Great Graphic Novels Noms 2015: Memoir and Contemporary Stories

by Tessa

Read about this series of posts here.

FUN FACT: All of the selections today are by writer-artists (one person writes and draws the book). They are the singer-songwriters of the comics world.

eldeafocover

El Deafo

Cece Bell, writer and artist

Amulet Books

Anticipation/Expectation Level: I’d heard lotsa good things about this one.

My Reality: All the praise is deserved. It’s a mildly fictionalized memoir about Cece Bell growing up with deafness, outside of the Deaf community – it’s about feeling awkward because she’s afraid she looks so different and because of the challenges of navigating a world that doesn’t always make the allowances it should for a lip-reading child, and it’s also about basic growing up stuff: friendships, family, school. Bell has a good ear for social detail and her chronicles of trying to find a true friend and feeling lonely will win her many readers (I hope). And she’s also funny.

Will teens like it?: Yes. Fans of Raina Telgemeier and The Wimpy Kid/Big Nate will be into this for sure.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

ElDeafo_TXT_page1

allstarcover

All Star

Jesse Lonergan, writer and artist

NBM ComicsLit

Anticipation/Expectation Level: None. I knew nothing about this going in.

My Reality: Great realistic fiction which I think sometimes is thin on the ground in the comics world, especially for the high school level. All Star is squarely high school oriented. It’s not the baseball story that the cover may lead you to believe it is. It’s about the golden boy becoming aware of his golden boy privileges and trying to do the right thing. I’m always fascinated to read about fictional or nonficitonal characters trying to do the right thing. (All Star may seem autobiographical but it’s not). Lonergan writes clean, beautiful action pages that made baseball not so boring even for me. His characters are exaggerated – a little boxy like Jeff Lemire’s but more like walking skeletons.

Will Teens Like it?: Teens might not get all the cultural references going on, but hopefully that won’t turn them away from the story.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yeah.

Art Taste:

154-All-Star

tomboycover

Tomboy: a graphic memoir

Liz Prince, writer and artist

Zest Books

Anticipation/expectation level: I got a personal recommendation for this from several people whose taste I trust.

My Reality: Loved it! Prince doesn’t try to tamp down on the ambiguity of her feelings about how she wants to be in the world. Because these go against culturally built up norms for gender expression she struggles with how she feels about girly things, how she has been taught to think about being a girl, and how she feels comfortable and if that has to fit into a gendered behavior. But it’s told as a story that is open, using a black and white, thin-lined style that I think of as “refined sketchbook cartoon” – really accessible and enjoyable for a huge age range.

Will Teens Like It?: I put this on display on Tuesday and a teen immediately picked it up.

Is it “great” for teens?: YES.

Art Taste:

tomboyjedi

T0724

I Think I Am In Friend-Love With You

Yumi Sakugawa, writer and artist

Adams Media

Anticipation/Expectation Level: I had read this on Tumblr or something before it was published. I thought it was cute to a point.

My Reality: I like how the format: small and square, with one text panel and one picture to each spread, makes the reading go more slowly. More like a picture book for adults. Sakugawa has a very appealing drawing style. The narrator of this book is a of a monstery design, sort of a cyclops Cousin It. She draws with a thin, textured pencil line, with a good eye for design. While I have experienced friend crushes and support the idea of more talk about the importance of friend-love and friendship as sustaining relationships, I feel like this book is more about friend-crush desperation. A reviewer at Rookie reads it as an exchange between the crusher and crushee, but I see it as a long declaration from the protagonist to an oblivious friend crush. A declaration that would make most people uncomfortable because it lacks confidence. And it is steeped in the social media world of today, and those references will become dated and take away from the chance of this being a classic book with a universal message. So I can’t fully get behind this as a great book but I do think it is cute and harmless – even maybe confidence building?

Will Teens Like it?: Yeah, this is built for sharing on Tumblr.

Is it “great” for Teens: I don’t know. I see it more as a novelty picture book?

Art Taste:

friendlove2

The Knife: September Girls Cuts To The Heart

A Review of September Girls by Bennett Madison

HarperTeen, 2013

September Girls Bennett Madison

by REBECCA, May 5, 2014

hook

When Sam arrives at a small beach town with his dad and brother for the summer he notices that something is strange about its other inhabitants—all beautiful blonde girls—but can’t quite figure out what. When he starts to fall for one of them, he’ll get answers he never could have imagined.

review

I’ve been meaning to read September Girls all year and now that it’s getting warm, I finally sat down with most poignant of beach reads. After Sam’s mother takes off, his father loses it, sinking into a drunken depression and then diving manically into the task of finding himself. That summer, he decides that he, Sam, and Sam’s collegiate brother, Jeff, should leave town and take to the beach, where they’ll stay until September.

Sam’s father quickly throws himself into searching for buried treasure with a metal detector, and Jeff treats him to lectures on how this is the summer he should lose his virginity, but Sam misses his mother and finds himself walking alone for hours in a landscape that never quite seems the same twice. He’s a little sad, a little bored, and a lot anxious about growing up.

“[Dad often told me] that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy—with vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair—but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next—ta-da!—a man, as if anyone would ever notice the difference.

Like you can just instantly transform like that. Like manhood is this distinct thing with actual markers and consequences. Well, maybe it is. But even if it is—if there is any person on this planet who actually knows what it means to be a man, anyone who could truly sum it up—I would guess my father to be among the very fucking last to have the tiniest clue.”

He’s self-conscious that he’s a virgin, knows that he looks skinny and unimpressive next to his brother, and isn’t particularly interested in doing anything about either. So, when the swarm of beautiful, voluptuous, blonde girls who work at every business in town seem to be interested in Sam, he’s understandably confused. Even if most of them don’t speak to him, he sees them staring, smiling, and paying a kind of attention to him that he’s never received. And, because he’s not an idiot, he’s pretty weirded out by it.

The first night they’re at the beach, Jeff and Sam see a girl washed ashore from the ocean pull herself to hands and knees and scuttle away into the dunes. And this is just the first of many strange and confusing things that they witness. Little by little, his brother starts to fall for one of the girls, Kristle (pronounced like Crystal), and he strikes up a confusing and intense friendship with another, DeeDee.

As he and DeeDee get closer, the secret of the girls—or the Girls, as Sam thinks of them—slowly comes into focus. They aren’t human; they come from the sea, cursed to live in human form for a limited time, and unable to leave the beach town. Call them mermaids if you like, but they have no gender. They merely assume the form that instinct tells them will be most beneficial to beings who arrive on land with nothing: young, beautiful, female, and blonde.

