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Thinking About Gender, Again

justagirlGender is something that we typically think of in binary and often stereotypical terms. Most people continue to divide people up into either male or female and if we’re going to be honest, most of us have certain thoughts in our minds as to what it means to be female or male. We even have childhood rhymes about it, snakes and snails and puppy dog tails or sugar and spice and everything nice. But it’s the year 2015 and we are learning that not everyone defines themselves into these easy binary categories and if we are going to be in the business of respecting people and providing safe spaces for them then we need to do the work of breaking down our traditional binary thinking. And it’s not always easy work.

One of the reasons that I read a variety of professional literature and blogs is that I learn things. We are best, I feel, when we share and we learn from each other. It’s part of the reason that I blog. It’s part of the reason that I read blogs. And this week I was challenged once again to rethink my approach to issues of gender when I read Ingrid, The Magpie Librarian’s post on Adventures in Library Card Applications and Gender Neutral Bathrooms.

A few years ago when we were discussing summer reading registration I argued against compiling gender demographics as part of our sign up. For one, the information is, in my opinion, basically irrelevant. The other argument is that however we would respond to this information, it would probably be in a way that reinforced gender stereotypes and I feel that gender stereotypes are harmful to us all. There is no one right way to be a man and there is no one right way to be a woman.

In her post on Library Card Applications and Gender Neutral Bathrooms, Ingrid mentions her campaign to try to get her library system to stop asking those who register to define themselves as male or female:

As we have it now, anyone who doesn’t fit into the Male and Female categories is treated like an “other”, which is generally not how I like to treat library patrons. It’s not very welcoming

Many people will argue that we need this for statistical purposes. I would argue that it’s something that we’re just used to being asked so it’s more out of habit or tradition then in providing us with meaningful information that better helps us meet the needs of our patrons. And again, our responses to this information will tend to be based on stereotypes as opposed to any meaningful types of outreach. I will say that I discussed this post with a fellow staff member and they said that having the male/female information on the record helps if you have, say, someone named “Chris” listed as the name on a card, particularly if a dispute comes up.

The other truth is that in the year 2015 many people don’t identify as traditionally male or female. You probably saw some media attention to the fact that Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner transitioned to female and is now Caitlyn Jenner. And just this past week pop star Miley Cyrus came out as gender fluid, meaning she doesn’t identify as male or female. You don’t have to personally like it and I have read enough of the comments to know that there are many people that have strong feelings on the subject, but I think that if we are going to call ourselves compassionate people that when have to do the work of breaking down our personal biases and allowing people to identify themselves as they want to self-identify and respect their right to do so. And if libraries are going to be neutral and safe spaces, and I believe that they should be to be successful in their mission to their communities, then we have to respect our patrons. As Ingrid mentions, othering people is not very welcoming.

The second part of Ingrid’s post has to do with turning the single stall bathrooms on the children’s floor into gender neutral bathrooms. Instead of a boy’s and a girl’s bathroom they were re-labelled Bathroom A and Bathroom B. This is, actually, a pretty common sense thing to do. In fact, as soon as I read the post I went to our head of children’s with the post in hand stating that we should do the same. Beyond gender neutrality issues, it’s just actually a better way to use resources. How many times have I seen a young girl waiting outside the girl’s bathroom when the boy’s bathroom sat empty and vice versa? Too many to mention and, if you think about it, there’s no reason for them to be waiting when there is another perfectly empty single stall right there waiting to be used. The only thing that is stopping them is a sign that says “boys”.

One of the arguments is, of course, this idea that we are keeping our girls safe by not allowing men to go into the girls bathroom. Transgender women are especially an object of fear for many, so much so that Michelle Duggar spent a great amount of time campaigning to prevent a law that would have allowed transgendered individuals to use the bathroom of their choice. She stated that this would make young girls in particular susceptible to male pedophiles who dressed up as women to gain access to our children. The idea that a simple sign that says “girls” will prevent a man intent on raping a young girl from entering a bathroom is, if we really think about it, an absurd notion. I remember reading years ago about a library that locked its bathroom doors and you had to ask for a key at the desk. A young girl, I believe aged 8, asked for the key and when she went into the bathroom she was followed by a man who did in fact rape her in the bathroom. The truth is, if someone is intent on raping another a sign isn’t going to stop them. But this is not the only reason that this mindset is dangerous, because we must remember that women can and do sexually abuse and that men are equally capable of sexually abusing boys and men in a boys bathroom. Designating a bathroom in terms of binary genders does nothing to keep our children from sexual abuse and those that think it does are not doing the real work necessary to help break down the cultural issues that really put our children at risk of sexual violence. They are fighting, I believe, the wrong battles.

I think it’s important to note as well that when we’re talking about single stall bathrooms, there is actually no good reason to gender them. This is a case of us continuing to do the things we used to do without thinking fully of what it means to the library and it’s patrons. So as I read Ingrid’s post I had a genuine A-HA! moment.

Doing the cognitive work of moving from traditional binary gendered thinking is not easy work. As I have mentioned, I hold a Bachelor’s of Art degree in Youth Ministry from a very conservative Christian college, so I understand that spiritual teachings and objections of the conservative side of things. I am, though I am loathe to admit it, slightly older (only slightly), so I understand the cultural norms there as well and how hard it is to ask a more firmly set mind to adjust those settings. It’s not easy and I’m probably not doing as good of a job as I think I am in changing my thinking and my ability to approach others with basic human dignity and respect. But I’m trying, and that has to count for something, I hope. I hope you’ll read Ingrid’s piece and allow yourself to think on it as well. We owe it to our patrons to create welcoming environments.

Of note: As Ingrid mentions in her post, some states have laws indicating that an individual can use the bathroom of their choice based on how they self identify. It’s important to know what the laws are in your state. Ingrid recommends using http://www.lambdalegal.org/help as a resource to find out what the laws in your state may be.

Sunday Reflections: I’m Holding Out for a Hero, a Female Superhero

I have such conflicted feelings about this year’s superhero themed Summer Reading Club.

As a big superhero fan myself, I was at first incredibly excited. But the truth is, for those of us raising daughters or working with the female gender – which coincidentally makes up half of the population – it’s a bit of a double edged sword when you start to realize how little female representation there is in the world of superheroes. And the representation we do get is often incredibly sexualized and often in service of the male characters.

