Review Wednesday: Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe

I mentioned this book a few days ago. I first posted this review about it almost a year ago. Since then, that review has gotten more hits than all but two books I’ve reviewed in the past four years on this site. One of the two others being another beautiful book by Benjamin Alire Saenz. I wanted to bring it back to the surface because this book (and just about everything Benjamin Alire Saenz has written) deserves to be read and to be successful. And if race is at all responsible for keeping it off bookstore shelves, even in the community where it is set, then we should do whatever we can to make sure that it doesn’t recede into obscurity and that it gets into the hands of kids who need it. So I’m reposting my original review below.

“As you can see from the cover, it got a whole mess of awards in 2013. The Pura Belpre, awarded to a Latino writer writing about the Latino cultural experience. The Stonewall Award, awarded for excellent books about GLBTQ issues. And, of course, the Printz honor. It deserved every one of them. This is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, well, ever.

It’s by Benjamin Alire Saenz, whose novel Last Night I Sang to the Monster I’ve talked about a number of times. For the kinds of things I talk about on here, his writing just can’t be beat. And just briefly, this book is Annie on My Mind for boys. But it’s for gay mexican boys living in the desert southwest.

Summary:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Review:

Well, first of all, I got choked up re-reading that summary from the book jacket. The book was just THAT GOOD. But here’s why this book is really important. I have gay students here in Santa Fe and I have tried to get them to read this book and they have ALL said to me, “No, miss, I don’t read.” And then I realized: not one of them has ever read a book that really reflects their experience. There are no books about gay Mexican boys living in the desert southwest. There are very few books with Mexican protagonists. There are very few books set in the Southwest. And while the number of books about gay boys has definitely been on the rise for years, they are mostly white boys in New England. Just the fact that there is a love story set in this culture in this place, is almost a miracle.

All kids deserve to have their experience reflected back to them, but most of the books for teens, I’m just being honest, are written by middle-aged white women and feature middle-class, white protagonists. Which is fine, but I am so glad for the Matt de la Penas and the Coe Booths and the Benjamin Alire Saenzs who are writing about non-white teens living in places other than the suburbs.

And this book is just so beautiful. I found myself reading and re-reading it because it was just the best love story that I’ve maybe ever read, period. But particularly for both gay and lesbian teens. Especially for ones growing up in a place where they aren’t even told that being Gay is an option. Every book collection should include this book. Every library should have this book. Every book store should carry this book. Period.”

What books featuring racial minority characters do you love and believe in?

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Racism: Let’s Talk about It.

Racism is on a lot of people’s minds right now. My sister told me last night that there were riots in Portland over the results of the Darren Wilson case. And last week folks in the children’s book world were buzzing angrily about Lemony Snicket’s distasteful “joke” about Jacqueline Woodson’s watermelon allergy.

The issue of racism hit home for me last week when I ran into an issue with a local children’s bookseller. She didn’t carry a book I wanted. So why is this an issue of racism? Well, first a little about Santa Fe: the census says that Santa Fe is 51% Latino. Santa Fe High is about 85% Latino. And Capitol High is probably closer to 95%. Those are the two public high schools. But there are about a dozen private hippy schools and charter schools and I will eat my hand if they enroll more than 5–10% Latino kids. Tuition at the local private schools is about $20,000/year for high school. Just for reference, the AP Lit class as Santa Fe High had to read Othello out loud last year, because they couldn’t afford to buy a class set.

Race is a bizarre issue in Santa Fe. Racism is ubiquitous here. It is one of the most segregated places I have ever been. And yet, cultural appropriation is rampant. Everyone here eats “New Mexican” food which is a pleasing combination of actual Mexican food and Native American food. We all celebrate Fiesta and the burning of Zozobra. And nobody calls it cultural appropriation. And nobody seems to mind that the same historical culture that we’re celebrating is actually a living tradition that belongs to half of our community that is not even welcome downtown in the plaza anymore. As I said, it is a bizarre place.

So back to the children’s book store. I have shopped here many times. I have chatted with the owner. And I have always been very supportive. I support local, independent book stores in general. I support children’s bookstores, particularly. But I don’t know if I can support this shop any longer. Because she doesn’t carry Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets to the UniverseShe doesn’t carry any books by Benjamin Alire Saenz, it turns out. Despite the fact that he grew up around here and that his books are set here.

