Block, Francesca Lia 1962–
Francesca Lia BlockINTRODUCTION
American novelist, poet, autobiographer, and author of young adult novels, short stories, nonfiction, and fairy tales.
The following entry presents an overview of Block's career through 2005. For further information on her life and works, see CLR, Volume 33.
Combining wildly disparate elements of fantasy and realism, Block's unconventional young adult novels are known for highlighting a number of sensitive social issues closely related to her teenaged readers, such as drug use, casual sex, and homosexuality. While Block's open dialogues have earned her the enmity of some parents who fear that her portrayals glamorize her taboo subject material, her novels have nonetheless earned critical appreciation for their unique voice and ability to reach otherwise reluctant readers. With the publication of her debut novel, Weetzie Bat (1989), Block set the agenda for a new direction in young adult novels for the 1990s: stories of the Los Angeles subculture replete with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll—stories for adults and young adults alike. With a cast of characters ranging from Weetzie Bat, a punk princess in pink, to her lover, My Secret Agent Lover Man, and her best friend Dirk and his boyfriend, to their common offspring, Witch Baby and Cherokee, Block's novels create postmodernist fairy tales in which love and art are the only cures in a world devoid of adult direction.
Block was born on December 3, 1962, in Los Angeles, California, to Irving Alexander Block, a painter, and Gilda Block, a poet. Upon graduating high school, Block enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley, where she earned her B.A. in English. As a student, she became an avid reader of the avant-garde poetry of H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and the magic-realist writings of Latin writers Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. As a part of her studies, Block participated in writing workshops with poets Jayne Walker and Ron Loewinsohn, who helped her develop her early poetry into prose-structured short stories. Drawing from their tutelage, she began writing the story that would eventually evolve into Weetzie Bat. After her graduation in 1986, Block returned to L.A. to spend time with her ailing father, who died shortly thereafter. She took a position at a local art gallery and wrote in her spare time, composing several novellas and short stories. During this period, Block met children's book illustrator Kathryn Jacobi, who passed her manuscript for Weetzie Bat to Harper-Collins editor Charlotte Zolotow. The young adult novel attracted strong reviews upon its publication in 1989, earning an American Library Association (ALA) citation. Zolotow encouraged Block to further explore Weetzie's universe, and Block has subse-quently published five additional novels that revolve around the young punk protagonist and her close circle of friends. In addition, Block has written several books that seemingly defy genre categorization and have earned her an increasingly loyal adult fan base, such as Ecstasia (1993), Primavera (1994), and Nymph (2000). Block lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Chris Schuette, and their two children. She is currently developing a teen-focused television series for MTV as well as writing a screenplay for a possible movie adaptation of Weetzie Bat. In addition to the numerous awards and accolades that she has received throughout her career, Block was honored with the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime contribution in writing in the young adult field in 2005.
Block's appeal as a novelist relies heavily on her exploration of issues rarely approached by other young adult writers. Discussing such taboo topics as casual sex, incest, homosexual desire, and drug use—all co-existing alongside elements of the fantastic and the surreal—Block presents a frank and nonjudgmental examination of themes that speak directly to the interests of her teenaged readers. She is perhaps best known for her books centered around the independent-minded Weetzie Bat, the title character of Block's 1989 novel, and the Los Angeles-based literary universe that the character inhabits. In Weetzie Bat, we are first introduced to the punk heroine Weetzie, the misunderstood and lonely daughter of divorced parents. Separating herself from her peers, Weetzie dresses and acts differently, but her life changes when she meets Dirk, a Mohawk-wearing punk in heavy mascara who seems to understand Weetzie as no one has before. Seeming soul-mates, despite Dirk's homosexuality, they become best friends and partners in life. Dirk introduces Weetzie to his grandmother, Fifi, who raised him. The elderly woman senses the desperate need for love in both teens and gives Weetzie a vase that contains a genie, who offers the astonished girl three wishes. Weetzie quickly asks for love (a "Duck" for Dirk and her own "Secret Agent Lover Man") and security for them both. All of her wishes come true in the form of a surfer nicknamed Duck and a real "Secret Agent Lover Man" (otherwise known as Max) for herself who moonlights as an independent filmmaker. Together, they inherit Fifi's house and become a family, which is quickly joined by Weetzie's baby, Cherokee, and another child left on their doorstep, whom they name Witch Baby; both children later star in their own books. Structurally, Block utilizes Los Angeles as the surreal magical realm where her protagonists reside, emphasizing the city's twin evocations as the land of Hollywood glamour as well as the home to a seedy underbelly of lost souls. Often referred to as "Shangri-L.A." or "Hell-A" by Block, the city is as much a character in the Bat stories as Weetzie or Dirk. For her part, Block even goes as far as calling Weetzie Bat "my love letter to the Angeles I missed, the lullaby that consoled me."
In the sequel Witch Baby (1991), the abandoned child taken in by Weetzie now has purple eyes and a shock of black hair. The teenager spends her time collecting newspaper clippings of tragedies in an attempt to better understand the world. Ultimately, Witch Baby searches to find her real mother, which allows her to deal with her place in Weetzie Bat's extended family. With the next installment of the Bat family saga, Block further pursued the theme of family loyalty and the importance of love and a balance of spiritual powers in the world. Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (1992) opens with Block's adult characters—Weetzie Bat and her friends—off on a filming expedition in South America. Teenaged Cherokee and Witch Baby are left under their own care, and soon team up with Raphael Chong Jah-Love and Angel Juan Perez to form a rock band called the Goat Guys. The four friends depend on powerful mystical gifts from a Native American family friend, Coyote, to aid their performances. The group is an instant hit, but quickly the euphoria goes to the musicians' heads as the band loses itself in sex and drugs. Block moved the action of Missing Angel Juan (1993) to New York City when Witch Baby's boyfriend, Angel Juan, decides to pursue his musical career in the Big Apple. Witch Baby misses him and soon follows Angel Juan to New York, and the book revolves around her search for him—aided by the ghost of Weetzie's father—through the nightmare world of Manhattan. In 2005's Necklace of Kisses, the romance has faded out of Weetzie and Secret Agent Lover Man's relationship ever since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. As a response, Weetzie moves into L.A.'s exclusive and magical Pink Hotel, where she communicates with a range of mythical creatures, including her father's ghost. Block has also authored a prequel to Weetzie Bat—Baby Be-Bop (1995)—which gives readers the backstory of Weetzie's friend Dirk and the events surrounding his first open declaration of his homosexuality.
Reminiscent of the "Weetzie Bat" series, Block's Girl Goddess #9 (1996) and I Was a Teenage Fairy (1998) deal with similar themes: young people fighting to come to grips with a rapidly changing world and their place in it. Girl Goddess #9 is a collection of nine short stories about girls, with the stories arranged chronologically; the first tales are about toddlers, while the last one concerns a young woman entering college. The novel I Was a Teenage Fairy is a modern-day fairy tale about a girl named Barbie who is being pushed into modeling by her mother. The appearance of an acid-tongued, finger-sized fairy named Mab changes Barbie's life and eventually helps her overcome the emotional trauma of being molested by a well-known photographer whose crime was ignored by the girl's mother. Block's novel Violet and Claire (1999) is the story of the friendship that develops between two wildly different teenage girls. Seventeen-year-old Violet is an aspiring filmmaker and an outsider at her high school. Past depression and a suicide attempt have left her hard-edged and isolated; she devotes her time to studying the films she loves and writing her own screenplay. She eventually meets Claire, a poet with glittering gauze fairy wings sewn on the back of her Tinker Bell t-shirt, and the two become fast friends. As the novel unfolds, the friendship between Violet and Claire is tested as the girls are divided by personal ambition and the intrusion of the outside world. Violet is willingly seduced by a rock star who gets her a job with an agent, while Claire enrolls in a poetry workshop and becomes attached to the instructor. The action reaches its peak at a wild party the girls attend after Violet sells a screenplay. Claire flees into the desert, and Violet follows in search of her. While fantastic elements are prevalent throughout Block's novels, The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold (2000) is perhaps Block's most overt attempt to redefine the fairy tale form for a modern audience. Featuring nine brief reworkings of folklore classics, Block's stories involve strong elements of contemporary drama and adult issues. For example, in the author's reinterpretation of "Sleeping Beauty"—titled "Charm"—the heroine is released from her prison of drug addiction by a lesbian kiss. Furthermore, in "Wolf," Block's retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood," the lead character is a physically and sexually abusive stepfather (a metaphoric wolf-like predator) who is murdered by his stepdaughter.
One of the leading proponents of contemporary fairy tales, Block's willingness to buck literary conventions has earned her both accolades and animosity. District libraries, including those in Montgomery County, Texas, and Fairfax County, Virginia, have seen recent challenges to her works, with offended parents accusing her books of promoting promiscuity and homosexuality. And yet, many critics have argued that Block's novels reach a neglected segment of young adults who feel little connection to most available literature for juvenile readers. Karen Williams has stated that Weetzie Bat is a particularly appealing book for "students hesitant or skeptical towards mainstream reading assignments." Block's supporters have asserted that her novels present a surprisingly warm, albeit unconventional, presentation of family values given their nontraditional methodology. Critics have also praised Block's lyrical sensibilities in combining prose with poetics to create a unique and powerful voice that blends modern slang with the author's descriptive virtuosity. In presenting Block with the 2005 Margaret A. Edwards Award, Committee Prize Chair Cindy Dobrez commended Block's ability to "take traditional folklore archetypes and translate them for contemporary teens with her inventive use of lyrical language—transforming gritty urban environments into a funky fairy tale dreamworld." However, some reviewers have accused Block of indulging in overly moralistic and aggressive happy endings. For example, the Publishers Weekly review of I Was a Teenage Fairy has claimed that the story's heroines "behave with an exaggerated flatness, as if the author were squeezing them into a happy ending one or two sizes too small." Others have suggested that Block paints her adult figures and other tangential characters too broadly, transforming all authority figures into caricatures. Despite such criticism, Block's young adult novels have widely been embraced as celebrations of the outcast youth and their ability to achieve their dreams. Echoing this optimistic view, David L. Russell has suggested, "We admire (Block's) female protagonists for their ability to face the world head on, to construct their own lives on their own terms, and ultimately for their willingness to abandon the fantasy without sacrificing the hope."
Young Adult Works
Weetzie Bat (young adult novel) 1989
Witch Baby (young adult novel) 1991
Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (young adult novel) 1992
Missing Angel Juan (young adult novel) 1993
The Hanged Man (young adult novel) 1994
Baby Be-Bop (young adult novel) 1995
Girl Goddess #9: Nine Stories (young adult short stories) 1996
∗Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books (young adult novels) 1998
I Was a Teenage Fairy (young adult novel) 1998
Zine Scene [with Hillary Carlip] (young adult nonfiction) 1998
Violet and Claire (young adult novel) 1999
The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold (young adult fairy tales) 2000
Echo (young adult novel) 2001
Wasteland (young adult novel) 2003
†Beautiful Boys: Two Weetzie Bat Books (young adult novels) 2004
‡Goat Girls: Two Weetzie Bat Books (young adult novels) 2004
Necklace of Kisses (young adult novel) 2005
Psyche in a Dress (young adult novel) 2006
Ruby: A Novel [with Carmen Staton] (young adult novel) 2006
Moon Harvest [illustrations by Irving Alexander Block] (poetry) 1978
Season of Green [illustrations by Irving Alexander Block] (poetry) 1979
Ecstasia (novel) 1993
Primavera (novel) 1994
Nymph (short stories) 2000
Guarding the Moon: A Mother's First Year (autobiography) 2003
∗Collects Weetzie Bat, Witch Baby, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, Missing Angel Juan, and Baby Be-Bop.
