Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pop Culture References in YA Books

Have you ever rejoiced at the mention of Muggles or laughed at some snide remark about sparkly vampires? YA lit is riddled with pop culture references as a part of the humor inherent to the story. Here are the shows/books/people whose work has cropped up most frequently in YA lit:

1. Joss Whedon

He's the guy responsible for Buffy, Dollhouse, and Firefly among others - all of which I've seen referred to in some young adult literature, whether for marketing or small references. (For instance: Avalon by Mindee Arnett is being marketed as for fans of Firefly, and Altered by Jennifer Rush was marketed as Prison Break meets Dollhouse, I believe). Now I can attest to Firefly's awesomeness - I recently marathon-watched the season and Serenity the movie, and actually bought the soundtrack for my own writing. (So: watch Firefly if you haven't already.)

I tried Buffy. I laughed.
I tried Dollhouse. My friend and I spent half the time with our faces like this: o_O

I wonder if there's something specific about the people who read young adult literature and how that overlaps with Whedon's cult following. We're all nerds? I don't know, but it seems to crop up a lot more frequently in YA lit community.

2. Harry Potter / Twilight / The Hunger Games

Sometimes I have to remind myself that not everyone has read these three giant series. Though there are some other really big series like Percy Jackson and The Mortal Instruments, these are the big three that I've seen consistently referred to in other books. All those sparkly vampire references? The wands and trains and well, Harry Potter references, I hope you never die out. And when you can go almost to any dystopian lit page, you'll find a comparison to The Hunger Games. This  is what drove my oldest brother, John, to read THG (though he generally disdains YA lit and only reads high fantasy novels), and my second oldest brother, Anthony, to read the Harry Potter books years after the movie had been released.

3. Veronica Mars

Did you look at your twitter feed when the VM director and Kristen Bell announced that there was a kickstarter campaign for the Veronica Mars movie? Yep. Not to mention how the Hex Hall series by Rachel Hawkins was referred to as Veronica Mars meets Percy Jackson.

I confess: I tried this show too. The first few episodes were okay, but again I'm not understanding the cult following (educate me!). I assume the references are because VM is a young teenage protagonist of her own--or is it tapping into something different in YA altogether?

4. Doctor Who

It seems like almost every day, I run into a review that refers to Doctor Who. Generally, I think this occurs in regard to time travel or science fiction novels, or the "Whovian" plots of certain novels, but I know next to nothing about this show, or what Whovian is--wasn't there some sort of change in the show? Does that refer to the original? The whole series? It's not too frequent, but frequent enough for me to notice these references.

5. Disney/Princess Movies

This one is a bit easier to understand. Young Adult can still hit on the crowd surfacing from the Disney / princess movies, and still make those who loved them when they were younger/still love them nostalgic. Admittedly I had quite a few moments dressing up as a princess when I was younger, but now I find it a lot harder to connect to any of the princess / Disney movies or their references. I seem to be in the huge minority here, though, as my 26-year-old brother came back from medical school and watched Beauty and the Beast for fun, and given that the Selection, which taps into this crowd, is so hugely popular. (Something else I've seen on the blogosphere - How you know you're on Goodreads: if there's at least one review that features a Disney gif.)

6. Gilmore Girls

To be fair, this one I haven't seen referred to a lot in YA lit so much as the YA community. And it makes sense: Rory starts off like another teenage protagonist, yet this show features a healthy mother/daughter relationship, actually features at the forefront, which I don't think is something you generally see in YA lit. That + lots of other recommendations are the reasons why the show is still on my to-watch list. (Yep--another pop culture fail on my part!)

Let me just say this: I may, in general, be a pop culture fail. I may know more about books, specifically young adult books, than the average person, and ha, I may know more about the subareas in hippocampus than the average scientist, but I didn't really listen to music until I was in eleventh grade. Yes, music, cultural icons... Now you all may berate me for my ignorance.

What pop culture references have you seen crop up in YA lit? What are some of your favorites? Have you watched / read any of these? Do you like the references in YA lit? What shows do you wish were more popular as references?


  1. I'm a huge Joss Whedon fan, but could not get into Firefly. I LOVED Buffy. And you're kinda supposed to laugh at a lot on Buffy, so? Buffy made me laugh every episode, and often cry in that same episode. Like you I love when there are references to these things in books or tv shows, or movies even! Great post!

  2. Gilmore Girls was one of my favorite shows ever! I was so sad when that one ended. I was also a big Buffy fan back in the day but I think my face was much like you and your friends' while trying to watch Dollhouse. That one just didn't work for me!

  3. I feel like I really could use some pop culture education :P I haven't read/watched most of the things you mentioned (except ofcourse THG and Harry Potter) butI have heard about them, and I come across refrences to them quite a lot. Hoestly? I don't understand the hype following Doctor who. I watched one or two episodes and kind of just gave up. I also hear about Veronica Mars quite a lot. And I know about the kickstarter thing so that sounds awesome.

