Breaking Dawn Part Two, the final movie in the Twilight series, is out this week, and the eldest of the four books, the one that hath wrought all that came after, is now going on 7 years old. My, how they grow up fast! So, what has the equally maligned and adored—yet, either way, incredibly successful—series left us? And what might be next in terms of hyper-popular Y.A., the stuff of which movies will be made?
A "shame-read" confession: I've read each and every book in the four-part Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. Some, more than once. And even though I know I'm not intellectually "supposed to"—the writing gets the same criticism dealt E.L. James' more recent blockbuster series, Fifty Shades of Grey, i.e, "not very good"—I enjoyed them. Years ago I was given the first three books in the series by a friend and started them on a flight to L.A., during which I finished the first and realized I'd brought the third instead of second in the series with me. So I went and bought book two when my plane landed, and finished that one before I returned to New York. I am not a Twi-hard, I am not!, but, there was something about those books. They had me feeling like a teenager again, wanting to find out what was next badly enough that I shelled out for the hardcover of a book I already had at home so as not to have to wait, and then stayed up all night reading it. I could acknowledge that they weren't, you know, "high quality fiction." That didn't mean I wanted to put them down, though. Maybe I wanted to read them more because of that. They are not threatening, they are easy, they are fun, they transport us to strange, often ridiculous "teen" worlds in which we have, like it or not, some emotional connection. They're what Y.A. for Grownups should be, at least, at a base level.
A lot has been written about Twilight, and how both growing up and grown-up women (aka, weird moms) feel about it—how it taps in to certain romantic wish-fulfillment fantasies of our youth; the secret desire, true or admitted or not, that we'll all find knights in shining armor or sparkly, stylishly sullen vampires with hearts of (frozen) gold and superhuman strength who'd do anything for us. And how that is bad. True, it's hard to see much empowering about main character Bella's devotion to her vampire love, Edward—particularly in book two when he just up and leaves her so as not to "hurt her further" and she mopes around hopelessly throughout the novel. She's not exactly a role model for young ladies, and you kind of want to shake her and tell her to get over it. But that doesn't mean those feelings—intense love for someone, a fall into deep melancholy when it appears to fail—aren't relatable, or even important. You can't force romantic fantasies into feminist ideology, and in fact, trying to do so kind of ignores the fact that we should all choose what we want for ourselves, life-wise, entertainment-wise, and so on.
And for the many readers who love them unabashedly, I imagine there's something both soothing and compelling, simple and complicated, about the story lines that play out in points varying from conflict to resolution and over again throughout the four books: A high school girl, relatively ordinary, beloved by a boy who is anything but ordinary, for reasons that she can't understand. There are love triangles, deep friendships, possible and real betrayals. There is no sex—well, until marriage (Meyer is a Mormon and her plot appears to be barely hidden doctrine at times, even if Meyer denies that). In the very last book, there is a baby—a weird half-vampire baby, but a baby nonetheless. There is murder. There are vampires and werewolves and many, many weird and fantastical things happening right alongside, say, biology lab, prom, high school sweethearts getting hitched, trying to make new friends, meeting your boyfriend's family. The boring and the magical converge.
Shanta Newlin, director of publicity for Penguin Young Readers Group, explained, "I think readers are gravitating toward ordinary characters placed in extraordinary circumstances. These characters don't have magical powers. They are just like their readers—they go to school, they have crushes, they have insecurities. But when faced with adversity, they develop qualities most of us aspire to have, such as strength, bravery and heroism." Bella has been the subject of much debate in the years following the publication of the first book. Is she really strong and brave, or is she more of a stock girl character, a standin' by her man hipster teen, lethargy and limbs as portrayed by Kristen Stewart? Does she love Edward because of some deep, magical connection (he's obsessed with her blood, she's obsessed because he's ... hot? Or, as a vampire, created with the power to entrance her)? Her conflicts and crises often make a reader frustrated; get up and do something, stop whining about that guy!—but by the last book, she really does seem to come into her own, you know. She gets what she wants, she finds her own (spoiler: vampire) talents. And the girl has always known what she wanted, the whole way through—even if what she wanted was simply her man.
Twilight is relevant to our imagination histories; star-crossed lovers, mythic creatures, love triangles, souls—literature about all of these things are is as old as time. Meyer does it differently, yes, and she's no Shakespeare, but as Newlin explains, "Many of the Y.A. books that have crossover appeal are stories that take classic tropes and re-imagine them; they don't just echo past works, they add to the literary conversation and become classics in their own right. The Hunger Games did this successfully by using Greek mythology and Roman history to comment on society's current obsession with reality TV. Twilight renewed vampire classics like Dracula and Interview with a Vampire." You might decry Twilight as madness, but there is method to it. Other books and writers have of course mingled the supernatural and the "normal"—Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine were writing about vampires well before Meyer penned her opus, to name just a couple, and ordinary teens put in extraordinary circumstances is a flagship of great Y.A. Maggie Stiefvater does amazing things with shape-shifting wolves in Shiver, for instance; outside of fantasy and into realism, John Green writes of "average" teens with cancer in a way that shows them as extraordinary.