†Collects Missing Angel Juan and Baby Be-Bop.
‡Collects Witch Baby and Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys.
WEETZIE BAT (1989)
Karen Williams (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Williams, Karen. "Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block." In Rationales for Teaching Young Adult Literature, edited by Louann Reid and Jamie Hayes Neufeld, pp. 20-6. Portland, Maine: Calendar Islands Publishers, 1999.
[In the following essay, Williams examines how Weetzie Bat holds an unique appeal for teenagers who are typically unable to connect to normative young adult literature.]
Students in grades 9-12. Some topics demand maturity, but the reading is fast and easy. This would be a good book for students hesitant or skeptical toward mainstream reading assignments and a choice book for students studying fairy tales.
Weetzie, a spunky punk, feels she is the only one in her school who appreciates and understands the glam, glitter, and fantastical surroundings of L.A., until she meets Dirk, the most handsome boy in school. Weetzie, with her white flattop and Dirk with his "shoe-polish-black Mohawk" (4) and "dark smudged eyes" (6) find themselves in empty, self-sacrificing relationships while searching for soul mates they can't seem to find. Dirk's grandmother, Fifi, realizes their need for love and companionship and uses her canaries as examples of two "who are in love, but even before they were in love they knew they were going to be happy … they trusted … they have always loved themselves and they would never hurt themselves" (22). She then gives Weetzie a magical vase from which a genie emerges and grants Weetzie her three wishes of finding a soul mate for her, one for Dirk, and a place they can all share. An unexpected death takes Fifi and grants Weetzie's third wish by leaving Dirk and Weetzie her cottage. They soon find soul mates to share it with—Duck, a surfer boy, for Dirk and My Secret Agent Lover Man for Weetzie. All four now play in the fantastical city of L.A. and share the cottage.
The four friends face many difficulties but are ultimately brought together by love. Weetzie compares love and disease to electricity, both always there, offering the option to "plug into the love current …" (88).
Relationship of Weetzie Bat to the Program
Fantasy can be a form of escapism, both for the reader and the writer. Fantasy also serves a serious purpose in that it allows readers to re-create or re-imagine life from another perspective. There are two important issues that Weetzie Bat can raise for readers. First is the need to be aware of what is real, what really matters, while developing the wisdom to know what isn't real and doesn't matter. Weetzie's wisdom stems from the view that she is aware of the falseness of L.A., and this perceptiveness allows her to enjoy it. Her parents' lives mirror the man-made fantasy city of L.A., with their self-made reality of alcohol and drugs. Like Weetzie and Dirk in the beginning of the story, they are hurting, not loving themselves.
Second, the story plays with love as an element of both reality and fantasy. Self-love allows Weetzie and Dirk to find their soul mates, while the somewhat fantastical idea of unconditional love allows significant betrayals to be easily forgiven. Discussion of the story could reflect upon the positive attributes of self-love while comparing the ideal of unconditional love with the reality of unconditional love.
The story takes the reader into the special existence of Weetzie's vividly animated life in Shangri-L.A. (Los Angeles). There are fountains of tropical soda-pop colors; Jetson-style restaurants with roller-skating waitresses; and a replica of Venice, complete with canals and columns "but cooler because there are surfers in it" (4). Magically, colors are brighter, smells are more vivid, and scenery is intensified. The dramatic attention given to Weetzie's surroundings takes the reader on a tour through fantastical qualities of real life.
Impact of the Material on Readers
The story is a magically funny yet truthfully sad social commentary on the falseness and surrealism of today's society. In the book, the glam and glitz of L.A. are monstrously magnified. Real-life people—Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison—are turned into gods and goddesses through Hollywood and the fans who admire them. The wisdom of Weetzie, reflected in Fifi, lies in the ability to place herself beyond the fakeness and still enjoy it. Teens in fact and fiction often struggle with the tension between the ideal and real worlds. (Holden Caulfield comes to mind.) Through reading Weetzie Bat, students will be able to discuss this tension in terms of the world that they know.
The novel also provides readers with provocative ideas about love. Love serves as the intersection between reality and fantasy, but it also falls into both categories. Without love the characters are drifting and self-disparaging, as Weetzie and Dirk were before they met their soul mates. With love they are happy, given God-like abilities of unconditional love and absolute forgiveness. The capacity for self-love transcends the trappings of L.A., and only in conjunction with self-love are healthy relationships shown. But the absolute unconditional love, as displayed in the book, seems to fall more into the realm of fantasy in that the characters are able to completely accept and forgive each other, no matter how they are betrayed.
Potential Problems with Weetzie Bat and Ways to Address Them
The most controversial issues include sex without marriage, Dirk's sexual orientation (he is gay), and adult drug and alcohol use. In addition, some people may object to Block's use of fantasy. The issues and style are thematically necessary. First, Dirk's and Weetzie's search for soul mates, which involves sleeping with people who do not respect them, is essentially self-hurting. This behavior is not condoned. When the two are sad and think they will not find love, Fifi tells them they must first love themselves and have faith that they will find love—and they do.
Second, Dirk's gay relationships are parallel to Weetzie's heterosexual relationships—they both search for love. The need for love is not dependent on sexual orientation, and the story makes a strong point of the acceptance and unconditional love exhibited by all four friends.
The drug and alcohol use of Weetzie's parents is shown negatively; Weetzie's parents are trapped in their man-made fantasy world. Brandy-Lynn is a "bleach-blonde [actress] sparkling with fake jewels" (17). Charlie Bat is an artificial scenery maker, a creator of the unreal. Charlie falls in love with Brandy-Lynn's beauty and Brandy-Lynn falls in love with the romance. Similar to Dirk and Weetzie's initial unhealthy search for love, Brandy-Lynn and Charlie Bat's relationship is shallow and destructive. Their relationship was not based on self-love. Alcohol and drug use reinforce their destructive behavior.
Some people object to asking children and young adults to use their imagination. Joan DelFattore describes the objections of the Tennessee plaintiffs in Mozert v. Hawkins County:
They rejected all fairy tales and folk tales on the grounds that anything involving magic castles, enchanted forests, dragons, spells, unicorns, wizards, trolls, and the like promotes witchcraft and encourages children to create worlds inside their own minds instead of concentrating on the Word of God. Apart from the specific content of any particular fantasy, thinking imaginatively is wrong in itself because it tempts people to substitute their own ideas for God's.
Most people will understand the fantasy in Weetzie Bat as a necessary technique for coping with reality. Block establishes a dichotomy between the negative aspects of daily life and the positive joys of fantasy life. Yet it is through fantasy that the characters learn the importance of acceptance and unconditional love in the real world.
If parents or community members object to fantasy in general, the teacher needs to respect the sincerity of those beliefs. The student may need to be excused from any units that include works of fantasy. Teachers would offer an unrelated novel or work of nonfiction in that case. However, these students will not meet the objectives described earlier in this rationale.
Born in 1962, Francesca Lia Block is the award-winning author of eight novels read by young adults. Written in a blend of delightful magic and harsh reality, the novels speak about issues of importance to teens today—love and loss, power and powerlessness, phoniness and truth. Publisher Wendy Mass writes of the worlds Block creates: "Magic is always around the next corner and love is the axis around which the stories spin. These books blur the line between reality and fairy tales, and once you find yourself there, you'll never want to leave."
Block majored in English at UCLA and Berkeley, where she took creative writing and poetry classes. Her family background also influences the worlds she creates in her novels. She told Writes of Passage, a literary journal for teenagers, "As the daughter of a filmmaker turned painter, I learned to see the world through my senses; when I was growing up everything was about color and feeling, emotion and creative expression." Irene Lacher of the Los Angeles Times notes, "Weetzie was born as Block was edging into adulthood in a dazzling but uncertain L.A." (E1). In the same Times story, Lacher quotes from an essay Block wrote for the Times two years before: "While Los Angeles was full of fairy-tale magic and possibility for me, there was also a sense of encroaching darkness. My friends and I found ourselves confronted with punks wearing swastikas as fashion statements. People were beaten at concerts. There was the personal pain I was experiencing due to my father's illness. And there were the first terrifying signs of the disease that would later be named AIDS. I wrote Weetzie Bat as a celebration of the beauty and sparkle I had seen and as a way to deal with the suffering" (E1).
Weetzie Bat was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and an ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Readers. Critics praise Block's style and the topics she addresses:
Like liquid poetry, these books will melt into your consciousness, turning your world a little more like Weetzie's, where seeing through rose-colored glasses will show you everything you need to find. (Mass)
The book is full of magic, from the genie who grants Weetzie's wishes to the malevolent witch Vixanne, who visits the family three times. There are beauties and beasts and roses, castles and Cinderella transformations…. The language is inventive Californian hip, but the patterns are compactly folkloristic and the theme is transcendent.
An alternative work that contains elements of fantasy but not much social realism is Robin McKinley's Beauty, a retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast. Of course, those who object to fantasy may object to this story, too.
DelFattore, Joan. What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.
Hearne, Betsy. "Pretty in Punk." New York Times Book Reviews 21 May 1989, sec. 7: 47.
Lacher, Irene. "Weetzie Bat Proves Someone Understands." Los Angeles Times 25 Jan. 1994, home ed.: E1.
Mass, Wendy. "The Cool Block." Writes of Passage: The Literary Journal for Teenagers 1.2 (1995): n. pag. Online. Internet. 23 Mar. 1999. Available www.writes.org.
Jan Susina (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Susina, Jan. "The Rebirth of the Postmodern Flâneur: Notes on the Postmodern Landscape of Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat." Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 16, no. 2 (2002): 188-200.
[In the following essay, Susina explores how Block's depiction of her native Los Angeles in Weetzie Bat combines aspects of both realism and magic-laden fantasy, invoking critic Walter Benjamin's concept of the "Flâneur"—a wandering narrator who is at once an outsider and native to a particular urban setting.]
You can't explain Hollywood. There isn't any such place.
It's just the dream suburb of Los Angeles.
—Rachel Field, To See Ourselves (qtd. in McWilliams 330)
Francesca Lia Block deftly weaves descriptions of real and imaginary places in her contemporary literary fairy tales set in a dreamy, mythical Los Angeles. Grounded in an urban landscape fueled by the entertainment industry, Block's stories celebrate the fantasy of Hollywood, while simultaneously examining the details of contemporary Los Angeles. Her first novel Weetzie Bat, published in 1989, is a slender postmodern fairy tale intended for adolescent readers. In subsequent novels, Block has revisited the same group of characters and locations to produce the five-volume collection Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books (1998) which consists of Weetzie Bat and its three sequels Witch Baby (1991), Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (1992), Missing Angel Juan (1993); and the one prequel, Baby-Bop (1995). In the addition to her Dangerous Angels series, Block has explored a similar combination of fairy tales and contemporary adolescent culture in novels such as I Was a Teenage Fairy (1998), and the short-story collection The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold (2000). While Block is justly celebrated as one of the most innovative and challenging writers of contemporary adolescent novels, the Dangerous Angels series and, Weetzie Bat in particular, remain her most powerfully written literary fairy tales.