September Girls has been a wildly divisive book in terms of public reviews, with a number of 5-star raves and even more 1-star pans. Nearly all of the latter are given with reference to accusations of the book’s sexism and misogyny. I’m gobsmacked by this truly careless reading, and desperately sad that the book’s public reputation has been tainted by it because it couldn’t be further from the truth. To the contrary, September Girls engages with our widespread culture of sexism and misogyny—sex as power; trapped girls; sex as necessity; addlepated boys—and skewers it. (I won’t do a point-by-point rebuttal of the accusations because The Book Smuggler’s review HERE does a great job of that.) Bennett Madison raises questions not only about gender, but about the power of narratives to concretize, challenge, reinscribe, and invert gendered tropes.

We have learned that we are beautiful. All of us. We are all beautiful. To those who may read this: we are more beautiful. No matter how beautiful you are, we are more. We just are. . . . We say this with no pride at all. We say it, maybe, with a little sadness. Our beauty is a gift that we have had no choice but to accept. . . . We were offered only beauty. We took it and we use it. It’s nothing special. It’s how we survive.

Since we have no word for beauty, we use the closest word we have. We call it the knife. Our beauty is only our knife. Our beauty is our only knife. It’s just a knife: rusty blade, ordinary handle. But it’s sharp. It does its thing. Nothing special.

When is nothing special the most important thing? When it’s the only thing. . . . We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with a sexiness that appears unconsidered. . . . So. We learn how to use our breasts, our asses, our eyelashes, our lips. We learn how to get what we want.

No. Not what we want. We never get what we want, do we? We learn how to get what we need.”

September Girls is a dreamy, beautifully-written meditation on how the unstructured time of summer allows for self-exploration and change that the school year makes impossible. Absent anyone from home who really knows him, Sam is on a scary but necessary journey to find out who he is. Part of that is figuring out what it means to engage with a gendered world (because such attitudes are, unfortunately, pervasive). Part of it is learning to appreciate himself. Part of it is learning how to be sad, how to be bored, how to admit to yourself that you aren’t special all the time.

Some have found September Girls a bit dull or slow-paced, but for me it perfectly echoed the feeling of standing in the surf, feet in the sand as the ocean drags it from under you. After each chapter told from Sam’s perspective is a section told from the Girls’ perspective (like the quote above), creating a give and take of ocean and land, and when Sam loses time it’s like the exhausted, lightheaded, salt-drenched moment when you fall asleep on the beach, too sun-drained and beach-blind to notice the hour.

September Girls is a beautiful piece of speculative fiction that’s as dreamy as the ocean and as rough as sand in your underwear. I can’t wait to read whatever Bennett Madison writes next.

readalikes

Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989). September Girls’ placiness reminded me of Block’s L.A.—something about the combination of heat and love.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2011). In Stiefvater’s tale, it’s horses that come from the sea, but it’s similarly dreamy, with harsh reality abutting the speculative. My full review is HERE.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz (2013). When Rudy leaves everything he knows to move to an island whose magic fish might be able to cure his brother’s cystic fibrosis he knows things will never be the same. What he can’t know is that he’ll meet someone who changes everything he knows about himself . . . and presents him with a life and death dilemma. How will Rudy choose between two people he loves? Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. September Girls by Bennett Madison is available now.

Interview with J.C. Lillis, Author of We Won’t Feel a Thing!

by REBECCA, April 16, 2014

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

Friends, enemies, and those totally indifferent to me, hello! It is my total pleasure to welcome the delightful J.C. Lillis back to Crunchings & Munchings for an interview on the heels of her sophomore release, We Won’t Feel a Thingwhich I reviewed on Monday.

GIVEAWAY: J.C. is offering one lucky reader a free e-copy of We Won’t Feel a Thing. The form is at the end of the interview. Thanks for joining us, J.C.!

REBECCA: The idea of two best friends/beloveds deciding to use a self-help program to rid themselves of their love is so awesome! How did you come up with the idea?

J.C.: Thanks! Yeah, it was inspired by an offhand comment a friend of mine made to another friend who was having a difficult time. He told her that her life would be so much easier if she just learned to engineer her emotions. And he was a scientist, so of course we started joking about it: “oh, watch him actually start his own Emotional Engineering program.” The David Kerning character and his WAVES program started to evolve from there, and then David bumped into Rachel and Riley, and the story started to cook.

REBECCA: One of my favorite things about the book is that Rachel is a grammar and syntax nerd. Being one myself, I was delighted every time Rachel mentally deleted an apostrophe or corrected a malapropism. Are you a grammar enthusiast? Do you have a grammatical, syntactical, or linguistic pet peeve?

J.C.: I am, but I’m definitely not as obsessive about it as Rachel is. If I passed by a specials chalkboard advertising “chocolate croissant’s,” I’d probably be able to keep walking.

Oh geez, I have so many pet peeves. I share Rachel’s hatred of “impact” used as a verb; say something like “the economy impacted sales” and all I can think about are problematic wisdom teeth. All business lingo rubs me the wrong way. Just these smug, snappy idioms people whip out like a secret handshake, to feel important—herding cats and making it rain and drilling down to the granular level. And this is a pretty common peeve, but I am forever raging about “it’s” in place of “its.” It’s become such an epidemic that even autocorrect sticks the apostrophe in, like SLOW YOUR ROLL, AUTOCORRECT. Let’s consider context, shall we?

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisREBECCA: Your first novel, How To Repair a Mechanical Heart, which I adored, found you creating a fandom. In We Won’t Feel a Thing, you create two different self-help programs. Can you talk a little bit about what appeals to you about creating these worlds-within-worlds?

J.C.: I love this question. I’m sitting here like “yeah . . . why DO I do that?” I think it’s because I’ve always struggled to feel like I belonged, and I’ve had very intense obsessions with things that sometimes aren’t appreciated by many others (in my fandoms, I’m forever the queen of unpopular ships). So the idea of a little society or system devoted to an obscure pursuit or interest has always been compelling to me. I’m also the kind of person who needs to feel in control of things, whether it’s my workload or my emotions or my body, so I’m drawn to characters who invent systems and strategies to impose order on the untamable.

 REBECCA: The love story in How To Repair a Mechanical Heart was between two boys. When I first saw the blurb for We Won’t Feel a Thing, I was a tad nervous because heterosexual love stories so often wind up reinforcing gender stereotypes. Not only did We Won’t Feel a Thing not do that, but Riley and Rachel’s genders also felt very fluid. I don’t mean to say that just because they weren’t stereotypical they were somehow unfixed; more that I was interested in the ways that it felt kind of like they could have been any combination of gender-identified people. What are your thoughts on this issue in general? Was gender something you were actively thinking about here?

don't gender me!

don’t gender me!

