The four Twilight series books total about 2,450 pages. That's a lot of reading--and these kids devour it all. Not only do they love the books, but they also sit transfixed for 90 minutes during my interactive discussions--that is until I pose a question. Then their hands shoot up, or they just blurt out answers. Some literally jump from their seats, unable to contain their excitement.
During my discussions, I point out literary devices such as contrast and irony, the references to Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet, and the celestial allusions that steer the series. When kids "see" how the book titles work into the story, their eyes pop to O's and they gasp at the epiphany. I often have to calm a group down. The middle school set is usually a tough audience and I laud Twilight author Stephanie Meyer for energizing them so successfully about books.
What's the secret behind that success? Just ask Walt Disney. The saga of Bella and Edward is really just an elaborate fairy tale. Bella is the clumsy new girl in town who meets and falls in love with the mysterious Edward Cullen, a clandestine vampire. Bella is the hapless damsel in distress again and again, playing perfectly against Edward's knight in shining armor. (I call him a "vampire in a shining Volvo." The kids die laughing at that.)
After much trial and tribulation, Bella and Edward marry and have a child. Edward transforms Bella into a vampire, which makes her graceful, strong, immortal and breathtakingly beautiful. Her daughter is immortal as well. I call it the "happily ever after on steroids" or "the happily FOREVER after." The vamp newlyweds even move into a cottage in the woods.
The Cullen vampires, including Bella and Edward or "Bedward," never feed on humans, opting for the less-satisfying animal blood. They talk about being tempted to feed on humans, but I never felt that temptation. Save a mishap at Bella's 18th birthday party, they never come close to sinking their teeth into a juicy jugular, nor do I believe they ever will. Hence, they aren't really vampires, but more like immortal superheroes, which is a better ideological fit for the fairy tale: these vampires aren't going to hurt any innocent humans.
Plenty of people decry this aspect of the series, but not as many are talking about the truly dark side of Twilight.
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During every presentation, I stop and say, "It's time for me to put on my mom hat." Then I explain that fictional boyfriends that follow you around and never let you out of their sight are fine, but in real life that behavior is inappropriate. The kids are savvy and murmurs of "stalker" fill the room.
Next I say, very purposefully, "And at no time should physical interaction between two people end up with one of them covered in bruises." Then I take off my mom hat because these aren't my kids and that's all I really can say, but I'm going to say a little more now.
If the obsessive boyfriend antics aren't bad enough, Stephenie Meyer commits an unconscionable transgression in the fourth Twilight book, Breaking Dawn.
On their honeymoon, Edward and Bella (still human) consummate their marriage. That part is handled tastefully enough in a pan-to-the-moon sort of way. The next morning, however, Bella is bruised all over because of their physical inequity. Edward is apologetic. Bella tells him that it's nothing and is eager for more sex.
Hey, Steph? Did it occur to you that you just subliminally endorsed the standard abuse template in the most indelible way in front of every tween from New York to California?
There is no context framing the "morning after" other than the implication that when Bella is finally a vampire, the sex will be forever great and bruise-free. The painfully obsessive nature of their relationship makes this even worse. Bella's unhealthy addiction to Edward is exactly the type of situation that breeds an abused woman. The few times I tried to explain how insidious this message is, I was met with knitted brows. No surprise, this is complex and dark stuff many adults can't properly process. Hence I learned to make my comments few and clear, but I am nonetheless furious at Stephanie Meyer over this.
I remember when I smoked. I used to tell myself that plenty of people smoked their whole lives with no health problems even though I knew that was flat-out wrong. I can't help thinking some young girl, desperate to justify the behavior of an abusive boyfriend she adores, is whispering to herself: it all worked out for Bella.
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The Twilight talks were wonderful and exhausting. I loved the mom-daughter teams. I even had a few boys and a smattering of solo adults. The experience gave me faith in the future as well as a renewed sense of responsibility as a writer.
It's a tragedy that some of that responsibility didn't spill onto the series' author before her work catapulted into the stratosphere.
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