Whether Weetzie Bat is an accurate representation of the author's hometown or a dreamy fantasy has been debated since the book's publication. Horn Book printed an exchange between Patrick Jones and Patricia J. Campbell concerning the genre of the book. Jones situated the text in the tradition of young-adult texts, such as S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967), which deal with controversial topics; he found Weetzie Bat more focused on alternative lifestyles rather than the frequently censored issues of sex, violence, or language. Jones praised the language of Block's novel calling it a "pop-culture-driven, fable-laden, sentimental-tone prose poetry," and essentially read it as a fantasy, calling it both "strange" and "dreamlike" (700). Block has acknowledged the strong influence of magic realism on her writing, and has mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970) and Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits (1985) as influential texts ("Genie Story" 27). Campbell took exception to Jones's description of Block's novel as fantasy while acknowledging that there are "magical elements" in the book and that the tone is "pure fairy-tale" (57). But as a former Los Angeleno, Campbell insists no other writer has "written so accurately about the reality of life in Los Angeles" (57). She argues far from being a fantasy, Weetzie Bat is "documenting a very particular time and place" and that the author has "got it exactly right" (60).
A year after Block published Weetzie Bat, Mike Davis published City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990), his idiosyncratic and highly-politicized interpretation of the cultural geography of Los Angeles. Block and David seem to be discussing two different cities: Block presents a magical Los Angeles framed as a fairy-tale Hollywood, while Davis's sociological study of the urban landscape, which he describes as "Fortress L.A.," verges more on the nightmare and apocalyptic than the fairy tale. But the unattributed epigraph that Davis uses to introduce City of Quartz is useful for understanding both Block's metaphorical and Davis's literal rendering of Los Angeles. Davis extracts the second and third sentence from Walter Benjamin's "The Return of the Flâneur": "The superficial inducement, the exotic, the picturesque has an effect only on the foreigner. To portray a city, a native must have other, deeper motives—motives of one who travels into the past instead of into the distance. A native's book about his city will always be related to memories; the writer has not spent his childhood there in vain" (qtd. in Davis 1). Benjamin's "The Return of the Flâneur" is a review of Franz Hessel's Spaziern in Berlin (On Foot in Berlin), published in 1929. The same passage from "The Return of the Flâneur" appears in the second volume of Walter Benjamin's Selected Writings, in a slightly different translation by Rodney Livingston: "The superficial pretext—the exotic and the picturesque—appeals only to the outsider. To depict a city as a native would calls for other, deeper motives—the motives of the person who journeys into the past, rather than to foreign parts. The account of a city given by a native will always have something in common with memories; it is no accident that the writer has spent his childhood there" (Benjamin 262).
Benjamin's observation is helpful in explaining how Jones's and Campell's responses to Weetzie Bat can be contradictory and accurate. Indeed, Block is exactly that sort of native writer whose novel journeys into the Los Angeles past as well as into her own childhood, so that the text functions both as memoir and as travelogue. As Benjamin suggests elsewhere in "The Return of the Flâneur," the city is "a mnemonic for the lonely walker: it conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history" (262). Growing up in Los Angeles, Block left the city to attend the University of California-Berkeley where, as an English major, she was introduced to magic realism by writers such as Marquez and Allende. During her senior year at Berkeley, Block began writing Weetzie Bat, recalling that the novel had been written during "a very lonely time as a way to comfort myself with nostalgic memories of Los Angeles. I thought up most of the plot on my long walk home from school through the blossoming Berkeley hills" ("Genie Story" 28). Block's protagonist Weetzie, who navigates the streets and freeways of Los Angeles in her best friend Dirk's red 1955 Pontiac, is a postmodern version of Benjamin's flâneur. Just as Benjamin was surprised to discover in reading Hessel's Spazieren in Berlin that the rebirth of the flâneur "in Berlin, of all places, where it never really flourished" (263) noting that such an observer ought to be a creature of the strollable streets of Paris, it may come as a shock to discover the postmodern flâneur cruising the streets of Los Angeles rather than wandering the streets of New York City, but so it is. Block's description of Weetzie Bat as "my love letter to the Angeles I missed, the lullaby that consoled me" ("Genie Story" 28) evokes the same attitude that Benjamin praised in Hessel's descriptions of Berlin.
Block has noted that since many of her books are set in Los Angeles, "I suppose I've become known for my descriptions of that city" ("Genie Story" 32). With Weetzie Bat, Block has seemingly contributed a contemporary addition to Lois Lenski's well-known series of regional novels. Lenski explained in her Newbery acceptance speech for Strawberry Girl (1945) that one of her primary goals of that series was to suggest the ways in which "a certain environment makes people live as they do" (283). Lenski felt that once the reader understood a character's environment and how her life had been conditioned by it, the reader would be capable of understanding that behavior. While Lenski intended to show young readers from other parts of the country how Birdie Boyer's character was shaped by the environment of Lakeland, Florida, it is Block's intention that one must comprehend contemporary Los Angeles to understand the characters of Weetzie Bat.
The application of Lenski's 1940s dictum to Block's very 1990s novel is surprisingly easy in that, as Bruce Ronda, has noted, "Much of American children's literature celebrates place" (37). Weetzie Bat conveys vivid descriptions of a sense of place which often makes it read more like a travelogue of Los Angeles than a novel. The protagonist's alienation in high school is the result of her peers' inability to appreciate their local sense of place, or as Weetzie says, "they didn't realize where they were living" (Block, Bat 3). In the novel's opening paragraph, Block recounts that for Weetzie, Los Angeles means Marilyn Monroe's handprints outside of Graumann's Theater, the canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini lived, the roller-skating waitresses at the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor, and the plastic palm tree wallets for sale at Farmer's Market (Bat 3).
Sense of self and sense of place are intimately connected in Weetzie Bat. To make sense of her characters, the reader needs to accept Block's postmodern version of Los Angeles as a paradoxical literary landscape that embraces both Jones's reading of the text as a fantasy and Campbell's acceptance of it as accurate reproduction of reality. As Linda Hutcheon has suggested, the defining characteristic of postmodernism is that it is "fundamentally contradictory" (4). Weetzie's Los Angeles, which is known alternatively as "Shangri-L.A." or "Hell-A," is a landscape of multiple contradictions: "where it was hot and cool, glam and slam, rich and trashy, devils and angels, Los Angeles" (Block, Bat 19).
Although alienated from most of her adolescent peers, Weetzie's friendship with Dirk is based on their mutual appreciation and acceptance of this postmodern landscape. They compulsively cruise the freeways in Jerry, Dirk's red 1955 Pontiac, named after Jerry Lewis. Like younger versions of Maria Wyeth, the actress-heroine of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (1970), who found meaning in the navigation of the vast L.A. freeways, Weetzie and Dirk attempt to find meaning in their hunt for "the Ducks of their respective dreams" (Bat 11). Driving in L.A. becomes both a literal and metaphorical introduction to the geography. It is the very process of driving the freeways which is the defining motivation for these characters. Their constant driving reveals the essential placelessness that defines this sense of place. The architectural critic Reyner Banham has argued that the freeway is one of the distinctive ecologies of Los Angeles; he writes that he was forced to learn to drive "to read Los Angeles in the original" (23). Block simply updates Benjamin's flâneur into the seat of a 1955 Pontiac. So it is fitting that Block explained that it was while driving through Laurel Canyon that she passed a "punk princess with spiky bleached hair, a very pink '50s prom dress, and cowboy boots" that became, for her, the embodiment of the spirit of Los Angeles. When Block spotted another girl wearing pink glasses in a pink Pinto with the license plate "Weetzie," she had a name for her character ("Punk Pixies" 1, 11). In a knowing postmodern move, Block transforms a vanity license plate into character: You are what you drive.
In their subsequent quests to locate the duck/man of their dreams in the clubs and video arcades throughout the City of Angels, Weetzie and Dirk discover "[l]ove is a dangerous angel" (Bat 14), a phrase that subsequently became the collective title for the Weetzie Bat series. Dirk's grandmother, Fifi, who functions as the novel's fairy godmother, gives Weetzie a magic lamp, whose genie grants her three wishes: a Duck for Dirk, My Secret Agent Lover Man for herself, and a beautiful little house to live in "happily ever after" (Bat 24). With the sudden death of Grandma Fifi, each of the wishes literally comes true. Dirk finds Duck, the blonde surfer of his dreams. Weetzie meets My Secret Agent Lover Man, a film-maker and the man of her dreams, who makes Weetzie a star in his film. In her will, Fifi leaves her Hollywood cottage, with its "fairy-tale roof" that looked "like someone has spilled silly sand" (Bat 26) on it, to Dirk and Weetzie.
One might suspect that Fifi's cottage was inspired by the Irvin Willat Studio Headquarters which was designed by Willat's art director, Harry Oliver, in 1923 to resemble a replica of Hansel and Gretel's cottage. The house was moved in 1931 from Culver City to Beverly Hills where the private residence is known to locals as "the witches's house" (Lockwood 162), an appropriate home for Weetzie and Max's second child, Witch Baby. Fifi's cottage blends in perfectly with those "Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages" (61) that line the canyons of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1933). West's novel savagely exposes the artificiality and corruption of Hollywood and its inhabitants who are unable to separate the worlds of life and film.
While Block owes a debt to West's novel, the difference in style of the two writers distinguishes Weetzie Bat as a postmodern text. Fredric Jameson has suggested one of the prominent features of postmodernism is the use of pastiche. Both parody and pastiche imitate and mimic other styles, with postmodernism quoting heavily from popular and mass culture as well as high culture. While the impulse to satirize or ridicule the original is found in parody, pastiche lacks parody's ulterior motive. Pastiche, as practiced by Block, is, as Jameson suggests, "blank parody" (114). Where West mocks the sheer superficiality of the Hollywood houses that are more film backdrops than residences and suggests that the houses mirror their inhabitant's shallowness, Block simply reports on Hollywood's eccentric structures without laughter, but with genuine affection for them and their inhabitants.
Dirk and Weetzie's Hollywood cottage becomes a home for their extended family; it is the one place in this postmodern landscape where both characters feel "very safe and close" (Block, Bat 7). Since Edward Relph has argued that "quaintness" is the overriding characteristic of the postmodern townscape, it is a fitting home. Creating their own sense of place and community, Weetzie and friends work against the prevailing atmosphere of placelessness which John Findlay and other urban planners have suggested is exemplified by the disordered and fragmentary structure of Los Angeles that discourages "a sense of community" (Findlay 48). Plucked out of a fairy tale, or a movie lot, or both, Fifi's cottage becomes, as Gaston Bachelard has suggested in The Poetics of Space, the place that "shelters daydreaming" in that "the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace" (6).
