T(w)een Trends: To Be Real?

In a previous post, I mentioned the debate concerning Barnes and Noble’s new categorization of teen books.   I only scratched the surface of  the consequences of this categorization for writers and readers, and those consequences can be disheartening.

In her November 8th post on her excellent blog, www. kidlit.com, Mary Kole addressed the question asked by many of her subscribers (many established and fledgling YA writers) “Is Contemporary YA a Difficult Market?”.  As an agent for the Andrea Brown Agency, Mary Kole knows her stuff, and for those toiling away at contemporary realistic YA fiction, the news was not overly optimistic.

She notes the trend we’ve all witnessed since the Harry Potter-powered resurgence of YA lit over a decade ago — that paranormal and fantasy continue to rule the shelves right now — though she sees dystopian fiction gaining a strong foothold as well recently.  (When I attended the annual regional conference for the New England chapters of the SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors, many echoed that after the success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, dystopian fiction was the Next Big Thing in publishing).  Kole writes that she has “heard countless editors discuss how difficult it is to get a straight `contemporary/realistic’ story through their acquisitions committees”.  But she feels that there’s hope for such narratives if there is a romantic element to them, as “romance is a huge hook” as romance just may be, after all, the “number one thing” teens of both genders are interested in.  She concludes that any narrative that is going to pass muster with an agent, editor, or acquisitions board has got to have a “really strong hook” right now — a unique voice, a new twist, a compelling story.

But before we struggling YA writers raise arms against shortsighted editors, there’s another piece to this paranormal stranglehood on the market, and that’s the fact that so much of what is acquired and published by any publishing house is based on the dictates of a market controlled by a  few megasellers (ie. Amazon and Barnes and Noble).  As one successful YA writer told me, as long as a handful of people get to decide what sells and where, in these megachains that have taken over for independent booksellers, and those few sellers like paranormal or dystopian fiction or stories about striped talking dogs, then what’s going to be widely sold is paranormal or dystopian fiction or stories about striped talking dogs.

This doesn’t mean that you should shred your realistic, gritty contemporary teen novel and start writing about ghosts or wizards or vampires if that’s not your thing.  One of Kole’s readers commented that they see a “renewed interest” in contemporary YA fiction among readers, an idea seconded by others, including a librarian who gauges these things.  Hopefully, the buyers and marketers at the behemoth chains will notice this.

Until then, it is better for all of us to take the advice of the venerable YA writer Ellen Hopkins:  “Write the story that speaks to you.  Don’t worry about the market, because once you do that, you’re always behind.”  So keep writing what you want to write because you really want to write.  And with a little luck, talent, perseverance, and that holy grail of a hook, you’ll be on the shelves of a bookstore some time (or the warehouse shelves of Amazon, wherever they may be).  Best of luck to all of you out there with contemporary teen novels burning to be told.  I know plenty of us would like to read them.


The end of “both worlds”? Hannah Montana Retires

For the first time in years, there were no Hannah Montanas in the Blueberry Hill Elementary School Halloween parade.  Usually there are at least five, so maybe everyone is moving on, along with Miley, whose decision to hang up the blonde wig of her alter ego after four seasons has been much publicized.  My daughter and her BFF went as Hannah and Lola, Hannah’s BFF, one Halloween, but now they find the pole dancing Miley to be too “weird” to comprehend, let alone emulate.

This past Sunday, November 7th, seemed to mark the airing of the series finale of the Disney show (though Jason Earles,who plays Miley’s brother on the show, has apparently tweeted that “there are like five episodes left”. ) Whether in optimism, a bid to sell some last- minute Hannah merchandise,  or as reassurance to young fans, Hannah Montana was renamed for this final season as  Hannah Montana Forever.  And despite Miley’s obvious eagerness to put aside childish things and be an adult performer in her own right, the finale and the episode leading up to it presented both a working metaphor for her decision and closure for fans.

The final season began with Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus), her songwriting dad/manager Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus), and her goof-off older brother Jackson (Jason Earles) trying to recapture their Tennessee roots by ditching the Malibu beach house and moving a to a palatial ranch.  They were motivated to recapture their past after a visit back home when Robby Ray noted how much Miley loved her old preteen bedroom and tried to reproduce it back in California.  Miley was horrified by this blast from her pre-star past and mortified by the idea that her friends would kick off their senior year with a sleepover in this mausoleum to her early adolescence.  The lesson was clear:  you can’t recapture the past.

