Thursday, March 12, 2015

I Wade In--Gender and Literature: Contemplating Issues Raised by Shannon Hale and Andrew Smith

So, within the last few weeks, for those of us who are passionate about YA and children's literature, the internet exploded.  A few times.

First, Shannon Hale started a conversation on Twitter and Tumblr about by discussing  some of her school visits and how some schools only dismissed the female students to see her speak.  As though only girls could benefit from hearing from her.   A summary of that discussion by School Library Journal can be found here.

Although I have read some of Shannon Hale's other books in the past, in light of all the discussion, I did use this as an excuse to finally pick up The Princess in Black.  I enjoyed this early chapter book. It's the story of Princess Magnolia, who despite her initial appearance of being the stereotypical princess in pink, must guard a secret from the Duchess Wigtower who has a taste for secrets.  Magnolia is also the Princess in Black, a hero who protects the realm from monsters.  While having tea with the Duchess, the princess is called away on one such mission to defeat a big blue monster.

I enjoyed The Princess in Black.  I think it does a marvelous job of challenging stereotypes within princess cultures.  I did, however, feel like the writing was weak.  It could have used some refining.

So, that was my initial plan for this blog post.  A simple book review.

Then, last night, Twitter started to respond to an interview on male societies that YA author Andrew Smith did.  Particularly, some people took issue with his reply to the question below:

"On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn't much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work? I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though.A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it's the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they're all examples of male societies that think that they're doing some kind of noble mission, and they're failing miserably."
I highlighted the part that everyone is freaking out about.  The essence of the criticism that Smith had received is summed up well by Tessa Gratton on her tumblr.  She notes that despite Smith's impressive imagination, his comment implies that female experience is more foreign to him than the fantastic things he explores in his fiction.

What was I doing while all of this was going on?  Posting pictures of my cat, of course:

So, I plan to share about both of these issues with my multicultural literature class.  Instead of wading into the debate though, my hope is to focus on the following:

  1. Gender is a socially constructed concept.  We make it what it is.  What it means to be male and female varies by time and culture.  In contrast, sex is a biological fact.  But even that is more complicated than just "man" and "woman."  *Glances at the definition of intersex.* (yes, that's right...I actually *did* just cite Wikipedia.  Don't tell my students.)
  2. When we think of gender as a dichotomy (or in terms of extremes of what it is to "traditionally" or stereotypically be male or female) we ignore a wealth of experience and we tend to get this sense of alien-ness that Smith was probably hinting at.
  3. It can be more beneficial for everyone to think of gender more fluidly.  To help demonstrate this, I show one of my favorite videos by John Green:

I show enough videos of John Green that a few of my students have accused me of being in love with him.  I must then remind those students that it is actually Markus Zusak who will always have my heart.

After showing this particular video, the conversation will most likely deteriorate into "in your pants" jokes.  But, I know my students will start to pay more attention to how gender is presented.

So, I'd like to leave you with one last quotation.  It was a bit of perfect timing that Andrew Solomon just happened to say what I think is the perfect comment for this situation in his New Yorker article, "The Middle of Things:  Advice for young writers": 
"We have equal things to teach each other. Life is most transfixing when you are awake to diversity, not only of ethnicity, ability, gender, belief, and sexuality but also of age and experience. The worst mistake anyone can make is to perceive anyone else as lesser. The deeper you look into other souls—and writing is primarily an exercise in doing just that—the clearer people’s inherent dignity becomes. So I would like to be young again—for the obvious dermatological advantages, and because I would like to recapture who I was before the clutter of experience made me a bit more sagacious and exhausted. What I’d really like, in fact, is to be young and middle-aged, and perhaps even very old, all at the same time—and to be dark- and fair-skinned, deaf and hearing, gay and straight, male and female. I can’t do that in life, but I can do it in writing, and so can you. Never forget that the truest luxury is imagination, and that being a writer gives you the leeway to exploit all of the imagination’s curious intricacies, to be what you were, what you are, what you will be, and what everyone else is or was or will be, too."
Well, I'm off to try to live in someone else's perspective for a while.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Revisiting Wonder by Reading The Julian Chapter and Looking Over 365 Days of Wonder

I regularly teach Wonder.  As I was preparing to teach it this semester, I decided I'd finally buy 365 Days of Wonder--which includes a quotation or precept for each day of the year along with some observations from Mr. Brown.  On Amazon, I noticed that I could buy an additional chapter--one for Julian, who is the most antagonistic character in Wonder and whose perspective was never included.

