Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

#SJYALit: Breaking Taboos, Telling Secrets, a conversation between Isabel Quintero and Elana K. Arnold

Introduction

sjyalitIn the introduction to Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, Kelly Jensen writes, “What unites feminists is the belief that every person–regardless of gender, class, education, race, sexuality, or ability–deserves equality.” This intersection between multiple social justice movements characterizes what we call Third Wave feminism, a term coined in the 1990s, and it seems to be a unifying force right now in the resistance movement spreading across the US in response to the 2016 presidential election.

 

But what does that have to do with books?

What makes a novel feminist?

In a series of conversations, four young adult authors–Amber J. Keyser, Elana K. Arnold, Mindy McGinnis, and Isabel Quintero–discuss what makes their recent books feminist and why they feel it’s important to give teen readers unvarnished reality in their fiction.

 

April 4th — Amber J. Keyser and Elana K. Arnold take on “unlikeable characters” and the evolution from aberrant girl to nasty woman.

 

April 11th — Mindy McGinnis and Amber J. Keyser talk about barriers. What happens when a girl smashes up against society’s expectations for what a girl should be?

 

Today, April 20th — Elana K. Arnold and Isabel Quintero address reproductive rights and the power of depicting sex and abortion in fiction.

 

BREAKING TABOOS, TELLING SECRETS

A conversation between Isabel Quintero, author of GABI: A GIRL IN PIECES, and Elana K. Arnold, author of WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF.

 

gabi a girlElana: Isabel, I think it’s interesting that both of our titles–GABI: A GIRL IN PIECES, and WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF–hone in on how girls are dissected by themselves, by their families, by their friends and their boyfriends, by society. Why is it, do you think, that girls are such consumable products?

 

Isabel: Well, I think it has to do with the fact that we live in a capitalist patriarchy where we are taught that everything is consumable. Women are often not seen as autonomous, young women especially and girls less so. We are always thought of in relation to someone else, defined by what our purpose is in that relationship–daughter, sister, mother, girlfriend, mistress, wife, and so on. Those roles are seen as both consumable and disposable. And because we are often not seen as autonomous, as having our own worth, that seems to translate into our voices, our bodies, our time, being assumed to be in the service of others–for pleasure, reassurance, guidance, emotional support, nurturing, etc–and for their consumption.

 

Nina is girlfriend until Seth decides she is not, and doesn’t even tell her. Nina’s dad had one wife and disposed of her and then took on Nina’s mom. And in my book, Gabi’s mom feels Gabi should look a certain way because she needs to fill the role of desirable young woman to eventually become wife. Is she concerned that Gabi should go to college? Yes, but being desirable seems to take precedence sometimes.

 

Some of it may be rooted in fear. I know that one of my mom’s biggest fears is that I end up alone. And it has been this way since I was a teenager–being married was a top priority. Now that I am no longer with husband, I find that she still worries about that. But this goes back to having worth attached to how much we are worth to others–or, in other words, how much they can take.

 

I think this also speaks to the images of the different saints in your book. Those women were consumed and continue to be consumed by people as signs of true faith. Or am I wrong? Can you speak a little to how the saints are or are not being consumed? Why did you decide to include them?

 

what-girls-are-madeElana: Something that fascinates me about virgin martyr saints is the same as something that fascinates me about modern teenage girls: the ways they are consumed. The saints are first consumed by those who killed and dismembered them; then they are consumed again by the religion that says that their suffering marks them as holy; then they are consumed again and again each time their story of suffering, dismemberment, and death is told. As a writer, I am consuming them, as well, using their pain for my own artistic purposes. The little rhyme from childhood–Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what girls are made of–tells us straight up that girls are for eating. One of the reasons I love your Gabi is that she turns this paradigm upside down, eating rather than being eaten, consuming almost as an act of rebellion, getting bigger as a defense mechanism against being consumed.

