eating the Oreos, which is completely possible in my house because Mr. King is an Oreo addict.

I think This calls for a vlog.

Thank you so much for having me around to you blog! Before I go, I hope you don’t mind if I tell your readers what the book is about!

SW: Sure thing, A. S.   (Do I have to call you that now?) Vera Dietz is a great book, dear readers, even if her creator is a total wuss in the Oreo eating game.  Come on, Amy — five?  Five Oreos?  And no crumbs?

vera cover
is a Junior Library Guild selection for Fall 2010

18-year-old Vera’s spent her whole life secretly in love with her best friend, Charlie. And over the years she’s kept a lot of his secrets. Even after he betrayed her. Even after he ruined everything. So when Charlie dies in dark circumstances, Vera knows a lot more than anyone. Will she emerge and clear his name? Does she even want to?

“Brilliant. Funny. Really special.” –Ellen Hopkins, author of NYT bestselling Crank, Glass and Tricks

Next Stop on the Pizza Delivery Blog TBA on my blog at

Find your Bookmate and more YA news

There’s a lot of talk on the blogosphere right now about Barnes and Noble’s new shelving of teen fiction by individual genres –into categories such as “Teen Paranormal Romance” — in an effort, they say, to lead readers more directly to what they want.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea and makes sense from a marketing perspective.  Still, for me, half the thrill of book shopping –as a t(w)een reader and even now — was stumbling on something while browsing the shelves, something I didn’t know existed and didn’t know I would want to read — but was so glad I did when the last page was reluctantly turned.  Shoppers are obviously still free to do that if they don’t feel constrained by generic labels, but those labels are always tricky and, often, quite faulty.  Some books are far easier to categorize than others; it’s fairly obvious where a book like Twilight would go, but what about From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?  I would hate to have missed that one, and for an author, having one’s book shelved in the wrong place can cost readers who would otherwise be drawn to her/his work.

But if you DO know what you like to read — or at least the five books that have influenced you the most — check out Scholastic’s social networking site  Post the five books that influenced you the most and find out who your bookmates are.  For instance, mine include Taylor Swift (we both loved Charlotte’s Web in our formative years) and  Daniel Radcliffe, who counts Mikhail Bulgakov’s  The Master and Margarita as among his faves — which I guess would make us book buddies with Mick Jagger, who is said to have written “Sympathy for the Devil” under the influence.  My daughter was happy to discover a book soulmate in, apparently, all four Jonas Brothers in their mutual love of Lemony Snicket (though the Holy Bible ranked number one for the JoBros).  Check it out, make your profile, and who knows?  Maybe Eli Manning has been you book soulmate all along.  Check out my profile!

iJump the Shark

Guppy is just a symptom.  Plus, read on for exciting news about a great YA author!

Most mainstream news sources are in agreement:  Nick’s Dan Schneider-created hit iCarly just keeps getting bigger (and, according to some logic, better).  It first aired in September of 2007 and is now, according to, phenomenally popular; in fact, “On cable, iCarly is outnumbered [in viewers, presumably] only by sports and Jersey Shore.”  And while I would still choose to  watch Carly, Spencer, Sam, and Freddie any day rather than Snookie and her cohorts skanking it up down the shore, I think a little of the magic has been lost despite — or because of — its popularity.  Yes, the show has spawned its own Silly Bandz and the spaghetti taco craze has been acknowledged by the New York Times, but I contend that the fresh anarchic tween spirit of the early seasons has been replaced by a sort of narcissistic nastiness, a refreshing lack of which once marked this show as a standout, especially among Schneider productions (see past posts on VICTORiOUS and others).