I was so excited for this addition.  This excitement was lessened a little when I later learned this chapter is included in the latest edition of the paperback--there I was at the front of the class, exclaiming that there was a new short story with all of my students staring at me, thinking, "Crazy woman, we already read those sections...."  Sigh.  I'll seem way cooler when I teach it again in the fall.

In terms of the actual story, the first half of Julian's story is his perspective for the events in Wonder.  I found this half to be "blah."  It didn't really help me to empathize or sympathize with Julian.  The second half, however, was far more engaging.  Julian travels to France and learns some things about his grandmother's childhood that provides him with a new perspective.  This made The Julian Chapter worth reading.

So, it's nice having this expansion to Wonder.  It really is one of my favorite books to share with future teachers.  I assign it to every single one of the students in my department when they take my class on diversity in schools.  It's the very first work of fiction I assign to them.  It demonstrates the value of empathy.  I also show them this video, which distinguishes empathy from sympathy.

Recently, our department added murals throughout our building.  I was excited, because I got to share my ideas with the artist and a lot of the books I teach were included.

Wonder is included in the mural of giant books
near the entrance to my department.
Now I'll have to teach Wonder for as long as our department is in this building.

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Rob Thomas (not the musician) Owns My Heart Forever

Mr. Kiss and Tell.  Someone whom Veronica hadn't been able to save during high school is brutally sexually assaulted.  Even though the survivor doesn't want Veronica on the case, she finds herself drawn in, pushing Veronica to the point in which she may have to break some of her own rules.

Unlike the first book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, that continues Veronica Mars's story post-movie, Mr. Kiss and Tell is not narrated by Kristen Bell.  This automatically made the audiobook a disappointment.

Mr. Kiss and Tell is narrated by Rebecca Lowman, who I know best for narrating several of the books by Rainbow Rowell, including Fangirl and Eleanor & Park.  She's a great reader.  She has a wonderful way of drawing out the emotional resonance of a story (which is why she's a great match for Rowell's audiobooks).  But, she couldn't really capture any of Veronica's toughness or sass.

*Vague spoiler*  It is also worth noting that the title of the book does come from a plot point in the story.  I like the title, but when the name was introduced into the story, I felt like a part of the mystery was lost...because it was obvious who the primary suspect would be.  *End vague spoiler*

Now begins the wait for the next book....

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Audiobook Review: Lockwood and Co. (The Screaming Staircase AND The Whispering Skull)

After her career ends tragically, Lucy moves to London looking for a new beginning and a new job as a ghost hunter.  She manages to find a home at the small agency Lockwood and Co.  Her only co-workers are Lockwood himself and a boy named George.  Together they seek jobs to seek out and put to rest ghosts.

Set in a world where iron is sold for its ability to fend off ghosts and where only children and teens can detect ghosts, it's up to those with special senses to seek them out while most of the adults remain safely inside.  Ghost hunters' services are desperately needed, because the world has been faced with "The Problem" of ghosts emerging everywhere for several decades now.

Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood and Co. series is action packed and fun to read.  I stayed up late to finish reading The Screaming Staircase.  Though my excitement dwindled a little with The Whispering Skull, I will be on the lookout for the third book in the series (The Hollow Boy--due out in September of 2015!).

A new friend had recommended this series to me.  She's a children's librarian at at a local school.  I'll admit, part of my goal was to assess her judgement.  I downloaded The Screaming Staircase  on Audible.  At first, I struggled to get into it.  This can probably be blamed on my tendency to multitask more than the story itself.  I actually stopped listening for several days.  But, eventually, I decided it was worth a second chance and restarted the story from the beginning.  This time, the exchanges between Lockwood and Lucy as they battled a ghost caught my interest and I became more hooked as the story continued.   Suffice to say, my friend passed with flying colors and I'll be talking about more middle grade children's books with her.

