Boys don’t read Girl Books and other lies my Society Told Me

“It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” (Robert Lipsyte, “Boys and Reading: Is there Any Hope?“)

Toph GIF Avatar: The Last Airbender

Oh, Fuck, not this bullshit again.

(I hear you, Toph)

****
I like giving my younger brother (R) books. Correction: I really like giving my younger brother books. And he loves reading, so we’re quite compatible. Well played, universe!

Anyway. The last time I took R on a book-buying expedition, it took us three hours to narrow down the choices. By the end, we were down to two options: Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, which I described as “Jane Austen if all of Jane Austen’s characters were dragons! Tea time meets DRAGONS” and Malinda Lo’s Huntress, which I described as “Adventure! Fairies! Hunting! Lesbian romance! More adventure! HORSES!”

(My eloquence: admire it)

At some point in R’s difficult decision, I swooped in with big-sister wisdom: “You know, I’m worried you won’t enjoy Tooth and Claw as much. Don’t get me wrong – I love it. But it’s not really an adventure story. It’s basically a family story, and about people’s relationships and marriages. Except with dragons.”

My younger brother gave me a Look: “No, but that’s what I like.”

Me: “Whazit?”

Brother: “Those are my favorite kinds of books! I like reading about families, and about how people relate to each other.”

This would be the moment I massively facepalmed.

Zuko GIF angst Avatar the last airbender

AAAARGH

I’m a feminist. I think about idiotic gender roles a lot. I try to avoid perpetuating sexism as much as I can. I especially try to avoid perpetuating stupid gender roles around my brother. And I have always believed that there is no such thing as a “girl” book and a “boy” book.

Yet I assumed my brother would like an adventure book more than he would a family-drama book.

Because he’s a thirteen-year-old-boy.

Massive.

Facepalm.

Aang GIF Avatar headdesk

Me, to brother: “… just ignore me, I’m an idiot.”

Conclusion of the story: I ended up buying R. both books, because I am the best sister on the planet

(Yes! yes I am aware of how awesome I am! But more accolades are always welcome!).

He loved Huntress, like I thought he would. But he loved Tooth and Claw even more. He sent me an email from his vacation where he told me it was now “one of his favorite books.” And when I saw him again, he asked me if I could lend him my Jane Austen novels.

Because Tooth and Claw had inspired him to read Jane Austen.

BOOM, BABY.

Emperor's New Groove Boom Baby

(I really love Jane Austen, okay?)

***

This post is not about how gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn – although it could be, since that is a true and important topic. Gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn! Even for feminists! Tell your friends.

It is, as all my favorite posts are, about my brother. My brother read a lot. And as it happens, a fair number of the books he reads either a) are written by women b) have female protagonists, or c) center on “girl” issues like “family” and “relationships.”

This fact makes him the Miracle Boy Foretold By the Prophecy. Because boys can’t read girl books. Didn’t you get the memo?

[Note: In this post, I will use the term "girl" books to designate books that are USUALLY ASSOCIATED with women, either because they were written by women, have female protagonists, or tackle subjects that are coded as feminine (gossip! pink!). I don't mean to imply that there are actual "girl" books and "boy" books. Books are for everyone! I promise! They don't have cooties!]

***

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young boy who desires to read must be in want of a “boy” book. However little known the feelings or views of such a boy may be on his first entering  a bookstore, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adults that he is carefully kept away from any book with the slightest whiff of the feminine about it.”

Okay, that’s not the first line of Pride and Prejudice, BUT IT COULD BE.

One of the most frustrating myths floating around the world of reading is the “boys aren’t reading because there are too many girly books, and boys can’t read girly books because EVERYONE KNOWS boys can’t read girly books.”

Cat and bath

How Boys Feel About “Girl” Books.

And sadly, this narrative just keeps popping up out of the fertile internet ground every thirty seconds. Like zombies! Or DAISIES. or ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Robert Lipsyte’s self-congratulatory and entirely unimaginative article for The New York Times deplores the explosion of YA aimed towards girls because “while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” Meanwhile, YA author A. E. Rought called female protagonists a “trope” they hoped the publishing industry would get over. Then Sarah Mesle wrote an article for the LA Review of Books where she expresses concern at the proper lack of “male roles” for boys.

Hell, just yesterday, I was treated to an article that deplored the lack of male protagonists, because the author was sick of girls who only cared about gossip and instead wanted a boy protagonist who just wanted to put gas in his car.

Apaa Flying Bison Avatar GIF

Think about your life, anonymous author. Think about your choices.

Urgh.

SO MANY ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Okay, first off, I want to make sure our facts are straight. Because it is provably not true that there are no YA books “for boys.” In fact, there are still more male protagonists than female ones in YA. There are just about as many male authors as there are female ones. THESE ARE THE FACTS, PEOPLE (here is one study, among many). And it is depressing as hell that people look at women achieving parity in one field – ONE FIELD – and interpret it as men being blotted out.

Toph Earthbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

ON POINT

Let’s get to the important part.
Now that you’ve read all this “evidence” about how boys can’t read “girl” books and it’s a HUGE CATASTROPHE, OH NOES, let me remind you that my brother regularly reads lots of “girl” books.
BUT BOYS CAN’T READ BOOKS ABOUT GIRLS!  HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY HAPPEN?
The answer, my friends, is the Great Feminist Experiment:
Azula GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT. Scared yet?

Ahem. So. The Great Feminist Experiment.
I have known about this whole “boys can’t read “girl” books” since I was… oh, eight or so? It’s been around for at least that long. I vividly remember reading an interview of Eoin Colfer where he claimed he specifically chose a male protagonist for the Artemis Fowl series because it would attract more male readers – and female readers would just pick up the book anyway. I also remember JK Rowling explaining that she used her initials (instead of her first name, Joanne) to avoid scaring off male readers.
I knew what was up.
And when I acquired a baby brother, I decided he would be an ideal Test Subject for a Great Feminist Experiment.

By the time I was ten, I had a plan. I would make it a point to give him books with female protagonists. On his birthday, on Christmas, at random occasions – I would give him books with girls. I would give him books about girls. I would give him books by women. I would give him books about “girly” topics like family and gossip and clothes.

Not to mention books with kickass women being kickass!

Katara GIF waterbending Avatar: THe Last Airbender Waterbending

Example Chosen at Total Random (I <3 you Katara!)

I wouldn’t force him to read them. And I wouldn’t deprive him of books with male protagonists either. I would simply make sure he had lots of access to “girl” books.

It was a deviously simple plan.

And it worked.

Tiny Fey Amy Poehler SNL GIF Bitches Get Stuff Done

Of the books my brother reads, I’d say somewhere near 50-60% have female protagonists. The first chapter book my brother ever read was Roald Dahl’s Mathilda.  His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl” after Dianne Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle. He loves Lyra from The Golden Compass. He reads Tamora Pierce and Libba Bray and Meg Cabot and Diane Duane. He will talk for hours about Robin Mckinley and the Blue Sword novels. His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl.” Right now, his favorite authors include NK Jemisin, Jo Walton, Octavia Butler and Mira Grant.

Don’t get me wrong, the brother reads a lot of “boy” books too (one of his other favorite authors is China Mielville, and his favorite novel is Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk). But R. has never complained about a book with a female protagonist. To him, they’re just as normal as books with male protagonists. And it would never occur to him not to pick up a book because the author was female.

And now he’s even recommending books by female authors TO ME. It was my brother who first discovered Mira Grant, and who pestered me until I read her (and I never looked back).

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT WORKED!

Azula Avatar the last Airbender GIF madness

MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

YES I AM THE EVIL FEMINIST ALL YOUR FRIENDS WARNED YOU ABOUT.

I can’t stress how easy this “experiment” was. I mean, it was easy because I started early, before all the societal sexism could sink in. But it’s not like my brother’s Y chromosome was allergic to “girl” cooties. So whenever I read a Robert Lipsyte, say, spouting the old ” teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters” line, I roll my eyes pretty hard.

You know what? I’ve got a teenage boy in my life, and he reads “girl” stuff just fine. My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.

Boys don’t read “girl” books because they’re taught, in a thousand small, subtle, insidious ways, that they’re not supposed to.

What if boys weren’t ashamed to read books that were coded “girly” because they didn’t think it was shameful to be a girl? (thanks, Iggy Pop!)

What if we taught them something else?

Iggy Pop

Think about it.

***

Quick story to wrap things up!

So, obviously I’m a feminist. And I read lots of feminist fiction. And since my brother steals all my books, he ends up reading quite a bit of feminist fiction himself.
On the other hand, I’ve never told my brother he *should* be a feminist, or that he needs to combat sexism or anything. Because I don’t want to tell him what to think.

Anyway!

One night at dinner a few years ago, my stepbrother started teasing my stepmother about the muscles in her arms. My father said: “Stepbrother! It’s rude to discuss women’s arm muscles.”

And I, the random feminist, replied: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with discussing women’s arm muscles, since there’s nothing wrong with women having arm muscles. But teasing people about their appearance isn’t okay.”

My brother: “Yeah, Dad. Because you know what me and Suzanne are into? FEMINIST SCIENCE FICTION. So if you say sexist stuff, we’re going to get super-mad!”

After I finished dying of laughter, I knew that giving my brother “girl” books to read had been worth it. MY EVIL FEMINIST PLANS HAD ALL COME TO FRUITION.

Avatar GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE FEMINIST BORG HAD ASSIMILATED HIM.

[No, but in all seriousness, I was super-proud of him. I mean, once I stopped laughing]

Azula Avatar: The Last Airbender

Scary Feminist Out!

Notes:

1. I should note that as I got older and more aware, I also made a conscious effort to steer my brother toward books with protagonists of color and queer protagonists. Which worked out quite well!

2. I want to be clear that just because this “experiment” (such as is) worked for me, it doesn’t mean it would work for everyone. There was a whole lot of privilege and luck that went into it! Like the fact that I started when the brother was super-young. And that he turned out to love reading. And that both he and I had lots of time and opportunities to read, and were both encouraged to do so. This is not supposed to be a how-to for how to get boys to read more. Nor is it meant to be a critique of people who can’t get the boys in their life to read more. If that doesn’t comes across, let me know, and I will fix it!

3. My brother has been fully aware of the “experiment” since he was seven or eight. I promise, I’m not manipulating him behind his back. We’ve had conversations about it, where I ask whether he’s okay if I keep giving him books by women/with female protagonists and he’s like “So… you’re asking if I’m okay with you giving me books? Is this some kind of evil trick?”

4. Hey, notice all the Avatar: The Last Airbender GIFs? The Feminist Philosopher introduced me to the show, and I just finished watching it. IT IS AWESOME, and full of awesome male and female characters AND YOU SHOULD ALL GO WATCH IT. NO, SERIOUSLY, DROP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING AND GO WATCH THE SHOW.

Katar waterbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

Stop Everything and GO WATCH.

Thank you, Feminist Philosopher. I will forever blame you when I tear up at GIFs of Zuko and Uncle Iroh hugging.

Further reading: 

The Book Smugglers: The Airing of the Grievances 
The Problem is Not the Books
Gender Balance in YA awards

The Friendship that Dares Not Speak its Name: Female Friendship in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Xena Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless Angry

“Is anyone here going to be my friend? Anyone? I have a shiny sword!”

[Content note: This is another one of my giant tl;dr posts of doom. Be forewarned before you venture into the abyss]

I’ve decided that I don’t want to be a Sci-Fi/Fantasy hero. Sure, the armor/spacesuits/dresses would be cool. And I’d like to fight a glorious battle. Or meet an alien. Or turn into a dragon. Or turn into a dragon while I meet an alien and wear a cool spacesuit dress.

But.

I’ve been noticing something weird about SF/F heroes. Specifically the female ones.

They don’t have a lot of friendships with other women.

Hell, there are some SF/F movies/books/etc. where the women barely speak to each other at all.

Is it just me, or does it sometimes feel like all those heroines have been cursed by a horrific spell? A spell that prevents them from making friends with other women without dying instantaneously?

Or do they just all have allergies to other women?

Because something’s going on. And I’d like to know what.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy has quite a few iconic male friendships – you’d be hard-pressed to find a book, tv series or movie that didn’t have a prominent friendship between two men.

Frodo and Sam. Spock and Kirk. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Ender Wiggin and Bean. Hugo and Charlie on Lost. Saul Tigh and Bill Adama in Battlestar Galactica. Magneto and Professor Xavier.

But iconic female friendships?

I can’t think of many.

And lest you ask, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. When I first got the idea for this post, I went through my reading lists for the past three years. I scoured the web. I look through my bookshelves. I looked through my brother’s bookshelves. I lurked around Amazon.com for three hours.

After a good week of research, I concluded that not only were there very few Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives where female friendships featured prominently, there were very few Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives where female friendships featured at all.

Black Widow Scarlett Johansson

” Look, it’s not that I don’t want to be friends with women, it’s just that for some reason, I’m never allowed to talk to them onscreen.”

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that women are still underrepresented as characters in Sci-Fi/Fantasy. We’re still stuck in the “lone woman” or “exceptional woman” phase of gender equality. Consider all the movies/books/comic books etc. where there is exactly one major female character. Black Widow in The Avengers.* Trinity in The Matrix. Wonder Woman in the early years of The Justice League. Petra in Ender’s Game. Molly Million in Neuromancer. Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. 

[*Emphasis on major. I liked Maria Hill and Pepper Potts as much as anyone else, but they weren't on the same level of importance to the narrative as Thor, or Black Widow, or even Nick Fury]

Hell, Mulan in Mulan, while we’re at it. Even feminist narratives often have “lone women,” because so many of them tell stories of the first woman to join the army/become a knight/become a scientist/fly to the moon/play professional foozball. And, don’t get me wrong, stories about how women overcome the odds to join male-dominated professions are important.

