This is Volume 12, Nos. 4-5 of the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin. The contents are as follows:
The new romances are trivial trash. But trivial trash, as well as great literature, carries content messages. [...] They represent a backsliding, a regression to the most sexist messages of the 1940's and 1950's [...] the messages about race are just as bad. Either there are no people of color in the world (hardly realistic, but not unlike the white myopia of the early '50's) or else they're super beings only too happy to support and counsel the white protagonists. (We suppose we should be grateful that the worst of the old racist stereotypes are not reappearing - at least no book we've read has a watermelon-eating mammy crooning to her charges.)
This issue of the Bulletin examines the four romance series currently being promoted in the nation's classrooms and book stores. Since teachers and librarians will want to focus on the particular series distributed in their schools - and parents on the books being sold to their children - we have analyzed the books by series and by club distributor. The first two articles analyze the series sold through Scholastic clubs (Wildfire and Wishing Star); the next two pieces analyze the series sold through the clubs owned by Xerox Education Publications (Sweet Dreams and First Love).
Next, the argument most frequently advanced to justify the sale of the romance books in schools - to wit, that they will turn girls on to reading - is commented on by a reading specialist, by a librarian and by a feminist children's book editor. These pieces are followed by an article suggesting an antidote to the formula-written romances: books of literary quality about friendships between girls and boys - books recommended by The Feminist Press.
A history of series for teenagers, accompanied by a bibliography, is included for those wishing to explore the phenomenon further. A separate article compares the teen series to the Harlequin adult romances.
Lastly, there is an account of the recent meeting with Scholastic book editors to protest the literary quality and biased content of their romance series. This meeting resulted in the formation of a coalition of local and national organizations dedicated to eliminating bias and to improving the quality of books distributed through the nation's schools. A statement calling on individuals and organizations to join this coalition completes our coverage.
Here come the blockbusters: teen books go big time, Lanes, Selma pp. 5-7
This looks at why publishers decided to publish romances for this market, and discusses which publishers they are and what their plans for expansion are.
Wildfire: tame but deadly, Harvey, Brett pp. 8-10
"An analysis of the romance series that started it all" (8)
the world of the Wildfire books is immutably middle-class to upper-middle-class. Every family except one lives in a solid house on a pleasant street with a lawn or yard, in a small town or semi-rural area. [...] The Wildfire world is overwhelmingly white. (8)
If the series' message about Blacks is that they don't exist, Wildfire's message to girls is crystal clear and straight out of the 1950's. At the core of every single book except one is the issue of getting and keeping a boyfriend. [...] The pursuit of the boyfriend involves a dazzling array of sexist stereotypes. For one thing, girls do not call boys that they are interested in. [...] The major obstacles to be surmounted in the search for the boyfriend are, of course, other girls. Rivalry between girls is an important theme. [...] Brains would seem to be another obstacle. (9)
Wishing Star: hiding trash with a veneer of "reality", Watson, Emily Strauss pp. 11-12
The Wishing Star series would appear to be Scholastic's response to criticism of their Wildfire romances (see p. 8). Instead of being totally focused on boy-catching like the Wildfire books, the Wishing Star titles attempt to deal with such specific "problems" as teenage alcoholism, joint custody, blindness and paraplegia.
The Wishing Star plots do not seem written to formula, but several themes are common. All the protagonists come from upper middle- and middle-class backgrounds, all are pretty and bright and all, because of a quirk of fate, have to face and overcome a problem.
