I've been a bit bothered for awhile now about the kind of books being published for teen girls. As anyone who reads YA titles knows, there are a lot more books for girls out there than boys. We formed Guys Lit Wire partly to address this discrepancy - and to recommend titles for boys that are older or might have been overlooked. But for girls, I can't help but think that while there are a lot of books with female protagonists, there are not a lot of books with diverse female protags. You have romances - where the girl is usually chasing a boy or passively pining for one; you have problem novels where the girl is depressed and grieving, depressed and overweight, depressed and sick or depressed and dying; and then urban fantasy where the girl is running for her life from vamps, werewolves, evil fairies or other fantastical creatures - unless she is falling madly in love with them. There is also the huge contingent of rich white girl novels which are all about being rich and white and occasionally snarky. I see dozens and dozens and dozens of these types of books and honestly, it's getting kind of old.
It's not that the books are bad - heck some of them must be pretty damn good based on how well they sell. But they seem to only address certain segments of the reading public. What if you don't want to read one of these types of books or, what if you just want to read something different sometimes? Its' not like you have a whole bunch of choices. (Even the historicals usually run pretty much to type.) For every Dewey (courtesy Ellen Klages) or Rose (courtesy Hilary McKay) you have to wade through a lot of mean girls. And don't even get me started on how difficult it is to find minority characters or GBLTQ characters in teen girl fiction. I've written about all of this before but what I'd really like to hear now is what other people think about the current status of books for teen girls and what it says about both what they want to read and what publishers think they want to read. Now here's the cool part - the list of the authors who agreed to take part in an occasional round of questions about girls and reading. They are all fabulous and they all have opinions and they all were once teenage girls (that part was kinda critical). Starting next week on a varying schedule I'll be posting a single question and then their answers as we talk about what a girl wants - and what she gets - when it comes to reading. Here's the line-up and I hope you'll agree, it's stellar:
Margo Rabb. Most recently the author of Cures for Heartbreak,(reviewed back in 2007 in my column), I first reviewed Margo's girl detective series "Missing Persons" back in 2005 at Eclectica. Heartbreak in particular was a book that moved me very deeply - read some of my initial thoughts here and a later interview with Margo here. Here's a bit of that:
It has definitely made me darker. I wonder sometimes what books I would have written if they hadn't died. My agent once referred to me jokingly as "the princess of death" since I can't seem to write anything without throwing death into the story. I can't help but picture a princess of death action figureâ€”a young woman in a long, pink, sparkly dress carrying a sickle. She would fly around and visit unsuspecting comic short stories, and throw a little tragedy in for good measure.
Sara Ryan. Oh how I love Battle Hall Davies. Most recently the author of The Rules For Hearts, (brought to my attention by the wonderful Sharyn November and reviewed a a couple of years ago in Eclectica) Sara also wrote Empress of the World (reviewed in my column and discussed at my site) and is an indy comics writer. She is also a librarian - I think all of these things combined makes her pretty much perfect for this discussion! Here's a bit of my review of Empress:
There are many reasons to recommend Empress of the World and its significance to LGBTQ teens in particular can not be overstated, but what really impressed me was the way that Ryan celebrated the intellectual curiosity of her characters. These are all smart kids and they like being smart; even more importantly they like not being stupid. This is an author who creates characters who are game to give all aspects of teenagehood a shot -- from falling in love, to studying, to dressing up like crazy fools. It's not easy, but Nic and the others understand that life is something worthy of giving your full attention. They are here for love and for life and though it might hurt a bit, they give it their all.
Jacqueline Kelly is author of the brand new MG novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (it will be reviewed in my July column). Calpurnia is a lover of natural history and her transformation from traditional Victorian era daughter (the book is set in 1899) to Charles Darwin acolyte is marvelous to read. Here is a bit of Betsy's review from a couple of months ago:
Listen to the first two sentences in her book: "By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat. We arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was still pure pitch." Ms. Kelly is also quite good at turning the commonplace into the epic. The war between a cat and a possum never leads to bloodshed, only a ridiculous pattern that Calpurnia notes in her books. "Neither I nor the adversaries ever fatigued of it. How satisfying to have a bloodless war in which each side was equally convinced of its own triumph." The writing in this book manages to do the difficult double duty of being both interesting and poetic. It's the golden combination many authors dream of achieving.