J.C.: You’re the second person who’s made that comment, and I love that you felt that way. Some of that was natural and kind of arose from the type of person I am. I’ve never felt especially feminine or masculine in the traditional sense. I remember I had this rag doll as a kid; it had no hair or clothing, it was just the outline of a person with friendly facial features stitched on. I loved this doll, and I remember feeling annoyed and unsettled when people would ask “Is that a boy or a girl?” I hated that I had to pick, because neither option really felt like the truth. To this day I’m always attracted to people who combine traits we’re conditioned to think of as “male” and “female,” and I think I live comfortably in that gray area, too.

So yeah, it was partly automatic, but I was also very conscious of the approach to gender in WWFaT. I think l’ll probably hear some of “oh, Riley’s the ‘girl’ in the relationship,” which—like you indicated in your review—is sort of reductive and stereotypical. I wasn’t really aiming for a straight-up gender-role reversal; I was more interested in depicting two young people whose personalities both color outside traditional gender lines. I mean, Rachel and Riley have been isolated in their private “kingdom” for a good bit of their lives, so I feel like they don’t even see those lines at all. That felt freeing to me as a writer. I think back to the very first fictional relationships that captivated me—like, Frog and Toad or Bert and Ernie. I don’t remember giving gender a thought; it was their specific personalities and their interactions that jumped out at me and made them special. I wanted to recapture that with the Rachel/Riley relationship. I’m glad it worked for you!

REBECCA: We Won’t Feel a Thing is your second novel, but if I remember correctly from your first interview with us, you had the idea for it a long time ago. What was it like to revisit an older idea? Was your writing experience different, having had a first novel under your belt?

J.C.: Yeah, these characters have been with me since like late 2003. (I’d written three other novels before that, all of which will mercifully never see the light of day.) I finished the first draft and then set it aside for a while—I was pregnant at the time and very anxious about motherhood, so I needed a break. I wrote about half of another book when my daughter was a baby, and then I got the idea for HTRaMH and decided to run with it.

That first version of WWFaT was wildly different. And at first, when I decided to go back and revise it, I was naively optimistic. I just thought oh, I’ve already put one book out there, so this’ll be easy. I’ll tighten the beginning, cut stuff here and there, tidy it up and get it out in six months. But then when I changed the beginning, everything started to change. I ended up keeping maybe 5% of the original text. In some ways it was even harder than starting from scratch, because it was this constant process of letting go of stuff I liked from version #1 that just didn’t fit or make sense anymore. Talk about killing your darlings. It was a darling bloodbath.

 REBECCA: You have a job and kids, right? How do you balance all that with writing? And what are the things that make you excited enough about a story that you want to make time for it?

J.C.: Oh man, it’s hard. It never stops being hard. I was just talking about that with a friend this weekend. A lot of times you feel like you’re doing everything, and none of it particularly well. Honestly, it’s just a “one day at a time” struggle . . . some days you manage to pull out a great idea at work and laugh with the kiddo at bedtime and write five good pages before you conk out, and other times the whole day’s just a wash. I think the key is learning to forgive yourself and be okay with the fact that your book might take longer than you hoped. Writer moms: It’s okay if you don’t write every day, or if you can’t write as fast as other people. You’ve got a lot going on. Years from now, you won’t look back and say “wow, I wish I’d gotten Book X out six months earlier.” You’ll only regret making yourself sick trying to work full time, be a mom, and still produce a book a year. Everyone works at a different pace, and that’s fine. Know what you can handle, and go easy on yourselves.

As far as staying passionate about a story—if you start with an idea and a character that make you vibrate with excitement, that’ll help carry you through the tough times in the Cave of Eternal Revision. If I get bored, sometimes I take whatever actors I’m crushing on at the moment and mentally cast them in my book, and that keeps it fresh and fun (and helps me hear the dialogue better, as a bonus).

REBECCA: Ha! I love that idea! Relatedly, I know a lot of our readers are also writers. You had great things to say about your experience with indie publishing in our last interview. Do you still feel as good about it? What advice do you have for someone writing books who may not want to go the traditional publishing path?

J.C.: I love being indie; I definitely think it was the right option for me and my weird little books. 🙂 You know, it has its pluses and minuses like everything else. Sometimes I feel a little frustrated by how difficult it is to spread the word about your stuff and attract new readers, especially when you have a shoestring marketing budget and another full-time job you’re committed to. I know there’s so much more I could be doing, and I always end up mad at myself: I should be tweeting/blogging more! I should’ve sent ARCs to more bloggers! If I just organized my time better, I’d have time for X and Y and Z . . .

But the reality is, none of us are superheroes. (At least I don’t think so. If you are, don’t tell; I might step on your cape.) I do what I can manage, and overall the whole indie adventure has been a tremendous experience. There’s nothing better than getting a tweet from a stranger who found and loved your book. I’ve managed to build up a nice readership little by little, and I love that I can still write back to every person who’s kind enough to reach out to me.

As far as advice: I’d say just put in the time to inform yourself about your publishing options, and if you decide to go indie, come on over to Twitter and join the writing community there. We’re a lot of fun, we’re generous with advice and support, and we’ve got your back. There’ll be tons of ups and downs as you figure out which choices are best for you and your book (because seriously, it’s different for everyone), but they’ll be much easier if you’re on the same roller coaster with your writer buddies.

REBECCA: Are you working on anything new (crosses fingers)?

AmadeusJ.C.: Oh yeah, I’m always working on something! Actually, I’m taking a short break right now—WWFaT took a lot out of me and I kind of just need a month to stare at a wall (and catch up on reading. And fangirl over Game of Thrones). But yes, I’ve got my next idea all cued up. It’s about female friendship, but it could possibly turn into romance, depending on where the characters lead me. It’s about the rivalry and deepening relationship between two ambitious pop-star hopefuls; I’ve been calling it Amadeus with young female singer-songwriters, though that’s probably too glib. The cool part is that Brandon and Abel from HTRaMH are going to be side characters. It’s set ten years after their Summer of Love, so you’ll see what’s happened with them in the interim and where their relationship stands now. I can’t wait to get started!

REBECCA: Aaaahhh! Amadeus is one of my favorite movies and I love anything to do with music! Um, oh my god, a Brandon and Abel sighting? I could not be more delighted! Thanks so much for joining us, J.C.!

J.C.: Thank you so much for having me on your blog! It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.

WIN AN E-COPY OF WE WON’T FEEL A THING!

All you need to do is fill out the handy form below and then (for fun!) leave us a comment telling us which better describes you (and why, if you are so inclined). Are you: 1. A fierce grammar nerd, or 2. A sensitive (and possibly anxious) artiste? Or, since binaries are bullshit, 3. An evil genius who will someday engineer an insidious self-help program? The giveaway will stay open for two weeks; I’ll announce the winner here on April 30th!

UPDATE: I have chosen the winner of an e-copy of We Won’t Feel A Thing by a highly scientific process (writing your names on pieces of paper, dumping them in my cat’s favorite cardboard box, and then letting her choose one with her paw) and the winner is MIGUEL!