The rest of the season propelled us toward the inevitable moment when Miley would weary of living her double life and reveal to the world that she is Hannah Montana, thus, effectively, retiring Hannah forever.  Along for the ride are guest stars Angus T. Jones as the brother of Jackson’s bikini model girlfriend; Christine Taylor as the school nurse whom Miley tries to set up with her dad; and, inexplicably, Ray Liotta as the school principal who has to inform Miley that her dad forgot to register her for her senior year somehow and now she can’t go to school.  It all works out for Miley in the end, after she fails to survive a day at school as Hannah (who for some reason can enroll there) when all of her classmates turn into rabid fans, proving to her that her double life was once indeed necessary.  There’s a salute to military families featuring videos made by families to their soldier relatives overseas and Hannah singing “I’m Still Good” (even as Mikey was raising eyebrows in hot pants and a steamy video for “I Can’t Be Tamed” — the contrast between the two song titles seems to say a lot about the paradox that Miley Cyrus has lived for at least a year now — see the first post  ever on this blog for more about that.)

In the penultimate episode, Miley’s record company refuses to a release a song that everyone admits is awesome but with its hip hop flavor, it just is “not the sound her audience expects from Hannah Montana.”    Angered, Miley counters that they are “afraid to let an artist grow” and assures the producers that she “believe[s] in the song and trusts [her] fans.”  But a focus group proves her wrong — her fans do not want to grow with her, even when she tells them “change can be scary but it’s part of growing up.”  There’s a clear parallel here between Miley Cyrus and her tween fans, who aren’t ready to embrace her dancing round a stripper pole, and shouldn’t.  But Cyrus is ready to move on, and her real life and TV father tell her, in true Disney fashion though the move is antithetical to all that Disney represents, to “listen to [her] heart” and ignore the “naysayers.” Miley Stewart records the song as a duet with Iyaz, after he hears it and tries to buy it from her — to give to his protegé Taylor Swift. A torch is being passed here, it seems, as Miley acknowledges how talented and hardworking Swift is (“Does that girl ever sleep?” she asks).

In the hour-long finale, Miley’s life gets more complicated when her musician boyfriend Jesse refuses to aid in her double life.  He kisses her on The Tonight Show and Jay Leno announces that Hannah and Jesse are “America’s New Sweethearts.”  So when Jesse is seen out with Miley, he’s accused of cheating by the press, his five-year-old niece,and his grandma.  To make matters worse her BFF Lilly gets into Stanford (which they pronounce “Stan Ford”) because of her awesome extracurriculars, while Miley appears to have done nothing all through high school– because she was busy being Hannah Montana.   Lilly agrees to wait a year so they can go to school together and Jesse relents, but Miley faces herself in the mirror, sees Hannah, and realizes that she is asking a lot of her friends.  Robby Ray reminds her that “nothing lasts forever — kind of like a mullet” (the last mullet joke he’ll make on the show!)  and Miley recognizes what she has to do.  She goes to her huge hidden Hannah closet and each outfit triggers a memory, seen in flashback, as Miley’s voice sings a poignant song called “I’ll Always Remember You”.  She is “thankful for the moment/so glad I got to know you” and any viewer over the age of three realizes that she is singing to them, to those who have loved Hannah for years now.  But as Miley sings back on The Tonight Show — as Miley Stewart, not Hannah –she is “moving on, letting go/Holding on to tomorrow.”  It’s a bittersweet farewell that acknowledges Miley Cyrus’ need to move on and still respects the fans, even those that feel, as the girl in the focus group did, that they “don’t want [her] to change.  [They] like [her] just the way” she is.”  Even my daughter, who had disavowed Miley, watched the last episode eagerly and cried at the flashbacks.  She cried a little more as she went to bed, putting a small piece of her childhood to rest.

Miley Cyrus will be eighteen in a few days and she has already been living the life of a wage-earning adult for many years.  Like most eighteen-year-olds, she is ready to say goodbye to the last days of childhood and carve a space for herself in the world, on her terms.  She wants to grow up, and to show us that she is grown up.  She did this years ago, in the infamous Vanity Fair spread,(www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2008/06/miley200806) when Cyrus’ camp blamed Annie Leibowitz for tricking her into posing semi-nude (personally, I found the draped semi-nude shot tasteful.  It was the shot of Miley and her dad lounging like lovers that seemed far creepier to me).  It was all retracted and we could go back to believing that our little Miley would never do such a thing as pose somewhat in the altogether.  But her most recent videos and TV appearances show that yes, she certainly would (last week entertainmentwise.com posted stills from”another raunchy video” ).  Miley is moving on.  She is making the rounds of European awards shows now and, according to Perez Hilton, will soon star in the film So Undercover as a “`tough, street-smart private eye hired by the FBI to go undercover in a college sorority.'”  At best, this could mark her as the next Sandra Bullock in a Miss Congeniality-type comedy.  At worst it could be exploitive trash.  But either way, Miley Cyrus is moving on.

