Jenny's Library

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“Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.”

– from Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault

Little Red Riding Hood by Gustave Dore

I picked up Sisters Red, by Jackson Pearce, with the expectation that a story about two Little Red Riding Hoods as wolf hunters would turn the traditional tail on its head.  Alas, I was greatly disappointed.

While it’s true that the plot veers wildly from the classic tale, and neither Scarlett nor Rosie are the helpless little girl that normally dons the red cape, the underlying assumptions and arguments of the Little Red Riding Hood we grew up with are never questioned.  Sisters Red is a retelling and not at all a deconstruction, and therein lies its problem and many of its flaws.

“I’m not worried,” I answer, unable to suppress a sly grin. “I’m not that kind of girl.”

The story begins with younger versions of the sisters pointing a wolf the way to their grandmother’s house. Deviating from the classic tale, the girls escape – and manage this without the help of a woodsman.  Partly through being observant and quick thinking, and with much help from their grandmother’s self-sacrifice, but also through the unlikely probability of Scarlett defeating a grown werewolf in combat.  Thus setting Scarlett and Rosie on the path of becoming wolf hunters.  Yet, this twist isn’t entirely an improvement; where previous versions of the story present us with children that are meant to represent any little girl, Pearce’s Sisters Red are Exceptional Women who know things and have skills that normal girls do not.  Unlike the paths previous Little Red Riding Hoods have gone down, this isn’t a direction that other girls can easily follow.

There’s nothing like a lost teenage girl on the bad side of town to get their blood pumping.

Time and again, from the sisters first encounter with a wolf all the way up to the last victims shown in the book, the basic idea that wolves hunt pretty young girls, and that these girls’ innocence, foolishness, and femininity is what makes them both vulnerable and desirable to the wolves, is repeated and reinforced. At no point are the wolves ever female, at no point are their victims ever male or – aside from granny – not young and pretty.  And at no point is the wolves prey not described in a way that mimics how we talk about sexual assault.

They toss their hair, stretch their legs, sway their hips, bat their eyelashes at the club’s bouncer, everything about them luring the Fenris. Inviting danger like some baby animal bleating its fool head off.

The combination of these two aspects of the novel – the exceptional nature of the girls chosen path plus the sexualized nature of the wolves choice in prey – is where the lack of any sort of adult figure becomes a major flaw rather than just a typical trope in young adult literature.  Scarlett’s defeat of the wolf at the start of the story, and her subsequent choice to spend her life hunting wolves, is framed as a rejection of the gendered morality in the traditional tale.  Yet there is no actual person or institution for her to revolt against in order to generate this tension within the actual plot, leaving a narrative gap that must be filled.  In its place, the difference between herself and normal girls is highlighted.

“It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it? [Silas] asks pointedly. “Can I tell you how glad I am that you and Rosie aren’t like them?”

Little Red Riding Hood on the pathThe insidiousness of the most talked about passage from Sisters Red is not even so much that Scarlett and Silas blame the girls* for being so tempting to the wolves, but rather the way that it reinforces our perception of Scarlett as an Exceptional Woman.  The limited range of ways to be female that are presented in the text means that Scarlett defies the restrictions of her gender rather than demonstrating the fullness of its possibilities.  Her dedication is not something that most other women could hope to achieve and her method of dealing with the wolves is the only option presented.  There is no Willow here, wielding magic at Buffy’s side – nor other potentials waiting in the wings; there’s just Scarlett and Rosie and their axes.

At various points during the story it looks as though the younger sister may be poised to break out of this mold.  A huge part of Rosie finding her own path involves interacting with people other than Scarlett or Silas via taking various classes at a community center, an experience that leads to her finding herself in a very classic coming of age way.  There was a possibility here for her to not just reject following in Scarlett’s footsteps, but of finding an entirely different method of honoring their grandmother’s sacrifice.  One that is truly revolutionary and very different from the individualistic compromise between black and white that she ends up deciding on.  Instead, these moments are fleeting and much of her angst centers on the tension between being accepting Silas’ romantic love and making her sister proud.  Again reinforcing the idea that the girls may only choose between being Scarlett or being normal, not from a multitude of colors and possibilities.

“The Fenris stare at her lustfully. Jealousy stirs in my stomach again, but I force it back down.”

