Book Reviews

Happily Ever Afters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Happily Ever Afters by Elise BryantAs a shy introvert, there’s nowhere Tessa Johnson would rather be that sitting down at her laptop writing. Tessa rarely sees herself in the romance novels she loves to read. So instead she writes her own, creating love stories where she and her best friend Caroline can finally see themselves as leading ladies. Writing is the one place Tessa feels like she is fully in control of her life. Sharing her writing with anyone but Caroline is a different story.

While moving for her father’s promotion is hard, Tessa hopes that starting her junior year at an arts school with a creative writing program will make the transition easier. The only problem is that Tessa fails to consider that being in a writing program means people will want to read–and critique!–her writing. Suddenly Tessa’s dream school turns into a nightmare when she loses all of her inspiration and her confidence.

Without any other ideas, Tessa agrees to follow Caroline’s advice: find some real-life inspiration with romance-novel inspired ideas while getting close to the incredibly cute, romance-cover-worthy visual arts student Nico. Checking things off her list turns out to be easy, but Tessa isn’t sure if it’s really going to help her find her words again–or the right guy for her own perfect ending in Happily Ever Afters (2021) by Elise Bryant.

Find it on Bookshop.

Happily Ever Afters is Bryant’s debut novel. The story is narrated by Tessa.

Having a Black father and a white mother, Tessa was used to never fitting in at her previous school where she and Caroline (who is Filipina) initially bonded as two of the only students of color. In addition to the culture shock of a conservatory program, Tessa is thrilled to find a much more diverse group of students at her new school as she bonds with new friends on her own for the first time.

Although Tessa struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, the novel is imbued with humor even as things go wrong. This levity is much needed to counter heavier parts of the story as Tessa balances her own life with the responsibilities and expectations her parents have for Tessa to help with her older brother Miles who has athetoid cerebral palsy which has led to mobility challenges and mental impairment.

While Tessa tries, with varying levels of success, to get closer to Nico, readers can appreciate Tessa’s swoony moments with neighbor and culinary arts student Sam. Both Tessa and Sam struggle with impostor syndrome as Tessa wonders if her romantic stories really “count” as creative writing while Sam tries to justify baking as an art to himself as much as to anyone else.

Happily Ever Afters is an ode to romance novels, creativity, and fandoms. A sweet story about how sometimes you have to learn to love yourself–and your passions–without apology before you can learn to love someone else.

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, By the Book by Amanda Sellet, Recommended For You by Laura Silverman, Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Book Reviews

Ink, Iron, and Glass: A Review

cover art for Ink, Iron, and Glass by Gwendolyn ClareWith the right tools–a special pen, specific ink–the right person can create an entire world thanks to the science of scriptology. Detailed manuals, called worldbooks, outline the parameters of the world from how gravity works there to whether or not the air is breathable.

There are no limits to how complex a worldbook can be–something scriptologists and the world at large learned when Charles Montaigne created Veldana–the first populated world created with scriptology. After Jumi, a talented scriptologist in her own right, helped her people secure their independence Veldana remains the only populated scriptologist world.

Now in 1891 Jumi’s daughter Elsa is looking forward to the day when she can take on a larger role helping her mother maintain the Veldana worldbook and pursuing her other scientific interests.

Those plans change abruptly and violently when Veldana is attacked and her mother is kidnapped. Forced to flee Veldana Elsa finds herself in the real world with no way to get home or even know if the Veldana worldbook still exists.

With no option but to move forward Elsa travels to Sicily with her mother’s mentor to regroup and find help. Among the pazzerellones Elsa learns about the madness that fuels innovation here–a singular interest in scriptology, mechanics, or other sciences that manifests as madness, particularly for the rare few polymaths whose interests cross multiple disciplines.

Uncertain who to trust or where to begin, Elsa seeks help from the other madboys and madgirls she encounters including calculating Porzia and mechanist Leo. With the right tools Elsa can write almost anything she can imagine into existence but she still doesn’t know if that will be enough to save her entire world in Ink, Iron, and Glass (2018) by Gwendolyn Clare.

Ink, Iron, and Glass is Clare’s debut novel and the start to a duology.

This novel is a refreshing blend of adventure and excitement with a heroine who is both pragmatic and scientifically inclined. Clare’s world borrows from real historic events to build the bones of her alternate history filled with scientific madness and steampunk elements including automated machines, talking houses, and more.

The main sticking point with Clare’s complex and well-realized world (and for me it was a big one) is the concept of an affinity for the sciences being construed as madness. There are no negative connotations to this madness–nor is there any discussion of what mental illness might look like in this world–but the intense gendering of the madness by calling those who have it “madboys” or “madgirls” was incredibly frustrating and served no purpose in the larger context of the story. If you poke too hard at this aspect of the world and the conceit that all great innovation is tied to madness and a complete lack of focus on the big picture (the idea being that the mad ones can focus on nothing but their chosen sciences) the premise starts to fall apart.

Despite an exceedingly large ensemble cast, Elsa spends much of the novel in her own head as she works through using her mechanical and scriptological talents to pursue her mother’s kidnappers and mount a rescue. While this offers insight into the nuances of scriptology it makes for a narrative that is often surprisingly dry despite madcap chases and boisterous secondary characters.

Ink, Iron, and Glass is an entertaining story with fascinating if sometimes hastily sketched characters and world building. Fans will be eager for the sequel after the shocking conclusion of this volume. Recommended for readers who enjoy plot-driven stories and have a fondness for steampunk settings.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Reader by Traci Chee, Invictus by Ryan Graudin, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Enchantée by Gita Trelease

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Book Reviews

Every Exquisite Thing: A Review

Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew QuickNanette O’Hare has spent most of her life doing exactly what people expect of her. She gets good grades. She is the star of her high school soccer team and essentially guaranteed an athletic scholarship to the college of her choice. She works hard. She doesn’t cause any trouble.

When a favorite teacher gives Nanette a worn copy of a book called The Bubblegum Reaper she isn’t sure what to expect. Within the pages of the out-of-print cult classic, Nanette finds a character who seems to understand all of the frustration and fatigue that she has been trying to articulate for years.

An unlikely friendship with the book’s reclusive author and a turbulent relationship with a young poet and fellow fan leads Nanette to discover her inner rebel. As Nanette tries to become a truer version of herself, she realizes that rebellion rarely comes without a cost in Every Exquisite Thing (2016) by Matthew Quick.

Quick peppers the novel with references to canonical literary works of poetry and novels (all by men, almost exclusively white–this is either a glaring oversight or an intentional reference to the insular world these characters inhabit . . . or possibly both). Every Exquisite Thing is very self-aware and intentionally referential to the book within a book (The Bubblegum Reaper) which is summarized, quoted and otherwise integral to the plot of this novel.

Nanette’s character arc is intrinsically linked to her discovery of The Bubblegum Reaper. As she bonds with the author and another fan (the young poet) she learns how literature can change a person. She also learns that idols inevitably fall short of their pedestals in the real world and that fiction–however true it may seem–doesn’t always translate well into everyday life.

Parts of Every Exquisite Thing are poignant and moving–as is to be expected from a talent like Matthew Quick. Other aspects of the story, particularly in the second half, are impenetrable and mystifying. Sometimes, particularly with the one-sided representation of the majority of female characters (besides Nanette) as routinely over-sexualized and vapid. This is a high-tension, introspective novel that won’t work for everyone. Ideal for readers who don’t necessarily need to like a book to enjoy it and who want a text they can engage with on multiple levels.

Possible Pairings: Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Decelerate Blue by Adam Rapp, illustrated by Mike Cavallaro, The Catcher in the Rye by Lee Salinger

Book Reviews

The Anatomy of Curiosity: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Anatomy of Curiosity by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, Brenna YovanoffIn an old walk up in Brooklyn, a young woman is hired as a reader and companion for a strange older woman. What starts a job quickly turns into something much more important as Petra learns about context, ladylike behavior, and speaking her mind all while finding an unusual kind of friendship in “Ladylike” by Maggie Stiefvater.

In a faraway land a young soldier works to disarm magical bombs left behind by rebels. The hum of the desert lulls him and the mysterious magician on his team enchants him, but sometimes loving something is hard until you know the truth about yourself in “Desert Canticle” by Tessa Gratton.

In a town where water is scarce, drowning is a rarity. There are a lot of ways to tell the you about the boy she found drowned in a half inch of water, but there’s only one right story for Jane and the drowning place in “Drowning Variations” by Brenna Yovanoff.

The Anatomy of Curiosity (2015) is the second anthology from authors (and critique partners) Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stievfater and Brenna Yovanoff. In this followup to The Curiosities the focus is more squarely on the mechanics of writing and how ideas can become stories.

Find it on Bookshop.

For this collection each author wrote a new novella and details their writing process in a preface and margin comments. Between each story all three authors also discuss how they tackled finding critique partners, revision, and managing doubt.

Each author frames their margin comments and notes in the context of their focus when writing. Stiefvater discusses character (how she builds characters and conveys characterization through different aspects of the story), Gratton focuses on world-building (how worlds shape characters and how world-building choices shape the rest of the story), while Yovanoff talks about ideas (getting from the idea she has to the story she wants to tell with a particular project).

It’s worth noting that The Anatomy of Curiosity can be read, first and foremost, as a set of engaging fantasy novellas. As fans of these authors would expect, each novella is well-written and evocative in its own right. In reading the marginalia and supplemental materials, however, readers are treated to not only excellent fiction but also an insider’s view of the creative process from three incredibly talented writers.

The Anatomy of Curiosity is a must-read for aspiring authors and fantasy fans alike.

*An advance copy of this book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2015*

Book Reviews

The Truth Commission: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“When you tell a story, you shape the truth.”

The Truth Commission by Susan JubyAfter years of being fodder (along with her parents) for her sister Kiera’s best-selling graphic novel series, The Diana Chronicles, Normandy Pale is ready to come into her own. She’d like to be known for her own strengths and accomplishments instead of constantly being compared to her hapless counterpart in the Chronicles.

But it turns out it’s hard to stop being a muse. Especially when you never asked to be one.

How can Normandy focus on her projects at the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design when she is terrified of what fresh humiliations her character will be subjected to in Kiera’s highly anticipated new book? How can she embark on a search for truth with the Truth Commission she accidentally started with best friends Dusk and Neil when it feels like secrets are the only things holding her fragile and peculiar family together?

In searching for secrets at Green Pastures, Dusk, Neil, and a reluctant Normandy hope to bring some kind of peace and honesty to their school. But when their hunt for truth reveals some uncomfortable secrets and shocking truths about Kiera and her work, Normandy will have to decide how much honesty she wants in her own life in The Truth Commission (2015) by Susan Juby.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Truth Commission is an ambitious novel presented as a work of narrative non-fiction complete with footnotes and illustrations (by Trevor Cooper). Written as Normandy’s spring project for the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, The Truth Commission is a sleek and self-aware novel.

In watching Normandy work through the process of writing her own book (when to add chapter breaks, how to move the plot along, etc.) The Truth Commission also becomes a sort of primer on how to write and write well. The one-sided dialog (in footnotes) between Normandy and her teacher Ms. Fowler also adds another dimension to a novel that is already delightfully complex.

Speaking of Ms. Fowler, it’s also refreshing to see that Normandy has adults in her life who are present and offer support throughout the novel–even if they aren’t always the ones who should be at the forefront in terms of support. This novel is about a lot of other things but seeing Normandy create and nurture her own support system is very powerful.

As the title suggests, The Truth Commission is a story about truth and honesty. It’s also a story about family and what it means when the family you are born into is not always as good or healthy as the family you might choose. It’s a story about art–both making it and engaging with it. It’s a story about the push and pull of friendships. It’s even a bit of a story about love. Most importantly, The Truth Commission is about how people–both creators and not–shape their own worlds and stories in the telling.

The Truth Commission is a thoughtful, smart, and funny story that works on many different planes. What starts as a humorous and promising project for Normandy and her friends becomes much more in Juby’s expert hands in this meditation on subjectivity, consent and how telling the truth (or choosing not to) can change everything. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Feed by M. T. Anderson, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Romantics by Leah Konen, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti, This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan!

Book Reviews

Don’t Ever Change: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“So now when they look at me, they don’t see an old friend who’s trying hard to improve and grow; they see someone who started to leave them a long time ago, has pretty much already left, and maybe didn’t care about being there in the first place.”

Don't Ever Change by M. Beth BloomEva is seventeen and in her last week of high school when a conversation with her English teacher leaves Eva wondering if she might have missed something with her sharp focus on producing literary stories and delivering hard-hitting critiques of her classmates’ work throughout high school.

After years of thinking she knew everything, Eva realizes she is running out of time to learn all of the basic high school things she previously scorned. Eva is determined to live this summer. And to write it all down.

With unlikely friendships, painful realizations, and a few rare moments of clarity, Eva will learn that she has to get to know herself before she can write what she knows in Don’t Ever Change (2015) by M. Beth Bloom.

Don’t Ever Change is Bloom’s second novel.

Eva thinks she has everything figured out at the start of this novel. She has avoided typical high school cliches and eschewed most everything else that can’t lend her an air of profundity. It is only upon finishing high school that she realizes the veneer of intellectuality that she has created is painfully thin.

Hoping to make up for years of missed opportunities, Eva dates a musician she never would have talked to before. She becomes a camp counselor despite a decided lack of experience and zero interest in interacting with children. She even begins to wonder if her rival in high school might have actually been a friend all along.

Although Eva is not always the nicest narrator, or the easiest character to read about, she is always real and she is always learning–even if it might take her longer than it should. Eva is self-aware enough to know that she isn’t always likeable. She knows she doesn’t make great choices and that she might have even made some really bad ones in trying to convey that she is a Serious Writer. Over the course of a seemingly mundane summer she also realizes that she may not know as much as she thought.

Opportunities surround Eva for new experiences and friendships, but for the most part, those realizations come too late to mean anything. No matter how much she missed in high school, no matter how many friends she pushed away, at the end of the summer Eva will be across the country starting college in Boston.

Instead of being a book about seizing missed opportunities, Don’t Ever Change is a thoughtful and often witty admission that important moments can be lost or squandered. But there are always new ones to find.

Don’t Ever Change is as self-aware as the main character and often as mystifying. The story is strange, messy and not always neat but sometimes perfect. Just like real life. Recommended for readers who like their contemporary novels to have a little bite and fans of Alice, I Think who still wish they could see Ms. MacLeod heading off to college.

Possible Pairings: Never, Always, Sometimes by Adi Alsaid, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, How to Steal a Car by Pete Hautman, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

*A copy this book was acquired from the author/publisher for review consideration*

Comic/Graphic Novel Reviews

Exquisite Corpse: A (Blog Tour) Review

ExquisiteCorpse BlogTourBanner
Exquisite Corpse by Penelope BagieuZoe isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want it to involve her lousy boyfriend and her totally unsatisfying job as a merchandise exhibitor at trade shows.

Zoe is frustrated by everything and everyone. At least until she meets the eccentric Thomas Rocher. Zoe doesn’t recognize him as a literary genius and (supposedly) deceased author.

Turns out dead authors can still get pretty great book deals–especially Thomas since his ex-wife Agathe is also his agent.

Zoe has a lot to learn about publishing but she also might teach Thomas and Agathe a thing or two in Exquisite Corpse (2015) by Pénélope Bagieu.

Exquisite Corpse was originally published in Bagieu’s native France in 2010. Now it is happily available in English translation.

Bagieu combines humorous scenes and snappy dialog in this laugh-out-loud comic adventure. Although many of Zoe’s problems are decidedly adult (lousy job, a boyfriend who wants sex while Zoe is busy fuming), her lack of direction and uncertainty about her future will feel universal to many readers.

With detailed characters and a plot ripe for follow-up, readers will also wonder Exquisite Corpse might only be the first act for Zoe, Thomas and Agathe.

Exquisite Corpse is filled with brightly colored panels and Bagieu’s clean-lined, sleek artwork that perfectly highlights the interplay between what is written and drawn on each page. Laugh-out-loud twists and a surprise ending make this graphic novel an enjoyable quick read sure to brighten a dull lunch hour or commute.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Book Reviews

Afterworlds: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Afterworlds by Scott WesterfeldDarcy Patel has put everything on hold to be a writer. A real, published writer. She moves to New York City with a contract to publish her novel “Afterworlds” and its as yet unwritten and untitled sequel, part of her advance, and the dazzling title of soon-to-be debut author.

Darcy does not have plans for college. She does not have an apartment. She does not have any idea what happens next.

But somehow, in the world of writers–both seasoned and new–Darcy finds her people. Over the course of one tumultuous year in the city Darcy will learn about writing, publishing and even love. More than anything, she’ll learn if she has what it takes to really do this thing that she loves so much.

Interspersed with Darcy’s story is the story that brought her to New York in the first place: Afterworlds. After surviving an unthinkable attack, Lizzie realizes she has the ability to slip into the afterworld–somewhere that exists between life and death. With her new ability, Lizzie discovers that ghosts are everywhere as are other, darker things. Everyone seems to want something from Lizzie but even her new gifts might not be enough to keep those she loves safe.

Darcy and Lizzie’s worlds blend together in this story about facing your fears and finding yourself in Afterworlds (2014) by Scott Westerfeld.

Find it on Bookshop.

The first thing to know about Afterworlds is that it reads like two books. Odd numbered chapters focus on Darcy’s “real world” story of moving to New York and revising Afterworlds. Even numbered chapters detail the “story within the story” of Lizzie and her journey into the afterworld. While this book clocks in at over 600 pages (hardcover) really it’s two stories–two books even–in one both told to excellent effect.

In addition this book features a truly diverse cast in a casual/accepted way. While it’s important to the story, the diversity never becomes the story.

The premise sounds too lofty. It sounds highly un-writerly. A novel about writing a novel? With the full text of that self-same novel? Surely it can’t work. Yet Westerfeld pulls it off beautifully. Although the story is highly self-aware (and often very meta), every detail works here. Darcy’s new experiences feed into her revisions of Afterworlds. Her growth as a young woman and author mirrors Lizzie’s growth. Both girls, in their respective arcs, accomplish great things.

While not for everyone, Afterworlds is astonishingly successful on every level. Sure to have high appeal for all aspiring authors or sci-fi/fantasy fans. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Strange Maid by Tessa Gratton, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Undercover by Beth Kephart, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, Or What You Will by Jo Walton, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

*This book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher at BEA14*

Book Reviews

Fangirl: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fangirl by Rainbow RowellCath isn’t exactly ready for college. She isn’t even looking forward to much except the advanced level English class she talked her way into during registration.

College itself is daunting enough. Then Cath’s sister, Wren, announces that she doesn’t want to be roommates on campus. Suddenly the entire prospect has gone from horrible to possibly unbearable.

Cath’s roommate is loud and scary. She’s also kind of mean. And her boyfriend is around All. The. Time.

The dining hall is too horrible to even contemplate.

She’s worried about her dad who is going to be living alone for the first time in years.

And Cath doesn’t know what to expect from her classes.

In the midst of so much unwelcome change, Cath does have one constant: Simon and Baz.

Cath, like most everyone, is a Simon Snow fan. She knows the community. She goes to the release parties. She also writes fan fiction about Simon and his nemesis Baz.

The only problem is that Cath isn’t sure fan fiction alone is going to be enough to get her through a turbulent freshman year in Fangirl (2013) by Rainbow Rowell.

Find it on Bookshop.

Fangirl is a meandering journey through Cath’s first year of college as she adjusts to dorm life, college classes and even the nuances of dating and friend politics. (Not to mention all of her family drama.)

Epigraphs accompany each chapter with relevant excerpts either from the Simon Snow books or from Cath’s fan fic about the characters. The technique works surprisingly well as readers are drawn into the world of Simon Snow and come to care about him (and Baz) as much as Cath does.

One of the best things about Fangirl is that all of the characters are very well developed. Although the novel focuses on Cath it feels like any of the characters could be the star here–they all have their own stories.

Rowell’s writing is as excellent as fans would expect. She also unpacks complicated topics such as the line between fan fiction and plagiarism. Cath is a strong, neurotic heroine who is far from perfect but also very, very real. Fangirl also summoned all sorts of nostalgia about the college experience and friendships.

Because this book covers a large range of time some matters are addressed more than others; some things are tied up more than others. There are questions at the end of Fangirl but there is also enough room for readers to imagine their own endings.

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Take Me There by Susane Colasanti, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, The Secrets We Keep by Trisha Leaver, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith, Pivot Point by Kasie West, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*

Chit Chat

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.