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Book Review: Pocket Change Collective books

Publisher’s descriptions

Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon, Ashley Lukashevsky (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593094655 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 06/02/2020)

Pocket Change Collective was born out of a need for space. Space to think. Space to connect. Space to be yourself. And this is your invitation to join us.

In Beyond the Gender Binary, poet, artist, and LGBTQIA+ rights advocate Alok Vaid-Menon deconstructs, demystifies, and reimagines the gender binary.

Pocket Change Collective is a series of small books with big ideas from today’s leading activists and artists. In this installment, Beyond the Gender Binary, Alok Vaid-Menon challenges the world to see gender not in black and white, but in full color. Taking from their own experiences as a gender-nonconforming artist, they show us that gender is a malleable and creative form of expression. The only limit is your imagination.

This Is What I Know About Art by Kimberly Drew, Ashley Lukashevsky (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593095188 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 06/02/2020)

In this powerful and hopeful account, arts writer, curator, and activist Kimberly Drew reminds us that the art world has space not just for the elite, but for everyon
e.

Pocket Change Collective is a series of small books with big ideas from today’s leading activists and artists. In this installment, arts writer and co-editor of Black Futures Kimberly Drew shows us that art and protest are inextricably linked. Drawing on her personal experience through art toward activism, Drew challenges us to create space for the change that we want to see in the world. Because there really is so much more space than we think.

The New Queer Conscience by Adam Eli, Ashley Lukashevsky (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593093689 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 06/02/2020)

In The New Queer Conscience, LGBTQIA+ activist Adam Eli argues the urgent need for queer responsibility — that queers anywhere are responsible for queers everywhere

Pocket Change Collective is a series of small books with big ideas from today’s leading activists and artists. In this installment, The New Queer Conscience, Voices4 Founder and LGBTQIA+ activist Adam Eli offers a candid and compassionate introduction to queer responsibility. Eli calls on his Jewish faith to underline how kindness and support within the queer community can lead to a stronger global consciousness. More importantly, he reassures us that we’re not alone. In fact, we never were. Because if you mess with one queer, you mess with us all.

Imaginary Borders by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Ashley Lukashevsky (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593094136 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 06/02/2020)


In this personal, moving essay, environmental activist and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez uses his art and his activism to show that climate change is a human issue that can’t be ignored.

Pocket Change Collective is a series of small books with big ideas from today’s leading activists and artists. In this installment, Earth Guardians Youth Director and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez shows us how his music feeds his environmental activism and vice versa. Martinez visualizes a future that allows us to direct our anger, fear, and passion toward creating change. Because, at the end of the day, we all have a part to play.

Amanda’s thoughts

I’ve said it before, but: Almost always, I read books in order of publication date. It’s really the only way I can keep track of everything I want to review and juggle the rest of life. These little books have sat on my shelf for months and I’ve been so looking forward to getting to them. They did not disappoint.

You know who these would be great for? All the great kids you know who are graduating right now. I love giving books as gifts (she preached to the choir) and these are perfect to hand to young readers. And old readers! These books read like really impassioned TED talks, interspersing personal histories and details with factual information and calls to action.

In Beyond the Gender Binary, Vaid-Menon explores the many ways the false idea of a binary hurts everyone and how harmful the disconnect between what people see (and comment on) and who you are can be. They discuss how an emphasis on a binary involves power, control, shame, repression, harassment, discrimination, and more. They look at the laws against people who don’t conform to the gender binary, the access denied, the targeted legislation, and point out how so much of this is all about gender non-conforming people but rarely actually engages with them.

Vaid-Menon shares their own story from growing up, full of shame, fear, and bullying. They also detail common arguments against gender non-conforming people and refutes them. They emphasize the importance for the narrative around nonbinary people to be one of reclamation, acceptance, peace, and celebration in this powerful look at the toxic notion of a binary and the harmony and creativity of embracing a spectrum of gender identities.

