When my sister and I were kids, we used to play next to (and sometimes on) the dumpsters in the parking lot while my mother cleaned offices. At the age of twenty-two, my mom was a single parent of two small children, putting herself through college while working as a waitress and cleaning lady. We were on food stamps and participated in WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). I had free lunch at school. Welfare paid for our childcare so my mom could work and take classes, and somehow, we managed to squeak by.
Eventually my mom graduated and took a job as a teacher, and things improved. They improved even more when she remarried and we became a two-income household. My lunches went from free to reduced-price. And by high school I paid top dollar for my soggy pizza and curly fries and had an allowance of three dollars a week. Which wasn’t half bad in the 1980s, all things considered.
I was a smart kid and did well at school. I got a generous financial-aid package to attend Harvard and found myself living in the Yard, taking classes from future and former US Cabinet officials when I was the age my mom had been when she was cleaning offices and struggling to put food on the table. I was surrounded by private school kids and legacy students. To say I experienced culture shock is putting it mildly.
Sometimes it seems that current YA is drowning in a sea of cookie cutter folklore. Vampires and werewolves and zombies, oh my! And when I’ve spoken on panels at conferences about how to come up with ideas for novels, a question I get time and time again boils down to, “How do I make my (vampires/werewolves/zombies) unique?”
And I always answer the same way: “Use something new.”
When I say that, I don’t mean that you should make your vampires shiny or sparkly. I mean that there’s so much more folklore out there to draw upon. Why stay stuck in the rut of western Europe? I love me some Brothers Grimm as much as the next guy, and you have to give props to that Hans Christian Andersen fellow, but there’s so much more folklore to be explored.
One of the problems seems to be that as soon as you say “something other than western European,” people jump ship to other tried and true milieus. Chinese and Japanese. Greek and Roman. Maybe some Egyptian. Pyramids are cool, right?
I was in the same boat. I thought that if it wasn’t something I’d heard about growing up, then it wasn’t “folklore.” Somehow I’d made the assumption that folklore was this big shared pool of common knowledge. Anything anyone had to contribute would be something I would have been exposed to through Disney, right?