While Block's novel is set in contemporary Los Angeles, it is more narrowly situated in Hollywood; films quickly become one of the central metaphors of the novel. As David Fine has observed, "Landscape in the Los Angeles novel is always weighted with symbolic meaning" (10), and Weetzie Bat is no exception with Block's Los Angeles becoming Hollywood, where life and film are synonymous. Block's text mirrors Jean Baudrillard's observation that the American city seems to have stepped out of movies. Baudrillard's concept that "you should not, then, begin with the city and move inwards to the screen; you should begin with the screen and move inwards to the city" (56) seems particularly apt here.
Even Block's writing style is cinematic. Glenna Sloan has noted that her images and events are recorded with a "camera's objectivity and presented without evaluative comment" (3). Block's strength as a writer is in her selective use of detail to reveal the interior lives of her characters. Yet, despite its multicultural atmosphere, Weetzie Bat is highly selective in its use of geography. With Los Angeles reduced primarily to Hollywood, major sections of the urban landscape disappear: Santa Monica, Watts, and Malibu. The working class and poorer neighborhoods and downtown, which feature so prominently in Davis's City of Quartz, are almost completely absent in Block's novel. Surprisingly, the only Black character Weetzie meets is Jah-Love Valentine, a sculptor from Jamaica.
Weetzie Bat is literally a child of the movies. Her father, Charlie Bat, came to Hollywood from New York City in the 1950s to make his fortune in the movies. Brandy-Lynn, Weetzie's mother, grew up in Hollywood, lived in the Garden of Allah, collected film stars' autographs as a child, lunched at Schwab's drugstore, and dreamed of the time when she would become a star. Charlie, a special-effects man turned screenwriter, met Brandy-Lynn as a young starlet on the set of Planet of the Mummy Men. Their whirlwind romance is told in the language of a grade-B movie. Divorced, Charlie has abandoned what he considers the cultural wasteland of Los Angeles to write plays in New York City. In his most bitter diatribe against Los Angeles, Charlie tries to explain to his daughter why he can never live in L.A.: "Everything's an illusion: that's the whole thing about it—illusion, imitation, a mirage. Pagodas and palaces and skies, blondes, and stars. It makes me too sad. It's like having a good dream. You know you are going to wake up" (Block, Bat 73). With the appearance of My Secret Agent Lover Man, who also goes by the less exotic name of Max, much of the activity of Weetzie's extended family involves the making of Max's autobiographical films which blur the distinctions between actors' lives on film and off-camera. At one point, declaring his love for Weetzie, Max exclaims: "You are my Marilyn. You are my lake full of fishes. You are my sky set, my 'Hollywood in Miniature,' my pink Cadillac, my highway, my martini, the stage for my heart to rock and roll on, the screen where my movies light up" (Bat 75).
Life is Film. L.A. is Hollywood. Stock movie clichés become heartfelt declarations of love. Block's novel supports Neal Gabler's observation that with the power of performance, "life has become art, so that the two are now indistinguishable from each other" (4). Inspired by Weetzie's observation, "We live in Shangri-la, […] Shangri Los Angeles. It's always Christmas" (Block, Bat 67), Max produces Shangri-L.A., a remake of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937). Block's text confirms Baudrillard's observation: "In America cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that is cinematic. The break between the two, the abstraction which we deplore, does not exist: life is cinema" (Baudrillard 101). Block's regionalism is not so much about a geographic sense of space, but a metaphorical sense of space: the silver screen. She shows how her Hollywood characters are unable to distinguish life from film.
Charlie Bat's rejection of the blurring of these two landscapes echoes that of Tod Hackett, the young painter-turned-set-designer, who bides his time in Hollywood drawing The Burning of Los Angeles in West's The Day of the Locust. The equally bitter Brandy-Lynn tans in a chaise lounge next to the pool, drinking and brooding over her lost opportunity to become a film star. Both parents are part of what J. U. Peters has called the "anti-myth" of Los Angeles, which appears in many novels set in Los Angeles from the 1930s on, when the dream of success is replaced with disillusionment and the fresh start in California comes to a disastrous conclusion (21). The myth and antimyth of Hollywood collide when Charlie Bat acts out his suggestion for the conclusion of Max's Shangri-L.A. of having the protagonist get back at her family by taking drugs and dying (Bat 72).
In coining the phrase "Shangri-L.A." as a nickname for L.A., Block simultaneously combines the reality of L.A. with the fantasy of Shangri-La, the Tibetan utopia made a household word by James Hilton's popular novel Lost Horizon that was made into a film by Frank Capra four years later. Capra recalls in his memoir, The Name above the Title, that when his film adaptation of Lost Horizon was released in 1937 it was referred to by film reviewers as a "Capra fairy tale" (203). Shangri-La is a utopian community hidden in the Valley of the Blue Moon in the Himalayan Mountains. It is an idealized world where the inhabitants never age and where the prevalent belief is moderation in all things. Regulated by the High Lama, who is later revealed to be a Belgian priest named Perrault—note the fairy-tale connection—the inhabitants of Shangri-La feel that "the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom" (213).
In Max's remake of Lost Horizon, the ideal community of Shangri-L.A. is "a magical Hollywood where everyone looked like Marilyn, Elvis, James Dean, Charlie Chaplin, Harpo, Bogart, or Garbo, everything was magic castles and star-paved streets and Christmas lights, and no one grew old" (Block, Bat 67). Weetzie plays the role of a girl on her way to Hollywood to become a star, but her bus crashes and the passengers are magically transported to Shangri-L.A. A similar plane crash enables Conway, a minor British consul, to enter Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. Once in Shangri-L.A., Weetzie's character falls in love with Charlie Chaplin who explains to her she can stay there forever and never grow old. They attempt to leave Shangri-L.A., but Chaplin ages and dies once he leaves the confines of Shangri-L.A., leaving Weetzie in Hollywood. Conway attempts to escape Shangri-La with one of the seemingly young inhabitants, Lo-Tsen, who immediate ages and dies once outside of her utopia. Charlie Bat's death once he leaves Shangri-L.A. for New York City simply repeats the plot. Charlie's suggestion for the film's conclusion and his suicide unite life and film.
Block's frequent borrowing, reworking, and allusions to previous texts—ranging from the fairy tales "Cinderella" and "Aladdin and His Lamp," to the films Lost Horizon and The Girl Can't Help It—are symptomatic of postmodern literature. As Todd Gitlin observed, the postmodern sensibility is a constant cultivation of surfaces that mirror and recombine with an apparent disregard for unity or closure (106). The endless miles of L.A. freeways is simply a literal example of the play of surfaces which Daniel Boorstin has argued have contributed to making Los Angeles "one of the least legible of the great settlements of the world" (qtd. in Findlay 30). Weetzie Bat concludes with, "I don't know about happily ever after … but I know about happily" (88). It is a text that is the constant repetition of surfaces appropriated from popular culture.
Like Hilton's Shangri-La, Block's Shangri-L.A. is moderate in all things, including its depiction of adolescent sexuality. The relaxed morality of Shangri-La causes concerns for some of the visitors. In Hilton's Lost Horizon, one shocked outsider to this utopia comments, "the morals of this place are quite hideous—we might have expected that" (196). The same is true of Shangri-L.A., with Weetzie's accepting attitude toward Dirk and Duck's homosexuality, her three-way conception of her daughter Cherokee Bat, and her willingness to accept Witch Baby, the child of Max's affair with Vixanne Wigg. These attitudes and actions suggest toleration mirroring the morals Shangri-La.
Block has acknowledged her long-time fascination with fairies. She writes: "I have always been obsessed with fairies, not as they are seen in Disney cartoons and some children's books, but the true, darker fairies, the sometimes terrifying beings who are expressions of nature, the ones Shakespeare writes of so vividly" ("Genie Story" 27). The recent paperback editions of Weetzie Bat are illustrated by moody colored photographs by Suza Scalora who specializes in dramatic images of young girls costumed as fairies. Scalora's cover art for Block's novels has resulted in the publication of two books of her photographs, The Fairies and The Witches and Wizards of Oberin, which includes many of the images that were first featured on Block's novels. While some of Scalora's photographs of contemporary fairies capture the sensual tone of Block's prose, most of the images are too elaborate, staged, and overburdened by special effects to capture the postmodern aura Block achieves. While Scalora's fairies are certainly not Disney fairies, they remain film fairies. Rather than Scalora's photographs, the images that seem most in keeping with Block's prose are the brilliant and disturbing photographs in Lauren Greenfield's Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. Like Block, Greenfield grew up and left Los Angeles for college, but returned as photographer. Like Block's Weetzie Bat, Greenfield's Fast Forward was her "journey into the world of L.A. youth" (5). The composition of Fast Forward is remarkably similar to that of Block's writing of Weetzie Bat in that once Greenfield left Los Angeles for college, her "most vivid memories of the city revolved around high school" (5). The postmodern flâneur returns, this time with a camera. Like Block's novels, Greenfield's photographs explore, as she explains, "The relationship between Hollywood and the teens growing up in its shadow [that] epitomizes the modern dialectic between kids and media, reality and fantasy" (5). In particular, the photograph "Lauren, 12, wears wings to Crossroads School, Santa Monica" (42), which features a beautiful young girl dressed in a bright red kimono jacket and a thin pair of white wings sitting calmly on the hood of a BMW as she waits to be driven to school, embodies the fusion of fairy-tale and contemporary Los Angeles that is at the heart of Weetzie Bat. Greenfield notes that a common theme of many of her photographs is "the sense of early loss of innocence" (5). Greenfield quotes one teenager: "You grow up really fast when you grow up in L.A. It seems like everyone is in a rush to be an adult. It's not cool to be a kid" (5).
Thomas More coined the term "utopia" from the Greek words meaning "no place" for the setting of his Utopia, where an imaginary island served as his version of the perfect society. In creating Shangri-L.A., Block reaffirms that Hollywood exists primarily as a state of mind. Living in Shangri-L.A. is like living on a movie set or in a fairy tale, and at one point Weetzie announces: "I feel like Cinderella" (Bat 42).
Perhaps the most recognized embodiment of this movie version of Hollywood is the famous HOLLYWOOD sign on the slope of Mount Lee, which has become the emblem of a seemingly utopian version of Hollywood. Early in their relationship, Weetzie and Max hike to the HOLLYWOOD sign and spray-paint their initials on the back of the letter "D" to celebrate their love. The famous landmark was erected in 1923 by Mack Sennett, noted silent film director, whose Keystone Studios once included Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. The twenty-thousand-dollar sign originally spelled "HOLLYWOODLAND" and was constructed to advertise the five-hundred-acre real estate venture that Sennett and Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, planned to develop on the slope below. Sennett had planned to build his own mansion on the top of Mount Lee, just above the sign. According to Charles Lockwood, by the time the architect John de Larro had completed the plans for the structure, it resembled more "the Dalai Lama's winter palace at Lhasa" (79) than the home of a film director. But the construction of the elaborate masonry embankment with fountains, water falls, and a hanging garden was never begun since Sennett lost his stars to talking films and later lost millions in the stock market crash of 1929. By 1933, Sennett's corporation declared bankruptcy and his dream palace and Hollywoodland were never actualized.
