I was talking (separately) to both [personal profile] sartorias and [personal profile] faithhopetricks about a peculiar YA and middle-grade genre which proliferated in the 70s, 80s, and to some extent 90s, which I think of as the "friendship is pointless" novel. This may overlap with the dog/horse/falcon/best friend/sibling/ALL the dogs die genre, but death is not essential in this genre, and many dead hamster/etc novels don't belong to it.

In this story, a young person meets a Person with a Problem: they are mentally ill, developmentally disabled, physically disabled, dying, very old, or being abused. The young person befriends them. Catastrophe ensues. The young person, sadder but wiser, learns the valuable lesson that you can't ever help anyone, and people with problems are doomed.

Crazy Lady, by Jane Leslie Conly. Perhaps the quintessential title! A kid befriends an alcoholic woman and her developmentally disabled son. She turns out to be abusive and the son is taken away, never to be seen again.

Afternoon of the Elves, Janet Taylor Lisle. A girl's new friend is mentally ill and being abused; when she does the right thing and tells, the friend is taken away, never to be seen her again. Also, elves aren't real.

The Sunflower Forest, by Torey Hayden. (Yes, the nonfiction writer.) A girl tries to help and understand her mom, a Holocaust survivor. But while the daughter is off losing your virginity, the mom has a psychotic flashback, murders the neighbor's child, and is shot by the cops.

The Pigman, by Paul Zindel. Two teenagers befriend a lonely old man who loves a baboon at the zoo. Then the baboon dies before his eyes, and the old man drops dead of sorrow.

The Man Without A Face, by Isabelle Holland. A boy befriends a man whose face is scarred. Then the boy is emotionally scarred when the man makes a pass at him.

I feel like I read a hundred of these books, some of which won awards. To be fair, some of them were quite good. Margaret Mahy's Memory, about a teenage boy who meets a woman with Alzheimers, is excellent and much less reductionist and pat than most.

But the sheer mass of these stories sent out collective messages which, in retrospect, were absolute poison:

- People with disabilities lead lives of utter wretched misery. If you have a physical disability or mental illness, you will neither recover (if it's the sort of thing where recovery is possible) nor lead a regular happy life while taking meds/using a wheelchair/etc. Nope! There is only dooooooooom, death, and the asylum.

- It is impossible to ever help another person, and you shouldn't even try.

- Befriending people whose lives and bodies aren't perfect leads to disaster.

And additional toxic sub-messages: people with disabilities need fixing; it's impossible to ever actually ask anyone what they want or if they want fixing or what they might like help with; compassion leads to disaster; disabled people don't get to tell their own stories; etc.

I can't help feeling that internalizing all that "mental illness is forever (until merciful death)" stuff was the opposite of helpful for me. Now, I don't blame the books per se. The books were an expression of the ideas floating around at the time they were written. But still.

Does anyone else remember this genre? What are your favorite examples? And has the genre died a deserved death, or does an example still occasionally lurch up, zombie-like, to win awards?

(I see there is at least one recent Newbery Honor book which seems to fit this pattern, A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin. Hattie loves her mentally ill uncle. Until he commits suicide.)
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owlectomy: A squashed panda sewing a squashed panda (Default)

From: [personal profile] owlectomy


Yeah, I feel like A Corner of the Universe fits that pattern pretty well.

Did you ever read Pat Murphy's The Wild Girls? When I began reading it I was convinced that it would turn out that Fox's imagination would eventually be revealed as Dangerously Dissociating From Reality and lead to Bad Things Happening.

There's also Chasing Orion, reviewed here by Naomi Kritzer -- seems like a textbook example, and it just came out this year.
torachan: (Default)

From: [personal profile] torachan


Huh. I don't know that I ever read any in that genre. Does Lurlene McDaniels count?

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thingswithwings: these books won't read themselves! probably. (gen - these books won't read themselves!)

