Tired of narratives that use pop-culture references as a form of characterization

Why are our books full of little hipster kids?
Why are our books full of little hipster kids?

Awhile back, I posted on Facebook about how I never want to watch another romantic comedy where the heroine displays a quirky interest in old records or classic movies, because it's only being used as a lazy shorthand for 'this is a cool chick.' And that doesn't really work for me, personally, because: a) why should an interest in a particular kind of media make a person more desirable as a partner; and b) even if liking classic movies did make a woman more desirable, I'd still be annoyed at how cynically this character trait was being deployed.

However, since then, I've gone through a spate of reading children's books (by which I mean middle-grade and young adult novels), and  I've become sensitized to a form of pop-culture reference that is so much more annoying: the age-inappropriate pop-culture reference.

Wonder was full of these, in that all of the books and media that were name-checked were obviously ones that the author had consumed in her youth, and not necessarily ones that a kid would consume today (for instance, the main character was obsessed with Star Wars and makes references to E.T. and The Hobbit and all kinds of other 80s standbys). And right now I am reading a John Green novel where the main character is obsessed Neutral Milk Hotel.Now, I mean, sure...I bet there were teens in 2010 (the year the novel came out) who were interested in NMH, but it still strikes me as a little bit precious.

I guess what I object to is the idea that we're supposed to respect a character more, and maybe even consider them to be something of an iconoclast, if they have media tastes that are a bit outside the mainstream. I mean, I know that's an essential part of the self-image of many outcaste children and teens: the idea that they're more sensitive and perceptive than those who torment them and that this sensitiveness somehow manifests itself in their ability to take joy in media that their tormenters, who have duller intellects and grosser senses, are unable to understand.

But what I don't understand is why we, as adults, need to buy into a notion which is clearly false. Liking an indie band does not make you a better person. And there is no reason why it should be implicitly correlated with the heroes other decent traits.

Also, on a more personal note, I will say that although I have far-ranging media tastes, they don't really impinge that much on my ordinary walking-around consciousness. When I see a handsome, but stern and beetle-browed, gentleman on the sidewalk, I don't think to myself, "My, what a Heathcliff!"

In fact, I live inside the setting of one of my favorite shows (The Wire), but I never think, "Oh man, that cop was a real Herc" or "I bet there's a Dukie at that school on the corner." Instead, I at least attempt to perceive the world as it is and to form independent judgments about the things that I see. Now, those judgments are guided in subtle ways by the media that I consume (for instance, I probably carry within me the decidedly Herc-like image of the big, blustery, idiotic man-baby of a cop and perhaps I do attempt to map that image onto the cops that I see...but that isn't something that I'm consciously doing.)

Of course, other people are different from me. I have no doubt that some of them live far more intimately with their favorite media than I do with mine, but I've read five children's books in the last two weeks and every single one of them (even the futuristic dystopia!) had a protagonist with an unnatural interest in and love for media that was popular before they were born.

Just once, I'd like to read a young adult book about a teen who read one book last year and it was the Hunger Games and she liked it alright, but, really, she's got better things to do with her life than sit around with her nose in a book.

Like every other person in the kid-lit world, I’m in love with R. J. Palacio’s _Wonder_

This cover is also pretty amazing
This cover is also pretty amazing

The book is about a fifth-grader with a severe craniofacial deformity that makes him a very shocking sight for non-deformed people. The book is...err...it's pretty good. It is (was?) also a huge bestseller.

Gotta say, it's been a long, long time since I've read a book that was targeted at such a young audience. Last summer I think I read one or two middle-grade books, but I think those were young MG, whereas I think this is a bit older. Some things are a bit odd about the book. Like...do fifth-graders really date? I really don't remember anything like that. I was in public co-ed school up until 6th grade, and I feel there wasn't really any kind of romance.

The book is also shockingly ambitious. It's told in seven different first-person points of view, who range in age from 10 to 15 and span both genders (as well as a number of races). Even for an adult novel, this would be a tall order. It works incredibly well. The portrait you get of this kid (and his family) is so complex. Like you learn about all the different ways that his family is good and bad. You learn the subtext behind little incidents that you saw at the start of the book. You first see how solicitous the mother is, and then see the kid's sister complain about the mother, and then you see the kid's sister's boyfriend talk about how much he loves her mother. It is webs within webs.

How does someone even get the idea to tell the story this way? The initial voice--the voice of the deformed kid, Gus--is so compelling, and his conflict is so interesting, that it would've made perfect sense to stick with it for the entire novel? How did this author decide that wasn't enough? How did she decide to move between viewpoints in this incredibly deft and unpredictable way (you don't switch each chapter, instead the novel is divided into about eight parts and the viewpoints switch with each part).

I really think that no intellectual or rational faculty could've told you to write a book in this way. It had to be a scheme that came from deep within the author's soul. Somehow, she glimpsed something, and the only way to explain it was to write an entire book about it.