Kenneth Anger reports that in 1932 a trend was begun when Peg Entwistle, a minor actress, climbed the top of the thirteenth letter, the final "D," and dove to her death. Other actresses followed her lead and according to Anger, the sign "became a notorious signing-off place" (168). When the sign was restored in 1949 by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce only the first nine letters—"HOLLYWOOD"—were replaced, but "LAND" was discretely removed. While the Chamber of Commerce may have just intended to erase from public memory the embarrassment of Sennett's failed land deal or a location which had become synonymous with suicides, it also symbolically separated Hollywood's connection to the land, reinforcing the concept that Hollywood is more a state of mind than a sense of place. Hollywood, like Shangri-La, is not a sort of place that is marked on any map. Norman M. Klein argues that "Los Angeles remains the most photographed and least remembered city in the world, and will most likely stay that way" (250). But as Benjamin suggests, for a native of Los Angeles such as Block, the need to depict the city derives from "deeper motive—the motives of the person who journeys into the past, rather than to foreign parts" (262). Weetzie Bat is both a highly autobiographical memoir and a deeply metaphorical description of the city. In contemplating the meaning of the phrase "happily ever after," Weetzie laments the loss of the Los Angeles of her own past. Block writes that "the really old places" are being torn down. The Kiddie Land amusement park has been replaced by the Beverly Center. The abandoned Tiki restaurant in the valley and the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor's with the roller-skating waitresses have been removed for the construction of a video store and a yogurt shop (Bat 39-40). Weetzie Bat is the sort of book in which, as Benjamin argues, "memory has acted not as the source but as the Muse" (262).
Weetzie's Shangri-L.A. is essentially a postmodern world which, as Jameson has suggested, is the consequence of the development of a new type of social life and economic order that has emerged in late, multinational consumer capitalism (125). It is telling that few of the characters in Weetzie Bat work other than to act in Max's experimental films. Weetzie's brief stint as a waitress in Duke's functions more as a way to meet, Hollywood-style, Max, the man of her dreams, rather than as a way to generate needed income. With Grandma Fifi's inheritance (real estate) and the income generated from Max's films (entertainment industry), the characters have plenty of time and money for expensive and beautiful things: an unlimited supply of sushi, a mint 1965 T-bird, or Weetzie's jacket made out of gold silk antique kimonos. Jack Zipes warns in "The Contemporary American Fairy Tale" that this overtly consumeristic aspect has become an integral part of the modern American fairy tale. Zipes cites Friedmar Apel, who maintains "that it is impossible in the twentieth century for it [the fairy tale in either its oral or literary form] to be anything more than divertissement, escape literature, a cultural commodity that is part of the entertainment business" ("Contemporary" 140-41). For Weetzie and her companions, the world of the contemporary fairy tale is a consumeristic paradise and they rarely look beyond the confines of their own richly-appointed magic kingdom of wealthy white upper-class privilege. Furthermore, Zipes argues in "Do You Know What We Are Doing to Your Books?" that although Block is one of "the gifted and concerned writers" of contemporary adolescent literature, her novels, like those of many other contemporary ado-lescent writers, are limited to those readers who are primarily "white, middle class children, their parents, teachers, university students, and professionals in the field." (35).
After living in Shangri-La, Hugh Conway in Hilton's Lost Horizon, realizes that "the strangeness of everything made it increasingly difficult to realize the strangeness of anything" (197). The urban geographer, Edward W. Soja, notes that Los Angeles has come "to resemble more than ever before a gigantic agglomeration of theme parks, a lifespace comprised of Disneyworlds" (246). But as John M. Findlay argues, even this artificial theme park is the product of a specific time and place in that "[a]bove all else, Disneyland was a product of southern California's motion picture industry" (54). Zipes has consistently shown that fairy tales have never been "ageless, universal and beautiful in and of themselves" but have always revealed "historical prescriptions" (Fairy Tales 11) with imbedded ideological assumptions of a historical time and place; Block's Weetzie Bat is no exception. While Weetzie Bat features a magical Shangri-L.A., Block's vision of Los Angeles is an eclectic, fragmentary, and contradictory postmodern landscape that is simultaneously fantastic and realistic.
Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New York: Simon, 1975.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. 1958. Boston: Beacon, 1969.
Banham, Reyner. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. London: Penguin, 1971.
Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. 1986. New York: Verso, 1988.
Benjamin, Walter. "The Return of the Flâneur." Selected Writings, Vol. 2, 1927–1934. Trans. Rodney Livingston. Ed. Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. 262-67.
Block, Francesca Lia. Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books. 5 vols. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
―――――. "The Genie Story." Something about the Author: Autobiographical Series 21. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996. 23-40.
―――――. I Was a Teenage Fairy. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
―――――. "Punk Pixies in the Canyon." Los Angeles Times Book Review 26 July 1992, natl. ed. 1, 11.
―――――. The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
―――――. Weetzie Bat. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
Campbell, Patricia J. "People are Talking About … Francesca Lia Block." Horn Book 69 (1993): 57-63.
Capra, Frank. The Name above the Title. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso, 1990.
Findlay, John M. Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.
Fine, David. Introduction. Los Angeles in Fiction. Ed. David Fine. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1984. 1-26.
Gabler, Neal. Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Gitlin, Todd. "Postmodernism: Roots and Politics." Dissent 36 (1989): 100-08.
Greenfield, Lauren. Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Hilton, James. Lost Horizon. New York: Grosset, 1933.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Jameson, Fredric. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay, 1983. 111-25.
Jones, Patrick. "People are Talking About … Francesca Lia Block." Horn Book 68 (1992): 697-701.
Klein, Norman M. The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory. New York: Verso, 1997.
Lenski, Lois. "Seeing Others as Ourselves." Newbery Medal Book: 1922–1955. Ed. Bertha Mahony Miller and Elinor Whitney Field. Boston: Horn Book, 1955. 278-87.
Lockwood, Charles. Dream Palaces: Hollywood at Home. New York: Viking, 1981.
McWilliams, Carey. Southern California Country: An Island in the Land. American Folkways. New York: Duell, 1946.
More, Thomas. Utopia. 1516. Trans. Paul Turner. New York: Penguin, 1965.
Relph, Edward. The Modern Urban Landscape. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
Ronda, Bruce A. "An American Canon of Children's Literature." Teaching Children's Literature: Issues, Pedagogy, Resources. Ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. Options for Teaching 11. New York: MLA, 1992. 32-40.
Scalora, Suza. The Fairies. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
―――――. The Witches and Wizards of Oberin. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Sloan, Glenna. "Minimalism and Magic: The New-Age Novels of Francesca Lia Block." Varying Approaches. ChLA Conference. Fredericton, Canada, 6 June 1993.
Soja, Edward W. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. New York: Verso, 1989.
West, Nathanael. Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. 1933. New York: New Directions, 1969.
Zipes, Jack. "The Contemporary American Fairy Tale." Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1994. 139-61.
―――――. "Do You Know What We Are Doing to Your Books?" Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York: Routledge, 2001. 24-60.
―――――. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. New York: Wildman, 1983.
WITCH BABY (1991)
Maeve Visser Knoth (review date January-February 1992)
SOURCE: Knoth, Maeve Visser. Review of Witch Baby, by Francesca Lia Block. Horn Book Magazine 68, no. 1 (January-February 1992): 78-9.
In this sequel to Weetzie Bat (Harper), Witch Baby wants to be more than an almost-member of the family and sets out to discover who she really is. She knows that she was left on Weetzie's doorstep as a baby and was welcomed into a household made up of people joined not by blood but by their concern and need for one another. Witch Baby finds herself staying more and more outside their circle of love, unable to see how she fits into their lives. She storms through the book, calling out for attention and making her family as miserable as she is. After a painful search for her birth mother, Witch Baby returns home and chooses the family that chose her years before. The novel is reminiscent of a music video. Scenes and sensory images flash across the page; characters speak in complicated slang and create a safe haven for themselves in the midst of a shifting, confusing world. An untraditional novel, Witch Baby is honest to the experience of many young adults, who use music, fads, and material possessions to try to understand the world. Witch Baby's coming-of-age is a universal one—generations of young adults have needed to test their families and find their place—but her experience is unique to the modern world. She collects newspaper clippings of disasters, attempting to understand the environmental and medical risks, including AIDS, which are part of her life. Adults who make decisions about purchasing books for children may hesitate over this outrageous novel, but young people will see themselves in Witch Baby and will recognize their world in the slick, materialistic vision of Los Angeles.
CHEROKEE BAT AND THE GOAT GUYS (1992)
Hazel Rochman (review date August 1992)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, by Francesca Lia Block. Booklist 88, no. 22 (August 1992): 2004.
Gr. 9-12—The writing is lyrical, and the lists are as wild and witty as ever in Block's third punk fairy tale [Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys ], but language and symbol all but drown story and character. The gentle self-parodying pop culture that was such a delight in Weetzie Bat is overpowered here by message. Weetzie and the adults are off making a film somewhere, and the focus is on the young people, who form a rock band. Witch Baby is the dark drummer; Angel Juan's back from Mexico, playing bass; Raphael's the wild Rasta singer; and Cherokee's a dancing blonde tambourine player in fringe and beads. They find success, and they make love. Then corruption sets in, and they spend their time in a frenzy or stupor, until wise meditating Coyote in the hills puts them right and heals them in a circle. What will hold readers is the rich poetry of the setting, which celebrates the colors of a smoggy sunset as well as neon, lovers, frozen yogurt and the smell of honeysuckle.
Maeve Visser Knoth (review date September-October 1992)
SOURCE: Knoth, Maeve Visser. Review of Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, by Francesca Lia Block. Horn Book Magazine 68, no. 5 (September-October 1992): 587.
[Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, t]he newest of Block's nontraditional tales of Los Angeles is a parable, a story about young adults who quickly become involved in drugs and sex when they form a rock band. Weetzie Bat and the other adults in their lives are away filming a movie, so Cherokee Bat, Witch Baby, and their friends are left under the guidance of a wise, but distant, Native-American friend named Coyote. The four young people rely on powerful gifts from Coyote to give them the courage to perform as a band in Los Angeles nightclubs. Their band gains popularity, and the fans become demanding. The four high-school students become heavily involved in sex, drugs, and alcohol to live up to their image and cope with the stress. Their lives spin out of control, and Cherokee Bat almost commits suicide. Coyote steps in and helps them remember that they are still children. Like Block's first two novels, the story is filled with sensory images of modern urban life. References to youth culture—pizza, dreadlocks, and condoms—fill the pages. Block uses imagination and exaggeration to develop her theme. Her writing is strong and vivid, but her brief, readable story is more a moral tale than a developed novel.
MISSING ANGEL JUAN (1993)
Diane Roback and Elizabeth Devereaux (review date 9 August 1993)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, and Elizabeth Devereaux. Review of Missing Angel Juan, by Francesca Lia Block. Publishers Weekly 240, no. 32 (9 August 1993): 480.