 

Isabel: Interesting take on Gabi. I didn’t so much have her be a fat girl as a defense mechanism as much as just who she was–she likes to eat. Some of Gabi is based on me, and her being a fat girl is one thing. The thing about being fat is that it seems like an act of rebellion and it isn’t–the act of rebellion is loving your body and realizing that you have ownership of it. That no one else should have the right to shame you into self-hate.  

 

Elana: I regret that I phrased this in this way–I know that Gabi isn’t fat as a defense mechanism. I do think that her eating and taking such pleasure in eating is a radical act, and something we rarely see in fiction–more often, the things we see girls consume are sex, alcohol, fashion. I totally agree with what you say about rebelling being the act of loving your body and realizing that you have ownership of it. The way Gabi consumes food does seem like an act of rebellion to me–it goes against expectations that she can enjoy food so much, or maybe that she’s so willing to tell us about the pleasure she gets from eating. Maybe this is because after eating comes digesting, and after digesting comes defecating, and we as a culture really don’t like to imagine our characters–female, particularly–as functioning bodies.

 

Another sometimes-function of the female body is pregnancy, and both your GABI: A GIRL IN PIECES and my WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF deal with the reasons around and the methods by which a girl might choose an abortion. When you began working on GABI: A GIRL IN PIECES, did you know that abortion would be part of the story you were telling, and what brought you to depict it in the particular ways you did?

 

Isabel: I actually always did know that abortion would be part of the book. Abortion is real. I say this because so many people seem to think that abortion is a new concept, that it is only a choice that women make in desperate times, and a choice that young women, teenage girls, cannot make. I think that women have always tried to find a way of not being pregnant because motherhood is not for everyone. I’ll say it again–motherhood is not for everyone. And women should have a say whether they are pregnant or not. When I was teen I knew girls who had abortions, in high school and at the university. For some young women it was tough because they felt they had no choice and were ashamed. For others they were so sure that they didn’t want a child but didn’t realize abortion was a real option and had tried other methods first, which is really dangerous and doesn’t guarantee success.

 

In GABI the abortion comes from a place of survival–if Georgina doesn’t have an abortion her father would surely beat her, thus her safety is in jeopardy. I wrote it in this way because it is a reality. Abortion and sex are not bad girl/good girl issues, they are simply realities of life. But I think this dichotomy harkens back to the notion of women as consumable–in which way do you want to be consumed? And also, asks men, (because this dichotomy only allows for heteronormative practices) what kind of woman would you like to consume? And that answer for some is the problem because it doesn’t allow women to avoid the male gaze at all.

 

What I appreciated about WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF was the fact that there is no moment of doubt for Nina. She is sure of her choice and what it means for her future. I really like that you gave her agency. That there was no one but herself who she had to answer to. But really what I liked is that you made her so real and flawed. This may be a strange question but do you think that there is difference between when straight cis-men write flawed female characters than when women do it? I think about this because my friend, author Erika Wurth, author of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, pointed out how women have had to learn to live in a man’s world, to see the world as men do, but the opposite is not true. I think it’s a very interesting idea and an important way of understanding how women are portrayed in literature.

 

Elana: I think that’s a really interesting question. I am a product of a late-nineties creative writing graduate school program and a high school education that told me that the reason the canon had so few women in it was because they just hadn’t produced work worthy of inclusion. I spent a lot of time trying to write like a man, and this applied most of all to the way I wrote about women and girls; I had so internalized the male gaze, both in my writing and in my life, that everything went through this filter. The work I have been doing in fiction and in life for the past ten years–especially the past five–has been focused on recentering girls and women: their experiences, their bodies, their emotions. WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF is peopled almost entirely with women, and it’s a story about female bodies, female shame, female desire, and female agency.

