When I checked Marie Lu's Legendout of the library, I hoped that the main girl character (June) would be Asian. After all, Lu herself is Chinese, born in China and influenced, as a young child, by the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. From the age of five, she lived in the U.S. and, unless she lived in an alternate U.S., probably also didn't see herself reflected in the books on her library and school shelves. So wouldn't she use this opportunity to add one more Asian girl to YA litdom?
In Cinder, the familiar glass slipper story is set in a dystopian future Beijing 126 years after World War IV has ended. Cinder's author, Marissa Meyer, is white. Meanwhile, Chinese-American author Malinda Lo award-winning 2010 retelling of Cinderella, Ash, takes place in a kingdom that resembles a fairy tale Europe.
What do these choices say about each author? How do their ethnic backgrounds affect their retellings?
"I'm looking for a book for my 12-year-old daughter. She likes dystopic fiction," I said not too long ago to the clerk in a children's bookstore. As her eyes began to scan the wall of Teen Fiction, I added, "With people of color as the protagonists."
"I feel you," sympathized the clerk, who was also a woman of color.
It doesn't take a skilled gender detective to deduce the target audience of the Rainbow Magic books for early readers. These wildly popular books feature covers that literally sparkle, covered in lithe fairies dressed in pointedly feminine clothing and accessories. The series' titles boil down to Feminine-Name the Feminine-Noun Fairy (as in Grace the Glitter Fairy or Bethany the Ballet Fairy). They're published under the pseudonym Daisy Meadows.
These are the girliest girls' books in Girlville.
Why am I so familiar with these gems of English literature? Because they're among my six-year-old son's very favorite books. He devours them, shrieking with laughter at the bumbling goblins. We spend hours playing Rainbow Magic Fairies: "You're Queen Titania and I'm the Museum Fairy. What could a Museum Fairy's object be?" Or, "We're all goblins. Where's Goblin Steve?" These books are very big in my house.
Well over a hundred Rainbow Magic installments are available, but the plot is always the same. Jack Frost and his goblins have stolen some magical object (the weather fairies' feathers, for instance). The displaced objects cause some sort of wonkiness (unusual weather, say). Kirsty and Rachel, human BFFs and friends to the fairies, help recover the objects. The goblins are ugly, mean, and male, and they always lose. The fairies are pretty, sweet, and female, and they win through the power of friendship.
Reading the books is actually teaching my son an unexpected lesson: recognizing sexism.
'Tis the season of the perennial teenage supernatural romance. New film Beautiful Creatures is a chicken-and-dumplings plate with a heapin' helping of that angst-filled young love so common to tween fantasy, spiced with Flannery O'Conner-flavored Southern Gothic and topped off with a healthy side of Civil War history and folklore.
It's hard to find smart books for kids that are heavy on the good female characters but light on the Disney princesses. A part of the American Library Association called the Amelia Bloomer Project tackled the tough job of sorting through all the young adult books published in 2012 and naming their ten favorite picks.
The books were selected based on their feminist themes, excellence in writing, appealing format, and age appropriateness. The full list is below the cut, but here's a snapshot:
Anyone have any additions to the list or opinions on these? We covered Code Name Verity in December, with BiblioBitch Katie Presley declaring it like the Hunger Games, but much better. As someone without kids, the only one I've flipped through is the Rookie yearbook, which I found surprisingly great. It's a collection of photo essays, interviews, and diaries that my 12-year-old self would have found engrossing, inspring, and comforting.
Here are a few key words regarding Jim C. Hines's The Stepsister Scheme. Snow White, promiscuous mirror witch. Sleeping Beauty, Middle Eastern assassin. Cinderella, Pregnant Prince-rescuer. Intrigued? I was, and also by the statement given me that this was "Feminist YA fantasy! Written by a DUDE!" when it was given to me. I was not disappointed. C'mon! Princesses with weapons, spells, and babies on board? I'M IN.
Blue Thread is a YA novel set in 1912 Portland, and follows the main character—sixteen-year old Miriam Josefsohn—in her discovery of, and growing involvement in, the women's suffrage movement. This isn't just historical fiction though—along with fighting for women's suffrage, Miriam travels through time using a prayer shawl handed down through the women in her family that contains blue thread from Joseph's Coat of Many Colors to encourage the Daughters of Zelophehad to petition Moses for women's right to inherit land in the absence of a male heir. It's in the Torah! Well, kind of.
I am wary when I walk into bookstores these days, because I don't need to dip into the horror section to find books that scare me. I take a look around at the white faces on the covers and think about how I'm not encountering books about people like me. Except, given how popular the whitewashing of covers is just at present, maybe I am and just don't know it.
Whitewashing book covers, representing non-white characters as white* on covers, is a publishing practice which has become disturbingly common.
This summer, I'm reading lots of young adult literature. Re-visiting some of my favorites from high school, catching up on some of the gems I missed, and paging through what has been published since I reached adulthood. I invite you to do the same. Re-read an old favorite, or discover a new one. You don't need to be a teen, parent, teacher, or librarian to read YA Lit. All you need is an interest in how stories are being told to teenagers.