Jenny's Library

Archive for April 2013

Chapter 3: Denial of Agency

It’s perhaps too early to say for certain, as I have eight chapters left, but I do think the best quote of the book is:

“Goddamn it. HEINLEIN COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT AT ALL.”

I want that embroidered on a pillow or something.As a someone who earned a degree in physics at an all women’s college, I am quite aware of the tradition of men getting credit for work that women have done.  (Women’s studies was an extra part of just about every class I took, including physics lectures.)  Instead, what I found most fascinating about this chapter was the phenomena that Russ describes as “it wrote itself” and “the man inside her wrote it.”  This is idea that, suddenly, when it comes to women’s creative work, art is the spontaneous product of time and culture, and individual effort has little to do with it.  Even worse is the idea that a woman’s “masculine side” is responsible for her intellectual achievements.

It’s an attitude that assumes there is nothing men can’t do, that there is little that women can do, and consequently sets men’s work up as the bar that women must strive for.Thus the reason for the quote above, which was written by a friend of Russ’s upon receiving a note from a fan telling her that Heinlein couldn’t have done a better job writing the story she published.

Bullshit. “HEINLEIN COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT AT ALL.”  Men’s work alone is not the pinnacle of human achievement.  Women do not need to be like men or as good as men to be create great art.  Talented men cannot do everything any and all talented women can do.  To argue otherwise is to deny that women have value and agency.

I ran into a fellow youth librarian that I know, but haven’t seen in a while, at the LA Times Festival of Books (I know! what are the odds! anyway…).  At one point when we were talking she asked me which age of kids I preferred working with.  I used to have an answer to that, back when I subbed in schools.  I don’t anymore.  I think in part because I have more flexibility of choice in the library; it’s easier to set up library programs so that they bring out the best in each age, rather than having to handle the worst of each age for an entire school day.

I think the other reason is because my current position really emphasizes childhood and adolescence as a continuous process.  Teachers get kids at one age, and then see them grow incrementally throughout the year.  I go from working with toddlers to teens to preschoolers to elementary age students all in the space of a week.  Then I do it all over again the next week.  Teachers see kids grow, but only up to a certain point, at which time they are replaced by kids the age the outgoing class they used to be.  I, on the other hand, see kids move from our baby classes to our toddler classes and so on.  If I worked here long enough, I could see them move all the way up to being a parent with their own baby.

Which may be part of why I’m finding the number of people talking about young adult literature in comparison to adult literature, but not in comparison to children’s literature, to be increasingly annoying.  There hasn’t really been an upsurge in people doing it (except that there has been an upsurge in people talking about young adult literature) but I’m fast losing patience with it.

I understand why it happens.  Adults who add a handful of young adult titles to their reading lists are hardly going to do the same with picture books or middle grade novels.  And yet…I don’t actually understand it.  I love picture books and don’t really understand anyone who doesn’t.  I’ll still like you as a friend, but I don’t really get not liking Portis’s Not a Box or Gravett’s Orange Pear Apple Bear.  And I think all of you science fiction and fantasy fans that aren’t reading at least a couple of Ursula Vernon’s Dragonbreath series are totally missing out.

Most of all though, talking about how books for teens are different from books for adults, without also talking about how books for teens are different from books for kids, just makes no sense to me.  It’s like talking about how teens are not like adults without having any understanding of how they used to be as children.  There’s often an implicit understanding, when talking about the things 17 year old drivers do, that not that long ago they were only 15 and couldn’t drive themselves anywhere.  But when people mention The Hunger Games and where it fits in the larger dystopia canon, it’s only ever adult books that are mentioned, not the middle grade dystopias, such as The Giver, the Shadow Children series, A Wrinkle in Time, or The City of Ember, the books that shaped it’s target audience’s expectations for how such stories should go.

This problem seems to be especially bad when it comes to science fiction novels.  I think, in part, because most adult science fiction literature fans were nerds as children and read adult books more often than most children tend to.  But also because many adults just aren’t aware that adult genres don’t exist in children’s – or even teen – literature the way they do in adult literature.  When adults study children’s literature in school, whether as English students or library science students, we don’t talk about mysteries, speculative fiction, horror, and romance.  We talk about animal stories, historical fiction, school stories, and other genres that are much more popular among actual children.  Which isn’t to say that adults genres don’t exist in children’s literature, it’s just that they don’t have quite the same presence, and their tropes and themes are often very different.