And then there is the merchandising.

Sure, in Big Hero 6 there are two female superheroes out of the six. A full 1/3. But you’ll be hard pressed to find them on any of the merchandising, particularly if you go looking for fabric to make your own clothing.

The Marvel Universe, also a Disney house now, isn’t much better. If you go looking for Guardians of the Galaxy or The Avengers merchandise you will be lucky to find any including Gamora or Black Widow. As The Mary Sue points out, you can only find a hand full of Black Widow on the new merchandising efforts for The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.

And if you go looking at Star Wars merchandise, you won’t find a lot of women there either. As Carrie Fisher recently pointed out, our primary image of Princess Leia from the Star Wars universe is the one where she is being held captive and sexualized in the gold bikini. Interestingly enough, at a recent Star Wars panel author Anthony Breznican (BRUTAL YOUTH) asked about female representation in the Star Wars universe and they seemed to at least acknolwedge there was a problem and they were working on it. Skip to the 5:30 timestamp in this Force Awakens panel to see the discussion.

I noticed this myself when we took our Girl Scout troop to a Build a Bear for a reward party for selling far and above the amount of cookies we thought they could sell. They worked hard and were incredibly successful. But if they wanted to build a superhero themed bear their choices were Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man.

And during Easter season I snapped this picture of Superhero dolls you can purchase to fill baskets. Not surprisingly, there was not a female one in the offering even though they were both DC and Marvel based heroes, which means they could have at the very least included Wonder Woman.

The results weren’t much better when I went looking for superhero Legos for my Lego based Makerspace. The problem, of course, is that there are far less female superheroes to choose from. So when I found a pack of 24 superhero Legos for only $24.00 on Ebay – a fantastic price – it was not surprising when they came in and only 4 of them were female. My tweens and teens like to make stop motion Lego movies and we’ll be making our own superhero themed ones, but it looks like our representation won’t be much better than the big screen given how few options we will have.

There was a glimmer of hope when the recent Ms Marvel comics were released – and they are good. Bonus points because we get a female superhero and a woman of color to boot, done well. But the male superheroes still far outnumber the female. And there isn’t a female superhero movie in sight for 2015 or 2016. A Wonder Woman movie has been tabled for years, currently slated for 2017. However, the pressure for a female led superhero movie to be successful is so stressful that the current director recently jumped ship according to MTV news. There is now a new director attached to the picture, Patty Jenkins, but if this movie fails many in the industry will see it as a sign that no one wants female superhero movies, which is nowhere near the truth.

My 6 year old daughter’s favorite movie is The Avengers (and sometimes Sharknado). She watches it again and again and again. I am mesmerized as she watches the scene where Black Widow busts out of a chair that she is tied into, surrounded by men who think they have the upper hand. I see how she feels empowered and is taking in a simple message: even in the most seemingly dire of situations you can be powerful, you can be strong, you can save yourself. In a world where a majority of the images our girls will see involve them being rescued by, objectified by and in service of men, it’s such a powerful message. But then when we can’t find any superhero merchandise in the stores, that message is undermined.

To make matters worse, some of the Avengers themselves were on a press tour this past week when they reminded us all that powerful women who embrace their sexuality are “sluts” and “whores”. In a recent interview with Renner (Hawkeye) and Evans (Captain America), when asked about Black Widow maybe having a relationship with Hulk, the two men joked about Black Widow being a slut. To add injury to insult, they went on to suggest that because her character has a prosthetic leg (which I hear makes no sense because it is not true) and she was “leading everyone on”, which is troubling ableist language. And they pointed out that “she’ll always be a sidekick anyway”, a seemingly direct slap in the face to every fan asking for a Black Widow movie.

Just this week WB and DC announced a new line of superhero stuffs – JUST FOR GIRLS. Which you would think would make me feel less conflicted, but it only addresses the female half of my concerns. Yes, I want my girls to see girl superheroes. But I also want boys growing up being told by marketers and authors and society at large that girls are not other, that they are in fact worthy of their time and attention. I want boys to be just as comfortable wearing an Avengers shirt with Black Widow as my girls are expected to be wearing a shirt with Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and Hulk. As Chuck Wendig points out in his discussion of the WB/DC announcement: “Society will get better when boys have to learn about girls the same way girls learn about boys.” It’s not just about wanting superheroes for girls, is about wanting our boys to grow up in a world where they embrace the value of girls. But that’s what gendering does, especially since it is catered to the males among us, it others females in such a way that our boys grow up being told that girls are not worth their time and attention, unless it is as a sex object.

I dropped my daughters off at school today. I kissed them goodbye and told them I love them. I sent them out once again into the breech, this world that continues to tell them that in subtle and not so subtle ways that they are less than their male counterparts. I think they deserve better. I think they deserve to see female superheroes who remind them that they can be fierce, they can be brave, they can be honorable – that they can be their own heroes. And I think they deserve to grow up in a world where boys are learning that girls and the things that girls like, produce and consume have value. And this can be done to some extent when they have their own superheroes to look up to, but even more is accomplished when we create a superhero universe for all fans – male and female – that represents a wide variety of genders, ethnicities, abilities and more. Representation matters.

Sunday Reflections: What I Learned While Trying to Put Together a Women’s History Display

I was walking by my YA room when I saw a staff member searching the shelves for something, so I went down and asked what she was looking for. It turned out, she was looking for inspiration for a new display. So after some talking we decided that we would do a Women’s History Month display. And then the conversation got, interesting I would say.

I started grabbing a bunch of great titles off of the shelves and we started making stacks for the display. I pulled the Katherine Longshore titles and Maid of Secrets by Jenn McGowan, A Mad Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Lots of great titles about women in historical fiction. After we had some good stacks of books to fill all the display pieces we had, I could tell that something was still bothering this staff member and that she was hesitating.

“But we need some books written by men,” she said to me, “and with boys on the covers.”

I was . . . stunned. “Actually,” I replied, “I’m pretty sure we don’t for a Women’s History Month display. I think books written by women about women fits in perfectly with the theme.”

“But we need some male authors,” she said again.

“I’m pretty sure we don’t,” I replied again.

“But we want boys to read, don’t we? So we need some male authors and books with men on the covers.”