But what about the stories after that one? What about the one where there are finally two female superheroes? What about the one where the science lab has a 50-50% gender distribution? What about the one where the army has an entire squadron of female knights?

Where are the stories about women mentoring other women? Where are the stories of women who have been best friends since childhood? Where are the stories where two wacky women are thrown together on an intergalactic adventure? Where’s my female Sherlock Holmes and Watson duo?

Where are my stories of epic sromances (rather than bromances) where the (female) hero would cut through entire armies to save their (female) friend?

[By the way, I fully purloined the term "sromance" from a blog post written by the fabulous Karen Healey]

Mulan Sword reflection

“Touch my BFF, and I will cut you.”

Those stories are a lot rarer.

We’re not that interested, it seems to me, in telling stories where there are many women, not just one. We’re not that interested in portraying worlds where women are the norm rather than the exception. We’re still stuck on the “lone women” phase of gender equality.

We’re not that interested in portraying relationships between women. We’re still stuck on how women relate to men.

***

Even when there are multiple women in an SF/F narrative [HALLELUJAH], they rarely ever meet. Or speak. Or have any kind of relationship. Maria Hill and Black Widow in The Avengers? Never say one word to each other. Eowyn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings? They’re in love with the same man, they’re fighting the same enemy… they never speak. In the Game of Thrones series, there are several important female characters, but they’re rarely in a room together. And if they are, they’re not friends. They’re enemies.

You would think women in Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives would have something to say to one another. Even if it’s along the lines of:

“So, what’s it like to be the only woman in a group of superheroes?”
“Oh, you know. It’s not bad. Reminds me of that time I was stuck in an airport in France…”

Or:

“Hey, you know where I can get some tampons in the middle of this god-forsaken wilderness?”

Or just a plain, normal, non-gendered conversation like:

“Wow, we’re about to get eaten by a dragon.”
“That’s a problem.”
“We should run.”
“I agree. RUN!”

But no, apparently not. Apparently women just can’t talk to each other in SF/F.

It’s very bizarre. Because – and I hope SF/F authors and scriptwriters know this – there are a lot of women in the world.

It is practically impossible for a woman to go through her life without having a conversation with another woman. It is practically impossible for a woman to go through a single day without talking to another woman. Women are everywhere. Heck, I’ve even  heard they make up 50% of the earth’s population.

Given these parameters, it makes absolutely no sense that the majority of female SF/F characters almost never talk to women. The only way they could pull it off is if they were actively avoiding talking to other women.

This is why I suspect that female heroes of SF/F are all under some terrible curse that prevents them from speaking to other women. It’s the only logical explanation.

[[It's either that, or most authors are doing a terrible job of representing women's reality... and since authors have never historically struggle with representing female experiences, I think we can safely rule this explanation out. Right?]]

So. There’s a curse.

And if there is, I must be honest with you: I don’t think I want to be an SF/F hero anymore.

Because I wouldn’t want to live a life without female friends.

It would be horrible. Are you kidding me?

For one thing, how the hell am I supposed to go into battle and save the world without my female friends by my side?

Don’t get me wrong. I have friends who are guys. I would not want to give up those friendships either; some of my best friends are men. But women are friends with men in SF/F narratives, so that’s not really an issue.

[I feel like all my guy friends who read this are going to go: "You don't love me? " and run away. So, pre-emptively: "NOOOO, guy friends! I do love you! Don't leave me!"]

But frankly, most of my closest, most important friendships have been with other women.

The friends who know my deep, dark secrets? Mostly women. The friends who know that I spent a year of my life breaking into my house through a window instead of telling my parents I’d lost the keys? Mostly women. The friends who have survived my propensity for seven hour walks? Mostly women. The friends who put up with my social anxiety, my inability to answer emails and phone calls? Mostly women. The friends who tortured me with high-school drama? Mostly women. The friends who listen to me rant about stuff they’re completely uninterested in? Mostly women.

The friend I have epic conversations with when we pull simultaneous all-nighters? A woman. The friend who talked me through my academic insecurities? A woman. The friend who rearranged my work schedule when she realized I was exhausted – even though it meant she was picking up extra hours? A woman. The friend I went camping for (I hate camping)? A woman. The friend I went running for (I hate running)? A woman. The friend I stopped writing a paper for so that I could help her find her cat? A woman. The friend who turned me into a compulsive biker? A woman.

If I were an SF/F heroine, I would want these women on my team. I’m just saying.

That’s, I think, why the lack of female friendships in SF/F is so striking to me. When I look at the friends I would walk through fire for, the friends I would fight armies for, the friends who I cannot imagine life without – most of those friends are women. And when I look around me at women I know, I see that yes, in fact, these women too, have friends who are female.

Women are friends with women. Imagine that.

Female friendships aren’t an urban legend. They aren’t a statistical anomaly. They’re not all hiding in the forests like werewolves. Unless the nine places I’ve lived in my life have been exceptions to the norm, female friends are a fairly common phenomenon.

Elizabeth Swann Pirates of the Caribbean Keira Knightley

“Where the frack are all the other women in this blasted movie? Did they get eaten by the Kraken?

So just for the sake of realism, there should be a few more female friendships in SF/F.

Not to mention the fact that female friendships are interesting.
They’re fun. Exciting. Dramatic. Low-key. Tense. Anguished. Tortured. Competitive. Sweet. Bizarre. Twisted. Cool. Captivating. Multifaceted.

If you’re not writing about female friendships because you think they’re boring? You’re not too clever. And if you’re not reading books with female friendships because you think they’re boring? You’re missing out.

Isn’t it sad that we can imagine faster -than-light-travel, fire-breathing dragons and cyborgs, but we can’t imagine two women talking to each other?

Is there really a curse? A curse that says: two women can’t be friends in SF/F? Two women can’t speak in SF/F? Women can only relate to men, and to no one else?

Well, if there is, I’m sick of it. I want to see as many awesome female friendships in SF/F as there are awesome male friendships.

I’m breaking out the curse-breaking equipment, people. I’m compiling a list. A list of SF/F narratives that do have awesome female friendships.

Because it’s time to end the darn curse.

Here, in no particular order, are nine SF/F narratives with prominent female friendships. Seven books; one TV show; one Comic Book series.

I know these are not the only SF/F narratives with prominent female friendships. I have not read everything. I have not seen everything. Heck, I haven’t even ever seen Star Trek (I’m working on it!). So this list is not meant to be comprehensive. I’m sure I’m missing things – and I’d love to hear suggestions!

Curse-breakers, unite!

[And now I feel like I'm either in Pirates of the Caribbean or a Tomb Raider movie. For the record: if this curse-breaking turns into an epic quest where we all become living skeletons and have to pour the blood of Orlando Bloom on a giant pile of gold to end the terrible curse... my apologies]

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1. Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

Trickster's Queen cover Tamora Pierce

This was a tough one, because Tamora Pierce always does a fantastic job with female friendships. Keladry and Lalasa. Keladry, Yuki and Shinko. Alanna, Thayet and Buri. Alanna and Daine. Sandry, Tris and Daja. Beka Cooper and Clara Goodwin.

Pierce’s female friendships are all the more impressive because most of Tamora Pierce’s protagonists are women entering male-dominated professions. Two of her series (Song of the Lioness and The Protector of the Small) follow the journeys of the first women to train for Knighthood. Yet even though Alanna and Kel are surrounded by men (and make friends with men) they managed to be friends with women too. Female friendships are the norm in Pierce’s writing, not the exception.

The Trickster duology, however, probably has more friendships between women than any of Pierce’s other series.

After being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Copper Isles, Aly discovers that the Raka natives are finally ready to throw their luarin overlords. And they need a spymaster. Aly, through bad luck, trickery and manipulation, gets herself that job.

The Raka rebellion aims to put a Queen, not a King, on the throne of the Isles. It’s quite a gender-equal revolution: women and men both act as warrior, spies, mages and leaders. Not surprisingly, Aly cultivates quite a few important friendships and alliances with other women, from her cautious loyalty to Duchess Winnamine (the stepmother to the potential heiress), her easy camaraderie with Chenaol (Aly’s first friend in the Copper Isles and the rebellion’s weaponmaster), her wary “please-don’t-hit-me” friendships with Ochubo (head of the Raka mage network) and Junai (her bodyguard) and her long-distance friendship with Daine.

Aly’s most important friendship, however, is with Dovesary Balitang, a clever and wise thirteen-year-old half-Raka noblewoman. The rebels believe Dove’s older sister, Sarai, is the prophesied twice-royal Queen. Aly’s relationship with Dove is arguably the most important relationship in the book, full stop – the two women’s admiration, wariness and respect for one another is fascinating to watch. And their evolving friendship becomes integral to the rebellion’s success.

It’s a genuine sromance. And it always makes me tear up.

“I don’t need a maid,” Dove said. “I need a friend.” [...]
“I will be your friend till the end of time,” Aly told the younger girl.

2. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens Libba Bray Cover

Friends don’t let friends wear Maybelline

Picture this: a plane full of teen beauty queens crash-lands on a desert island. They must survive. They must practice their pageant walks for the Miss Teen Dream pageant. They must keep exfoliating. And they must foil the plans of an evil organization of evil people hidden in a giant evil volcano at the center of the island. [ Yes, this is speculative fiction. It's a dystopia. Don't argue with me]

And there are explosions.

I know you just ran away from the computer screaming “WHY HAVEN’T I READ THIS YET?” I know. I feel your pain.

This novel is a high-wire act. It would have been so easy for Bray to spend the story making fun of the teen pageant queens and their silliness. But no. Beauty Queens is a satire, yes, but not of the teen girls themselves. It’s a satire of everything in our society that constrains them, that dis-empowers them, that puts them in competition with one another, that forces them to conform to silly gender norms.

Instead of being a “let’s make fun of the silly girls who parade around in swimsuits and sashes,” book, Beauty Queens is about how all these women – the dumb ones, the blonde ones, the silly ones, the mean ones, the women-hating ones, the ones with trays stuck in their head, the ones who love lipstick and the ones who love swordfighting – are actually awesome. It’s a book that’s incredibly supportive of girls and their friendships and their culture. It’s a book that’s also incredibly good at portraying a diversity of female experiences – we have, among others, a transwoman, several women of color, a lesbian character, a deaf girl, a die-hard beauty Queen and a girl who hates beauty pageant (among others). And it’s a book that manages to be critical of oppressive gender norms all while being fantastically optimistic about the potential for making those gender norms explode (and the potential to live fulfilling lives in spite of them).

As the book goes on, the teen beauty queens stop being wary acquaintances playing their prescribed pageant roles and learn to respect and like one another as real people. These developing friendships allow the teen beauty queens to unravel the secrets of the island – and the secrets of their own identity. They discover who they are outside their beauty queens personas. And then they blow things up.

Empowerment and blowing things up.

You want to read this. Trust me.

Mary Lou: “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.”

3. Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Tansy Rayner Roberts Power and Majesty

In Power and Majesty, the first book of the Creature Court trilogy, Velody, a dressmaker, discovers that she is the potential new King of the Creature Court, a group of magicians who defend the city of Aufleur during the night. The Courtiers are almost all men; the King has always been a man. Should she become King, Velody would be the first woman to ascend to the throne.

Power and Majesty is one of the rare books where a woman enters a male-dominated profession yet still manages to maintain her old female friendships. She beats the curse! Whoo!

Velody lives with her two best friends: Rhian, a former rich girl whose family disowned her for going into business, and Delphine, a florist recovering from an old trauma. Rhian and Delphine are as important in Velody’s journey as the beautifully dangerous men of the Creature Court.

Rayner Roberts’ portrayal of Velody, Rhian and Delphine’s love and loyalty for one another is beautiful, smart and insightful.When Velody enters the Creature Court, her first priority is protecting her friends. She battles other Courtiers to keep them from hurting Rhian and Delphine.  When Rhian and Delphine discover that Velody’s the (potential) new King, their first priority is protecting her. They enter into the dark world of the night to support their friend (as best friends do).  They enter into the world of the Creature Court, I should add, almost completely defenseless, since Rhian and Delphine, unlike Velody, have no magic. But they want to protect their friend, and they find ways to do it. Because that’s what you do for your best friends. You go into the night and you fight the bad guys and you find ways to protect them. No matter what.

And it proves that yes, stories about women entering male-dominated fields are not incompatible with stories about powerful female relationships. It’s sad that more writers haven’t realized this.

I haven’t read the next two books in The Creature Court trilogy because they are only available in North America via kindle, and my kindle is down for the count (if anyone knows where I lost my power cord, please tell me!) But reviews assure me that the Rhian/Velody/Delphine relationship remains a huge part of the series. I can’t wait.

“From that day forwards, Delphine pretended she had intended to take the ribboning apprenticeship all along, and neither Velody nor Rhian every challenged her on it.
That was what friends did.

4. Air by Geoff Ryman

Air Geoff Ryman cover

I’ve talked about Air before, in my “Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women” post. Possibly because I love it madly.

Chung Mae lives in Kizuldah, a small village in the fictional country of Karzistan. One day, the authorities conduct a world-test of a new technology called Air. Air is like the internet – in your head. The villagers, who don’t own computers or television, are thrown into a panic by this test. One person dies.

Chung Mae, who is nothing if not resourceful, realizes that the village needs to adapt quickly if the villagers are going to survive the full implementation of Air. She launches a large-scale campaign of preparation. And the people she recruits for her campaign?
Other women.

The women are the engines of change in Kizuldah; it is through their relationships, their ambition and their pragmatism that the town survives. Chung Mae and her friend Wing Kwan, for example, use the television to set up a fashion business selling traditional clothes to fashion houses in the USA. Chung Mae and her friends – and rivals – fight and bicker. They create alliances and friendships; they hide their activities from men; they roam out in the world; they help one another protect their families. It’s one of the most realistic portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever read. These relationships are familiar to me. The women are  real people, and their friendships ring true – intense, fulfilling, and sometimes destructive.