 

I think books like GABI: GIRL IN PIECES and WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF are incredibly important, especially in today’s political atmosphere, with women’s rights and female bodies being policed in so many truly frightening ways. I feel like we are watching the pendulum swing in the wrong direction–a regressive direction–and books like ours, and conversations like these, can be of service to young women. I’m grateful to you, Amber, and Mindy for our discussions, and to Teen Librarian Toolbox for the platform.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

ElanaElana K. Arnold (WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF) writes for and about children and teens. Some of her books have been included on the LA Public Library’s Best Books of the Year list, the Bank Street Best Book list, the YALSA “Best Fiction for Young Adults” list, have been ALAN picks, and have been selected for inclusion in the Amelia Bloomer Project (feminist books for young readers). Her last YA novel, INFANDOUS, won the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award and the Westchester Fiction Prize. She holds a master’s degree in Creative Writing/Fiction from the University of California, Davis, where she has taught Creative Writing and Adolescent Literature.

 

 

quintero (1)Isabel Quintero (GABI, A GIRL IN PIECES) is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She was born, raised, and resides in the Inland Empire of Southern California. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces from Cinco Puntos Press, her first novel, is the recipient of the 2015 William C. Morris Award for Debut YA Novel, the 2015 Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, the California Book Award Gold Medal for Young Adults, among others. Gabi has also been on several best of and recommendation lists, among them the Amelia Bloomer Project, Booklist, and School Library Journal.  In addition to writing fiction, she also writes poetry and her work can be found in The James Franco Review, Huizache, The Great American Lit Mag, As/Us Journal, The Acentos Review, The Pacific Review, and others.

 

Further reading

Amanda’s review of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces

Amanda’s review of What Girls Are Made Of

Book Review: What Girls Are Made Of by Elana Arnold

Publisher’s description

what-girls-are-madeThis is not a story of sugar and spice and everything nice.

When Nina Faye was fourteen, her mother told her there was no such thing as unconditional love. Nina believed her. Now Nina is sixteen. And she’ll do anything for the boy she loves, just to prove she’s worthy of him. But when he breaks up with her, Nina is lost. What is she if not a girlfriend? What is she made of?

Broken-hearted, Nina tries to figure out what the conditions of love are. She’s been volunteering at a high-kill animal shelter where she realizes that for dogs waiting to be adopted, love comes only to those with youth, symmetry, and quietness. She also ruminates on the strange, dark time her mother took her to Italy to see statues of saints who endured unspeakable torture because of their unquestioning devotion to the divine. Is this what love is?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There are people who are going to read this book and judge Nina harshly. Here is who I suspect those people will be: people who are not teenage girls; people who have never been teenage girls; people who completely forgot what it’s like to be a teenage girl; people who literally cannot imagine being a teenage girl; and people who don’t understand the realities of teenage girls. Reading this book requires being aware of the fact that being a teenage girl means processing, internalizing, and subverting a lifetime of your gender being socially constructed. It means bending and breaking under the weight of expectation. It means digging deep to find your worth when you’re surrounded by an entire world that tries to define it for you. It means being fed conflicting and dangerous messages, then being left to untangle them, alone, and find out the truth for yourself. Being a teenage girl is not easy; Elana Arnold shows us exactly why in this stunning and thoughtful book.

 

Nina is told by her mother, at age 14, that love is always conditional—that there is no such thing as unconditional love. She’s not just talking about romantic love; her mother tells her that she could stop loving her at any time for any number of reasons. Nina spends the next few years grappling with this statement. For her, in her relationship with Seth, love is very conditional and involves games. Or, I should say, it’s conditional from Seth’s perspective. As far as Nina is concerned, her love is unconditional. Her love of Seth is worshipful. She admits that all of the decisions she makes are based on Seth, and she knows “it isn’t okay to care this much about a boy. I know it’s not feminist, or whatever….” But knowing something and applying that knowledge are two different things. They have been dating for three months and Nina has made him her whole world. It is uncomfortable to see her so absorbed in this not particularly satisfying relationship—not because I feel she is being foolish, but because I recognize my teenage self in her choices and feelings. Maybe that’s the best summary of being a teenage girl: it is uncomfortable.