I didn’t hesitate and asked her, “Did you read Shakespeare in high school? Lord of the Flies? Dickens? Hemingway? There is no reason, none, that a boy should not or can’t be expected to read books written by a female author or featuring female characters. Nobody ever blinks at the idea that women will read books written by men or featuring male characters. Books are for readers. All of them.”

“But boys won’t read books with girls on the covers,” she replied.

And this, my friends, is a lie. I have met many teenage boys who read Sara Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson and A. S. King, for example. I once went to a teen book festival where I talked to a teen boy who went to one author and one author only: Sarah Rees Brennan. He had read everything by her.

But the truth is, if we keep feeding into the lie that boys won’t read books with girls on the covers or written by female authors, they’ll keep believing it. Somebody teaches them this lie and that somebody is us. And this lie is dangerous because it tells boys that the lives and thoughts and art of women is somehow less than that of men and they don’t need to be bothered with it. And it tells girls who grow up seeing this lie lived out around them that they are somehow less than their male counterparts. And everyone grows up believing this and it’s a really hard internalized message that is difficult to rewrite. But we have to rewrite it, because it harms us all and it defeats the whole point of reading and art and storytelling; the part where we step into lives that our different than our own, where we develop compassion and empathy and understanding, where we dare to explore other points of view. If you believe the lie that boys can’t read books written by or featuring girls then you don’t understand the purpose and value of storytelling.

So after one final discussion, we agreed to do the display for Women’s History Month with the books we had pulled.

Ironically, the next day I noticed on the other side of the display space was a basketball display for March Madness. Not a single book on it was written by a woman or featured a woman on the cover. Apparently that inclusion doesn’t go both ways, which is just part of the problem.

The Beauty and the Beast Effect in YA Literature

Like a lot of book lovers, Beauty and the Beast was my favorite Disney movie. It seemed like such a no-brainer. Here was a girl who loved books and read-she even sang about it! Then later, she discovers a glorious library that we could all covet. With no hesitation I would tell you that Belle is my favorite Disney princess!

But my thoughts on this all changed one long family car trip from Texas to Ohio. Armed to the teeth with media to keep my kids, then 10 and 4, placated, I downloaded Beauty and the Beast onto our iPad for their backseat viewing. But something interesting happened on that trip as I listened – really listened – to the dialogue and didn’t have the pretty pictures to distract me. Oh my gosh, I thought! He has kidnapped her to try and force her to fall in love with him. Technically, he kidnapped her father then traded his imprisonment for hers. And we, the audience, are supposed to think that this is a good idea. It’s okay because underneath it all he is really a nice prince who has learned a valuable lesson about being kind and unselfish. Belle’s love, you see, changes him. We’re supposed to swoon and ignore the fact that she was not there because she wanted to be, she was there because he was holding her prisoner.

Later that night, when my kids had gone to sleep, I deleted the movie off of my iPad. I later had a conversation with my then pre-teen daughter. Whatever happens in life, I told her, know that you should never fall in love with a man who is willing to hold you hostage; that is abusive; that is domestic violence. Also know that if a man is not a good guy when you meet him, your love is probably not going to change him into a good guy.

Then in these past few months I read not one, not two, not three but four books in which the main female character in a YA novel fell in love (or will maybe fall in love) with a guy who kidnaps her in some form or another. If you follow me on Twitter (@tlt16) you know that I went on lots of mini-rants about this phenomenon.

The truth is, I liked most of the books. One of them I liked so much I asked The Mr. to read it. You can like problematic things, but I was immensely torn on these titles because of The Beauty and the Beast Effect.


In Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, we are introduced to a kick-ass female who is surviving on a hostile planet – both in terms of environment and being surrounded by rough male characters. She makes extra money by fighting in MMA-type matches and winning. She also has strong tech skills, something which she is frequently sought out for. Basically, she is pretty freaking awesome. But then a guy shows up, knocks her out, kidnaps her, and transports her against her will across the galaxy. During this, they kind of sort of start to fall in love. I liked everything about this book except for that. Well, there was one other part that kind of bothered me. You see, Snow has already been established as a strong female character and a skilled fighter. She has fought and won against a ton of men on her home planet. But of course as she enters into possible battle this guy comes along and has to train her to be a better fighter. I can understand that realistically she might need to learn some more precision fighting skills. I just thought it was unfortunate that this previously established strong female fighter was undermined by having her taught how to fight – by of course a man. A man that is holding her hostage as a negotiation tool against a warring planet. I liked the character of Snow, I liked the vast space exploring epic science fiction saga of it all, I just hated the way the male lead chose to execute his plan by literally knocking Snow out, abducting her, and then the reader being left with the expectation that they should accept this budding love story.

In Black Ice by Becca Fitzpatrick, our main character is stuck in a snow storm in the mountains and she is being held captive by two men who are forcing her to help them get back to safety. They want to use her and her knowledge of the area to help them navigate the snowstorm. One or both of them are possibly serial killers. I’m sure you can guess what happens. This could have been an engaging thriller had we not been asked to accept that this girl would literally pine for a boy who not only held her against her will but possibly left her best friend for dead at one point in the story. I literally want to rip the last couple of chapters out of this book, which would make it an entirely different and more palatable story from a girl power point of view.

In Falls the Shadow by Stefanie Gaither, a young woman is misled by a male “friend” and taken to a group that holds her hostage because they want information from her. And because there is a theme happening here, you can guess what happens next.

In The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigulupi, a girl is literally held captive in a cage by a group of activists led by the male lead until she agrees to do what they ask her to do. Later, as she begins to realize that they were telling her the truth and that she wants to be on their side . . . well, again, I am sure you can guess what happens. It is this book that I found so compelling and thoughtful in its commentary on the media and publicity machines of our world that I asked The Mr. to read. The thing is, I think it is an entertaining thriller that asks teens really profound and important questions about topics that haven’t been covered a lot in YA literature: how we are marketed to, how people with money influence the information we have and put profits over people, and how government often fails to protect the very people that they are elected to serve. It is for me, as a woman and a mother, so unfortunate that the important thoughts expressed within this narrative are marred by the falling in love with your captor trope. This is thematically one of the most important and thoughtful books I have read this year, but it’s hard for me to get past The Beauty and the Beast effect here. I can’t buy into the second part of the book and this love story because I know it began with this boy putting her in a cage. That is not romantic, it is abusive. And to suggest that it is something that you can forgive or look past and go on to develop a romantic relationship is highly problematic. It’s not the type of messaging we should be sending to our boys or our girls.