From: [personal profile] thingswithwings


I seem to recall at least two YA novels from the nineties about HIV/AIDs that followed that pattern. I learned that you shouldn't befriend someone with AIDS, because they will DIE. Of AIDS. PS sex is bad.
coffeeandink: (Default)

From: [personal profile] coffeeandink


This genre was one of the things that convinced me I would die friendless and alone and my corpse would be eaten by rats.
daidoji_gisei: Rukia being her normal delicate self (Delicate)

From: [personal profile] daidoji_gisei


I completely missed this genre.

Possibly because in the beginning of jr high, which is when I guess I was supposed to be reading YA books, I discovered The Guns of Navarone and immediately dedicated myself to reading action-adventure novels. After reading your descriptions, I think I am possibly better off for it.
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)

From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid


I think The Pigman was an assigned text I read in high school english class.

I suspect that these books were trying for gritty realism and recognizing that kids sometimes encounter people who are ill/mentally disabled/physically disabled/traumatised/etc. But the collective message seems to fail, rather than to simply say "hey, not everyone is able bodied and sound of mind".

I'm not up on recent YA books unles they are fantasy, but I get the impression that these days it's more about identifying with the disabled person than blaming them.
badgerbag: (Default)

From: [personal profile] badgerbag


You describe it well. The "My Friend Flicka" genre but with disabled people as the untameable pet!
dhobikikutti: earthen diya (Default)

From: [personal profile] dhobikikutti


You know, this post helps me makes so much more sense of Afternoon of the Elves. When I read it I thought it was one of those rare attempts to write a tragedy in YA and I was exceedingly puzzled by it. I suspect a lot of the hoopla around these books is that they are so mature they provide ambiguous post-modern literature to kids.
londonkds: (Bring back Bilis! (by redscharlach))

From: [personal profile] londonkds


This type of thing was also a deleterious influence, I think, on the recent hurt-comfort bingo controversy. Because while you don't want miracle cures turning up, some people got the impression that the call for realism in the depiction of disabled characters was a demand for this sort of thing.
legionseagle: (Default)

From: [personal profile] legionseagle


Abso-bloody-lutely. It's also the first thing my mind turns to when someone urges everyone to "write responsibly" about serious topics.

I think I got the genre immediately below this one in YA, the mid-seventies one which was all unwanted pregnancies, abusive boyfriends and sectarian violence, but I can see where some of it was tending. Obviously the sectarian violence was the entry-level drug and once kids became acculturated to it they started demanding stronger and stronger meat, preferably pre-rat-chewed.

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From: [identity profile] auriaephiala.livejournal.com


I don't like that genre.

A book where a disabled person actually thrives: Izzy, Willy-nilly by Cynthia Voigt. Or Jean Little's autobiographies, which are not only heart-warming, but very funny and real.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I adored Izzy, Willy-Nilly. I identified a lot with Rosamond.

I also liked Maybeth, in the Dicey books - she clearly had some kind of hard-to-pin-down mental disability that made her life difficult, but she seemed generally pretty happy without being a plastic angel. I always wanted a book about her, but I assume Voigt couldn't figure out how to write her voice from the inside.

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From: [identity profile] marzipan-pig.livejournal.com


But while the daughter is off losing your virginity, the mom has a psychotic flashback, murders the neighbor's child, and is shot by the cops.

!!!!

Wow.

From: [identity profile] jinian.livejournal.com


And not her own virginity, either. Did you wonder what had happened to yours? I always did! Apparently I read the wrong book.

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From: [identity profile] ruffwriter.livejournal.com


... I feel fortunate to have missed this particular subgenre! Although hearing about it makes me want to reread To Kill A Mockingbird, which is always good. Who doesn't love Boo Radley?

From: [identity profile] coraa.livejournal.com


I remember this genre! I, too, hated it. I didn't read many of them because I got good and figuring out what they were from the cover copy, but I haaaaaated them. I vividly remember loathing the end of Afternoon of the Elves.

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chomiji: The child Gojyo from Saiyuki, with the caption What becomes of the broken hearted? (Gojyo-chan - broken-hearted)

From: [personal profile] chomiji


I remember The Man Without a Face. That sort of thing, plus the dead friend/animal books, is what made me decide, in my teens, that I didn't like stories about the real world.