Modern ideas about school and home are present in dystopias for children and young adults in a way that they aren’t, usually, in adult fiction.  It goes beyond simply being a warped version of the world they know, it’s also about development and how children perceive the world around them.  So the kids in Camazotz are still playing ball – because children’s sense of time and play and the way their actual memory works means that synchronized bounces read as wrong in a way that never getting to play with balls at all does not.  The children of Ember still go to school, in part because we assume that American children would have a hard time seeing themselves in kids who did not.  Teens in Delirium have tests they must pass, because while we are borrowing from Romeo and Juliet here, modern teens (supposedly) need an institution rather than a political alliance to rail against.  Jonas and Katniss both have mandatory assemblies to attend, despite the danger of populous action they present, because what’s more benignly oppressive than a pep rally?

These are all tropes and traditions that go beyond just science fiction for teens.  You can draw parallels to adult science fiction novels, but you can also do the same for contemporary novels like Looking for Alaska, in which a school assembly is a dramatic turning point and the site of student rebellion, or Lowry’s historical Number the Stars, which features a different child defying an entire country.

I could go on, but the point is that there are traditions and tropes present in young adult literature that readers will miss out on if they are no longer familiar with stories about mice on motorcycles or spiders than can spell, not to mention the subgenere of “preteen girl loses mother tragically.”  This isn’t to say that all of these tropes are interesting or that children’s or young adult literature can’t or shouldn’t change – just that a lot of what young adult literature does makes so much more sense if you’ve Dr. Seuss or Judy Blume more recently than several decades ago.

(why yes, we did skip week 11. I didn’t manage to finish any books that week.)

cover image for the Sweet Revenge of Celia DoorThe Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

The only thing sweet about Celia Door is the revenge she plans to get on the classmates who have been tormenting her for months.  Friends aren’t in her plan, only retribution.  But when new kid Drake arrives in her neighborhood, Celia gains an expected ally.  Will he assist in her revenge, or distract her from her plan?

My overall reaction to this book was: meh.  There were some good parts, and some questionable parts, but mostly it just didn’t grab me. Bullying is an important and timely issue though, and it wasn’t any of the parts of the book that were relevant to that topic that were fail-y.

I got home much earlier and slightly less tired than yesterday, but I also have an outline due to my professor in about two and a half hours, so for tonight you still get just some quick stats.

Panels attended:

  • Fiction: There Be Dragons! with Marie Brennan, Raymond E. Feist, Robin Hobb, and moderated by Noelene Clark
  • Young Adult Fiction: Love and Vengence, Real and Unreal with Melissa de la Cruz, Maureen Johnson, Katherine Marsh, Lisa McMann, and moderated by Ransom Riggs

Books bought:

  • Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson
  • Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen
  • Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett
  • Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  • The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy
  • Warrior by Marie Brennan
  • ttfn by Lauren Myracle
  • Snow by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace
  • Sniff! by Matthew Van Fleet
  • Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late by Mo Willems
  • Presiona Aqui by Herve Tullet
  • Good Egg by Barney Saltzburg
  • Baby Colors by Rachel Hale

Books signed:

  • Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson
  • Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen
  • Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett
  • Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  • Whatever Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen
  • A Wrinkle in Time Graphic Novel by Hope Larson
  • Warrior by Marie Brennan

Books from those two lists that you all should read:

  • Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett
  • Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  • Presiona Aqui by Herve Tullet  (or the original French version, titled Un Livre, or the English translation, titled Press Here, or really any other translation you wish)

Miles spent on mass transit instead of in my car: 114.2

Miles walked: less than yesterday, but still quite a lot.

I’m exhausted and desperately in need of a bath, so for now I give you merely the basic stats of what I did today:

Panels attended:

  • Young Adult Fiction: So Much for Normal with Kiersten White, Tahereh Mafi, Rachel Cohn, Tahereh Mafi, Michelle Gagnon, and moderated by Aaron Hartzler
  • Young Adult Fiction: Danger and Determination with A.S. King, Martine Leavitt, Elizabeth Wein, and moderated by Angelina Benedetti

Books bought:

  • Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
  • Orleans by Sherri Smith
  • I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
  • This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers
  • Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  • The Illustrated Step-by-Step Cook by Lucy Bannel
  • Princess Ben by Catharine Gilbert Murdock
  • The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton
  • Curious George’s 1 to 10 and Back Again by H. A. Rey
  • Curious George My First Words at the Farm by H. A. Rey
  • Baby Says Peekaboo by Dawn Sirett
  • Olivia by Ian Falconer
  • Dinosaur by Penelope Arlon

Books signed:

  • Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
  • Orleans by Sherri Smith
  • I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
  • This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers
  • Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  • Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn
  • Shrimp by Rachel Cohn
  • The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Books from those two lists that you all should read:

  • I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
  • Orleans by Sherri Smith
  • (possibly more to come after I read Code Name Verity and Princess Ben)

Trips taken on mass transit: 4

Miles walked: way too many.  Especially considering that second list.

