Mindi Henderson with "Bella's truck" in Forks, Washington
Henderson is a Twihard, a nickname given to Twilight’s biggest fans. It’s not an easy path.
“People act like it’s something to be embarrassed about,” she says. “It’s become this shameful thing.” Friends have told her Twilight author Stephenie Meyer is a bad writer; that her favorite character, Bella, is weak. They have criticized the series for not following “vampire rules” about sunlight, crosses and mirrors. But one of the most common criticisms older fanatics of Twilight, The Hunger Games and Harry Potter hear is that they are just too old for it.
“Some people are just button pushers,” Henderson says. “I have a friend that’s 72, and she comes to midnight releases with us.”
But, says Anne Jamison, a University of Utah English professor, there’s no such thing as too old, even when the books are targeted at tweens. “People like reading stories about things they can relate to, and these adult readers have been teenagers,” she says.
The question is: Why are older Utahns in particular so crazy about young adult fiction?
According to the 2010 Census, Utah has the youngest median age and the largest households in the nation. At The King’s English bookstore, Neville says parents buy books their kids are reading to make sure they’re age appropriate, then often get interested in the stories themselves. On top of that, Neville says a lot of the authors of these books are from Utah. “And a lot of them are on the national stage,” she notes.
Shannon Hale was the first Utah author to be recognized by the Newbery Committee for her book Princess Academy, and Utah is home to bestselling authors like James Dashner, who wrote The Maze Runner, and Jessica Day George, who wrote the Dragon Slippers trilogy and Princess of the Midnight Ball. Local author Ally Condie was a featured author at BYU’s Symposium on Books for Young Readers last July, alongside well-known novelists Nic Bishop and Jack Gantos. Meanwhile BYU, the University of Utah and Westminster College all offer courses for English majors on young adult fiction, encouraging more local authors to enter the fray.
But it was Twilight, Neville says, that put Utah’s young adult fiction scene on the map. And much of its popularity here can be traced to author Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon roots. Deseret Book, a bookstore chain owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, carried the series for a time, and even after the fourth book came out with mixed reviews about Edward and Bella consummating their marriage, customers could special order the book.
Some readers say they see parallels between the Twilight series and Mormon doctrine.
“I totally notice it,” says Henderson. “I know it’s not supposed to be a religious book, but the way Bella becomes perfect in the end [of the fourth book, Breaking Dawn], how her capacity to see and feel and all her senses are expanded—that seems like it’s based on Mormon doctrine. We’re taught that we’re celestial beings, and I think that’s what it would be like reaching our full potential.”
While Henderson says it might just be a coincidence, Christine Seifert, author of the young adult book The Predicteds and an English professor at Westminster College, also sees hints of Meyer’s Mormon faith in Twilight. “It’s not a completely LDS notion, but the idea in Twilight of a true love and finding that person against all odds speaks to people here,” she says, equating the idea to the Church’s doctrine of eternal marriage. About three years ago, Seifert wrote an article for feminist pop culture magazine Bitch on Twilight’s soaring popularity and the new genre in young adult fiction she says it started, which she dubs “abstinence porn,” or the lack of sex in an intense romance story. “I never meant for it to be a critique of readers or the books,” she says. “But the books set up this idea that relationships revolve around sex.”
Online, the article has more than 400 comments, many in protest of Seifert’s claim. “This book is not about social issues today,” says one commenter. “It’s about a male vampire and a human girl who fall in love. It’s not realistic, no one is going to go home and be like ‘Oh, well, when I fall in love with a vampire…’ It’s not real. Period.”
Seifert wrote the article when Breaking Dawn had just hit shelves, and she noticed the number one talking point among fans was whether Bella and Edward would have sex. “Edward and Bella really don’t have a deeper connection with each other,” she says. “Largely, the books focus on their physical attraction and that can be dangerous for young readers.”
She says her focus is on the idea that abstinence becomes a turning point in the book—whether or not Bella will lose her virginity to Edward is contingent on her later becoming a vampire. “And once she becomes a vampire, there’s the point of no return,” she says. “That’s a really dangerous place to put girls, where your identity hinges on your virginity.”
And in Utah, Seifert says it’s no wonder so many female fans relate to Bella. Women in the state tend to marry an average of three and a half years earlier than the rest of the nation and have limited sexual experience, often a reflection of the Mormon faith.
“The popular culture around them is so sexualized, and they are trying to resist that,” Seifert says. “Likewise, Bella is tempted by Edward, but she has to resist. He reminds her of that, which also sets him up as the guardian of her chastity.”