The thing is, in each of these books the guys don’t necessarily seem like typical bad guys. They are often, in fact, guys fighting good causes or seeking worthwhile goals, they just choose to do so by taking away the female’s agency and literally holding her captive – which makes them bad guys by default. Even if their intentions are good, they are bad guys because they engage in abusive/violent behavior that doesn’t recognize the agency of the female characters. They kidnap, manipulate, lie, and coerce in order to achieve their goals. The girl begins as a pawn and then we are asked as readers to overlook all of this and accept their budding love stories. We, as readers, are expected to swoon.

In at least two of the narratives the authors at least have the characters acknowledge the existence of Stockholm Syndrome and question their motives for being attracted to the guy. But that possibility is quickly dismissed.

In a single story I might be more willing to overlook this troubling trope, but reading so many instances in such a short time period really made me question how we were portraying our girls in YA fiction and what we are saying to them, at least subliminally, about relationships. So while an author might argue that it isn’t their job to teach or write in a way that transforms young minds, we must also be honest with ourselves and admit that part of the reason we embrace literature and things like We Need Diverse Books is because we do in fact believe that part of how we view ourselves and the world around us is informed in part by the literature we read. We spend a great amount of time and verbiage extolling the power of reading to open minds and create empathy, which means that we believe that literature can influence our thinking. So I would like to see less books that suggest we as women should overlook the fact that a guy is willing to completely undermine a girl’s personal agency and find them in any way desirable. In my opinion, being kidnapped by another person is such a horrific offense that it should be a deal breaker. Subverting a person’s free will and personal autonomy, controlling them, manipulating them, coercion – these are all abusive practices, not romantic in any way. We need to find better ways to tell our stories that re-enforce the idea that female agency is important.

Sunday Reflections: Lies we tell girls about boys

If you search on Goodreads, this is the tag line for the book Some Boys by Patty Blount: Some boys go too far. Some boys will break your heart. But one boy can make you whole.

There are things I really liked about this book, including an on point speech by the main character, Grace, about the ways our culture objectifies girls and defines them in relation to boys. Which is part of the reason why this tagline – one boy can make you whole – is so very problematic. Not just the  words, but this idea that we keep selling girls over and over again.

The truth is, a boy can’t make a girl whole. Finding someone you like and you can spend time with in mutually fulfilling ways it awesome, but it won’t make you whole.

When we talk about girls, we talk often about them in terms of boys.

When administrators discuss school dress codes, the girls dress is often referred to in terms of boys: Girls have to dress modestly, because we worry it will distract boys from their education.

When we talk about virginity and sex, it also is often referred to in terms of boys: Girls should remain a virgin so they can give their husband their “flower” on their wedding night.

When we talk about getting or keeping our bodies in shape, it is often in terms of boys: You want to look good so that you can catch a husband. And we all know that girls need a husband.

The way we talk about girls is dangerous to girls. Our cultural dialogue continues to suggest that girls, who they are, their bodies, their well being, is all about boys. It’s as if being a girl is somehow so much lesser, we remind them that their primary goal is to find a boy. Girls have no worth to our culture in and of themselves, it is only in relation to a man that we give girls any worth.

Don’t get me wrong, I think finding someone you can share your life with is a beautiful thing. I have been married for 19 years now and I find it to be pretty awesome 92.3% of the time. But the thing is, my husband did not heal me or make me whole. In fact, it is only as I began to do that for myself that I became a better wife. Because once I could enter into our partnership as a healthier, happier individual, then the partnership became more mutually satisfying for us both.

In the bible, Jesus says the laws can be summed up as this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)

Whether you believe in the Bible or not, the second part of this statement is a profound idea. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. What this means is that in order for us to truly love our neighbor, we must first love ourselves. What a gift these words are. They are permission – a reminder – that we must all take the time to make and keep ourselves healthy and whole so that we can love ourselves and in doing so, we will better love our neighbors.

We need to stop defining our girls in terms of boys. We need to change the language of our culture to recognize the full personhood of girls, of women, everywhere.  

A girl’s sexuality is not about pleasing a man. It is about her. It is about making the choices for self that she is comfortable and healthy and yes, even satisfied, with. And in doing so, she can be a better partner (if she chooses to be a partner at all), because she is entering into that partnership from a place of health and well being.

A girl’s body is not about a boy. She should make choices that make her feel strong, confident and healthy in her body. And in doing so, in feeling good both emotionally and physically in her body, she can be a better partner, because she is entering into that partnership from a place of health and well being.

When we encourage our girls to be strong, independent, fully realized human beings and when we recognize them as such in our culture, what we are doing is allowing them to be in a place of health and well being. And when they navigate through life in a better place of health and well being, they are able to be better friends, better co-workers, and better partners. Because they have to love themselves in healthy ways before they can reach out and love others in healthy ways. Not just romantic love, but all love. The more at peace we find ourselves, the more comfortable we are in our own skin, the better our other relationships can be.

So the truth is, a boy can’t make a girl whole. A boy can’t fix or save a girl. Us girls have to figure out a way to do that for ourselves and in that wholeness we can then step into our world in more positive ways.

And the truth is, this is also true about boys. It is true for all people, however they choose to identify themselves. Broken people operate in the world in broken ways. So our goals should be the health and well being of all people, because it makes the world a better place for all. If we keep working on changing the dynamics of how we talk about and treat each other, we can work to create healthier spaces for people to develop healthier personhood. As we allow those around us to love themselves we are also allowing them to love us, to love their neighbor. 

So let’s start with an important first step for our girls and drop the tag lines and story arcs that suggest that a boy can save or fix a girl. Show girls that they can save, fix, heal and love themselves and in doing so, then they can love abundantly.

Breaking the Gender Molds, a guest post and giveaway by author Eric Devine

I’m a 36-year-old, cisgendered, heterosexual, white male, who writes Young Adult novels that are boy-centric, and I’m bothered by the slim definition of what it means to be a man.

I was raised under very stereotypical precepts about manhood, and I was always bothered by them. Instead of watching sports, I read. Shyness overtook bravery. I did not demand, I accepted, and it was problematic.

