Supporting Lady Writers

3 05 2010

There has been a massive amount of discussion in the blogsphere about the Huffington Post article by Sara McCarry, “Faking Nice in the Blogosphere: Women and Book Reviews.” I will not attempt to recap all the criticism; Liz B has a great rebuttal and links to many relevant blogs on her blog, A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy.  She’ been updating to include new responses and in reading one, I found a passage that I didn’t notice before.  And it made me mad (emphasis is mine):

“Nice lady writers don’t rock the boat, they don’t hurt people’s feelings, and they sure as hell don’t write about topics that make other lady writers uncomfortable.”

Really?  Ms. McCarry, I’m not sure you’re up on teenlit.  A couple of books by women writers spring to mind.

1. Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott: Book about Alice, a teenage girl who was kidnapped at the age of 5 and made to be a sex slave to Ray. At the time the book starts, Ray is forcing Alice to find a replacement for her since she has gotten too old and he is no longer attracted to her. While this book was powerful, it was also powerfully disturbing and definitely controversial in the library I was working in at the time. Looking for reviews of this title leads to a review and discussion of how important it is to read books that make us uncomfortable over at Book Addiction.
2. Kendra by Coe Booth: The librarian who recommended I read this book and that the library purchase it thought that it had a stellar discussion and description of anal sex, which (sort of spoiler) the main character Kendra does with a guy to avoid losing her virginity since her grandmother is always threatening to her hymen examined (end sort of spoiler). Now, I’m not down on sex, but this is more about being pressured into having some sort of sex by a bad boy. I think it’s done fairly well, though I wasn’t as thrilled about it as my colleague. Neither was Ms. Stabooksi. I’m going to guess that the “Ms.” means she is a woman. I will say there was good press for this book at TeenReads (especially the last paragraph which admits this book has controversial content). For the record, I mostly agree with TeenReads.
3. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan: I wish someone had warned me, as an adult, that this is a book about rape. Before we get into the main story, the main character Liga is raped a number of times by her father, once resulting in a pregnancy, and then raped again by a group of boys, again resulting in a pregnancy. By the end of the book, we have seen several more rapes of different characters for various reasons. Most of these scenes are not explicit but Lanagan’s writing ensures that they continue to be shocking. I struggled with this book. But Six Boxes of Books makes a case for why it is a book that should be read despite its disturbing nature. Yup, even though it’s written by a lady writer, it sure is disturbing.

I rest my case. Lady writers do write about controversial, necessarily disturbing topics especially in the YA lit world. Why? Because teens deal with disturbing, controversial topics. Because lady writers aren’t afraid to shy away from hard topics, ones that will stick with readers. And I applaud them for that.


Pure: A (really pink) book review

15 04 2010

Pure by Tera Elan McVoy
Simon Pulse, 2009

This is one of the pinkest books I’ve read this year.  Personally, I try very hard not to discriminate against books for their cover.  Fortunately, I’m not a teenage boy who might be embarrassed to be seen in public with this book–or the plethora of pink books on the market.  In fact, a recent talk by Dame Jacqueline Wilson (who has published nearly 100 books for children & teens!) reminded me just why publishers want pink books–more girls buy books, so more sales.

But this book is a whole lot more than just pink.  It’s about, as you might have guessed from the cherry on the front,virginity.  In this case, keeping it until marriage via a promise made with a purity ring.  This is a practice that has become common in mega-churches and the ceremony is often called (as it is in the book) the “Ring Thing” where all the girls promise together that they won’t have sex until they get married.  Fun, right?  Your next question is likely, why did I choose to read this crazy book about a bunch of religious girls?  It was recommended to me by a colleague I trust as a balanced representation and exploration of purity rings, religion and all the issues that carries with it.

What’s the story here?  Tabitha is best friends with Morgan, and they are friends with three other girls who all have purity rings.  As you might expect, one of the girls breaks her promise and has sex with her long-term boyfriend.  Predictably, this causes trouble.  The promise-breaker is shunned by most of her friends who believe she has sinned, broken her promise with Jesus, betrayed her friends, etc.  But Tabitha sticks by her.  Now, when we meet Tabitha, who narrates this story, we quickly learn that her family is somewhat liberal and she has gone to church by herself for years because religion is something she enjoys.  She is extremely close with her parents and they love her, but are not into the Ring Thing or religion.  They let her do her thing and go to her youth groups, often with her best friend Morgan who is the megachurch type of girl.