From: [identity profile] coraa.livejournal.com


Me too. Those, and the larger genre of "there's no point trying to improve your situation because things never change" books, and "disobey once and you will be permanently maimed and/or die" books, which I only read when they were assigned to me for school. Fantasy sometimes had bad things happen, and didn't always have a happy ending, but there was much less of a sense of crushing futility.

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From: [identity profile] neery.livejournal.com


I'm totally baffled to discover that this genre even exists. I indiscriminately read tons of YA novels as a kid, and I don't think I've ever even seen one such book. Maybe there was some sort of pre-selection in my public library, or I could somehow tell from the cover that they'd be all bleak and depressing and didn't touch them, or maybe they really did die out just before my YA-reading-time (I'm 23 now, and I guess I started at ten or so?), but in all YA books I've ever read, friendships with the elderly, disabled or disfigured led to character growth and happy endings - usually with the teenaged hero learning a lesson about acceptance. They were frequently extremely pat, but not usually bleak or fatalistic at all.

The Man Without A Face, by Isabelle Holland. A boy befriends a man whose face is scarred. Then the boy is emotionally scarred when the man makes a pass at him.

I feel like I've seen this movie as a kid, but in that version the man was innocently accused of pedophilia by someone else, and it also ended with someone or other learning a lesson about acceptance. I might be imagining this, the memory is kind of foggy.

...Okay, after some googling, it turns out that while he was innocent in the movie, he still got run out of town and no one learned any lessons, so maybe the reason I don't remember any depressing YA novels is because my brain, when confronted with an unhappy ending, will make up its own uplifting ending instead and forget what really happened.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


You are very lucky! Though I think your generation helped a lot - they were already losing popularity by your time.

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From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com


I was burned by an early one called "The Happy Answer" (yeesh) when I was a kid, and learned to see the signs, so I actively avoided any more of them.

From: [identity profile] lady-ganesh.livejournal.com


I remember finding The Pigman utterly horrifying, in that 'what the fuck was the point of all that?' kind of way.

I seem to remember The Hundred Dresses having a touch of this, but Amazon tells me it wasn't nearly as bad as I remember (somehow I remembered the girl dying; I may have conflated it with A Thousand Paper Cranes.)

From: [identity profile] harriet-spy.livejournal.com


The girl doesn't die in A Hundred Dresses; her family leaves town. And then the narrator discover the hundred dresses the girl drew, and feels terrible.

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From: [identity profile] truepenny.livejournal.com


I remember one where the person with Alzheimer's might have been a time traveler (this would be why I read it: it promised a spec fic element). iirc, the person with Alzheimer's/time traveler (it was that sort of trendy YA magical realism/surrealism book that nobody can actually write except Margaret Mahy, or in a completely different mood, Ellen Raskin, so it was never clear whether there was an ACTUAL spec fic element or if it was all bait-and-switch) was largely uninterested in/unaffected by the narrator, and the big reveal (the Terrible Truth that we learn by hanging out with People With Problems) was that the narrator's beloved dog had been responsible for the death of the narrator's beloved mother (she tripped over him and broke her neck), and that's why the narrator's hateful father got rid of the narrator's beloved dog. (The narrator had had traumatic amnesia and repressed the beloved mother's death, and so couldn't understand why his/her father hated the dog.) Everybody ended up exactly as dysfunctional as they were at the beginning, only with even more guilt and angst. And the person with Alzheimer's/time traveler disappeared.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


the narrator's beloved dog had been responsible for the death of the narrator's beloved mother

The ultimate YA angst story - your mom is dead, your dog is gone, and it's your dog's fault!

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From: [identity profile] viorica8957.livejournal.com


Not entirely sure if it fits in this category, but I remember one called A Stranger In The Fanily, about the daughter of a Vietnam vet suffering from alcoholism and PTSD. Only this one worked backwards- she and her brother befriended the town misfit, and ended up fixing (to a certain degree) their home life.
vass: A sepia-toned line-drawing of a man in naval uniform dancing a hornpipe, his crotch prominent (Default)

From: [personal profile] vass


Robin Klein, Came Back To Show You I Could Fly

Boy befriends woman with drug addiction.

From: [identity profile] klwilliams.livejournal.com


I read The Man Without a Face (and thought the movie was better) and The Pigman, along with a host of other horribly depressing books along those lines, in the late seventies. Since I was in junior high school and horribly depressed already, I don't think I was too terribly emotionally scarred, but I'm not interested in ever re-reading them.

From: [identity profile] icecreamempress.livejournal.com


My perception of A Corner of the Universe was that it illustrated how awfully crap America, particularly in this case 1960 middle/working-class white America, was about coping with mental illness.

The message I got from it was not that "people with mental illnesses are scary and might commit suicide at any moment" but rather "people with mental illnesses are unfairly discriminated against, terribly misunderstood by their families, and left with no good options or support, thus it is not surprising when they commit suicide and maybe something Should Be Done about that." As someone with lifelong suicidal depression, I thought that was all spot-on.

But then, I read it when it came out, and I was 39 then, so. You may be right that the point might be more easily misconstrued by younger readers, and/or readers who have no personal experience of depression.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


To be fair, that's the one I haven't actually read myself - it definitely sounds like a step up from the ones I did.
eredien: Dancing Dragon (Default)

From: [personal profile] eredien


The Pigman, by Paul Zindel. Two teenagers befriend a lonely old man who loves a baboon at the zoo. Then the baboon dies before his eyes, and the old man drops dead of sorrow.

I am so glad to learn that the plot of that book is just as nonsensical now as when I read it in 8th grade and thought, "does this make any sense? Why did it win an award? I must be missing something..." I'm not.

I very much liked the Green Knowe books for their portrayal of old people--the elderly clearly had their own ways which were not childrens' ways, but had personalities and concerns and problems and interests of their own, and were not shy to talk.

Compared to these books, I'm glad I grew up reading the possibly overly peppy and happy book from the early 60's where the blind kid got a guide dog, learned how to use the dog, and learned how to read again via Braille; I'm sorry I can't find the title.

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From: [identity profile] the-sun-is-up.livejournal.com


Hi, I was linked here by a friend and:

The Sunflower Forest, by Torey Hayden. (Yes, the nonfiction writer.) A girl tries to help and understand her mom, a Holocaust survivor. But while the daughter is off losing your virginity, the mom has a psychotic flashback, murders the neighbor's child, and is shot by the cops.

There are so many layer of DEAR GOD WHAT WERE YOU THINKING here, I don't even know where to begin!

From: [identity profile] naomikritzer.livejournal.com


The book that came to mind fastest for me was "Lisa Bright and Dark," though the main message I took away from that book was, "leave psychiatry to the professionals! YOU ARE NOT QUALIFIED TO TREAT YOUR BIPOLAR FRIENDS!" I'm not sure this book actually fits the trope, honestly -- the friendships may have predated the mental illness.

I never read The Sunflower Forest, but it reminds me of another trope I've seen a lot -- that surviving terrible things inevitably makes you a bad person and most particularly makes you a bad parent.

Have you read Rules? It's a YA disability book I actually really liked in part because it's quite subversive. While waiting for her brother (who goes to weekly speech therapy), the protagonist meets a boy her age who uses a speech board to communicate. He has a bunch of cards with words that he can point to, but they're all utterly plain, and she's an artist, so she starts making him illustrated cards. She also outfits him with cards that his parents had never given him, like one that says, "Whatever." Which he promptly starts using ALL THE TIME, which drives his mother NUTS. (Which totally made me grin, because DAMN -- driving your parents nuts with that sort of studied pre-teen apathy is one of the cardinal rights of childhood.) It's not all about the able-bodied girl Saving the Disabled Boy, either; I remember it pretty clearly as a story about two lonely kids who help each other.

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