There have been a lot of protests on the interwebs against people asserting that this construction reinforces rape culture. Some claim that was never the intent and that any reading that talks about rape is bringing something extra to the book that isn’t there to begin with.  Which would be all well and good if this wasn’t a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood – a story that has been about reinforcing rape culture ever since Perrault got his hands on it. Any retelling that borrows heavily from his version, directly or not, must address and reject the rape myths he presents if it wants to not perpetuate them.  The question is not if Sisters Red says anything about rape culture, but rather what it says about it.

screencap from Hard Candy

Pearce’s novel does make a rather interesting failure though.  We have every reason to believe the author about her intent but that doesn’t change the actual result.  How does this happen then? More importantly, how does one avoid it?  I think the trick lies in not buying into the default male point of view that we have inherited from Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, among others.  We are so steeped in the male gaze that it’s often hard to impossible to think outside of it or even recognize when we are using its assumptions as our framework. Like the many anthropologists who have assumed that any Ice Age depictions of women were meant for men, the idea that the wolves might target girls for reasons other than sexual allure never seems to occur to Pearce or her characters.

Little Red Riding Hood

To break out of this mindset there need to be options other than hunter or prey, and these two roles need to not follow so starkly along gender lines – especially with regards to who is prey and why.  While women’s physical strength deserves more attention and honor than it often gets, one can’t fight rape culture by arguing that women are capable of fighting back, however true that may be.  That still places the responsibility on women, makes them the enforcers of men’s morality, and creates a framework that encourages victims to second guess their own actions rather than seek help.  Somewhere there needs to be the argument that men are capable of stopping themselves, that they should do so, and that violence is merely one method of fighting back.

*Let’s get one thing straight: any narrative that argues that rape happens because of the lust women inspire in men is blaming the victim.  (And yes, this mindset is argued by the text overall, not just that one conversation.)  This concept perpetuates the myth that rape is about lust and not control/power/punishment/entitlement, obscures the reality of how most rapists choose their victims, and implies that rape can be prevented by women being less alluring.

(for those of you keeping track at home, these are the books I read between Feb. 1st and Feb. 7th – yes, I am very behind.)

cover image for Raven BoysRaven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue comes from a family of clairvoyants, all women, but she isn’t one herself.  Gansey is on a quest.  Mostly because he’s rich and therefore bored, but that doesn’t stop him from being obsessive about it. He’s also going to die before the year is over.  He doesn’t know this, but Blue does.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Blue and Gansey (and Gansey’s gang of misfits) cross paths.  Hijinks ensue.

Intellectually, I have all kinds of issues and questions, mostly pertaining to my annoyance with Blue’s Smurfette status.  Did she have no friends her own age until she met the boys?  Does she ever manage to get some female friends? What did she do before the boys came along, besides hang out with her family? etc.

Emotionally though, I was totally and utterly sucked into this book.  The plot was likely full of holes and misuses of history and myth, but I honestly didn’t notice, I was too busy being distracted by the twists and surprises.  Also, the dialogue.  Blue (and Adam) skewering Gansey’s privilege, blindness, and self-absorption was an absolute delight. Centering Blue in a family of unique and talented adult women – and taking the time to show her relationships with them – was a huge plus.

Raven Boys was not a particularly deep book, but it was fun.

cover image for The Way We FallThe Way We Fall by Megan Crewe*

Kaelyn never really fit in at her school in Toronto, so when her family moves back to the island she grew up on, she’s relieved to say the least.  But just as things are getting to back to normal, a new and deadly sickness spreads through the island, disrupting life as it was and leaving death and devastation in it’s wake.

While Crewe’s slow moving crisis doesn’t sink to the levels of boredom found in Pfeiffer’s Life as We Knew It,** it’s not terribly gripping either. The plot is fairly decent and the idea (a new deadly disease, a race to find a cure, and an isolated community increasingly devolving into chaos) is interesting.  Unfortunately, the prose lacks any sort of punch or personality – especially considering the topic and that the story is narrated in first person.  And then there was the inexplicable conceit of having Kae address her diary/journal to an estranged crush/friend; that was annoying and confusing and odd.

cover image for What We Saw At NightWhat We Saw at Night by Jaquelyn Mitchard*

Murder! Misfits! Mystery! and parkour! All at midnight! This should be an awesome book! I don’t understand how this is not an awesome book.  No, really, I don’t understand how it was possible to make this book as boring as it was.  Plus! bonus slut shaming directed towards a victim of child sexual abuse.

