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Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Publisher’s description

dear martinRaw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.

Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

THIS BOOK.

This book is a powerful and incredibly nuanced look at racism, police brutality, privilege, profiling, and so much more. The thing I kept writing in my notes was “it’s all so very complicated.” And, of course, it IS—you don’t need to know anything about the plot specifics to look at the list of topics it touches on to know it’s complicated. But Justyce’s thoughts, his experiences, the moves he makes/considers/rejects are all so VERY complex. I was completely wrapped up in this story, which I read in one sitting. There is not just one “incident” in this book. Justyce is handcuffed and assaulted by a cop when he’s seen helping his drunk ex-girlfriend into her car in the middle of the night. He’s seen an endless stream of stories in the news about unarmed black kids wrongfully arrested and/or killed, but he never thought it would happen to him. As Justyce says, he’s not “threatening” like some of the kids he’s seen on the news can be/look (his thoughts, not mine). It’s an eye-opening experience, one that prompts him to begin writing letters to Dr. King as he tries to work out his thoughts and works to begin to really see more of what is going on all around him.

There are other incidents that change the way Justyce sees things: his best friend Manny’s cousin, Quan, is charged with murdering a cop. His classmate Jared (and others, but Jared is the worst) spouts off endlessly about how color-blind America is and how everyone here is equal. There are intense classroom conversations about race, police, equality, and privilege that lead Justyce to some new thoughts and to see his peers in different lights. Justyce seeks solutions and ways to handle things like classmates seeing nothing wrong with wearing blackface, dressing up as KKK members for Halloween, and completely being oblivious to their own privilege. Justyce grapples with the trauma of his profiling arrest through all of this—it’s never far from his mind. His best times are with Manny or with Sarah-Jane, who is Jewish and his debate partner (and who he is totally crushing on—but, like everything else, that’s complicated).

The story really ramps up when, partway through, Manny and Justyce encounter an angry, racist, off-duty cop while blaring their music at a stoplight. What happens here, and after, is heartbreaking, profoundly moving, and often incredibly infuriating. This stunning debut is captivating, raw, and immensely readable. I would love to see this used in classrooms or book clubs and hear the conversations it would generate. This important and thoughtful look at racism, and many issues stemming from and surrounding racism, should be in all teen collections.  A must-read. I can’t wait to see what else Nic Stone writes. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781101939499
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 10/17/2017

Social Justice and Mental Health: Accessibility to Treatment in YA Literature, a guest post by Alyssa Chrisman

Today we are honored to present to you a Mental Health in YA Literature guest post that looks at the accessibility to treatment in YA literature. You can read all the #MHYALit posts here or by clicking on the tag below.

MHYALitlogoofficfial

When I was 12-years-old, I went to therapy for the first time. Seventh grade is a notoriously tumultuous year, and although I hardly remember the sessions now, I believe they were helpful in a way I didn’t quite understand then. As I have aged, I have weaved in and out of multiple types of mental health treatment as needed. Even in moments where it seemed like recovery was not possible, books like Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story inspired me to speak up and ask for help. Now that I am an adult studying YAL, I have immense gratitude for the positive impact books like that had on my life and am an advocate for diverse YA books featuring mental health topics. As Teen Librarian Toolbox’s 2016 #MHYAL (Mental Health in Young Adult Literature) project illustrates, issues of mental health are prevalent in YAL, especially in recent publications. Most mental illnesses are represented somewhere within this body of texts, but one important aspect is often overlooked: teenage accessibility to affordable and quality care. I was, and am, lucky to have access to mental health treatment through affordable medication and quality therapists, yet that is not the case for many Americans. By considering the intersectionality of mental health and social justice in quality YAL texts, practitioners can help teens think critically about issues affecting their worlds.

Recently, I completed a thesis on representations of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in YAL. I found that most of the protagonists in these texts are privileged in some way. They often have supportive families (at least by the end of the novel) and appear to be in the middle-upper class. Because of these privileges, the protagonists of most of these novels are able to receive the medical care they need in the form of therapy, medication, and even hospitalization. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the protagonists in these texts are also racially privileged through their whiteness. While mental illness affects people across all genders, races, ages, and class levels equally, a recent study showed that “young people in general aren’t likely to see mental health specialists. But the numbers fell further when racial and ethnic backgrounds were factored in. About 5.7 percent of white children and young adults were likely to see a mental health specialist in a given year, compared with about 2.3 percent for black or Hispanic young people” (Luthra). Young adults of oppressed racial and class backgrounds have multiple factors working against them when trying to receive adequate psychological care. They have issues that affect all minors, such as getting parental or adult support, but they also have to overcome systemic problems more likely to negatively affect them, such as a lack of quality health insurance coverage and a high cost of care. By only featuring characters who are white, are economically advantaged, and have a fair amount of parental support, YAL as a whole is not providing literature that accurately represents many teenagers’ lives and is missing out on a significant opportunity.

I believe that mental health representation in YAL is critical, and practitioners who work with young readers should make these texts accessible. However, I argue that practitioners, especially librarians and teachers, also have a responsibility to recognize aspects of privilege within the texts they suggest and to identify what may be lacking. Mental health representation is important, but a person is never just their mental illness. Intersectionality is realistic, and the protagonist’s race, sexuality, and class can affect them just as much as their mental illness or other disability. By looking at what types of identities are lacking in this YAL, we can construct our conversations with teenagers in more meaningful ways. Recognizing a lack of class issues in these novels can help teenagers understand social justice in the context of mental health. I recommend pairing two novels, both featuring protagonists with OCD, together to open up discussion of these issues: Matt de la Peña’s Ball Don’t Lie (2005) and Tamara Ireland Stone’s Every Last Word (2015). Warning: plot spoilers ahead!

balldontlieBall Don’t Lie is written in third-person and tells the story of Sticky, a white teenager in the foster system, who spends his days at school, playing basketball at the local community center, and with his girlfriend, An-thu. A diagnosis of OCD (nor a suspicion of its existence) is not mentioned at all in the novel itself. However, readers familiar with OCD can assume that Sticky’s repetitive actions, such as unplugging and replugging his headphones until it feels just right, would be interpreted as compulsions by a medical professional (de la Peña 231). Most importantly, “obsessive-compulsive disorder” is the second tag for the book, alleviating readers from the inappropriate job of having to diagnose Sticky by doing it for us. At the climax of the novel, Sticky’s compulsions result in him getting shot in the hand. He wants to get An-thu a piece of jewelry for her birthday, but he cannot afford it. Although he initially intends to steal it from the store, he decides to steal money from a person on the street instead. When he starts compulsively counting the four hundred dollars over and over, “he freezes. He can’t move. He hasn’t counted right. He hasn’t stacked the bills right. He hasn’t done anything the way it needs to be done, and his body won’t let him move on to the next step” (258).  He continues to count, and the person he robbed catches up to him and shoots him in the hand. He is hospitalized for his injury, but his compulsions go unnoticed and untreated. The reason for this is not explicitly stated, but an assumption could be made that Sticky’s lack of adequate adult support, as well as his lack of class privilege and impoverished community, contribute. Sticky has a happy ending when he physically recovers from the injury, but it is difficult not to imagine these compulsions continuing to affect him as he transitions to playing basketball for a university.

everylastwordSam, the protagonist of Every Last Word, tells her story in first person and has been diagnosed with OCD prior to the start of the novel. She takes medication and has a therapist, a prominent character in the book. From the beginning, it is evident that she also has support from her mother. In the prologue, Sam is cutting flowers with her friends when she starts to worry that she may cut one of her friends with the scissors, a type of obsession that is manifested in some people with OCD. She escapes to the kitchen where her mother helps her work through the obsession, all while keeping what is happening private from Sam’s friends. Once Sam has calmed down, her mom assures her that she loves her and says, “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean anything about you. Got it? Now tell me.” Sam thinks, “The two of us have been here before. It hasn’t happened in a long time, not like this, but Mom slips right into her assigned role as if it’s second nature. She’s well trained” (7). Sam’s mom then leads Sam through exposure therapy by having her hold a pair of scissors. In the author’s note, Stone reveals: “While there are hints in the text itself, it is important to me that readers understand that prior to this scene, (1) Sue [Sam’s therapist] has led Sam through exposure therapy sessions in her office, (2) Sue has formally trained Sam’s mother, so she can provide the 24/7 support Sam might require, and (3) Sue and Sam’s mother operate as a team and are in constant communication about managing Sam’s disorder” (357). Interestingly, Sam’s family appears very little throughout the rest of the novel (although her therapist plays a larger role). However, this interaction between Sam and her mom in the prologue, as well as the additional information provided in the author’s note, shows that Sam’s mom is positioned as a character who loves Sam and gives her the tools and experiences she needs to recover safely. This type of support system between parent and therapist is ideal for a young adult working through the struggles of OCD. Sam is privileged in that she has accessibility to quality care in multiple aspects of her life, which greatly contributes to her recovery.