In The New Queer Conscience, Eli focuses on providing a hopeful, uplifting message of support and solidarity as he calls for a unified queer community. Drawing parallels to the support and collective sympathy, outrage, and action he finds within his Jewish community, he urges queer people anywhere to feel responsible for queer people everywhere. He writes about being young and feeling confused and uncomfortable and desperately needing the validation, assurance, and support of a community. He addresses the common feeling of being alone that so many queer kids may feel, a feeling that could be alleviated by a stronger and more active community. Eli explores the changes necessary for this kind of community and transformation, including policies of kindness and understanding, acknowledging uneven playing fields and issues of privilege, and the need for there to be solidarity with all oppressed people. A great reminder that there’s a huge, welcoming community that values you and that together it can be stronger and more effective.

In Imaginary Borders, Martinez examines the climate change movement. His message is that we build the world together, especially when we understand that we are part of a larger system, that we need to claim space in the movements, and explores the need for a cultural shift. He details the ways climate change reaches across real and imagined borders and looks as the cascading effects of climate change, environmental racism, and social justice. Martinez focuses on the fact that there are many paths to activism, and that to inspire connection and action, we need to bring our imagination and creativity to the movement as well as diverse tactics.

In This Is What I Know About Art, Drew looks at art, activism, protest, and inclusion through the lens of her own path to a life in the art world. Emphasizing curiosity, engagement, and learning, she pushes for a collective voice and a shared community. Detailing her exploration of art in college and in internships and jobs, she encourages us to ask who is not in the room and how can we get them there.

Illuminating and inspiring, all four books encourage more thoughtful conversations around these topics. Really well done.

Review copies (ARC) courtesy of the publisher.

Book Review: Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden

Publisher’s description

From acclaimed author Tonya Bolden comes the story of a teen girl becoming a woman on her own terms against the backdrop of widespread social change in the early 1900s.

Savannah Riddle is lucky. As a daughter of an upper class African American family in Washington D.C., she attends one of the most rigorous public schools in the nation—black or white—and has her pick among the young men in her set. But lately the structure of her society—the fancy parties, the Sunday teas, the pretentious men, and shallow young women—has started to suffocate her.

Then Savannah meets Lloyd, a young West Indian man from the working class who opens Savannah’s eyes to how the other half lives. Inspired to fight for change, Savannah starts attending suffragist lectures and socialist meetings, finding herself drawn more and more to Lloyd’s world.

Set against the backdrop of the press for women’s rights, the Red Summer, and anarchist bombings, Saving Savannah is the story of a girl and the risks she must take to be the change in a world on the brink of dramatic transformation.

Amanda’s thoughts

17-year-old Savannah is hearing a lot of messages in 1919 Washington D.C. In the wake of WWI and the Spanish Flu, “onward and upward” is the motto of the times. She also hears a lot about being “a credit to the race” and “lifting as we climb.” Politically, there is a lot going on, particularly around the issue of women’s suffrage and the role that black women are allowed to play in that (and the issue of whether white women are considering them at all). Savannah feels a bit frustrated and disenchanted, embarrassed by the excess of the social circles her family is part of and curious about the wider world. Her uncle, a photographer, encourages her to find a challenge, a passion, a purpose. He urges her to stop just being an observer. When Savannah learns about a local school for girls, she begins to get involved helping there and, through her new contacts (many of whom are considered to be a “more radical element”), has her eyes opened to not just what is happening around the country but to what is happening in her very own city.

This book is a mix of a very character-driven story for about 50% or more of the book, then a very action-driven story for the remainder. I really loved this book. In fact, I’ve been in a horrible reading slump for most of the past few weeks (thanks, depression!) and have started and abandoned a giant stack of books as I try to decide what to read and review here for TLT. I got lost in Savannah’s world and loved watching her awakening. Her best friend Yolande is always there, being horrified at Savannah’s choice of company, admonishing her for being around “common” people who are not their kind of people. Savannah’s own parents are less than pleased with her choices, so it takes real strength for Savannah to strike out on her own and make real strides to educate herself and expand her views. As D.C. and other major cities erupt in riots, bombings, lynchings, and fires, Savannah finds herself more involved in the action than she ever could have dreamed.