After nearly stealing the show from her almost-sister Cherokee in Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, the tormented photographer and drummer Witch Baby returns to star in her own adventure [in Missing Angel Juan ]. Devastated when her boyfriend/muse Angel Juan leaves Los Angeles for New York City in order to find himself, Witch Baby takes her savings and heads east, where she plans to spend her high school's Christmas break hot on her lover's trail. With some supernatural assistance provided by the ghost of Cherokee's grandfather, the snarly-haired heroine rescues herself and her beloved from the clutches of the villain Cake, and learns what it means to love and let go. This odd and moving novel shares the super-hip aesthetic of its predecessors and avoids, as have all of Block's books, rehashing what has come before it. The rather formal, stylized folklore structure which characterized the earlier books seems to have been abandoned; instead, the seemingly artless text drifts from the concrete to the surreal and back again, offering spooky fantasy along with a meditation on mourning and loss. Magic and the rich world of fairy tale are, perhaps more than ever, distinct presences. Cantankerous, loving and persevering, Witch Baby calls to mind classic heroines, like the girl in The Snow Queen, who, in undertaking epic quests, discover their own courage. Ages 12-up.
BABY BE-BOP (1995)
Diane Roback and Elizabeth Devereaux (review date 31 July 1995)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, and Elizabeth Devereaux. Review of Baby Be-Bop, by Francesca Lia Block. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 31 (31 July 1995): 82.
Embroidering her prose with lushly romantic imagery, Block returns to the world of Weetzie Bat for this keenly felt story. A prequel of sorts to Weetzie Bat, the novel [Baby Be-Bop ] opens while Weetzie's best friend Dirk is still a child, lying on his mat at naptime. "Dirk had known it since he could remember"—known, that is, that he is gay. Tenderly raised by Grandma Fifi, famous for her pastries and her 1955 Pontiac convertible, Dirk struggles with love and fear: "He wanted to be strong and to love someone who was strong; he wanted to meet any gaze, to laugh under the brightest sunlight and never hide." After his first heartbreak, with his closest friend (who cannot accept Dirk's love nor his own for Dirk), Dirk battles more fiercely for identity; beaten up by a gang of punks, he slumps into semiconsciousness and is visited by his ancestors, each telling a haunting, lyrical tale of love, faith and self-acceptance. What might seem didactic from lesser writers becomes a gleaming gift from Block. Her extravagantly imaginative settings and finely honed perspectives remind the reader that there is magic everywhere. Ages 12-up.
Maeve Visser Knoth (review date March-April 1996)
SOURCE: Knoth, Maeve Visser. Review of Baby Be-Bop, by Francesca Lia Block. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 2 (March-April 1996): 202-03.
Dirk, whom readers first met in Weetzie Bat (Harper), has always known that he is gay, but he struggles with what it means to be different [in Baby Be-Bop ]. He falls in love with his best friend Pup, but when Dirk reveals his feelings, his friend disappears. In response, Dirk shaves his head to a Mohawk, wears black, and becomes as frightening-looking outside as he feels inside. His protective shield keeps others away from him but does not safeguard him from pain and loneliness. After he is severely beaten by some skinheads who call him a faggot, Dirk, with the help of a magic lantern, discovers truths about himself and his parents. The lantern, like Dickens's ghosts in A Christmas Carol, reveals Dirk's past and future. Dirk gets a glimpse of the man he will eventually meet and fall in love with; knowing that he does have a future that includes love and companionship, Dirk is able to love himself as well. The supernatural elements of the story can be explained away by Dirk's concussion, but the important—and strongest—parts of the story are his very real and very painful feelings and actions as he attempts to find a place for himself in a world that seems to hate who he is. Like Block's other works, this tale of self-discovery is crowded with the material images of contemporary adolescence. The writing is as fevered as life in Los Angeles.
GIRL GODDESS #9: NINE STORIES (1996)
Carol Schene (review date September 1996)
SOURCE: Schene, Carol. Review of Girl Goddess #9: Nine Stories, by Francesca Lia Block. School Library Journal 42, no. 9 (September 1996): 224.
Gr. 9 Up—The title of this collection [Girl Goddess #9 ] comes from the story in which two girls create their own magazine, Girl Goddess. As if they were on a talk show, Lady Ivory (Emily) and Alabaster Duchess (Anna) breathlessly describe the thrill of their creative/chaotic experiences, including interviewing a rock star. The tale flits among letters, interviews, and first and third-person narratives as fast paced and turbulent as the characters' lives. In each of these nine selections, mostly female protagonists with unusual names such as Peachy Pie, Tuck, Tweetie, La, Pixie, and Pony experience the highs and lows of adolescence. La longs for acceptance from her peers as she struggles with her mother's suicide. Tuck goes in search of her father and discovers that her mother's live-in female lover is actually her father with a sex change. The lives of many of these youthful characters seem devoid of nurturing adults. The peer-to-peer world in which they live is often crude, cruel, and sad, with harsh slang, casual sex, drugs, and drinking. Deeply disturbing and touching at the same time, this book captures teen characters who live only in the present and often appear not to have or desire any future. Well-written stories for a mature YA audience that radiate empathy, pithiness, and a vibrant irreverence.
Cathryn M. Mercier (review date November-December 1996)
SOURCE: Mercier, Cathryn M. Review of Girl Goddess #9: Nine Stories, by Francesca Lia Block. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 6 (November-December 1996): 742.
As she did with The Hanged Man, Francesca Lia Block moves outside the Weetzie Bat family to explore the pain and the joy of contemporary adolescence [in Girl Goddess #9: Nine Stories ]. Feminist in a quiet way, female characters are at the center of each short story, and, ultimately, each story celebrates the heroism with which these girls/women meet the challenges of their lives. The daughter of a lesbian couple, Tuck Budd narrates the search for her biological father, only to discover with affirming relief that one of her mothers fathered her prior to a sex change; the title story highlights the transformation of two writers of a girl 'zine describing their interview with a celebrity—and their encounter with female beauty and darkness. Block portrays an array of characters who suffer at their own hands and at those of others: the rock groupie Rave overdoses on heroin at seventeen; Desiree is excluded from her circle of friends when she begins a serious relationship with a black man. Block continues to push at the limitations of "appropriate" content in young adult books: she portrays transsexual, gay, and lesbian characters; she includes young people who drink alcohol and use/abuse drugs; and she describes sex explicitly and symbolically to convey both passion and emotional sterility. Readers will appreciate the artful simplicity of Block's style, her exuberant colors, and her fresh metaphors; and while the postmodern reaches of L.A. culture will be familiar from the Weetzie Bat books, Block adopts a distinctive voice and situation for each girl/woman. Two of the stories, "Blue" and "Winnie and Cubby," have been previously published in YA anthologies.
DANGEROUS ANGELS: THE WEETZIE BAT BOOKS (1998)
Charles de Lint (review date December 1998)
SOURCE: de Lint, Charles. Review of Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books, by Francesca Lia Block. Fantasy and Science Fiction 95, no. 6 (December 1998): 47.
I love this woman's books, as longtime readers of this column have probably gathered already. And though nothing she's written to date can beat "Blue" from her collection Girl Goddess #9 (a story which adds a fascinating twist to the idea of an imaginary friend and is one of my three favorite stories of all time), the Weetzie Bat books come awfully close. Set in her own wonderfully idiosyncratic Los Angeles which she calls Shangri-L.A., these short novels [in Dangerous Angels ] deal with the issues of coming of age, coming out, divorce, and other serious concerns in a manner that is engaging and whimsical, without ever detracting from the seriousness of the issues.
I've discussed some of the books reprinted in this collection at greater length in earlier columns, so here I'll be brief and simply say that singly or together, they come highly recommended.
I WAS A TEENAGE FAIRY (1998)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 21 September 1998)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of I Was a Teenage Fairy, by Francesca Lia Block. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 38 (21 September 1998): 86.
This disarming new book [I Was a Teenage Fairy ] by the ever-inventive Block (the Weetzie Bat books) seems at once more fantastic and more of a YA "problem novel" than her previous titles. At about the same time that her ex-beauty queen mom pushes her into modeling, 11-year-old Barbie—named after the doll—meets Mab, an acid-tongued, winged beauty: "a teenage girl-thing who was the size of most teenage girls' littlest fingers." Block proposes different ways to understand Mab: "Maybe Mab was real … Maybe not. Maybe Mab was the fury. Maybe she was the courage. Maybe later on she was the sex." In any event, Mab's friendship sustains Barbie after she is molested by a prominent photographer, a violation her mother aggravates by turning her head the other way. The novel jumps ahead five years, when Barbie has a flourishing career as a model but is stunted emotionally and artistically (she wants to be a photographer but can't summon the creative energy). Here the characters and settings will be familiar to the author's fans: a glamorous would-be boyfriend with a profoundly sympathetic gay best friend; impossibly hip restaurants and clubs; a house converted from a legendary Hollywood hotel. Barbie finally overcomes her psychic wounds by unmasking the predatory photographer; in this section, Block compares Barbie and Mab to comic book superheroes, and in fact, they behave with an exaggerated flatness, as if the author were squeezing them into a happy ending one or two sizes too small. Elsewhere, however, the writing is among Block's supplest. The prose, less obviously lush than in previous books, sustains steady crescendos of insight. This fairy tale is too pointedly a social critique to be entirely magical, but its spell feels real. Ages 12-up.
Jennifer M. Brabander (review date November-December 1998)
SOURCE: Brabander, Jennifer M. Review of I Was a Teenage Fairy, by Francesca Lia Block. Horn Book Magazine 74, no. 6 (November-December 1998): 725-26.
Having previously conjured up genies, witches, satyrs, and ghosts, Francesca Lia Block finally weaves a modern-day YA fairy tale that features an actual fairy [in I Was a Teenage Fairy ]. Picture Tinker Bell, but crankier, and with "the sex drive of a family of large rabbits." Mab first appears when invoked by lonely eleven-year-old Barbie, whose mother is pushing her into a modeling career. When Barbie is molested by a photographer and her mother as good as abandons her, telling her that "life is full of problems," the petulant fairy takes over, as mother, sister, friend—even therapist. The story then jumps ahead five years, when sixteen-year-old Barbie, a successful but unhappy anorexic-thin model, meets Griffin, another model assaulted as a child by the same photographer. À la Weetzie Bat, the story features an insanely happy ending, with everyone in the arms of his or her Prince Charming. In Mab, Block cleverly takes the youthful fascination for all things miniature, upgrades it for teenagers, then uses her as a poetic personification: Mab is the "tiny wings of pain" inside a hurt child and, later, a teenager's flickering emotions—anger, courage, desire, and love. Symbolizing the innocent everychild in need of protection is Block's ever-present gay male, seemingly stock (androgynous, angelic, and ultrasensitive) but intentionally emblematic. The story's mix of realism and fan-tasy is intoxicating, like drinking flower nectar served poolside by Malibu Ken. Readers will believe in Block's fairy and tale—and will wish they had a Mab of their own.
VIOLET AND CLAIRE (1999)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 19 July 1999)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of Violet and Claire, by Francesca Lia Block. Publishers Weekly 246, no. 29 (19 July 1999): 195.