These two protagonists lead very different lives. Sam has the support of her mother, while Sticky has lived in several foster homes and currently lives with a family who sees him simply as a means of gaining income. Throughout the novel, Sam’s therapist supports her, but Sticky does not receive help—in fact, he is never even diagnosed with OCD. This lack of care is particularly frustrating for readers who hope that he will get help when he is hospitalized for his injuries, but his mental illness is overlooked, potentially a result of his class status. Very few YA novels about mental health discuss issues of class, and even fewer include protagonists from diverse races. As a person who has personally benefited from multiple types of treatment at various stages of my life—and as a person who simply cares about the well being of teenagers— I believe that all people suffering from mental illness should have such an opportunity for recovery. Looking at Ball Don’t Lie and Every Last Word together can help teenagers better understand how social justice issues impact teenagers with mental illness and hopefully even inspire youth-led campaigns and activism for the cause.

What do you think? Are there any other books you would recommend pairing together? Is there an exemplar YA novel that illustrates how class, race, etc. can affect mental health treatment? Leave a comment below!

Works Cited

De la Peña, Matt. Ball Don’t Lie. Ember, 2005.

Luthra, Shefali. “Race, Ethnicity Affect Kids’ Access to Mental Health Care, Study Finds.” Kaiser Health News, 12 Aug. 2016, http://khn.org/news/race-ethnicity-affect- kids-access-to-mental-health-care-study/

Stone, Tamara Ireland. Every Last Word. Hyperion, 2015.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.58.40 PM

Alyssa Chrisman is a 26-year-old living in Columbus, OH. A former secondary English teacher in Memphis, she just received a M.A. in Teaching and Learning from the Ohio State University and is about to start their Ph.D. program in Literature for Children and Young Adults. When she is not doing schoolwork, she is probably spending time with her fiancé and three dogs. Sometimes she updates her Twitter and blog: @radwarriorgirl/(http://www.radwarriorgirl.com).

About the Books

Ball Don’t Lie by Matt da le Pena

Newbery Award-winning author Matt de la Pena’s Ball Don’t Lie about basketball “is a must-read.” [The Bulletin]

Sticky is a beat-around-the-head foster kid with nowhere to call home but the street, and an outer shell so tough that no one will take him in. He started out life so far behind the pack that the finish line seems nearly unreachable. He’s a white boy living and playing in a world where he doesn’t seem to belong.
But Sticky can ball. And basketball might just be his ticket out . . . if he can only realize that he doesn’t have to be the person everyone else expects him to be.
Matt de la Peña’s breakout urban masterpiece, Ball Don’t Lie takes place where the street and the court meet and where a boy can be anything if he puts his mind to it.

[STAR] “[An] inspiring story. Sticky is a true original, and de la Peña has skillfully brought him to life.”-School Library Journal, Starred

Riveting…Teens will be strongly affected by the unforgettable, distinctly male voice; the thrilling, unusually detailed basketball action; and the questions about race, love, self-worth, and what it means to build a life without advantages.”-Booklist

Stunningly realistic, this book will hook older readers, especially urban teen males.”-VOYA

“The characters live and breath…This is a must-read.“-The Bulletin

“De la Peña does an excellent job of combining the streets with the sport. Gritty and mesmerizing.“-Kirkus Reviews

“I have never before seen blacktop ball depicted so well. In this novel, you will find its flash, its power, and its elegance without chains. This is powerful stuff.”-Antawn Jamison, forward for the Los Angeles Clippers

From the very first sentence, this book grabbed me and didn’t let go. The deeper I got into it, the more I felt like Sticky’s story was my story. His heart, his handle, the guys in the gym, his potential pitfalls, his dreams. All of it. In a weird sense, this is my life.”-Grayson Boucher (“The Professor”) of tha AND 1 Mix Tape Tour

“Truly authentic in its examination of both the game I love and the invariable missteps toward manhood. You cannot fail to be moved by the eloquence and truth of this story.“-Rick Fox, former forward for the Los Angeles Lakers

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults

An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers

(Ember, 2005)

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone

If you could read my mind, you wouldn’t be smiling.

Samantha McAllister looks just like the rest of the popular girls in her junior class. But hidden beneath the straightened hair and expertly applied makeup is a secret that her friends would never understand: Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can’t turn off.

Second-guessing every move, thought, and word makes daily life a struggle, and it doesn’t help that her lifelong friends will turn toxic at the first sign of a wrong outfit, wrong lunch, or wrong crush. Yet Sam knows she’d be truly crazy to leave the protection of the most popular girls in school. So when Sam meets Caroline, she has to keep her new friend with a refreshing sense of humor and no style a secret, right up there with Sam’s weekly visits to her psychiatrist.

Caroline introduces Sam to Poet’s Corner, a hidden room and a tight-knit group of misfits who have been ignored by the school at large. Sam is drawn to them immediately, especially a guitar-playing guy with a talent for verse, and starts to discover a whole new side of herself. Slowly, she begins to feel more “normal” than she ever has as part of the popular crowd . . . until she finds a new reason to question her sanity and all she holds dear. (Disney Hyperion, 2015)

#SJYALit: Rape Culture–Twenty-five years ago and today, a guest post by Clara Kensie

sjyalit1992. My senior year in college. It’s Friday night, and I go with some of my sorority sisters to a local restaurant for burgers and cheese fries before we start our round of fraternity parties. There are a couple of pool tables in the bar area, so we play a game while we wait to be seated. As I lean over the pool table to take a shot, I feel something thin and hard rubbing between my legs.

Shocked, I turn around to see a guy in his mid-twenties standing a couple feet behind me, smiling, rubbing his pool cue between my legs. I move away. A few minutes later, he does it again. I roll my eyes and shake my head, and move again. A few minutes later, he closes in, backing me up against the pool table, and I have to push him aside to get away.

Pool Cue Guy is angry and humiliated. He was just trying to meet me, he says, and he doesn’t understand why I would push him. His friends overhear, and one of them calls me a bitch. Pool Cue Guy calls me a slut.

I’m upset, but I’m also embarrassed, so I say nothing. I have dinner with my friends, avoiding Pool Cue Guy’s glares from across the restaurant, and slink away as soon as we’re done eating.

Pool Cue Guy had a right to be offended that I rejected him. I should have been flattered by his aggressive attraction to me.

Those sentences are appalling when stated so plainly like that—and wow, I am furious as I write them—but beliefs like these are instilled in us practically from birth.

  • We dress baby girls in onesies that say “Sweetie Pie” or “Daddy’s Little Princess.” We dress baby boys in onesies that say “Here Comes Trouble” or “Future Ladies’ Man.”
  • In the name of politeness, well-meaning parents insist their toddlers greet adults with a hug or a kiss, even if the child doesn’t want to.
  • On the playground girls are told, “He’s teasing/chasing/hitting you because he likes you.”
  • In school, boys’ behavior, concentration, and academic problems are often blamed on girls. In some schools, dress codes are enforced by sending girls home to change—denying girls their education so boys can continue theirs without distraction.
  • When a drunk girl is raped, the alcohol condemns her. “She was drunk, no wonder she got raped.” When a drunk boy rapes, the alcohol excuses him. “He was drunk, it wasn’t his fault.”
  • We teach girls that they are to blame when boys objectify or sexualize them against their wishes.
  • Over and over again we are told “boys will be boys.” We are lead to believe that men and boys simply have no control over their sexual actions. But while most men are rightfully insulted by this saying—of course men and boys have control over their own actions— many people view “boys will be boys” as an excuse, and an expectation, of bad behavior.

Beliefs like these made Pool Cue Guy think it was okay to pursue me by rubbing a stick between my legs. Beliefs like these that made me not tell him no, made me not tell the manager, made me feel ashamed.

aftermath 2As I recall that incident today, twenty-five years later, I’m no longer ashamed, but want to yell at my college-age self for letting him approach me three times before pushing him away. And now I want to yell at my current self for instinctively writing the words letting him” in the previous sentence. Shouldn’t my initial, gut reaction have been to yell not at myself, but at Pool Cue Guy? I’m blaming myself for his actions, still, twenty five years later.

This is rape culture.

Rape culture goes beyond a guy rubbing a pool cue between a girl’s legs. It goes all the way to the people who make and enforce our laws. Our court system often prevents sexual assault victims from attaining justice, and in at least one case has even prohibited the victim from using the word “rape” while testifying. Our current vice president will not meet one-on-one with women. Our current president bragged about his sexual assault of women, then dismissed it as “locker room talk”—which is itself rape culture. Yet we elected these men to lead our country.

I admit, sometimes it feels pretty hopeless. But our society is becoming more aware of rape culture. We’re recognizing the things we all do to contribute it, and we’re speaking out and fighting against it.

How do we stop rape culture? How do we change the way an entire society views sex and gender? We start at the place it began: at home. I have two kids now, a boy and a girl, both teenagers. I have never forced them to give hugs as a greeting or kisses a thank-you for a gift. I don’t dictate their clothing or hairstyles because I don’t have ownership of their bodies, they do. I encourage them to ask questions about sex, and I answer honestly and without judgement or shame. I regularly educate them about equality and respect and autonomy and consent. We talk about politics, we know who our politicians are, and my eighteen-year-old son votes. We discuss how obvious things such as dress codes, slut-shaming, and the Steubenville and Brock Turner cases, as well as seemingly innocuous things like the movie Passengers, perpetuate rape culture.

And I know that if Pool Cue Guy did that to either of my kids today, their reactions would be completely different than mine was.