Still, regardless of the criticisms it's endured, the Twilight franchise will go down in Y.A. history as one of the most best-selling of all time. It's part of an immense mainstream money-making canon that includes Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Billions of copies and movie tickets have been sold, to say nothing of all the other merchandise created and lovingly purchased. Hundreds of babies have been named for the books' characters (seriously). For good or bad, Meyer's series has a solid place in our cultural history. And it gets people who might not otherwise to read, which, as with Fifty Shades of Grey, is hard to consider a truly bad thing. "The teen and tween girls at my library, unsurprisingly, LOVE them," Brooklyn librarian Rita Meade told me. "So I'll just give the standard librarian answer and say that if it makes them read, I am happy!" Regardless of what came before, she adds, "It does seem like the Twilight books were the catalyst for a genre shift in Y.A. fiction, and I still get requests from Twilight fans for other books about vampires all the time."
That doesn't mean everyone's read the Twilight series, and a couple of writerly women I reached out to for their opinions on the books told me that in fact, they had not. Katie J. M. Baker of Jezebel wrote by email, "I read the first Twilight book because I love being part of the zeitgeist, especially if the zeitgeist involves Y.A. novels. But I couldn't get into it because the writing was SO BAD and the focus on purity was SO OBNOXIOUS. I've never seen the movies or read any of the other books." She added, "Fuck Twilight. Hunger Games FTW."
Well, yeah. Suzanne Collins' trilogy featuring the empowered-in-her-disempowerment character of Katniss is both more recent and also far more palatable in terms of the status of women and their roles in Y.A. fiction to any number of readers. She's tough, she does what she needs to to save her sister, there's no wallowing in her room mooning over a boyfriend who left her. There's no focus on virginity, or waiting until marriage; there's no sex at all, though there is a love triangle. But would we have gotten to Katniss without moody, gloomy, love-conquers-all Bella? Would we have needed her so much? Y.A. fan photographer Margot Wood told me "As a girl who spent her teen years obsessing over Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am horrified at the notion of 'sparkly' vampires and weak, helpless female characters. Give me a Buffy over a Bella any day." Yet she points to the power of Meyer's series as "cross over" (or, as we like to call them, "cross under") reads—"I think Twilight was the first Y.A. series that really appealed to those adults who want to read fun, easy stories that allowed them to escape adulthood for a few hours, and for that we have to thank the series. We saw a lot of Twilight-knock offs a few years ago, but since The Hunger Games came out and exploded, we don't see as much of an impact from Twilight anymore." Shy grownups who want to read their Mockingjay books out in the open can thank Twilight, perhaps, for opening up the category to us all.
But if The Hunger Games has indeed assumed the torch of mass market success in young adult fiction—at least for now—what comes after the remaining movies from that franchise we can still expect? Let's look at the lessons of Twilight: Ordinary characters that aren't, really, ordinary. Series instead of single books, so readers can really spent time with their beloved characters, see them develop on the page (and then, if all goes well, on the screen). A layering aspect that means the books are readable to kids and to adults, somehow tapping into our youthful desires either way, perhaps layering them upon foundations of mythology and history. Romance, obviously, at least a bit of it—we got it in Potter and Hunger Games, too. Thematically, we've seen a surge in dystopian novels in the category; this last fall there seemed a whiff of steampunk and magic to go along with it. Maybe vampires have been supplanted by mermaids, maybe not. Maybe we'll return to a focus on real characters, free from magic, who are challenged in real-life situations. "Even though dystopian novels are hot right now, I think they are on their way out," says Wood. "I also think most teens are done with paranormal stuff too. I think we'll start seeing a reemergence of realistic teen fiction thanks to mega authors like John Green and Ellen Hopkins." Or maybe we'll go back in time. Wood adds, "Personally, I would like to see more historical teen fiction. There are plenty of Y.A. books set in the 1800s, but I'd like to see more books set during the 1960s or 1970s, or let's go totally old school. Prehistoric Y.A., now that's something we haven't seen before!"
Newlin thinks we'll go sci-fi as the "next big thing"—expanding on the classic themes and making them fresh again. She says, "One of the most-buzzed about novels of 2013 is The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (due out in May from Putnam), which takes a classic theme—what would happen if aliens came—and brings a completely original and fresh perspective and energy to it, the way The Passage did for vampires. Building off classics such as Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (soon to be a movie) and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, The 5th Wave takes the reader on an terrifying adventure that feels all too possible. It's sci-fi for the non sci-fi reader, a book that's more about epic storytelling than genre--a trait it shares with blockbusters like Twilight and The Hunger Games." Meade adds, "It's hard to say what will be the next big thing in Y.A. lit, but from what I've seen at some publishing previews, robots seem to be making a comeback!"
Whatever the theme, success can't be separated from how a book resonates with readers, and despite what some might hope, there's no formula or magic bullet or vampire bite for that. It's as complicated as we know what we like when we see it. "I know the market is over-saturated with dystopian fiction, but I personally never get sick of it," says Meade. "Give me a post-apocalyptic setting and a kickass female protagonist and I will definitely read it."