I’m a feminist because . . . (Some #YesAllWomen links and my thoughts)

Before we get to the meat of this post, I need to share some background. (If that’s too much, it’s okay. Go and browse the #YesAllWoman tweets instead. If you read nothing else today, read that.)

Last week a man in Isla Vista California went on a killing spree. While men and women lost their lives before the gunman shot himself, the attack was fueled by a hatred of women. Building from what he considered unforgivable rejections, this man went out and killed people. In the wake of the attack and the ensuing tragedy, many online discussions began about misogyny and the fear women are often forced to deal with.

Here are some articles about the shooting and the ensuing #YesAllWoman tweets and its discussions (the tag was started by a very brave woman on twitter. She has since locked her account due to backlash and unwanted attention so I won’t link back.)

These links aren’t comprehensive because the tweets and articles are basically literally updating faster than I can keep up but this is a good cross-section of coverage and hopefully a good starting point if you haven’t had a chance to follow the tweets closely yet:

It has already been pointed out, and I’ll say it again: Of course Rodger isn’t like all men. But he is like some men. And that is terrifying. And even if it does make people uncomfortable, that’s why it needs to be talked about.

Reading through the #YesAllWomen tweets has been powerful. It’s also made my heart heavy seeing the stories and the truth in them but also seeing the backlash.

What hurts–what makes me a little ill–is that I didn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about these things for a long time both abstractly and personally. Because women in media are so rarely shown pushing back against situations that make them feel small or unsafe. And because it’s still not accepted. Even with the smart, engaged, supportive guys I’ve called friends–I feel like sometimes when I talk about things like being a woman and knowing it’s handicap in some job searches (and trust me, I did sooo many job searches in the last few years) and other areas, I feel like my guy friends might think I’m kidding or overstating.

And that’s gotten me thinking about feminism. For a while I wasn’t going to write this post because reading the #YesAllWomen tweets make everything I have to say here so redundant and it all feels so obvious. But then I started talking to my smart friend Sarah (who is also a librarian and lovely) and she wondered if maybe it wasn’t obvious all the time and I thought, maybe, that it should be said.

For a lot of years I didn’t identify as a feminist. Not because I didn’t want to but because it felt like I wasn’t allowed to–what had I done to deserve to be a feminist? Now, of course, I realize that’s the completely wrong way to look at it. The only reason I was even taking women’s studies courses in college was because I was so close to a minor. But then during my seminar in feminist theory–taught by a man who acknowledged his privilege and some of the absurdity of his teaching the seminar by admitting he never walked the street alone in fear of being raped–it all clicked. Of course I’m a feminist.

Here’s why:

  • I believe in equal rights and equal pay for equal work.
  • Because there is still a smart boys/pretty girls dichotomy and that’s stupid.
  • I’m a feminist because I want to reclaim the term “chick lit” and have it stop being seen as something less than.
  • Because women should never be made to feel small or less for how they look, what they wear, or anything they do.
  • I spent years being afraid of the old man who lived upstairs because he insisted on kissing me when I was trick or treating with other kids in the building and no one even reacted. Because I felt cheap and dirty after he did. Because of the panic I felt the one time I was alone with him in an elevator and he started to move closer while I wondered what I could do when, thankfully, the doors opened and someone else came on. Because I once walked a friend to the corner in winter with no coat rather than be alone in the lobby with him. Because when I finally realized I could take charge and not be a part of this, he was offended that I stopped speaking to him or acknowledging him.
  • I’m a feminist because I shouldn’t have to be ready with a fake name when strange men approach me on the street. I shouldn’t have to smile politely and share that fake name while they keep pace with me until I can run across the street to get away.
  • Because no one decides what I wear or how I look except me.
  • Because so many things that men think are harmless or even flattering are often terrifying.
  • I’m a feminist because I’m tired of men telling me to smile.
  • I’m tired of being called “sweetie” by men at the supermarket.
  • Because when I was in high school a coworker was promoted ahead of me despite my having more experience. Because he was a guy. (And older, but that’s a different story for a different post.)
  • Because patriarchy and misogny are complete bullshit.
  • I’m a feminist because I’m only now realizing getting hit on by the ice cream man was never a funny anecdote. (I was 15 and stopped on my way home to get ice cream for myself and my mom. The man in the truck went on to ask me where I lived so that he could drop by some time at night. I told him the complete opposite direction from where I lived. But as I headed home, I wondered if I should have taken a different route. Would he follow me?)
  • Because no one should have to be afraid of walking alone in the dark, but so many women are.
  • I’m a feminist because I’m embarrassed and outraged that my physics professor in college thought it was okay to trap me against a computer with his body while he explained a lab procedure.
  • I’m a feminist because the media is broken and still spends more time talking about how women look than about their accomplishments.
  • I’m a feminist because we still have so far to go.
  • I’m a feminist because I believe the world can be better.