“20% Cooler”: Bronies, a Documentary

A discussion of the documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unlikely Adult Fans of My Little Pony, and the fandom that inspired it

bronies: the extremely unexpected adult fans of my little ponyMy Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

by REBECCA, January 13, 2014

The adult male fandom of the 2010 show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has been fairly well documented in the last few years, with early mentions of the brony (a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony”) phenomenon treating it as creepy and embarrassing. This evaluation mirrors precisely the perception that many bronies are afraid their love of My Little Pony will spark if they discuss it outside chatrooms and BronyCons.

bronycon 2013The insults, jeers, and genuine sense of creeped-outness displayed by many uninitiated, however, have been totally de-fanged in the last few years, blasted to cynical smithereens by the sheer power of joy, delight, and genuine caring that is the brony fandom. Now, the documentary that has been floating around the internet for the last year is on Netflix instant and we can all wrap ourselves in the rainbow-colored manes of its positivity (and its cosplay!).

my childhood MLP puzzle (with one piece missing)Like many, I came of age with the original My Little Pony movie, tv show, pony toys, and even a puzzle that I did over and over (right; thanks for the pic, mom & dad!). I wasn’t super into it, but I liked the bright colors and the sparkles; as far as I know, though, there wasn’t much to recommend it to an adult audience. The new incarnation of My Little Pony, created by Lauren Faust, on the other hand, is notable for having a solid ethos: the concept that “friendship is magic” underlies the whole show, and with its positive outlook, bright worldview, and varied characters, it’s easy to see why Friendship is Magic has attracted a very different audience than that for which it was originally intended.

official_bronycon_poster_by_timon1771-d4aqm7xThat many people find an adult fanbase for a show purportedly marketed to children surprising is one thing, but that is clearly not the real issue at the heart of Laurent Malaquais’ documentary. Though it is titled Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony, it isn’t the fact that these fans are adults that makes people uncomfortable, of course; it’s the fact that they’re men. And, further, that the show marketed to kids stars five female characters, even if they’re ponies.

Why this is confusing to people is simple: sexist and patriarchal culture that assumes:

1.) that only females would ever be interested in female characters.

2.) that men do not value friendship, caring, and sensitivity as positive character traits.

3.) that, therefore, if a man enjoys watching a show about female characters that does value those things then there is something abnormal about him.

But that’s patriarchy 101, and those are assumptions that most of us run up against every day. They are, however, merely the backdrop of Malaquais’ documentary, givens that the featured bronies understand as part of the world they can leave behind when they enter My Little Pony’s land of Equestria. There are some shout-outs to explaining the place of bronies in the post-9/11 world and its concomitant traumatic masculinity by a talking head professor, sure. But the majority of Bronies is dedicated to a celebration of the ways in which My Little Pony fandom has touched the lives of several bronies.

bronies paper magazineThere’s Alex, a teenager from rural North Carolina who had his back windshield smashed in once he put custom My Little Pony decals on it; Lyle, a guy from Bar Harbor who is afraid to come out as a brony to his hyper-conservative father; Daniel, a guy from Northern England whose Aspergers prevents him from socializing until he attends a BronyCon, and Benjamin & Nadine, a German couple who met at a My Little Pony meet-up. The documentary follows each of them around and shows the ways that My Little Pony changed their lives and their experiences with learning that there was such an active fan community surrounding the show. (This is definitely one of the times when the internet is a huge win for humanity!)

These folks (and other interviewees) discuss the way My Little Pony has been a positive force in their lives and how other entertainment doesn’t make them feel nearly as good. Nearly all of them have had to come to terms with, first, their own internalized notions that their enjoyment of the show is somehow abnormal, and, second, decide who they are going to tell about their love of the show. Some are sheepish, some defiant, and some proselytistic, but all of them are distinctly aware that most people will find their fandom weird, and every one of them acknowledges that admitting it runs the risk of being thought of as “girly,” “gay,” “wimpy,” and “unmasculine.”

bronycon_summer_2012___025_by_rjth-d55m0phLauren Faust (creator of Friendship is Magic), Tara Strong (voice of Twilight Sparkle), and John de Lancie (voice of the Discord and the one with the idea for the documentary) are also featured. As documentaries go, it’s nothing terribly special, but it’s done with such positivity and appreciation for the bronies and their fandom that it put a huge smile on my face. Anyone familiar with fandom will be familiar with the cosplay, fanfiction, fan videos, and fan art that Friendship is Magic has inspired, and Bronies feature several of the fandom’s most popular creators—a musician, a laser lightshow creator, and an artist. That was one of the most inspiring elements of the documentary, as it is one of the most inspiring elements of fandom in general—seeing people with a passion for something creating things for other fans to appreciate. 

No single look at a culture can ever capture all its facets, of course, and Bronies is mainly concerned with hitting the high points: military bronies who believe the show’s values are similar to those of the armed forces’; fundraising bronies who contribute to the health care of a young brony with a brain tumor; etc. There is nothing said about the elements of the fandom (and they exist in all of them) that are of a less family-friendly nature, but that’s clearly not the documentary’s goal. It’s sure to make the fans who ponied up (sorry) the funds for its production on Kickstarter thrilled, and as for the rest of us, well, everypony could do with a little more magic in our lives! 

My-Little-Pony-Friendship-is-Magic-littlest-pet-shop-and-my-little-pony-35863812-1600-1092

On Sexist and Misogynistic Language in YA Lit

Why the Way We Write About Gender In YA Lit Matters. A Lot.

Man Up to End Misogyny

by Jon Dorn

by REBECCA, January 23, 2013

words matter.

This is not a post about sexism and misogyny. This is a post about sexist and misogynistic language. Why? Because I, along with many other awesome YA reviewers and authors, write about sexism and misogyny when we review books that demonstrate them. But sexist and misogynistic language often go undiscussed even though they can have, I would argue, even more impact on a reader’s sense of how gender functions in the world of the book. The other day, I reviewed the first book in Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series, Sloppy Firsts, and was pretty grossed out at the (seemingly out of character) sexist and misogynist words that McCafferty puts in Jessica’s mouth. It’s bad enough if authors write sexist books, I commented, but  it’s worse, in my opinion, when authors sneak misogyny into characters who are otherwise pretty righteous. By having Jessica, a smart, strong character, denigrate being “a girl” McCafferty teaches a whole new generation to equate “girl” with “over-sensitive,” “hyper-reactive,” “obsessive,” and “irrational.” Great. Thanks.