Loree Griffin Burns. Author of the staggeringly significant NF title, Tracking Trash (reviewed as my "Cool Read" in June 2007). This MG science book looks at the garbage in our oceans and I defy you to turn away once you chance upon it. When I was reviewing it the book sat on my dining room table and every person who encountered it - male/female, child to grandparent, was mesmerized. It's solid science brilliantly presented and made Loree one of my favorite NF authors, for any age on any subject. Here's a bit of my interview with her in 2007:
To be honest, the environmental part of this story snuck up on me. I was still very focused on the science of ocean currents the first time I interviewed Curt. At some point during that interview I asked him how many containers fall off of cargo ships each year, and his answer shocked me: between one thousand and ten thousand. Ten thousand! That was the moment I began to wonder how much trash was actually in the ocean, and the direction of my research changed dramatically.
Zetta Elliott. Most recently author of the SF time travel title A Wish After Midnight (my review), also author of the picture book Bird and several other titles. Wish was self-published and I still can hardly believe that Zetta has had so much trouble finding a publisher. It's a great novel featuring an African American heroine which hardly ever happens in SF. Here's a bit of my review:
Any book where a black teenage girl travels back to the time of slavery is likely to face comparisons with Octavia Butler's Kindred. Elliott is telling a very specific story here though -- one about Brooklyn and what it faced during the 1863 draft riots and also what it would mean to be a young black person alive in that specific place and time. Genna does suffer horribly when she travels back and Elliott doesn't flinch from the realities of slavery. But more importantly, readers will find not a historical tale so much as a story about how a very contemporary teen would see that time and how she would react to it. I love that Genna is pragmatic enough not to sit around and whine for long. Life might be crazy but she still has to eat. (This is the same Genna as presented in the modern part of the story and it's wonderful to see her not lose her mind when transported back.)
Beth Kephart. Author of many many books including the National Book Award Finalist A Slant of the Sun and the upcoming Nothing But Ghosts (which will be reviewed in my July column). Here's a bit from her interview with Vivian at Hip Writer Mama last November:
Hmmm. I am never good at judging what makes any book commercially successful, but I do have very clear ideas about what makes a book successful as art. The memoirs that I believe should live forever come from an authentic place; that is, the story is real and alive and absolutely essential (as opposed to being endowed with a glittery marketing hook).
Laurel Snyder. Also author of many many books (we have lots of these types on the list) most recently of the brand new Any Which Wall which I have not yet read but Gwenda loved. Here's a bit of her recent interview with Laurel:
Eliot said something once that often gets shortened to "Bad poets borrow. Good poets steal." Well, whether I'm good or bad, I'm (first and last) a poet. I tend to read books over and over. I study them, process them--their cadences, tricks of speech, and dialogue patterns wiggle into my head. For the books I've been rereading or decades this is most true. So it's impossible for me not to be, on some level, always writing a love letter. To Eager and Nesbit, and to Dahl, and Enright, and Lewis, and McDonald, and so many others.
Mayra Lazara Dole. Author of Down to the Bone (my review), a coming-out story that is as much about being Latina in Miami as it is about being a lesbian teen. Here's a bit of my interview with Mayra last year:
Oh... a big part of me wished you'd also asked about the intense humor/comedy in Down to the Bone which is important because it's a tool that helps teens cope while laughing. Teen love is conflictive, but even now that things are more open for LGBT's, love can be brutal for closeted or "coming out" young adults because they understand the prejudice, hatred, isolation and intolerance for being "different." LGBT teens, young adults, and adults coming out, deal with a lot of other issues that straights are free of, thus love will be more intense and mean a great deal more to us than to straight people.