This complex story will put readers right in the middle of all the action and introduces a wide swath of ideas and perspectives. Set just over 100 years ago, the quest for social justice and real change makes for a powerful and still (always) relevant topic. An author’s note, historical photographs, notes, and sources all provide further context for Savannah’s story and her awakening in this engaging and unique read.

ISBN-13: 9781681198040
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 01/14/2020

Book Review: Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan

Publisher’s description

watch us riseNewbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Renée Watson teams up with poet Ellen Hagan in this YA feminist anthem about raising your voice.

Jasmine and Chelsea are best friends on a mission–they’re sick of the way women are treated even at their progressive NYC high school, so they decide to start a Women’s Rights Club. They post their work online–poems, essays, videos of Chelsea performing her poetry, and Jasmine’s response to the racial microaggressions she experiences–and soon they go viral. But with such positive support, the club is also targeted by trolls. When things escalate in real life, the principal shuts the club down. Not willing to be silenced, Jasmine and Chelsea will risk everything for their voices–and those of other young women–to be heard.
These two dynamic, creative young women stand up and speak out in a novel that features their compelling art and poetry along with powerful personal journeys that will inspire readers and budding poets, feminists, and activists.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This book is so good. Order it, read it, book talk it, display it, love it.

 

Jasmine, Chelsea, and their friends attend a high school all about social justice and equity (or, allegedly it is). All students are required to be in a social justice club. But, like everywhere, their school is not perfect, with racism, sexism, and more alive and well. Jasmine and Chelsea leave their clubs to form a women’s rights club, focusing their intersectional feminism and activism on and around their lives at school. Together with their best friends Nadine and Isaac, they create art and foster conversations about many important issues. Jasmine, who is black, is a writer and an actress. Isaac, who is Puerto Rican, is a visual artist. Japanese and Lebanese Nadine is a singer and  DJ. And Irish and Italian Chelsea is a talented poet. Together, they inspire each other and help each other learn, grown, discover, and act. This book covers a lot of ground, tackling so many subjects in honest, creative, and effective ways.

 

I’m going to leave this review short and simple, because the real joy will come from reading about these smart, passionate, and motivated young people for yourself. This book is immensely readable—I burned through it in a couple of hours. Great dialogue, great writing, great poetry, great characters, great everything. It’s not often that I find a book wholly satisfying. And, even more rare, this book made me feel nostalgic for my teen years, remembering back to when I was a zine-writing young feminist and Gender and Sexuality Studies student. Empowering and inspiring, this book demands a wide readership. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547600083
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/12/2019

Book Review: We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss

Publisher’s description

fly awayLuke and Toby have always had each other’s backs. But then one choice—or maybe it is a series of choices—sets them down an irrevocable path. We’ll Fly Away weaves together Luke and Toby’s senior year of high school with letters Luke writes to Toby later—from death row.

This thought-provoking novel is an exploration of friendship, regret, and redemption, for fans of Jason Reynolds and Marieke Nijkamp.

Best friends since childhood, Luke and Toby have dreamed of one thing: getting out of their dead-end town. Soon they finally will, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, never looking back. If they don’t drift apart first. If Toby’s abusive dad, or Luke’s unreliable mom, or anything else their complicated lives throw at them doesn’t get in the way.