When my kids and I first discovered iCarly, we loved it.  I thought it was one of the best written shows on television (all television, not just tween-0riented tv).  The three main characters, Carly Shay (Miranda Cosgrove), her semi-delinquent friend Sam Puckett (Jennette McCurdy), and tech nerd Fredward “Freddie” Benson were well-drawn and believable, and the actors playing them have great comic timing.  Middle-school-and then high-school-aged Carly lives with her older brother Spencer (Jerry Trainor, who worked with Cosgrove before on Drake and Josh) because their father is serving the country on a submarine somewhere.  No mention is ever made of their mother, which is curious, unless you consider the underlying misogyny and motherphobia of many Schneider productions.  Spencer, a law school dropout with no visible means of support, manages to keep himself and his sister in a funky three-story condo, makes sculptures out of found objects –and they often blow up or catch on fire — and encourages the three in their production of their own web comedy show, the eponymous iCarly.  All of these details explain the popularity of the show — a lack of parents, seemingly inexhaustible financial and media resources, creative free reign over one’s life and one’s increasingly popular web show?  What’s a kid not to like?  And I liked it because Carly, Sam, Freddie and their friends were not easily classifiable in the pantheon of standard t(w)een tv cliches.  They are not the most popular kids at school nor the “freaks” looking to fit in.  They are intelligent but not necessarily booksmart (though Carly gets mostly As, which Spencer commemorated in a sculpture made of found As).  They are attractive but not preternaturally beautiful, and they do not suffer traumas that are hastily resolved in the space of 30 to 60 minutes (can I get a holla for Brandon Walsh’s gambling addiction?  Anyone?  Anyone?).  If they are smartasses and skeptical of authority, as all true tweens are, it is because most of the authority figures around them are buffoons.  When they do meet someone worthy of their respect, like Principal Franklin, they generally treat him with respect, especially by tween tv standards.  These things were all true of the first seasons and made the show a standout in the world of t(w)een tv.

And then it slowly started to change.

We all know the telltale signs of shark-jumping, beginning with the introduction of an ungainly character from out of left field (think The Flinstones‘ Great Gazoo, the Bradys’ cousin Oliver, or the execrable Scrappy Doo).  But Noah Munck’s increased role as the shirtless Gibby only enhanced the show’s gentle wackiness in episodes such as the one in which the gang helped him try to impress a girl at a dinner date at the Cheesecake Warehouse (home of salads and slices of cheesecake that dwarf their consumers).  The would-be girlfriend flees, but Gibby ends up dancing, gloriously shirtless, on the table, determined to just be himself.  He is joined on that table by one of the rare appearances (before Groovy Smoothie entrepreneur T-Bo) of a black person, a young girl who “like[s] [Gibby’s] moves.”  I know that “Be Yourself” is a stock message in kids’ shows, but it may be needed now more than ever as kids are deciding at an alarming rate that being themselves, particularly if that means being gay, just isn’t worth it — and can even prove deadly, if not simply soul crushing.  But the beauty of the iCarlys, as their arch rival Neville calls them, was that they accepted themselves and their friends for who they are.  Freddie may have an overbearing mother who insists he wear Cloud Block for skin protection and feeds him cucumber slices as snacks but he’s also smart and funny and even Sam accepts him, despite her constant ridicule of him.  And Sam, in turn, is accepted despite her juvenile police record, disturbing love all forms of meat (she carries baggies of ribs, both beef and pork, in her bag)  and her tendency to solve interpersonal problems by flying at her enemies and wailing on them with her fists and feet.

All of that has changed in the past season, during which the popular show has focused too often on the popularity of the iCarlys and their growing disdain for all people un-iCarly.  For example, in the episode “iPsycho”, the gang reluctantly takes pity on a fan who invites them to appear at her birthday party because otherwise no one else will come.  She locks them in her basement because they present her only chance at social interaction besides her chicken.  In other words, she represents the hopeless dweeb who can never hope to be as cool as the iCarlys and she richly deserves it when she is TKOd by Gibby, who has brought along his shirtless but uncharismatic little brother, Guppy (played by Noah Munck’s real brother!).  Last night’s episode, “iDo”, raises the stakes even higher in the game of cool versus uncool.  When fans invite the gang to their wedding — the groom pays for their flights, including Spencer’s — they do little but complain about having to go to Wisconsin, home of cheese with beef in it, which you would think would be right up Sam’s alley.  They sneer at everything, even the hapless groom whose bride-t0-be falls for Spencer at first sight, and they engage in self-involved complaining about fishsticks without tartar sauce and Sam’s insult about the flatness of Spencer’s butt when they should just walk away from the wedding they have derailed.  But they can’t as the episode is essentially a setup so the once sweet-but-not-sticky Carly can sing the song the erstwhile groom wrote for his beloved, which is actually the next single off Miranda Cosgrove’s album — she is embarking on her first concert tour imminently.

