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!

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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!

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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!

 

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Graphic Novel Booklist & Resources

Thanks everyone who’s tuned in this month to discuss graphic novels and how we create empathy for diverse experiences in our young readers. Rebecca Parish wins this month’s giveaway of the fabulous GN The March. Below I’ve compiled a list of GNs that are particularly good at expressing different minority experiences, and beneath that are some resources for those interested in using GNs in the classroom or trying their hand at writing one. Cheers, and stay tuned for November’s discussion on gender in books for young readers.

Books by and/or about Racial Minorities, Immigration, & Stuff that Happened Overseas

  • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
  • The Tantalize graphic series by Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Illustrated by Ming Doyle
  • La Perdida by Jessica Abel
  • Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez
  • The March by John Lewis, scripted by Andrew Aydin, Illustrated by Nate Powell
  • The Wall by Peter Sis
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman
  • Che: A Graphic Biography by Spain Rodriguez
  • Boxers & Saints both by Gene Luen Yang
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan
  • The Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa

GLBTQ Themes:

  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  • Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio
  • The Freddie Stories by Lynda Barry
  • Skim written by Mariko Tamaki, Illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
  • Wandering Son by Shimura Takako
  • a + e 4ever by ilike merey
  • Pedro Zamora & Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned by Judd Winick
  • Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez
  • The High School Chronicles of Ariel Schrag by Ariel Schrag

Illness (Physical and Mental):

  • Black Hole by Charles Burns
  • Epileptic by David B.
  • Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell
  • Inside Out: Portrait of an Eating Disorder by Nadia Shivack
  • Cruddy by Lynda Barry
  • The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon

Abusive Situations:

  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  • Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel
  • Stitches by David Small
  • One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson

Resources:

Comics in the Classroom: 100 Tips, Tools and Resources for Teachers by Kelsey Allen from Teaching Degree. NOTE: many annotated links.

No Flying, No Tights: a graphic novel review site for teens. See also The Lair for Teens and Adults and Sidekicks for Kids.

A Scholastic editor interviewed about what he wants to see in terms of GNs

A Website of GN scripts

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Interview w Andrew Aydin, Scripter of The March, Part III: Diversity in Indie Comics

And here is the rousing conclusion to my chat with Andrew Aydin, in which we discuss diversity in publishing, awesome authors/books, and why all of this is so important! (Check out Part I and Part II if you missed them! And comment to win a copy of The March.)

Me: So, one other big question. The diversity of voices (or lack thereof) in the children’s book publishing world right now is a huge topic of conversation, but I’ve noticed that in the past six to eight years that the same publishers who won’t publish diverse voices and narratives in their traditional books are publishing wildly diverse writers and stories in their graphic novels. And it’s not coming from the old comic book world because that seems to be like an old boys’ network.

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely.

Me: Not that I don’t love Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and all them, but I was wondering if you had any insight into why so many diverse narratives—GLBTQ stories, international stories, racial minorities, stories about mental illness—are coming out of the more traditional publishing world right now?

Andrew: I can’t really speak to the whole children’s publishing community, but I think in terms of graphic novels, the indie comics’ world was the haven of the maladjusted. And it has given birth to a true cross-section of America in this class of creators that we see working today, whether it’s Alison Bechdel, Gene Yang, Raina Telgemeier . . . I mean heck, I’m Turkish-American. I’m pretty sure we haven’t had any Turkish-American graphic novelists before.

I think about it in my own sense. I was able to just pitch a publisher over the table with my idea and he liked it and he was willing to take a chance with it. Now, I know I had an easier time because Congressman Lewis was involved. So that sort of overcame the hurdle that I can’t draw, but it wouldn’t have worked if there wasn’t a story there. So with some of these other creators . . .if they show that they’re able to express themselves fully as master’s of their page, so to speak, then all that matters is the stories and it’s easier to get them out there. All I think that you’re seeing now, is the market having to reconcile that there is a demand for this.

When there couldn’t be a quality piece put out there because it was controlled by a certain few, you would never know that there’s a market because nobody every tried to tap into it. But today because of independent comics, the barriers for entry are lower. At the same time, it’s also made it more competitive. And that’s made the stories better. That’s made the storytelling better, and it’s just a matter of time before everyone else has to catch up. They went and made a play out of Fun Home that got nominated for a Pulitzer.