In a format that alternates between Luke’s letters to Toby from death row and the events of their senior year, Bryan Bliss expertly unfolds the circumstances that led to Luke’s incarceration. Tense and emotional, this hard-hitting novel explores family abuse, sex, love, and friendship, and how far people will go to protect those they love. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Chris Crutcher, and NPR’s Serial podcast.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I loved NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES and MEET ME HERE, the two previous novels from Bryan Bliss, so I figured I’d enjoy this. Though, really, enjoy is the wrong word to use for reading about impoverished, neglected, abused teens, one of whom is on death row. My point is, I knew I’d like the book. But I wasn’t prepared to be totally blown away and just gutted by this story. I’m a reading machine—as soon as I finish something, I pick up something new right away, hardly pausing for a breath in between. After finishing WE’LL FLY AWAY, I didn’t read anything else for a few days, just wanting the story and the characters to stick with me a while longer. This powerful look at loyalty, protection, friendship, and choices will shatter you. Be ready.

 

The story toggles between the letters that Luke is writing to Toby from death row and the time prior to his incarceration. We don’t know why Luke is on death row, other than he did something that he admitted to and doesn’t regret. We only learn at the very end how he landed there. Though I suspected what was going to happen, what would land him there, it was still absolutely devastating when the reveal of what happened came. But that all happens near the end. For the bulk of the book, we see Luke and Toby struggling through their day-to-day lives. Luke lives with his mom and twin younger brothers in a one-bedroom apartment. There’s never enough to eat and Luke does most of the caring for his brothers. When his mom eventually disappears for a few days, it hardly matters, because she wasn’t doing a whole lot to help out while there. Toby lives with his violent, drunk, abusive father. Toby is used to seeking safety and space to recover with Luke. What little Luke has, he’s happy to share with Toby.  He has always been Toby’s defender and protector. The two have hopes of leaving their small North Carolina town after graduation. Luke has a wrestling scholarship waiting for him in Iowa and Toby figures he’ll tag along. They haven’t exactly worked out details, but having some idea of life after this place helps them both cope with their realities. Things begin to unravel when Toby gets involved with Lily, a young woman he meets at the bar his dad frequents. Their meeting sets in motion terrible events that almost feel inevitable. As I read, as I watched events unfold, I kept thinking, “NO, NO, NO, NO,” even though I knew something terrible had to happen to get Luke on death row. It all feels so hopeless.

 

In Luke’s letters from death row, we see weird glimpses of hope that we could never see in the main narrative. I say “weird” because the kid is on death row. His letters are full of pain and anger, but also resiliency, and he works through so much in his letters to Toby. His letters give us a real insight into his mind during this time. It is, I would guess, virtually impossible for almost all of us to really imagine what it would be like to be on death row. To be waiting. To watch people you have come to know put to death. I think it can be easy for people to look at people in prison, on death row, and forget their humanity. It can be easy to write people off, to expect a punishment, to not see them as humans, to not understand what led them there, to not think about redemption or the worth of a life or what the death penalty really means. Bliss makes you think about all those things. He makes the reader understand that people are not just defined by one thing, but have entire lives and stories that led them to the act or acts that landed them in prison. He asks readers to see their complex lives and care about them. The standout characters, including the nun who routinely visits Luke in prison, are deeply affecting and beg readers to really pay attention to their lives and their choices. Though devastatingly sad, this is also a beautiful look at friendship between two boys—something we don’t always see much of in YA. This emotional, powerful, and unflinching look at friendship, loyalty, and the justice system is an absolute must for all collections. Not an easy read, but an important one. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780062494276
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/08/2018

#SJYALit: Because Their Stories Matter, a guest post by Danielle Ellison

 Today, author Danielle Ellison joins us as part of our Social Justice in YALit Discussion. You can find all of the #SJYALit Posts here.

sjyalit

As much as I want to write this guest post, I also don’t want to. It’s a familiar feeling, for me, of why I was nervous to write my newest book and why I am terrified of my next one: I’m not representative of what I’m writing.

In a world of YA where Own Voices matter, where representation matters, where diversity is important—and as someone who stands in support of that—I didn’t want to write a book with a gay teen. I also don’t want to have a MC who is a person of color, which my next in this series. But I am anyway because their stories matter.