 

Nina volunteers at a high-kill dog shelter (I fully admit I had to skim the parts that talked about surrendering, harming, and killing dogs). She mentions a few times that she was ordered to volunteer as part of an incident from last year—an incident that we don’t learn the truth of until quite late in the book. There is a lot to be said about Nina and working at the shelter, about how, much like the attention-deprived dogs, she just wants someone to love her, to choose her. There are also entire papers just begging to be written about women’s bodies, what fills them and empties from them, and metaphors dealing with her large but often empty home, her mother’s miscarriages, and Nina’s own abortion.

 

Between the main narrative of Nina’s story are short pieces mainly about virgins, martyrs, and saints. These are stories Nina’s mother told her and are stories of sacrifice, unconditional love, and the happily ever after that comes from dying for what you are devoted to. Nina is writing these, along with other short pieces, for an English assignment, only she doesn’t think she can bear to share them with her teacher. I suppose some readers may be inclined to skim them, not seeing them as integral to the main story, but skipping them would be a mistake. These stories, which have left such impressions on Nina, are powerful, important, and revealing. As Nina’s mother says at one point, “As long as there have been women, there have been ways to punish them for being women.”

 

This meditation on the idea of unconditional love—whether it is, indeed, unconditional, whether this idea is dangerous or appealing (or both), and determining who sets conditions and why—is devastating, smart, complex, and utterly real. Nina is aching, learning, screwing up, holding on too long, letting go, bending, breaking, and recreating. Arnold shows us that none of that is simple. It’s not easy, in any way, but she is doing it all, largely alone. She is hurting and growing and being. She is becoming. Her story is so painfully familiar and common and will surely resonate with readers. A powerful and unforgettable look at the things that define teenage girls.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781512410242

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 04/01/2017

Book Review: How It Ends by Catherine Lo

Publisher’s description

how it endsThere are two sides to every story.
It’s friends-at-first-sight for Jessie and Annie, proving the old adage that opposites attract. Shy, anxious Jessie would give anything to have Annie’s beauty and confidence. And Annie thinks Jessie has the perfect life, with her close-knit family and killer grades. They’re BFFs . . . until suddenly they’re not. Told through alternating points of view, How It Ends is the story of a friendship from first meeting to breakup, set against a tumultuous sophomore year of bullying, boys, and backstabbing.

Catherine Lo makes her debut with an honest, nuanced tale about the intricacies of female friendship.

 

 

Amanda‘s thoughts

I always want more YA friendship stories. Friendship, especially in high school, can be so messy. You can grow close so fast, or get ditched, or have fights, or change friend groups, or be obsessed with each other. There’s a lot of ebb and flow to teen friendships. Lo captures all of those things in this look at Jessie and Annie’s sophomore year.

 

Smart, studious Jessie suffers from “terminal loneliness.” Made into an outcast by her former friend and now mean girl, Courtney, Jessie has put up with years of being called “Lezzie Longbottom” and being otherwise ignored by her classmates. Isolated Jessie has anxiety, depression, and frequent panic attacks. Her mother has done a lot to try to “fix” Jessie over the years–therapists, medication, etc–everything, that is, except really talk to her. Jessie feigns interest in video games and comics so she can linger on the periphery of a group at lunchtime, but hasn’t had a real friend in years.

 

Annie is new to town and hates her new life in suburbia. She doesn’t get along with her new stepmom and her stepsister basically ignores her. Annie spies Jessie that first day at school and thinks she’s “beautifully uncool.” That’s all it takes to draw her to Jessie. Jessie thinks Annie is the coolest person ever and can’t understand why she’d want to be friends with her. The girls instantly become best friends. But before long, Annie grows friendly with the girls who’ve bullied Jessie in the past and starts to pull away from Jessie. “We don’t have to do everything together,” she tells her.