Note: Many of the examples I gave in this post focus on women and girls as the victims, but I want to point out that men and boys can be victims of rape too. According to this report by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before age 18.

YOUR TURN: Have you ever blamed yourself for someone else’s actions? What are other ways our society perpetuates rape culture? What can we do to change that?

 

 

About AFTERMATH by Clara Kensie

aftermath coverNovember 2016, Merit Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster

Charlotte survived four long years as a prisoner in the attic of her kidnapper, sustained only by dreams of her loving family. The chance to escape suddenly arrives, and Charlotte fights her way to freedom. But an answered prayer turns into heartbreak. Losing her has torn her family apart. Her parents have divorced: Dad’s a glutton for fame, Mom drinks too much, and Charlotte’s twin is a zoned-out druggie. Her father wants Charlotte write a book and go on a lecture tour, and her mom wants to keep her safe, a virtual prisoner in her own home. But Charlotte is obsessed with the other girl who was kidnapped, who never got a second chance at life–the girl who nobody but Charlotte believes really existed. Until she can get justice for that girl, even if she has to do it on her own, whatever the danger, Charlotte will never be free.

 

Young Adult Books Central Top Ten Books of 2016

Goodreads Most Popular Books Published in November 2016

Children’s Book Review Best New Young Adult Books November 2016

 

Find AFTERMATH at your favorite bookstore, including:

Amazon   Barnes & Noble   Books-A-Million   Indiebound

“Kensie writes a powerful novel about the will to survive under terrifying circumstances and the impact of a kidnapping—and its aftermath .. .The cast of supporting characters is well developed and strong. Give this to readers who love gripping, heart-wrenching tales of hope and survival.” VOYA Magazine

“Charlotte’s bravery will inspire readers. Her ongoing struggle to confront the horror of what she’s endured rings true, and her recovery process could provide therapeutic reading for rape survivors. Teens who revel in worst-case scenario stories like Natasha Preston’s The Cellar and Kevin Brooks’s The Bunker Diary will enjoy the shocking plot twists.” School Library Journal

“A gut-wrenching, emotional tale of a teen who is found after being abducted. There’s…also a ray of hope in this story. This makes this book stand out among the others out there. Charlotte goes from being a victim of horrific abuse to a survivor. The ending chapter is perfect. A story of hope and the power of love.” –YA Books Central
“For all of us who have watched the chilling news of kidnapped females rescued and thought ‘There but for the grace of God’ and ‘How do they go on?’…here is the answer fully imagined, exquisitely written, ultimately triumphant. You will cry all the way through this story but you will not put it down.” ~Jennifer Echols, award-winning author of Going Too Far

“Kensie deftly explores what happens after the supposedly happy ending of a nightmare. But nothing is as simple as it seems–not even the truth.” ~April Henry, author of The Girl I Used to BeGirl, Stolen; and The Night She Disappeared

“A captivating story of self-(re)discovery, Clara Kensie’s Aftermath introduces us to Charlotte, a sixteen-year-old girl trying hard to reclaim her place in a family decimated by her kidnapping four years earlier. Charlotte wants only to catch up to her twin Alexa and live out all the plans they’d made as children, but finds the journey back to ‘normal’ is not only hers to take. Charlotte is a heroine to cheer for…with gut-twisting bravery and raw honesty, she takes us through that journey–back to the unspeakable tortures she endured in captivity and forward to how those years scarred her family, leaving us intensely hopeful and confident that she will not merely survive, but triumph.” ~Patty Blount, author of Some BoysSendTMI; and Nothing Left to Burn

“Delving deep into the darkness of abduction and its ‘Aftermath,’ Kensie takes us on an unflinching journey of healing, courage, and triumph of the human spirit. Heartbreaking, yet stubbornly hopeful.” ~Sonali Dev, author of A Bollywood Affair and The Bollywood Bride

Aftermath is a timely, powerful portrait of hope amid tragedy, strength amid brokenness, and the healing power of forgiveness.” ~Erica O’Rourke, award-winning author of the Torn trilogy and the Dissonance series

“Gripping, powerful, deeply moving, Aftermath is a book I didn’t want to end. It’s written with such compassion that it will help readers heal. A must-read.” ~Cheryl Rainfield, author of Scars and Stained

 

Meet Clara Kensie, author of dark fiction for young adults

…don’t forget to breathe…

ClaraClara Kensie grew up near Chicago, reading every book she could find and using her diary to write stories about a girl with psychic powers who solved mysteries. She purposely did not hide her diary, hoping someone would read it and assume she was writing about herself. Since then, she’s swapped her diary for a computer and admits her characters are fictional, but otherwise she hasn’t changed one bit.

 

Today Clara is a RITA© Award-winning author of dark fiction for young adults. Her super-romantic psychic thriller series, Run To You, was named an RT Book Review Editors Pick for Best Books of 2014, and Run to You Book One: Deception So Deadly, is the winner of the prestigious 2015 RITA© Award for Best First Book.

 

Clara’s latest release is Aftermath, a dark, ripped-from-the-headlines YA contemporary in the tradition of Room and The Lovely Bones. Aftermath (Simon and Schuster/Merit Press) is on Goodreads’ list of Most Popular Books Published in November 2016, and Young Adult Books Central declared it a Top Ten Book of 2016.
Clara’s favorite foods are guacamole and cookie dough. But not together. That would be gross.

 

Find Clara online:

Website  Newsletter  Instagram  Twitter   Facebook  Insiders  Goodreads

 

#SJYALit: How to be Female, a conversation between Mindy McGinnis and Amber J. Keyser

Introduction

In 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.

Today, 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?

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

 

HOW TO BE FEMALE

A conversation between Mindy McGinnis, author of THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, and Amber J. Keyser, author of POINTE, CLAW.

 

Amber: Let’s talk about Alex first. She’s a character that I can’t stop thinking about. She is about as far from the stereotype of what a girl should be as you can get, and yet she is driven by an experience that is all too common–the victimization of girls by men. Tell us about her.

 

Mindy: She’s angry, that’s the simple answer. Female rage is something that goes largely unexplored except in a sexualized manner, yet women get pissed – maybe even more so than men. There is nothing more violent in nature than a mother protecting its young. Animals know that – we’ve been socialized away from it.

 

pointe-clawMindy: You deal with anger and protective feelings for fellow females as well in POINTE, CLAW, and – like me – chose to couch it in terms of an animalistic nature. What made you decide to take that route?

Amber: I’m trained as an evolutionary biologist and much of my research was on animals. We observe a behavior and then ask questions. What are the evolutionary pressures that would result in that behavior? How does that behavior enhance survival or reproduction? How are multiple behavioral strategies maintained in a population? I brought that perspective to the story. At the same time, I was growing more and more convinced that maintaining highly-social mammals like whales, primates, and elephants, in captivity is immoral. That led me to pose other questions. What is the survival strategy when you have been caged? In an essay I read long ago Alice Walker proposed that if women could not express their true selves then they either go mad or die. All of that came together in POINTE, CLAW. I’m not sure I can even put it into coherent sentences. I had hoped that understanding animals would help me understand humans.

 

Amber: I’m interested in the contrast of Alex’s underlying violence and her gentleness and competence with animals. It strikes me that both of us have more sympathy for animal nature than human nature. It’s a direct contrast to the Judeo-Christian world, which has so elevated “humanity.” Is there a difference in your mind between human, female, and animal?

Mindy: Not necessarily. For me the inclusion of Alex’s compassion for animals was to show that she is not a sociopath. Killing in defense of others is a choice that she makes, and while she tells herself she doesn’t feel bad about it, the guilt does weigh on her in the end. The difference for her is that animals don’t KNOW better. Animals don’t live in a moral world; humans do.

 

Mindy: How about you? How did you weigh the more animal nature of one character against the other?

Amber: This idea of a moral world is bouncing around inside my skull. Humans lay such claim to the moral high ground. Or maybe I should be more precise: many men claim a moral high ground, from which they tell girls and women what to do. So much of POINTE, CLAW is about the barriers girls and women face when trying to express their true selves. When they embrace the more animal side of their nature–the lust, the anger, power–society slaps them down.  There’s a quote by John Steinbeck on the inside cover of my book: We are no better than the animals; in fact, in a lot of ways we aren’t as good. This guided my writing as I explored the ways humans fail to act morally toward animals and toward each other.

 

thefemaleofthespeciesAmber: In an earlier post, Elana and I talked about “unlikeable” female characters. I have a feeling Alex would fall in that category. (I can’t help it… I like her.) The other two female characters in THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, Branley and Peekay are, at least at the beginning, fit a more “typical” girl stereotype. Can you describe them for us? Both Peekay and Branley push, in different ways against the boxes they are shoved into. Can you talk about that?

Mindy: The vast majority of reaction to Alex from both male and female readers is that they love her. I think she says and does a lot of the things that they *want* to, but are prohibited from doing. Peekay definitely has violent fantasies about things she wishes she could do, but isn’t the kind of person who can – or even should. Branley we don’t see from an internal POV, but the blonde sex-bomb patina chips away and we see her as a real person by the end.

 

Mindy: This is an interesting dynamic at work in POINTE, CLAW as well. You have an attractive female who is filling a stereotypical role, paired with a girl who is anything but. What do those two have in common?

