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Why we should let girls read, and relate to, morally grey heroines, a guest post by Cyla Panin

I got a text a few days ago from a friend. She’s reading a copy of my debut YA fantasy, STALKING SHADOWS, and she’s been giving me wonderful live updates chapter to chapter. Well, this time her text went like this, “I don’t like what Marie did!”

Ah. Yes. Me either.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that my main character, Marie, definitely made a questionable decision involving someone she’s growing to care for. Her decision might even hurt him, though she’s certain she has it all under control enough that the damage will be mild and temporary. Do I, as a human with a heart, agree with what she did?

No.

So why did I write it?

Because I understand why Marie had to make a bad decision. Her circumstances left her very few choices, and her commitment to protecting her sister, and ultimately herself, has never wavered. She does the best she can with the situation she’s in, and I think that’s more real and relatable than always doing the right and heroic thing.

None of us will always make the best choice, the most selfless or most noble. At least, I have yet to encounter anyone who can claim they’ve always, without fail, done the absolute right thing. That level of perfection rarely exists in the real world, and yet we continually hold our female protagonists up to this unachievable standard. If they fail the test, they might be labelled as unlikeable, or even as an anti-hero that readers have a hard time getting behind.

Fantasy is escapist. We can sink into the world’s authors create and join the characters as they do things we never would—or could. Fighting a dragon, traipsing over mountains and through meadows with a sword at our hip, dancing in a flowing gown in a ballroom, running into enchanted woods at night. The realest thing in any fantasy should still be the characters and their emotions. Their drive. Underneath all of this magic, we should be anchored by what the human lives unspooling through this dark, glittering world.

Girl protagonists have a right to take the drags of whatever awful situation they’ve found themselves in and try to piece together a solution to reach their goals, even if that solution makes some people give them the side eye. Girl readers have the right to see heroines in books be just as angry, brash, impulsive, and determined as any heroes can be. And they have to right to see them not only succeed, but be embraced for their fire and ingenuity.

In Julie C. Dao’s 2017 YA fantasy, FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, the main character Xifeng is faced with embracing darkness or sacrificing the power she could wield. Thankfully, Dao has her protagonist decide grasp whatever power she can. As a reader, I could emphasize with Xifeng and why she made those decisions, even if they sometimes made me uncomfortable. She came from hardship, poverty, and was faced with a beautiful palace and magic—I mean, that doesn’t seem like a hard choice. It was Dao’s skillful character building that showed us her main character’s drive, so readers could emphasize and stand beside Xifeng even when she did things some might label ‘evil.’

There was some outrage about Xifeng being an unlikeable character, though. Certain readers shook their heads and pursed their lips and got on Goodreads to air their distaste. What I didn’t get then is why they felt like they needed to like Xifeng to understand her.

When male main characters do bad things, readers tend to be much more forgiving. We don’t have to look much further than The Darkling in the SHADOW AND BONE series by Leigh Bardugo or Ronan Lynch in THE RAVEN’S CIRCLE by Maggie Stiefvater to find bad boys who have been embraced, and even loved, despite the pain they inflict on others or the ends they go to in order to get what they want. But boys will be boys, right?

Wrong. People will be people. All characters will, with good literary craft, be products of their world and upbringing. They’ll be shaped by the past, as we all tend to be, and they’ll decide whether or not they’re defined by it. They’ll give us enough glances into their hearts that we’ll be rooting for them whether or not we agree with their actions.

The word I think best describes Marie Michaud in STALKING SHADOWS is ‘determined’. She doesn’t much care about being liked, but she sure does care about achieving her goal. I won’t be giving anything away when I say she selects her sister’s victims (because it’s in the pitch.) Marie choses who’s going to die by her sister’s claws. She marks unmoored men, those who aren’t well known in the village, those who are just passing through, those that she forces herself to believe don’t have any family to miss them. She selects these men because, in her mind, it’s better them than someone people will cry over. She elects to destroy one life instead of two or three or four, depending on the size of the family. It’s not right, by any estimation, even hers, but in the confines of her world and the hand she’s been dealt, she does her best. And really, is there anything more relatable than that?