I sent this email to the store owner asking about this:

Something really upset me last time I was in the shop, and I have tried to let it go, but I am still thinking about it. I came in to the shop looking for Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe. And I discovered that you don’t carry it. And you don’t carry any books by Benjamin Alire Saenz, in fact. This really threw me. Aristotle & Dante was the most decorated YA novel of 2013. It got a Printz Honor, the Stonewall Award, A Lambda Literary Award, and the Pura Belpre. It’s also by far and away the most beautiful and honest book I have read in years. And Saenz is the only Latino author to have ever won the Pen/Faulkner award, I believe. And he grew up in Mesilla and graduated from Las Cruces High.
Half of the children and teens in this town are latino. Half of them could relate better to Saenz’s books than any other books that have been written in the children’s book market. Is that half of our town not welcome in your shop?

Here is the response I got from her:

Thanks so much for your email and your feedback. I’m sorry you were upset by the absence of Aristotle and Dante… on the
shelves of Bee Hive. I have in fact carried it in the store and tried to keep it in stock for quite a while. But it just didn’t move. Because the books come and go so quickly and I only have so much of a budget to reorder books – it only makes sense for me to keep the books in stock that sell and, of course, offer to special order any other specific requests. I assure you Bee Hive was created for all of the kids of Santa Fe – I am not interested to catering to any one demographic. And I would love to get
more Latino readers in the store. But, as with many things in the independent book store business, it has been a challenge.
Thanks so much for your support and your time and attention.
I hope to see you in the store soon.

So, to put it mildly, this response is bull. Let’s deconstruct it for a second. First of all, the book has been out for less than two years. She says that she tried to keep it in stock for “quite a while” but it hadn’t been in stock for like eight months when I came in. Also, I’ve shopped there for awhile. Which means I remember buying another book there and having her tell me that the book I bought had been on the shelves for three years and no one had ever bought it. So why did Aristotle & Dante get sent back? Another problem with this response: why hasn’t she read this book? We’ve chatted books. She recommended Eleanor & Park to me, which I loved. But she obviously hasn’t read Aristotle & Dante. But she is widely read in children’s & YA. Why did she not bother to read this book with four metals on its cover that is set basically in her own community? I don’t know.

I have been trying to understand the racial dynamics in this town since I moved here. I have worked in the public schools and in the private schools. I have friends who are rich white folk and friends who are dirt poor Mexican folk. Lots of good people on both sides. But the racial tensions . . . I’m just not sure.

There’s a lot more to say here. More to say about Ferguson and what happened at the National Book Awards and the responses to them and several articles I’ve read about race recently. And I will, because these are important issues and I think one of the biggest problems is the lack of real dialogue about them. It’s easy to be politically correct. And to police those who aren’t. It’s easy to throw money at a problem. But actually talking about something as powerful, uncomfortable, and intractable as racism is less easy. So this month, let’s talk about racism.

Posted in Current Events, Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Gender Book list

So this week, I have a list of books that I think have something interesting to say about gender. Most of these are older books. And I have an entire section devoted to Fantasy/sci-fi because I think that these books often have interesting explorations of these topics. And also a category of adult books that might be of interest to older teen readers. In the list below, one asterisk (*) means the main point of the story is that girls are awesome and they can do anything. Two asterisks (**) means that the main point is that boys are abandoned in the wilderness to survive.

Middle Grade

  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • Hattie Big Sky and Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson
  • The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  • Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson
  • *The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
  • **Hatchet by Gary Paulson
  • *The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  • **The Cay by Theodore Taylor
  • Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
  • Whirligig by Paul Fleischman
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Novels for Teens

Fantasy/Science Fiction

Adult Books For Mature Teen Readers:

  • A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  • Sons and Lovers by D.H.Lawrence
  • The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
  • Fried Green Tomatoes by Fannie Flagg
  • The Odyssey by Homer

Non-Fiction

  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel
  • The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
  • Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher
  •  Blind Spot: Hidden Biases Of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaj and Anthony G. Greenwald
  • Our Bodies, Ourselves
  • Changing Bodies, Changing Lives

In making these lists, I kind of intuitively feel out which books really have something to teach about the given issue. But that is a fine line and there is a lot I haven’t read. And it can be hard to articulate why I have included a book or haven’t. Anyway, I’m giving this disclaimer to say that if there is a book that you would like to see included, or if there is a book that you would like to know more about, just let me know. I’m just trying to be useful with these lists.

Again, the person who comments most this month will receive the whole Vampire Queen series from Rebecca Maizel. As always, thanks for stopping by!

Posted in Book Lists | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing Young Women: An Interview with Author Rebecca Maizel (w giveaway!)

Hey y’all, this is my 150th post! Today we have the fabulous Rebecca Maizel, author of the Vampire Queen trilogy, here to talk about gender. (And she’s offered the whole trilogy as a giveaway this month to the person who comments the most–I’m jealous!)

