But the Tigers Come at Night
THE DEFENDANT: Tiger Eyes, Judy Blume
THE VERDICT: Tiger Eyes itself, censored even before publication, has received its share of challenges, coming in at #89 on the ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 1999. However, Tiger Eyes is but one jewel in the crown of the Empress of YA herself, Judy Blume. Though beloved by generations of fans (including Amy Poehler and John Green), Judy Blume has long been a lightning rod for censorship and controversy.
Four other novels of hers graced that same list, with Forever; Blubber; Deenie; and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret coming in at number 7, 30, 42, and 60 respectively. Her controversial nature did not wane in the decades she’s been writing, as Blume came in on the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Authors list 7 times between 2001-2011, even bagging the #1 spot in 2005 and snagging second after J. K. Rowling in 2002. There’s even a special note about her on the ALA’s “Most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century“.
In addition, a scene of Tiger Eyes in which Davey masturbates while thinking of Wolf was removed from the manuscript prior to publication. You can read more about Judy Blume’s history with censorship and how she honestly tackles such scandalous things as puberty in this NPR interview.
THE CHARGES: According to Goodreads and the South Carolina State University Libraries website, Tiger Eyes was banned for its portrayal of underage drinking, alcoholism, suicide, loss, and sexuality/sexual feelings.
THE REVIEW: Tiger Eyes is a YA novel about loss, trauma, and recovery. It tells the story of fifteen-year-old Davey Wexler. After the violent death of her father, Davey develops PTSD. This prompts her mother to move the family from Atlantic City to the presumed safety of Los Alamos, where Davey’s aunt and uncle live. It is there that she meets a local boy called Wolf, whose surprising friendship helps Davey navigate death and healing, her mother’s growing depression and drug abuse, the paranoid coddling of her over-cautious aunt Bitsy, and the culture shock of the elitist and sheltered Los Alamos.
Somehow, I did not read Tiger Eyes in high school. There was actually remarkably little Judy Blume in my childhood (with the exception of a hand-me-down Superfudge I happened upon and Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing permanently existing in the ether of every classroom in my elementary school). And what a shame that is. I love this book. Not only is it a solidly written tale with engrossing characters, but I could practically feel my teenage self feeling understood.
Often books that tackle teen issues try too hard to be edgy or come across as cheesy and disingenuous as their out of touch authors try to sound hip to the young folks today. Tiger Eyes avoids both of these pitfalls. It offers a message without insisting upon itself. And, though written over thirty years ago, it doesn’t sound schmalty or out of touch. Although there is something about the book (both in theme and in writing style) that makes me wonderfully nostalgic for the books of my 90s childhood.
Tiger Eyes is a genuine look at teenagers, whether they are experiencing the first stirrings of sexual attraction, desperately struggling to live up to their parents’ expectations, or seeking to find a way of expressing themselves in a less than ideal family dynamic. Tiger Eyes avoids being overly angsty but does explore the feelings of anger, resentment, and powerlessness felt by teenagers when the adults responsible for them are not so responsible.
Blume excellently portrays Davey’s awkward position of being financially and logistically dependent on those who are harming her or making her life harder. This feeling of being unable to speak up or stand up for yourself without being seen as ungrateful or petulant is one many teens, and many people for that matter, can relate to. Just because you are indebted to or dependent on someone doesn’t mean your concerns are invalid.
In addition, Tiger Eyes is one of the better portrayals of PTSD, anxiety, and the aftermath of trauma out there. Most interesting is how Davey’s mother holds it together when Davey is passing out and refusing to leave the house, but completely falls apart the moment she no longer has to hold Davey up. Those able to function most normally after a loss or traumatic event may not have bounced back any faster or be any less distraught, but are merely taking the Downton Abbey approach of carrying on and keeping everything together, since no one else is. This survival tactic does not mean they’re okay and ignoring their quiet suffering until it’s too late can have disastrous consequences.
Tiger Eyes also provides compassion for the struggles of others in a number of ways. Jane’s arc shows that everyone has their problems, no matter how privileged they are or how perfect their life may seem on the outside. Davey is so concerned with her own problems that she does not think about how Jane and Wolf may also be facing hardships. Even those who are failing or disappointing her most (her mother, her abusive uncle, Aunt Bitsy) are dealing with some serious things of their own and deserve compassion even as she holds them accountable.
Many characters in the book resent others for not reacting, living, or mourning correctly (read: their way). Davey is mad that Jason doesn’t appear sad, Davey’s mother doesn’t want to talk about what happened at all whereas Davey needs to, and Aunt Bitsy gets mad at Davey for taking risks when Davey is trying to heal from her crippling anxiety and awareness of risks in mundane activities/encounters. In the end, we all grieve and heal in different ways and should all be a little more understanding with one another.
It’s interesting that Davey judges Jane for her fear of being raped by the local men when she thought Wolf was going to rape or murder her the first time they met. However, Jane’s fear is due to the race of the men in question whereas Davey was merely afraid of everyone due to her heightened sense of danger. Which is perhaps the difference between Davey and her mother (who start off frightened of everything) and Jane or Aunt Bitsy (who Davey judges for being frightened of everything). Davey and her mother’s fears come from their newfound knowledge of the reality of the world. Jane and Aunt Bitsy’s fear comes from their sheltered innocence (read: ignorance) of the rest of the world.
The book tries to reconcile realistic caution with a need to live fully. Grieving is normal, fear is normal, being unable to deal with the shoes that drop is normal, needing to escape for a while is normal. But allowing these things to derail us or keep us from living is as harmful as avoiding our problems all together. Tiger Eyes does not tie up every loose end or resolve every conflict, but it does offer a road to recovery and a glimpse at hope and happiness. It is not really a story of loss, but of the life that comes after.