Until I flipped the switch during middle school and played the part. It was instantly apparent how much easier it was to be a loud-mouthed punk than it was to be me. But in spite of the ease, I was unsettled, because I knew who I had abandoned.

Painful, yes, but excellent training for the work I do today. Because those expectations, those norms of masculinity, still exist, are extremely pervasive, and put boys and teens into extremely uncomfortable situations where they either have to behave the part or suffer the consequences. The pressure is real and terrifying, and something I try to address in my work.

In summary: Tap Out is about what one does as a very stereotypical “tough” male in a hostile and violent environment that has only one use for him. One he doesn’t want, but is hamstrung to escape.

Dare Me explores what it’s like to want to break the profile of “nothingman” and win acclaim, earn money, and come out on top by succeeding at feats of valor––or more commonly known today as YouTube stunts.

Press Play is about pushing back against the dominant, violent culture, by fighting with technology and intelligence, instead of fists. It’s about choosing not to hide, in spite of the enormous danger of exposure.

Much of my decisions regarding what I write and how I address issues of gender, in particular masculinity, are informed by my own experience, but equally by my students. We talk. A lot. And I tell stories of my youth because they want to understand how I’ve arrived at my perspectives. I’ve addressed aspects of drug use, sexuality, violence, suicide, rape, privilege, and any number of humorous/disgusting combinations about life you can think of. Often we talk about expectations placed on girls and boys, even if my students don’t realize that’s what they’re talking about.

One day we discussed fighting. There had recently been one, and based on the details, I innocently asked about a broken nose. The class sensed I knew more about this topic than I was letting on and asked me to tell a story of what I knew of breaking someone’s nose.

I did, briefly, but more importantly, then asked, “What are the expectations for males in our society, especially contact sport athletes, when it comes to fighting?”

This led to an engaging conversation that quickly turned from only males in sports to males and females broadly. And it was an interesting experience for many of the girls to hear the boys talk about the pressure of fitting in. They deftly detailed that on some level the dirty jokes and swearing and fighting are part of the roles in which they are asked to play (Yes, they struggled to word it this way––they’re teens––but the message was clear: forced stereotypes are universal).

I was so proud of our conversation because it was obvious that I had provided a space for my students to think about concepts they’d never fully entertained, which is exactly what I try to do in my stories. Yet, the issue stuck with me. Because what didn’t emerge in that conversation was that those pressures don’t go away. They morph and become stronger. And in light of very recent events of parties and rape and fight clubs, I felt a bit hopeless. How is a male, today, supposed to successfully navigate the pressures of being “a man” and evolve into someone who is unafraid to embrace a balance of masculine and feminine traits? In essence, how are they to succeed where I failed?

I won’t say books are the answer, because that’s naive. Parents, adult figures, older brothers and sisters, and by very large measure peers and pop culture all have a hand in shaping boys and girls. Books are a part of that, and a significant one if they flip preconceived notions on their heads. If they challenge the stereotypes. If they offer alternatives to the norm of cisgendered, heterosexual, white protagonist. Or if they expose and explore the trappings of how and why the stereotypes abound.

And they already exist. But the audience needs to be wider. I know men and women who haven’t read a book since high school, and so for all the good that I can do by writing novels that challenge societal assumptions, how are my stories ever going to find a way into the hands of the sons and daughters of these adults, who do not value reading, who may be completely comfortable with the expectations of the standard male and female models because they were never challenged to think otherwise, and who have not had conversations with their children about the fact that “being a man”  or “being a woman” is an ever-evolving process that is a paramount pursuit in order to have a fulfilling life?

But there are others. Like me, and not at all like me, who are having these conversations, who are reading and helping teens navigate. There are teachers and librarians and adult figures in various capacities who are open and willing and helpful. There are allies in every struggle. And I feel that the issue of redefining both masculinity and femininity is a pressing and important concern. Not so that we can foist new roles on boys and girls, but so that we can accept the traits of masculinity and femininity, the fact that they are a part of us all, regardless of gender or sexuality. If only so that the “boys will be boys” mentality, that is one of the most ignorant concepts in our culture, can die.

And so with it, some of that pressure. I say “some” because there will always be pressure. But it is up to us to decide how it is applied, and to what end. Do we want to continue the binary opposition of male versus female in our culture, or do we want to move forward with a better understanding of humanity and of ourselves?

Because in the end, even my freshman understand the pressures are they same, they just manifest differently. Therefore, we should be seeking virtues of behavior and not categories. Because breaking the mold is beautiful, but never again having to fill one is stunning.

Eric Devine is a high school teacher and the author of Tap Out, Dare Me and the upcoming Press Play, all from Running Press Kids. He blogs here at Teen Librarian Occasionally and wrote a chapter in The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services, edited by myself and Heather Booth and published in July from ALA Editions. 

You can follow Eric online: 

Win Eric Devine’s Books!

Eric and Running Press Kids have generously donated a copy of Tap Out which I am putting together with my arc copies of Dare Me and Press Play picked up at various library conferences to give to you as a prize. You can win a complete set of Eric Devine books! If you live in the U. S. you can do the Rafflecopter thingy below until Saturday the 23rd, The Tween’s birthday and the debut of the new Doctor, to enter.

Sunday Reflections: I’m Holding Out for a (Female) Superhero!

The Tween read each & every comic book yesterday

Yesterday was Free Comic Book Day and I celebrated – with my Tween daughter – by handing out free comic books at my library. The night before I took her little sister to see the new Spider-Man movie. We’re pretty big superhero fans in this house. In fact, we watch The Avengers movie a couple of times a month. Which is why I can’t help but wish that someone would remember that girls can be a superhero too.

Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Superman, Spider-man . . . they all get their own superhero movies. But female superheroes, they get to be part of a team. Yes, there are female superheroes (ish) in The Avengers movie (my husband argues though that Black Widow is not an Avenger but an agent of Shield). And yes, there are superheroes in the X-men movies. But there are no female led superhero movies. Where is Wonder Woman? Well, it was previously in development but it is now dead, dead, dead and they say it is never going to happen. There is talk that there may be a Black Widow movie, but there is nothing in development right now.