Meet the author

Cyla Panin is an MG, YA and Adult Author who prefers to look at the world through a dusting of magic. Her YA debut, STALKING SHADOWS will be out with Amulet, Abrams Sept. 14. She is represented by Chloe Seager of the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV, and Film Agency. Find her on Instagram at @cylapanin. 

About Stalking Shadows

A gothic YA fantasy debut about a young woman striving to break her sister’s curse and stop the killing in her small French town

Seventeen-year-old Marie mixes perfumes to sell on market day in her small eighteenth-century French town. She wants to make enough to save a dowry for her sister, Ama, in hopes of Ama marrying well and Marie living in the level of freedom afforded only to spinster aunts. But her perfumes are more than sweet scents in cheap, cut-glass bottles: A certain few are laced with death. Marie laces the perfume delicately–not with poison but with a hint of honeysuckle she’s trained her sister to respond to. Marie marks her victim, and Ama attacks. But she doesn’t attack as a girl. She kills as a beast.

Marking Ama’s victims controls the damage to keep suspicion at bay. But when a young boy turns up dead one morning, Marie is forced to acknowledge she might be losing control of Ama. And if she can’t control her, she’ll have to cure her. Marie knows the only place she’ll find the cure is in the mansion where Ama was cursed in the first place, home of Lord Sebastien LaClaire. But once she gets into the mansion, she discovers dark secrets hidden away–secrets of the curse, of Lord Sebastien . . . and of herself.

ISBN-13: 9781419752650
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

Why I Like Complicated, Flawed, Perfectly Imperfect and Sometimes Downright Unlikeable Heroines (and You Should Too), a guest post by Brittany Geragotelis

As an author, I’ve gotten my fair share of critiques on my books. I know, I know, par for the course, right? And most of them I can let run off my back. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions and everyone has one. With that said, the one that actually irks me most is the argument that a character of mine isn’t totally “likeable.” Either she’s too self-absorbed or too bitchy or falls in love too fast or is too perfect…the list goes on and on. So, you’d think that by now I would just give in and write a fully likeable character.

But here’s the thing: I LIKE flawed characters.

I like the characters who are beautiful but make mistakes because they think their beauty is enough. I dig a girl who falls in love as quickly as a five-minute mile, only to have it implode just as fast. I go crazy over someone who is stubborn and self-absorbed or snarky or mean, as long as there’s a lesson to be learned there.

Because THAT’S interesting.

And it’s REALISTIC.

Newsflash: we all have flaws. We all mess up (especially in our youth). We’re all stubborn, and mean (at times), and selfish. We all fell for the boy—or girl—when we knew we shouldn’t. We all said something or did something we shouldn’t have and paid the price for it. That’s life, after all.

But beyond that, not all of these so-called unlikeable traits are wholly…bad.

In my series The Infamous Frankie Lorde, the main character is a thief. She’s the daughter of an infamous international con-artist and is an expert at just about everything to do with pulling a job. Stealing, lying, breaking and entering—she does it all. When we meet Frankie, her dad’s been sent to prison and she’s been sent to her own kind of prison: to live with her cop uncle in Greenwich, CT.

Photo credit: Brittany Geragotelis

This is when she decides to switch up her game: she vows to only steal from the criminal, corrupt and downright evil people in the community, and give back to those who deserve or need it. And suddenly her misdeeds aren’t so bad. Because, in the end, what she’s doing is for the greater good.

When I started writing the Frankie books, I was super excited at the thought of my two kiddos reading it one day. I have a 5-year-old and a nearly 2-year-old and despite the fact that Frankie’s a thief, I actually hope my kids recognize all the great traits the character has and maybe take on some of them themselves. Flaws and all.

Because sometimes we need our unlikeable moments in order to grow, learn and push us to become better humans. Also, sometimes all that separates a bad characteristic from a good one is how you choose to use it.

