Earlier this week, we hosted the first YA book club of our Beyond Judy Blume program here in Portland. We had a great discussion about how sexuality, gender, and race are portrayed in The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson. Since we know lots of our readers aren't able to make it to our book club meetings, we're discussing the book here on the blog as well. Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
We've spent the first couple weeks of this series talking about the need for YA lit that explores teen identity and sexuality, and remembering books that changed the way we thought about ourselves, our identity, and our worlds. Teens and adults continue to embrace YA lit, and characters with diverse identities continue to make their way onto the pages of YA books. This is great, of course, but it's important that we look at the stories that feature these characters as well. Because it's not enough to simply publish a few coming out stories and call it good.
I'll admit, I kind of fudged when I said this would be a three-part series about zine artists I love. Honestly, I could probably do a fifty part series on zine artists I love, then publish it as a memoir called Can I Be You? But I'm not doing that, and instead, I'm going to take a few minutes to tell you about something really important. A couple of weeks ago, you might have stopped by the Portland Zine Symposium (or any zine fest anywhere) and thought to yourself "Wow, there are a lot of white people here, where are all the zinesters of color?" Or at least, that's what I was thinking. I scoured the entire space looking for people of color only to find one table all alone, in the back of the warehouse. One amazing table, to be sure,, but I still left wishing for something more. I'd imagine Daniela Capistrano had some similar thoughts when she founded the People of Color Zine Project in 2010 in order to make zines by folks of color accessible, available, and distributable for all, because really, these things can be incredibly hard to find in such white dominated DIY, activist, and artist communities.
Librarians and educators who are given the opportunity to work with youth are indeed gatekeepers. As we all know, being in charge of what goes through any gate (or classroom, or library door) is a big responsibility that comes with a lot of power, and when it comes to young adult lit, gatekeeping is a very contentious issue. I'm sure you've heard that Judy Blume's books regularly make appearances on challenged book lists and that queer young adult books have also been pulled from library shelves. While it's important that we continue to challenge and have thoughtful conversations about censorship in libraries, it's also essential that we celebrate the people who work really hard to bring characters with diverse identities to the spaces where young adults go to find books.
Thanks to a generous grant from the fine people at Oregon Humanities, we'll be spending the next few months exploring identity and sexuality in young adult literature here on the Bitch blogs.
Judy Blume is known for writing about topics like teen sex, masturbation, and menstruation before it was cool to do so, and she's often credited with redefining young adult literature as we (or our parents) knew it. Fast forward to 2012, and we're in the middle of a young adult lit heyday. YA lit sales are way up and publishers and book stores are catching on. As the book business continues to invest more money into bringing YA lit to the masses, we're seeing more and more books that are pushing the boundaries of YA lit in really exciting ways, exploring issues of teen identity and sexuality while remaining honest and challenging. During this series, we'll talk with authors, teachers, librarians, and teens who are dedicated to making sure that every teen is able to find books whose characters they can relate to and be inspired by.
I'd like to talk a bit about a feminist utopia written in 1905 called Sultana's Dream by Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain. This short story is set in a place called "Ladyland," where men are behind the purdah and women run the country much better than men ever did.
In this role-reversal fantasy, men are kept confined to the inner courtyards and kitchens, crime is eliminated (since dudes were the one who were creating all the trouble, obviously) and women are doing fantastically well, thank you for asking. Working in laboratories and flying planes, the women in Sultana's Dream are charming, reaching far higher than women in 1905 were deemed capable of—and then the dream ends. The story is jarring in many ways, especially when you realize the women feel so little about confining men, thinking of them as lesser beings. Hossain has the last laugh when learn this unease does what it is supposed to: make us question power inequalities in gender relations, and how little things have changed in the last century or so.
Named after a fictional girls' etiquette handbook, Elissa Schappell's 2011 short story collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, offers a multi-perspectival, intergenerational portrait of American womanhood. Told with impressive care and patience, the eight stories of the collection inspire a familiar uncertainty at odds with the trite didactic moral lessons the title promises.
The protagonists of the stories are involved in an intricate web of acquaintance. Characters mentioned in passing in one story appear later as main subjects, all the while coping with the shattered illusion of safety that so often pushes people toward adulthood before their time. The collection is bookended with the stories of Heather, the "school slut" whom we see first as a teenager and later as a concerned mother. The six stories in between jump forward and backward in time, examining the characters' set expecations for their own lives versus the realities they face.
"Transnational feminism" is given a lot of weight—negative and otherwise—and most said it couldn't be done, 'til Playing with Fire came in 2006, that is. A quick introduction: Playing with Fire was originally a collective diary that seven NGO workers in Sitapur, tucked away in North India (Uttar Pradesh), kept while they worked as Sangtins (a Sangtin is a term used by a woman to refer to her companion who sees her through life's struggles) with the State-funded project called Mahila Samakhya (MS). The seven writers, along with Richa Nagar, documented their journey through Sitapur, an act that was enough to enrage their superiors at the Mahila Samakhya UP Branch, and eventually that got the Sangtins fired. The Sangtins flaunted their diaries fully aware of the risks they were taking, in publishing a book that critiqued the very organizations that fed them, as well as revealing intimate details of their lives.