Block (the Weetzie Bat novels) sets herself new challenges and meets them with consummate grace in this resonant novel [Violet and Claire ]. Violet and Claire, best friends, are polar opposites: Violet is angry and intense, with a fierce ambition to write and direct films; Claire is passive, attempting poetic transcendence of the casual cruelties of everyday life. Each girl gets what she thinks she wants. Violet, still in high school, lands a six-figure film deal, and Claire begins a romance with her poetry teacher. But these fulfilled dreams sour, and Violet and Claire become painfully estranged. In a triumphant finale, they embrace, aware that their relationship restores the balance missing in their separate personalities. The elements of the story—fairies, overnight fame, arts, sex and drugs, glamorous parties and, of course, the heady Los Angeles setting—are classic Block; the combination, however, is fresh and arresting, and her fans will applaud it. The narrative line is more pronounced than in previous works and, in another departure, provides a clear division between the fantastic and the real. The fairies, for example, belong to Claire's fantasy history of a lost race of "faeries" ("The patriarchy turned them into little insects," she explains to Violet). Cynical Violet and dreamy Claire alternate as narrators, projecting distinct voices that gradually come to resemble each other. Shedding a transformative light onto the often complex, sometimes dark nature of close friendships, Block's writing is as lush and luminous, as hip and wise as ever. Ages 10-up.
Kathleen Isaacs (review date September 1999)
SOURCE: Isaacs, Kathleen. Review of Violet and Claire, by Francesca Lia Block. School Library Journal 45, no. 9 (September 1999): 218.
Gr. 9 Up—Behind the glossy hipness and lush sensory detail that characterize Block's fiction, her fans will find [in Violet and Claire ] the sad story of the friendship between two teens. Violet remembers the tough, excited kid she was in sixth grade, the one who wanted to be president, and the one who entered junior high, became Vile, and wanted to die. Her love for movies and her passion to write screenplays save her and connect her to Claire, an ethereal poet with gauze wings sewn on the back of her shirt. They become instant friends, but the outside world intrudes. Violet is bedded by a rock star, who sends her on to a job as a girl Friday for a screen agent, who gives her the impetus to write an enormously successful screenplay, which propels her into a sickening, drug-filled world. Meanwhile, Claire enrolls in a poetry-writing class and becomes attached to the instructor, deeply disturbing Violet, who resents the loss of her friend's attention. Up to this point in the plot, the story is told in alternating sections of first-person narration. The climax and denouement, however, are even more consciously movielike, shifting to third person and focusing on the externals of the scenes in which Claire and Violet separately attend and flee a wild party, heading for the desert where they come together in the end. The sex and violence are explicit; the colors, odors, and tastes of Claire and Violet's Los Angeles world are even more distinctly described. Block's style is still light and frothy here, but there is substance within.
Charles de Lint (review date April 2000)
SOURCE: de Lint, Charles. Review of Violet and Claire, by Francesca Lia Block. Fantasy and Science Fiction 98, no. 4 (April 2000): 35.
While there are no "on stage" magical elements in this particular outing, Block's newest novel [Violet and Claire ] will still delight her loyal readers, as well as regular readers of this column. It's the story of a friendship between Violet, an aspiring filmmaker, and Claire, a poet who half-believes she's a faerie. As usual, Block manages to tackle serious concerns with charm and whimsy, without forsaking the drama. The prose sings in what might well be her best book to date.
Sybil S. Steinberg (review date 1 May 2000)
SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil S. Review of Nymph, by Francesca Lia Block. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 18 (1 May 2000): 49.
The author of the beloved Weetzie Bat books and other popular YA titles offers a slim collection of adult stories [Nymph ], erotica for grown-up goth maidens and sexpots who like their tales of passion infused with witchy magic. These nine interconnected tales celebrate carnal delights and the transformative power of love, with occasional lapses into syrupy repetition, but they also peek compassionately into romances laced with themes of grief, heartbreak and renewal. A bummed-out surfer gets a second chance at happiness when he meets a beautiful woman in a wheelchair, who may or may not be a mermaid. The spirits of these lovers mythically revitalize the relationship between Sylvie and Ben, a couple whose sex life is on the skids when Sylvie's antidepressants flatten her libido. Sylvie reappears elsewhere, as the sister of a cancer patient, David, who dies in spite of a loving nurse's attempt at sexual healing. Another recurring character is Plum, who has "the gift of love": those she sleeps with meet their true love soon after. Plum is therefore always being left: in "Milagro," she shares an idyllic night with the boy she loves, only to find out he's gay; in another story she sleeps with Sylvie, allowing Sylvie to meet Ben. Plum discovers that her gift can come full circle when she wins the love of aspiring actor Elvis Dean, who has been inconsolable since his girlfriend Coco left him to become a stripper and was mutilated by a plastic surgeon. All set in Los Angeles, Block's tales feature her distinctive simplicity and sweetly sleazy downtown dreamers; the sex scenes are heady though hazy with a mystical slant that blunts the erotic edge and makes the collection palatable for hardcore romantics.
THE ROSE AND THE BEAST: FAIRY TALES RETOLD (2000)
Trish Anderson (review date September 2000)
SOURCE: Anderson, Trish. Review of The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold, by Francesca Lia Block. School Library Journal 46, no. 9 (September 2000): 225.
Gr. 9 Up—In [The Rose and the Beast, ] this new addition to the growing body of reworked fairy tales, Block writes modern situations into the framework of nine traditional tales. Her style is almost more poetry than prose as she interweaves contemporary life with common themes without losing the timeless feel; the stories could be happening anywhere, and to anyone. In "Wolf," the predator waiting at Grandma's house is a man who is sexually abusing the nameless Red Riding Hood character. The needle that pricks in "Charm" is not from a spindle, but from a heroin fix. All the young women change, deepen, and become strong through the difficulties they face. They learn to overcome physical differences, like the Thumbelina character in "Tiny," or realize a truth about relationships with the opposite sex, like the girl who escapes Derrick Blue (Bluebeard) in "Bones." Like "the fairy who was not old, not young, who was red roses, white snowfall, who was blind and saw everything, who sent stories resounding through the universe …," Block herself wields "… a torch to melt sand into something clear and bright."
Betsy Hearne (review date 19 November 2000)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. Review of The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold, by Francesca Lia Block. New York Times Book Review (19 November 2000): 53.
[In the following review, Hearne compliments Block's ability to cast classic fairy stories in dramatic contemporary contexts in The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold, noting the author's emphasis on the pre-existing themes of child abuse in the traditional tales.]
Once upon a time there was a beautiful writer who journeyed into the forest of young adult fiction with a series of novels that read like contemporary fairy tales. Their very titles suggest lyrical invention—Weetzie Bat, Witch Baby, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, Missing Angel Juan, Baby Be-Bop —but they are also laced with traditional folk motifs and images. In The Rose and the Beast, Francesca Lia Block has turned to recreating some actual classics by Charles Perrault, the Grimms, Hans Christian Andersen and Mme. Leprince de Beaumont. Readers familiar with postmodern literature based on fairy tales will not be startled by the results, but others may be unsettled.
Authors have been busy shifting points of view, altering endings and relocating scenes for a while now. Many new versions of old stories appeal to a crossover audience of adults and young adults. Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Robin McKinley, Donna Jo Napoli and William Brooke, among others, are a hard act to follow. The literature has enduring depth and variety of tone, veering from fractured and funny to dark and detailed. Consider the poetry in Anne Sexton's "Transformations" or Gwen Strauss's "Trail of Stones," the stories in collections like Emma Donoghue's "Kissing the Witch," the scores of novels, anthologies like Jack Zipes's "Don't Bet on the Prince" or Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's "Wolf at the Door." This doesn't even include the picture books that paraded along behind Jon Scieszka's "Stinky Cheese Man."
That's a lot to measure up to, and it has all conditioned us to surprise. We have become pickier about parody and ready for something ever more completely different. Thus, when Block's character Snow ditches her rescuer for love of the seven dwarfs, or Sleeping Beauty is awakened from tortured drug addiction by a lesbian kiss, or Bluebeard's intended liberates herself with a sharp little pocket knife, or the Wolf's victim blows him away with Grandma's shotgun after he has raped her for years and murdered her mother—well, we are not quite surprised.
Everything depends instead on the panache with which these role reversals have been carried off, and in this respect, some of Block's stories are better than others. Those that subtly interpret the old tales are more successful than those that depend on shock value. Rose Red's loss of her sister Rose White to the transformed Bear, for instance, is as moving as Beauty experiencing the loss of her Beast's animal appeal. An artist (unnamed, but it has to be Andersen's Gerda) delivers her rock-star lover K. from an icy porn queen in an ending that's romantically credible. Tiny (Thumbelina) translates her affection for a human-size writer by becoming his muse.
But Block's whimsical fancy for conjuring a mystical aura with silk, gardenias, mint tea and such—even, at one point, oils perfumed "like the bark, leaves and blossoms of trees from a sacred grove" and "a tape of Tibetan monks chanting"—sometimes borders on New Age cliché and jars with the harder edges of violence in both dialogue and action. She has perceived rightly that without the perspective of distance, time and symbolism, fairy tales are often case studies of child abuse, a dominant theme in her recreations. The folkloric motif of the persecuted heroine becomes the realistic depiction of an abused child.
Detailing fairy tales can take away something important: the space between lines that allows us to insert ourselves into the picture. Fairy tales say little and imply much. Their nearly universal appeal depends more on suggestion than description, leaving us to imagine a range of personal and cultural particulars. We have all felt abandoned even if we have not been neglected or abused. That's why people with such diverse backgrounds relate to Cinderella.
The compressed form of archetype and narration acts not as a mirror but as a crystal to reflect varied experience. By filling in the facts, Block has become both the teller and the listener, imagining for us the reality of these fantasies. In translating them to contemporary life, she has written not fairy tales but short stories. There's a vast difference.
While the fairy tale assumes suspension of disbelief and spells out very little, fiction must persuade us to suspend disbelief by delineating a specific scenario. Francesca Lia Block's scenarios involve a stylish lamination of passion and mayhem that may appeal intensely to adolescents whose tastes vacillate between fairy tales and soap operas. Teenagers are, after all, hybrids of child and adult. They are a conjunction of cosmic fantasies, tough realities and dramatic exaggerations. They will not appreciate true fairy tales again until they are much older and realize how complex simplicity can be, as we all set out our trails of stones through the forest.
Jan Susina (review date 2001)
SOURCE: Susina, Jan. Review of The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold, by Francesca Lia Block. Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 15, no. 2 (2001): 232-33.
[In the following review, Susina faults Block's unimaginative and pedestrian prose in The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold, arguing that the stories are "the most literal reworkings of fairy tales that Block has published to date."]
Readers who admire Francesca Lia Block's series of five stunning contemporary fairy-tale novels, beginning with Weetzie Bat (1989) and which have been subsequently collected under the cumulative title of Dangerous Angels (1998), will probably be disappointed with this most recent collection of short stories [The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold ]. While these nine fairy tales have some of the magic realism and quirky poetic language that have made Block's slender novels so popular with adolescents and adult readers, they are surprisingly flat and much less inspired or innovative than her previous work. The nine tales that Block chooses to revise are the Grimms' "Snow White," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Snow White and Rose Red"; Andersen's "Thumbelina" and "The Snow Queen"; Perrault's "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," and "Bluebeard"; and de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast." As she has done with her previous novels, Block blends the landscape and culture of contemporary Los Angeles with fairy-tale motifs. One of the chief problems with this collection is that, while these stories are clearly fairy tales retold, they are the most literal reworkings of fairy tales that Block has published to date. The structure and characters of the original tales tend to overpower Block's attempt to revise them and give them new life and meaning. This sort of thing has been done before and better by Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), and by Emma Donoghue in Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins (1997).
