For the record, I have no intention of turning this into a book review blog...however, reading often tends to get me thinking about writing. I read books for the enjoyment of reading, but the writer in me can't be turned off completely (or the English Lit major who still begs me pick up a pen and underline, underline, underline...).
This isn't a review of Wendy Mass's 11 Birthdays, but an opportunity to discuss writing elements, present in the book. Let me start by saying the book itself is quite fun and the two main characters, and their friendship, is wonderfully written and enjoyable to read. It's well worth the read.
There. That's out of the way.
Now, I want to talk about something that has always bugged me about a lot of upper middle grade and YA books -- the need to include random brand-name objects. In my opinion, this is a literary crime, propagated by either author or editor. I'm guilty of this myself in exactly one instance, from first novel, and I still wish I could edit it out. But I did it because I was describing a specific person that I actually knew, not because I was trying to be trendy. It doesn't justify the crime, but it certainly downgrades it to a misdemeanor.
A felony offense in this category is when the sole intent is to artificially make the story relatable. Given that most marketing experts think of kids as shallow and superficial, there is this compulsion to include objects in order to make things cool. The thinking when it comes inclusion of these references in books is that it will help the story feel immediate to a fickle audience...kids of this age are obsessed with having the cool things and are terrified of seeming uncool is the standard line of thinking...therefore, let's do that with the characters.
Besides the fact that I believe kids are more than easily manipulated consumers, here's my problem with the above line of thinking -- though outward appearances are certainly of utmost importance in adolescences, it doesn't need to manifest itself with brand-names. Books are an inward experience. They don't need to include a laundry list of popular brands because nobody but the reader is witnessing it. In a movie, being a social setting for the most part, I can understand the importance of dressing the characters and styling the set to appeal to standards of hipness. But a book is different. As long as the concept is clear, the reader will visualize whatever objects apply to them.
Ultimately, I think the brand naming detracts from a book more often than it adds. It quickly dates the book down the road. It can have the opposite impact if a certain reader finds a certain product to be "uncool." And it just isn't necessary. 11 Birthdays is a perfect example of that. The story and human relationships are powerful enough to carry to the book and endear readers to it. Therefore, these objects felt like a gimmick. I suppose the writing lesson I'm trying impart is that detail doesn't need to mean brand names. For example, the Spongebob balloon in the book would have been just as effective it were some other identifying factor. And in ten years...how will that product signifier affect and possibly detract from a fantastic and meaningful story? Something I think writers should always consider.
Once again, I recommend the book. It's a wonderful read. But what is a blog for if not to rant about pet peeves?