“Kwan looked sober. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
“Oh! You could say that ten times and it would still not be enough.”
“But we came through.”
“We came through.”
Kwan hugged her. “You can stay, you know.”
Mae touched her arm. “I really do not know what I would have done if my friend Wing Kwan had not been so kind. There would have been nowhere else for me to go.”

5.The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

delia Sherman freedom maze cover

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that three of the nine things I’m recommending are young adult novels (The Trickster series, Beauty Queens and The Freedom Maze) Young Adult SF/F tends to do a lot better in the female friendships department. Perhaps because YA has a wide female readership and authorship, and female friendships have become an established YA trope.

The Freedom Maze is a very recent read of mine, and I can’t recommend it enough. Sophie, a teenager living in 1960s Louisiana is spending a long, boring summer at Oak Cottage while her mother takes accounting classes in the city. One day, Sophie wanders into the garden maze. When she comes back out, she’s been transported to 1860 – the adventure-story-loving Sophie assumes this is the start of a grand time-travel trip.

But things go wrong very quickly: the Martineau family mistakes Sophie for a slave because of her tanned skin, and put her straight to work.

Sophie begins to form friendships with her fellow slaves – specifically with Africa, a smart, strong hoodoo practitioner who helps protect other slaves from their white owners, and with Antigua, Africa’s headstrong daughter. As she becomes closer to these two women, Sophie moves deeper into the reality of slavery. Like Kindred (another time-travel slave-narrative), The Freedom Maze pulls no punches in its depiction of slavery. Sophie’s experiences as a slave are horrific, a far cry from the “Gone with the Wind”-esque picture of happy darkies she’s been taught.Her allegiance to her old ideas of racial politics, her family (the Martineaus) – and even the time period of her birth – begin to fade away. Instead, Sophie relies on Africa and Antigua’s help to survive – and in return, helps devise a plot to save Antigua from being sold downriver to New Orleans.

The novel is very much concerned with the similarities (and disparities) of women’s experiences across races and time periods. It’s also a brilliant portrayal of the way black women’s friendships and relationships helped slaves survive, and even gain agency, under horrific conditions.

“Come with me then,” Antigua turned to her, eyes glinting in the lamplight. “Come take the boat with me, we be free together.”

6. The Female Man by Joanna Russ

The Female Man Joanna Russ

The Female Man is one of the most important SF/F works of the 20th century. It a difficult, confrontational, knotty novel that will chew up your brain and spit it back out. And it’s almost entirely centered around women’s relationships with other women.

The story follows four women on four parallel worlds. Joanna lives in a world much like ours. Jeannine lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended and Adolf Hitler died in 1936. Janet comes from Whileaway, an all-woman planet where the men died in a plague eight hundred years ago. Jael’s world, meanwhile, is a dystopia where men and women are engaged in a literal “battle of the sexes.”

Near the beginning of the novel, Janet mysteriously shows up in Jeannine’s world, then manages to drag Jeannine to Joanna’s world (our world). Eventually all three women end up on Jael’s world. The four women become friends and allies (with varying degrees of success) as they try to understand their predicament. The novel is, essentially, an incisive and moving examination of how women relate to other women. Who are these women to one another? What are their experiences of womanhood? Can they understand one another across these vast cultural differences?

Complex interpersonal relationships between four women who are essentially the same woman (they share the same genes)? Parallel worlds? Feminist utopias?
Count me in.

7. Yoko Tsuno by Roger Leloup

Yoko Tsuno On the Edge of Life Cover Roger Leloup

I almost didn’t include Yoko Tsuno -  though it includes some of the most interesting and intense female friendships I’ve encountered in Science Fiction – because it’s a french comic book series.

And I didn’t think there were any English translations.

BUT THERE ARE.

Two of Yoko’s alien adventures have been translated as “The Adventures of Yoko, Vic and Paul.” Six of her other books have English translations – The Frontier of Life, The Time Spiral, The Prey and the Ghost, Daughter of the Wind, The Dragon of Hong Kong and The Morning of the World. Most of these are out of print, but you may be able to get them at libraries or amazon (I saw some cheap copies). I don’t know if the translations are any good, so this isn’t a ringing endorsement… but I’ll try to find out.

Anyways. Back to the point. The series, which served simultaneously as my introduction to science fiction and as my introduction to comic books, follows Yoko Tsuno, an electrical engineer  who has a propensity for getting herself involved in epic adventures. It’s an action series, and a science fiction series. But it’s also a series which, at it’s core, is about friendship. Yes, Yoko has her constant traveling companions, Vic and Paul. But Vic and Paul are a background noise; they’re not central to the series. Yoko’s most important friendships are with women: of the 23 books I’ve read, 18 feature a prominent friendship between Yoko and another woman.Indeed, most of Yoko’s adventures come about because she’s trying to help a friend.

And instead she ends up in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

Yoko is deeply, fiercely, uncritically loyal to the women she becomes friends with. It does not matter if you’re a criminal, an heiress, a time-traveler, an alien, an assassin or a rogue scientist: if Yoko likes you, she’ll be friends with you. And once she is, she will walk through fire for you. Or travel to a galaxy a hundred light-years away for you. Or fight the devil for you (this is an actual plot; I am not even kidding). Or time-travel for you.

Honestly, Yoko is a bit like James Bond. Every movie, Bond has a different girl he sleeps with; every book, Yoko has a different woman she become friends with. Unlike Bond, however, Yoko stays close to these friends, who remain important characters throughout the series. Her navigation of her complex relationships with a diverse group of women is a highlight of comic books.

James Bond. Except with less sleeping around. And more awesome.

Yoko Tsuno Khany Roger Leloup

Yoko and her friend Khany, the leader of Vinea

Eva: “Careful! Do you always drive this fast?”
Yoko: “Yes – when I think I’m about to find a friend.”

8. The Orphan’s Tales by Catherynne Valente

Catherynne Valente The Orphan's Tales In the Night Garden Cover

Someday, I will stop raving about Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. But today is not this day.

Yes, on top of being a feminist retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, The Orphan’s Tales features women who talk to other women. Lots of women who talk to other women, in point of fact. There are many tales, and there are many female friendships. There are also many male friendships and many male-female friendships, all of which are rendered exquisitely by Valente’s  storytelling.

Listing the many female friendships in this series would take far, far too long. So I’ll just focus on the crew of the Maidenhead.
The Maidenhead is an all-female ship: the Captain, the navigators, the deckhands – all of them are women. All of them are also monsters – satyrs, three-breasted women, fox-women etc. They go around the world, rescuing other monstrous women and welcoming them into their ranks. They mentor one another – one of the most important friendships is the one between Tomomo, the Maidenhead’s first Captain, and Saint Sigrid, the Maidenhead’s second Captain. And they become renown the world over… before disappearing mysteriously in the deep blue sea.

Sigrid, an old woman who worships Saint Sigrid (and who used to be a bear), befriends Snow, a white-haired orphan. The two of them go on an epic quest to discover the location of the Maidenhead; they eventually get themselves swallowed by the same giant whale who swallowed the Maidenhead a few hundred years ago.

This is an epic, “fight-armies-for-you,” “get-swallowed-by-a-whale-for-you,” group of awesome, loyal, sromantic female friends. The kind I always look for in my fiction.  And it is glorious.

“Of course we’ll take you,” The Saint said. “Tommy bade us never turn away a recruit. We are a family of monsters, and the birth of new beasts is a cause for joy.”

9. Xena: Warrior Princess

Xena and Gabrielle

Don’t mess with success

I couldn’t make this list without putting Xena: Warrior Princess on it. Xena and Gabrielle are perhaps the only truly iconic female friendship in SF/F culture.* They’re our Kirk and Spock, our Frodo and Sam, our Holmes and Watson.

{when I say “iconic,” what I mean is: everyone knows about them}

And yes, I know. They’re sleeping together. We all know they’re sleeping together. It’s a truth universally acknowledged in Xena fandom that Xena and Gabrielle are a couple.

But despite all the queer subtext, the two women never have a relationship on-screen. As far as the show is concerned, they’re just very close friends. Very, very close friends. So  I think it’s safe to call them friends for the purpose of this list.

Besides, they started as friends.

Xena: Warrior Princess follows the travels of Xena and her companion, Gabrielle, as Xena tries to make up for her dark past as a warlord by saving the helpless. There are a lot of explosions. And swordfighting.

The two women are constant companions. Gabrielle is initially a naive farmgirl who joined Xena to have adventures (and avoid an arranged marriage), while Xena is… a formerly evil warlord. Many of the individual stories involve Xena saving Gabrielle (or Gabrielle saving Xena). And the major emotional arcs in the series center around Xena and Garbrielle’s friendship.

They’ve died for each other. They’ve fought armies for each other. They’ve saved – and killed – each other’s children. They’ve gone to heaven and hell together. They were crucified together. They raised a daughter (Hope) together. The show calls them “soul mates.” They’re reincarnated together.

They’ve got the most epic friendship of all times, is what I’m saying. As far as I’m concerned, Kirk and Spock, Frodo and Sam and Holmes and Watson can all go take a hike. It’s Xena and Gabrielle all the way for me.

Xena: “Gabrielle, the love that we have, it’s stronger than Heaven or Hell. It transcends good or evil. It’s an end in itself! Our souls are destined to be together.”

[Ares, upon discovering that Xena is pregnant]
Ares: “I didn’t know you were looking for a father.”
Xena: “I’m not.”
Ares: “Well then, someone clearly has the job.”
Xena: “Yeah, Gabrielle. “

Xena and Gabrielle Friends

Xena: “So… you’ll be my friend?”
Gabrielle: “Sure! I love a woman with a shiny sword.”
Xena: “HAHA, we’ve beaten the curse!”
Gabrielle: “The curse?”
Xena: “The curse that says no two women in SF/F can speak to each other without dying.”
Gabrielle: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s a myth.”
Xena: “Uh, Gabrielle, we live in ancient Greece. One of our best friends is a Centaur. The other ones are Amazons and Gods. It’s quite mythic around here.”
Gabrielle: “Okay, so it’s not a myth. It’s an urban legend.”
Xena: “You’re an urban legend.”
Gabrielle: “Oh, ha-ha. You’re lucky I like your sword, or I’d go find a smarter friend.”

Edited To Add:

I’m keeping a running list of all the books/TV shows/whatever with prominent female friendships that I remembered AFTER writing the list. [I'm only adding things to the list that I've seen or read, just because it's the only way I can vouch for their...veracity. Doesn't mean I don't agree with other suggestions!]

1. Cold Magic and Cold Fire by Kate Elliot. How could I forget about this series? (which I love) Cat and Bee 4ever!

2. Sailor Moon. For obvious reasons.

Related Posts:

Why I Don’t Read Comic Books: A Call for Recommendations 

May Reading Roundup: Who Saw the Fantasy?

I Never Wanted to Be A Boy (A Tribute To Authors)

How the Power Rangers turned me into a Feminist


May Reading Roundup: Who saw the Fantasy?

This morning my brother and my stepsister woke up at five (am) to – and I quote – “work on their abs.” Because they’re going to a waterpark today, and they need to look good in their swimsuits.

Hedgehog Headdesk

**Headdesk**

I will refrain from comment. At least they didn’t wake me up. [Thank Maud for small mercies]

***

Anyways! Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Now that WisCon is over – and now that I’ve gotten a couple social-justice related rants out of the way – it’s time to move back to what really matters in life: giant lists of books.

Because why did I start blogging if not to inflict my bizarre reading taste on the public? [Let us ignore the fact that "the public" right now is my brother and a few devoted friends]

In spite of the fact that this month included: the return of the “four times a week” migraines (joy), a transnational move, a Feminist Science Fiction Convention and at least four gazillion doctor’s appointments (if one more person asks me for my family medical history, I’m going to throw myself off a cliff), I did manage to do some decent reading. HURRAH!

Twelve books! Woo! Five better than last month! (yes, yes in fact I am ridiculously competitive, why do you ask?)

Reviews follow the list:

1. A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire
2. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
3. Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire
4. The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne Valente
5. The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan
6. Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
7. The Orphans Tales: In the Cities of Coins and Spices by Catherynne Valente
8. The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
9. Chicks Dig Time Lords ed. by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea
10. Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston
11. The WisCon Chronicles Volume 6: Futures of Feminism and Fandom ed. by Alexis Lothian
12. Impolitic! by Andrea Hairston and Debbie Notkin

[Fair warning: the longer the summer goes on, the longer these lists are likely to get. I think my record last year was 22 books in a month]

This is a very WisCon inspired list – seven of the books (The Orphan’s Tales, Shine Coconut Moon, Chicks Dig Time Lords, Redwood and Wildfire, The WisCon Chronicles and Impolitic!) were read in anticipation of the convention.

I’ve talked about Redwood and Wildfire, The WisCon Chronicles and Impolitic! at other points during my WisCon recaps, so I won’t go over those again here. Because yes, I do take pity on my devoted readers. I will say that all three books are fantastic and well worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in WisCon, or the Tiptree Award.

WisCon also inspired a rare event at the House of Disorientation: two re-reads. Yes, in fact, I have already read both The Orphan’s Tales: The Night Garden and The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coins and Spices. But I presented a paper about the series at WisCon, so I needed to re-read them for research [I have over thirty pages of notes. Have mercy upon me]. If you’ve never read Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, you really should. They’re some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking books I’ve read in the past few years. Plus, Valente is an incredible prose writer, and her style has never been better.It’s quite difficult to explain what the series is about, so I’m going to cop to the very-basic and somewhat-inaccurate description: it’s a feminist retelling of One Thousand and One Nights.