Even more disturbing is the subplot, which like most of the subplots lately, is, to use an iCarly term, full of chiz.  Gibby and Guppy discover a five-dollar bill in a tree and get a frail old lady to help them retrieve it.  She collapses on the sidewalk, face down, as Gibby gloats over his new found riches.  When he finally recognizes the dead or at east severely injured woman (she does croak at the end, “Aren’t we going for coffee?” so she might survive the fall), Gibby tells Guppy he saw nothing and they hightail it out of there.  I am all for dark humor, particularly if it involves poking fun at the elderly, but this seems more mean spirited than funny, especially in the context of the recent Scientific American study that found today’s college students to be significantly less empathetic than their counterparts of decades past.  Elementary and middle schoolers and other fans of the show are hardly likely to be any more compassionate, especially if we look at the evolution (or devolution) of sensitivity on iCarly from 2007 to the present as symptomatic of this general lack of concern for others.

Nonetheless, compared to other tween shows, iCarly is still superior, and by its own standards, certain episodes are still genuinely funny, especially when Jerry Trainor is given more to do than mug for the camera and throw himself on the floor or over a piece of furniture in the hope of gaining some traction in the laugh department.  The cast is still likable and talented, though as the show’s writers acknowledge, lines are being written now less for the characters and more for the actors themselves, who are no longer anonymous tweens themselves but busy and successful young Hollywood stars.  For this reason, fans were relieved and a bit surprised, perhaps, that Miranda Cosgrove signed on for more episodes, despite her other pursuits which involve movie offers (she’s a voice in Despicable Me), concert tours, and perusing college catalogues (she likes USC but may go to New York for a change of pace).  The legion of fans grows, and no doubt will continue to grow, especially with the upcoming episode “iStart a Fan War”, based on fan responses on blogs and the iCarly wiki, in which it may or may not be revealed (again) whether Freddie’s love is really Carly or Sam — the Creddie and Seddie fans are somewhat evenly split on this and are “flipping out” on the blogs at  Jack Black will guest star on this one, adding even more cool cred to the show.  (For Jack Black fans with younger kids or a high tolerance for preschool funkadelics, check him out on Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba.  It will blow your mind.)

Still, even a guest star like recent Emmy winner Jane Lynch couldn’t save the “iSam’s Mom” episode for me.  Jane Lynch as Pam Puckett, Sam’s oft-discussed trampy mom, who once drove her car into the school while picking up Sam because she didn’t want to rest her eyes after Lasik surgery, who once packed Sam Cheezwiz for lunch, for which  Sam was grateful she had even thought to pack anything?  Seems like a winner, especially since Lynch plays the uber bully Sue Sylvester  on Glee, a character whose sharp tongue could lacerate Sam and her tween friends into ribbons.  But Sue Sylvester’s character, unlike the ones on iCarly lately, has more than one dimension. She’s mean, to be sure, but we are learning this season that her meanness is rooted in despair, that she cannot believe in God, for instance, because she cannot believe in a God who would allow her sister with Down’s syndrome to have been treated so abysmally by the kids around her.  One can only wonder what the once affable Gibby would do with a woman like Sue’s sister and some money stuck in a tree.