It is because of this focus on "problems" - particularly disabilities - that input from Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York was sought. A primary focus of this analysis was to determine whether or not the authors succeeded in providing accurate, non-stereotypic information about the lives of teenagers with various problems, particularly physical disabilities. [...] An analysis of the four titles published to date follows. (11)
Sweet Dreams: virtue rewarded with the right boy, Harvey, Brett pp. 13-14
The Sweet Dreams novels are slightly shorter than the Wildfire books, and the quality of the writing a little poorer, but basically the two series are identical. The world is still populated exclusively by squeaky-clean, white, middle-class youngsters obsessed with clothes, makeup, being popular and attracting boys. Other girls are still potential rivals, all-out competitors or more rarely, allies in the popularity race. The mother's work is either non-existent (except for those mountains of brownies) or negligible. (13)
First Love: morality tales thinly veiled, Wigutoff, Sharon pp. 15-17
This fall, Simon & Schuster, publisher of the commercially successful Silhouette romances for adults, is releasing a new series for young readers entitled First Love from Silhouette. Xerox Education Publications will be selling this series to children through their extensive school book club market. (15)
Class differences provide the First Love authors with another opportunity to moralize. All the protagonists come from middle-class or lower-middle-class families. Although they are clearly not poor, none of these girls has money to spare for designer jeans or prom dresses. When a situation comes up that requires an extra expenditure, the girls find part-time jobs on Saturdays or after school. [...] There is no resentment about working - it is wholesome and enterprising. [...] A clear message comes through that when one works hard for what one wants, there is greater appreciation and happiness. (16)
The families [...] are traditional nuclear families - there are no divorced parents, no foster parents, no lesbian or gay parents, no grandparents living with the family. Again, the underlying implication is that the two-parent family is the right one, and all others are atypical and less desirable. Within these two-parent families, the father is the primary wage-earner. If the mother works outside the home, she is back when her children come home from school, as she should be. [...] the authors imply that this division of labor, with the father working and the mother at home, is the right one, and that parents who divide their work and family responsibilities differently are less correct. (17)
Does reading pulp lead to reading literature?, Meyers, Ruth S. p. 18
In turning children on to reading, quality counts, Porte, Barbara Ann pp. 19, 33
A short course on answering those who defend romance series, Wigutoff, Sharon p. 20
An antidote to series romances: books about friendship, Wigutoff, Sharon pp. 21-22
Examining the issues: what teachers can do, Wigutoff, Sharon and the Council Staff pp. 23-25
This involves giving students excerpts from the romances and and then answering a list of questions about them.
Combatting handicapism, Watson, Emily Strauss p. 25
This is a short section on how teachers can combat negative stereotypes about disability in the texts.
Formula writing: it's nothing new, MacCann, Donnarae pp. 26-28
Discusses fiction for children/young people from the nineteenth century to the 1970s.
Lust for love, Kaszuba, Pat and Mariam Frenier pp. 29, 31
This is "An evaluation of the Harlequin adult romances - and how they compare to the new teen variety" (29) which begins with an "article [...] by Pat Kaszuba [which] appeared in the Twin Cities Reader" (31). That reads like an interview with
Mariam Frenier, a history professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris.
"Harlequins give lessons which indicate that if a woman is loving and patient and changes her behavior to suit her man - that if she is 'traditional' - he will cease to be sardonic, cruel, distant and strange (the hallmark of Harlequin heroes," Frenier said. "In this, Harlequin tells wives that if they behave like battered women they will obtain and keep a good marriage."
Frenier, who teaches a course in gender role socialization, said she thinks women look to romantic novels for support of their ideas of how love and marriage should work. "Harlequins offer an explanation of and cure for the frustrations of modern marriage," she said. "Specifically, I think the reader is getting guidelines on how to cope with marriage to a stranger in a world in which men and women are not only socialized to be as different as possible from each other, but also to have very different expectations of marriage." (29)
It is followed by several more paragraphs by Frenier.
Coalition protests selling sexism, pp. 30-31
There are also boxes throughout which contain quotes of various lengths giving "Reactions to the Romance Series," including one by Leonore Gordon, "an adult lesbian, looking back on the romance novels I read as a young girl" who concludes that "Fortunately, I eventually escaped from the entrapment of these novels. I am concerned that the adolescent years of those who may be gay or lesbian and are now reading these 'happiness package' novels will be made far more difficult than necessary" (14) and another by
Frieda Zames, Past President, Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York, who grew up
tremendously influenced by the romance stories in the movies, magazines and books of the time. [...] I had to grow up with the dilemma of being considered asexual because I was disabled. It was difficult for me because I felt I was unlovable as I was.
Today's romance books are being written for children even younger than I was when my reading fare was True Romances. How much more needless pain they will cause today's disabled children! (16)
There is also one box which contains the extremely short "An Interview with a Scholastic Editor" (10), another about "An Interview at Xerox" (17) and excerpts from the writing guidelines for some of the romance lines can be found in boxes on pages 27 and 28.