The Orphan’s Tales are also tailor-made to my interests – they explore gender, bodies, monstrosity, mythology, storytelling, and above all, the concept of belonging. And part of the reason I love them so much is that the books aren’t a critique of fairy tales – they’re a reconstruction of tales along feminist lines. The books show us how stories could be different – they’re rebuilding an entire tradition from the ground up – which I think is arguably harder than just deconstructing a genre.

And the last scene of the last book makes me cry every time. It’s – you know the last two scenes of Lost? When Jack walks into the church and sees all the castaways again, and he remembers? And if you’re me, you completely lose it? Yeah. It’s like that. *sniff*

Okay, let’s move onto a happier note, shall we? [Sorry - the final scene of Lost always gets to me]

Seanan McGuire! Seanan McGuire is always a happier note.

When I discovered Mira Grant’s work, I wanted to read all her books.  ALL her books. Unfortunately, there was only one them out at the time. Whoops. [There are now three books. Yay!] So I was thrilled to discover that Mira Grant was a pseudonym for author Seanan McGuire, who had published LOTS of books.

After reading the first book of McGuire’s popular October Daye urban fantasy series, Rosemary and Rue, however, I was… underwhelmed. It was good, sure. But it didn’t quite work for me.

And then I read the second book, A Local Habitation.

A Local Habitation Cover Seanan McGuire

(great covers, by the way)

HOLY FREAKING MAUD I MUST READ ALL THE BOOKS NOW! NOW! WHERE ARE THEY? WHEREEEE???? I NEED THEM NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! I MUST HAVE THEM OR I WILL -

Hem. I, uh, really liked the second book. As in: forgoing food and sleep in order to finish reading it. As in: reading it on the plane (which is a terrible idea, since I get motion sickness). As in – okay, I need to stop with the fangirl SQUEE. Calm down, C.D. Remember that people read this thing. It’s public. Get a grip.

Okay.

So, er, plot summary. Yes. I can write cogent thoughts.

The October Daye series centers on October “Toby” Daye, the only changeling (half-human, half-faery) to have earned Knighthood. She’s also a faery detective operating out of San Francisco. In A Local Habitation, Toby’s liege lord, Sylvester, sends her to the County of Tames Lightning (Fremont,CA), to check on his niece, the CEO of a computer games company.

And after Toby arrives, the county is suddenly cut off from other Fae domains, and employees begin to die, one by one.

I love these sort of tense, psychological, edge-of-your-seat narratives, and McGuire writes them like none other. Her characters are fantastic – Toby alone is a masterclass of a character, one of the best urban fantasy heroines I’ve ever encountered.  Add to that McGuire’s portrayal of Faery politics, her exploration of the Faery world, and the computer-science-magic that emerges near the end (a dryad uploaded into a computer, for example), and A Local Habitation is sheer, frackin’ brilliance.

Oh, and it’s terrifying.

Love. It.

Also, as your resident Literature student nerd, I should point out that all the titles of the October Daye series are taken from Shakespeare’s Plays.

Rosemary and Rue – Hamlet
An Artificial Habitation – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Literature nerd alert, everyone!

I also read Discount Armageddon, the first book of Seanan McGuire’s new urban fantasy series (Incryptid).

Discount Armageddon cover Seanan McGuire
The protagonist, Verity Price, comes from a long line of cryptozoologists  – people who study and protect creatures whose existence has not yet been proven (also known as monsters). But Verity only wants to do one thing in life: dance. So she moves to New York to pursue a ballroom dancing career.

But don’t let the sequins and the high heels fool you. Anyone who can high kick over their head is someone you don’t want to mess with. Verity straps guns and daggers under her dance costume, and she knows enough about the lifecycle of unicorns to scare off a ghoul.

So when a professional monster-hunter shows up in the city and monsters begin to disappear, Verity is ready.

And the result is awesome. Discount Armageddon is the most entertaining of McGuire’s work so far – it’s sheer, ridiculous fun.

One of McGuire’s best traits as a writer – both as Seanan McGuire, and as Mira Grant – is her humor, which laces throughout all her work. In Armageddon, McGuire’s humor isn’t a sidenote, it’s front and center. I could not stop laughing.

“When in doubt, play dead. Well, unless you might be dealing with a ghoul, or a basilisk, or something else that likes its meat a little ripe. Actually, when in doubt, just start shooting.” (44)

“I really don’t think you should put your hand inside the manticore, dear. You don’t know where it’s been” (1)

“Mother nature is a freaky lady who probably created pot so she could spend all her time smoking it.”

Verdict? Fantastic. Like Buffy the Vampire slayer on steroids – if Buffy were protecting the vampires. Can’t wait for the next book.

One of my most anticipated reads of the month was The Killing Moon, the first book of N.K. Jemisin’s new series (Dreamblood).

N.K. Jemisin The Killing Moon Cover

Orbit does the best covers. Seriously.

I  became an instant fan of NK Jemisin after reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms last year, and I’m convinced that the Inheritance series is one of the most best and most original epic fantasy trilogies to come out in the past ten years. So naturally, when I saw The Killing Moon was available a few days earlier than expected in my local bookstore, I bought it.*

(and by “bought it,” I mean “I started caressing it and murmuring “my precious” over and over, until security asked what was wrong”)

Needless to say, I had very high expectations.

Blown. Out. The. Park.

Seriously, I need to start reading some bad books, or people are going to be convinced that I love everything. I really don’t.

But equally seriously: The Killing Moon is incredible. It’s quite different from the Inheritance trilogy, which is good – I do eventually get bored with authors who are too one-note.

[Spoiler: Ninja Priests. Ninja Priests in the city-state of Gujareeh, on a world with two moons]

In Gujareeh, peace is the highest law. The city worships Hananja, the goddess of dreams. The magic-system is based on dreams, which citizens tithe to the priests of the Hetawa. The priests, in turn, use these dreams to heal, to guide, to soothe and sometimes, to kill.  Gatherers – the aforementioned Ninja Priests – bring death to those who are on the verge of dying – but also to those judged corrupt. You don’t die in your sleep in Gujareeh. You are Gathered.

But when Ehiru, a powerful, faithful Gatherer, is sent to Gather Sunnandi, a diplomat from Kisua, he discovers a corruption that taints everything from in Gujareeh.

The world N.K. Jemisin has created is so different, so rich, so well-thought-out, so vibrant and internally consistent, that it feels genuine. Alive. Real. There’s almost no suspension of disbelief necessary, Jemisin’s work is so thorough. And her world is one that isn’t, unlike 90% of epic fantasy secondary worlds, based on a pseudo-european-medieval setting. And hey, I love european-medieval epic fantasy, but damn if it’s not refreshing to see something else for a change. And damn if it’s not refreshing to see something so fantastically well-constructed. We’re so used to medieval settings, we stop noticing how flimsy a lot of the world-building is. Jemisin’s is so superior that it highlights the fault lines in other works. With this book, I have little hesitation in saying that Jemisin is the most original world-builder we have working currently. She’s also one of the most original writers of magic we have working currently – an entire system built on dreams and dream theory? Really? Whoa.

The characters and their trials are equally well-depicted. Although I don’t have space to discuss these in great detail, I would like to briefly highlight what for me was the heart of the book: the relationship between Ehiru and his gatherer-apprentice Nijiri. Although the two are deeply loyal to one another, there are dark elements to the relationship. Ehiru starts to lose control of his magic about halfway through the book, and asks Nijiri to Gather him – to kill him – before Ehiru himself becomes corrupt. Meanwhile, Nijiri is in love with Ehiru. Ehiru is aware of this, and relies on Nijiri’s love, despite not being able to reciprocate it (Gatherers are celibate). That Ehiru uses Nijiri’s love for him to (try) to convince Nijiri to kill him is a fascinating, and repelling, dynamic. This is one of the book’s great strengths – the characters (and the city’s) ambiguous, complex morality.

I’ll leave the final word to my brother, who read the book right after I did.

“God, I love N.K. Jemisin so much!”

(Indeed).

This seems to be my month for fantasy – now that I’m looking over the list, it’s evident that I read almost no science fiction. The Cloud Roads is sort of science fiction, if you squint and look at it sideways. But everything else is fantasy (or just literary). With the possible exception of Chicks Dig Time Lords, which is about science fiction (although it’s nonfictional).

Chicks Dig Time Lords Cover

Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It is a collection of interviews, essays and cartoons written by female fans of Doctor Who. The contributors examine their relationship with fandom, and their love of the series.

Now, I’ve never watched Doctor Who (I know, I know. It’s on the to-do list). And I still found this book immensely entertaining and insightful. As a fan, I love watching other fans indulge in SQUEE. As a female fan, I’m always interested in seeing how women engage with fandoms that are typically viewed as “male.” And as a science fiction fan, I always like looking at analysis of science fiction shows! So I was quite pleased. SQUEE, science fiction and gender analysis all wrapped up in one shiny package: it’s like my birthday came early.

The book is extremely well-edited – it varies in both tone and content, so it never feels repetitive or one-note. There are essays that are pure fannish SQUEE. There are essays that address the specific trials and tribulations of female fans. There are essays dissecting particularly Doctor Who companions. There are near-academic essays. There are fun stories. There are sad stories. There are interviews with Who Actresses and writers. There’s a discussion of costuming at Doctor Who conventions. There’s even a comic (from the creators of Torchwood Babiez)

Chicks Dig Time Lords won a Hugo Award last year – and now that I’ve read it, all I can say is: Well deserved.

Before I close, a quick shoutout to the books I’m not reviewing in depth, but that I still loved: Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon (great, snarky, dark YA; fantastic narrator; cannot wait to read the next book) and Martha Wells’ The Cloud Roads (old-fashioned fantasy in the best possible way; wonderful prose; interesting social dynamics)

And that’s it for May! I’m already well into June reading, and I’ve tentatively titled this “The Month of All The Incest” – because seriously, three books, all with incest. What’s going on?
But the books are good, so there’s that!

Finally, my self-policing statistics (for gender and race):

12 books

14 authors (or editors)

14 women (I swear, this was not intentional).

10 white editors/authors
4 People of Color editors/Authors
(better than last month)

Related Posts:

I Never Wanted to be a Boy: A tribute to Authors

Please Don’t Tame the Shrew: WisCon 36 Wrap-Up

April Reads are Trapped in Heiddeger’s Hermeunetic Circle

March Monthly Reading Roundup is Winning the Alliteration Award

 


I Never Wanted to be a Boy (A Tribute to Authors)

[This post is a companion piece of sorts to my "How Power Rangers Made Me a Feminist" post, although you don't need to have read that post to read this one. In the Power Rangers post, I discussed how sexism in TV shows had a negative effect on me growing up, while in this post, I discuss how the awesome books I read when I was a kid had a good effect on me as I grew up. You see, I don't hate everything! Just the terrible stuff]

***

I never wanted to be a boy.

And it turns out, that’s somewhat of an unusual experience.

***

Back during my finals season (*shudder*), a series of interrelated blog posts penned by female speculative fiction authors went up. First it was Stina Leicht. Then Kate Elliot. Then Kirstyn McDermott. and N.K. Jemisin. There are probably more I missed.  I was, of course, dying of finals, so I couldn’t do anything more than gather links. But there was something so powerful, and so disturbing, about these women’s stories, that I kept on going back to them.

Let’s see if you can spot the common thread, shall we?

Stina Leicht: “[Girls] are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female (…) because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females.”

Kirstyn McDermott: “I was a tomboy for most of my childhood. Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl [...] I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . .  I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish[...] Because being a girl isn’t safe.”

Kate Elliot (guest-posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “What I saw was that the things I yearned for–adventure, travel, sword fights, the excitement engaged in by characters in the fiction I loved to read–and the things I had–ambition to strive for lofty goals, an inner drive, a questing mind that wanted to discover–were things that society and literature and film told me were reserved for boys. When I was in 7th grade and twelve years old,  my Language Arts teacher [...]  gave us a questionnaire of “fill in the blank” questions meant, I suppose, to make us think about our selves and our lives [...] The last question was the most open-ended one: “I wish . . . ”
I wrote: I wish I was a boy.
What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.
Being a girl was second-class, even in some ways shameful. Boys got the good things, they were clearly seen to be better, it was obviously better to be a boy, and furthermore, the dreams I had and the desires and hopes were boy dreams, not girl dreams.”

N.K. Jemisin (guest posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “I did what I could to reject the GIRL box whenever I could. To that end I’d started reading science fiction — but never fantasy, because fantasy was girly [...] Fantasy was full of women in scraps of stupid-looking armor, being rescued or having relationships or healing people or something. Science fiction was full of men going places and doing things [...] Then I clearly remember thinking, but I’m a girl. And that was it. It wasn’t an especially shocking realization, but it was a profound one. In that moment I began to understand: the problem wasn’t that some books were infested with girl cooties; the real problem was my irrational fear of girliness. And myself.”

Did you spot it?

It’s fairly obvious, but I’ll paraphrase it for practicality’s sake. When they were young, these women all went through a period where they wanted to be a boy and/or they hated being a girl.

[Cue Sigmund Freud jumping out and yelling "PENIS ENVY" at the top of his lungs. Calm down, Freud]

I don’t know about other people, but I find these stories very hard to read. To me, they show how, from a very young age, we teach girls to hate themselves, to think of themselves as second class, as worthless, as unsafe. Even smart, strong, successful women like Kate Elliot, N.K. Jemisin, Stina Leicht and Kirstyn McDermott – women who I might (stupidly) expect to have been unaffected by the negative effects of sexism (again, very stupid assumption) – had to go through a long, sometimes painful, phase where they reconciled themselves to their status as women.

And no one should have to reconcile themselves to their gender.