And, so, this is a post about how and why words matter a whole heck of a lot, especially in YA lit, when we know that they are being consumed by readers whose identities and views about the world are in the process of forming. I don’t say this in an attempt to leverage any kind of hand-wringing save-the-children defense! Rather, I say it because YA lit is essentially about identity-formation and, therefore, any of us who read it go through similar identity-formations. I think that many of us (who aren’t young adults ourselves) who love YA lit so much love it in part because it gives us the opportunity to explore our own identities in what are, perhaps, more fluid ways than are possible in books about forty-somethings stuck in unhappy marriages and working monotonous jobs to pay off their mortgages. That is, YA lit is often about all the different ways there are to be ourselves. YA lit features characters who (due to their age and their situation) have options, who have the potential to do or be almost anything, and, as such, the villain of any YA story is always someone or something that stands in the way of those options. It might be a strict parent who won’t let the protag be who she truly is; it might be a bully who makes the protag feel that he can’t express himself without being punished for it; it might be a lack of resources due to class or region, or a lack of options due to race; it might be a monster who wants to bring about the apocalypse, that essential potential-killer. Or, it might be sexism, misogyny, and gender policing that stand in the way of our protag’s options.

Why, you may ask, are sexist and misogynistic language just as much of a problem as outright sexism and misogyny? Because sexist and misogynistic language are comparatively invisible and, therefore, rarely talked about. Sexist and misogynistic language are so commonplace that we can sometimes soak it up like we would song lyrics on the radio—that is, without any critical interrogation of it. Phrases like “man up,” “she’s such a girl,” “you throw like a girl,” “pretty strong for a girl,” “crying like a little girl,” etc. are so common that I read them all the time . . . even in books that are not otherwise sexist or misogynistic. And that’s when I feel particularly nervous. Because it suggests that even those who would likely fight against gender inequality have internalized certain gender essentialisms to such a degree that phrases like “she’s such a girl” actually communicate something specific for them, as opposed to describing 51% of the youth population.

It is easy (and tempting) to vilify authors who use sexist and misogynistic language; easy to say, “oh, well, she’s sexist” or “he just doesn’t care about women.” To the contrary, however, there are a lot of amazing, smart, and talented people who believe that equality is important but seem not to consider language as the important political tool of equality that it is. And, oh, it is!

why “misogynistic”?

To clarify the difference between sexism and misogyny, sexism refers to “behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex,” and misogyny describes “hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women.” Sexism, that is, is about perceived differences based on whether you were born with male or female sex organs, whereas misogyny is about the denigration of women. I clarify because most language that is sexist is also misogynistic. When I say that someone “throws like a girl” we all know that I mean they throw badly or weakly. When I say that a female friend of mine was being “such a girl” we all know that I mean to emphasize negative stereotypes of femininity, such as weakness, melodrama, or oversensitivity. When a man describes his daughter with pride, saying, “she really manned up this weekend,” we all know that he is trying to pay her the ultimate compliment: imbuing her with masculinity. These comments are all sexist, sure, because they ascribe certain traits to males and others to females. But, more importantly, they are all also misogynistic because they imply that everyone agrees that being described in feminine terms, even if you are female, is negative.

In a post I wrote for Banned Books Week, “On the Pleasures and Necessities of Conversations About Difficult Books,” I discussed how troubling I find it when strong female characters that I like and admire describe their strength as being masculine and their weakness as being feminine. I cited, as an example of this, the wonderful Perry Palomino, protagonist of Karina Halle‘s totally awesome Experiment in Terror books. Perry hunts ghosts like a total badass, deals with the threat of mental illness, unfulfilled love, and did I mention GHOSTS that try to kill her. Yet, time and time again, Perry describes her crying or being scared or desiring intimacy as being “girly” or “acting like a girl.” Now, it’s troubling enough when craptastic or sexist characters imply and reinforce sexist notions about emotion or fear being feminine. It sucks, but it’s expected. But it’s far more troubling to me when female characters do this—and especially awesome female characters who are brave and strong.

The thing is, I understand this impulse. I feel like there was absolutely a moment in my life (early high school) when I wanted to be strong and self-sufficient and was encouraged (by my boyfriend at the time; by well-meaning guy friends) to think of my strength (and tastes—in music, movies, humor) as being in spite of being female rather than a natural part of it. It is such an insidious form of sexism because, of course, it’s praising women who are strong and brave, right? But, to the contrary, every time we reinforce the notion that bravery, strength, etc. are masculine characteristics that some women sometimes have, we imply that the standard for all those other women all the rest of the time is weakness or neediness; that embracing characteristics associated with femininity might mitigate that strength, that bravery, that self-sufficiency. And we imply that the only way to be strong or brave is in the way we typically associate with masculine behavior.

repetition matters. 

In addition to YA lit being the wonderful purveyor of the many different ways to live, it also models many possible ways of talking, thinking, and problem-solving. That means that YA authors are in the incredible position of having the potential to present readers with ways to think and talk about strength that aren’t simply masculine, or about sensitivity that aren’t simply feminine. The more times we read a YA novel where a smart, seemingly savvy character thinks in terms of gender essentialism or makes misogynistic comments, the more likely it is that we are going to internalize those ways of thinking. Whereas, the more books we read that provide more complicated (and, frankly, thus more interesting) ways to think about ourselves, the more potential we have to find identities that suit us as opposed to trying to force ourselves into ill-fitting ones (and police others into them as well). Gender essentialism is harmful because it limits the possibilities that we think we have—and that makes it the enemy in YA lit (as in life)!

so . . .

Do I want to police the way people write? Of course not. Do I believe that art and entertainment should be expected to serve purely didactic purposes? Absolutely not. Indeed, if authors want to choose to use sexist and misogynistic language, I would never question their right to do so. Maybe I don’t want to read those books, but I would defend the authors’ rights to write them. But my suspicion is that these words often make their way onto the page as knee-jerk shorthands rather than intentional declarations of sexism or misogyny.

And, so, my hope is that we can challenge ourselves to be on the side of expansion and possibility rather than simplification and limitation. Let’s not assume that we can generalize about huge groups of people. Let’s not make it harder for people to see all the ways to imagine of themselves. And let’s talk to each other if we find ourselves defaulting to harmful and limiting language because we aren’t sure what the other options might be. Let’s keep talking about all the wonderful, interesting, and creative ways to write about identity, because maybe if we can then others will too.

La Isla Bonita! Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

A Review of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Scholastic, 2011

Beauty Queens Libba Bray

by REBECCA, November 14, 2012

characters

too many Miss Teen Dreamers & their Enemies to name!

hook

One contestant represents each state in the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant. When the Miss Teen Dreamers’ plane crashes, stranding them on a desert island with nothing but the contents of their makeup bags and their wits, some rise to the occasion and some, well, friends, some sink. Throw in a global conspiracy, young love, the sun, and several tons of hair removal product, and Beauty Queens is one explosive read.

worldview

Beauty Queens Libba BrayI confess: despite thinking the premise sounded pretty hysterical, I avoided Beauty Queens for months because of its cover. No matter how many glowing reviews I read that praised its social commentary, its diverse cast, and its great writing, I just kept thinking, Great. Another skinny white girl in a bikini. Until I ran into a friend who said he had the same concerns but that the book was great (thanks, P—!). So I (finally) gave it a chance, and holy stockings, Batman, am I glad I did!