Amber: Ballet is such a weird thing. You get all these little girls who love their tutus and pink tights and want to grow up to be famous dancers. Often their mothers fuel these dreams, but the dream is impossible. Only a very select few succeed. They’re the ones whose bodies grow in exactly the right way so that the proportion of femur to tibia is perfect, their feet have the right shape, and the length of the Achilles tendon allows the right kind of movement. You can work hard and have great talent but if your body isn’t exactly perfect you will fail to achieve the dream. What a set-up for disaster! In the book, we have Jessie. She is almost perfect, and it’s still not enough to get her to where she wants to be. Dawn is very far from the societal ideal of a “perfect woman.” She’s stocky and queer and butch and completely unconcerned with social niceties. But here’s the deal. Dawn might be 1000 miles away from perfect woman and Jessie is an inch from it, but neither one can hit the mark. That tells me that the whole concept of perfect woman is a complete and utter waste of time. Be “woman” whatever that means to you.

 

Amber: But let me throw that question right back at you. What do Alex, Peekay, and Branley have in common?

Mindy: They’re all three definitely sexual creatures. Branley has learned how to use her attractiveness and sexual drive – which she definitely has and celebrates, and hooray for her – in a way that gains her power. She’s conventionally beautiful, and has all the elements of sexualization working for her. Jack makes a comment at one point that he misses the girl who rolled her pants up and walked in the creek with him, the girl that was his friend before she figured out that she was cute as hell. I thought it was interesting to throw out there that Branley has figured out her power over men, and she believes it’s her greatest strength because that’s what society has taught her.

 

Peekay is budding into someone who is more secure in herself physically and wants to explore more sexually, partially in rebellion to her “preacher’s kid” label, but also because she is a sexual being and she wants to have sex. However, because of her upbringing she wants that to be with someone she loves and and trusts, and is planning on losing her virginity to her long-time boyfriend when Branley “steals” him.

 

Finally, with Alex it was important to me to show that Alex is by no means frigid, or frightened of her sexuality. What happened to her sister is horrific, but she hasn’t allowed it to internalize into an “all men” statement. She trusts Jack – maybe even loves him – and because of this is able to be with him physically in ways he wasn’t necessarily expected, with her having had such trauma in her past. Alex is very much a creature of instinct – and the sexual instinct is strong. She’ll follow that, for sure.

 

Mindy: You made a bold choice by including female desire in the form of masturbation in your book. Sadly, I can think of very few books that portray female masturbation – and even less in a positive light. What made you decide to include this facet in the narrative?

Amber: Like anger, which you wrote about above, female desire, especially when separate from romantic love, is an underexplored topic. When I was working on THE V-WORD, a nonfiction anthology of personal essays by women about first-time sex, I interviewed author and teen librarian Kelly Jensen about depictions of young women and sex in YA. One of the things she mentioned was how rarely female masturbation is depicted in fiction, especially compared to the frequency of male masturbation. I took that as a personal challenge to work into my next book! But in the context of POINTE, CLAW, the scene where Jessie masturbates and the other short glimpses of both girls touching themselves are absolutely organic. The entire book is about various forms of desire: sexual, creative, a yearning for self-expression, the need to be truly seen, and of course, the desire for freedom. It would be completely weird to explore those things without acknowledging that young women also have sexual desires and can satisfy them in various ways.

 

Amber: There’s a lot of consensual sex in THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES and also rape and attempted rape. One of the biggest and thorniest issues of growing up “girl” in today’s world is the intersection of sex and violence that even the most feminist of men don’t seem to grasp. Can you talk about how Alex, Peekay, Branley, and Peekay’s gay friend Sara navigate this territory? What does Jack’s perspective add or reveal?

Mindy: Branley as the “hot one” deals with a lot of sexual humor that is aimed at her, like penises drawn on her locker, even rape jokes during a school assembly. Her answer is to ignore, which is always an option, but I wanted the reader to be able to see the anger that percolated in her during these occasions, even if it remained unspoken.

Peekay is drugged and nearly gang-raped, which she reacts to as I think a lot of people do – with disgust, and self-blame. She’s sickened about what nearly happened to her, and can’t help but analyze what role her own actions played in the events.

 

With Sara – who is a lesbian – I wanted to be clear that she is not eliminated as a possible target for rape because of that. Peekay’s father says as much to her in a family-meeting style sit down. Without putting it too heavily into the text, rape is more about power than it is about sex. Rapists can and do go after young or old, attractive or unattractive, fat or thin, gay or straight. Victims can include pregnant, physically or mentally disabled individuals, even the very elderly. Your own orientation or physical appearance rarely has anything to do with the targeting – rape is a crime of power and opportunity.

 

For Jack, it was important to me to show a man who is at heart, a great person. There are plenty of expectations on young boys as well as women, and Jack falls into that. He’s supposed to be okay with having casual sex with Branley. He’s supposed to be okay with killing animals in a slaughterhouse for a living. These are masculine traits that he, as an all-American boy, should revel in.

 

But he doesn’t. Jack questions his actions with Branley and looks for ways to distract himself while at work so he doesn’t have to think too hard about what he’s doing. He wants more out of his life than what is being asked of him. It was also important to me to show Jack and another male step up – out of outrage – when they see what was about to happen to Peekay at a party. They are not okay with that, and make it clear… it’s just that Alex beat them to it :)

 

Amber: One of the things that all the female characters in our books have in common (and maybe I’m going out on a limb here but I’m going to say that all women share it) is the ever-present threat of sexual assault. After the Trump pussy-grabbing video came out pre-election, I read an article about how many hetero couples were talking about this issue for the very first time. Even the most feminist of men were shocked at how often the women in their lives experienced sexual assault or lived with the apprehension of sexual assault. Margaret Atwood wrote about how sexual assault has always been a weapon of war and tool of oppression. I wonder what it would be like to live and write in a world where we didn’t have to live under this threat of violence. Honestly, I hate that I am even writing that sentence, but both of our books make the claim that women are fundamentally not safe in this world and that fact shapes how we live our lives, how we interact with each other, and how we inhabit our own bodies.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Amazon Head Shot copyMindy McGinnis (THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES) is an Edgar Award-winning author who writes across genres, debuting with a post-apocalyptic duology set in a world with very little water (NOT A DROP TO DRINK & IN A HANDFUL OF DUST), and following that up with a Gothic historical thriller, A MADNESS SO DISCREET. Her first in a fantasy series, GIVEN TO THE SEA, releases April 11th, and a psychological thriller, THIS DARKNESS MINE, releases October 10th.

Mindy runs a blog for aspiring writers at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire, which features interviews with agents, established authors, and debut authors. Learn how they landed their agents, what the submission process is really like, and how it feels when you see your cover for the first time. Mindy recently began hosting a podcast, where authors give listeners straight talk about the publishing industry.

 

Amber Keyser_midsizeAmber J. Keyser (POINTE, CLAW) is the author of THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a heart-wrenching novel of loss and survival, which is a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and THE V-WORD (Beyond Words/Simon Pulse, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by women about first-time sexual experiences, which was selected for the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Teens 2016, the Chicago Public Library’s Best Nonfiction for Teens 2016, the Rainbow List, and the Amelia Bloomer List. Find out more about her work at www.amberjkeyser.com and @amberjkeyser.

 

Further reading 

Amanda’s review of Pointe, Claw

Karen’s thoughts on The Female of the Species

Life-enhancing things that matter to young Muslim women, a guest post by Khadija

sjyalitToday’s post is brought to you by my friend Khadija, one of my very favorite people. Khadija also wrote something for TLT before in a Muslim Voices post. I’ve known her for seven years and had the joy of watching her go from a high school kid who hung around my desk in the library to a curious and hard-working college student to a writer and library employee. I asked if she’d like to write anything else for TLT and this is what she came up with. Grateful to add her voice to our conversations. 

 

Being Muslim is not something that I have to get used to because I’ve always been a Muslim. It’s difficult for me to understand that when some people see a Muslim person, it’s all they notice about them. They imagine the negative stereotypes associated with practicing Islam. Most people around the world believe in a higher power or follow a religion, but in my experience no religious group struggles with their image as much as Muslims do. There is so much more to a Muslim person, especially a Muslim woman, than her belief in a higher power. There are so many things that matter to young Muslim women and some of those things are things that matter to many people regardless of their religion. Some of these things include: 

 

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Green space or a park area: Walking and running in order to get in their daily physical activity is very important to Muslim women such as me and my Muslim friends. We see it as a way to not only have control over our bodies, but to also fulfill part of our religion. We find the parks in our neighborhoods just as essential as the rest of the non-Muslim residents.

 

 

 

Being active members of their individual communities: Many of the young Muslim women I am friends with are very active in the community. In order to create a better life for their family and the rest of the people in the community, they volunteer in community centers and places like the Red Cross and Boys and Girls Club. They use their time in a way that enhances the lives of others and makes their own a rich one.

 

Hair care and hairstyles: Yes, many Muslim women do not reveal their hair in public, but that does not mean that they let the hair fall into a state of disarray. They still use products that keep the hair looking and feeling healthy. From my experience my hijab stays in place much better if my hair is not a mess underneath. The hair is still styled underneath the hijab. It can be braided, made into a low bun or some other style.