[Quick side-note: Obviously this particular "I want to be a boy" phenomenon is quite different from transgendered people, whose gender identity does not match their birth sex. But transgendered people shouldn't have to reconcile themselves to their birth sex either; they should be able to safely live as the gender they identify with.//End side note//]

But this phenomenon is not restricted to the four women listed above. If I take a moment to think about it, I can list at least two or three close female friends who have admitted to going through “boy” phases. I can certainly think of more who have deliberately rejected anything “girly.” And then, when I talked to my mother about these stories, she said she’d felt exactly the same way when she was a kid. She’d gone through a phase where she decided she didn’t like being a girl, so she dressed like a boy, talked like a boy and adopted “boy” mannerisms [I saw the pictures. There is proof]. Which shocked the hell out of me, because I’ve always thought my mother was extraordinarily comfortable in the way she expressed her gender identity.

When I think about it, it’s staggeringly common, this desire to be a boy. And on an intellectual level, I completely understand it. Being a girl in our society means not being safe. Being a girl means being judged according to norms which, for all the changes in the past fifty years, are still very traditional. Being a girl means your body is public property. Being a girl means that your rights are a political ping-pong ball; a”hot-button issue.” Being a girl means people feel free to tell you to shut up, sit down and make them a sandwich.

Wanting to be a boy – or at least, not wanting to be a girl – makes total sense.

So why didn’t I ever want to be one?

Because I never did. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past couple weeks, and I cannot, for the life of me, think of any period in my life where I wanted to be a boy. I can’t even think of a period when I really rejected “femininity” (whatever that means) [ Sure, I went through a phase where I decapitated my barbie dolls and buried them in the backyard... but I was always a morbid child]. I have a lot of moments where I wish I were as free as a boy, or where I wish I could walk at night and be safe like a boy, or where I wish that women were paid the same amount as men. But I never wanted to be a boy.

Which is strange. When I was a kid, I read tons of science fiction and epic fantasy – traditionally “male” genres. For years, my greatest ambition was to be – I kid you not – a warrior. I spent hours practicing side kicks against an tree in our backyard. I still have a big heavy stick in my room I used to practice “staff fighting.” Somewhere in my house ( I will not reveal where) is a diary where I recorded my “training” sessions (Hey, don’t judge me, okay? At least I wasn’t plotting the nuclear apocalypse). I wasn’t quite a tomboy, but I was pretty close.

So given how much of my identity was “male” oriented, why didn’t I ever want to be a boy?

On some level, I think I knew, even from a young age, that girls could do anything they wanted to, and the problem wasn’t with girls, it was with people and institutions who didn’t get that. So yes, I could read science fiction as a girl, and yes, I could beat a tree to a pulp as a girl, and there wasn’t anything wrong with me.

But I don’t think this belief came because I was smarter or wiser or better educated than girls who did go through a “I want to be a boy” phase.

I think it was because of books.

Kate Elliot: “After that, at the tender age of 15, I decided I had had enough of there not being anyone like me even in my own stories. I decided to write about girls, about women–about men, too–but women in equal space and equal importance to the story. This was not a small decision. It went against what I saw when I read; it went against received wisdom, especially in adventure stories [...] I realized that in my own small way I might help overturn this diminishment of female lives not only by portraying women in diverse ways that allowed women a full range of personalities, occupations, roles, and stories, but also by respecting the centrality and importance of the women’s work so often considered (often by women) trivial, demeaning, and lesser.”

Tamora Pierce: “Why do I write so many strong female characters? When I was a kid, 7-8 books out of all books written for kids through teens had boy heroes. Those that had girl heroes showed them at “feminine” pursuits, or if they were a little feisty, a male hero had to bail them out by book’s end (…) When I encountered fantasy, I had the same problem: virtually no girl heroes. The ones I found, adult women all, settled down, hated other women, or died. I didn’t understand why there were no girls (or those that existed were severely compromised) in the adventure books, so I began to write what I wanted to read: adventure books with girl heroes.”

Kate Elliot and Tamora Pierce didn’t see female characters, so they started writing them. You know who else did that? Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Patricia Wrede, Louise Fitzhugh, N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, Seanan McGuire, Nancy Farmer – the list goes on. And on. There are droves of female authors who grew up reading books with almost no female protagonists, and who turned around and said: “Screw that. I’m writing about chicks.”

And guess who grew up reading those books?

I did.

I read Tamora Pierce. I read Robin McKinley. I read Madeleine L’Engle. I read Harriet the Spy and Ella Enchanted and Dealing with Dragons. I read The Babysitter’s Club (yes, The Babysitter’s Club, you gotta problem with that?). I read Nancy Farmer. I devoured Sailor Moon and Yoko Tsuno. I read Hope was Here and Born Confused.

In these books girls were the heroes – all kinds of heroes. They were knights and policewomen, spies and politicians, ordinary students and fashion experts, electricians and caterers, waitresses and magic girls, aliens and historians – oh my!

So if I didn’t see my girlhood as limiting me, it was because in the world of my reading, there were no limits to what a girl could be, or to how she could save the day.

You know why I wanted to be a warrior when I was a kid? Because I was reading Tamora Pierce. You know why I didn’t see being a warrior as a “male” pursuit? Because Tamora Pierce’s warriors were female. Even in the Alanna series, when Alanna was the only female knight, there were other women warriors [Thayet and Buri, to name a few]. So when I was pounding that tree into a pulp, I was doing it in the grand tradition of Keladry of Mindelan, Buriram Tourakom, Alanna the Lioness and Daja Kisubo (although I’m sure none of them would be silly enough to practice kicking on a tree).

Eventually, my warrior ways (god, this is embarrassing. I’m so glad this blog is under a pseudonym) – prompted me to take Tae-Kwon-Do lessons. Which was lovely, except for the fact that the instructors would always try to goad male students by saying:

“Are you going to get a girl beat you?”

[Spoiler warning: Yes]

Or: “You hit like a girl!”

[No shit, Sherlock. I am a girl]

But you know what? Even though that bothered the hell out of me (and it went straight into my growing realization that “Wow, people are kind of sexist”) – I knew better. I knew no one could joust like Keladry of Mindelan or swordfight better than Alanna the Lioness. I knew no one was stealthier than Harriet the Spy or braver than Usagi (AKA: Sailor Moon) or more loyal than Dimple Lala. I knew no one was cleverer than Ella and no one was smarter than Yoko Tsuno.

I knew that there was nothing shameful with being “like a girl.”

And someday, everyone else was going to figure it out.

So to all those authors who grew up wishing to be boys. Who grew up knowing that being a girl was unsafe, that being a girl made you “lesser than.” To all of you who then turned around and said: “Screw this, I’m writing about chicks.” Who said “girl can be the heroes.” Who were brave enough, and strong enough, and determined enough, to fight the good fight. Who told the people who thought there was no market for girl heroes “You’re wrong” and who got those books published anyways.

To all those authors, in short, who made it possible for me to have a shelf upon shelf of fantastic books with smart, strong, independent women as heroes.

Thank you.

I have never wanted to be a boy. I have always been happy to be a girl. And it’s because you showed me that being a girl was great.

Thank you.

And to all those people who say “but it’s just a book/a video game/ a comic book. It’s not real. Everyone knows it’s not real. So it doesn’t affect you. Now stop complaining about the lack of female/queer/people of color/ disabled/etc. characters and go make me a sandwich.”

I say: “You’re wrong. And go make yourself that sandwich. Git.”

The End

[Giant disclaimer: the state of fiction is nowhere near equitable enough, either when it comes to female characters, or to other marginalized character s(queer, people of color, trans, disabled etc.). In fact, even though I read a lot of books with female protagonists as a child, I still read more books with male protagonists (and that was with me actively trying to FIND books with female protagonists). We're not there yet. But the fight is worth it.]

Related Posts:

How Power Rangers turned me into a Feminist

Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women (an Alternative List)

WisCon 36 Wrapup: Please Don’t Tame the Shrew

The Return of the Secret Feminist Cabal


WisCon 36 Wrapup: Please Don’t Tame the Shrew

This is the fourth and final part of my Epic WisCon recap. But before I get there, I have to announce some bad political news:

Scott Walker won the Wisconsin recall.

I have one reaction to this, and one reaction alone:

Cersei Game of Thrones Wine

That is all.

[Oh wait... I can't actually drink wine without getting a migraine, so I must find another way to drown my sorrows. Ideas?]

In silver lining news, Democrats retook the Wisconsin senate. And Madison (my hometown) had over 80% turnout. In Dane County (where Madison is located), only 30% of voters chose Walker (I’m sure the percentage is lower in Madison proper).

So at least I’m living with good company.

Madison is a bastion of left wing progressivism (we have actual marxists and socialists here). Since Wisconsin proper (excepting Milwaukee) is not a bastion of left-wing progressivism, the joke/insult about Madison is that it’s “Seventy two square miles surrounded by reality.”

In light of the fact that Walker won 52% of the vote, I vote we change the joke to: Madison is seventy two square miles surrounded by catastrophe.

Because Walker is a reality I refuse to believe in.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I need a pick-me-up after contemplating the horrors of modern politics. Hey, look! A fanvid! A fanvid that premiered at WisCon! A fanvid about women in science fiction! IT IS PERFECT!

And it is entitled: Space Girls (my mother told me never to watch Science Fiction but I did)

Okay, now that we’re all feeling better… MOVING ON. For life must continue on, and feminist bloggers gotta blog.

Space Babe Tiptree WisCon

And Space Babe’s gotta fight outdated gender roles in speculative fiction.

This the fourth and final part of my epic attempt to chronicle my experiences at WisCon 36, the feminist Science Fiction convention. Here are the links to parts one, two and three. This section covers Monday at the Convention, and my final thoughts about this year’s WisCon (they are deeply philosophical).

I started off Monday with an 8:30 panel.

I know. I am a madwoman, and I must be stopped.

The Great Divide: Are Women and Men Really Different?

From the panel description: “A number of pop science books have asserted large innate differences between the male and the female brain. A recent book by Columbia Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brain Storm, points out the large flaws in the underlying research used by these books. This panel will discuss the science and philosophy behind the difference – or lack of difference – between men and women.”

Again, a subject that is of particular interest of me. One of my pet peeves is non-scientists using science to try to “prove” an innate difference between men and women. Most people who are “interpreting” the scientific data have absolutely no business doing so (and I include myself in this category) because they don’t have the tools to correctly evaluate the validity of research and experiments. I wrote an entire angry rant about this very problem when Roger Ebert decided that the Bestest Idea Ever was to claim that women were better than men (because: science! And evolution!)

But I think it’s fascinating that we as a culture are obsessed with finding scientific “proof” that men and women are fundamentally different. Anytime any kind of scientific study comes out about gender differences, the media jumps on it like my dog jumps on cheese [she loves cheese]. As usual, I’m more interested in the cultural reaction to the science than in the science itself.

What is our obsession with “proving” gender differences? Nancy Jane Moore (who was on the panel) made a great point – “The idea that men and women might not be that different frightens most people.” We – and I include myself in this category – are deeply, fundamentally, and often unconsciously, invested in our current system of gender differences.

Nancy Jane Moore started the panel by saying: “I do have an emotional reaction to the subject…”
Moderator: “Well, you have a female brain.”

Ah, feminist humor. How I love it.

The panelists recapped some of the particularly egregious science used to explain gender differences. As an example, Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist who argues that there is a wide difference between men and women, uses what Janet M. Lafler called “bad graduate student tactics. She cites references that don’t actually support her point, and she also cites herself.

Now, I’m not a scientist, BUT… I’m pretty sure that’s not the way you do science.

There was also an extensive discussion of “Stereotype threat” which is a concept I’d heard of, but never really understood before. And now that I do, I’m obsessed with it.

What is the stereotype threat? Glad you asked:

Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. It has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotypes groups. For example, if you remind a woman that she is a woman (a group considered to be “bad at math”) right before she takes a math test, she will do significantly worse than if she is reminded she is a woman after she takes the test.

Yes, in fact, there have been studies that show that if groups are reminded of the stereotypes about their group right before they do a task, they tend to do less well on those tasks. The example above comes from a real study where men and women took a math test and participants were asked to identify themselves by gender either right before or right after the test. Women who were reminded of their gender right before the test began did significantly worse than women who were reminded of their gender after the test was over. There was no noticeable difference in men’s scores either way.

Other examples – and there are hundreds – include the 1990s study where African American and European American students took a test measuring verbal ability. African Americans performed less well. But when the researchers changed the instructions on the test so that participants no longer believed that the test accurately measured intellectual performance, the performance gap reduced drastically. In another experiment, women who took a mathematics exam along with two other women got 70% of the answers right; while those doing the same exam in the presence of two men got an average score of 55%.

In other words: cultural stereotyping affects the way people think about their abilities, and thus the abilities themselves. If you tell a girl that women are bad at math, she is more likely to be bad at math.

David Peterson also cited a really interesting study (I wish I’d taken down the reference) that found that if you introduce games and forms of play (like legos!) that teach spatial skills early enough, there is no noticeable difference between girls and boys’ spatial ability by the time they enter elementary school. [How to solve gender inequality 101]

A great deal of the panel involved book recommendations, or resources for further research, which I really appreciate (being from an academic background). AND, one of the panelists (David Peterson) is a scientist himself, so… these are probably pretty decent [Feel free to skip this part, since it's just a giant pile of books - but I thought some people would find this interesting]

Nancy Jane Moore’s “Bad Science: The Flawed Research into Gender Differences in the Brain” is a really good starting point (since it recaps a lot of the good (and bad) books about gender science). You download it here.

All the panelists recommended Rebecca Jordan Young’s book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, which is a very dense, highly academic text that systematically dismantles most of the recent pop-science “proof” of gender differences.

Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It was another panel favorite. According to Peterson, Eliot( a professor of neuroscience) argues that there is little physical difference in the brains of boys and girls, and the differences that arise in time (for example, in math performances) are mostly the restu lfo a matrix of environmental and cultural effects.

Nancy Jane Moore called Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender – How our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference the book to “give all your feminist friends.” It’s quite short, and clever, witty and filled with solid science. And I love the title.

David Peterson highly recommended Vivienne Parry’s The Truth About Hormones: What’s Going on when we’re Tetchy, Spotty, Fearful, Tearful or Just Plain Awful?  – but only if you can get your hands on it. There are very few copies in the USA. I’m determined to find this book based on the following excerpt alone:

“Some 70% of mothers will experience the blues during the first ten days after delivery (…) it has been suggested that this is all about hormones, particularly the catastrophic drop in progesterone. While it is true that those most likely to be severely affected will have suffered the steepest drop in progesterone (…) I remain to be convinced that the baby blues is simply about hormones. Try keeping a man awake for twenty-four hours while subjecting him to intense pain from a life-changing event. Then see what his mood is like when he is deprived of sleep, made to leak from every orfice, while imposing on him all the relatives you’ve ever known who arrive at your home expecting you to be nice to them.” (PREACH!)

Finally, David Peterson recommended a plethora of books that deal with gender equity issues, particularly in technology and science:

Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (“Highly Recommended. Everyone Should read this book”)

Ask for it: How Women Can use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (“Once Again, everyone should read this”)

Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home by Pamela Stone. The boiled down message is (not surprisingly) that more women would stay in their jobs if they could get accommodation for the family demands that are a part of their lives AND if they were not marginalized in their jobs as a result of this acommodation.

The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. Apparently the best book on the subject David Peterson has read since the classic Gender Differences in Mathematics.

Oh, and now I know what the Morris Water Maze is. What is a Morris Water Maze? Ask me at the next Feminist Party!

Degaying and Whitewashing: What Publishing Trends Mean for Writers

I full meant to go to the “Feminism, SF and Fandom in the Academy: An Open Mentoring Session”… but I was too scared. Because actually talking to people scares me. Which is a problem since I am planning to go into graduate school for science fiction, and meeting academics with similar interests would be very helpful.

Anyways. We shall save my problems with social anxiety for another day, shan’t we?

[Actually, there's a whole discussion of that coming up. So by "another day," what I really mean is "at the end of the recap"]

Skipping that panel meant I did get to attend the “degaying and whitewashing in YA panel,” which made me infinitely happy, because it was a fantastic panel. From the description: “Can radically feminist and anti-racist works survive the “gatekeeping” process? (…_) Articles about the “degaying” and whitewashing of YA literature have raised people’s ire and ignited a volleying of retorts from writers and reviewers/agents/editors. Let’s talk about some of these perceptions in publishing and what they might mean for writers, particularly those who want to challenge commonly held notions and beliefs.”

This was also my panel to oggle The Famous People ™. The panelists included:

1. Mary Ann Mohanraj, the founder and former editor of Strange Horizons, and the author of Bodies in Motion (which I love, and highly recommend)

2. Andrea Hairston, the WisCon Guest of Honor, Tiptree Award Winner and author of Redwood and Wildfire (I’ve recapped my love of Andrea Hairston in other places, so I won’t do it again. But I will mention that she’s the owner of the most awesome fringe/glitter coat ever)

3. Liz Gorinsky, a Hugo nominated editor at Tor, who has edited Cheri Priest’s Boneshaker, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey and Catherynne Valente’s Deathless (which means I will love her forever).

4. Neesha Meminger, author of Shine Coconut Moon and Jazz in L0ve (both fantastic)

and

5. Malinda Lo, former editor of afterellen.com, and author of the lesbian cinderella story Ash and it’s companion novel, Huntress. My brother is currently writing a book report on Ash, and I so regret not dragging him along to this panel. He loves Malinda Lo (as do I).

ALL the famous people.

And the fact that the panel was made up of authors and editors (and particularly queer authors and authors of color) meant they could speak from personal experience.

Malinda Lo, for example, said she wanted to be on the panel because: “the number one question I get asked is: Did you have trouble getting published because your books are so gay?”

One author described her current struggle to publish a YA fantasy series. The first book has a straight protagonist, the second book, which she has not yet written, has a lesbian protagonist. Her agent has told her that if she proceeds with her plans to have a lesbian protagonist, he will refuse to sell the books, because he thinks there’s no point in even trying.

Interestingly, the agent would have been fine with the book if it had been about the protagonist coming out. Which implies that in publishing, queerness needs to be the problem, or else it has no place in the story.

The panelists brought up a shocking statistic: according to the Children’s Book Council, less than .05% of young adult novels have either an author of color or a protagonist of color. That’s miniscule. It’s also particularly horrifying when you consider that as of this year, there are more people of color born in the US than white people. Are these kids going to grow up with absolutely no characters in books who look like them?

Malinda Lo actually had a very good publishing experience – no one tried to get her to change her lesbian protagonist, and her book has been quite successful. But, as she and other people pointed out, this is less due to luck than to the wealth of people who have worked very hard to change the situation, from small presses to self publishing to reviewers and critics and authors. Andrea Hairston called luck “The serendipity of the universe… after all the hard work. Luck looks really effortless at the moment itself, but all the history of publishing from George Eliot to Aqueduct Press is behind it.”

Malinda Lo also attributed part of her success to the fact that she used to be the editor of afterellen.com – so she knew that there was an audience for fiction with lesbian protagonists.

Lo: “When people say there is no audience, I could say: “no, you are wrong. There is an audience.” So keep at it. Tell them there is an audience.”

Liz Gorinsky talked about selling queer books, and marketing them so they’ll get through the gatekeepers: “I don’t usually go to my eighty year old straight male boss and say “I’m really excited about the gay male romance in this book…” but I can say that to my friends in the WisCon community.”

Mary Ann Mohanraj pointed out that one of the institutional barriers to publishing YA books with gay protagonists is the fact that “there are whole swaths of libraries that won’t buy YA with gay protagonists.”
Which is really obvious when you think about it, but still. Shoot.

The panelists also talked about the difficulties of having this conversation, because people tend to take the subject as an accusation. As Andrea Hairston put it: “It’s not about blame, it’s about having a discussion.”

Or, (Hairston again): “I’m not mad at you…I’m just mad.”

Some of the big strategies recommended were systematic analysis – making sure to keep the subject prominent, doing the statistics, writing criticism etc. – and talking about those books that do exist. Because the enemy of publishing success is obscurity.

Or: “Buy them. Read them. Talk about them.”

And, if you’re my brother, write your book report about them.

Volunteering

After the final panel, Myriad and I went to volunteer at the art show. Of course, we nearly keeled over during the aforementioned art show, because neither of us had eaten correctly (whoops). Cue emergency trip to the ConSuite (bagels and bananas!)

So yes. We may have sold you art. We also let someone steal the stapler (whooooops). And then we helped take down the art show, which was fun (good thing we’d eaten by then).

By the way, if you’re thinking of going to WisCon in future years and you want to volunteer: I highly recommend just showing up. This year, there was a giant board next to the registration desk where volunteering opportunities were recorded. Show up at the location; say you want to help. Works quite well!

Post-Mortem

From the panel description: “Discussion of what worked for WisCon 36, what did not, and how we can make it better next year.”

Now, I have a deep and abiding love for procedural stuff and for knowing all the gritty behind-the-details information, so I love the WisCon postmortem. Knowing about hotel problems, bad conventioneer behavior, past convention gossip etc. is my idea of fun. Other people’s mileage may vary.

I also deeply appreciate the postmortem because it shows how committed WisCon is to improving. I don’t know whether other conventions have postmortems, but WisCon’s is particularly great. The ConCom members are receptive; people willingly discuss issues; there’s a real sense that we’re trying to solve problems rather than place blame. For example, WisCon has safety people (NOT security people), but several people at the postmortem pointed out that we didn’t know who they were or how to find them. At the same time,  other WisCon attendees pointed out that it’s important for safety people to be relatively unobtrusive. By the end of the postmortem, the group decided the best solution might be to put signs explaining the safety team at the registration desk (since everyone walks by it seventy times a day).

Oh, and if you want to rile up a relatively zen group of WisCon-goers, do one of two things:

1. Suggest that the rule against taking photographs is a matter of “preference” rather than “safety” (BAD IDEA)

2. Suggest that WisCon’s Safer Space for People of Color should be used for other things as well (Given the great amount of fighting/arguing it took for the space to exist in the first place… yeah, no. Although for the record, I think the Safer Space should exist as long as POC Con-goers find value in it).

Oh, and the post-mortem included a bundt pan. Which was awesome in and of itself, but which also led to this funny exchange:

A Con-goer mentioned that she’d heard that some people had been rude to the hotel staff. There was a collective gasp of horror, and one of the ConCom members said: “If I start frothing, throw the Bundt pan at my head.”

(Future WisCon attendees. Do not be rude to the Hotel Staff. It will make us sad. It will make us angry. And you don’t want us to be angry. We have bundt pans).

And that is… the end of my recap. *Gasp*

Yes, you can leave now! But if you want to stay… I do have two more things I want to (briefly) mention:

1. Accountability at WisCon

Which fits in nicely after the postmortem, don’t you think?

WisCon is not just any science fiction convention. It’s a feminist science fiction convention. Which means that WisCon isn’t just about appreciating speculative fiction and fandom; it’s also always been about social justice. About making the world a better place. And that’s why I love WisCon, and that’s why I’m planning on returning to it forever and ever and ever (ad infinitum).

My (admittedly limited) experience at WisCon is that the convention and it’s members are deeply committed to enacting social justice not just in theory, but within the Con itself. The Convention works hard to make the convention accessible to people of all ability levels. There’s lots of work being done on accessibility. In the past few years, there’s been a commitment to helping more people of color attend WisCon, with scholarships and work with the Carl Brandon society. After much debate, WisCon also created a Safer Space for People of Color. The Convention tries to make attendance as financially accessible as possible, with low registration rates, scholarships, and the ConSuite. There’s subsidized childcare ($1 a day) so people with children can more easily attend.

WisCon even has a wonderful (and recent) tradition called The WisCon Chronicles. Each year, Aqueduct Press puts out a book filled with essays, recaps, stories etc. from the prior WisCon. Obviously there are a lot of recaps in the Chronicles, but they also contain a great deal of criticism. When things don’t work at WisCon – when panelists say problematic things, when the ConCom makes mistakes, when attendees screw up – the Chronicles talk about them. I see this aspect of the Chronicles as a major part of WisCon’s commitment to accountability and social justice.

This year’s Chronicles (edited by Alexis Lothian, and entitled Futures of Feminism and Fandom) is particularly heavy, because it recaps the Thing-That-Almost-Broke-WisCon: MoonFail.

Last year, the ConCom decided to revoke Elizabeth Moon’s Guest of Honor status due to her comments about immigration and islam. I did not know about this at the time, because I did not even know WisCon existed. Nevertheless, the six weeks between Elizabeth Moon’s now-infamous blog post and the revoking of her GoH status were a hotbed of drama, both on and off the internet. Or, as I like to put it: The Internet EXPLODED.

As per it’s usual.

[If you want to know WHY the Internet exploded, find Elizabeth Moon's post. It's not hard. Here, I'll give you a link: http://e-moon60.livejournal.com/335480.html. Read all of it - the first part is quite boring, but it gets... worse]

The sections within the WisCon Chronicles that deal with Moonfail and its fallout are very hard to read. There are several blog posts from the “heart of the storm” – when all the shit was going down, and they are not easy reading. Because in the heart of the storm, WisCon was screwing up, and screwing up hard, and it was entirely possible that it would…break.

In other conventions, inviting a guest of honor who had said, or done, offensive things would not be as big a deal. Because we don’t expect better from WorldCon, or World Fantasy, or wherever. But we expect better things from WisCon.

Which is why the chronicles are sometimes challenging read. Because I expect better things from WisCon. But at the same time, I recognize that the Chronicles themselves are one of those “better things.” They show a commitment to accountability and to self-policing. They are a recognition that WisCon is always striving, always trying to be better and to grow.

[I am not, by the way, implying that WisCon is perfect in all ways. It still has a lot of growth to do. I fully recognize that there are many areas of improvement]

WisCon is a place of joy, conviviality, excitement and appreciation. It’s a place where we come together to appreciate our fandom and our community. But it can also be a frightening place, because to be a true WisCon attendee – in my opinion -requires a commitment to growth. To paraphrase WisCon ConCom member Victor Raymond, WisCon requires change. It requires always striving for something better. And there’s joy in that too, because it means that WisCon is alive. It’s not a static institution. It grows and changes, and it’s members grow and change.

Moonfail too, caused growth. The resulting convention had a great deal of panels dealing with race and racism, which if nothing else, made an enormous difference to my understanding of, and my personal commitment to, anti-racism. And it led to WisCon creating a statement of principles, which enshrined that WisCon is more than just a place to have fun – it’s a space that is committed to social justice in all of it’s forms.

From the (newly minted) statement of principles:

“WisCon’s focus on science fiction has played an important role in the exploration of feminist futures: futures where people of all colors and backgrounds flourish, where women’s rights and women’s contributions are valued, where gender is not limited to one of two options, where no one is erased out of convenience, hidden discrimination or outright bigotry.”

So yes. A good ending to that particular subplot. The story of WisCon is ongoing; however, and I’m sure Moonfail will rear it’s head again (as all subplots do).

Speaking of Accountability – if I’m going to demand that WisCon attendees commit to growth, I should probably account for myself too!

2. Achievements/Personal Areas of Improvement:

First, I should say that in spite of all the freakouts, I was very, very glad that I presented a paper at WisCon. If you’re going to present a paper anywhere, WisCon is where it’s at. And I got to write about feminist fantasy, which is something I never do in my “Real” Academic life.