It’s entirely possible that as a middle-aged mom I am too out of touch with what’s truly funny and that I write a blog that might as well, like Marge Simpson, demand that Itchy and Scratchy get along together and share a nice glass of lemonade.  But I also live in a world in which kids who feel bullied and tormented and undervalued commit suicide — two of them did so in the past year in my part of New England alone, one of them famously and one not so famously (and as the Worcester, MA  paper pointed out, it is no wonder that the famous case was the suicide of a pretty white girl, the less publicized the suicide of a gay black male).  It would be absurd to lay the blame for such tragedy on iCarly or any other tv show, especially since iCarly is not irredeemable.  But it is fair to say that what kids watch affects how they expect to be treated and how they expect to treat others.  Maybe we don’t need Itchy and Scratchy sharing lemonade, but we could use something between that saccarine portrayal of friendship and delighting in the crushing of the unpopular or the death by falling of helpful old ladies enticed by coffee and the promise of friendship.  Something like iCarly used to offer.

And now, for the big YA news!

A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz hits the stores today.  It’s been praised by critics and writers like the venerable Ellen Hopkins and is her second novel for YA readers — her first, The Dust of 100 Dogs, was released in 2008   and nominated for a Spring 2009 Children’s Indie Next List Pick for Teens.

In a future post (soon!) the fabulous A. S. King will provide a video chat about her work AND demonstrate exactly how many Oreos she can stuff in her face in three minutes.  You won’t want to miss it!

Guaranteed personality: A look at Nick’s VICTORiOUS, with apologies to the Clash

“I’m all lost in the supermarket/I can no longer shop happily/I came in here for a special offer/Of guaranteed personality” — “Lost in the Supermarket, the Clash

Dan Schneider, a former teen actor who played the chubbiest nerd on Head of the Class, had developed five series for Nickelodeon when he was approached by the Nick execs to create a music-based show.  Given the popularity of High School Musical, they charged Schneider with creating a new show that would “follow where the kids are.”   VICTORiOUS, the story of a talented teen who joins her fame-obsessed sister at Hollywood Performing Arts High School, promised to speak to kids’ desire to express themselves musically just as iCarly, another Schneider-crafted show, spoke to every YouTube-loving kid who wanted to host his own web show.   And while it’s gone downhill this season, iCarly was once fresh in its writing and performances, giving us quirky but realistic enough characters, especially in those played by its three likable teen stars.   Miranda Cosgrove, Jennette McCurdy, and Nathan Kress are funny and believable as kids who produce a show we would all want to watch because they are kids we all want to watch. They are bright, attractive without being plastic, and their comedic timing is spot on.

VICTORiOUS , on the other hand, falls flat.   Because despite its intentions, it’s not so much about talented kids with an awesome creative outlet so much as it is about annoying kids who want to be talented — or, better yet, to be famous. Schneider has said, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about kids today. . . it’s that they all want to be famous”*, and he developed the series when Marjorie Cohn was Nick’s executive VP for original programming and development.  “Every kid thinks they’re five minutes away and one lucky circumstance from being famous,” Cohn has said, and with these thoughts in mind they began to develop the show, which also promised to provide the long-awaited showcase for Victoria Justice, who was signed in 2008 to work on what would become VICTORiOUS.

When Schneider cast Justice at the age of twelve to play a character attractive but otherwise devoid of personality on the execrable Jamie Lynn Spears vehicle Zoey 101, he told the bigwigs at Nick that he had just met their “next star.”  And Nick cast the likable but unremarkable Justice in as many vehicles as they could, and on shows like iCarly and True Jackson, VP she garnered more special guest spots than even Heather Locklear in her heyday.  Nick promoted VICTORiOUS relentlessly and gave it a sweet time slot for its “sneak preview” premiere — right after the Nick Kids’ Choice Awards on March 27, 2010, making it the most watched debut in Nick history.  Critics gave it mixed reviews at best, however, and there is little evidence that fans have latched on to the show the way they have to iCarly or True or even Big Time Rush, Nick’s bid at a boy band sitcom.

This may seem surprising, since Nick and Schneider follow a winning formula with VICTORiOUS in concentrating on a small cadre of teen friends and a sibling or two on a fairly static set (an apartment with its web studio and an occasional shot at the lockers in school for iCarly; the offices of Mad Style and an occasional classroom for True Jackson, VP; a home and a movie theater where one of the brothers works on Drake and Josh).  But unlike the  charismatic teens those shows were built around (Miranda Cosgrove, Keke Palmer, Drake Bell and Josh Peck), Victoria Justice’s Tori Vega is a black hole personality-wise; she’s at best a straight (wo)man in her own life story as the wacky kids perform around her like she’s a circus ringmaster. Except she doesn’t direct any of the action at the circus, or even comment on it.  Mainly, she passively witnesses it all.