Chapter 2 – Bad Faith

Back when I worked at the bookstore, one of my tasks – one of the tasks of every employee – was to greet every patron.  Depending on how busy we were, this could meant that an individual customer might be greeted several times – often only seconds apart – as they made their way through the store.  They reacted to this with varying degrees of politeness and annoyance.  One lovely day I even had a patron blow up at me and accuse me of…well, I can’t remember her specific words anymore, but she clearly thought the employees as a whole were only pestering so that she would leave.

I, of course, was startled, offended, and annoyed in turn at her.  Why would we want customers to leave? Do people not know that we are told to do this?  That we can get fired if we don’t?  Does she really think she is so special that we only treat her this way?

Mostly though, I was upset because she was right and I didn’t have a solution that would let me not be an asshole and also allow me to keep on my boss’s good side.

Once I had done my own venting at home, I realized this.  That it didn’t matter what my intentions had been, and that – having deliberately employed the very same tactic on visitors that we suspected might be up to no good – I could see why she might think that us constantly asking her if she needed help was a sign that we were keeping an eye on her.  An experience that, being black, she probably had to deal with much more often than I ever had.  And, unlike me, not one that she could avoid merely by switching to carrying a purse rather than a backpack.

Intent is something that is brought up a lot in discussions about harassment, sexist writing, bigoted jokes, and well – just about anything really.  It’s often said that intent doesn’t matter.  I don’t think this is true, I think intent can help determine who is capable of change and inform the arguments used.  What intent does not do, however, is trump the harm being done or mean that the person having done harm should be shielded from the consequences of what they did.Intent is not the end of an argument.  It rarely even belongs in the argument to begin with.

“…talk of sexism or racism must distinguish between the sins of commission of the real, active misogynistic  or bigot and vague , half-conscious sins of omission of the decent, ordinary, even good-hearted people, which sins the context of institutionalized sexism and racism makes all too easy.”

While short, Russ’s second chapter is nevertheless essential for defining the boundaries of the arguments of the book as a whole.  She is not assuming bad faith, nor is she discounting the possibility.  What she is doing is disagreeing with those that would accuse her of bad faith, of assuming that she means that every harm is done deliberately – either because they willfully ignore unintended hurts themselves or because it makes her an easier target…or both.

(originally published at http://jennygadget.livejournal.com/96973.html)

cover image for AshAsh by Malinda Lo

After circumstances conspire to make Aisling’s life into a Cinderella tale, she spends much of her time lost in a fog of grief, finding solace only in the familiar woods near her home.  Her wanderings through the forest brings more than one stranger into Ash’s life, and not all of them human; her new experiences and acquaintances tantalizing Ash with the possibility of escaping her dreary existence.

Lo’s debut novel is unique and intriguing, but unfortunately also rather slow and detached at times.  It’s a good addition to any young adult collection, especially in light of how little lgtbq genre there is, but not one that I would make a priority.

cover image for Paladin of SoulsPaladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Shortly after the conclusion of The Curse of Chalion, the dowager royina Ista Dy Baocia sets off on a pilgrimage.  Ista is quite violently against the idea of healing her broken relationship with the gods, but the goal of visiting holy sites througout the kingdom gives her a socially acceptable excuse to escape the walls and expectations that surround her.  The gods themselves have other plans, however, as they often do, and Ista’s wandering soon because an expedition with surprising and momentous results.

As awesome as Paladin of Souls is, I have to admit that a lot of the emotional resonance of the story passed me by, owing to my complete and utter lack of faith at any point in my life.  Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like it, I absolutely adored it!  It’s just that many of the deeper moments were illuminating, in terms of understanding how faith works for people who have it, rather than touching on a personal, intimate level.

That said, Ista is awesome and I wish we had more protagonists like her.  More middle aged women. More mothers.  More women who yearn for peace and freedom but recognize the complexities of their obligations.