She has a cute button nose, and pigtails bound with Hello Kitty bobbles. She has scuffed sneakers and a Catholic-school skirt and a SpongeBob backpack that bounces as she kick-rides her scooter down the street.
She’s hot. She’s 25. Growing up used to be so inexorable. Playing house and dress-up and Monopoly, and sneaking smokes behind the gym, were prep and rehearsal for a final destination at whose gates you shucked your toys and Keds and sippy cups.
Not anymore. We call them Nike Shox and water bottles now, but still. We tell ourselves, and a flock of new authors pat our heads and tell us too, that we aren’t silly spoiled brats refusing to relinquish our own Starburst-sweet and Frito-salty past. They reenvision that past, projecting ideals into it, exalting H.R. Pufnstuf. They tell us fairy tales aren’t about wanting to wear crowns and boil wolves: They’re about Marxist applause for “the downtrodden and underprivileged,” spawned by “an irreverent peasant culture that arose in conscious opposition to the feudal state’s ruling class” such that “the more Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and Snow White are victimized by the powers of evil … the more captivating their triumphs are” as we “indulge in fantasies of … empowerment,” Maria Tatar asserts in Grimm’s Grimmest (Chronicle, $22.95). And those tales we call Grimm’s are coded feminist tracts whose provenance wasn’t the brothers but “in fact, women, and, what’s more, they were educated ladies” whose collective legacy instilled in countless young souls “deep gender ironies and paradoxes,” Valerie Paradiz ventures in Clever Maids (Basic, $23).
You’re not puerile. You’re revolutionary. Retro. A pop-culture curator. It’s irony, bro. Toys aren’t toys but “urban vinyl” — your companions on “a journey from wishspace to reality” during which you “transfer personality to and through them in an avatarlike way,” Woodrow Phoenix explains in Plastic Culture (Kodansha, $29.95). As for Nancy Drew: “We learned from her how to think for ourselves, how to jump into adventure … how to get to the truth and, perhaps most importantly, how to spin into action when things are not right,” Melanie Rehak contends in Girl Sleuth (Harcourt, $25). As “a girl who could do what she wanted to do in a world that was largely the province of men,” Nancy outfoxed her own origins as a commodity created in a male mind for mass consumption. Thus “A Ride with Nancy Drew” is a course starting September 18 at Indiana State University, and English 360K at Purdue this term — “Gender and Literature,” probing “how gender intersects with sex, class, and sexual orientation in shaping authorship, reading, and representation” — includes Nancy Drew mysteries among its few required texts.
Picture anything like this happening when adulthood was still okay. Picture your parents majoring in Daffy Duck.
Superman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men teach you about quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, laminar flow, and velocity in The Physics of Superheroes (Gotham, $15) by James Kakalios. Dumbledore and Quidditch inspire management advice in Tom Morris’ If Harry Potter Ran General Electric: Leadership Wisdom from the World of the Wizards (Currency, $24.95).
A poet and critic who writes for Salon and The Nation, Rehak aches to persuade you that reading about Nancy — and her pals, boyish George and full-bodied Bess — wasn’t just whiled-away time but badass boot camp. “Activist icon” Nancy, albeit spawned in 1929 by 67-year-old businessman Edward Stratemeyer (he originally named her “Stella Strong”), was developed by Iowa journalist Mildred Wirt, who wrote The Secret of the Old Clock based on Stratemeyer’s outline and churned out six more Nancy books over the next two years. Earning between $85 and $125 per book, without royalties or rights to the material, she would eventually write 22 volumes in the series. Stratemeyer’s daughter Harriet and other authors, including two men, wrote the rest. An athlete, a working wife and mother with a master’s degree, “Mildred was a feminist at heart,” Rehak assures us, “even if she preferred not to be labeled one.” And the cred just keeps on comin’. Wirt produced 1945’s The Clue in the Crumbling Wall “as America, and its women, emerged from another world war more powerful than ever.”
Nancy was an export, like Coke. Swedish girls knew her as “Kitty Drew”; Finnish girls as Paula; to the French, who could not pronounce “Drew,” the Stratemeyer Syndicate sold her as “Alice Roy.” Wirt cranked out books within weeks — like Kerouac without the bennies — beside her bedridden husband. Harriet Stratemeyer helmed an editorial empire while raising four kids, then mourning a soldier son. Blueprints for maturity, they almost vanish amid the whoosh of Rehak inflating one PC balloon after another: Wirt’s alma mater, the University of Iowa, “had a longstanding reputation for progressiveness and equality.”
That’s why we still love Lucky Charms: progressiveness. That’s why Plastic Culture, a picture book about injection-molded Japanese toys, has on its cover a doll’s fist, glossy and thrust upright. Solidarity! Right on! Inside, we learn that “vinyl is the blank canvas for a new kind of artistic expression” and meet designers such as Takashi Murakami, who makes smileyface daisies and muses, “There is something interactive and nurturing about creating a 3D model that sits with you and keeps you company.” We also learn that Hello Kitty has a pet cat, Charmmy. The implications — eww. World headquarters for adults dandling toys, dressing as cartoon characters, and eroticizing schoolgirls, Japan is where the boardroom really meets the playroom, where both meanings of punk merge. Junko Mizuno designs blood-spattered dolls whose wigs detach to expose gooey brains. “I like cute toys,” she says, but she’s also influenced by violence, namely “animals killing each other.”
Is that how we are? Stuck between too-scary life and Neverland? Christopher Noxon extols “maintaining wonder, trust, and silliness in a world where these qualities are often in short supply” in Rejuvenile (Crown, $23.95), his canticle for a “new breed of adult, identified by a commitment to remain playful, energetic, and fun in the face of adult responsibilities.” Grownups just wanna have fun — and Noxon details the diaper fetishists and cookie-themed speed-metal music to prove it.
Smurfs and Tomb Raider: Now, it’s a commitment. These books and more — such as Philip Orbanes’ forthcoming history of Monopoly — evince the contradictions that maroon us at the gates of maturity, snarling yarrr on Talk Like a Pirate Day — this year it’s September 19 — while pretending we’re not Disney’s whores. We want it both ways. Cerebral and primal. Present and past. The macho fuck-you of the fist but also the moppet wobble that exempts us from the generational ruling class. What a luxury. If push came to shove and we were called to combat, we’d be toast, whimpering in our Tintin shirts, caught playing with Penis Pokey (Quirk, $9.95): Cardboard like the books of our childhoods, Christopher Behrens’ new release comprises cute, colorful scenes — fireman clutching hose, vendor proffering hot dog, the Loch Ness monster — each with a cutout hole through which to thrust … you know.