For a brief moment I, the superhero fan, was excited when my friend and fellow librarian Maria Selke tweeted me a picture of an ALA reading incentive campaign with a variety of posters.  And then Robin tweeted me, “Psssst, where is Black Widow?”  Where IS Black Widow? Or any female superhero.  ALA is an organization that prides itself on diversity; it is one of the library’s fundamental rallying cries. And yet here is an entire read campaign that utilized nothing except for white men to promote reading. I mean, I guess there is diversity if you consider the fact that the Hulk does turn green and Thor is quite literally from another planet. That part was sarcasm, for the record.  But they could have included Black Widow and The Falcon. And with the new X-men movie coming out, there are a variety of women to choose from there as well.

ALA Catalog Image Tweeted by Maria Selke @mselke01

At the same time, Maria brought a Scholastic reading campaign to my attention. Yep, same problem. In fact, basically the same superheroes.

I will say in their defense that after we started Tweeting at Scholastic about our concern about this campaign, they did inform us that they were only given a select few superheroes to choose from and that they would take our concerns to the marketing team.  Imagine though what a statement it would have made when given those choices from either Marvel or Disney, who holds the copyright to the Marvel universe, if they had said I’m sorry we can’t work with you under these terms because it is direct contradiction with our core value and commitment to diversity. If more and more of us start making those kinds of statements, perhaps then we can see greater change in the ways women, people of color and other marginalized people groups are represented in the media.

And make no mistake about it, representation does matter. I watched Wonder Woman on TV as a young girl (not that young!) and it is empowering to see a female superhero. It is empowering for little girls to see themselves represented in these positive ways. And yes, I’m totally going to ignore the incredibly sexualized and impractical costume for the moment. Just as it is empowering for children of color to see Falcon in the new Captain America movie.

The 5-year-old dressed up as Spider-Man

More importantly, seeing a broader scope of people in the media encourages empathy to those that are different than us. When we continually focus on men as superheroes, white men, it communicates that all others have less worth. This becomes the standard, the ideal. Anything that doesn’t fit into this standard is seen as less than worthy. That’s the message that is communicated to our young, impressionable generation when they continually see such a strong emphasis on one type of person. Representation is one of the most significant tools we can use to help promote kindness, equality, and mutual respect.

I want in my lifetime to take my girls to see a movie that features a female superhero. I want them to walk out of that theater inspired, empowered, and hopeful. And I want fathers to take their sons to a female superhero movie so that their sons will grow up respecting and valuing woman as equal members of the human race. And I want people who are in the position to put together these reading incentive campaigns to remember ALL little kids, every single one of them, and to demand better representation.

It’s easy to look at the success of the Marvel universe and think, we need to tap into that. But true change comes when we take the harder road sometimes and demand more from those who are still failing to understand what the world we live in today looks like. If we care about our future, we need to work on the messages we are sending today. And this is why diversity matters.

The title for this post was inspired by the Bonnie Tyler song Holding Out for a Hero.

In the meantime, I guess we’ll keep watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although I can’t help but think we’ve gone backwards since that revolutionary show reminded us all that girls could kick butt too.

For more on these topics, see these posts:
“If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”
Beth Revis: I See You, Representation Matters (great post, read it)
Ramp Your Voice: Why Representation Matters in Children’s Books and Media
Actually, just Google “representation matters” for lots of great posts

More Diversity at TLT:
Racial Stereotyping in YA Literature
Race Reflections, Take II
Building Bridges to Literacy for African American Male Youth Summit recap, part 1
Friday Reflections: Talking with Hispanic/Latino Teens about YA Lit
See also the Diversity in YA Tumblr by Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo

More on Gender and Sexuality at TLT:
I’m Just a Girl? Gender issues in YA Lit
Girls Against Girls
Teach Me How to Live: talking with guys about ya lit with Eric Devine
Let’s Hear It for the Boys: Boys and body image
Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in the Lives of Teens
The Curious Case of the Gender Based Assignment 

You want to put WHAT in my YA?
Taking a Stand for What You Believe In
Annie on My Mind and Banned Books Week on My Calendar
Queer (a book review)
Top 10: For Annie and Liza (Annie on My Mind)

The problem of relationship (and girls) in YA lit, plus 5 of my favorite titles

Check out the series About the Girl over at Stacked

If you read enough YA lit, you might start to come to a few interesting conclusions:

1. Teens only have 1 relationship, romantic ones. Especially if you are a teenage girl.

2. Relationships only have one goal, which is sex. For some reason, as Cory Ann Haydu mentions here, a large number of YA books (never all) focus on romantic relationships that accelerate quickly from kissing to sex.

But what about all the other relationships in our lives?

If you read this blog enough, you know that one of my favorite books ever is Guitar Notes by Mary Amato. Primarily because it is a book about a boy and a girl who are not romantically involved. It’s possible that if Amato were going to write a sequel they could head in that direction, but they don’t have to (and that honestly is the sequel I would like to read).

Sometimes, if you are lucky, there are friends that become boyfriend and girlfriend in very organic and realistic ways, like in books such as The Sweetest Thing (Christina Mandelski) and Until It Hurts to Stop (Jennifer R. Hubbard), which also has a strong female friendship in it as well and has a female engaged in a nontraditional activity (hiking, mountain climbing).

But the truth is, we – people – are all about a wide variety of relationships.  We have families, parents. Many of us have siblings. We have friends. We have enemies. Sometimes we are in romantic relationships and sometimes we aren’t. And yes, some teens have sex, but not all of them do. And sometimes we go through a really long process before we even think about getting to sex. Relationships are complex.

My favorite high school memory involves a new relationship with a boy named Kenny. I don’t remember how we met, but he was my first real boyfriend and I was a senior in high school. Yep, a senior. I was scared and didn’t know what I was doing and we hadn’t even held hands yet. He was on the track team. One day after school a group of our friends were hanging around and Kenny had just finished track practice. He was exhausted and sweaty. And as we all sat there and talked, without even thinking, he just leaned back in his chair and grabbed my hand. It was like, in that moment his guard was down, and he just did what seemed to come naturally to him. It is many years later and I can still remember vividly every detail of that moment. Every thing I thought, every thing I felt, and the slow, casual, exhausted way he just leaned back and gently grabbed my hand while he talked to his friends. We dated for 18 months and of all the moments that happened between us, this is the most vivid and the most significant. It spoke volumes about his feelings. It was, in a word, beautiful. Simple, meaningful, and beautiful. Okay, that’s 3 words.