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cover image for Hello, Animals!Hello, Animals! by Simriti Prasadam and Emily Bolam

Simplicity and a little something extra is the key to a great board book.  All too often the latter detracts from the former, but that’s not the case here.  Each page features a tiny splash of shimmer and color added to the black and white graphics.  Rather than merely being eye-catching, the addition is expertly done; the subdued jewel colors manage to accent rather than compete with the minimalist elegance of the illustrations.  The text is basic but lyrical, just as prose for babies should be.

cover image for You Are My CupcakeYou Are My Cupcake by Joyce Wan

Wan is definitely a talent to watch.  Her retro/kawaii style art works well for little ones; the bold lines makes the art easy to “read” and the cuteness is both appropriate and appealing.  The patterned sentences complement the artwork well and work in adjectives and nouns that aren’t often found in board books, but yet – being about food – are ones that babies might hear in other contexts.

*I’m so sad that these books were little and no fun, respectively – they both have main CoC and I was really hoping to find more good genre titles with CoC to add to my list of what to get for the library.

**Kae is often quite concerned with what is going on outside the island, as any normal person her age would be.  It is, in fact, a topic of conversation more than once.  This alone makes it ever so much better than Life As We Knew It.

cover image for The Treasure Maop of BoysThe Treasure Map of Boys by E. Lockhart

It’s junior year and Ruby and her friends are living in the land of NoBoyfriend.  Nora and Megan have plans to rectify the situation, but Ruby is determined to follow her shrink’s advice and stay focused on herself for a while.  This means remaining friends only with Noel, staying the course at her internship, not giving her fellow Tate students anything to gossip about, and putting on the best bake sale ever by convincing boys to make treats as well.

Can she do it?*  Either way, there is sure to be stress, hilarity, tears, and laughter.

Lockhart’s third Ruby book failed to charm me in quite the same way the previous two books did, but it’s still a breezy and entertaining read.  As always, Lockhart does a good job of presenting us with a Ruby that is immature but not obnoxious.**  Ruby is clearly struggling to make sense of the tensions between the feminism she believes in and the reality of both her hormones and the pressures of the culture she is a part of.  While Ruby’s views on sexism often lack sophistication, they are incredibly believable and Lockhart deftly steers clear of setting up any strawfeminists – or caricatures of chauvinism – to be knocked down.  Ruby’s problems are complex and real, as are the people around her.

 

cover image for IndaInda by Sherwood Smith

Indevan-Dal Algara-Vayir has always had a talent for strategy, in the same way that other people excel in music or math.  Growing up in a martial culture this serves him well and, along with his basic decency, makes him a natural leader and well-liked among the boys – and girls – that he trains with at home, the place he will one day defend for his older brother.  But when Inda and other second sons like him are ordered to capital to train at the King’s Military Academy, Inda discovers that while strategy comes easily to him, he still has much to learn about politics and intrigue.

I don’t know if it was the mood I was in or the story and writing itself, but I was so completely sucked in while reading this.  A decade ago, I likely would not have been, and would have been frustrated with the fact that we were following mostly the boys around, and not so much the girls. This didn’t bother me as much reading Inda, and I think it’s because I have had more luck recently finding women centered fantasy and science fiction.  After all, ten years ago, I had not read Tamora Pierce,** Elizabeth Bear, Kate Elliot, or P. C. Hodgell.  Now that I have, and now that I have better resources for finding similar books, each time I run into yet another boy-focused fantasy adventure, I’m more likely to be able to enjoy it for what it is than once again feel shut out.  Just as long as the story and world-building still acknowledge that women exist and are interesting and capable, which Smith does in spades, of course.

That said, I now totally want lots of stories about girls training to be fighters together.

 

cover image for Navigating EarlyNavigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

At age 13 Jack, born and raised in Kansas, is sent to a boarding school on the Maine coast by his recently widowed father, a WWII veteran.  Confused and bereft, Jack has difficulty fitting in and making friends.  Until he meets Early Auden, a fellow student with Asperger’s decades before the term came into use.  As outcasts often do, Early and Jack establish a rocky but deep friendship; a bond that leads to the two boys taking off for a trip in the woods in search of a bear, a lost brother, and the story of Pi.

Ten or twenty years ago I would have thought this was a wonderful, touching, and compassionate book.  But a decade or so ago I had not yet read a Mango-Shaped Space, Anything But Typical, Tangerine, or a handful of of other rare but powerful books that – gasp! – tell such stories from the perspective of the person who is not considered neurotypical (or otherwise deviates from the norm).  The current me wants to know why we must learn about Early though Jack’s eyes – rather than the other way around.  It’s not that there isn’t still a place for friendship stories told through the perspective of neurotypical boys like Jack – it’s more that the focus on Early as a cipher and his presentation as an almost otherwordly companion perpetuates the idea that Early is not fully human, even as the author clearly wishes to dispel such myths.  It is, in many ways, a beautifully written book.  It’s just so old school with respect to neurology and behavior (above and beyond what is needed to establish a sense of place) that I’m not able to recommend it without reservations.

