of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star: Carolyn Mackler
There's been a welcome influx of humor into young adult literature lately, and one author with a particularly sympathetic and knowing wit is Carolyn Mackler. Mackler conquers the angst-y territory of changing bodies, friendship and falling in love with a deft, light-hearted touch that is nevertheless respectful of anxiety, particularly anxiety about bodies and relationships. Her teenaged female protagonists all survive the game of adolescence by using humor, first as a defense mechanism, and later—as they become more comfortable with their sexuality and emotions—as joyful celebration. The jokes range in tone from goofy to wry, each one well timed and placed; Mackler not only has an uncanny sense for when her characters use (and need to use) humor, but also uses shifts in humorous tone to signal movement from self-hatred and alienation to self-acceptance.
In Love and Other Four-Letter Words, Sammie Davis repeatedly refers to her larger-than-average breasts as the "Grand Tetons" (adopting, without question, the same mocking nickname a jerk used in her gym class) and lampoons herself as “curvy… on a good day. On a bad day, I try not to look in the mirror.” Similarly, The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things’ slightly overweight Virginia is secretly writing the Fat Girl Code of Conduct, compiling lists with titles like “The More I Bare, the More I Scare,” masking body unease with defensive humor. Finally, though Vegan Virgin Valentine’s tall, gangly, A-cup-wearing Mara might initially seem like Sammie and Virginia’s opposite, she is also anxiety-ridden and alienated from her body, so determined to control things that she becomes a vegan, takes college courses while still in high school, and attempts to live life on a completely mental plain: “We do not, I repeat, DO NOT talk about sex, much less orgasms, in the Valentine household.” Each character uses humor as a defense mechanism, turning preemptive barbs upon herself before anyone else can, or (in Mara’s case) ridiculing—while tacitly accepting—her own estrangement from her body.
As each of these characters becomes more comfortable with her own sexuality and enters a romantic relationship, however, the humorous tone shifts from self-deprecation to celebration, signifying an acceptance of powerful emotions previously held at bay. Sammie finally realizes that losing everything familiar gives her a certain freedom to explore; she and her new friend, Phoebe, bond by joking about sex, while a camping trip with love interest Eli yields both tender kisses and goofy jokes, reassuring Sammie that everything will be okay. Similarly, after Virginia rebels against her parents for the first time, she finds that, when she’s happy, she only eats when she’s hungry and that happiness means finding her own style, exploring her own interests (a webzine), and rekindling her relationship with former make-out partner Froggy. Virginia ends by kissing Froggy in public (violating her own rules) and eventually embraces the size of her butt in a humorous piece written for her webzine: “If you had a small, puny present and a big, round present, which one would you open first? The big round one, right? Who ever said smaller is better?” Similarly, when a kiss from young coffee-shop owner James wakes Mara up, her embrace of another’s body ultimately leads to an acceptance of her own, as she begins to find ways to be a goal-oriented person without losing touch with her emotions, recognizing that “not everything has to be verbalized and analyzed and categorized.” As she and her obstreperous, same-age niece cut loose making animal sounds on the way to graduation at the novel’s conclusion, Mackler’s use of humor signals her protagonist’s new relationship with life, love and emotion.
Leavening adolescence’s shifting quagmire of alienation, exhilaration and self-doubt with a sense of humor is no easy task for a YA novelist—sometimes jokes feel forced, or even disrespectful of the realities of navigating physical and emotional change. Mackler, however, is unfailingly respectful of her characters, and her use of humor not only lends to their believability, but also gives them a powerful (and versatile) tool for the struggle to adulthood.
—Loretta Gaffney, Reviewer
The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things. Candlewick, 2003 (BCCB 10/03)