The undead bring reading to life

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KINGSTON, R.I. – July 9, 2010 – Vampires battling with werewolves. Forbidden romance. Life or immortality, love or friendship. It’s safe to say The Twilight Saga has a little bit for everyone, which explains the throngs of moviegoers who made their way to theaters over the weekend to catch a story they already know, as the latest installment Eclipse hit the big screen.

“Moms and daughters are reading the books together, and the war between werewolves and vampires draws in boys as well,” according to University of Rhode Island Library and Information Studies instructor Aaron Coutu. “The characters in the Twilight story tie in with what people are going through in their lives. These are feelings that do transcend different age levels. There are themes in there anyone can relate to: moving to a new area, going to a new school, being afraid of an attraction for someone else. These are core emotions for teens and adults.”

As a result, the books are affecting relationships between adults and teens who are finding a common ground in their love for the books.

“The success of Harry Potter and Twilight has implemented a lot of bonding between parents and children,” Coutu said. “Moms and daughters are reading the books together and then talking about them. What’s interesting is the number of male readers of different ages. There is enough of an appeal to Twilight because of the war between werewolves and vampires to draw in all readers.”

At the same time, Coutu and Gale Eaton, director of URI’s Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, both have concerns about the lack of depth of the Twilight characters.

“The whole idea behind Bella’s character is that, ‘girl sees boy, girls wants boy, and girl gives everything up to be with boy’ ” Eaton said. “Bella is not interested in a career path, or going to college. There are concerns over what message that is sending to the millions of young readers following the story.”

Eaton points out how the Twilight series pays homage to literary classics with, references to Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, but isn’t particularly new. “The Twilight stories are effective in linking its own circumstances to classics, which is a sneaky way to get kids to become interested in classics,” she said. “The story itself is so incredibly old-fashioned. Bella is so committed to and obsessed with Edward that she has difficulty seeing a world beyond him.”

The success of the Twilight series follows the path blazed by J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series, another storyline that features several male and female protagonists. However, Eaton sees far greater imagination and value in the Potter series.

“For one thing, Harry Potter is a fantasy version of Charles Dickens,” Eaton said. “You have an orphan who is terribly treated. He meets people with funny names and peculiar eccentricities, and there was a lot of imagination used in creative the world in which the characters live.”

As for the next potential craze for young adults, Coutu points to Suzanne Collins’ series The Hunger Games.

“More and more, we are seeing publishers let authors write stories that are not necessarily targeting one specific audience,” Coutu said. “These books have male and female characters that don’t always fit into stereotypes. “Literature has a way of reflecting what is going on in society. As a result, what we are seeing are not as many boy books or girl books, but rather, books that are well rounded.”

Coutu said the state of the book industry is directly tied to the film industry. He takes it as a good sign that more and more new movie releases stem from novels.

“People were worried about the death of books,” Coutu said. “Whether it was because of the availability of new technologies or other reasons, we assumed that young people would not be reading as much as previous generations.”

Instead, he is seeing an upward trend in people, male and female, getting together to read.

“It bodes well for our future that literacy is moving forward,” Coutu said. “Prior to the phenomenon of these books, I don’t know that we saw the same level of reading as a form of socialization. These stories have made reading part of what more people are doing for fun. They are not relying just on TV and the movies.”

(Coutu, who teaches courses in Public Library Human Services, General Public Library Services and Reading Interest in Young Adults at URI, is the Young Adult Librarian at Greenville Public Library in Smithfield. He also is the chair of the Rhode Island Teen Book Award, collaborative project of the Rhode Island Education Media Association (RIEMA) and the Rhode Island Library Assocation (RILA). The group promotes quality literature for teens ages 12 to 18.)