  4. Really? Aw, we're like opposites. FIREFLY was the one thing he did that I actually loved--what don't you like about it? As for Buffy, I wasn't really laughing because of the humor. It's hard for me to go back and watch older shows with a lot of graphics, so Buffy seemed 90s to me, and I found it hard to take it seriously. It's disappointing because I would have loved to add that show to my faves!

  5. Yet another reason to watch GG :). As for Dollhouse, I think it's partially because those first few episodes are kind of disorienting. We were so confused, and we ended up laughing because of that.

  6. I loved the idea of the kickstarter for VM. That fans could revive a classic if they loved it enough. If Firefly had one, I think I would contribute. As for Doctor Who, I've heard about it being variable given who's the main actor at the time, so maybe that was also a part of it? I haven't even gotten around to watch some episodes of it. I definitely need some pop culture education, so you're not alone :).

  7. I am so guilty of putting Doctor Who references in my reviews. Even more so of thinking that everybody knows what DW is by now (sorry!). Pop culture references in books don't bother me a great deal, but then, like everything else, some authors know how to make better use of them than others. For instance, in one of my last reads, 'Peeta Mellark' was used as a term of endearment (or was it an insult? I can't remember...) and it stood out like a sore thumb. Things like that I could do without. And I suppose the sparkly vampire line is horribly overused now, too...

  8. oh man, Buffy is so very 90s (x2 for season one), but that's part of why I love it still. I'm with you on the Firefly love, but Buffy is still my favorite.

    I don't like it much when publishers try to sell series as "the next X" or "it's like X meets Y" because usually they're just trying to mooch off of the audiences. They're also usually pretty off base with their comparisons.

    I love it when reviewers do that though, because then I can trust that they're actually using an accurate description and the references help me set my expectations.

  9. You are not the only pop culture fail. I originally scanned through this list and thought "I've heard about all of these but ehhh..." and so was waiting for you to rub it in my face how much of a failure I am. And then I was actually sort of relieved when I saw you are full of as much fail as I am! Haha.

    Whedon? I've heard of him and his shows, but haven't watched any of them. Really, I think The Big Bang Theory is to blame for me knowing his name as much as I do. HP/Twilight/THG. Okay, I got this one. I've read all three. (And like you, I'm always surprised when I find out someone hasn't. Whaaat?!) Veronica Mars? I haven't seen it. I saw the Twitter fuss but was like... what? Doctor Who? Nope. I think I've seen one episode? I've even had talks with my boyfriend about it, because he lives in the UK and I think everyone there watches it (plus all the nerds here), but nope. Disney. Okay. Another one I have (though I haven't seen the newer ones... Tangled. The Princess and the Frog). And Gilmore Girls? Nope.

    So. I'm pretty much a pop culture failure. But what I find interesting is that though I am not familiar with most of these, I still am aware of them and recognize when their name pops up. That's gotta mean something!

  10. Oh - Star Trek/Star Wars is a popular one as well.

    LOVED this post!

  11. "How you know you're on Goodreads: if there's at least one review that features a Disney gif." Bahaha...so true. I kind of LOVE Veronica Mars, so if I see a mention in a blurb or review, it's a guaranteed add to the TBR. I just love it for the quirky young protag who's digging up the dirt on her own, all while dealing with the trials and tribulations of high school.

  12. I haven't seen Veronica Mars, but I have seen Buffy and I stopped at season 2. It's on my computer as we speak and I'm 6 episodes in, but it's kinda meh.. :( I love SMG though. I have watched almost all the seasons in GG though and it's super-amazing! Rory and Lolerai are adorable:) As for other pop culture references, Pretty Little Liars is driving me insane. It's everywhere. Some of the books I've seen on GR have that reference and it's not like the books or the show is that good. I'm thinking about ditching the show and watching something else instead. But it's still huge and people are loyal more than excited as I've gathered from various conversations on twitter and GR. The other thing is Gossip Girl which gets referenced a lot. Also, if a book is like "perfect for Twilight fans", I just cringe. It's an awful reference -.-

  13. Yeah, I guess if you didn't watch a show at the time it was actually on it can be hard to watch with today's difference in CGI and stuff. That makes sense. Firefly was just kind of boring to me. And it reminded me of how while I like Star Wars, I'm more of a Star Trek fan because I don't understand why if we're so advanced that we can fly through space, the characters dress so old fashioned. Or things are like that. I don't know. I'm weird I guess! :-)

  14. DOCTOR WHO! I would love to explain it to you, Christina. First, Whovian. A Whovian is the name of DOCTOR WHO fans. Or it can mean something that is like the show or has similar qualities. Time travel/sci fi books would be right as the show is about (who else?) the Doctor who is a "Time Lord," a species of alien that can travel through time with their T.A.R.D.I.S.'s. The show originally started in the '60s and ran for a couple decades. In 2005, it was revived. The newer version of the show has featured three different actors as the Doctor, the ninth, tenth, and eleventh Doctors. (Though we're about to get a twelth.) I really love this show. It makes me laugh and cry all the time. Personally, I think you have to be a great writer to write an episode of DOCTOR WHO.