I have to confess another thing: I don’t like comedy that much. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m not entirely humorless or anything; it’s just never my first choice. However, within two pages I could tell that I was reading a book that was really taking seriously the power that comedy can have as social commentary. Here’s the first passage that convinced me that Beauty Queens was going to be super funny:

“‘Hi. I’m Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, and I’m Miss Teen Dream Texas, the state where dreams are bigger and better—nothing against y’all’s states. I’m a senior at George Walker Bush High School and I hope to pursue a career as a motivational speaker.’

There was polite, automatic applause. A dazed girl beside Adina said, ‘I want to pursue a career in the exciting world of weight-management broadcast journalism. And help kids not have cancer and stuff.’

Miss Texas spoke again: ‘Okay, Miss Teen Dreamers, I know we’re all real flustered and everything. But we’re alive. And I think before anything else we need to pray to the one we love.’

A girl raised her hand. ‘J.T. Woodland?’

‘I’m talkin’ about my personal copilot, Jesus Christ.’

‘Someone should tell her personal copilot that His landings suck,’ Miss Michigan muttered. She was a lithe redhead with the pantherlike carriage of a professional athlete.

‘Dear Jesus,’ Taylor started. The girls bowed their heads, except for Adina.

‘Don’t you want to pray?’ Mary Lou whispered.

‘I’m Jewish. Not big on the Jesus.’

‘Oh. I didn’t know they had any Jewish people in New Hampshire. You should make that one of your Fun Facts About Me!'” (7)

Bray manages to pull off truly exquisite satire. The world of Beauty Queens isn’t quite a realist world; more like a reality TV world, in which some things are aided by the magic of editing and special effects:

“‘My head kinda hurts,’ Miss New Mexico said. Several of the girls gasped. Half of an airline serving tray was lodged in her forehead, forming a small blue canopy over her eyes.

‘What is it?’ Miss New Mexico checked to make sure her bra straps weren’t showing.” (8).

Drop Dead Gorgeous Kirsten DunstThe pacing of the book is extremely well-done. The tone is consistent throughout—sharp and funny but humanizing—but the book begins exactly where one would imagine: with the hilarity of the Teen Dreamers trying to survive on an island, fighting over flavored lip glosses and exalting in how the island’s lack of food is a great diet opportunity. From there, it moves to character development, and relationship building that makes the reader love some of the characters and love to hate others. Finally, it builds to full scale revolution, with the Teen Dreamers (and some mysterious pirates) working together to full-on topple an international conspiracy, nbd.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

I can’t say enough times how skillfully Bray turns humor to the task of social commentary. The book’s clearest intention, I think, was to show how much people are able to grow when they find themselves in . . . unexpected situations. And Bray isn’t afraid to be a little cheesy about it. A large and diverse cast of characters stuck on an island together challenge each others’ expectations and encourage them to fully embrace their individualities.

Heathers Wynona RyderAnd while the Teen Dreamers are busy bringing out the best in each other, the audience slowly realizes that, although the joke is on the beauty queens for being, well, beauty queens—perhaps one of the groups of people that we still seem able to mock and stereotype without self-censure—by the end we are looking at one of the most diverse groups of teens to be found in a young adult novel. A black Teen Dreamer and an Indian Teen Dreamer go head-to-head trying to 0ut-non-white each other; a transgendered Teen Dreamer falls in love with a pirate; a Jewish Teen Dreamer plots . . . some stuff. And more.

“‘You think there might be cannibals here? Mary Lou whispered. . . .

‘Did you hear that?’ . . .

‘It came from over there!’ Shanti pointed to a copse just beyond the ring of totems. The sound came again: a grunting. Something was moving through the bushes. . . .

A willowy girl wrapped in a singed navy blanket stepped out into the open, moaning. Her skin was the same deep brown as the carved figures.

‘I’ll try to communicate,’ Taylor said. She spoke slowly and deliberately. ‘Hello! We need help. Is your village close?’

‘My village is Denver. And I think it’s a long way from here. I’m Nicole Ade. Miss Colorado.’

‘We have a Colorado where we’re from, too!’ Tiara said. She swiveled her hips, spread her arms wide, then brought her hands together prayer-style and bowed. ‘Kipa aloha.’

Nicole stared. ‘I speak English. I’m American. Also, did you learn those moves from Barbie’s Hawaiian Vacation DVD?’

‘Omigosh, yes! Do your people have that too?’

Petra stepped forward. ‘Hi. I’m Petra West. Miss Rhode Island. Are you okay?’

‘Yeah. I’m fine. A little sore and scratched up from where I got thrown into some bushes, but no contusions or signs of internal bleeding.’ Nicole allowed a small smile. ‘I’m pre-pre-med.’

Shanti frowned. She’d hoped to have the ethnic thing sewn up. Having a black pre-pre-med contestant wasn’t going to help her. She covered her unease with a wide smile” (13-14).

Anyhoo, as I hope you can tell, since I just keep quoting huge swathes of Beauty Queens’ hilarity, this is a unique novel that does a lot of fun and interesting stuff with genre, language, and character. It may or may not appeal, depending on taste; but it absolutely, 100% achieves what it sets out to do. Enjoy!

readalikes

Honestly, not really. I mean, Beauty Queens kind of feels like what would happen if Heathers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Lost had a baby and then put it up for adoption and it landed in a group home with a bunch of awesome badasses and learned how to fight. Then, when it got placed with a middle-aged couple that tried to stereotype it, it blew up its pearls in the microwave like Paige from Pump Up the Volume, without ever breaking a nail.

procured from: a kindle gift (thanks, mom!)

Some Thoughts About Gender in YA Dystopias

A Roundabout Discussion of, Among Other Things, Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)

By REBECCA, October 24, 2012

Crewel Gennifer Albin

If I had any doubts that the genre of Young Adult dystopian lit has become oversaturated to the point of soppiness, Crewel, a recent drop in the bucket, has erased them. But the fact that I found Crewel to be a thin and frustratingly ill-conceived book isn’t really the point. Every genre boom produces chaff and in fact Crewel is, at least, better-groomed than some. No, it isn’t Crewel‘s genre failings that trouble me. Or, it’s more accurate to say that Crewel‘s failings highlight a much more troubling concern with the genre.