I first met Rebecca, like so many talented writers, at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program. We shared a workshop together her first semester, and I was very impressed with her writing at the time. I also remember that Infinite Days, her first novel, had just come out and she was so anxious about how it would be received.

As I have said before, I love that book. But I’ve invited her on here today because of her thoughts on portrayal of females in fiction. She gave her graduate lecture on this topic, and she has some really interesting things to say about it. So without further ado:

Me: What tropes do you see represented the most? and how do these portrayals affect young folk?

Rebecca: I think the trope that is most often represented in young adult and middle grade literature is the “gossiping girl” as the antagonist. I’ve even fallen victim to this myself in my own work. It’s hard when charting the map of your own understanding of gender and social pressures to make the best choice – meaning how to best represent women outside of traditional stereotype. In hindsight, I’m not sure I would have made The Three Piece so gossipy (from Infinite Days). Nevertheless, this is the trope that I see the most. If you look at endless covers of YA novels (more so in Middle Grade, IMHO), there are rarely girls looking at one another in a way that isn’t conspiratorial or competitive in nature. I think the impact of this is subtle but powerful. If we associate not only females with gossip but our female antagonists as well, it perpetuates the stereotype.

Me: What should we be aiming for in terms of gender representation?

Rebecca: To represent our women and girls outside of stereotype. It’s simple and a bit general but I think this is really important – at least in my own life.  I have tried to do this in my own work though I am not sure how successful I have been. I am reading a book presently called Blind Spot: Hidden Biases Of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaj and Anthony G. Greenwald. One of the theories in the book is that if something is unconscious, say a bias about a group of people, gender, etc, and this unconscious bias is brought into your conscious mind, you can then temper your behavior once this realization has occurred. I think this is similar to theories about therapy (though I can’t say for sure), but I hope that the more I educate myself the more I can recognize stereotypes in books or media and attempt to break them in my written work for teens.

 Me: What questions should we be asking that we aren’t?

Rebecca: I am not sure of a specific question I think we should be asking though one that constantly comes to mind is: Why aren’t we educating young men more? I went to a lecture given by Byron Hurt last year about the race, gender, class, within popular culture, with a particular focus on hip hop and rap music and it was transformative for some of the young men in the audience. I know there has been some movement and there are people advocating for young men but I’m not sure how much access young men are given to these kinds of conversations. I think this is a conversation we need to have with both sexes – not just women. 

 

Me: And when you sit down to write, how do you think about all of this?

Rebecca: I try to remember my teachers (not really just through their work): Naomi Wolff, Gloria Steinhem, Jessica Valenti, Rebecca Solnit, Roxane Gay, and Shere Hite (and more) whose books and words have transformed me. I hope I can do justice to the many women who have come before me who write about women in a full and three-dimensional way. I will do my best in all of my work, especially my current work to follow their lead. 

Thanks for stopping by!

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Review Wednesday: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

I wanted to talk about gender this month because I keep getting in this argument about what it means to be a woman with a particular gentleman. Now, I know why I keep getting in the argument, but I’m not really sure why he does. And yet . . .

One of his favorite books is The Left Hand of Darkness. One of his favorite authors is Ursula Le Guin. I came across this essay by her about being a man, and I sent it to him. And then we got in the argument again. I’m not even sure exactly what the argument is about, but it feels like it’s important to both of us.

So then I read The Left Hand of Darkness and I knew I had to talk about it on here. Because it says something that I think we all need to deeply feel when we’re thinking about gender. Whether masculine or feminine.

Summary:

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can change their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

Review:

I think this is an important book for teens and adults to read. Le Guin has a fascinating introduction to this book. She says that science fiction isn’t predictive. It’s descriptive. She says, “Yes, indeed, the people in [this book] are androgynous. That doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millenium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think that we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are.”

And then Spoiler Alert at one point in the book the emissary looks over at the Gethenian who has become his particular friend and he sees what he was unwilling to all along: that his friend is also a woman. And he says that all along he had been denying him his own reality. That really struck me. Actually, I started crying. I’m not sure why.

But maybe it’s that gender is so complicated. And we have come up with so many words to describe it and ways to change it and subvert it. But really, how we all interact with our own gender is so particular and so deeply felt. Or maybe that’s just me. But either way, when we try to shoehorn ourselves and each other into a prescribed gender role OR when we try to pretend that it doesn’t matter at all and we’ve progressed beyond it, something vital is lost.

I think this book does an amazing job of honestly exploring these questions. Thanks for stopping by!

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Strong Female Heroines: Review of Infinite Days by Rebecca Maizel (w Giveaway!)

I’ve meant to talk about Infinite Days by Rebecca Maizel for ages. Besides being an avid Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, I don’t usually care for vampires. But I loved this book when I read it. It’s the first in her “Vampire Queen” series.