What is distinctive about Block's retellings is that they are extremely stripped down and, one might suggest, bare-bone revisions of the originals. Block has reduced each fairy tale to one-word titles, generally of only four or five letters. These nine words—"Snow," "Tiny," "Glass," "Charm," "Wolf," "Rose," "Bones," "Beast," and "Ice" —form a mysterious talismanic list that is reproduced on the front of the book. Block must have taken pains with the sequence so that one reads from Snow to Ice, and she provides the mysterious sequence: Tiny Glass Charm. This minimalist approach is replicated in the storytelling as well with barely a hundred words on a page. White space tends to dominate the page design. More bones that text. I suspect these miniature fairy tales reveal the influence of modernist poets that Block admires. But while sometimes less is more, on this occasion, less is simply less. Block is consciously creating what might be considered anorexic versions of the fairy tales in that these thin versions are decidedly contemporary and feminist in their tone, and all of her female narrators must struggle within a decidedly hostile environment. The fairy-tale world is the same dangerous, sexualized, and media-saturated environment which Mary Pipher in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994) has termed a "girl-poisoning culture."
Unlike William Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring (1855), the comic literary fairy tale that gently mocks fairy conventions and characters and whose title this collection evokes, Block's fairy tales have a consistently dark and violent edge. In "Wolf," the adolescent protagonist has been sexually abused by her stepfather, and after fleeing to the house of her grandmother—who is now a wise woman who runs a junk shop in the desert—she confronts and blows the villain away with a shotgun, thanks to a previous shooting lesson by grandmother. In "Charm," Sleeping Beauty no longer pricks her finger on a spindle, but nods to sleep by way of a heroin needle.
While the book's title derives from the two tales "Rose" and "Beast," both of which reveal the female protagonist's disappointment with romantic love with a male character, it is the story that comes between these tales, "Bones," which is Block's reworking of "Bluebeard," that significantly provides the key to the collection. Like most of the other stories in the collection, "Bones" makes clear Block's belief in the power of fairy tales and the need to rewrite them from a female perspective. Derrick Blue is a major band promoter and club owner, while the protagonist narrator is a young woman drawn to Los Angeles in search of fame. Derrick Blue has consciously remade himself in the image of Bluebeard, and the fairy tale has "become a metaphor for his life." Derrick Blue uses fairy tales to help lure and destroy other young woman, just as he attempts to do with the protagonist. But after hearing the singing of the bones of Blue's previous victims buried beneath his house, she decides to rewrite the story of "Bluebeard," just as Block has. Without the help of others, the protagonist slays the villain and flees the house. Block has heard the singing bones of the female victims of the original fairy tales and feels the obligation to write their stories. These revisions of fairy tales reveal the bones and blood of the originals. Block's fairy tales are carefully revised in order to empower and give their young female protagonists a voice.
David L. Russell (essay date June 2002)
SOURCE: Russell, David L. "Young Adult Fairy Tales for the New Age: Francesca Lia Block's The Rose and the Beast." Children's Literature in Education 33, no. 2 (June 2002): 107-115.
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Debbie Carton (review date August 2001)
SOURCE: Carton, Debbie. Review of Echo, by Francesca Lia Block. Booklist 97, no. 22 (August 2001): 2105-106.
Gr. 8-12—Interconnected short stories bring depth to [Echo,] this tale of a Los Angeles girl fleeing her personal demons. Echo is the unremarkable (or so she thinks) daughter of a fantastically beautiful and talented mother, and an artist father. Her parents are besotted with each other, and despite her mother's loving attention, Echo feels lost. She seeks comfort and validation in casual sex and struggles with depression, anorexia, and feelings of inadequacy. A suicide attempt is thwarted by a young man with wings who rescues her, but disappears. Echo's story is rounded out by the stories of her parents, her lovers, and the child that one of those lovers fathers with another woman. Though Echo becomes a peripheral figure in these chapters, the final stories bring the focus back to her, in a satisfying, triumphant circle. Block's many fans will relish this latest title, which revisits themes such as anorexia and ghosts that have been explored in the author's previous works. Block's trademark magical realism beautifully fits both format and themes. The intriguing cover photograph, a close-up but off-center picture of a young woman's face, strikingly conveys Echo's need for intimacy.
Janice M. Del Negro (review date October 2001)
SOURCE: Del Negro, Janice M. Review of Echo, by Francesca Lia Block. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 55, no. 2 (October 2001): 52-3.
Echo, elfin child of "angel" mother Eve and dying artist-father Caliban, doubts her worth and her parents' love for her, and as a result she turns to sex and anorexia [in Echo ]. Echo's story alternates with chapters revolving around characters whose lives impact, directly or indirectly, on hers: tormented rock stars trying to redeem themselves, secretive young men exploding with longing and poetry, self-destructive girlfriends seeking connection with their fathers, and intensely sensual angels coming to the rescue of young women who don't know their own worth. Echo finally finds fulfillment in her art and in the arms of an angel-boy from her youth: "Then Storm gave her back her tears, the ones she had given him so long ago, gave them back deep into her womb, where they would become a child who would never doubt. Who would know that magic is belief and who would believe." The switch from first-person narrative to third-person narrative in every other chapter impedes the momentum and tends to make the connections between chapters somewhat obscure. The emotional pain of the author's characters is tangible, however, and their choices, while sometimes misguided, are understandable. Block has a strained pen-chant for romantic names (Thorn, Smoke, Eden, Valentine, etc.) reminiscent of the adolescent desire to reinvent oneself, but she also has a penchant for transformative, kaleidoscopic language, and there are moments of sheer exhilaration in words combined herein.
Karen Coats (review date November 2003)
SOURCE: Coats, Karen. Review of Wasteland, by Francesca Lia Block. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 3 (November 2003): 93.
No one does love among the ruins of the Valley like Francesca Lia Block, especially when that love strains the boundaries of convention and produces more bitter than sweet, more pain than pleasure. Lex has loved Marina since she was a baby—his baby sister, in fact—and his love for her grows as Marina becomes the achingly beautiful blond waif so common in Block stories. Though consummation of their mutual affection is never actually confirmed [in Wasteland ], lines are definitely crossed, and Lex, unable to face life with or without his sister/lover, commits suicide. Much of the narrative is given over to an exploration of Lex and Marina's developing devotion for each other, shifting perspectives from one to the other, with Lex being more aware of the transgressive nature of his feelings than Marina. As usual, the adults are self-absorbed to the point of toxicity, and the secondary characters are little more than colorful stereotypes of '80s punk culture. Uncharacteristically, Block backs down from the full impact of her subject by revealing that Lex was in fact adopted, a revelation that justifies the title. Though there is a happy ending of sorts, with Marina finding love, forgiveness, and healing in the arms of another boy, readers who get their tears from teen Shakespearean remakes like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and Tim Blake Nelson's O will find their tragic sense of love's sublime agonies affirmed here.
Jennifer M. Brabander (review date November-December 2003)
SOURCE: Brabander, Jennifer M. Review of Wasteland, by Francesca Lia Block. Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 6 (November-December 2003): 739-40.
Teenage siblings Lex and Marina have always been close, caring for each other in ways their single mom doesn't seem able to, but their closeness goes too far one night [in Wasteland ]. While their actions are consensual, Lex and Marina are frightened, not by their intense feelings for each other (which they sense are somehow right) but by the possibility of anyone finding out. Knowing that they can't change how they feel, Lex kills himself, wanting Marina to be free to "have some kind of life." Young adults may not get all the book's allusions (some direct and others more subtle) to T. S. Eliot, but they will understand that the siblings' relationship is loving, not abusive or perverted. Block hedges her bets with a surprise ending that renders Lex and Marina's love star-crossed rather than incestuous. Nevertheless, the novel's exploration of tenderness, passion, and despair, filled with Block's familiar sensuous descriptions, is ultimately a haunting love story.
NECKLACE OF KISSES (2005)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 June 2005)
SOURCE: Review of Necklace of Kisses, by Francesca Lia Block. Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 12 (15 June 2005): 650.
Fifteen years ago, Block, the 2005 recipient of the American Library Association Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, brought to life Weetzie Bat, a punk-rock L.A. princess with an internal lightning rod for modern magic. With a devoted following, the novels are both heralded and attacked for their edgy content (in the first novel Weetzie conceives daughter Cherokee in a ménage à trois with best friends, and gay lovers, Dirk and Duck). The question is whether her outcast characters and titillating scenarios [in Necklace of Kisses ] will play to an adult crowd. Weetzie at 40 is now wondering if she's too old for her Hello Kitty watch and orange pants. Her daughters Cherokee and Witch Baby are in college, her Secret Agent Lover Man has turned into just plain old Max (a Cassavetes-like director obsessed with the attacks of 9/11) and though she loves her vintage clothing boutique, Weetzie is wondering where all the magic and kisses have gone. Weetzie packs up her suitcase (the contents of which are listed, indeed much space is given to what Weetzie is wearing) and runs away to the pink hotel. There, Weetzie begins a surreal journey toward healing, or as the hotel's hermaphroditic lounge singer Heaven/Haven suggests, growing up. She meets Isis, the blueskinned woman at reception; Shelly, a former mermaid and now trophy wife longing for the sea; Esmeralda, the invisible maid; and the aptly named Pan, in room service. At each encounter, Weetzie gets the kisses she's longing for, and then left behind in her mouth she finds a precious gem. She was initially drawn to the place as it was the setting of her high-school prom, and now Weetzie finds that Zane Starling, the date she was too afraid to kiss, has a gallery opening at the hotel. Maybe this one last kiss will make all the difference.
Lovely language and ambitious ideas aside, the novel's emotional content is thin, and entirely too much relies on some very pretty window dressing.
Helbig, Alethea K., and Agnes Regan Perkins. "Block, Francesca Lia." In Dictionary of American Children's Fiction, 1990–1994: Books of Recognized Merit, pp. 31-2. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Biographical overview of Block and her literary career.
Block, Francesca Lia, and Patricia J. Campbell. "People are Talking About … Francesca Lia Block." Horn Book Magazine 69, no. 1 (January-February 1993): 57-63.
Block discusses the inspirations for her young adult novel Weetzie Bat.
Block, Francesca Lia, Rosemary Chance, Teri S. Lesesne, and Lois Buckman. "Books for Adolescents." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 39, no. 3 (November 1995): 252-55.
Block discusses her influences and writing methods in a teleconferenced interview with graduate students from Sam Houston State.
Cart, Michael. "Sex and Other Shibboleths: Why We Read and Other Imponderables." In From Romance to Realism: Fifty Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature, pp. 206-11. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
In-depth critical readings of Weetzie Bat and Missing Angel Juan that incorporate interview excerpts with Block.
Jones, Mike. Review of Echo, by Francesca Lia Block. Chronicle 25, no. 1 (January 2003): 41.
Evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Echo.
Levithan, David. "Wild Thing." School Library Journal 51, no. 6 (June 2005): 44-7.
Offers a broad introduction to Block's canon and writing career.
Additional coverage of Block's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 13, 34; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 8, 10; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 33; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 56, 77, 94, 135; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 80, 116, 158; Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 21; and Writers for Young Adults.