I’ll leave you again by saying even if you don’t want to sift through this blog of text, take a minute and go read the #YesAllWoman tweets instead. Every woman should be reading it to know they aren’t alone and their feelings are valid. Men should be reading it to better understand. And then maybe, with the conversation started, things can start moving in a new direction.

 

 

 

 

On Supporting Books Without Buying Books

Last month Jamie over at The Perpetual Page-Turner shared some thoughts on how being unemployed changed her reading (more specifically her book buying) habits. It’s a very thoughtful, honest post and it touched on a few things I’d been thinking about for a while myself.

Here’s the thing: I identify as a blogger, a reader and a librarian.

I do not identify as a book buyer.

I love books. I love reading. But I can’t buy books with wild abandon.

I tried to be but my mother and I share a small NYC apartment so there is just no space to buy tons of books. Since I was 14 I’ve had a rule where I can only buy books that I have either read already or know I will love. That strategy went out the window a bit while I worked at a bookstore and had an employee discount (literally this was the only perk–it was a terrible job) and access to hundreds of signed books. The temptation was far too great.

But it’s been a year or so since I left that job. Money and space are tight; I’ve gone back to by non-book-buying ways. For a while I budgeted a book a month but given the review copies and Advanced Reader Copies that come in and that I have to wade through, that was still too much. Now it more depends on events and things coming out.

Also: If I bring one book into the house I’m trying to get rid of at least five. This has been torture but my piles are finally all actually on shelves and it feels like I might actually read all of the books I have lying around in my lifetime. (That will completely be blown apart come BEA 2014 but I’m trying not to think about that and I’m not even adding new books to my goodreads to read queue and just generally avoiding new book talk to try and focus on what already exists and is taking up space in my house.)

Now a big part of supporting an author or a book does come with buying books or using a library copy. I don’t often do either. I get books from publishers through publicists or Amazon Vine or BEA. I get books from other librarians at Shiny New Job. I get books as gifts or trades from friends. I don’t have the money to “upgrade” from ARCs to finished copies so a lot of my books aren’t actually books–they’re galleys. (Granted a lot of them are signed but that’s a whole other bag of chips.)

For a while I felt really guilty about all that. Then I did more thinking. I looked at my blog. I looked at the authors I had interviewed. I thought about the books I recommended to people on goodreads or in blog comments.

It isn’t the same as buying books. It isn’t even the same as going to the library. But I realized I do support books and authors I love. Not always in tangible ways but by talking about them and sharing them. It’s still not always ideal getting an ARC signed for a blog giveaway or showing up at a bookstore for an event without buying anything (I do this a lot at the bookstore where I used to work because of the blood, sweat and tears factor–I figure it’s allowed in that one case). But it’s something.

So what do YOU, dear readers, think about supporting books? Is monetary support required? Are you a monster if you give away (or even get) a signed ARC? Let’s talk it out in the comments!

Always Be Polite and Other Advice from my Latest Birthday

I had a birthday earlier this month. That feels especially important now because I can now say, in every sense, that I am in a new year. Because I really, really needed to be in a new year.

2013 was very hard. Possibly the hardest although there was some stiff competition from 2009 and 2010. I have made a decision that I am not going to dwell on any of that, though, so I won’t get into further details. All I really need to say is that the last five years have been awful in just about every way possible and I am glad to see them go. I got a new camera recently and for this first time in a while I actually feel like photographing things. I’m starting to think in terms of months or even years down the line instead of being mired in getting from day to day. The change, honestly, is astounding–yet another difference you can only see when you look backwards or sideways.

With this new year I feel like I’m a little wiser and maybe a little smarter. I had tried previously to be Unflappable whenever possible. It turns out that is actually impossible in many scenarios even though it was an interesting exercise.

Now I’m just trying to be zen and make my peace with things. That’s where the advice I have to share comes in:

It’s taken a while but I’ve realized it’s much better to not dwell on things beyond my realm of control. People will stay in touch. Or they won’t. This new plan will work. Or it won’t. In the end, whenever the end is, everything will come together. I forgot that somewhere along the way but it is a help to remember.

Now that doesn’t make bad times easier or any more fun. But I’m hoping in the future if I hit another rough patch it might help with the crushing feelings of uselessness and inadequacy. (I won’t rehash but I will say it is only just now–a few months into Shiny New Job–that I can actually see my self-esteem and confidence coming back. I’m generally a confident, self-assured person so let me assure you that several years is a very long time to feel worthless even when you know intellectually it’s absolutely not true.)