I’ve struggled to think about what books to talk about with respect to gender this month because, as I said last week, I don’t really know what we’re going for in terms of gender. I know that it’s important and everyone seems to be invested in the topic one way or another, but I can’t really tell who or what is “getting it right” in terms of gender presentation for our young readers.

That disclaimer aside, I can say that there are books where I find the gender presentation of one or all of the characters interesting. And maybe interesting is something to aim for because interesting means it’s showing a new way of doing gender, something worth looking at. So, let’s talk about Infinite Days.

Synopsis (from Publisher’s Weekly Review):

Maizel’s dark and dreamy debut reverses the vampire trend with a heroine whose heart’s desire is to regain her humanity and abandon her evil past. After more than 500 years as the queen of her English coven, perpetual 15-year-old Lenah finally has her chance to become human again when her vampire sire sacrifices himself for the necessary ritual. Determined to live her new days to the fullest before her coven finds and kills her for her betrayal, Lenah explores American teenage life at a boarding school in Massachusetts with best friend Tony and boyfriend Justin. Eventually discovered, abducted, and remade as a vampire, Lenah retains her soul and becomes something entirely new–a compassionate vampire with unexpected powers who can bridge the worlds. She returns to school and her friends, but the coven isn’t far behind, and they aren’t interested in mercy.

Review:

So, this book has the beautiful boyfriend. Two of them, in fact. The New England boarding school. The rampant heterosexual hormones. None of that is anything other than what you would expect. But Lenah, herself, is a fascinating character. Because she wants something with all of her being. And the desire for it is driving her mad. And she allows herself to become a monster because of it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s that nice girls don’t usually crave blood.

There are lots of books where girls act like/dress like/pretend to be boys. There are a few where the gender roles are oppositely reversed. But something I find interesting is when girls are very much girls but they are also very much themselves and they are awesome in their own specific, unique ways. That’s what Lenah Beaudonte is. She is beautiful and desirable and female and she is also very powerful and very much evil.

I think it’s impossible to have too many such protagonists in literature for young folks. Lenah is nuanced, specific, and very believable, which seems kind of remarkable. I mean, when was the last time you believed in a vampire? But this doesn’t surprise me. Her creator is also a beautiful, powerful, thoughtful, articulate woman.

Rebecca Maizel has a lot more interesting thoughts about gender than I do. It’s something she has studied and thought about a great deal. So I am glad to say that she will join us later this month to discuss some of this. And the person who comments most this month will get a copy of Infinite Days. Thanks for stopping by!

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

How We Write & Market Gender

I think a lot about gender in general, but a few things have made me want to talk about gender with regards to children’s books recently. First, Ursula LeGuin’s (one of my superheroes) thoughts on “Being a Man.” And a few weeks ago when some folks got upset that there were no books about female athletes on a YALSA list of 10 best sports books of the year.

So I’m asking for a bit of (polite and productive) argument here. Where are we on the gender question right now? I mean, I realize that we now generally consider that girls can play with the boys and do-everything-that-they-do-but-better. But really, what do we currently believe about gender? And, more importantly for the purposes of this blog, what messages are we and are we not sending about gender to our chickens? Where do we need to get to from here?

We don’t talk about this enough. We get outraged when girls are under-represented in a list of sports books because sports are traditionally considered a masculine domain, but we don’t seem to get upset that most of the YA is written by women with female protagonists. So let’s talk about it. What does justice in the field of gender look like? Do we need to see exactly even representations of male and female protagonists in fiction in general and in each domain (like sports) for it to exist? What stereotypes about women are we still propagating? And then, let’s look at the other side: what are we giving boys?

I can’t seem to manage to ever hold a popular opinion. What I see is that we are teaching girls to still be pretty and desirable while telling them that they need to be boys in terms of success and pursuits. And at the same time, we’re telling boys that it is not OK for them to be what they have always been told to be. But we aren’t giving them any ideas about what they should be, either. We have devalued traditional masculinity to such an extent that no one feels comfortable expressing it. We pretend that we have equally devalued traditional femininity while still expecting it. So girls are supposed to be girls and boys, and boys are supposed to be nothing.

That’s how it seems to me, in any case. And I think this is generally the state of our books for kids, too. Someone reasonably explain this or change my mind, please?

We’ll have the fabulous Rebecca Maizel on here later this month to talk about these things. She both writes fabulous heroines who don’t need saving and thinks critically about Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes and other things gender. The person who comments most this month will win one of her Vampire Queen novels.

So stop by. Have an opinion. Express it blithely. Cheers!

 

Posted in Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments