Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why does kidlit hate hippies?

Seriously. This is something I have noticed many times over the years as a reader. I keep thinking it will get better, and MAYBE there have been fewer books published about crazy hippies recently, but there are not any sensible new age folk taking their place.

There was a discussion on the Blue Boards recently about portrayals of homeschoolers in kid/YA lit, where this link was referred to: Homeschoolers in Fiction. I have read a few of the books on the list that made me cringe in the same way they cringed, and meanwhile I did thank David Almond when I met him for writing Mina as a sensible, normal girl. I've also read a couple bad portrayals that weren't on the list. I won't name names, but one book stands out for making fun of ORGANIC APPLES.

That is where I start losing my cool, guys. Mocking the way I was educated? That is one thing. You mess with my organic apples? WHYYY? Organic apples are the way apples have been for most of history! They are tasty and free of poison! Some homeschoolers are crazy (hey, I have watched Wife Swap) but I can't live without organic apples.

But the portrayals of homeschoolers as wacky, crazy people who can't cope in normal society and have never seen television is only one aspect of a larger trend to portray all people with "new age" beliefs as nutjobs.

Note: When I say "new age" or "hippie" I am referring to a lifestyle that MAY incorporate such things as (but not limited to):
Homeschooling, unschooling, vegetarianism or other diets such as vegan; raw; macrobiotic, making ethical food choices (or even growing your own organic food), going off the grid or making environmental choices in your life, rejecting conventional medicine in favor of holistic medicine such as homeopathics, herbs, energy medicine and acupuncture to name a few, meditation, yoga, astrology, Reiki, etc etc etc. It can also mean a spiritual belief system that draws from various religions. Or it might be a lifestyle choice for one's life on this planet that can fall under the banner of Christianity, Buddhism, Paganism, atheism...anything.

I was raised that way and I don't believe everything I grew up with or everything my Mom believes but overall it was a wonderful, joyful childhood and I think that I am a smart and responsible adult who deeply cares about other people and the planet. I try to live my life in a way that is in harmony with the values of holistic living and sustainability, and I'm proud of that. I TRY not to push it on other people (yeah I am a nag about food sometimes). I'm not much of an activist, even. But as childhoods go, mine was set pretty high on the hippie dial. I made my own tie dye AND my own Native American-style (exactly what style of Native American, I do not know, that was just how it was billed) drum, attended sweat lodges and crystal shows, and was unfazed by talk of Lakota medicine women or Indian gurus because that was pretty normal. It wasn't until I went to 2nd grade that I had a huge culture shock that has never quite left me. I am weird. I have had to defend my lifestyle and choices all my life. Why I didn't go to school, didn't go to college, don't take Tylenol when I have a headache, try to avoid GMOs.

In kidlit, OTOH, many hippie characters are parents that the MC is desperately trying to distance themselves from. I have seen mockeries of recycling! Herbal tea drinking! And, lest you forget, poor tasty organic apples! How dare those mean old parents foist environmentalism on their groaning teenagers! Even though in the real world I often see kids caring deeply about the planet. And I think the children of environmentally minded parents don't usually reject everything their parents taught them. Ditto other lifestyle choices.

But what about parents who won't let their children watch TV or play video games? Gasp! This is a common "thing" in books with hippie parents. Well, let me tell you, there were plenty of video games and television involved in my childhood. In fact, one of my childhood friends drove me nuts because he had, like, EVERY GAME FOR EVERY SYSTEM EVER that I wanted. This was the same family that always put nutritional yeast on their popcorn instead of butter. I can't recall anyone who didn't have a TV. Although my mom did try to restrict our TV time sometimes, it never lasted very long.

What about that other trope of the new age character? The teenager. The VEGETARIAN ACTIVIST TEENAGER. Sometimes they are all right. After all, they care about things! They teach the MC an important lesson and inspire everyone! But that is my problem with them. They fare similarly to "goth" or "witch" teenagers in falling into the mold of the supporting character who behaves somewhat predictably. While we might admire these kids for always starting the "Save the Planet" club at school and thrusting flyers in everyone's face and hugging trees and playing their guitar, these neo-hippie children still perpetuate the idea that all unconventional children are pushy about their beliefs and don't have many friends. They are oftentimes revealed to be rebelling against something. Like conservative-minded parents! Aaand we come full circle.

I would really like to see more kids in YA/MG books like the kid I was--who care about the things I cared (and still do) about without it being SUCH a THING.

Although...I do wonder if the lack of it isn't because we're all off writing fantasy books! No childhood makes a better writer than an unschooled magical hippie childhood, I daresay. When I was ten, magic was close enough to taste.

BTW, if you have read any books with new age/hippie characters that aren't stereotypes, please tell me!


  1. Haha. You get yeast on your popcorn in the MOVIE THEATRES where I'm from. (And it is DELICIOUS.)

  2. Sigh. That sounds wonderful. It IS delicious. (Although I like it with yeast AND butter.)

  3. Also this stuff has gotten a lot more mainstream, at least in the real world if not always in books. Orlando will never be San Francisco, that's for sure, but when I was a kid and I brought blue corn chips to school it was like I brought AMAZING ALIEN FOOD. I could trade blue corn chips for ANYTHING.

  4. Love this post. I just had to give a speech about homeschooling at school, actually, and poked fun at my "hippie" upbringing because it's so stereotypical...BUT my family has never taken their views as seriously as the "stereotypical" families in books, and we've never known anyone like that either. (And we've known some pretty radical hippies.)

  5. Jackie, I COMPLETELY understand where you're coming from. I wasn't homeschooled, as you know, but your plea for a new age/hippie chara who isn't completely insane or stereotypical and viewed exclusively from an outside/external perspective, who could even perhaps be *gasp* a MAIN character that a reader could *double gasp* identify with because he/she grapples with realistic problems that all people deal with... that's precisely how I felt about POC (okay, specifically Asian) characters in fiction growing up. We're finally making some headway now, it seems (thanks in no small part to your contributions as well~ :D), but I agree--there are still a lot of "minority" (and I don't just mean racially or sexually--alternative lifestlye charas like hippies, etc, definitely count) characters that are still written the way Stephen King's "magic Negroes" were in the past.

    I really appreciate that you pointed out the plight of the hippies in particular because I hadn't considered that the same thing being done to POC and homosexual characters could also be done to characters who are minorities of a different type. Well, I'll definitely try to start including non-stereotypical portrayals of alt-lifestyle charas in my writing from now on. Everyone deserves to exist/see themselves represented in our mainstream consciousness!

  6. Hiya - great post and food for thought! you could read my notes from the teenage underground which has a bit of a love/humour/love thing going on with hippies and counterculture in general. Hippie Mum, Thoreauvian Dad, artgirl ... see what you think. Simmone Howell.

  7. Great post! Have you read THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE? The grandmother & uncle are both sort of eccentric hippie types but awesome.

    Have you ever thought about writing something contemporary? Or fantasy with a more contemporary setting, with characters like these?

  8. I was in 4-H and had a lot of homeschooling friends through that growing up--and they were all perfectly normal :D I don't know why different has to = strange in so many novels.

    It's been awhile since I read it, but isn't the main character of WINGS by Aprilynne Pike homeschooled at the beginning of the novel?

  9. Hahahaha! YES! Ive notice so many vegan/raw/yogi parents that make "horrible" food and I know for a fact that thats all good food and tasty!

  10. This is such a great rant. I haven't noticed this as much (because I fantasy and whatnot over contemporary YA, most of the time.) But since I grow and eat organic food, use all-natural products, compost, recycle like a fiend, am about to buy a grain mill, and all kinds of other things, I would get annoyed by it if I came across it! What's weird though is how celebrated being green is right now (at least where I live) ... why would it be mocked in some many books?

    Maybe we should all write books about characters who are environmentally conscious and green without making a big deal about it. You know, that's just part of who they are, without it being an issue in the book.

  11. Ha. Love this post. I was homeschooled for several years (4th-6th) and boy did we HEAR it from family. "What about socializing?" "Are you sure you can teach her good enough?" The ignorance is astounding. I'm still actually friends with some of the people I met during that time in my life... clearly, I was socialized. And I have a closer relationship with my mom now I think partly because we spent so much time together. I'm even considering homeschooling the kids I might have one day.
    And I'm totally with you on the organic apples. Organic ANYTHING is the way things have always been done! Pesticides and shiny wax is a newer development to aid mass production for our overpopulation HELLO. Again, the ignorance.
    I like Katie's idea above. All of us should just slip enviro conscious characters into our stories. We can take over. Make it normal again. :)

  12. Love this post, Jackie! I'm seriously considering homeschooling my daughter if I can stay home by that time. I devour any and all posts/articles about homeschooling or unschooling. I certainly don't look at homeschoolers as wacky, crazy people!!

  13. Well, I went to public school all the way through, and spent large swaths of time without TV. I've had one a few times as an adult, but mostly it just annoys me. (My kids, oh my, LOVE TV.)

    The all-homeschoolers-are-this-way idea makes me think of when my daughter was in German preschool and they did a huge unit about Native Americans (a German cultural fixation, to be sure). Mostly it was just fun and interesting, but for the last two weeks they did an experiment where they removed all the plastic toys and basically anything "the Indians" wouldn't have eaten or played with. Which I'm sure was quite interesting as a social experiment (with different toys and games and limitations, different leaders emerged among the kids, for example). But I couldn't help thinking that if the family stories are true, my own daughter is part Mohawk, and let me tell you, she uses legoes and plastic and electricity and TV and all the rest.

    As to books, I haven't read it yet, but Brandon Mull's new series, A World Without Heroes, has a major character who's homeschooled. I cannot vouch for the accuracy thereof :)--but Mull IS a NYT bestselling author, and homeschooling is not exactly an obscure idea to him. I agree that sometimes it's nice to read books about different people without it being an Issue.

  14. Maggie: Yup, I can't say I've ever really met a radical hippie like the type that so often pops up in novels, and I've known a lot of radical hippies... (Well, okay, I did know one obnoxious activist girl who thrust fliers at people.)

    Su: Yeah, I actually started pondering this in a roundabout way after another friend posted about portrayals of disability in fiction. We've made some ground in portraying POC and disabled characters...oh, thank heaven. They were so bad when we were little, weren't they? But there's still a ways to go for sure. But there are definitely other little stereotypes that pop up. I definitely always felt like an outsider with groups of "normal" kids because of my upbringing. There are so many ways to feel like an outsider, of course, that most everyone does at some point! But I'd like to see fiction continue to be more aware of bucking all sorts of stereotypes!

    Simmone: Ah, a fellow Bloomsburyer as well! I'll look for it!

    Jess: I have heard about The SKY IS EVERYWHERE, well, everywhere, but haven't read it yet. I definitely must! And well, I think my worldview does sneak in to the Arestin characters, like Olivia being vegetarian and homeschooled. Det is probably the most hippie-ish deep down even though you would never think so on the surface. He homeschools Stan, gives funding to a totally hippie-ish school later, "abhors" the microwave, is a total foodie, and when Leslie asks him for antacids he gives her ginger tea which she secretly pours down the sink... I'll get around to writing about these people someday...

  15. Beth: I haven't read Wings yet, but I think there are getting to be a few books in the "fantasy homeschooler" genre (and I don't mean that in a bad way because I DO think people who know homeschooling often gravitate toward fantasy). Karen Kincy's Other is another...

    Frankie: LOL, yes. Raw food is the BEST. Although the potlucks of my childhood were rather nightmarish. Things have improved.

    Katie: Maybe things will get better since being green is more and more of a "thing" and the books published now were acquired about two years ago. Like I said, I have noticed LESS of this in books recently, but not enough that I can declare this no longer an issue!

    Kristin: Yeees, all that gets quite tiresome. I remember being out somewhere as a kid and having adults ask me why I wasn't in school and getting a vague disapproval when I said I was homeschooled. Sheesh. I did have a little trouble socializing when I got my first job, but I got over it pretty quickly. I still suck at making small talk, but you know...maybe I just don't CARE to make small talk!

    Jennifer: Awesome, I hope you can homeschool, I really think it's a great way to grow up if the parent is able and willing.

    Rose: Yeah. As a kid I loved TV but by the time I was a teenager I really didn't care. I could live without one now., yeah, that unit at school sounds weird. I mean, I get that they were going for a historical vibe, but why "the Indians"? I doubt the white pioneers had those toys either! I'll look for Brandon Mull's series too.

  16. FWIW, I wasn't homeschooled but my parents (and Patrick's parents, too!) wouldn't let us have a TV because they thought it was bad for kids to spend hours watching television...and guess what? Now we don't have one either, for very similar reasons! (My parents kept a VCR connected to the computer so we could still watch movies, and we have DVDs for our laptops, but still, it's a matter of controlling how many ads we and MrD have to watch, and keeping us all from just spending hours zoning out in front of the television. We watch the shows we want, not just whatever happens to be on.)

    So, see I was raised even more puritanically, and it stuck. ;)

  17. Ooh, and I meant to say but forgot - I am right there with you on being raised to prefer organic food and still preferring it and never feeling oppressed by that! Why would I? That is just really odd.

    And Patrick and I make up a split vegan/vegetarian household, so yeah, I get irritated too every time one of those dietary choices gets used as shorthand for a character being weird or overly-political or uptight or whatever...and sigh every time the message at the end of the book is that they need to just loosen up and stop worrying about it! Honestly, you can be a perfectly happy vegan or vegetarian, too.