My biggest issue with this series is the setting.  Not the location--London is perfect for some ghostly adventures.  The timing though.  Every time a television was mention I was taken out of the reading.  It felt like this book should have been set in the early 1900s, or at least before 1940.

As I was reading, I was vaguely reminded of Maureen Johnson's Shades of London series.  (Admittedly, the similarities pretty much end at ghosts + London.  But still, while waiting for the next book in one series, you can get hooked to another.  Story of my life.  Truth.)

Tasty Rating:  !!!. (3.5--four explanation points for The Screaming Staircase and three explanation points for The Whispering Skull)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Quick Review: Skip Girl Online and Stay Offline

I finished listening to the audiobook of Girl Online a couple of days ago and wanted to share some thoughts on the story.

First for those of you who haven't heard of Girl Online, the story is narrated by Penny who lives in Brighton, England and loves taking photos and anonymously posting to her blog, which eventually goes viral.  When her parents have the opportunity to go to New York City over Christmas, Penny leaves behind frienemies, a crush, and many recent embarrassments and stumbles into a potential new romance.

Girl Online first blipped on my radar when the book sold so many copies.  I hadn't previously seen any of the videos by the author who is a Youtube celebrity in England, Zoella.  The fact that there was then drama about the fact that Zoe had the help of a ghostwriter moved the book up to the top of my to-be-read mountain of books.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I was not impressed with the story. It was wish fulfillment fluff.  Having said that though, even fluff has its time and place. It's a good recommendation for a young reader looking to escape reality. It kind of brings Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging into the present day...but with fewer laughs and even more awkwardly embarrassing moments for the protagonist.

Here's the book trailer for Girl Online.  Hope you like Taylor Swift.

I feel bad that both the author and ghostwriter have found themselves at the center of a hurricane of craziness.  I can't help but find it ironic though, given that both Zoe and her character Penny find themselves hiding from their online communities due to drama.  Best wishes to everyone involved!

I did enjoy the audio book interpretation though.  It did a good job of adding cell phone sound effects.  I felt that the reader, Hannah Tointon, did a good job of bringing Penny to life.

Tasty Rating:  !!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Quick Review: In Real Life

Doctorow, C., & Wang, J.  (2014).  In Real Life.  New York:  First Second.

175 pages.

Appetizer:  After a guest speaker visits her school and after her mom establishes some rules for her online life, Anda joins Coarsegold, a multiplayer online fantasy game in which participants go on quests, and begins to make money by going on missions for other players.  As she meets people through Coarsegold, she learns that not everyone has the advantages she does and that she may be in a unique position to help a teenager who goes by the name Raymond who is struggling to survive in his job in China.

Although a quick read, I struggled to get into In Real Life.  I think I wanted more elaboration into how Anda originally became a gamer (as opposed to how she specifically began playing Coarsegold).  I was a little confused about Anda's beginning situation at the start of the graphic novel.  She'd just moved and didn't seemed particularly happy about it, yet she already also seemed to have a group of friends (and maybe was in a club for gamers?).  This also left me confused as to why Liza McCombs, the guest speaker who originally encourages Anda and other female gamers to join her guild, was speaking to her class.  What class is this?!  (Eventually, these confusions were cleared up:  Anda is in the sci-fi club and her class seemed to be a computer programing one with the assignment that students had to create their own games.  This would have been nice exposition to have before pages 42 and 161 though.)

So, based upon the cover and title, my expectations were a little skewed going into In Real Life.  Instead of the girl making friends online and in real life at a new school narrative that I had been expecting, I got insights into the economics of gaming and insights about those who farm or cheat the system by buying the things that most gamers earn through a lot of work.  Which is also a good takeaway--one that has some uses for in the classroom.  Along with the exploration of economics--which is fleshed out more fully in Doctorow's introduction to the book--I also like the secondary issue of addressing gender in gaming and the encouragement for more empowerment among female gamers.

In Real Life did end up addressing the issues I'd assumed it would (noting that online life is real and economically relevant and showing that Anda can make friends both online and at school).  But, those themes took backseat to examining the economic realities of games and to showing the treatment of a teenaged employee in China.