One more piece of advice: being polite to absolutely everyone is life changing. In a good way. When things were rough (and when I worked in retail) I noticed there are lot of rude or just inattentive people out there.

I decided I didn’t want to be one of those people. Which, it turned out, was a really easy thing to change. I just decided to be polite to everyone. I thank bus drivers, I wave to Shiny New Job security officers in the morning, I ask cashiers how they are. It’s really easy and even on bad days, it doesn’t cost me a thing. But you never know when it will mean a lot to someone else. Just the other day I asked a worker at a bookstore cafe how she was. I told her it was my first time in the store and we just had a small conversation. No big deal. But her face lit up when I asked how she was because she thought it was so nice that I wanted to hear.

That’s a pretty good return for something that literally costs nothing, isn’t it?

I’ll end here by saying to all of you, dear readers, that if you’re in a good place I hope you can stay there for a nice, long while. And if you aren’t, I hope you get there soon and I have every confidence that you will. It might take a while, and it might not mean much coming from a faceless blogger, but it will get better. Hang in there. (And until then, I hope someone asks how you are today and wishes you well.)

Anyone could be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: An Article Response in Which I Say We Need More Stories

An article has been making the rounds of my twitter stream this past week. Fellow librarian Jody Wurl brought it to my attention. Maggie Stiefvater had a few thoughts about it on Saturday. You might have heard about it from someone else.

The article is: “I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl” by Laurie Penny (posted on the New Statesman site)

To start, “Manic Pixie Dream Girls” are a character type often found in bildungsroman movies featuring male leads. They fall in love, the MPDG shows the man how to live. She disappears, dies or otherwise fades away leaving the male lead better for the acquaintance. Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t really a character in a film or book. She is a plot device. She is a trope. She is Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, Kiersten Dunst in Elizabethrown, the female lead in either version of Sweet November. (Did you know the version with Richard Gere was a remake? Because I did not until last week.)

She was also, at one point, writer Laurie Penny.

Her article is really interesting and I suggest you all go read it because Penny has a lot of valuable thoughts about feminism and what being a feminist really means. I was especially pleased when the second paragraph nailed all of my issues with Dr. Who. I’ve wanted to like Dr. Who for years. Since Rose was the Doctor’s companion. But I never could get there. For a while I thought Donna Noble would be able to transcend her role as companion. And she did. Only to be written out and told she isn’t allowed to have those things, or even want those things, after.* And then we went back to having a dashing, manic in his own right, Doctor and a pretty, young companion to keep him company and show him how to understand humanity.

Maybe I’ll start watching again when the Doctor regenerates as a woman.

Anyway, after that insight, Penny explains that she was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the short stature to the pixie cut to the ukelele playing.

And that’s when things got interesting because Penny also posited that women (girls when they are MPDGs) never have the expectation of being the hero of their own story. Instead she suggests “Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.”

Later in the article she goes on to say that this is the reason MPDGs appear in real life:

“Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing.”

Penny came to realize that personality had to go when she wanted to be a writer and that meant becoming a “grown fucking woman” and making choices that would ultimately alienate and intimidate potential male partners.

Penny tries to end on an up note urging women to write their own stories, create their own characters and, more importantly, grow up and leave the Manic Pixie Dream Girl behind.

Reading the article I had a lot of “duh” moments because it feels like information anyone (or maybe I should say anyone who identifies as a feminist) would know already. But maybe there are people out there who didn’t know. And maybe that makes this article surprising to some.

For me, it wasn’t surprising and I thought it was one-sided and missed some key points (thus the giant response post so that we can all talk about this together!).

I’ve never been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I am neither short or thin enough although I often had the right hair. I think I’ve always been too pragmatic and far too caustic. And to borrow Penny’s own phrasing, I was a “grown fucking woman” long before I decided to pursue writing (if you can call what I’m doing writing–there’s a novel in the works and this blog–I grant it’s no professional career . . . yet). My mother is disabled and I’ve been helping run the household since college. We co-manage an eBay shop. I’ve had a job since I was seventeen-years-old and put myself through college and grad school with that job and a combination of scholarships and state funding.

I don’t know Penny’s life but I found the idea that the biggest facet of becoming a grown woman was becoming a writer deeply frustrating and deeply misleading. Much like the rich inner life a MPDG never reveals, we all have responsibilities and things we carry. I’ve been carrying things since I was in my teens. It has never had anything to do with my writing or professional choices. (And, frankly, I think the idea that being a political writer is the only thing to be intimidating to Penny’s suitors somewhat laughable. Maybe that was part of it but I dare say being outspoken, well-educated, and a feminist contributed just as largely.)

I don’t know what stories Penny had growing up. I don’t know the books she read or the things she did. But I was sad when I read that she fell into the role of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because it was the character she saw again and again that most resembled herself. I was sad when she talked about men growing up to be heroes and women growing up to be damsels.

I suspect all of the credit here goes to my mother but I didn’t have that moment. I have never for one second doubted that I am the hero of my own story. Sometimes it’s a dumb story. Boring even. But it is always my story. And I am never, ever in a supporting role. I don’t think that always has to do with the models available. I watched the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty every day when I was a toddler. I loved anything and everything princess as a child (I still do).** That has never lessened my conviction that I can accomplish great things all on my own. Because my mother never let me think any less of myself; she never doubted me.

Returning to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as fictional character (rather than real person), Penny goes on to say MPDG is “one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority.” Here’s the thing (which Maggie Stiefvater said on Saturday on Twitter) as we see her, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was never meant to have an interior life. Because the story is never about her. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right but the MPDG is a plot device. She is there to teach something, to showcase something. She is not there to tell her own story.

It is a shame that there is a whole trope about these (young) women who descend to impart wisdom only to disappear but there it is. If the story were from her point of view, we wouldn’t be dealing with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at all. We just don’t call them that because we’re busy calling them the HEROINE. One recent example is Kiri in Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith. But there are others too. From the outside these characters look like Manic Pixie Dream Girls but because the story is in their head–because we get to see the cracks and flaws in that persona they wear like armor–they transcend the label and become more than a plot device.

But here’s the thing: This problem exists for any character. Any character, any person, who is boiled down to a core set of stereotypes and traits is going to be seen as less than the sum of their parts. They are always going to exist as more legend than person. What is Edward Cullen or Mr. Darcy*** but a reinvented version of Prince Charming–a male character meant to rescue a princess and/or take her on a great adventure?

While some of the logic was (fairly and rightly) skewed, I agree wholeheartedly with Penny about the power of story: “What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds. Writing is a different kind of magic, and everyone knows what happens to women who do their own magic – but it’s a risk you have to take.”

I’ll finish now by taking that one step further: We don’t just need new stories for women. We need new stories period. We need stories for the nice guy who is never going to fall into a bad boy situation. We need stories for the girl who cares more about studying than prom. We need stories for people of color. We need stories for the kids who are still trying to find a way to articulate who they are and who they want to be.

We need more stories.

We need more stories to move beyond characters as plot devices–be it a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a Prince Charming or something else entirely. We need more stories to be mirrors instead of exemplars. Personally, I’m looking forward to finding those stories.

*Seriously. The “Dr. Donna” storyline is tragic. I still haven’t recovered.

**One of the first fantasies I ever read (when I was eleven), and one of my most favorite, was A Wizard of Earth Sea by Ursula K. LeGuin. It has no female characters (beyond one herb witch who acts as a rudimentary teacher in early chapters). It doesn’t even have room for female characters because girls can’t become wizards. I didn’t read that and go about to make myself an ideal companion for these adventure-having characters. I sat down on my family’s first-ever computer, put in a fresh floppy disk, and I started writing a version of the story where a girl did become a wizard. (I guess this would also be one of my only forays into fan fiction–years and years before I even knew what fan fiction was. But that’s a different post.)

***Or Peter Pan or Po or Adam or my beloved Alan Ryves or any other devastating male lead.

On Judging Books by (Gendered) covers and Maureen Johnson’s CoverFlip

Last week Maureen Johnson made a fairly casual statement on twitter about books written by women (and sometimes marketed toward women) getting very different cover treatment as compared to books written by men.

So, being Maureen Johnson, she issued a challenge to Twitter: re-imagine some covers as if they were written by author of the opposite gender.

The results were posted on the Huffington Post website and, I’ve got to say, it’s interesting to see how tightly opinions are tied to covers on a subconscious level. I know covers play a role but it’s really interesting seeing how my opinions on a subconscious level reacted to the different covers.

You can see some of the flipped covers here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/coverflip-maureen-johnson_n_3231935.html#slide=2421931

You can also read Maureen Johnson’s essay about the problem here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maureen-johnson/gender-coverup_b_3231484.html?utm_hp_ref=tw

And thanks to book blogger Liz B I can also point you to this companion article from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2013/05/09/fix-the-girly-book-covers/

And then, because it sounded fun. I flipped a couple of covers (originals on the left):

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

Enchanted by Alethea Kontisenchantedflipped

Timepiece by Myra McEntire

Timepiece by Myra McEntiretimepieceflipped

I’m not quite a graphics wizard but I’m pretty pleased with the results and I think you get the point of the challenge. Both of the books above feature male POVs (half of Enchanted and all of Timepiece). Guess which part the marketers thought was more viable? THAT SAID I really love both original covers and I really really love that the publishers are keeping consistent covers for both of series of books.

YA Isn’t a Genre: Another Manifesto of Sorts

I recently came across this article on Twitter (I think it was originally posted by Terra Elan McVoy but I can’t be totally sure) from The New Statesman called: “Ghost Stories”: The ubiquitous anti-feminism of young adult romances by Tara Isabella Burton.

Burton worked her way through college by ghost writing what she calls “YA romances” and she references Tanya Gold’s article from November discussing the anti-feminist elements of Twilight. If you’ve read Twilight or watched the movies or have followed news about it, then this is old news. Twilight has been called everything from abstinence porn in Bitch Magazine to anti-feminist. I actually don’t have any problems with Twilight or the people who love it. But I can see how some might. It happens. It’s called freedom of expression.

(Burton also mentions Twilight leading to its fan-fiction-turned-bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey and the poorly defined world of “New Adult” which should be about emerging adults AKA twentysomething characters but has somehow become a landing board for YA masquerading as erotica but that’s another story and one handled better by other bloggers besides. Don’t even get me started on Fifty Shades of Grey. Just don’t.)

Burton’s article is interesting and Burton raises some very valid points including the fact that books in what I’m going to call the “Twilight vein” can suggest and maybe even elevate questionable behaviors. Burton notes: “that romantic desirability is the proof of, and the reward for, individual worth.” In other words, the hypothetical “Mary Sue” of Burton’s YA romances is cast as a love interest and all of her identity and value comes from whatever romantic relationship she pursues.

That’s really bad.

What I found deeply troubling about the article is that it is incredibly one-sided. Burton claims she is writing with an insider’s perspective but by “insider” she seems to mean “another author making sweeping generalizations about YA based on a very small percentage of YA titles.” Burton never qualifies that she is speaking to a very narrow part of the world of Young Adult literature and to an even narrower part of what gets grouped under the umbrella of YA Romance. Instead of qualifying her claims Burton makes sweeping generalizations about YA Romance and its anti-feminist tendencies.

And yes, the problems are very true for some books. But the article ignores all of the books where these problems do not exist. And it kills me because the general public still doesn’t really know how large the YA world is and read articles like this and thing that’s all there is.

Here’s the thing, actually two things:

First: Young Adult isn’t a genre in the traditional sense. Marketing-wise, of course it is. But really YA is about audience and character age and format. Grouping all YA books together is like grouping together books about World War II or books set in Europe. Sure, all of those books fit together in one sense. But there are also tons of ways that they are unique.

Second: YA Romance doesn’t start and stop with Twilight. It doesn’t even stop with mass market romances like the ones Burton probably wrote. When you mention Twilight there are two other obvious blockbuster comparisons: The Hunger Games and, more recently, Beautiful Creatures. I’m not going to re-hash The Hunger Games because it isn’t strictly speaking a romance and because everyone already knows everything about it. So let’s look at Beautiful Creatures where Lena is the female lead and also in the power position. She pushes Ethan away, she saves Ethan, she is powerful, she makes sacrifices. She is mysterious and quirky and well-read and dimensional. And, oh wait, she’s a heroine in a YA Romance. Go figure.

I’m probably not saying anything new here and given who reads this blog I’m also  probably preaching to the choir but I’m just so tired or people pretending YA can wok as a universal label or genre indicator akin to “fantasy” or “legal thriller” when the terminology was never (I think) meant to work on that level.

I find it equally frustrating to see all of this talk of romances as if Stephenie Meyer and E. L. James (and maybe Nicholas Sparks) are the only authors out there. Adult novels have a very specific meaning when they classify a book as a “romance” and it serves those readers well. Some YA publishing houses have a similar focus but it doesn’t work the same way. Furthermore, no genre–for any age–should have be treated so dismissively and criticized out of hand.

Every book–even the ones that are troubling, even the ones that aren’t literary–every single book matters. They start conversations. They lead readers to other books. They matter.

I just felt like that had to be said even though in retrospect it might be familiar territory. I’ll finish by pointing you to my favorite manifesto (that I wrote) on Reading Without Remorse.

I’ll also point you to my book club where we can talk about YA books in broader terms and have some good, old fashioned fun with books.

MPBClogo

Picture books aren’t going anywhere

If you know any librarians, writers, or avid readers on Twitter, you’ve probably already heard about the recent New York Times article “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” You may have heard about the concern that picture books are dying. You may have heard the concerns from a quoted parent whose quote was taken out of context.

You may have heard any number of panicked voices worrying about picture books and children and what not including BigThink’s ominously titled article “Love Goodnight, Moon; Forget About Harvard” worrying that we don’t know what will happen to children who don’t read picture books. Happily this article does bring some sanity back to the subject by reaffirming that reading is about quality and not about quantity.

You also might have seen Mother Reader’s very wise post reminding everyone that this is not the first, nor will it be the last, time that the New York Times has gotten something wrong in literature for young people. (If you read this blog you might remember the bad parents debacle and the remorseful reading catastrophe–I know I do.)

What you haven’t heard yet, are my thoughts. So here they are with the caveat that I very much agree with Mother Reader that this article isn’t the end all, say all about picture books. That said, I was so struck by the audacity of the article that I find myself unable to let it pass without an extensive response (you have been warned, this will be long). And honestly I didn’t take a bunch of journalism courses in college and concentrate on youth services/literature in grad school to let things like this slide.

This article reminded me a lot of what I am going to go ahead and call the Graphic Novel Ghetto in its talk of parents pushing (or letting or whatever depending on what the real context of quotes was) children to read “real” chapter books instead of picture books.

The Graphic Novel Ghetto is essentially the idea that reading a graphic novel/comic book* isn’t valuable because it doesn’t have as many words as a “regular” traditional prose book or because it’s seen as simpler in concept/content. There are parents (and tragically still some librarians) who think reading a graphic novel isn’t “real” reading or of any intellectual value.

The Graphic Novel Ghetto’s close cousins are the Chick Lit Stigma and the YA Ghetto** which have marginalized many fine and literary books. Another relative of the Graphic Novel Ghetto is the Junk Food Shame. Namely, if a book is “easy” or, dare I say, fun to read it can’t be a “good” book with any literary merit or redeeming intellectual value of any kind. Ally Carter recently said on Twitter (I don’t have the link and I am so sorry about that but Twitter ate it) that this is essentially a flawed idea because what books are really meant to be hard. And I agree.

I hate hearing about people who are apologizing for reading a silly book like The Daring Italian Businessman and His Ravishing Secretary (made up title, you know the book series I mean though) or a vampire novel, or a series like Geronimo Stilton or any number of formulaic series books. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

Reading is a skill but it’s also kind of like a muscle. You need to use it; you need to exercise it. Frequent use counts as exercise. Who am I to say that the girl who readers 25 mangas in a week isn’t doing as much reading or increasing her reading skills as much as the boy who reads Around the World in Eighty Days over the course of three weeks (made up figures but you get my point I hope)?

How are we defining challenging or at level reading? When I was 12 I read all of Louisa May Alcott’s books and other classics. At 14 I read The Lord of the Rings. By 16 I had Ella Enchanted and was discovering the wide and wonderful world of YA. That is neither here nor there except to say I adored all of these books. They changed how I viewed the world and they made me who I am today as a reader. Ella Enchanted inspired a whole scholarly article in college (which you might have seen already because I link to it often).

But I don’t, in all honestly, think any of those titles helped my grades in school or my vocabulary for standardized tests. This is a bold statement, but I don’t think any books can inherently prepare a child to do well in school or on tests. My mother did.

My mother did all of that (partly by being a brilliant parent but mostly) by introducing me to the library and giving me the freedom to read voraciously as I saw fit and raising me as a reader.

Children naturally move away from picture books and part of being a parent is, of course, letting that happen (as the BigThink article mentions). The thing the New York Times ignores is that a lot of children will come back to those picture books later in life. Some of them will remember their favorites fondly. Others will reference them while starting their own careers as writers and artists. Others will remember them as librarians and publishers. Like any book, picture books are a part of our culture and you can’t just erase a cultural event like that (I’ve never even seen a real eight track tape, but I still know about them–see what I mean?).

As to parents not buying them, well I still have issues with buying books that I am working through. Not because I dislike books or think they are dying (they’re not) but because I read books very quickly and they are expensive. The cost if I bought each book new is too much to sustain. Imagine the expense of buying each picture book you or your child wanted to read? Actually, don’t imagine it, go to the Library Savings Calculator and see for yourself. For myself I know in the past few months I’ve looked at about twenty picture books for work and this blog. If I had to buy them all, that would have cost 300 dollars (and that’s at 15 dollars a book–many cost more). I can’t afford that and I’m a single woman. What family can afford to buy books at that rate in this economic climate?

The article in the NYT addresses a real situation but as any student of statistics can tell you, correlation does not equal causation. Where are the libraries in this article? Where are the parents who come to the library every week to return a stack of twenty picture books only to immediately borrow twenty more? Where are the librarians who have story hours every week for babys, toddlers, and children? How, in a time when libraries are seeing more use than ever, can any responsible article say picture books are no longer a staple for children?

Even without those basic issues though, picture books (like graphic novels) are huge as learning tools and teach just as much about reading as traditional (all word) chapter books.

What this NYT article (and I guess the parents worried about test scores?) fails to mention is that reading a picture book isn’t really just reading a picture book.

First of all, most picture books are designed to be read aloud–they’re too complex to be read by a child on her own. Parents, caregivers (or perhaps librarians?) are meant to read many picture books to a child and work through the books with them.

Picture books are about interaction and analysis. That’s why we have the huge spectrum of books ranging from the wordless (like the recent Caldecott winner The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney–save for sound effects) to the longer works of Chris Van Allsburg which in addition to being lengthy texts introduce complex concepts like distinguishing between real and imaginary. That isn’t even addressing other picture books like Mostly Monsterly that deal with socialization (and being yourself) or How to Catch a Star which explores the more abstract concept of finding a friend or books that build vocabulary not through flashcards but through everyday like My Heart is Like a Zoo which introduces children to words and concepts including bothered, rugged, frightened and thoughtful. That isn’t even to mention the rich, advanced literature found in picture book adaptations of myths, folk tales and legends.

Second of all, when you read a picture book you are not reading one story. You’re reading at least two: the one told in words and the one told in pictures. Writers and illustrators of picture books often do not know each other and don’t even meet face to face while working on a book. For that reason they both bring many different elements to the story being told.

A picture book–even a simple one–isn’t an illustrated story or a series of captioned pictures. A picture book is an interplay of text and images. (Even when it is written and illustrated by the same person because writing a book is a different task than illustrating a book.) You read both and you draw conclusions between the two (and if it’s a graphic novel style book you also learn sequencing which is a whole different skill). Kevin Henkes’ books are a great example of this. Go, take a look at Kitten’s First Full Moon. First look at the pictures. Then look at the words. Can you tell the whole story without both?

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, reading is never about quantity. Reading is about quality. It is about an individual experience and individual progress. What a child reads isn’t, I think, as important as the fact that they are reading. Any book–every book–is a gateway to more books. To imply that reading picture books won’t help a child with standardized tests is like saying learning to count isn’t helpful in understanding math. Reading is qualitative. It’s about building comprehension and learning textual literacy (and visual literacy for picture books) but it’s also about enjoyment.

My issue with the NYT article isn’t that it was wrong or nonsense (although I really do think it was the latter) it’s that once again the New York Times is trying to tell people what they can and cannot read.*** Some kids will move to chapter books as soon as they can. Others will stick with picture books or illustrated chapter books. Some kids won’t read until they are much older. Some might never like to read. And all of that is okay. In a world with so many wonderful and varied options for books, why does anyone have to choose just one format or one genre? Why isn’t all reading created equal?

*I could get into the differences (and if anyone wants to hear about them please tell me in the comments and I will oblige because I wrote not one or tow but three essays about the merits of graphic novels in grad school) but for all intents and purposes the terms are interchangeable and I will be using them interchangeably here.

**In short: Writing By Women Authors Isn’t Real Writing At All and Writing For Teens Instead of Adults Isn’t Real Writing At All respectively. I wrote a huge manifesto about both a few months ago if you want more info/links.

***Not to mention implying that every post-Twilight paranormal romance was inspired by the Twilight books. Hello? It’s called a sub-genre.

On Reading Without Remorse (A manifesto of sorts)

By conventional standards, I might be what’s called a narrow reader. I know what I like and I stick to it. I read fantasy books (sometimes I read science fiction, but when I do I’m always left waiting for the dragon that will never come). I read mysteries (but currently only Cassandra Chan’s Gibbons and Bethancourt series). I read realistic fiction. I read Chick Lit (but my own expanded version of it as seen here each Wednesday). I read classics. But only by authors I like or my mom likes. (I doubt I will ever read Lady Chatterly’s Lover for instance. And my Hemingway quota was more than filled by The Sun Also Rises. Don’t even get me started on Kafka.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking. That isn’t narrow at all. I read a lot of genres. But most of the books I read–in fact, I’m comfortable saying that 80 percent of the books I’ve read to date–are Young Adult books. And, for a lot of (unenlightened) people (who do not read it) YA is its own genre.

More than that, it’s a genre that seems to require a lot of apologies or explanations from its readers and its authors. Many YA authors, I’ve seen it happen on Twitter to at least three, are asked when they’re planning on writing a “real” book. You know, one with real, adult people. Because anyone who’s  a teenager can’t be experiencing anything “real” or sincere or, you know, literary.

Margo Rabb wrote a whole essay for The New York Times a while back working through her own mixed feelings about being a debut YA author with her novel Cures for Heartbreak. That essay, back in 2008, raised some discussion about the phenomenon of the YA Ghetto and how so many wonderful books are seen as “less than” just because they happen to be targeted to teens (even though they are rich, strong books that have appeal for people of a variety of ages).

Just last week the New York times featured another essay, this time by Pamela Paul, explaining that it’s okay to read young adult books because (guess what?!) some of them are really, really good. Shocker. My favorite quotes: “A lot of adult literature is all art and no heart.” “Y.A. may also pierce the jadedness and cynicism of our adult selves.” Snark aside, Paul made some good points though my main issue is simply that any of the points needed to be made.

Then, of course, we have the infamous chick lit stigma which afflicts many YA authors twice as hard since their “real” book would have to not only be about adults, but about men besides. I didn’t know it when I first started my Chick Lit Wednesday reviews, but I know now that this is exactly the reason I feature a book with  strong women every week. Because we need to dispel the ridiculous idea that books centered on women are somehow less important than books about anything else.

Tamora Pierce just recently wrote a blog post about why she writes about a lot of girl heroes. Maureen Johnson has done her part to expand the working definition of chick lit simply by working through why so many people call her books chick lit. My friend “Sarah” also pointed me to Tiger Beatdown’s essay from The Rejectionist on manfiction and why The Rejectionist no longer reads it.

I could talk until I’m blue in the face about the many virtues or chick lit, ya lit and genre fiction (all of my favorite things to read which, paradoxically, always seem to be seen as inferior by the big literary critics and prizes who only seem to give awards, in my narrow knowledge, to “serious” books about “serious” things*). Sometimes I feel like I already have talked myself blue in the face.

And I’m tired of it.

I’m thrilled that so many of the genres I love (steampunk, YA/chick lit if you want to call two really broad categories genres, etc.) are getting so much great press. But I’m sad that so many adults still feel a need to apologize for reading it and so much of that great press starts with an apology as if a person needs permission to read whatever she or he wants.

So I’m done.

I am now reading without remorse. I will choose books and recommend books without apology. I will review without explaining that the book has crossover age appeal. I will summarize without mentioning that chick lit involves more than women in romantic comedy situations. And I will never, ever try to justify or excuse or otherwise explain what I read. Nor will I ever expect explanations from anyone else.

And I want you, dear readers, to join me.

Who’s in?

While you’re at it, if you are ready to read without apology, maybe you should consider joining my new book club?

*This might be a good point to mention that aside from the links provided, no other research went into this post. Maybe a little known YA crossover chick lit steampunk title did win a huge, prestigious, serious book prize and I missed it, I don’t know. My main point is that there tends to be a very narrow definition of what makes a book valuable as literature versus as entertainment or plain old good reading and that definition does not yet encompass YA or chick lit.

Finding the “good” parents: A master book list for a challenge

This is the master list of all blog links and suggestions submitted via comments for my Finding the “Good” Parents in YA Lit challenge.

The Master List:

*Denotes book submitted via comment

  1. The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander
  2. How Tia Lola Came to (Visit) Stay by Julia Alvarez*
  3. Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez*
  4. Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway*
  5. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
  6. The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne*
  7. The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg*
  8. Exploits of a Reluctant (but Extremely Good Looking) Hero by Maureen Fergus*
  9. Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
  10. If I Stay by Gayle Forman*
  11. The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman
  12. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke*
  13. Hoot by Carl Hiaasan
  14. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  15. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan*
  16. Confetti Girl by Diana Lopez*
  17. Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson
  18. Scarlett Fever by Maureen Johnson
  19. The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga
  20. Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan*
  21. Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
  22. The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
  23. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan*
  24. Holes by Louis Sachar
  25. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt
  26. Chasing Brooklyn by Lisa Schroeder*
  27. Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
  28. Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork*

Blog List Links:

  1. Miss Print’s List
  2. The Book Bandit’s List

Finding the “good” parents in YA Lit: A Challenge of sorts

On April 1* found an essay in The New York Times called “The Parent Problem in YA Lit” by Julie Just who apparently is the children’s books editor of The Times which just makes the article more frustrating. (I heard about it from Leila from Bookshelves of Doom** who linked me to Liz B’s post about it at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy.)

Like a lot of readers, I don’t really understand what Just was trying to tell the world with her essay. I didn’t really see a point to it but Liz B’s theory that Just was more wondering about the real parents of today than the book ones makes more sense than anything else I could come up with.

Whatever the point, I had a real problem with the essay because no matter what she was trying to convey part of that message was that parents in YA novels are not always absent (allowing young people to rise triumphantly as Just notes in the essay) and not always realistic or “good”*** and instead tend to be losers compared to the teens presented.**** I don’t think that is a fair claim and I don’t think it’s an accurate one. Like any other genre there’s a cross-section–the good and the bad are presented.

Suffice it to say the article got under my skin and I want to prove Just wrong.

I want a list of “good” parents, “real” parents, parents who could be role models instead of horrible examples, parents readers will like as characters even if they might not identify with them (because, hey, YA books are written for teens not parents).

And I want your help!

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