In a recent post during Banned Books Week, “On the Pleasures and Necessities of Conversations About ‘Difficult’ Books,” I wrote that while I am 100% against banning books, one good thing sometimes comes from the process of challenging them: conversations about issues that make us uncomfortable. Further, I called for those of us who are anti-ban to take a page out of the banners’ book and discuss our own “difficult” reads. To that end, then: I am extremely uncomfortable with the trend of how gender is being portrayed in many recent YA dystopias. Specifically, I’m troubled by the way that in many recent YA dystopias, the oppression of women is made to seem normal through the use of retrograde gender stereotypes. In these novels, many of which are set in the future, women are treated as beautiful objects to be sold, controlled, shown off, or bred.

But (you may be thinking) we’re talking about dystopias—isn’t the whole point to magnify some current problem in our society and see what it would look like if it were all-controlling? Well, yes, that is the point. How (you might then ask) is a book like Crewel any different than a book like Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes notions of surveillance and fear and builds a dystopia where those threats to privacy are pushed to an extreme in order to show their dangers?

We Yevgeny ZamyatinIt is different, and here’s why. Dystopian literature has, historically, been a progressive (if reactionary) genre that warns of the dangers of something or someone gaining too much power in society. At base, dystopias like We (1921), Brave New World (1931), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), show us how easily our individuality, autonomy, privacy, and free will can be taken from us if we fail to vigilantly protect them. They take currently nascent cultural trends and show how they could turn to full-scale threats if they became ascendant.

In contrast to this, the recent YA dystopias that I find so troubling have reached backward to thoroughly retrograde sexism and gender stereotypes and made them the natural state of things. Perhaps even more worrisome, this sexism is merely one element of society and, therefore, isn’t even the main point of the books. In Crewel, for example, the main point is that the entire citizenry is being controlled by a group of people in power. This places the book’s emphasis of what is wrong not on the oppression of women, but on the oppression of people, thereby making the sexism fade into the background.

Why do I find this so troubling, though? I mean, the oppression of women is a current political, social, and economic issue—it’s not like sexism is in the past alone and these books are trying to resurrect it to malicious ends. No, it troubles me because it naturalizes the oppression of women, making it seem like a state that societies automatically default to. When we publish (in 2012) scads of dystopian novels aimed at teens in which the oppression of women is the naturally occurring state of the future, and barely even worth mentioning in comparison with the real problems of the novels, what are we doing? We’re suggesting that it makes sense for us to read with that mindset; that it is logical for the oppression of women to be part of what we bring to each book we read. In other words, it asks us to import oppression into a genre that is historically a vehicle for progressive politics. And that makes me exceedingly uncomfortable.

There are several ways that Crewel’s shortcomings brought this into focus for me.

Brave New World Aldous HuxleyMost of the criticism that I’ve read about Crewel has highlighted the thinness of Gennifer Albin’s world-building. I agree that this made the book an unsatisfying read, but it was more pernicious than that. In Crewel, Adelice Lewys is discovered to be a Spinster, one of the women who have the talent to manipulate the fabric of the world (called Arras, cue rimshot). Controlling the threads of Arras ensures peace and prosperity for those who follow the rules and provides a chance to re-weave anything “deviant” or dangerous (homosexuality, resistance, etc.). But, unlike so many of the other girls who have the ability to spin and are thrilled at the chance to wear fancy clothes and have personal stylists who make them beautiful (you know, apparently the only things that females care about), Adelice’s parents have taught her to hide her talent because becoming a Spinster means that she’ll be taken away from them and become a tool of the Guild, the organization in power.

Things related to the oppression of women that are not addressed in the explanation of the world (that is, in the first 2/3 of the book): that only women have the talent to weave; the government-controlled standards of female beauty (Spinsters are highly sexualized, and often work as glorified escorts to powerful men, and non-Spinster women receive a cosmetics allowance from the government); the reason why everyone (except Spinsters, of course) must marry at 18; why women who can control the material of life and time itself would allow a Guild of men to control them (Albin recasting the powerful Fates as mere artisans). That this societal oppression of women isn’t the point of Crewel is made even clearer because the female characters that we meet (all Spinsters) absolutely don’t fit with it. Adelice, her friends Enora and Valery, and her peer Pryana, her nemesis Maela, and her mentor, Loricel, are all strong women.

Most importantly, what is never explained is how, in this future-ish world, we returned to gender dynamics that more closely resemble the 19th century than the present. Now, it’s easy to write this off as simply careless world-building (or holding back details for the rest of the series?), but what the lack of explanation for these elements of the world suggests is that the author assumes that her readers will have no problem accepting them as reasonable. My reaction to the world-building as a reader about 100 pages in was: “Um, so, basically this is a book where instead of the masculinized world of computer- or virtual-reality we’re in a feminized world of weaving, and so since weaving used to be done by women I’m supposed to just assume that all the rest of the sexism that went with that hundreds of years ago is present here? What the hell?” Providing no explanation for how a society backslid a hundred and fifty years in our treatment of women assumes that it’s something that doesn’t need to be explained because people will understand it implicitly. That is naturalization, and that is troubling.

1984 George OrwellNow, let me be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that Crewel is a horrible book that should be blamed for sexism. Rather, it is one example of a troubling genre trend. I don’t mean to suggest that Gennifer Albin believes we should oppress women. Rather, I imagine she likely intended to critique such oppression. I don’t mean to suggest that it is the responsibility of authors to produce books that promote equality for everyone. Rather, I think authors should create art and we should see it as multiple entries into a conversation. I don’t mean to suggest that there is some conspiracy in which authors are all trying to turn back the clock on the feminist movement. Rather, it seems most likely that the trend is publisher-driven based on what they think can sell. I don’t mean to suggest that we should blame people who want to read dystopian fiction for enjoying books that I find problematic. Rather, I want readers to discuss what they think about books on both the level of enjoyment and the level of critique.

My concern is that this trend of naturalizing the oppression of women until it is something of a dystopian knee-jerk will have wider-reaching results for young women than simple genre repetition. And that it means more than we might want to believe about what we are willing to accept along with our entertainment. To put it analogously: what if in 2013 major publishing companies publish 25 dystopian novels that all feature worlds where non-white characters are deemed lesser citizens and are segregated from white characters? And what if this bit of world-building is not the main issue of the books, but simply an incidental component of their dystopias?

Crewel aside, when we establish a trend in which oppression is able to be incidental and naturalized, we are doing much more than using a progressive genre to comment on contemporary social ills—we are, in some ways, creating reading mindsets that are in harmony with them. And we must certainly be willing to discuss the potential fallout.

What are your thoughts? Let’s discuss in the comments.