 

Having a successful career: Muslim women go to college in order to be lawyers, engineers, and artists. Many of the Muslim women I know see college as a great starting point towards a career that they will love and one that will allow them to be both contributors to their community and financially independent. They see it as absolutely necessary to stand on their own feet especially in a society that sees them as oppressed and terribly vulnerable.

 

Reading whatever book that’s new and hot: The young Muslim women I know read anything from The Hunger Games to The Divergent series to Harry Potter. These books are ones that not only cross racial boundaries, but also cultural and religious ones. From my experience, they have allowed growing up as different and seeing it negatively because of outside experiences to be a little more bearable. Having passion for young adult series is something that my Muslim women friends have in common with other non-Muslim young adults. Being able to use books to escape is something that I as a Muslim woman appreciate.

 

Meet Khadija

Khadija is a recent college graduate with a degree in English. She lives in Minnesota, works at a library, and is looking at getting into a graduate program in order to receive an MFA in creative writing. Besides working on her poetry writing skills, she likes to draw nature—mostly leafless trees in the dead of winter.

#SJYALit: From Aberrant Girl to Nasty Woman, a conversation between Elana K. Arnold and Amber J. Keyser

Introduction

In 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.

 

Today, 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?

 

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

 

 

FROM ABERRANT GIRL TO NASTY WOMAN

A conversation between Elana K. Arnold, author of WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF, and Amber J. Keyser, author of POINTE, CLAW.

 

what-girls-are-madeAmber: I notice that many book reviews that highlight the feminist aspects of a novel usually include a shout-out to an “unlikeable” female character. What does that term mean to you? Does it apply to Nina in WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF?

 

Elana: I find the whole idea of “unlikeability” to be fascinating. Ultimately, I think that when someone labels a character as “unlikeable,” that actually tells us a whole lot more about the reviewer/reader than it does about the character. To me, the term “unlikeable” means that the reader has likely reduced a complicated, multifaceted character down to just some of her parts– the reader has decided that some of the character’s qualities, actions, or characteristics tell her whole story. It infuriates and fascinates me that we as a culture ascribe a narrower bandwidth of “likeablity” to females than we do to males. I have no doubt that there will be some readers who find Nina to be unlikeable. I think it’s more interesting to think about how her actions and perspectives make us feel–both the actions and perspectives we like and those we don’t like (which may be different from reader to reader). I think it is interesting to sit in discomfort and pull it apart, wonder at it, and come to terms with it. We can learn a lot about ourselves that way.  

 

Amber: I’ve been thinking about Nina in your book, Dawn in mine, and other characters (like those in THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma) labeled as “unlikeable.” I agree with you that “unlikeable” tends to be pinned on girls and women who express rage, desire, jealousy, and other feelings that aren’t considered nice or seemly. And you’re right that men get to express a wider range without being labeled as aberrant, and if they are white, upper class men even abhorrent behavior gets excused away (case in point: Stanford rapist Brock Turner). You also said we learn about ourselves by looking at those boundaries between nice and unlikeable. When society and the books that reflect it, shy away from the full range of emotions that women can and do experience, I’m afraid that girls learn to self-censor their “unacceptable” emotions. Psychic hurt happens when we cram ourselves into a cookie cutter version of “girl.”

 

Elana: Amber, your POINTE, CLAW is about two powerful girls whose strengths are in some ways parallel and in some ways very different. And the title, the way both words can be either a thing (a pointe shoe, a claw) and an action (to point, to claw) works as such a brilliant metaphor for the girls. Both of your characters are outliers; they are extreme, in various ways. Many young women spend lots of effort filing away at the parts of themselves that reveal them to be outliers, to be strange, to be different. Did you intend to create such intense protagonists?

 

Amber: POINTE, CLAW comes from a place of deep pain and anger, which spawned the intensity in its pages. Ballet was everything to me from sixth grade through high school. I dreamed of dancing for Joffrey or New York City or American Ballet Theater. My entire identity was woven around being a dancer. When my career crashed (for complicated reasons), I was devastated and became quite self-destructive. My body, no longer dancing 4-6 hours a day, changed radically. My social circle evaporated. I didn’t even feel like I belonged in my own family. The feeling of being betrayed by my body, my ballet family, my friends, and my own dreams fuels POINTE, CLAW. In the book, Jessie and Dawn are definitely extreme in different ways, but both have ravenous and unseemly desires. They want touch and sex and wildness and to break free from constraints. When everything they know starts to crumble around them, their response is to burn hotter, to go supernova instead of being crushed.

 

Elana: And do you think that intensity is reflective of the way young women are feeling right now, in this cultural moment?

 

Amber: Honestly, I hope so. Politically, those in power are doubling down on the constraints on women. The message to women and girls is chilling: Your body doesn’t belong to you. Don’t exist outside of the lines we have drawn for you. Be nice. Be grateful for what men do for you. I am absolutely rage-filled most of the time. I hope that younger women are too. I’ll be the first one to hand them a flame-thrower. I’m curious what you think about this. Is a through-line from unlikeable characters to today’s surging activism?

 

Elana: I do think so. I have spent much of my life being afraid of authority. Truthfully, I am still terrified of a man in a uniform, even though my white-presenting privilege has meant that all of my actual interactions with uniform-wearing men have been relatively safe, though often tinged with an unwelcome undercurrent of sexual tension. I began writing WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF three years ago, and I completed the final draft nearly a year ago, so it was well in advance of the rise of Trump and the rage that has grown in me along with that. This is an angry book, so clearly I was sorting through all sorts of anger, but I think my anger then was more woven through with shame and self-flagellation, an attempt to both punish and forgive myself for sins real and imagined. Now, my anger burns hotter; it’s a white-hot anger, and I’m not going to spend more time being angry at myself for past complicity in a system of repression that eats women up. I think (I hope) that girls are done apologizing for being girls, for being in possession of unlikeable characteristics and emotions. I think so many girls are ready to fight, and I think books that show characters mobilizing and rising up are important and affirming. A book like yours, Amber, is a flame-thrower. But it doesn’t read like an instruction manual or a manifesto; it reads like what it is, a brilliant and tightly-crafted novel. How do you walk the line between telling a good story and writing to inform, convince, or conflagrate?

 

Amber: For me, each novel starts with a big question or theme that I don’t fully understand. I am writing toward a better understanding of the topic I’m exploring. That’s very different from starting with “this is the truth I know, which I will now present to you.” I hope that allows me to avoid being a pedantic bore. What about you? You mentioned writing your way through a complex stew of anger, shame, and self-flagellation. I am wondering how the process of writing a novel like WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF changes you.

 

Elana: Some books are a pleasure. Others feel like the painful extraction of a tumor with long, winding, grasping roots. WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF belongs to that second category. This book, like many, began with a feeling and, in this case, a first line–When I was fourteen, my mother told me there was no such thing as unconditional love. That idea of love–the conditions of being lovable, and the conditions under which we give our love (to others, to ourselves, to a concept or a cause, like God or religion)– fascinates me. Writing WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF gave me a place to sort through how I felt about love, and my own value. As a young woman, I really felt that if someone liked or desired me, it was my obligation to give that person some part of me–access to my body, or a smile and laugh even if the attention felt uncomfortable or unasked for, things like that. Writing this book felt like a chance for me to examine my assumptions about that and many things, and to declare that, no, actually, I don’t want to behave that way anymore. And I don’t have to. It’s not my job to make other people comfortable. What a revelation! In POINTE, CLAW, your Jessie and Dawn seem to grapple with a similar question–how much access and control do they owe other people over their bodies? And how are they “supposed” to interact with/feel about their bodies? Can you talk about your characters’ relationships with their flesh?

 

pointe-clawAmber: While I was revising POINTE, CLAW, I went to an incredible writing workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch (author of THE SMALL BACKS OF CHILDREN and A CHRONOLOGY OF WATER). She is focused on what she calls corporeal writing, meaning writing from the body, in the body, through the body. Again and again during the workshop, she posed questions that linked body and emotion. Where does shame live in your body? Where does anger live in your body? Where does vulnerability live in the body? One of the big ideas I wanted to write about in POINTE, CLAW was the contrast between inhabiting the flesh and dissociating from it. There is such stigma about the female body–periods, fat, body hair, smell, orgasm–I think women often struggle to be in the body. Jessie certainly does. She is constantly watching herself in the mirror and trying to fit the image of perfect. It’s a weird out-of-body existence. When she loses that distance during the dance with Vadim, it freaks her out because it represents such unbridled sensation. Dawn is caught between fighting and embracing the chaos of her own flesh. Ultimately being in the body is a way to claim power. There’s a quote from Mary Oliver that captures something important about both our books–Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? To finish up our conversation here, can you talk about how this quote relates to WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF?