THE DEFENSE: YA and children’s books that examine real feelings and issues rather than bland romps through idealism have long made people uncomfortable. It seems like all a teen novel needs to do to be shocking is show anything remotely resembling teenagers. I wrote a post a little while back about Judy Blume, Tiger Eyes, and why YA in particular attracts so much scorn and scandal. You can read it here.
For some reason the fact that bad things happen to those under age 21 and that said underage individuals may have actual feelings about it, is an outrage to many. Admittedly, what goes on with “kids these days” may be unsettling to parents, but 1) Not letting your child read about the realities faced by many teenagers does not keep them from being one. I’m certain they could tell you far more shocking tales than anything in a YA novel. 2) Most parents did not grow up in Pleasantville. Alcohol, sloppy make-outs, death, pressures to succeed, less than stellar parenting, and family troubles are not new. Why is it such a shock that children face the same troubles their parents did?
In fact, Tiger Eyes was published in 1981. That first generation of fans have since become parents themselves. Hopefully when their children pick up the same book that helped them, they will react with empathy rather than moral outrage. That is the real bounty of multi-generational classics and fans. Not only can the book help wayward teens find some bit of understanding, validation, or hope, but the book can help parents and children begin a conversation and share something.
Alcoholism exists. Drug abuse (by adults no less! not just those crazy kids with their rock and roll music!) exists. Suicide exists even if it never happens in this book (not sure why that’s on the list of objections). Gun violence exists (and happens extremely often in the US). Cancer exists. People die. People disappoint us, even those who are supposed to be reliable or mature. Parents make mistakes (gasp!). Tiger Eyes offers a way to understand the world and the faults of those around us in a manner that mends fences rather than burning bridges.
The issues with sex surprise me most as there is remarkably little sexual content in Tiger Eyes and much of that is portrayed negatively or ambiguously. Jane has unglamorous sloppy make-outs before vomiting and being unceromoniously dumped, Davey gets handsy down on the beach but the guy in question skips out when things get real, and Davey’s parents’ bright futures are dashed when an unexpected pregnancy trades college and athletic stardom for a dead-end job and children to support.
Yes, Davey talks to her cat, Minka, about physical attraction and her newfound budding sexuality (emphasis on budding) and she does have some giddy feelings for Wolf, but these are rather innocent. In fact, it is unclear if any of the teenagers in this book are sexually active, as they seem to stay in that safe neutral zone of contemplating sexual feelings without thinking about the sex itself. While Davey does think Wolf is attractive and imagines having children with him, there’s no inklings of getting from point A to point B.
The most she does to act on her emotions with Wolf is to kiss him. Given that teenagers have been having sex in books and films for decades, the lack of explicit sex should make this book rather tame. However, I suppose women having stirrings of desire all on their own is more shocking in some prudish circles than teen girls having crazy sex at the behest of a sexually voracious male suitor.
Which brings me to the masturbation scene that got cut. I can name a dozen shows and books that prominently feature male masturbation off the top of my head, but HBO’s Girls is all that comes to mind for female masturbation. While some of said books are also banned, the fact that teenage boys masturbate doesn’t really boggle the mind. In fact, people might be more surprised if a teenage boy didn’t masturbate or wasn’t thinking about sex.
And this is where the myth of female disinterest popularized in Victorian/Edwardian times (before that, it was commonly thought that men were at the mercy of women’s “insatiable carnal lust”) rears its ugly head. Women and young girls can be sexualized, lusted after, exploited, and placed in compromising or voyeuristic positions, all for the gratification of a male audience. Yet the moment a woman explores or exerts her sexuality for a purpose other than to be enjoyed or viewed by men, we all work ourselves into a tizzy.
It’s why rape is rated R and women enjoying sex is rated NC-17. It’s why women in video games can be voyeuristic eye candy but can’t have romantic cut scenes in which they have agency and make a move rather than having sexual things done to them. ‘Cause, y’know, that would be too gay for all those male gamers (female gamers don’t exist). Women being sexual is normal to us. Women having sex is normal to us. Even women masturbating for the gratification of male viewers is normal to us.
But the moment men are removed from the equation (Wolf presumably neither knew Davey masturbated while thinking about him nor did he get to watch), and women are shown having their own feelings, needs, and agency, it is no longer okay because, culturally, women’s sexuality still belongs to and exists for men. I, for one, wish the scene had been left in as such a scene is neither extreme nor statistically unlikely (yes, teenage girls masturbate in high numbers too). Perhaps this might make male readers awkward or uncomfortable, but I manage to weather numerous references to male masturbation and male sexuality without feeling unable to connect to the characters or their story.
Speaking of alienating male readers and since we’ve been discussing gendered covers on this blog a lot lately, let’s discuss this version of the Tiger Eyes cover for a moment, shall we?
1) Nothing says a powerful meditation on PTSD, loss, and trauma like a whimsical, bubblegum pink cover. This book was written by a woman. Davey is a girl. Girl books aren’t about serious things. That’s silly. It’s not like they’re people with emotions and challenges unrelated to their lady parts and girl thoughts. In the words of Red vs. Blue “All these girls want to talk about is chick stuff, and not the fun chick stuff like ribbons and unicorns but the boring stuff, like oppression and a hostile work environment.”
2) Boys couldn’t possibly relate to an angry teenager dealing with out of touch or absent parents, friends unable to address their problems, and trying to fit in. It’s not like I could relate to the main character of Superfudge. Sure, he went through a lot of the things I did, but he had that darn Y chromosome.
3) This book takes place in Los Alamos (i.e. the desert). Where on god’s not so green earth did Davey get a dandelion? WTF? This cover has literally nothing to do with anything in the book, even compared to other unrelated “girl” covers.
Stay tuned for my review of the Tiger Eyes movie.