Melissa Wyatt. Author of Raising the Griffin and most recently, the brand new West Virginia novelFunny How Things Change (reviewed in my current column). I also interviewed Melissa for the recent SBBT in June. Here's a bit of my that:
There are some great Appalachian writers but they are writing against those long-ingrained stereotypes and American imagination of what they already believe Appalachia is. This is one of the last cultural groups in the US that it's still okay to make fun of. Why have those stereotypes been allowed to stand for so very long? I think they make it easier for the rest of America to think of Appalachia as a sort of non-America. That way, the problems of Appalachia aren't our problems and we can blame them on the victims, the people of Appalachia, instead of facing the complex causes of those problems. It allows us to trivialize what we can't--or don't want--to fix. Why care about the exploitation of a land and the people who live on it if we are taught to believe they are both worthless?
I think we change stereotypes by questioning why they exist.
Kekla Magoon. Author of The Rock and the River, a historical novel about a teen's 1968 involvement with the Black Panthers. I have not yet read the book (must read it) but Betsy's review a couple of months caught my attention and then her interview with Kekla for the SBBT really impressed me. Here's a bit of that:
I've realized in writing this book that the way we tell history to kids is very hero-focused. It's especially true of Black History. How does the story go? There was slavery, then Abraham Lincoln. Segregation, then Rosa Parks. Then Dr. King came along, and now we're all living happily ever after. Ummmâ€¦.simplified much? I'm being slightly facetious here, but not totally. What's left out of that narrative â€“ for civil rights in particular â€“ is how many ordinary people were involved.
Lorie Ann Grover. Author of many books from board books for tots to YA fiction such as On Pointe. She is also a Readgirlz Diva which means she pretty has her finger on the pulse of teen girl's fiction. Lorie Ann is another writer I still need to read (I really need to read all these people). She's also my friend - we met and we "clicked". She's just wicked cool and the actual mother of two teenage girls which I think makes her the perfect storm of teen girl experience. Here's a bit of an interview between Lorie Ann and Vivian at Hip Writer Mama:
My novels are based heavily on my life. I am the main characters. Many of my family members carry their own names. When I see someone reading my work, my stomach lurches as if they are reading my journal.
(I've seen Lorie Ann's journals - from a distance - and they are detailed and artistic and wonderfully creative.)
Jenny Davidson. Columbia professor, triathlete and author of several books, most recently the YA alt history title The Explosionist my review), Jenny is a respected lit blogger who is also delightfully (to me and other fans of Explosionist) a research junkie. Here's a bit of my interview with her when Explosionist came out last summer:
I guess what I'm looking for in any novel is its ability to transport me. We have this very strongly when we read books as children, especially when we read books about magic (though I feel I was as thoroughly transported by the mundane details of Laura Ingalls Wilder's prairie existence as by the magic of the Narnia books). You've observed that "mythic fiction seems to go away for awhile when you are 14 or 15 and then return later,"? and I think this is probably to a great extent true, although it wasn't true for me. Fantasy and science fiction are viewed by many people as slightly nerdy genres, and of course those are ages when one has many practical concerns on one's mind, so that it may be tempting to turn instead to books that offer more practical know-how about what it might mean to be a grown-up. But fantastical or mythic writing seems to me to have just as much to offer in that respect as more realistic fiction â€“ think of novels like Neil Gaiman's (I am especially thinking of American Gods and Anansi Boys), they are very well-suited to readers of all ages but especially, I think, to people growing up and trying to figure out what sort of figure they would like to cut in the world!
So that's the group and starting next week they will all be showing up here every 2-3 weeks to answer a question about teenage girls and reading. We will start slow with an introductory post but from there we will be talking about genre and characters, love and romance, violence, stereotypes, diversity, math and science and - wait for it - vampires and the girls who love them. (No way to avoid it, is there?) We might not change the world but we may very well come to a conclusion or two. We're certainly going to try and invite all of you to read along with us.