 

Elana: What I want to do with this one wild and precious life (one of the things I try to do) is to tell stories that make me uncomfortable and scared, that shake my center, that help me understand how I feel about my own past, humanity, society, religion, death, bodies… all the stuff that I wrestle with. I am a selfish writer when it comes to my books about teens. When I write for younger readers, I do consider the kids who might pick up the book one day, but when I work on a book about teens, there is no reader in my sights. I work through the story the way one might rub at a cavity with her tongue, exploring the pain, experiencing the rough edges. The longer I work as a writer, and the older I get, the more honest I am in my writing, and the deeper I am willing to go into my own fear, inhibition, and anger. Of course, when the book is finished, then I become sharply aware of the possibility that it will be read. I hope that WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF can help put into words what young woman may be feeling about their bodies, their positions in society, their relationships, their loves. And if books like POINTE, CLAW and WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF give readers words that spur them to action, all the better! The world needs fierce women– Go, girls, rise up and roar.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Amber Keyser_midsizeAmber J. Keyser (POINTE, CLAW) is the author of THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a heart-wrenching novel of loss and survival, which is a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and THE V-WORD (Beyond Words/Simon Pulse, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by women about first-time sexual experiences, which was selected for the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Teens 2016, the Chicago Public Library’s Best Nonfiction for Teens 2016, the Rainbow List, and the Amelia Bloomer List. Find out more about her work at www.amberjkeyser.com and @amberjkeyser.

 

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.

 

 

UPCOMING EVENTS

You can catch Amber and Elana on tour together during April and May. Events are scheduled in Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area, Davis, L.A., and Orange County. More details here: http://amberjkeyser.com/appearances/

 

Further reading

Amanda’s reviews of Pointe, Claw and What Girls Are Made Of

#SJYALit: Discussing GLORY O’BRIEN’S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE with A. S. King

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future

Last night we had the pleasure of talking with author A. S. King as part of our #SJYALit Project. We talked feminism, politics and bats. The Twitter conversation is Storified for you below.


  1. My 1st Question for @AS_King is where did the inspiration for GLORY come from? #SJYALit


  2. .@AS_King We chose this book for our #SJYALit discussion because of its discussion of women's rights & bodies. What does it mean to you now?


  3. .@AS_King How did the mummified bat powder taste when you drank it? Clearly you were able to see into 2017 pretty well. #SJYALit



  4. @TLT16 #SJYALit Hoo boy. Well, people would ask me where I came up with the future parts of the book and I'd be like: Um, look around. 1/?


  5. #sjyalit @AS_King After seeing the power of the #womensmarch, do u feel this is a good time or bad time for women? Wish I could see future!


  6. @TLT16 #SJYALit I didn't try to write about those things, but those things are important to me--so that's what comes out when I write.


  7. @TLT16 #SJYALit What it means to me now is: Come on. I'm still protesting for the same shit? Still?


  8. When I heard that the OK rep called women "hosts", a scene from GLORY came immediately to mind. It's eerie. @AS_King #SJYALit  https://twitter.com/zachjpayne/status/834920334469914624 …


  9. @AS_King I have been in a couple of marches recently and I saw a lot of older women carrying signs that said exactly this. #SJYALIt


  10. @shelfemployed #SJYALit The #womensmarch was amazing. Shows our strength. But our rights are being whittled once again. We must keep going.


  11. @shelfemployed #SJYALit I think things get better for women slowly. And none of us are safe if even one of us isn't.


  12. @TLT16 @AS_King #SJYALit just wanted to say I think your books are terrific, really great. You knock it out of the park!


  13. @ZachJPayne @TLT16 #SJYALit Believe me, Zach, I wish Nedrick and DJT were figments of my imagination. Neither are. Sad! (Sorry. Had to.)



  14. @TLT16 Yes. Hosts. Incubators. Eggshells, in a sense. I could poke holes in these theories all day long. #sjyalit


  15. @MizCrozet @TLT16 #SJYALit Thank you so much! I do try. I know I'm a bit weird, but then again, I always did.


  16. It's weird because they sexualize women, call us hosts, romanticize pregnancy, but don't want insurance to have to cover it. #SJYALit  https://twitter.com/AS_King/status/834922145725759488 …


  17. @shelfemployed #SJYALit Yes. I was a non-consumerist for 10 years as I lived self sufficiently on a farm in Ireland. Now, minimalist.



  18. @shelfemployed #SJYALit I just can't stand how we're all bought and sold. It was, in a way, how we ended up in the political sit we're in.



  19. I really appreciated the look at complicated friendships and not knowing what to do post-high school. #SJYALit


  20. #sjyalit @CiteSomething I never drank it, though. I do now have an impressive collection of bats people send me. But no drinking them.


  21. @TLT16 And it wasn't scary as much as it was disorienting. For years after that, I wondered WTAF I was doing on the planet. #SJYALit



  22. @AS_King If you figured it out, please tell me the secret. I still haven't. #SJYALit



  23. #sjyalit @AS_King With so much happening so quickly, what do you feel is the most urgent issue facing U.S. women and girls today?


  24. We are trying to be more experience focused vs. stuff focused here. But it's hard because teens & peer pressure and stuff. #SJYALit  https://twitter.com/AS_King/status/834925525026111488 …


  25. @TLT16 #sjyalit I think it's a daily thing. One day I'm here to be the best mother I can be. Next, a writer. Next, I'm back to WTAF.


  26. I find that teen readers are drawn to friendship stories because they are trying to navigate those just as much as romantic ones. #SJYALit  https://twitter.com/AS_King/status/834925656685314049 …



  27. As a mother, how open should we be raising teen daughters I wonder? I find that I am very. I want my kid to know she's normal. #SJYALIt  https://twitter.com/AS_King/status/834925903130034177 …


  28. @TLT16 I don't know. For me it changes every day with my teen. Honesty is good. Love is best. Understanding is key. But I HATE that our...


  29. @TLT16 I don't know. For me it changes every day with my teen. Honesty is good. Love is best. Understanding is key. But I HATE that our...


  30. @TLT16 ...girls don't feel normal. I think it's causing the rise in teen mood disorders and it's time to pay attention, not shame, you know?


  31. @TLT16 ...girls don't feel normal. I think it's causing the rise in teen mood disorders and it's time to pay attention, not shame, you know?


  32. @TLT16 Peer pressure is a bitch. That, I know...now that I have seen the interior of the principal's office one too many times this year.


  33. @TLT16 Peer pressure is a bitch. That, I know...now that I have seen the interior of the principal's office one too many times this year.


  34. I can't imagine how current political discussion are affecting both girl & boy perceptions of women. And they read it. #SJYALit  https://twitter.com/as_king/status/834927470402908160 …


  35. @TLT16 Glory is a feminist. But so is Ellie. People mis-define it. Skew it. They take its power away bc women scare the shit out of them.


  36. @TLT16 Glory is a feminist. But so is Ellie. People mis-define it. Skew it. They take its power away bc women scare the shit out of them.


  37. Like what must it feel like to be a 14yrold girl & hear policy makers say you are a host, not a person. #SJYALit  https://twitter.com/as_king/status/834927470402908160 …


  38. @TLT16 I'm a feminist, so all of my books are feminist. ANTS had the V. Monologues. Vera had...Vera. Crawl had So many things. Tornado...


  39. @TLT16 I'm a feminist, so all of my books are feminist. ANTS had the V. Monologues. Vera had...Vera. Crawl had So many things. Tornado...




  40. @TLT16 Also, I've never dreaded that word. The opposite is a proud denial of equal rights. Any definition that denies that is incorrect.


  41. @TLT16 Also, I've never dreaded that word. The opposite is a proud denial of equal rights. Any definition that denies that is incorrect.



  42. @TLT16 IDK. I can tell you what my 14yo said when I told her about the vagina glue story yesterday. "Did these get out of health class or??"


  43. @TLT16 IDK. I can tell you what my 14yo said when I told her about the vagina glue story yesterday. "Did these get out of health class or??"


  44. @TLT16 :) Thank you. I appreciate that as I toil away on the next YA.


  45. "We form. We shine. We burn. Kapow" may be my favorite words in YA ever. Says it all. So thanks for those. @AS_King #SJYALit



  46. @TLT16 I would v much love one of those buttons. And so would my mother.


  47. @CiteSomething Thank you. I was just talking to an astronomer this week and we geeked out about Sagan and I told her those words. She smiled


  48. @CiteSomething Thank you. I was just talking to an astronomer this week and we geeked out about Sagan and I told her those words. She smiled


  49. @indubitablyzara @CiteSomething Oh indeed. I have bats. Quite a few. They creep me out, but remind me that death and life are a second apart


  50. @indubitablyzara @CiteSomething Oh indeed. I have bats. Quite a few. They creep me out, but remind me that death and life are a second apart



  51. @TLT16 I love it. I've also been out of the loop the last 2 or so weeks--not out of choice but out of family crises. So I haven't seen many


  52. @TLT16 I love it. I've also been out of the loop the last 2 or so weeks--not out of choice but out of family crises. So I haven't seen many


  53. @shelfemployed In the works: A book. For 2018 all going well. Not quite sure how to explain it @ this point. It's weird. (As if.)


  54. @shelfemployed In the works: A book. For 2018 all going well. Not quite sure how to explain it @ this point. It's weird. (As if.)


  55. @TLT16 Glory O'Brien is a serious girl. She thinks seriously and isn't caught up in the consumerist world. She was the girl I wrote for me.


  56. @TLT16 Glory O'Brien is a serious girl. She thinks seriously and isn't caught up in the consumerist world. She was the girl I wrote for me.