 

During their time drifting apart, both girls experience big things. Annie begins to date Scott, who Jessie has a crush on (and a lot of STUFF goes on with that relationship). Jessie’s anxiety, depression, and panic attacks ramp up. She’s constantly sneaking pills to help calm her down. It’s her own prescription, but her mother keeps the pills locked up and doles them out sparingly, the idea being that Jessie should learn how to cope with her anxiety, not need pills to get her through the things that make her anxious (like sitting with the mean girls at lunch). Jessie’s mental health issues become a big part of the story. She desperately wants to keep her issues a secret (a feeling that no doubt stems from her mother’s less-than-helpful understanding of anxiety, being medicated, and feeling ashamed). Her mother encourages her to tell Annie what’s going on to help “explain” some of how she’s been behaving. Yes, her anxiety colors some of how she behaves and reacts, but her mother seems to think that Jessie’s mental health struggles are responsible for the fallout of this friendship. As you might guess, I don’t really love how mental health is addressed here. Her mother goes about things in the wrong way. She’s encouraging shame and stigma and the notion that needing medication is some kind of failing. Then, her mother makes a REALLY BAD CHOICE and suddenly Jessie’s secret is out. And before long, Annie’s big secret is out too (avoiding spoilers here, people). Both girls become victims of rumors and gossip (in high school? No way!) and make repeated attempts to reconcile their friendship, but it isn’t that simple anymore.

 

For the most part, I liked this book. I did want to see more of just how Annie and Jessie become so close. They’re kind of instantly and inexplicably drawn to each other (which definitely happens in real life) and we’re told they’re best friends, but I wanted to see more of how that happened. We know time passes because we’re told it does, but I felt like we missed huge chunks of the time they’re growing closer. I did appreciate how swiftly and thoroughly their friendship fell apart—that felt very real—and getting to see how each girl reacted and what each did while not friends with the other. I really felt for Annie and the things she has to go through basically alone and the way she ends up very ostracized and angry. I also empathized with Jessie, who is more or less all alone without Annie and uncertain how to get through her days without panic attacks taking over. The girls’ story isn’t simple—it’s not like they’re friends and then they’re just not. Lo presents a nuanced look at friendship and shows how their pasts and their home lives affect them. A thoughtful look at the ways friendships can start, end, and all the things in between.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544540064

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 06/07/2016

Book Review: Under Threat by Robin Stevenson

Publisher’s description

under threatFranny is close to her parents, adores her horse and is head over heels in love with her girlfriend, Leah. But Franny’s parents are abortion providers at the local hospital, and an anonymous stranger is prepared to do whatever it takes to stop them. A stranger who phones at all hours. Who knows where they live. Who knows Franny’s name. When Leah’s older brother, Jake, refers to her parents as baby killers, Franny starts to wonder if perhaps the threats aren’t coming from a stranger at all. If she tells the police about her suspicions, she could lose her girlfriend. But if she doesn’t—and if she’s right—she could lose her parents.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

If you’re looking for a book that tackles the issue of abortion rights head on, this is it. In fact, I can’t think of any other book that addresses abortion even close to the way this book does. As the description above says, Franny’s parents are abortion providers. They frequently get harassing phone calls and are used to changing their phone number and working with the police to ensure their safety. But the recent calls seem more threatening than usual—they keep happening over and over, and the caller leaves suspicious packages that could be anthrax or could be a bomb at both Franny’s home and her parents’ place of work. Franny suffers from nightmares and is constantly worried something will happen to her parents. Franny is proud of what her parents do. There is a lot of very frank and impassioned talk about the reasons why it’s important that abortion is legal, what happened when it wasn’t, what has happened to abortion providers, and anti-abortion terrorism.

 

Though she is proud of her parents’ work, Franny is worried what her girlfriend Leah’s religious mother will think. So far she’s just told her that her parents are doctors. But when a bomb threat causes her parents to go public with their story, in hopes of discovering someone who might be able to provide some leads in the case, Franny can’t hide the truth any more. Leah’s mother’s reaction is surprisingly compassionate and nuanced, but her brother Jake’s is not. Franny wonders if he could be behind the threats and has to decide what to do with her suspicions.

 

Part of the Orca Soundings series, this high interest book is a quick but extremely captivating read. I wanted to cheer for some of the great, smart, and bold things that Franny says. This is a well-written and unparalleled look at a highly charged topic. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author and publisher

ISBN-13: 9781459811317

Publisher: Orca Book Publishers

Publication date: 03/01/2016