The ripple effect of this explosion from Independent Comics is going to move through the entire entertainment industry and through literature. You look at what schools are reading (in comics) and you see a story about the holocaust, the Iranian Revolution, a coming of age story like Fun Home dealing with brutal and yet beautiful LGBT issues. They’re reading American Born Chinese about growing up in America but having foreign born parents and what it’s like to be a minority that’s a little different than most other minorities. Or in our case, dealing with the Civil Rights Movement, which has been largely unapproached in a direct way.

We’re on the verge of something bigger, I think.

Me: I definitely agree. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk. Do you have any other words of wisdom, or anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered?

Andrew: I don’t know. I guess the only thing I’d say is that, the best part about this whole journey for me is that we’re really opening up the door in many schools for using a graphic novel as part of their curriculum. When I was a kid, I never got to read a graphic novel in class. I can remember one teacher telling me, “take that comic book off your desk. That’s not a real book.” And now I’ve had the experience of that same teacher teaching my graphic novel to her class. It’s really meaningful to me that I get to be a part of changing that. At the same time, being able to bring someone else’s story, like John Lewis that’s so important and so necessary to the classroom. In the Southern Poverty Law Center Report, it says that 47 states need to improve their Civil Rights education standard and how they teach the Civil Rights Movement. And we have to give them the tools to do that. Being able to do that and give them that tool . . . I’m just incredibly lucky to be part of that.

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Review Wednesday: Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

There are a lot of amazing graphic novels that I would love to talk about but Skim, like The March, really makes you feel the experience of someone-probably-not-you. It builds empathy in readers for a novel situation, which is what I’ve been going on about all month. And it is breathtakingly illustrated.

I first read it while studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts. One of my teachers there was the book’s editor and I was focused on studying graphic novels and how to put them together. But this book has stayed with me for a number of reasons. Perhaps most because I was once a troubled teen in love with my drama teacher. It’s not a story you see told often.

Summary:

“Skim” is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth who goes to a private girls’ school in the early ’90s. When her classmate Katie Matthews is dumped by her boyfriend, who then kills himself — possibly because he’s (maybe) gay — the entire school goes into mourning overdrive. It’s a weird time to fall in love, but that’s what happens to Skim when she starts meeting secretly with her neo-hippie English teacher, Ms. Archer. But then Ms. Archer abruptly leaves the school, and Skim has to cope with her confusion and isolation while her best friend, Lisa, tries to pull her into “real” life by setting up a hilarious double-date for the school’s semi formal. Suicide, depression, love, homosexuality, crushes, cliques of popular, manipulative peers — the whole gamut of teen life is explored in this poignant glimpse into the heartache of being 16.

Review:

Like every book I talk about on here, this book speaks to kids who struggle in one way or another or don’t have an easy time of it. There is school bullying, depression, Gay stuff . . . the MC is overweight, a racial minority, and a self-described freak. Not someone who is having an easy time of it. Sort of like The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner. But there’s more to Skim than that. 

The situation is not one that I have seen portrayed elsewhere. SPOILER ALERT: She kisses her (female) teacher, and then she has to deal with the reality and the emotional repercussions of that. I think that the folks who made and published this book had some courage. But I also think that non-traditional, sort of heart-breaking stories like this are coming out in Graphic Novel format far more often than in traditional all-text stories. And the illustrations really do something powerful here. You can see in the pictures that Skim looks different from her classmates. You can see that she carries herself hunched over–you are literally seeing her discomfort with herself and in her world. And you can see her affection for her teacher and her desire to be something other than she is.

I think any good book transports us into the mind and the heart of someone other than ourself. I think that’s a big part of the point of literature. But as Andrew Aydin said in his interview here a few days ago comics are powerful. We live our lives visually, but unlike movies, graphic novels leave something to the imagination. And when done well, they transport us into the minds and hearts of people wholly different from us, in some cases, in a way that no other medium can do. Skim is a wonderful example of that.

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Interview w Andrew Aydin, Scripter of The March, Part II: Comics as a Tool for Social Change

This is a follow up to last week’s interview with Andrew Aydin where we talked about how to write a graphic novel. Today we talk about the use of comics in the Civil Right’s Movement. If you are a teacher, today’s bit will give you quite a lot to work with. And stay tuned for the conclusion on thursday when we talk about diversity in Indie Comics.

Me: You said that you had the idea for this because it was a comic book that inspired John Lewis and I know you wrote your Master’s Thesis on the history of comics in the Civil Right’s Movement, right?

Andrew: I actually wrote it on Martin Luther King & the Montgomery Story. I wrote the first long-form history of it. So we figured out that Dr. King helped edit Martin Luther King & the Montgomery Story. You never imagine Dr. King sitting down at a table pouring over a comic book script. And yet, that’s what he did in the fall of 1957. Just after his first child was born.

It was edited and largely written by Alfred Hassler. But one of the guys who was integral to its creation was a guy named Benton Resnick who was formerly employed by a publisher who went out of business because of the comic book hearings.

It was interesting for me to trace this whole lineage from congress being . . . Umm . . . I don’t know how to say this without getting in trouble . . . But congress not being good. And then the ramifications of their actions hurting people. Destroying jobs. Destroying careers. Vilifying a wonderful medium because they were looking for a scapegoat on the rise of juvenile delinquency. I mean, we were finishing WWII. Everyone was horrified by the casualties that were coming back. Modern medicine had advanced to a point where we could keep people alive who had suffered these horrible wounds and then people are shocked to see them when they come home. And we’ve got the fears of the atomic age. I mean there are so many reasons for juvenile delinquency to surge. First of all, you had more juveniles at home—I mean, more 18 and 19 year olds were enlisting in the army previously.

So, all that is to say that they used comics as a scapegoat and because of that demigogery it was more possible for an organization like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who created that comic, to secure good talent. To do something like that. In a sense to me it symbolized everything that was right about the Civil Right’s Movement because they were taking something that mainstream America had thrown to the curb and they were using the medium and working with the people who had been vilified to create something beautiful and useful and inspirational. And the comic went on to be used in South Africa where it was banned for being incindiary and it was used in Latin America and Vietnam and as recently as 2011 an Arabic translation was used in Cairo, Egypt during the Tahrir Square Revolution.

So it’s got this long history of really getting people to do stuff. Getting people to move. Act. It was totally contrary to everything that the comic book hearings said about it. The only thing that the hearing affirmed that was true was that comic books could be influential. And were influential when done well, but this whole notion that they somehow contributed to people behaving a certain way to the detriment of society was just totally false. So that was the comic book and that was the brief synopsis of its history.

Me: So I get why there was a rise in juvenile delinquency. That makes sense. I get why comic books were vilified. I get why there was a surplus of talent. But why do you think they can be so powerful? Why was that comic book written? Why is The March so powerful? Because that’s what I noticed immediately upon opening it was that I felt like I was there in the Civil Right’s Movement the way no other book has ever made me feel. Why do you think that is? Why do they work like that?

Andrew: Well, comic books have a dimension that no other printed material has. You can sort of trace the history of sequential storytelling all the way back to Rembrandt’s paintings of the deeds of hercules. There’s an ability to communicate on two levels that provides an immersive experience. It surpasses any other print form. I think at the time FOR was trying to reach the broadest possible audience, and they saw this as a way to reach people who were in communities where they didn’t have the education that many affluent communities had, so they couldn’t read as well. And here was a way to speak to those readers in an easy to digest format that was . . .

I think every generation has this moment where they talk about the next generation and their attention span and how short it is getting, and what it really is, I think, is that kids just have a short attention span. And a lot of people do. It’s a great art to hold someone’s attention. And this had that. It held peoples’ attention. And yet, you could still digest it in a short amount of time, which I think in particular helped it spread. You could read the comic and then hand it to the guy next to you and he could read the comic. The guy next to you read comic and then you’ve reached three, four, five people. Leave it on your dresser or table and see how many people come over.

I just think comics as a medium are so powerful. I think that’s why you see them being adapted so much as movies these days. Because it’s the closest thing in print form to a movie and yet it also allows for an added dimension of imagination. In a movie everything is spelled out for you but in a graphic novel or a comic page there are beats that you have to imagine. You read between the panels and that just engages your mind in an engrossing way. So that you get sucked in.

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