I would definitely consider using In Real Life in a classroom.  It addresses important issues of economics and social justice in a unique way.  I do, however, think some concepts will need extra support if students are not already familiar with multiplayer online games.

For those interested, here's a link to Doctorow's original story that inspired In Real Life from

Also, for a lighter take on online gamer culture, I recommend watching Felicia Day's series The Guild.  It is fun.  (The series is also on Netflix.)

Dinner Conversation:

Tasty Rating:  !!!.  (3.5 explanation points)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Tis the Season: A Quick Review of My True Love Gave to Me

It's snowing outside and I'm about to make myself some hot chocolate.  So, it seemed like the perfect time to post this review.

Perkins, S.  (2014).  My True Love Gave to Me.   New York:  St. Martin's Griffin

Appetizer:  This anthology features twelve festive short stories by some of the most popular authors in YA literature.  The vast majority of the stories are realistic, but there is a touch or two of the fantastic (most notably in Holly Black's "Krampuslauf" and in Laini Taylor's "The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer").  There is a lot of inclusion in terms of the holidays/festivities covered (and quite a bit of cultural and LGBTQ representation...though, most of the writers representing those groups seem to be from white and middle class backgrounds--NOT ALL, but some).  A few of the experiences included are choosing a Christmas tree, celebrating Chanukah, welcoming the New Year, participating in a Nativity play (or trying to), dressing up as Santa, living in a place named Christmas, etc.  There's pretty much something for everyone among the stories--but most notably, there's romance.

This has been a fun book to go through during the holiday season.  I enjoyed reading each story and then trying to match it to the pairs of characters on the cover.

Although enjoyable, I found myself wishing there was less romance and focus on protagonists having revelations about their lives.  Call me cold-hearted (or, perhaps more appropriately, call me Scrooge), but several of the stories felt forced when they tried to wrap-up the ending with a festive kiss just as the protagonist has had an epiphany I'm particularly thinking of "What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?" which features a big-city freshman stuck on her small-town campus for a few days after the semester has ended.  Another example occurs in "It's a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown" in which a young animator seeks out the help of an attractive Christmas tree salesperson with an amazing voice to add to her latest project.).

The emotional climax in Kiersten White's "Welcome to Christmas, CA" also felt forced, although that one was less focused on romance and more on a revelation about her family as the protagonist, who has always hated living in a place called Christmas, realizes she does have a sense of home.  Eh, bah humbug.  Stop forcing the feels and let me giggle over a character slipping on some ice or something.

I'd have to say, overall, my favorite story was "Midnights" by Rainbow Rowell.  It explored the friendship (and maybe more!) relationship between Mags and Noel over multiple New Year's parties.  The story featured the strong character development that Rowell is so gifted at giving her readers as well as a strong conclusion (where generally she struggles more).

P.S.  Be jealous--my copy of this book is autographed by both Rainbow Rowell and David Levithan.  Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeal.

Dinner Conversation:

"It was cold out on the patio, under the deck.  Frigid.  Dark.
Dark because Mags was outside at midnight, and dark because she was in the shadows.
This was the last place anyone would look for her--anyone, and especially Noel.  She'd miss all the excitement.
Thank God.  Mags should have thought of this years ago."  (p. 1)

"Marigold loved this Christmas tree lot.  It was brighter --and maybe even warmer--than her mother's apartment for one thing." (p. 99)

"It's hard not to feel just a little bit fat when your boyfriend asks you to be Santa Claus.
But I'm Jewish," I protest.  "It would be one thing if you were asking me to be Jesus--he, at least, was a member of my tribe, and looks good in a Speedo.  Plus, Santa requires you to be jolly, whereas Jesus only requires you to be born.'" (p. 133)

"The whole mess started when I lit the church on fire." (p. 203)

'"Also terrible?  'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.'"
"Santa as Big Brother.  Just imagine his posters, staring at you from every wall.  SANTA IS WATCHING."
"I love Christmas, but Santa is creepy."
"Thank you, yes!  No one understands.  If someone is watching me sleep, it had better be a hot vampire, otherwise I'm calling the cops." (p. 242)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

In tangential news, one of my own New Year's resolutions is to dust off this blog and write more regularly.  So, hopefully you'll be seeing more of me in the future.


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