  57. @TLT16 I'd never seen me in a book before. But she's there for you all, too, because you are not your hymen or your wardrobe. You are your..


  58. @TLT16 I'd never seen me in a book before. But she's there for you all, too, because you are not your hymen or your wardrobe. You are your..



  59. @TLT16 BRAIN and your heart and your sense of humor. Do what you want to do. In make up. Or not. In heels. Or not. Just be comfortable.


  60. @TLT16 BRAIN and your heart and your sense of humor. Do what you want to do. In make up. Or not. In heels. Or not. Just be comfortable.


  61. @TLT16 Because the world makes it uncomfortable for us every day, so at least be comfortable in yourself. (And smash the patriarchy.)


  62. @TLT16 Because the world makes it uncomfortable for us every day, so at least be comfortable in yourself. (And smash the patriarchy.)


  63. @AS_King I can't wait! #SJYALIT That's why I never wrote a review of GLORY.Too hard to explain. In the #library, it's usually "hand-sold." 🙂


  64. @TLT16 Thank you so much for having this chat with me. I appreciate your support.


  65. @TLT16 Thank you so much for having this chat with me. I appreciate your support.


  66. I love @AS_King and thank you so much for your time tonight! Everyone read GLORY O'BRIEN if you haven't'. Thank you for your time! #SJYALit



  67. I will storify the #SJYALit chat with @AS_King Tomorrow and I'll put it on TLT

    Publisher's Book Description:

    In this masterpiece about freedom, feminism, and destiny, Printz Honor author A.S. King tells the epic story of a girl coping with devastating loss at long last–a girl who has no idea that the future needs her, and that the present needs her even more.
    Graduating from high school is a time of limitless possibilities–but not for Glory, who has no plan for what’s next. Her mother committed suicide when Glory was only four years old, and she’s never stopped wondering if she will eventually go the same way…until a transformative night when she begins to experience an astonishing new power to see a person’s infinite past and future. From ancient ancestors to many generations forward, Glory is bombarded with visions–and what she sees ahead of her is terrifying: A tyrannical new leader raises an army. Women’s rights disappear. A violent second civil war breaks out. And young girls vanish daily, sold off or interned in camps. Glory makes it her mission to record everything she sees, hoping her notes will somehow make a difference. She may not see a future for herself, but she’ll do anything to make sure this one doesn’t come to pass.

 

Book Review: Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Publisher’s description

dreamlandSome bodies won’t stay buried.
Some stories need to be told.

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past… and the present.

Nearly one hundred years earlier, a misguided violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.

Through intricately interwoven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s lightning-paced page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to blazing life and raises important question about the complex state of US race relations – both yesterday and today.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

That description up there does not at all capture how completely absorbing this book is. Which is good, because it also doesn’t give too much away and you’ll get to discover on your own just how compelling and unpredictable this story is.

 

Narrative duties are split between contemporary teenager Rowan, a biracial girl (her dad is white, her mom is black) in Tulsa and William, a 17-year-old in Tulsa in 1921. William is also biracial–his dad his white and his mother is Osage Indian. The bulk of the story is really William’s, though Rowan and her friend James (who is also biracial–black and Native American–and asexual) do the investigating that starting putting pieces of the mystery together. Rowan has her own story line, too—it’s just not as big as William’s. James calls Rowan out for living in a bubble. James is into social justice and immigration reform and doesn’t let Rowan get away with statements like “things are better now.” He schools her about racism, power, and privilege, leading her to taking a summer job at a clinic in an impoverished area (that’s less dangerous than just forgotten, she notes) when her other internship falls through. Here, she befriends people she otherwise wouldn’t have known. And though they are set nearly 100 years apart, it’s no surprise that the racism that drives William’s story is also a strong force in Rowan’s story. An unexpected incident propels Rowan to action—and, surprisingly, begins to weave her story more tightly with William’s.

 

William, who we follow in 1921, is sort of thoughtlessly racist, as you might expect a young boy in Tulsa, Oklahoma at this time to be. Language of the era permeates his story, with terms like “mongrel,” “half-breed,” “Negro,” and the n-word frequently used. William instigates a scene at a local speakeasy when he sees the white girl he likes hanging around with a black boy. He doesn’t think what consequences his actions may have when he and his friend lie and say he was attacked by the boy. But soon, he does start to think more about racism, and begins to look beyond the expectations of how a white boy in this era should act and think, when he meets siblings Joseph and Ruby Goodhope. William meets them at his father’s Victrola shop, where, despite Jim Crow laws, they sometimes sell to black people on the sly. And while William’s dad agrees to sell Joseph a Victrola, and even allows him to finance it, he won’t write him a receipt—he can’t risk the proof of the sale falling into the wrong hands. It’s through this sale, and the issue of the receipt, that William and the Goodhope siblings begin to interact. Young Ruby, who is irritating in that special way that pesky little sisters can be, starts to grow on William. So when things come to a head in his town and the KKK and other white citizens begin rounding up black people, killing them, and burning their neighborhoods, William’s first concern is making sure Joseph and Ruby are safe. And while we know the skeleton under Rowan’s family’s guest cottage floor belongs to someone from William’s story, we’re not sure who. Nothing is revealed quickly, and just when you think you’re sure you’ve figured it out, Latham reveals unexpected details that make you throw that theory out.

 

Maintaining two timelines with two narrators and keeping both equally interesting is not an easy task. Latham ties the stories together enough that we see parallels without being hit over the head with them. Both narrators are complicated, interesting figures, but seeing William’s emotional and intellectual journey is the far more satisfying story. Equally as satisfying is how Latham brings us to the end of the mystery. The tight pacing and action-packed, unpredictable plot make this book fly by. An author’s note at the end tells more about the race riots in Tulsa in 1921 and examines the controversial term. The note also points out a few resources for further reading. This book—a contemporary story, historical fiction, and a mystery, all at once—will have wide appeal. A gripping look at a shameful time in America’s history and (not that we need it) a reminder of how slow progress really is. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780316384933

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 02/21/2017

Book Review: The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

Publisher’s description

educationPretty in Pink comes to the South Bronx in this bold and romantic coming-of-age novel about dysfunctional families, good and bad choices, and finding the courage to question everything you ever thought you wanted—from debut author Lilliam Rivera.

Things/People Margot Hates:
Mami, for destroying her social life
Papi, for allowing Junior to become a Neanderthal
Junior, for becoming a Neanderthal
The supermarket
Everyone else

After “borrowing” her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded. And by grounded, she means working as an indentured servant in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts.

With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal…

Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises—the admittedly good looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood—keep her from her goal.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Puerto Rican Margot, who can’t escape her childhood nickname of Princesa, is not thrilled to be spending the summer working at her family’s supermarket in the South Bronx. She had hoped to spend the summer in the Hamptons with her prep school classmates, popular Serena and Camille. That plan fell apart when her parents discovered she stole their credit card and charged a bunch of clothes. Margot, a social climber who’s more than just a little arrogant when we meet her, can’t believe Papi expects her to do actual work while at the supermarket. While there, she meets Moises Tirado, a young community activist who helms a table outside of the store working on getting signatures for a petition to stop a housing complex from being torn down and replaced by high-end condos. Though Margot is drawn to Moises, she looks down on him. Her snooty school friends would never approve. Margot isn’t interested in learning about gentrification or any of the other social justice issues Moises is into. She’s appalled by where he lives. He’s working on his GED. Margot’s family is relatively well off (they are “rich adjacent”) and she’s seen as “the great brown hope” for her family, the one who will become a doctor or a lawyer. Her mother warns her that people are judged by the company they keep, but she can’t help but continue to be interested in Moises.

 

But an “inappropriate” crush and a summer stuck working at a grocery store turn out to be the least of Margot’s worries as a whole bunch of family secrets, stress, and denial finally come to the surface and demand to be dealt with. She’s forced to really reckon with the feeling that she just doesn’t fit in anywhere and start to sort out who it is she wants to be. While many of the secondary characters are rather undeveloped, Margot is complicated and flawed. She makes mistakes and is often insufferably self-absorbed. I wish rather than seeing so many subplots, there would’ve been less going on, but had more pieces explored more in-depth (like her friendships, especially with her former best friend, or more about Moises’s activism and past). The vivid setting and many issues make this a fast read about family, identity, and culture that will appeal to many, including reluctant readers. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481472111

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers

Publication date: 02/21/2017

Still Learning Every Day: HERE WE ARE editor Kelly Jensen interviews contributor Sarah McCarry

It’s the final day in our week celebrating the release of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen. Today, Kelly joins us as she interviews one of the contributors, Sarah McCarry. Be sure to visit our post from day one to enter to win a Feminist t-shirt!

“I’m Still Learning Every Day”: Sarah McCarry on Feminism

____________________

hereweare

 Sarah McCarry’s essay in Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World is about relationships. More specifically, her piece conveys the hard lessons that so many girls learn and experience when it comes to finding and making true friendships. Where do you let yourself stand out? Where do you make yourself fit in? And at what point do you have to confront the roles you’re playing to do one and not the other?