Unfortunately for Cyrus, she is doing so in the midst of scandal and heartache, as her parents are in the process of divorce and rumors point to her mother’s affair with Brett Michaels as the source. Others say their attention to their daughter’s career left them no time for their marriage, and Miley Cyrus is making no comment, while Perez Hilton posts that “Miley Parties to Cope with Parents’ Divorce” and Popeater claims “Miley Cyrus Would Trade All Her Success to Fix Her Parents’ Marriage.”  Her on-again-off-again relationship with movie co-star Liam Hemsworth is over, according to the tabs, so Cyrus has a lot to sort out right now.  Maybe Miley Stewart had it right after all in creating an alter ego to protect herself and her privacy, so she could live the life of a normal teen and still be a pop star.  Miley Cyrus never had that chance. Disney is taking care of many of the show’s other stars.  Mitchel Musso (Oliver) wasn’t present for much of the final season because he is on tour, his second CD drops soon, and he has a new sitcom on the channel.  Emily Osment also has a CD out.  I’m not sure where Jason Earles will get work unless there is a remake of the Back to the Future franchise, but he is likely to land on his feet.  Miley Cyrus has opted to go it alone, for better or worse.  Her current fans are unlikely to follow — at least until they grow up a little, too.

An open letter to Demi Lovato

Dear Ms. Lovato:

I write to you today not as a snarky pop cultural critic, but as a feminist, a mom, and a former eighteen-year-old girl.  I don’t know the whole story behind your leaving the tour with the Jonas Brothers — and neither do most of the people who are blogging and writing about it.  For that reason, I don’t blame you for shutting down your Twitter page, though there are many many girls out there who would like to tweet you well.  (There are some sweet wishes and sound advice on DemiLovato.com, such as “stay away from guys who play mind games.”)

If you’re not aware of it, I’m sure you can guess the speculation that’s out there. The words “celebrity” and “rehab” send people into fits of schadenfreude, a great German word that means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.  Another Hollywood teen on drugs?  A Disney teen on drugs?  Even better!  But I’m betting drugs are not the problem here.  Lots of other sources, from People to TMZ say it’s the return of your old nemeses, cutting and eating disorders, that have sent you away.  These symptoms are produced by the kind of self-doubt our culture produces in young women.  All young women, on some level, know what it’s like to not measure up — to measure too big, perhaps, or fail to meet the standard in some other way.  But most of them don’t have to pass or fail this standard  in the public eye, as you do.  Some would say that you chose to do so, to live your life publicly, and that is certainly true, as far as I know — though one could wonder at what age one could competently make this decision with a full understanding of exactly what public life entails in this era of instant celebrity and constant scrutiny.  If one could ever have the wisdom or foresight to see what this would cost them.

I don’t know about the alleged physical attack on a dancer or threats to Joe Jonas’ girlfriend or any of that.  But I do know what it’s like to be tired — really tired — and have to carry on anyway because people are depending on you.  With a tour and a television show and a clothing line and everything else you do, why wouldn’t you be exhausted?  Couple that with the staggering depletion of the soul produced by being watched and judged by everyone with access to the internet and I don’t know how you do it, how anyone would do it, at such a young age. You probably don’t feel young, though.  I didn’t, at eighteen, and my life was much less that of an adult professional than yours is.  I was a pretty typical college freshman. I made my mistakes with only friends and classmates around, and they were making their own mistakes right along with me.  It’s hard crossing that bridge from kid to adult, and, sadly,  some of us don’t make it.  I had friends who didn’t, and the news is filled lately with stories of kids who took their own lives because they couldn’t take the pressure of what was being said about them in school, on the internet, and, they felt, just everywhere.  To them, it feels like that, that the scrutiny is everywhere — in your case, it’s actually true.  I cannot imagine how hard that must be.