Here are some of the questionable traits that Frankie has that I hope my kids pick up someday:

TROUBLEMAKER:

Frankie is super clever and knows a little about everything. She knows how to speak multiple languages. She knows how to pick a lock. She knows how to BS her way into getting what she wants. She’s a master manipulator. My older son, Huck already has this trait in the bag. He’s so smart and driven and will go after something with everything he has if he wants it enough. As long as his focus is on a prize that won’t harm anyone else, I don’t mind him being a bit mischievous.

Photo credit: credit: Brittany Geragotelis

SELFISH:

At first, Frankie tries to keep her head down and not rock the boat in her new life—even when a new friend is being bullied. She thinks it’s the best way to keep her secret life a secret. In the end, she learns when she needs to come out of that mode to help others and when to focus on herself. Selfishness can be a great thing sometimes—like when it’s in the form of self-preservation. Also, if we focus solely on the needs of others, we can often forget about our own needs and wants, which could end up leaving us with nothing more to give. It’s like what they say on an airplane: In case of emergency, put your mask on first and THEN assist others. Selfishness can be our own way of doing this.

LIAR:

Let’s be honest, being a great liar can also make for a fantastic storyteller. It can also describe someone who has a very good imagination and is great at making people believe the tall tales they weave. This is a trait that isn’t always easy to come by. Besides, it’s not like I can argue with the fact that as an author, I myself am a professional liar by trade. I just choose to use my powers for good, and not evil. My goal as a parent will be to try to teach my kids to do the same.

COCKY

Overly-confident, know-it-all, sassy, argumentative—some may see these traits as negative, but they can also be incredibly useful. Confidence is important when you’re heading into a dangerous or scary situation. And questioning authority or those who are in any positions of power (i.e. bullies) can be a highly enviable characteristic. While I don’t want my kids to be rude for no reason or to outright disrespect their teachers or the law, I do want them to know that if something doesn’t sit right with their soul, they can question why. No matter who they’re up against. 

So, I say we celebrate a character’s messier qualities. These are the ones that will make us all think, learn and hopefully decide within ourselves just the kind of people we want to be.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Shani Barel

Brittany Geragotelis is the author of the perfectly imperfect THE INFAMOUS FRANKIE LORDE series, which is a youthful mashup of Ocean’s Eleven meets Robin Hood. She’s also the author of the magical teen series, LIFE’S A WITCH, mom to two mischievous boys, a cat, a dog and four fish, and wife to an awesome guy who spends all his time on YouTube. When she’s not writing or momming, she’s reading, binge-watching shows on Netflix and Hulu and making day-trips to Disneyland. For more on Brittany and her life, visit brittanygeragotelis.com, twitter.com/TheBookSlayer and Instagram.com/thebookslayer

About The Infamous Frankie Lorde 2: Going Wild

Tiger King meets Ocean’s 8 in this slick second book in the Infamous Frankie Lorde series as potentially reformed international thief Frankie dives into the dangerous and political world of trafficking exotic animals. Perfect for fans of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society.

For Frankie, using her less-than-legal set of skills to pull a heist against a crooked real estate mogul with the help of her new friend Ollie was super gratifying, but she’s getting restless now. And with her no end in sight for her dad’s prison sentence, she’s finally coming to terms with the fact that she may be in Connecticut for a lot longer than she expected. 

Volunteering at a local animal shelter over school break, Frankie and Ollie hear that there’s a dangerous exotic animal farm supplying Greenwich’s elite with lions and tigers and bears. (Oh my!) Feeling an instant kinship with the endangered creatures locked away in their cages, Frankie makes it her mission to find the perpetrators, free the beautiful beasts, and ensnare the bad guys in a trap of her own.

ISBN-13: 9781645950578
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 08/03/2021
Series: The Infamous Frankie Lorde #2
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years

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

Introduction

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

But what does that have to do with books?

What makes a novel feminist?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

FROM ABERRANT GIRL TO NASTY WOMAN

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

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

 

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

 

 

UPCOMING EVENTS

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

 

Further reading

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