Second, I was very glad to have dragged my brother along. He loved it (I knew he was going to, but I had some last minute freakouts). I loved having him there. It was wonderful. I had to drag him away kicking and screaming.

Now, onto the important stuff… Regrets!

Social anxiety! I have it. And most of my regrets are social anxiety related. There are awesome people at WisCon, and I would like to meet more of them. That is basically my regret/goal for next year.

I didn’t go to the Academic Mentoring Session because of social anxiety (and imposter syndrome); I didn’t go to any of the parties because I didn’t know anyone (booo!); I didn’t go to the signout because famous people scare me (in a nice moment of parallelism: last year I jumped into a stairwell rather than meet Catherynne Valente. This year I jumped out of a stairwell rather than meet Mary Anne Mohanraj. Whoops!)

So yes. Goals for next year: Go to the first time dinner again (that’s how I met the most people my first year). Go to the sign-out. Ask the Awesome People to sign your books, even if you’re scared. Go to the parties. It’s, er, good for you.

Oh, and dress up for the Guest of Honor speech, if you possibly can. I have ordered it so, and you must listen to me.

Space Babe Tiptree WisCon

Space Babe has ordered it too!

And this, my friends… marks the end of my epic quest to chronicle EVERYTHING that happened to Me at WisCon 36. I’ve written well over 15,000 words. You’re probably sick of it. I’m probably sick of it. So I’m just going to stop right now while I’m ahead -

Actually, no, because! A FINAL SHOUTOUT to an incredible T-shirt I saw at WisCon. It said: “Please Don’t Tame the Shrew.” I loved it madly (Shakespeare reference and Feminism = Literature student joy), but now I cannot find it anywhere on the interwebs. If anyone knows where to get it, I would be grateful.

[And yes, that is what I am referring to in the title of the post]

So that was WisCon 36. It was awesome. Can’t wait till WisCon 37.

Space Babes out.

[No, really, this time I mean it]

Related Posts:

The Return of the Secret Feminist Cabal: Part 3 of WisCon 36

What Happens at WisCon stays at WisCon: Part 2 of WisCon 36

A Disoriented Con Reporter at Large: Part 1 of WisCon 36


April Reads are Trapped in Heidegger’s Hermeneutic Circle

First, I would like to thank my mother’s computer for allowing me to put up a blog post. As some of you know, me and my computer have been forcibly separated by circumstances beyond my control (*cough* Olive oil *cough*) and until some kind of brilliant solution is worked out, I need to mooch off of other peoples’ computers to get blog-related work done. So thanks, Mom! (and Mom’s computer. I’m sorry I made fun of you for not having an alarm clock.) It’s also a minor miracle that my mother and I are in the same city, so thank you, giver of miracles.

[My mother would like to take this opportunity to note that:
1. She doesn't like my blog theme (hey, you should see the other ones. But shall work on it.)
2. She thinks it's too hard to comment on my blog (fair point. Shall work on it)
3. She thinks I should talk more about why the title of the movie Shame is an example of America's moralizing puritanism (yeah...that's probably not going to happen)
4. If I don't talk about why the title of Shame is an example of America's moralizing puritanism, she threatens to take over my blog for a day and do it herself (oy! Get your own blog!)]

Secondly, I would like to register my outrage at the fact that Skylar Laine was eliminated from American Idol this week.
Skylar should not have gone home in fifth place. Let’s just say that when I found out, I used language that I would not repeat on the internet.

Skylar was not necessarily my favorite contestant – I kept switching between her and Jessica Sanchez for the female contestants (and Joshua Ledet for the male contestants) – but she was a bloody incredible singer and performer; she was charismatic and always fun to watch; and unlike certain other contestants, she was consistently improving, consistently pushing herself, consistently staying on pitch and on key, consistently challenging the boundaries of her vocal abilities.

SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE GONE HOME FIFTH PLACE, is what I’m saying.
Heck, she made me, a non-country fan, like country music. Which is Saying Something – one of my best friends has been trying to get me on board the country bandwagon for years.

Skylar Laine American Idol The Show Must Go On

Skylar Laine: She was Born this Way (ie: Awesome)

Her ouster is particularly frustrating because the one contestant who messed up both of his performances (I’m sorry, Phillip Phillips fans, but he was off-pitch for most of the night, and the melody got beaten into a bloody pulp in his first performance) was STILL nowhere near the bottom 3. At this point, I think Phillip Phillips could kill a kitten onstage, and he’d still sail through to next week.

And no, I still won’t blame teen girls. I don’t need to. Last week, after a particularly bad Phillip Phillips performance, Jennifer Lopez said: “I need you to do songs that are going to get you to that last show so you can win.”
Did she say the same thing to Elise Testone, Jessica Sanchez or Skylar Laine in one of their less-spectacular performances?
No.
Even in Phillip Phillips’ bad performances, he’s still tagged as the winner.
Bias? What bias? I don’t see bias!
(And Lopez, let’s be clear, is the judge who has explicitly said she wants a girl to win idol this year)

Bah. I shall bring this rant to a close, because, in the immortal words of Skylar Laine, the show must go on:

On with the (book-related) show!

Moulin Rouge Jim Broadbent show must go on

April Readings: Brought to you by Moulin Rouge

This is, of course, my monthly act of reading-related naval-gazing, whereupon I list and discuss all the books I read in the past month. Let’s look at my reading list for April, shall we?

1. The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
2. After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh
3. Libra by Don Delillo
4. The Vor Games by Lois McMaster Bujold
5. The Jew of New York by Ben Katchor
6. Cold Fire by Kate Elliot
7. Chime by Franny Billingsley
8. The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

For those of you who have been following my monthly reading roundups since the start (ie: my brother)… have you noticed the drop? Eight books! Eight! That’s well below my monthly average of thirteen (for last year), and it’s a four book drop from March.
I would be worried, but, let’s face it: it was finals.
It’s surprisingly hard to read when you’re trying to memorize a hundred and fifty pages of lecture notes, or desperately trying to find your way out of Heidegger’s Hermeneutic Circle. (What is the hermeneutic circle, you ask? Don’t ask. You don’t want to know).

On the other hand, I enjoyed every single book I read, which is… rare. Very rare. It’s why I didn’t star and italicize the books I would recommend – because I would honestly recommend any of the books I read this month. Very bizarre. Very VERY bizarre, even. Maybe I’m becoming less picky in my old age? (hey, my brother thinks I’m old. And I can buy alcohol in the United States. That’s pretty old).

I even enjoyed Don DeLillo, who I was convinced I would dislike based on the reviews I’ve read of his work. I also tend to dislike contemporary American “literary” writers (*cough* Jonathan Franzen *cough*), but… I liked DeLillo. Maybe it was just the pre-finals adrenaline rush. Maybe it was just the fact that Libra is a spy novel, and I like spy novels. I’ll have to read something else of DeLillo’s, and make my mind up then.

The Jew of New York Ben Katchor Cover

The Jew of New York was the most painful read of the month, but it wasn’t the book’s fault (necessarily). For some reason, every time I tried to read it, I would fall asleep, which would, in turn, make me freak out that I wasn’t going to finish the book before my Graphic Novels final. Not a good reading experience. In the book’s defense, I think my falling asleep was due more to my finals-related exhaustion than to the contents of the novel – it’s not a boring read. Once I’d had a couple hundred cups of coffee, I really enjoyed it.

Of course, in a moment of supreme irony, I spent the days before my graphic novels final desperately finishing The Jew of New York… and it ended up being the only book of the entire course that I couldn’t find a place to talk about in the exam. We read 13 comics. I managed to talk about every  single one except this one. GAAAH. ( I added it to my definition of graphiation, just so I could say I’d covered every book. Yes, I’m slightly obsessive, why do you ask?)

The Vor Games Lois McMaster Bujold Cover

April would have been a good reading month if only because I continued my foray into Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Yes, I do now understand why everyone in Sci-Fi is obsessed. I read Shards of Honor and Barrayar during winter break, and was immediately hooked onto the series (as evidenced by the fact that I put both books in my list of great SF books for women). Sadly, Young Miles, the omnibus that  contains The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game, was unavailable at my local bookstore, and checked out of the city library… so it took me a while to get my hands on it.
I was somewhat worried that I wouldn’t like Miles as much as I loved his mother, Cordelia Naismith (the hero of the first books in the Vorkosigan Saga). But although my love for Cordelia is eternal, I have managed to find a place in my heart for Miles, who is just… divine.

Miles Naismith Vorkosigan lives on Barrayar, a planet where physical strength and military ability are valued above all else. Worse yet, his father, Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, is an intergalactically reknown military hero (his mother, Cordelia, is also a military hero, but Barrayar is a highly patriarchal society, and thus prefers not to talk about a woman’s military achievements).
Unfortunately, Miles is a dwarf. A biological attack on his parents while Cordelia was pregnant with him permanently damaged Miles’ spine and bones, leaving him short and disabled. His bones break easily; he needs leg braces and canes to walk correctly. On Barrayar, someone like Miles would usually be aborted; only the courage of his parents saved his life. As someone with extreme physical disabilities, Miles has no real place in Barrayar’s militaristic society. Indeed, the beginning of The Warrior’s Apprentice sees him failing out of officer training when he breaks his legs on an obstacle course.

So Miles needs to find… alternatives.

Alternatives which include (among others): commandeering an ship, running guns to a besieged planet, impersonating an admiral and, somewhat accidentally, gaining the control of an entire mercenary fleet. For kicks, Miles wins a war and then goes to save the emperor of Barrayar from an evil plot.

He’s pretty resourceful, is what I’m saying.
All of Miles’s achievements should feel ridiculous, but Bujold crafts the character so well that I bought them, hook, line and sinker. I never felt like Miles was a Gary Stu. He’s real. And the stakes are sufficiently high, and the plot is sufficiently dark that the books are more than just a caper. When I started to worry that Bujold was making things too damn easy for Miles, she hit me with a great plot twist, and I was satisfied: there are consequences to Miles’ actions.

Yet even with the darkness, Miles is just so damn fun to read. I found myself laughing at the sheer audacity of his schemes, or cheering at his ridiculous and hard-earned successes. You can’t help but enjoy him. Case in point:

“Am I reading too much into all that innuendo, or did you in fact just connive to assassinate Gregor in one breath, offer to cuckold him in the next, accuse your father of homosexuality, suggest a patricidal plot against him, and league yourself with Cavilo—what are you going to do for an encore?” (Bujold, The Vor Games)

I, for one, can’t wait to see what Miles does for an encore. Damn, I love these books.

After the Apocalypse Maureen McHugh Cover Small Beer Press

I’ve been trying to read more short stories – they are not my genre of choice, sadly, but I’m learning to appreciate them. Since I was a big fan of Maureen McHugh’s novel China Mountain Zhang, I thought I would pick up her short story collection, After the Apocalypse.
That turned out to be a good decision – as it turns out McHugh is one of a very few writers whose short stories I enjoy every time (Octavia Butler is another of this rare breed).

All the stories in this collection are linked by the title theme – they tell stories of people surviving after some kind of major, apocalyptic change. And, just as she does in China Mountain Zhang, McHugh focuses in on the stories of individuals, and the way they live (or don’t) in the midst of these changes.

Although I admired all of the stories in the book, I was particularly impressed by four: “The Naturalist,” “Special Economics,” “The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” and “After the Apocalypse.” I’m actually glad I was spoiled for the ending of “After the Apocalypse,” because I think it would have been too much of a blow if I hadn’t known it was coming – it’s a tale of mother-daughter survival that… does not go the way reader’s expect (I shall refrain from spoilers). “The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” is a bit of a companion piece to “After the Apocalypse” – it too, focuses on mother-daughter relations, although in this case, the “apocalypse” is a degenerative disease.

“The Naturalist” has a fascinating premise: Zombies have been confined into a sort of natural reserve; the government drops criminals into the reserve as punishment. One of the criminals (our protagonist) becomes fascinating by the zombies, and starts using his fellow criminals as bait so he can observe the zombies’ behavior when they feed (I mean, people have to find a way to occupy themselves…).
I suppose one of McHugh’s central questions is whether or not “natural” relationships and instincts are that “natural” when people are in extreme circumstances. Do mothers and daughters remain close in the face of the apocalypse? Do we keep our link with our humanity, even when we’ve been abandoned to die?  McHugh’s exploration of this theme is brutal (if fascinating) which is why I appreciated ‘Special Economics,” a somewhat more light-hearted take on two women navigating an exploitative Chinese company.

Kate Elliot Cold Fire cover

I also thoroughly enjoyed Cold Fire by Kate Elliot, but have no idea how to review it without giving spoilers for the first book in the series, Cold Magic. I’ll just say that you should check both books out: they’re pretty fantastic.
The series as a whole is:“An Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, the intelligent descendents of troodons, and a dash of steampunk whose gas lamps can be easily doused by the touch of a powerful cold mage.”
And if that’s not enough to send you running to the bookstore, the series also includes irritatingly handsome men who would be more attractive if they weren’t trying to kill you, cat-human shapeshifters, dragons, trolls (the intelligent descendents of troodoons), witty (and less witty) banter, and an awesome protagonist who has her priorities straight (when married off without warning, first: locate food. When sent to the spirit word, first: locate food. When exiled to an island full of zombies, first: locate food. Priorities: Cat has ‘em).

Oh yes. There are now zombies.
Seriously, why didn’t I know about Kate Elliot earlier?

(Dear Universe: When there are awesome authors I should read, please let me know about them early, okay? An intergalactic newsletter will do just fine! Thanks!)

Chine by Franny Billingsley Cover

Worst. Cover. Ever.