This summer, I took my daughter and her friend to see the Jonas Brothers Camp Rock 2 tour and they loved it.  They loved you.  And  as I hear the shallow analysis of your “case” on shows like Today and The Talk, I can’t help but also hear the lyrics to your song “LaLa Land”.*  Girls I know love you for singing “I’m not a supermodel/I still eat McDonalds” and “Who said I can’t be single/I have to go out and mingle”.  That’s empowering for them.  The lines “Some say I need to be afraid/Of losing everything/Because of where I/Had my start and where I made my name” are cautionary, even prophetic perhaps, but I can tell you that all the girls in the audience at Hartford were right with you when you sang of bucking the “La La Land machine” and not “changing anything of [your] life.”  You’ve probably already had to change so much to be where you are today.  You “still have [your] moments”?  We all do — you just have yours in public.  I’m glad I didn’t have that pressure, and I wouldn’t wish it for my daughter.

What I do wish, as a feminist and a mom and a former eighteen-year-old girl, is that I had some wisdom to give you, something to say that would make it all better for you and other girls like you.  Ultimately, the many things I could say would all boil down to something pretty simple, but something that took me a long time to learn myself:  Take care of yourself.  Because, ultimately, no matter how great your family and friends are, they can’t know what it’s like to be you.  And they can’t always know what’s best for you.  Neither can you, all the time, but you have to listen to yourself; in those few quiet moments when it’s just you, just listen.  Over the years, I finally found that more often than not, I knew what I needed and wanted.  I just didn’t know I knew.

Get better, first for you, and second so you can be that role model you mentioned dreaming of, so you can start that “foundation” you mentioned in People , “or something that’s for girls feeling confident, to empower them.”  Because they could really use it.

Proof that Disney boxes and sells their young stars like products?  Not exactly — it’s a (sadly ironic) shot from the Sonny with a Chance holiday special, coming up in December.

*music and lyrics by Joe Jonas, Kevin Jonas, Nick Jonas, and Demetria Lovato

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 www.as-king.info

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 Youarewhatyouread.com.  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!

Vera Dietz Delivers

Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a great book, and I am not just saying that because (1) I know the writer and she will be giving an interview on this very site on November 2, or (2) because it takes place in the town I grew up in, or as A. S. King reminds me, a “fictionalized” version of that town.  (For example, in the “real” town, the streets, when lit at night and viewed from a mountain road, spell the word SHIT, which for disaffected teens like me and Vera was an apt metaphor for a place we wanted to vacate.  But, like Vera, I have come to appreciate the place more.  I mean, we’re a southeastern Pennsylvania town with a neon Pagoda perched above us!  How cool is that?).

As the title alerts us, much of this book is about the things we ignore and shouldn’t.  Vera has been told to ignore a lot in her seventeen years, particularly the domestic violence taking place next door, where her best friend and first love Charlie Kahn lives.  When the story takes place, Charlie has died and Vera wrestles with guilt over his death and what might have been if she hadn’t ignored his final messages to her after their friendship grew estranged, if she or her father had called the police just once when they heard Mr. Kahn breaking Mrs. Kahn’s arm, if she could have kept Charlie alive somehow.

It’s about Vera doing her very best to be ignored by her classmates because:

  • she is a smart girl irritated with the idiots around her who can’t identify Florida on a map but who doesn’t want to look smart enough to be noticed,
  • her mom was a stripper who left her when she was twelve,
  • her best friend has taken up with some awful people who throw dog crap at her,
  • and that best friend has died and reappears in multiples, replicated like tissue paper images of himself, and wants her to forgive him and clear his name.

Flying under the radar seems like a good idea.  In fact, it seems like the only way to survive.

The story follows, with flashbacks, Vera as she grapples with all of this and finds a way to make peace with her town, with herself, with her family, and with Charlie, all under the watchful eye of the Pagoda, who has seen more than it could ever tell and thus acquired, despite its ersatz tackiness, a kind of brutal wisdom.  The book has been described by some reviewers as “harrowing”, and it’s that, for sure, but there is also a great deal of hope, redemption, and love here.  It presents a very real world and the very real problems of young adults, especially those inherited, legacies of violence, alcoholism, poverty, and pain.  But it also shows how all of this can be overcome and, in the end, a kind of peace, even justice, can be found.

So far, this second YA offering from A. S. King — her first is The Dust of 100 Dogs — has garnered 3 starred reviews (Kirkus, PW and Booklist) and a highlighted review from VOYA.  Expect to hear more about this book!

Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 12, 2010

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 tvguide.com, 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 iCarly.wikia.com.  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!