Now in some ways, this narrative move or device, if it can be called that, makes sense.  Tori is, in basic terms, a placeholder, the person we in the audience can identify with, the classic outsider or fish out of water – at least in the first episode.  She becomes a student at Hollywood Arts by accident; when her diva sister, Trina (Daniella Monet), drinks some Chinese herbal tea and has her tongue swell up so that cannot perform her song at a showcase, the talented songwriter Andre (Leon Thomas III, who played another talented teen composer on iCarly) begs Tori to step in and sing in her place.   Andre and his friends then encourage her to transfer to their school, despite Tori’s protests that she is just ordinary and they are so “crazy talented”, a premise that would, arguably, work better if she weren’t so ordinary, if we could come to believe that she deserves to be at Hollywood Arts, too, because she is both humble and crazy talented, but we don’t get to see much of that talent beyond her singing occasionally.  In theory, though,  we navigate the wacky halls of Hollywood Arts as an outsider like Tori and marvel with her at the assorted oddballs, which include a barefoot (!) acting teacher who likes coconuts because they”give [him] visions” and the Screechesque dork Robbie (Matt Bennett) who hides behind his more dashing ventriloquist’s dummy, Rex Power, even though everyone finds Rex even more annoying than Robbie.  There’s the aforementioned wackily narcissistic sister Trina and the spacey redhead Cat, who spends obsessively on Skymall purchases in one episode, which sounds funnier than it actually was, and the supposedly tempestuous romance between the cute and down-to-earth Beck (Avan Jogia) and his nasty girlfriend Jade (Elizabeth Gillies), who just seems unpleasant for the point of being unpleasant.  At one point in the unfolding season, Beck dumps Jade, and it seems like he will discover that he really belongs with his much less violent and bipolar friend, Tori, but the narrative backs off of that like it was on fire.  Which is a shame, because that would have had some dramatic potential and given Tori some semblance of a character.  As it is, she is only defined by what she is not:  kooky, like Cat; bitchy, like Jade; or self-involved, like Trina.  But Tori is not alone in this respect, at least in regard to what makes them anything BUT kooky or self-involved or bitchy.  With the exception of Andre, it is not clear what makes any of these people talented, though they do seem to want to be talented. In a show about a performing arts high school, with actors that have appeared on Broadway and other venues in the roles, this seems sadly ironic.  Since it was created as a response to High School Musical, VICTORiOUS could re-present the most positive message put out by Disney:  with hard work and belief in oneself, dreams can come true.  “You don’t have to be afraid to put your dream in action,” Tori sings in that fateful showcase number, “You’re never gonna fade/You’ll be the main attraction.”  But the song continues to promise the young audience that even without hard work or talent (two elements that, say what you want, Disney’s Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and Jonas present as necessary to success) they can gain a kind of fame — at least, that’s how I interpret these somewhat cryptic lines — “You know that if you’re living your imagination/Tomorrow you’ll be everybody’s fascination” — that reduce the “dream” to a narcissistic fantasy that somehow everyone around you wants to celebrate about you.  In this way the show cynically provides what Schneider and company say kids want most — the promise (at least vicariously) of fame, without talent or substance.  (And one could snidely wonder why, in the era of reality tv and Balloon Boy, VICTORiOUS hasn’t resonated with more people).

