Breaking Dawn on a Saturday Night

by Shaker Joe, who craves the title: Unofficial Librarian of Isle de Shakes

So...what did you do last weekend?

I took my Younger Daughter to "the prom." Hold on a minute. Before you get icky visions of creeped out Purity Balls, let me clarify—I accompanied her to the release party for "Breaking Dawn," Stephanie Meyer's wrap up to the "Twilight Series" about high school senior Bella and her vampire boyfriend Edward.

Early this spring, the "Twilight Series" showed up in our house. Younger Daughter, who is a voracious reader, began talking about "Twilight," "New Moon" and "Eclipse." It became pretty obvious that for her, this could actually become bigger than Harry Potter, Alex Rider and James Patterson's mutant bird kids.

At Younger Daughter's urging, I read the Twilight books (as well as Meyer's "adult book," The Host, which I thought was rather good). The books are a romance series for the teen set. I have seen criticisms of the books that find Bella too passive and unduly fixated on Edward (example here, via), which I understand. But I figured if there's any element of "post feminism" or celebration of a "new chasteness" to the first three books, I wasn't particularly worried for Younger Daughter and her friends. After spending a fair number of years helping to raise my own kids and doing a stint as a youth coach, I've discovered that kids have pretty good BS detectors. On the way to the release party, Younger Daughter, her BFF and I talked about the storyline and what it was they liked about it. Even as Younger Daughter loyally announced that Bella was her favorite character—after all, the story is Bella's and she does read like an old friend—she had picked up on some of the criticisms of Bella and thought she needed a little more depth.

Elder Daughter is completely uninterested in the series and just longs for more Harry Potter.

So off Younger Daughter, her BFF and I went to the local B&N. The store was very busy. In the morning they had handed out more than 150 pre-release wristbands and it looked like there were another 50 or so late arrivals. There was a smattering of moms, dads, and boyfriends hanging out along the fringes of the line, which was comprised almost entirely of middle- and high school aged girls, who provide the largest and most vocal portion of the fanbase for the series. The older school girls (did they feel less inhibited?) were the ones who were decked out in costumes and improvised t-shirts. One read: "My new pick up line is 'Are you a vampire? Because you dazzle me!'" The middle schoolers were uniformly in street clothes.

One of the first girls at the front of the line was very excited about her new purchase and hugged the book to her chest and announced, with no irony intended, "This is my bible."

Was the guy working the counter in the music and video section trying to say something when he put on Götterdämmerung?

Despite the teeth-gritting consumerism of the event, and the concerns about the themes of the book, I'm all in favor of reading of any sort. In the end getting kids into bookstores is a very good thing. The sight of kids cheering and being completely blown away because they were one of the first in the store to get one of the first copies of a book with a female heroine and other decent female characters (like Edward's sister, the creative and future-sensing Alice) was very heartening. My take-away from the event was that a lot of young women really like these books. When they're done with the series, maybe they’ll move onto something more sophisticated.

Kids, after all, try on new identities and different outlooks on life like clothes. Some they like and keep on for awhile; others they change out of quickly. I spent a better part of my 16th year reading and re-reading Stephen King's "The Stand." Maybe Bella and Edward and Rosalie and Alice are to these kids just what Frannie and Stu and Glen and Nick and Nadine were to me—companions on my way to adulthood. I look on those characters today with some fondness and intimacy. But I no longer think that what they said and did was profound.

Reading habits, of course, will usually grow and change. Like a lot of other families, the books in our house have followed the arc of childhood from stories like "Goodnight Moon," to Pooh and Christopher Robin, to Junie B. Jones and the Box Car Children to Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and now "Breaking Dawn."

My daughter's critical eye may end the fascination with Bella sooner than I thought.

[Spoiler Alert! Don't read on further if you absolutely, positively don't want even a hint as to what "Breaking Dawn" is about.]

Saturday morning, over some chocolate chip pancakes (I should probably send my "modified recipe" to Misty for review), a very tired daughter and her BFF announced that while they were really liking the book, some of it was "disturbing" and that I would have to read it when she was done to see what I thought.

I've since pieced together that in this final volume, there may indeed be some "post feminist" themes. Apparently Bella gives up college, gets married (at age 18) and has a baby (with her husband, Edward the Vampire). The "ick" factor kicks in when Jacob the werewolf "imprints" on Bella's infant.

So does that tell young women anything? What does this say about choices, autonomy, independence?

Kids who are raised to be independent will most likely take the romantic side of the story with a grain of salt and enjoy the characters for what they are, without being moved to give up their educations or independence. Because it's love, though, they certainly will not be dissuaded from taking what their parents consider to be gut wrenching detours with the love of their choice. But what about the young women who aren't raised to be independent…?

From what I read about the families around the country that tried to ban the Harry Potter series, they'd have the same reaction to "Twilight." And my guess is that in families where a Dad would even spend a minute considering taking his daughter to a "Purity Ball," the "Twilight" series would never make it in the front door (although maybe it would sneak in the back door hidden in the bottom of a backpack). Which means that the kids reading the book may not be discussing it with adults in their lives, and may not have the critical thinking skills to question the series, as did Younger Daughter and her BFF. In the earlier books, Bella does a lot of things to deceive her father, her mother, and some of her human friends. She feels bad about some of them. How would a teen girl who had just gone to a "Purity Ball" and then spent a few days hiding "Breaking Dawn" in her room feel about that?

I'm going to have to spend some time with the book over the next few weeks and figure this out for myself. Maybe Meyers had a nefarious agenda, but maybe she didn't. Maybe she wrote herself into a corner and came up with what she thought would be the best possible solution that would satisfy her needs as a writer and the desires of her fans. Maybe that's what happens when you meld storytelling with marketing.

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