Okay, I lied before: the worst part of my reading this month was the cover of Chime. Seriously. Worst and least accurate cover ever. Yes, it’s pretty…I suppose. But why does Briony look like a half-buried barbie? For that matter, why is she so darn pretty? The cover makes it seem like poor Briony is off to a very, very bizarre school dance (she’s not).

If you can’t already tell, I REALLY dislike this cover. Maybe it’s because I spent my childhood decapitating my barbies and burying them in the backyard (totally normal behavior!). Or maybe it’s because the book is about a girl who is convinced she’s a horrible witch who deserves to be hung, and not about a girl going to her prom (not that there’s anything wrong going to your prom).Chime is dark and edgy and tortured and the cover… is a very pretty version of that.
On the other hand I really liked the book, which is one of the most original YA novels I’ve read this year.. It’s very rare to read a young adult character quite as self-loathing as Briony, who is convinced she’s a witch, and responsible for the death of her stepmother, and the mental illness of her twin sister. Briony’s voice and her journey is fascinating. I was disappointed by the ending, which was a bit too pat for my taste – I was hoping that such a nuanced character would merit an equally nuanced ending. Or perhaps I wanted this nuance to translate to the rest of the “monsters” in the story. If Briony is redeemable, shouldn’t witches be redeemable as well? Are all (other) witches evil? Are all dark creatures evil? Did anyone else feel unsatisfied by the ending, or is that just me?

I also feel like there’s a trend in YA these days to write about protagonists who would usually be the villains – I’m thinking of Briony, of course, and also of  Cassel Sharpe in Holly Black’s Curse Workers series. But maybe that’s always been a trend, and I’ve just missed it? The villain-as-hero seems particularly pertinent to the YA genre, in any case (since the genre is oriented towards teenagers).

The Stepsister Scheme Jim C. Hines Cover

I’ve been following Jim C. Hines’s blog for a while, and he did me a big favor a couple of days ago (he doesn’t know he did me a favor, and I don’t know him personally. He just wrote something very helpful on his blog). So I figured since I was getting so many benefits from his blog, I should probably buy one of his books (rather than just mooch off his free stuff).

The Stepsister Scheme is the very, very long epilogue to the Cinderella fairy tale. Cinderella (Danielle) and her prince (Armand) are happily married. Unfortunately,  Danielle’s evil stepsisters haven’t given up on marrying Armand themselves, and kidnap him (they’re persistent, you have to give them that). Danielle goes off to save Armand; she’s joined by two of the Queen’s employees, Snow and Talia.

It took me a while to get into the plot of The Stepsister Scheme – I almost needed three more chapters of info-dump than I got. Since the story begins in medias res, it was harder to attach to the characters – I almost needed three more chapters of info-dump than I got. I know, I just said I wanted more info-dump. I’m sure the universe will punish me for this horrific statement somehow…

Once I was hooked, however, the book was very good. What’s fascinating about the story is that it’s not just the epilogue of one fairy tale – Snow turns out to be “Snow White,” and Talia turns out to be “Sleeping Beauty”  The interactions between the three princesses – Danielle, Talia and Snow – are also quite interesting. They’re all deeply traumatized by their “fairy tale” experiences, and who can blame them?

I’m intrigued to see what else Hines does with the series – the characters are great, and it’ll be interesting to see how they continue to evolve in the rest of the series. Plus, I’m hoping for the appearance of Little Red Riding Hood. Apparently, she’s an assassin now.

Random Other Stuff

Apparently, when I’m super -stressed out for finals, I find awesome things on youtube. Yes, those two things seem… incompatible. I am a woman of many skills.

BEHOLD!
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: a video-blog (re)telling of Pride and Prejudice. I loves it very much. It is my precious. And it is helping me get over the end of my Austen course.

And BEHOLD!
America’s Next Top Doll
It is a truth universally acknowledged that I, to my great shame, have watched every single episode of America’s Next Top Model. More than once. Yes, I pretended it was some kind of deep sociological problem, but really? I was hooked. Hooked on the weaves and the photoshoots and the drama. And hooked on the weirdness of Tyra Banks.

(For the record, my favorite cycles are 3, 6, 7 and 13).

I have since gotten over my obsession, but the scars of those months run deep. Very deep. And this youtube parody has helped me heal. With the gift of laughter.
(Oh, Michael Slezak, where would I be without you?)
Sadly, the season is not complete (and probably never will be…) , but my money is on Zombie-girl to win it all.

And that’s all for now! Hopefully my computer will be fixed soon, and I can return to some kind of normal blogging schedule… but until then, I remain, as ever, trapped in Heidegger’s Hermeneutic Circle.

(p.s: in my next post, there may be a cat. No promises, but I figured I’d give advanced warning just in case for those allergic to cat hair. And cuteness)

Related Posts:

March Monthly Reading Roundup Wins the Alliteration Awards

February Reading Roundup

Why Can’t Girls Win American Idol? (Hint: It’s not Teen Girls)

Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women


My Brother and I reform the American Educational System: Complaints about the Lexile Test

Many of you may know that I have an amazing younger brother (R). For those of you who don’t know, let me be the first to tell you: I have an amazing younger brother.
Trust me on this, I’m not biased at all.

My brother and I spend a lot of time reading together (when we’re in the same city) or giving each other recommendations for what to read (when we’re not). We talk about books ALL THE TIME. R. has forced me to stay awake until I finished a book he wanted to talk to me about (this was during my winter break, otherwise known as “the only time in the world I can sleep.” I was not pleased). The book, by the way, was Deadline by Mira Grant, and my ensuing discussion with R. was totally worth the lack of sleep. R. and I are bizarre like that. It freaks some people out.

Last summer, two poor, innocent members of my family were trapped in a car with me and my brother while we were talking about China Mielville’s The Scar, which is one of our favorite novels of all time. By the time we’d gone through a blow-by-blow plot summary and a careful analysis of every major character, and we were moving towards the inevitable comparisons with China Mielville’s other Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station, our driver looked ready to claw his way out of the vehicle with his bare hands.

So, as you can probably tell, my brother is pretty passionate about books. (Did I mention he’s awesome?)

It is in this vein that I present to you the following story. For the record, I did ask my brother’s permission to post this – I’m not using him as an unwilling source of amusement!

R. sent me an email about an incident at his middle school:

 “At school today, in science, we’re starting a new project. You have to read a scientific article and summarize it and bla bla bla. The  usual. Then my teacher says that you should pick what you read by your Lexile score. Under my breath, I said “That’s so stupid!” But my teacher heard me! So he asked, “What’s so stupid?” So I said “I think that it’s unfair to regulate what students read by what they got on a test that for all we know could be very inaccurate. Students should challenge themselves, right? Students aren’t going to read things if you give them specific material. People should be able to read what they want! What if you wanted to read something interesting but it was too “challenging” for you? That’s why I said “that’s so stupid.”” And [the teacher] was speechless. Ha Ha Ha!”

Uh, have I mentioned that my brother is awesome? If teacher had called me out in middle school, I would have fallen out of my chair, and said something along the lines of “Ghlahbbshiiiirghportanggoooo bang bang, uh, what was the yyyyaaaarghing question?” And then I probably would have burst into flames. Or melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. But not only did R. have a non-melting response to the teacher, he had a GREAT response to the teacher. Seriously, we should have him writing education policy for the United States.

I think his comment to the teacher pretty much stands for itself, but since I like to blather on, I’ve got some additional information and some commentary.

If you don’t already know, American students in middle and elementary student get their Lexile score after taking the corresponding Lexile test.  I don’t know if it’s used outside the USA – if you are a foreign reader, and you know, speak up!* The Lexile score, in theory, measures reading ability and should allow the teachers to match students to “appropriate” books. Essentially, it’s a reading test. I never had to take it, but I think I only managed to avoid that era by only a year or two.

I understand the instinct behind the use of Lexile scores. Schools want students to read more, and think that if kids are discouraged by the books (or articles) they’re asked to read, they’ll read less. I also want to tread carefully, since there are probably reasons for using the Lexile Score that I’m not thinking of. But in the essentials, I think my brother’s right.

Part of the problem is sheer inaccuracy. The Lexile test is a high-pressure, timed examination. It cannot possibly replicate the conditions under which most students read. While supposedly the test tells us things about reading comprehension and analysis, instead, I think it tests kids’ abilities to work when faced with speed and stress. Neither of those factors is particularly important to good reading. As far as I know, kids aren’t strapped to their chairs and forced to read The Scarlet Letter in thirty minutes or less in their language arts classes (although that would have made my middle school years far more interesting).

Moreover, although I can understand using something like the Lexile scores to gauge a class’s general reading level (I don’t like it, but I can understand it), I think using Lexile scores to determine what kids should be reading is a terrible, terrible idea. The assumption behind the Lexile test – and the science teacher’s remarks – seems to be that what will get kids to read is reading material that is not too hard. And yes, it’s important not to discourage kids. But I seriously doubt any avid reader fell in love with books by going “Wow, that was not too hard! I want to do that again!” Or even “That article was not too hard! I want to learn more science now!”

So many of the problems we face in getting kids to read more are ones that take place before the book is even opened. The schools don’t have enough money. The teachers don’t have enough training. Kids don’t have time to read outside of school. Many students have serious problems outside of their academic life. It’s hard to concentrate on language arts when your Mother is sick, or your electricity is off, or you live in an unsafe neighborhood, or your classmates bully you. Those are important issues, and they need to be addressed. The Lexile Score is no solution. Nor do I have a solution to those problems.

I do, however, have an idea about what to do once we get students opening books.

If that first page is opened, I think a student’s interest in the book is determined not by the ease of reading, but by their interest in the book’s content. And I think that by focusing on the Lexile scores – on level of difficulty rather than level of interest – we are doing students a grave disservice.

I have no idea what my brother’s Lexile score is; I never did. I’ve bought him quite a few books; I’ve recommended even more, and he’s stolen an immoral quantity of novels out of my bookshelves. (Yes, R., if you’re reading this, I know about those. And I am not pleased).

I recommend books to my brother based oh the blind assumption that if he’s interested in them, he’ll read them regardless of how difficult they are. I’ll gladly admit that it’s a stupid assumption, but for the most part, it’s proven useful.  As I wrote above, my brother has read China Mielville’s The Scar – in fact, he’s read almost all of Mielville’s oeuvre. R. also read (and loved) Bram Stroker’s Dracula at the tender age of eleven. I’m pretty sure he’s read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Last summer, he read Azar Nafisi’s very sophisticated, intertextual autobiography Reading Lolita in Tehran for fun. None of these are typical 12 year old fare. And none of them are “easy texts” – even Mielville, the most “popular” of these writers,  has a knotty prose style, and his plots are complicated enough to give me headaches (of joy).

And if I’ve followed the content assumption with R., it’s because that’s the way I came to books. I read my first classic at eight. I took it off my parents’ bookshelf because the name was interesting. It had a strange cover. The print was tiny. I shouldn’t have liked it – but the first few lines described a girl my age being thrown in a haunted bedroom by her mean Aunt and her bullying Cousins, and I was captivated. I identified with her; I knew her; I had to know what happened to her. The book, of course, was Jane Eyre. If my parents had been using a miniature Lexile score, they probably would have taken Jane Eyre out of my hands and given me a more appropriate text. Which would have been a shame.

I want to be clear that I don’t think R. and I read Dickens and Bronte at a young age because we were some kind of prodigies.  Much as I’d like to believe that my family is fertile ground for young geniuses, those books should be within the power of most teenagers to read. That they don’t speaks more, in my opinion, to their interest in Jane Eyre than to their lack of reading skills.

When we make students read Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter and they seem completely uninterested, it’s a lot easier to blame it on their reading skills than to consider the issue of content. Maybe younger students nowadays can’t identify with Huckleberry Finn. Maybe they don’t care about Hester Prynn (sacrilege!). Maybe we should focus on finding books that students want to read – in hopes that someday they’ll turn to the books we want them to read.

So why aren’t we trying to find books that kids want to read?

A lot of it has to do with trust. We, as adults (I’m over eighteen! I’m totally an adult!) think that we know best for kids. And a lot of times, we do. But in this particular situation, I worry that our intransigence – our belief that we know their reading interests and their reading levels better than they do – leads to problems.

Yes, the content kids prefer might be Gossip Girl. Or The Hunger Games. Or Twilight. It’s okay. They’ll live; I promise. I went through a YA phase, and my parents freaked out. They wanted me to read Joseph Conrad. I wanted to read The Princess Diaries. But if I’d read Joseph Conrad when I was fifteen, I would have been wanted to drown the man in a teacup. Now, I really like Conrad. I also really like The Princess Diaries. Reading YA didn’t – and doesn’t – prevent me from reading and enjoying “literature.”

Yes, the content some kids want to read might have sex. It might have violence. It might have drugs. Good.  There are a lot of Middle Schoolers who deal with sex, abuse, violence, death, drugs, disease, bullying etc. on a daily basis. They should be able to read books that speak to them. We can’t just pretend that “grown up” problems are divorced from the lives of pre-teens and teenagers. Maybe we can even use it as an opportunity to talk about those issues with kids.

(I know. I just proposed that we talk about sex with kids. Someone arrest me).

Or maybe they’ll just prefer to read War and Peace. Or Gossip Girl. Or Whale Talk. In any case, they’ll be reading. And if they like what they’re reading, odds are, they’ll want to read more.

As R. said:  “People should be able to read what they want! What  if you wanted to read something interesting but it was too “challenging” for you?”

My brother: as awesome as Starbuck:

(No, I don’t know if Starbuck reads. But if she does, I guarantee she reads neither The Princess Diaries or Joseph Conrad. I’ve always pegged her as a Whale Talk gal myself.)

Anyone have other insights into the use of Lexile Scores? Am I not seeing something? How else can we get kids to read?


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