Here’s a short excerpt from her essay:

You make yourself superior. Superior in your silence, your lack of want. You take up no space. You quit eating and do not name aloud the hunger that rages every day in your belly. You are not like other girls. You are not like other girls (“You are not like other girls,” the boys you run with will tell you, and you will try not to let them see you preen under the glancing light of their approval). You learn their books and their language. You laugh at their jokes. You listen to their stories, sit blank-eyed on their couches while they play video games, pass them your English notes. You keep their secrets. You use the words they use about other girls in order to assure yourself that they will never use those words about you. You make yourself into nothingness, a ghost conjured into being only through the desires of boys, the rules of boys, the ideas of boys. You’re not like other girls. If you turn sideways, you are so thin, you can almost disappear. If you are good enough at this, you will be safe.                                                           

You are never quite good enough at it, as it turns out. You were never, in their company, safe.                                                           

It will take you long, lonely years, but one day you will grow tired. Tired of boys, tired of contempt, and then where will you be? All these girls around you with their stories and their lives, the solace of one another, and you will be as far away from them as an anthropologist among a foreign people, curious but unable to make contact. Have faith: you will learn.

sarahmccarry

Sarah McCarry (and a bear)

The ways this essay talks about how we judge girls, as well as how those who identify as girls judge ourselves against other girls, is a gut-punch. It forces the reader through painful “ah ha” moments to get to those powerful, self-affirming moments. It’s an essay that defines so much of what social justice means: standing up for yourself and standing up for those who are disadvantaged by social, cultural, and political beliefs.

Kelly Jensen: If you had to pick a moment that really defined you as a feminist, where you felt like owning the term, what was that moment?

Sarah McCarry: Mmmm, that’s a good question. I can think immediately of a moment in my senior year of high school. I was in a study group with these guys from my physics class and it was important to me that they like me, that they think I was tough and cool and hot and not like other girls and all that other bullshit. They weren’t popular, exactly, but people liked them, they were rich and confident and they moved around in the world with this absolute ease that I wanted to be a part of. They sexually harassed me all the time; they harassed other girls in the class all the time; they said what, in retrospect, were horrific things about other girls in our class all the time, one of them had at that point sexually assaulted me; but I thought, then, that the way to deal with that was to be really cool. I didn’t think the issue was them or the culture that enabled them or the teacher who thought they were funny; I thought I just needed to be skinnier and meaner and more quiet and prettier but not girly and tell the right jokes and not take up any space and then I would have achieved that magical state of being one of them, of being, basically, human.

So this had been going on all year and their behavior was finally starting to trouble me in a way I couldn’t write off as my own hysteria. I will never forget a moment when we were all studying together in the café of a Barnes and Noble—this was a very small town, only goths and smokers went to the coffee shop—and they started talking about a girl in our class, saying things like she’d given dudes blow jobs to get them to do her homework for her, she was such a slut, she was trash. This girl was a thousand times smarter than all of them put together, I think she’s literally a neurosurgeon now. They were pissed because she knew better than to study with them and she did better than them by far in the class and had the audacity to be better at science than them while female and having sex with people who weren’t them. And suddenly something connected in me that had never sparked before; I understood in that moment that what they were saying was really fucked up, that what they’d done to me and to other women all year was really fucked up, that what I’d enabled them to say about other women was really fucked up, that they had never, at any point, thought of me as anything like an equal, that that was a battle I was never, ever going to win, and that I didn’t care whether or not they liked me anymore because I didn’t like a single one of them. I felt it through my whole body: I. Don’t. Care. Anymore. Just like that: I was free of them. And I stood up so fast I knocked my chair over and said, very loud, “Fuck all of you,” and walked out of there, and pretty much didn’t talk to them again after that. It was one of the more cathartic moments in my life, for sure.

But my feminism is also an organic, constantly evolving thing. For years after that moment with those dudes I still thought and said a lot of dumb things about race and class and sexuality and gender and how they operate together. I thought and said a lot of transphobic and racist and ableist and classist and just generally very stupid shit. It was a long time after that, when I had been doing social work for years, and organizing and working with a lot of incredible women of color who taught me so much—and were (god bless every one of you, you know who you are) incredibly patient and generous with me, which was a huge gift that of course I took for granted at the time—anyway, it was a long time after that before I would call my feminism anything resembling intersectional or committed to real social justice and transformation, and if my feminism is a useful tool now it’s entirely because of the work and ongoing work of women of color and trans women of color and because of the decades upon decades of work—again, in huge part by trans women of color and women of color and queer women of color—of women who came before me. I’m still learning every day.

Kelly: Your essay, while personal, is told entirely through second person. Talk about that choice and what you hope it is that readers feel as they go through the painful experiences associated with “fitting in.”

Sarah: I think that experience of internalized misogyny, of trying to transform yourself into the girl who’s not like other girls and ultimately failing—because that girl doesn’t exist, the girl who’s cool enough to be safe and respected and valued in a patriarchal system, no one has ever been that girl no matter how hard she worked or how many women she cut down or how many men approved of her—is a very common one for a lot of young (and not so young) women. I spent a long time working through shame about that experience: I wanted people who sexually assaulted me to like me, I spent a big chunk of my life putting myself into situations that I knew were physically and emotionally unsafe, I said shitty things to and about other women, and for years I thought that meant there was something fundamentally wrong with me or that I deserved what I’d been through. And of course that’s not true. I learned, working with survivors of extreme trauma, that surviving can often mean making choices that look—and often are—pretty terrible and part of moving out of trauma, of moving toward a life where trauma doesn’t define your existence, is forgiving yourself for making them in the first place. Like a lot of people, I was able to apply those lessons to others long before I realized I also got to apply them to myself. And I think the more easily you are able to be generous with yourself, the more easily you can extend that compassion to other people and see them in all their messy complicated beautiful infuriating human-ness, and hold yourself and other people accountable for your shitty choices in productive ways, and work together to move toward a world populated with the opportunities to make better ones.

The second person in the essay wasn’t a conscious choice but I think in some ways it manifested as a reminder to myself to extend the same kindness to the person I used to be as I do to other people. And for readers—I hope, wherever you’re at, that that’s useful to you.

Kelly: In what ways have you incorporated social justice/feminism into your everyday life?

Sarah: I don’t think you can separate those things, honestly. The lens of social justice isn’t something you can put away once you start looking at the world through it. It can make going to the movies a real pain in the ass, I tell you what. Once you see how power works in a system, you can’t ever unsee it again, even if you just want to watch dopey space battles on the IMAX screen.

Kelly: What are some of your favorite books and/or resources that would benefit all readers eager and curious about social justice/feminism?

Sarah: SO MANY!!!!! Mariame Kaba’s website (http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/) is an incredible resource and so is all of the work she does—she is an extraordinary organizer who works a lot with young people around transformative justice. Everything Jenny Zhang has ever written, especially her essays and stories for Rookie. Read Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Cisneros, Gloria Anzaldúa, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo, Toni Morrison (fiction and non!), June Jordan. I am a big fan of Walida Imarisha’s work, Natalie Diaz and Aracelis Girmay’s poetry, Rahawa Haile’s essays, everything Topside Press publishes… I could make this answer forty pages long, tbh. I use my twitter (@therejectionist) to flag particularly fabulous books I’m reading, you can keep an eye on that as well.

I will say that I think we have a responsibility to know our history, to know how long we’ve been fighting the exact same battles, the incredible transformative work that’s come before us; that’s something I wish I’d figured out way earlier. Read about the Black Panthers, read about ACT UP, read about Stonewall and SDS and the Combahee River Collective (http://circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html) and AIM, read Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells and Angela Davis and Assata Shakur and Leslie Feinberg and David Wojnarowicz and Ronald Takaki and Cherríe Moraga. People have been thinking about—and doing a really good job of thinking about—this stuff for a long, long time.

Kelly: How can young readers and those who advocate on their behalf better prepare themselves to be actively engaged with social justice and feminism? Perhaps more specifically, how can girls help other girls so that they don’t have to learn so many of these “Girl Lessons” the hard way?

Sarah: Honestly, I think the kids are all right these days—I mean, Teen Vogue is doing some of the best, most intersectional journalism in media. This book exists. I am constantly inspired by the energy and awareness and activism of young people; I feel like I learn a lot more from them than they can possibly learn from me.

As far as people who advocate for young readers, I think one of the best things we can do is ask young people what they need most from us and then shut up and listen when they answer.

Kelly: What is the biggest thing you hope readers take away from your essay in Here We Are?

Sarah: One thing I wish I had known when I was younger was that becoming the person you want to be is a lifelong process. You don’t have to—you’re not going to—get it right straight out of the gate. If readers take away a little more compassion for themselves and for the other people around them who are struggling too, then my work here is done. For the most part, we’re all doing the best we can to thrive within a system that doesn’t want to see us flourish, and we’ll do a much better job of taking care of each other as part of a community of loving dreamers and empathetic activists than we will trying to go it on our own.

Meet Sarah McCarry

Sarah McCarry (therejectionist.com/@therejectionist) is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs, Dirty Wings, and About a Girl, and the editor and publisher of the chapbook series Guillotine. Her books have been nominated for the Norton Award, been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards, and shortlisted for the Tiptree Award, and she is the recipient of a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. She has written for the New York Times Book Review, Glamour, Book Riot, Tor.com, and others.