(Also, omg that title: Navigating Early, really? Early Auden is a thing to be navigated? ?????)

 

The CallingThe Calling by Kelley Armstrong

The further adventures of Maya and her friends.  Suffers from the same problem as the middle book in her first ya series: too much running around, not enough actually happening.  Not painful to read, but mostly worth it only so that the final book will make sense.

yay! for the First Nations protagonist though.  (although, I cannot say for certain if Maya is realistic – or the traditions and beliefs accurately portrayed)

 

cover image for Shards of HonorShards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Why yes, this is my first time reading Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.  And yes, I realize that this makes me a freak and not a Real Science Fiction Fan.  Now that we have that out of the way…

Cordelia Naismith is a scientist and starship Captain whose Betan exploratory expedition has been ambushed by Barrayarian forces while on a planet-side mission. As she comes to discover later, the attack was actually part of a mutiny attempt against Captain Lord Vorkosigan, the Barrayarian who captures her and marches her an injured Betan crewman back to his own Barrayarian base camp.

There is some serious analysis begging to be done here, what with Cordelia and Aral falling in love while she’s technically being imprisoned by him, but a large part of what makes this story work – and (I imagine) the author so beloved – is that Bujold makes it clear that the romance is based on growing mutual admiration and respect and manages to have this all happen without Cordelia ever compromising her own sense of honor or duty. Once the mutiny is taken care of, Cordelia chooses going home and enlisting in her own people’s war effort over marrying Lord Vorkosigan.  The fact that Cordelia doesn’t magically lose all ties to her former self once she falls in love is what makes her human and big part of what makes Shards of Honor fun rather than a wall-banger.****  While the intrigue, cleverness, and unwillingness to deny the realities of politics and war are what elevate the novel from a merely comforting read to an interesting and entertaining one.

It’s one of those novels that you almost want to argue isn’t very deep at all – it doesn’t feel challenging or nihlistic or neat enough, and it’s certainly way too much fun – until you realize that calling it lighthearted denies the complexity that Bujold manages to weave into the plot and relationships.  It’s a wonderful book precisely because it is so messy and flawed and imperfect at times, just as real people are.

*spoilers: no, no, no, and yes respectively – did you ever think otherwise?

** ymmv. I don’t find Ruby annoying, I find her incredibly sympathetic, but then we share a similar background and I willingly work with teens on a regular basis.  So.

***I may be off by about a year.  I began working at the bookstore in late 2002 and would have began reading Pierce within about two years of that point.

alternate cover image for Shards of Honor**** Unfortunately, the copy I borrowed from the library had this cover, and since I am a very visual thinker, I kept picturing everyone as the awkward cast of characters in that anatomically unlikely image. Which led to me having a hard time imagining anyone falling in love with the captain.  Other than that, however, it was an fun book.

cover image for Looking for AlaskaMiles Halter is in search of “a Great Perhaps” – his phrase, taken from the last words of the poet Francois Rabelais, for the that indefinable, pregnant possibility that adolescence so often thrives on.  He isn’t going to find it in an ordinary public school in Florida, so he convinces his parents to let him go to Culver Creek Boarding school in Alabama.  There he meets Chip, Lara, and Takumi…but most of all Alaska Young.  In which he finds his “Great Perhaps” but not in quite the way that he expected to.

Looking for Alaska is very much a deconstruction of romantic myths, but it is one that is not disdainful of hope and love.  Miles, having fallen for Alaska, keeps looking for hints that he has become as central to Alaska’s world as she has become to his.  In doing so, he overlooks much of what makes the real Alaska tick, a contradiction that Alaska herself is quick to point out.  When tragedy strikes, Miles’ grief pushes him to refocus his efforts rather than step back and examine them critically, a mistake that threatens to tear apart the friendships he has come to value.

Green’s (and Miles’) clever, snarky, and yet somehow mellow voice is an essential part of this book’s charm.  It is also how Green is able to make readers sympathetic to Miles’ antics while still shaking our heads at his obsession; a more reverent or less erudite approach would have made the tale overly sappy or shallow by turns, rather than acting as a counterpoint to Miles puppy dog love.  Instead, Green is able to invite us to dwell on Alaska’s many charms along with Miles, while still allowing a multi-faceted character to filter in around Miles’ rose colored viewpoint.  All of which becomes incredibly essential when Miles is finally forced to find a truthful and moral balance between his feelings and the needs of those he cares about.

Green, John. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York, NY: speak.

Best for Ages: 15-19

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