    ...That might have been a bit more than you bargained for. :) But I definitely recommend you give it a try.

    As for Disney princesses... I'm sixteen and my group of friends is planning to dress up like the princesses this Halloween. Still haven't seen BRAVE though.

  15. Nah--I can understand. The Western element in Firefly is a bit weird when you consider the logistics of it (cowboy hats on outlander planets?), but I liked the element of "justice" and the "outlander" feel that it brought. It's definitely not for everyone though :D.

    I do tend to prefer the old-fashioned look of the clothes more than future clothes, 'cause I'm not quite sure how movie makers decide what our fashion senses would look like however many years in the future. That's my beef with futuristic stories in general though :).

  16. lol you can put Doctor Who references in your reviews. It's not your fault that I'm a pop culture fail. I agree: the pop culture reference does tend to depend on the book. Peeta Mellark as a term of endearment or insult: yeah, I'm with you. (Also: how clunky! I can't even picture saying you're my Harry Potter to someone, and HP was way huger). Sparkly vampire is also definitely overused - but I think it'll fade more and more and be gone in the next two years.

  17. Hahaha I really liked the concept and the fierceness of Buffy, but I just couldn't do with the vampires.

    Very true. I think part of why publishers use comparison marketing is due to what I'd just read in a Forbes article: that if they can get a bestseller, their revenue will increase for the entire year (THG + Fifty Shades made up 25% of the book world revenue in 2012), and when they don't have one, it's a fall in revenue. It is trying to mooch off audiences, and reviewers don't have that same incentive when making those comparisons.

    And Lord of the Rings... but even with Star Trek/Star Wars/Lord of the Rings, it seems like those references come more from the authors & less in the books.

  19. No! Ha, I would never rub it in your face. I was kind of afraid that that was what commenters might do, but let's be fails together! :D

    YES, THE BIG BANG THEORY, that too! And I need to get caught up on those episodes! (Psst, it's okay if you haven't watched any of Whedon's other shows, but Firefly is so awesome, I've got to put that in here...) Veronica Mars is going to become a book series after the movie is released, so perchance you and I will understand the fuss about it later. Lol nerds and UK for Doctor Who--quite a tagline you've got there :). I haven't seen any of the newer Disney movies yet either, though everyone does seem to rave about Tangled.

    Recognizing them is the first step! We've got this :)

  20. Oh, no, I have no idea what you mean by SMG. Is that something else in Buffy? I've only seen the first few episodes because the vampires - their makeup, the graphics - made me laugh. And I really need to watch some GG! Have yet to hear a single bad thing about that show.

    YEAH. Pretty Little Liars. That is referred to a lot. PLL meets X and X - I think that was one of the comparisons for Another Little Piece, which seems really weird. IMO, you should ditch the show if you don't like it as much anymore :(. Then you can spend more time reading, and/or maybe I can convince you to watch Firefly :)... PLL references also do go hand in hand with Gossip Girl, which, admittedly, I watched for a bit -- they do seem to be in the same mold. AND OMG THE PERFECT FOR TWILIGHT FANS. People never use that appropriately! On the cover of IF I STAY, I think USA Today says "will appeal to Twilight fans," and the books are not even in the same genre!

  21. Yeah, based on what I've seen of VM, it did seem like a very appropriate reference for the Hex Hall series. And I did love the humor, her quirkiness. Maybe it was just the first few episodes, and I should try a few more... (PS - if you love VM, they recently announced that there will be a VM mystery book series to be pubbed after the movie.)

  22. Hey, Brooke :). The Doctor is an alien? Interesting. I don't know what TARDIS means. I did think it was an older show that became more popular recently--thanks for clarifying! And which Doctor actor do you most prefer?

    Lol I have been thinking I should give it a try sometime soon :). My best friend talks about it a lot too. Oh, you two Whovians...

    Oh, for sure. Disney is a world-wide, ageless phenomenon. I'm pretty sure my friends in college still dressed up or referred to Disney. In my Socialization of Gender class, we watched a few scenes from BRAVE. It seemed pretty epic - that girl also has GORGEOUS hair. Omg. And the graphics.

  23. Ha, Sarah Michelle Gellar :) Everyone refers to her that way since her name is tooooooo darn long. Just like Jennifer L. Armentrout is JLA for everyone :D I devoured the first 5 seasons in 2 weeks btw (Gilmore GIrls).