Their stories matter.

##

My day job is working with teenagers. I love my job and I love my teens, fiercely, even when they say or do or act in messed up teenage ways. I love being a pro-claimed library mom to them.

I don’t love the other parts.

I don’t love having to bite my tongue when I listen to my LGBTQ+ teens talk about being are too afraid to come out to their families because they know if they do, they’ll be homeless.

I don’t love watching one of my teens, who is a fantastic makeup artist and future (self-proclaimed) drag queen, wear beanies and sweats to school because he believes if he dresses as who he is, he will get beat up by rednecks. (His words.)

sweetheartsham

I feel pride when I see seventh graders speak out about their gender identity, about their pronouns, about the name they want to be called instead, and stand up to peers who ridicule. (I never knew that much about myself, or the world, in seventh grade because my peers were more invested in boy band drama.) While I embrace that pride, I don’t love hearing some of those same kids talk about how his mom tried to make him wear a dress to picture day. Or how her dad keeps introducing her as his dead name in public, even though dad doesn’t call her that at home. Or how kids at school say comments that imply being a “they” means they have two people inside their head, and in which case wouldn’t that just make them crazy?

I have listened to, cried with, been angered for, sat helplessly by and listened to LGTBQ+ teens (and adult friends) no matter what their gender, identity, race or pronoun, deal with issues of acceptance, trust. How they can’t walk down the street holding their partner’s hand just in case. How they get stares for looking “different”. How they fear every day that today may be the last day they have the rights they fought for.

I’m lucky. I don’t have those fears. I don’t have, and never have had to, face the reality that my parents, my family, my friends could turn their backs on me if they found out who I was wasn’t who they wanted me to be. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, that I won’t fight, that I won’t support, listen to, march with, fight for those who do. In fact, it means the opposite. It means I will.

As fiercely as I love my teens, writing, my job, I love people. I believe that fear shouldn’t be present in their lives, and it makes me sad—and it makes me angry—that humans in our “free” country have to experience any of that.

##

These stories matter.

It’s the aftermath of them, too, that matter. It’s the other teens, the ones who lend clothes and give rides and offer bedroom floors to their friends “just in case”. It’s the ones who listen, who care, who fight and argue and march alongside their friends. It’s the stories of those who just love other humans…not because they’re LGBTQ+ or a person of color. Not because of any social issue other than being a friend.

Those stories matter too.

And that’s why I write these stories I’m afraid of. There are more stories out there to be told, and there are some out there being shouted off rooftops. We just have to be brave enough to listen.

About The Sweetheart Sham:

In a small town like Culler, South Carolina, you guard your secrets like you guard your cobbler recipe: with your life. Georgia Ann Monroe knows a thing or two about secrets: she’s been guarding the truth that her best friend Will is gay for years now. But what happens when a little white lie to protect him gets her into a fake relationship…and then the boy of her dreams shows up?

Enter Beau Montgomery: Georgie’s first love, hotter than ever, and much too much of a southern gentleman to ever pursue someone else’s girl. There’s no way to come clean to Beau while still protecting Will. But bless their hearts, they live in Culler—where secrets always have a way of revealing themselves.

Disclaimer: This Entangled Teen Crush book contains a hilarious “fakeship,” a scorching-hot impossible relationship, and a heartwarming best-friendship that will make you want to call your best friend right here, right now.

Buylinks: https://entangledpublishing.com/the-sweetheart-sham.html

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33025418-the-sweetheart-sham

About Danielle Ellison:

danielleellison

Danielle Ellison is a nomad, always on the lookout for an adventure and the next story. In addition to writing, she’s the founder and coordinator of the NoVa TEEN Book Festival. When she’s not busy with books, she’s probably watching her favorite shows, drinking coffee, or fighting her nomadic urges. She is newly settled in Oklahoma (for now) with her cat, Simon, but you can always find her on twitter @DanielleEWrites.

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

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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.