The rest of my teenage years were dominated primarily by friends, including two best friends that I had who were boys and never once did we ever discuss those friendships being anything more than that. In fact, one of them went on to marry my post-high school roommate (and we are still friends).

When I was in the 11th grade, my best friend, a girl, died in a car accident. My junior year was overshadowed by the process of mourning and the sometimes guilt I felt in the wake of that loss. No romance happening there.

My point is this, we do our teens a disservice when we continue to act as if romantic relationships are the end all be all of life, that they are the only relationships that matter. I am now married to my best friend, and have been for 18 years, but I am also a mother, a daughter, a friend . . . those relationships are important to me too. They are important to the ins and out of who I am as a person, how I choose to spend my time, and the issues that I wrestle with in my dreams at night.  People are multi-faceted, including teens. We need more stories that represent the dimensionality of life and the various ways that we define and attach ourselves. Which is why as a reviewer, I am always awarding bonus points to books that highlight different types of relationships, put an emphasis on including family members, or acknowledge that life is about more than falling in and out of love, etc. Sometimes you want a good love story, and I get that, but we need stories with dimension.  This is what I keep thinking about as read the ongoing series at Stacked on ABOUT THE GIRLS (there is lots of good discussion going on there, check it out.) So I thought I would contribute a post. It’s okay, she invited us to.

Because here’s the deal, I want teen girls to know that life is about more than romance. That they have other goals. That they can and should have other meaningful relationships. That they are not defined by whether or not a boy loves them in that way.

So here are 5 of my favorite YA titles and the reasons why . . .

The Lynburn Legacy from Sarah Rees Brennan (Book 1 is Unspoken)

This has such a tremendously fun female friendship. Both girls are strong, confident, realistic, supportive, etc. It is such a positive example of both female characters and a female friendship. Also, I laughed out loud throughout the entire thing.

Guitar Notes by Mary Amato

This is a male/female relationship that shows growth with the characters inspiring and sometimes challenging each other to be more honest with themselves (and their families) without necessarily resorting to romance. Plus, it is perfectly clean and can be read by anyone, and that really does matter to some people and I respect that.

Death, Dickinson and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Frenchie Garcia is a very depressed young lady, on the verge of graduating high school and unclear as to what her future holds. She has a male and a female friend who, at times, have a hard time understanding Frenchie’s extreme depression. But you know what, they come through time and time again for her. The relationships in this book are challenged, strained, and realistic.

Fire and Flood by Victoria Scott

When we first meet Tella, we see her in the context of her family. She is there, with a very sick brother, and we see that relationship. Then she makes a decision, she enters a desperate race for a cure.  Here, she makes allies (think Survivor) and those relationships are very interesting. I was particularly struck by her relationship by a fellow female competitor who becomes her ally and the choices that they make. I also like this story because Tella is a very realistic portrayal of a typical teenage girl. Sometimes she is capable in this race but often she is not, which is in keeping with her character. And sometimes she just wants to go home and get a good manicure. I like that she is what we consider traditionally feminine and yet still strong.

The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White

I gave this title a mixed review, which I sometimes regret because I love the contemporary element of this title so much. But I DO love the relationships in this book between Isadora and both her female friend Tyler (as well as Tyler’s relationship with her boyfriend Scott) and her first friends than maybe something more relationship with Ry. In fact Ry very clearly tells her that you can’t actually be in a happy relationship unless you are happy with yourself first. You can read my full review here.

I know I said five, but I want to give a shout out to Going Vintage (Lindsay Leavitt) which examines some cool sibling relationship dynamics and has a great relationship between a female and her beloved grandmother. I am also a huge fan of This Song Will Save Your Life (Leila Sales) for its leading lady engaged in an under-represented passion – DJing – and the female relationships depicted in it.

We are more than the romantic men in our lives. And romance is about more than sex. So our books should be too. I am really enjoying the discussions in this series. Thanks for letting me add my two cents and sharing some of my favorites.

Sherlock and the Case of the Diversity Problem (and why representation matters)

The creator of the BBC Sherlock reboot is none other than Steve Moffat, who also is currently helming another popular BBC show – Doctor Who.  One of the things that has always impressed me about Doctor Who as I began watching it was the diversity of the show.  When we first meet the reboot Doctor, number 9, he takes a decidely white Rose into space and time with him, and sometimes her very non-white boyfriend joins them.  After Rose, the Doctor is accompanied by Martha, also not white.  And they have several adventures with Captain Jack Harkness, who later gets his own show called Torchwood, who is very white but is also decidely not straight.  In fact, there are a wide variety of characters that appear in both Doctor Who and Torchwood and the most amazing thing is – no one every comments really on their non-whiteness or their sexuality (I won’t say never, because it does come up in context a couple of times), because it is understood that we live in a diverse world and there is no need for commentary.

Early Doctor Who Reboot
Sarah Jane, Mickey Smith, Jackie Tyler, Rose Tyler, Doctor, Martha Jones, Donna Noble and Capt. Jack Harkness
Check out this article at The Mary Sue as the BBC responds to critics of racism in Doctor Who
So we have Mickey, Martha Jones, Tosh (on Torchwood), Captain Jack, Ianto (and they kiss – a lot), and a variety of supporting characters who pop in and out and THERE IS DIVERSITY.  Then Steven Moffat took over, and things changed.  And then he rebooted Sherlock.

So what happens to Sherlock?  Well, Sherlock lacks diversity.  All of the main cast of characters is decidedly white male, most of the supporting characters are as well.  But here’s the deal, later day Doctor Who and Sherlock are under a different creator/writer.  And this change has brought about some diversity issues.

To make matters worse, there is an undercurrent of homophobia running throughout the relationship of Sherlock and Watson, as if being a couple – gasp – would be THE. WORST. THING. EVER.  I mean, they feel the need to stop in the middle of murder investigations and make sure that everyone understands that there is no way in hell they would ever be a couple as if that is more important than the fact that people are dying.  I understand that there are men in real life who would definitely not want to be identified as homosexual, what I don’t get is why we feel the need to write it in as a running gag and a source of amusement on a show that already has so much going on.  It’s unnecessary and contributes to the continued harassment and stigmazation of a people group that has spent centuries being persecuted.  Keep in mind that identifying as GLBTQ in today’s world is one of the leading causes of teenage bullying, homelessness and suicide.  Making them the butt of the jokes on a popular show contributes to this ongoing epidemic.  And whatever one may personally feel about homosexuality, I don’t think it is okay to create a hostile environment for them.  Full stop.