    I watched the latest episode yesterday and pffft.. Half of the episode concentrated on setting up the spin-off. It isn't that creepy anymore and I really don't care what happens to the girls. We don't get ANY answers and every episode sets up new plotlines which don't even make sense anymore. Idk.. I'll watch this half-season and then maybe Halloween and if it doesn't get better in January, I won't watch it again. LOL. I ditched True Blood as well, I'm getting tired of that mind-f as well. All it does is bore or infuriate me. Hahahahaha. YES! When I received my copy of If I Stay I burst out laughing. That was so ridiculous I just couldn't contain it. Wtf, If I didn't really want to read it and if all of my Goodreads and blogging friends didn't love it THAT much, I would have walked right pass that one. Hunger Games reference is on every dystopian though. Blood Red Road, The Maze Runner etc. Oh, and lately I've seen some Vampire Diaries' references as well. I don't remember which books it were exactly, but there were a few that caught my eye.

  24. I knew JLA :P. But SMG... Yeah, I was thinking of marathon-watching. Potentially dragging a friend into it with me.

    There's a spin-off for PLL? Wow, I am behind the times. Watch, now that you've made that declaration, the show is going to get better, or you're going to stick to watching it. Lol, TB is such a mind-f, but I am still going. Ben/Sookie--what?! THG is everywhere, even on non-dystopias. TVD is a hugely popular show, so they may be trying to capitalize on that by referring to it...

  25. I got sucked into the Dr. Who thing. I started watching the show and it's hard not to see it in all these Science fiction YA books, but I've never referenced it in my reviews. Actually, I take that back Victoria Schwab mentioned that her book is in part inspired by Dr. Who, so I did reference it there.

  26. lol :). Interesting. I've read one Victoria Schwab book - was it ARCHIVED? Or is that all her books are inspired by DW?

  27. Yes, it was The Archived. Basically, the character Roland is a lookalike David Tennant, one of the Dr. Who actors.

  28. Yep. He has two hearts. And he regenerates when he's dying, which is why he has been played by many actors. Pretty sure Matt Smith (eleventh) is my favorite, but David Tennant (tenth) is definitely tear inducing. I grew to like Christopher Eccleston (ninth), but he doesn't come close to the others, in my opinion.

    TARDIS stands for something that I can't remember off the top of my head right now, but basically, it's a time machine.

  29. I... think... I need to be educated on pop culture references. Where shall I enroll?

    Seriously though, I haven't watched any Buffy or Veronica Mars or Doctor Who so I find myself lacking in that regard but I'm so very glad to have read the three giants and now I need to tackle the lesser of the three giants (The Mortal Instruments, Divergent and err... Shatter Me series). But I am aware of all the pop culture sources so that has got to count for something. I just haven't got around to actually watching them. =D

    However, I love spotting pop culture references in books, movies and TV shows and I squee because they're mostly laugh out loud funny or just plain amusing. I wouldn't want them to stop quoting the best of the best. What I'd really like to see more of in terms of pop culture references are Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries. That'd be pretty cool.

    P.S. I've also got to watch Star Wars soon.

  30. Woah, is the SM series considered a lesser giant? Either way, you still have time before the movies to tackle those books if you'd like :). And definitely: recognizing them is the first start, and it sounds like you still do spot the references without having seen some of these.

    True, the most I've seen from TVD or GG is references to brothers loving the same girl, or if a book has girls obsessing over clothes or wealth. It'd be nicer to refer to the actual events or character traits.

    Star Wars was my childhood. I approve of this plan.

  31. 1. Hahaha, Joss totally showed up in the book I finished two days ago, though not a YA. STILL. Funny. He's also in Feed. Also not YA. Buffy has some really great episodes, but a lot of it is silly/not that great imo. Dollhouse was worth it solely for the end of season one with Alpha. However, both would have been better shows if Joss didn't have a thing for actresses who suck at acting. Good leads, they do not make.

    3. Veronica Mars is the best. I...do not understand why you do not love it. *cries*

  32. There's an episode with Alpha at the very end? Oookay. Maybe I should find a link to that and watch with my friend. But you're right: both actresses were kind of meager. I think it was also the bizarre feel of how everything was handled.

    lol, my friend still wants to watch VM, so I'll probably get around to it again... maybe then I'll get into the fandom? It wasn't bad; I just wasn't hooked yet.

  33. Yeah, the last couple episodes of season 1. And he's played by Alan Tudyk, aka Wash, and he's brilliant.

    I think you have to give V Mars until Logan's character becomes slightly less of an asshole to get it.

  34. how many episodes is that o.O?
    And ahhh, Wash is always awesome. Is Joss Whedon one of those in Hollywood who favors the same actors?

  35. Middle to end of season one, I think.


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