  18. A little over a year ago, I changed my family's diet to an all natural/organic one because I was sick of seeing HFCS and all those fake processed ingredients in my food. It's made a huge difference in our overall health, energy, etc. A few of my friends, including my best friend do the same thing--though none of them are as dedicated to it as my best friend and I are. But it always amazes me just how many people think we're crazy because we like to eat healthy. How is it crazy that I want to know exactly what it is I'm putting in my body? Into my family's bodies? Why is it so crazy that I don't want to eat foods with ingredients that are harmful to us? That I don't want to eat at fast food restuarants--or most restaurants for that matter? Even my husband gets embarrassed when the guys at work find out how I "make him eat." Like it's not manly to eat healthy or something. I just don't get it.

    And as a newly home schooling mom (I pulled my son out of public school back in March, for various reasons, but mostly because the school couldn't properly handle a diabetic student), it bugs me how much of a stigma home schooling has. I had several friends in high school who were home schooled up until their freshman year and they were perfctly normal people. All of them were Honor Society students and very socially active. My own son gets plenty of real social interaction, not that facade that public school offers. You know what I mean? Only interacting with kids their own age, not really able to talk to each other because they get in trouble, learning social cues from other kids who have no clue what they're doing. Instead, my son learns social cues from adults who have *hopefully* figured it out, and he interacts with people of all ages. He gets along with kids much younger than him, older than him, his same age, and adults just fine. And educationally, I think he's getting a better education. Just in the 7 weeks I've had him home, he's reading at a higher grade level and learning 3/4 grade history, science, and health even though he's only in 2nd grade.

    As far as the books go, I've seen what you're talking about and it's bugged me too. But I did just recently read a book with a home schooled student that showed she was normal and smart. That was Brandon Mull's new book, Beyonders: A World Without Heroes. I really appreciated the way he protrayed that character, especially since being so new to home schooling has made a little extra sensitive to the criticims about it.

    Okay, I think it's time I stepped off my soap box now. Your post obviously affected me and I just had to say something because I feel strongly about these things too. :)

  19. Hmmm... this is a really interesting post, Jackie. I do know a few real life examples of "hippies" (not necessarily via the definition you used above, but very, um, into free love, drugs, etc. Maybe the worst stereotype of hippies is what I should call them?) and their children turned into the most straight-laced people I know, who reject very vehemently anything to do with their childhood. Along those same lines, I watched a relative who had stage III breast cancer be lectured pretty harshly by some woman in a beauty store who swore aromatherapy would completely cure her cancer. My relative walked away pretty much hating that woman and anything to do with aromatherapy and will never be open to any of its good effects ever again, even though aromatherapy can be good for nausea, headaches, etc. I'm wondering if somehow this could this be a contributing reason, if not directly in regard to books but society as a whole? Kind of along the same lines many people are weary of evangelical Christians... because they've seen too many of the very worst kind that are in no way representative of that population?

    Also, it's funny you mention homeschooling as associated with hippies/New Agey people... I never knew that. In my area, it's very heavily associated with people (mostly religious, but not all) who want to keep their kids out of our city's really, really bad schools (the worst in the state) but can't afford private school.

  20. GRRR. I just typed a long reply to the recent comments and Blogger ate it.

  21. My boyfriend was public-schooled all the way, and he grew up without TV, had goats and chickens in his backyard, and becomes positively mournful if I throw away a banana peel instead of composting it. Then again, he's a Californian from a pretty liberal family. ;)

    I almost think that people use "homeschooled" as shorthand for either "super conservative Christian weirdo" or "super liberal hippie weirdo," and conveniently ignore the non-weirdo Christians, hippies, and everyone in between. Oh, and what about the "super smart weirdo" stereotype? I actually enjoy this one, when people think I must have been a genius or something, because I was too good for school. XD

  22. LOL, Karen, I'm with you on that one. I don't mind being thought of as a super smart weirdo at all!

  23. Oh, YAY you for writing on this topic. When a child stands up to ask me a question at a bookstore presentation/signing and that question is deep and insightful and well stated and interesting, I always say. "Wonderful question. Are you home schooled?" And the answer is almost always "Yes."

  24. Wow, great post! Very thought-provoking. I had really never considered the portrayal of homeschooled/new age lifestyles in youth fiction before.

    I'm trying to think of positive portrayals-- maybe SCHOOLED, by Gordon Korman? It's about a kid who's raised in some kind of hippie commune but has to enter the public school system when his grandmother gets injured. I read it a while ago, so I can't quite recall if the portrayal is entirely positive or not. I think it's a little on the stereotypical side- like, the main character has never seen TV! And wears tie-dye! But he's clearly meant to be the one the reader sympathizes with and admires, so yay for that. :) That book was a hit with my middle school book group, although I don't think any of them were homeschooled.