Infographic Source

Of course Sherlock did try and give a nod to diversity once in an epic fail of an episode called The Blind Banker.  For a variety of reasons, this is my least favorite episode of the series to date.  Mostly, I simply don’t really care all that much for the story.  But also, this episode is one of the few episodes where we get some main characters of color and they are full of stereotypes.  There is a good discussion of the problem of diversity in The Blind Banker hereOr this post which points out that the script for The Blind Banker calls for “Soo Lin Yao, a fragile little porcelain Chinese doll; a stupid brute of a Sikh warrior; Japanese geisha nicknacks for sale in a Chinese…not a shop…the script calls it an emporium…”  It’s like the writers reached into their grab bag of Asian stereotypes and threw them all against a wall to see which would stick, and apparently they all did.

Molly Hooper: BBC

Then we come to the character of Irene Adler, which Christie already talked about on Monday.  I have such mixed feelings on Irene.  She is definitely shown as being a strong female character, a woman who confounds and beguiles Sherlock.  But her power comes primarily from her sexuality.  In fact, when Sherlock first meets her she appears in her birthday suit, she is using her nudity as a powerplay.  So although I love that we have a strong female character, I wish that her power could come somewhere other than her sexuality.  It seems as if our popular culture continues to assert to young women that they can only be powerful if they can harness and exude their sexuality.  In comparison, we have the character of Molly Hooper, who is once again a stereotype.  Molly is a smart girl, the token science geek girl if you will, so of course she must be mousey and socially akward and pine after Sherlock.  Imagine for just a moment if we could have had a strong, intelligent science minded woman who found power in her intellect and ability to help Sherlock as opposed to the only real female representation of power that we get in Irene Adler.  This is an interesting look at the character of Irene Adler, and more interestingly about how the role of Moriarty undermines the role of Irene Adler.  And perhaps my favorite comment about Irene Adler can be found here: “Well, to be fair, BCC Sherlock did turn Irene from a master of disguise and all-around genius who easily saw through Sherlock’s ruse into a pawn of Moriarty who needs to be told how to deal with Sherlock.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: ABC

Why does this matter?  Sherlock is a reboot, an updated take on the popular character.  In the original works, these issues would make more sense because they were written in a time period that thought differently than we do today.  But this Sherlock appears in modern day London.  As we update the setting, we also need to update the representation of people who are not white men to reflect modern day sensibilities.  Look around you, the modern day world is not as white as the world of Sherlock would lead us to believe.  And this is important because it affects how we perceive the world around us and how people who are not white men perceive themselves, and each other.  People often say that entertainment entertains but it does not influence.  But I can’t help but wonder, if we know that marketing works, and we do, then how can we suggest that what we see in our media doesn’t influence how we think about our world, ourselves and each other?  The answer is, I think, that we can’t.  Diverse representation matters because people need to know that people of color can be strong, intelligent, and powerful without being a bad guy, a red shirt, a token, or – gasp – a maid or gas station attendant (or a fragile porcelain Chinese doll).  And girls (women) need to know that they can be powerful because of their intelligence, their contributions to society, and in their friendships – it doesn’t have to come from sexuality, it isn’t all about sexuality.

Here’s the thing.  I really, really love the BBC’s Sherlock.  I love the way it looks visually, how you see how Sherlock is processing the evidence and coming to his conclusions.  I love the quirkiness that is Sherlock, and how he is kind of a despicable, arrogant character but has glimpses of humanity, often in relation to Watson or Mrs. Hudson.  Mostly, I love that it is intelligent drama that asks you to pay attention.  But I can’t pretend it is perfect even though I am an enthusiastic fan.  Just as I can’t pretend Doctor Who is perfect.  I want my tweens and teens to grow up in a world where they are represented in healthy and realistic ways so that they develop healthy images of themselves and their place in this world.  Sherlock needs to do better.  And yes, my teens are watching.

P.S. All these same arguments hold true for our MG and YA lit.  Diversity is important.  Representation matters.  Readers need to see realistic representations to have their existence, their place in this world, affirmed.  And readers need to have realistic depictions of those that are different from themselves so that they develop realistic and healthy ideas about those that are different than them.

“If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”
Beth Revis: I See You, Representation Matters (great post, read it)
Ramp Your Voice: Why Representation Matters in Children’s Books and Media
Actually, just Google “representation matters” for lots of great posts

More Diversity at TLT:
Racial Stereotyping in YA Literature
Race Reflections, Take II
Building Bridges to Literacy for African American Male Youth Summit recap, part 1
Friday Reflections: Talking with Hispanic/Latino Teens about YA Lit
See also the Diversity in YA Tumblr by Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo

More on Gender and Sexuality at TLT:
I’m Just a Girl? Gender issues in YA Lit
Girls Against Girls
Teach Me How to Live: talking with guys about ya lit with Eric Devine
Let’s Hear It for the Boys: Boys and body image
Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in the Lives of Teens
The Curious Case of the Gender Based Assignment 

You want to put WHAT in my YA?
Taking a Stand for What You Believe In
Annie on My Mind and Banned Books Week on My Calendar
Queer (a book review)
Top 10: For Annie and Liza (Annie on My Mind)

12 Blogs of Christmas: Hi Miss Julie (Heather)

Blog #4: Hi Miss Julie

We spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a librarian serving young people.  At least I do.  I think about how my work life may be different from others in my profession because of my gender and the demographic I serve.  I think about how we are perceived, how it could change, and if it matters.  And so does Julie.  Though Julie Jurgens works with a younger group than many of the TLT readership does on a regular basis, her blog is still great, even essential reading.  First, those little kids will, if we’re lucky, become our teen users before you know it.  It’s important for us to understand what’s happening with youth services so that we can understand the library environment in which our teens grew up.  Second, Julie is a great writer and is really able to pinpoint some of the big issues facing our profession, specifically women in our profession, and discuss them eloquently, pointedly, and in a way that encourages rather than shutting down conversation.  Read Hi Miss Julie.