With its cookie cutter characters and tepid narrative center in the form of Tori Vega, the show manages only to deliver a paradoxical message typical of teen shows, and one that can be said to mirror the paradoxical message American culture presents to adolescents — be a rugged individual, but do try to fit in. This paradox of American and TeenNick identity can best be demonstrated in the “Bird Scene” episode.  In this installment, Tori wants to try out for Andre’s musical but learns she can’t until she nails the “bird scene”; it is a rite of passage for all Hollywood Arts performers.  She takes the script, rehearses, and presents her scene competently — it’s a monologue a la Trifles about a lonely prairie woman with only a bird to keep her company, though Tori, fortunately, doesn’t have to act out the part of a murderer as in Susan Glaspell’s play.  She finishes the scene but no one says anything.  Unnerved, she asks if she did it “right”, and that loopy coconut-obsessed teacher  tells her she needs to do it again.  She does, this time with a backdrop of a farm behind her, a fake bird, and a pair of glasses; again, she gets no response.  She begs everyone to tell her the secret to the bird scene and they refuse — it is a gauntlet all Hollywood Arts thespians must run honorably.  She pulls out all the stops for her third try, using scenery and costumes and props and even training a cockatiel to play the bird.  Again, she gets no response.  Finally, she gets fed up and insists that she worked really hard and that she thinks it was good.  Everyone applauds.  The lesson?  It doesn’t matter what the audience thinks!  Perform for you.  This nice lesson in marching to the beat of one’s own drummer is undercut, however, by a subplot about another Hollywood Arts tradition, the decoration of one’s own locker to express something personal and, as Beck puts it, “deep.”  Everyone mocks Tori for her plain grey locker,so she gets the brilliant idea to affix a white board with a cup of pens on it so people can doodle or write notes, and everyone gags at the banality of this.  The single pink stripe she paints (or puts up with tape — it’s hard to tell) receives similar disdain.  Clearly there is an audience in this case whose opinion does matter; decorating a locker is a form of performance, too, which eventually Tori recognizes when she paints a super cool nightscape on her locker with “Make it Shine” written in stars —  there are even star-shaped lights she can turn on and dazzle everyone in the hallway.  Again she receives applause for accepting  this contradictory message of “be true to your art, whatever you think it is”/”give the people what they want.”  The tension between the twin cultural imperatives of individuality and conformity is never resolved for Tori, and, in fact, never acknowledged.  But one could easily argue that this tension underpins much of pop culture aimed at adolescents, going back at least as far as the first Beverly Hills 90210. It just seems particularly pernicious a theme on this show because there is little else happening.  Maybe what VICTORiOUS ultimately tells its viewers is “We all know you WANT to be famous.  Just don’t be tacky enough to look like that’s what you want.” Don’t look like you care, and don’t try too hard.  These mantras are dissected so well by YA writers like John Green, who called “famous. . . the new popular.”  Better to read his Will Grayson Will Grayson (coauthored with David Levitan) if you really want a teen story about musicals and alienation and love and friendship, all of the stuff this show hints at but can never really address.  (And it’s a whole lot funnier, too).

Ultimately, VICTORiOUS presents kids as Schneider and the Nick execs imagine them, empty of personality (except some exaggerated approximations of personality in the gross caricatures of most of Tori’s classmates) but desirous of fame, as if fame itself could confer character.  To this end, the show’s webpage is formatted as a version of “the Slap”, the  social networking site for Hollywood Arts students to post continuous updates about their every mood and thought, as many kids (and adults) do on Twitter or Facebook.  This tie-in seems especially apt for a show that sees kids as pathetically hungry for recognition, a show that takes to a new level of cartoonishness the self-consciousness and self-dramatizing of typical adolescence.  As teens, most of us had, at times, the simultaneously horrifying and exhilarating feeling that everyone was watching us  and were relieved years later to find out that no one really cared that much.  If Schnieder and company are right, today kids want to be reassured that everyone is watching them, or, at least, that their every move or emotion or thought is worthy of capturing and presenting to the world as a status update.  Or maybe they just want to be reassured that like Tori — who has yet to reveal herself as anything special, as far as we can see —  that their stories and lives are worthy of attention, at least to the others around them.

Nick wants VICTORiOUS (and Victoria Justice) to be its next big thing, just as Schneider promised.  But it’s going to have to acknowledge that “where the kids are” is a little more sophisticated than the one-dimensional fame-driven characters the show presents.

* all quotes come from Wikipedia’s VICTORiOUS page; other VICTORiOUS blogs seem defunct