YA Book Ratings: Just Another Brick in the Wall

Why YA Book Ratings Are Not Just A Terrible Idea, But An Insidious & Sinister One

By REBECCA, May 25, 2012

Censorship by Eric Drooker

As some of you have likely seen, this week has ushered in the threat discussion of whether YA literature needs a rating system. Sarah Coyne, a professor in the “department of family life” at Brigham Young University, conducted a study of the 40 bestselling children’s books on the New York Times‘ list in June-ish, 2008, and found—gird your loins, friends—more than 1,500 “profane words”! For this reason, in addition to her sense that some of these books, were they to be made into movies, might receive R ratings, Coyne believes that a rating system on book jackets should be instituted. To be clear, Coyne states that she thinks “banning books is a terrible idea,” but believes that “a content warning on the back” would “empower parents.”

So, with that in mind, today I want to talk about some of the things that we’re really doing, implying, accepting, and dictating when we implement “ratings systems” and “content warnings.”

Types of Normal1. Normalization. First and most importantly, any system of evaluation or rating necessarily tells us what we are supposed to think is normal. To rate something is to place it closer or farther away from what the person doing the rating believes is normal. If you are a reader, it tells you what you are supposed to be able to handle, what you are supposed to want, or what you are supposed to fear based on huge generalizations that someone has made about the demographic they think you belong to. The words, behaviors, or situations that fall under the category of “content warnings” tell us that we should judge those words, behaviors, or situations as outside the normal realm of what a certain demographic—in this case, the young adult demographic—should embrace. This translates into huge swathes of behaviors, desires, fears, and experiences that readers are told are abnormal, just by looking at the jacket of a book.

More insidiously, what of the things that are tacitly coded as being normal and appropriate because they are not included in content warnings and they do not cause a book to be rated “mature”? Things like fat phobia, limited expressions of beauty, patriarchy, tokenizing, and the choking invisibility and systematic obliteration of many identities, cultures, and worldviews? As if teenagers aren’t already struggling enough with wondering if their thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears are normal! Do we really want to infect even the places they go for answers with judgements about how they stack up to these vague and arbitrary norms?

Speak Laurie Halse Anderson2. Ab-Normalization. Because let’s be honest: it’s not swear words that are really at stake here, right? If we think of which things are going to make the list of “content warning” or bump a book into “mature” territory, we are talking about precisely the things that are most difficult for many teens to think through, cope with, or get help with via other avenues: abuse, gender identity, religious doubt, myriad desires, shitty or controlling parents, incest, drugs, eating disorders, rape, death, passion, obsessive friendships, cruelty, shame. That means that the teenager who was raped last year and is browsing in the Young Adult section in the library might pick up Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and be told by the content warning, “rape,” on the book that what he or she experienced is something that should not be freely talked about, but rather must be warned against. Check out LHAnderson’s awesome blog post on how YA lit about such topics saves lives here and Lucas J.W. Johnson’s post about the YA Saves phenomenon here, including an amazing array of tweets using the #YAsaves hashtag testifying to how books like Speak helped them heal:

#YAsaves

#YAsaves

The Trouble with Normal: Sex Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life Michael WarnerAnd where do we draw the line, anyway? Will “homosexuality” be a content warning, and thus implicitly placed in the same category as “rape” or “extreme violence”? It seems likely that those who would want a ratings system would want it to be. And what about a content warning of “violence” or “crime” on a book about a teenager whose class background puts her in violent situations or necessitates theft or crime to get by? These stories will contain warnings, suggesting to readers that the people who live such stories, too, are to be warned against.

Who Watches the Watchmen?3. Who Watches the Watchmen? And who are these people that decide what is normal and what should be warned against, anyway? And what recourse have we once those ratings or warnings are printed on our books? To say nothing of the detrimental monetary effect that certain ratings or warnings could have on sales by the authors who write wonderful, important, risky books, what of the concomitant pressure on those same authors to write different books? What if publishers, fearing the bottom line, had discouraged Andrew Smith from writing Stick, Tomas Mournian from writing Hidden, Sapphire from writing Push? Everybody loses! Here again, we are in the position of handing over the power to decide what is normal to . . . whom? Industry execs? A morality brigade? A crew of concerned parents? Well, yes, actually: parents.

YA Saves tshirt!4. Parental Guidance. A ratings system is nearly always said to be in service of parents deciding what is appropriate or suitable for their children to read. As Coyne states, the goal of such a system is to “empower parents.” Bypassing the obvious fact that many of the readers of YA fiction are not young adults, the notion that rating systems are about parental guidance has several problems. First (and most foundational), the logic behind such systems suggests that we should only be concerned with kids who a.) have parents and b.) have parents who give a particular kind of shit. (This seems totally illogical, given than so many teens read books looking for answers or ideas about things because they don’t have adults that they feel they can trust.) But this means that it would be a rating system explicitly geared to a specific, small group of people. This, of course, means that such a ratings system would likely be organized around what that small group of people would find desirable and appropriate. And, you know what we call it when one small social, religious, or political faction is able to dictate what is appropriate for the rest? We call it totalitarianism.

Further, what’s really at the root of the notion that we should hand the reins to parents is the extremely conservative belief that children should believe what they were raised to believe rather than making up their own minds; that they should replicate the political and social beliefs of their parents. This nuclear familial structure is, in and of itself, an inherently conservative one and has, of course, had a normalizing cultural force. But the second that it steps outside of itself and begins to dictate art and literature to people outside its structure it has, in my opinion, grievously overstepped.

Crunchings and Munchings! We talk about books!5. We Have the Technology. As it happens, we already have ways that concerned citizens can look at what books contain without emblazoning books with scarlet letters: Goodreads, Common Sense Media & Parental Book Reviews (if one is of that type), and wonderful YA book blogs like those in our blogroll all provide huge amounts of information about books. Further, they contextualize content that ratings systems and content warnings can only ever isolate and stigmatize. So, whether you are a creep who wants to brainwash everyone into thinking like you, a genuinely concerned citizen who wants to suit the book to the reader, or a rabid reader with specific desires about what you read and super self-actualization about your limits, you all want more information, not less. Oh wait, the only one who actually does want less (and easier-to-control) information is the creep.

Comics CodeOne-letter/number ratings or one-word content warnings don’t actually inform—they rather assume. Assume that the powers-that-rate are reading the book the way the readers will. Assume that readers are similar rather than different. Assume that young readers should be warned away from potentially challenging material rather than guided through it or encouraged to read it, think about it, and ask questions about it. Assume that books are quantifiable and summarizable based on content rather than that the reading experience is complex, affective, and personal.

So, for me, what underlies the question “is it time to rate young adult books” isn’t whether or not I think we should help parents buy better birthday books for their kids. What underlies the question is the desire of certain people to tell us what is normal, what is acceptable, what we can handle, what we should want, what we should fear, and whom we should love. And to that my answer is clear: go fuck yourselves.

You're just another brick in the wall

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