If you know me, the first thing I think of when I hear about youth groups and youth pastors is Dan Savage, sex advice columnist, and his usual rants against the specific youth pastors who are often found doing not so nice things to and with some of their youth.  (Spoiler!) And the youth pastor here is a problem, though you don’t see it until too late. (End spoiler!) And now I’ve brought up something entirely different: sex.  Wait, a book about rings for virginity until marriage is a book about sex?  Duh!  If you’re talking about not having sex, you’re talking about sex.  And Tabitha meets a boy, a cute boy whose kisses make her knees weak, so she is thinking about sex.  In a good way!  And she thinks about religion and God and Jesus and the Bible and all of it, in far more detail than most books I read ever get into.  I’m not gonna lie, it may have made my eyes glaze over at points.  But it wouldn’t if you were really interested in how religion is interpreted by teenage girls.

I was ultimately impressed by this book.  It reminded me about tolerance–especially that I need to practice it even when books are about *gasp* super-religious Christians.  Tabitha learns a lot about tolerance here, and she discovers it, rather than being taught it.  That makes this book feel authentic.  It’s also about deep friendship between girls.  Tabitha is so aware of her girlfriends, their smile.  I have to say, even without the pink cover, this would be a girl book.

Bottom line: This book was a stretch for me, but it won’t be a stretch for girls who want to read about friendship and girlfriends and betrayal.  You can sell it that way.  Or you can sell it because it is, in the end, a book about sex and consequences.

You Know You Love Me

28 03 2010

That’s the name of the book I’m reviewing!  I swear, I’m not that cocky.  I mean, I’m glad you’re reading my blog but you don’t have to love me.  In fact, you can hate me so long as you continue to read this blog. Kidding!  But the book I’m talking about is the aforementioned Gossip Girl title I dragged myself through.

The cover says a lot about the book.  Really!  Like the fact that all the characters are caricatures and the only reason I could picture them at all was 1) due to the ridiculous detailed descriptions of their clothing and hair and physical features, and 2) because I’ve seen the TV show.  Which, I have to confess, I was obsessed with for about a season.  But not any longer.  Still, I think my familiarity with the characters on the show is what got me through this book.  Because the characters are all fairly stereotypical rich kids with your usual problems: too many drugs, bulimia, other body image issues, kleptomania (or maybe just a bout of shoplifting), girl fights, too much sex, not enough sex, not liking champagne, rasta-stepbrothers, lazy parents, self-absorbed parents.  Some of that sounds like typical teen problems.  The rest of it feels adult-like.  And not in a good way.

I’m not going to sit here and say that all teen books need to have morals.  That’s not true, and most teen books with obvious morals make me gag.  But this book has no morals that I can see.  I mean, yes, there is some stress when two girls who are friends like/love/have sex with the same boy.  I’m just not sure if that has to do with ethics or not getting your way.  Most of the teens depicted in Gossip Girl are teens who are used to getting their way.  Now, I don’t know if that’s true with all rich kids from the Upper East Side, or anywhere, but it is how people envision them.  So let’s say that it’s true, teens on the Upper East Side of NYC live like the teens in Gossip Girl.  They have access to Mommy’s credit cards and alcohol and Barney’s any time they want.  Fine.  I can deal.  But that doesn’t save this book.

What would save this book?  Here are my thoughts:

#1: Consistent use of technology
This book would appear to be set in the early 2000s, when cell phones weren’t ubiquitous and the Internet was really taking off.  Somehow, the “poor” kid in this tale, Dan, has a cell phone but no personal landline at home while his rich crush, Serena, has a personal phone line and no cell phone.  Maybe she gets one later?  Also, I do prefer the TV show, where all the teens get Gossip Girl updates on their phones.  That is sooooo teen!

#2: Fix the parents!
Teen books are notorious for getting rid of the parents. Here, we see glimpses of some truly awful parents. Really, could one adult be normal and/or responsible?

#3: Fix the teens!
While we’re at it, let’s give these teens some personality. It was hard for me not to read in the personalities from the TV show. For once, the adaptation is better than the book. In the book, the teen characters are just shells with body image issues. There’s the girl with big boobs, the tomboy/ugly girl, the rich bitch, etc. And somehow, all these characters appear to have iterations of the same problem. Though I wonder, is that not more true to real life? So many teen books have one nerd, one jock, one hot chick, etc., each with their own separate problems. In real life, I think lots of people have similar problems, only that is less fun to write about.

#4: Sex
I have to mention it, especially because the book starts out with Blair thinking about how horny she is and how she is going to lose her virginity that night. Okay. There is often sex in teen books. Teens think about sex a lot. To be fair, (Spoiler!) Blair does not get hers that night or even during the entire book–and not for lack of trying. (end spoiler!) But the way she goes about it is so…adult. Everything about these teens is so adult. And maybe I’m missing something, because teens do play at being adults. It just seems that this is portrayed as expected or normal. There is something off that I am having trouble putting my finger on–and I’m not usually squeamish about sex in teen books.

#5: Nothing happens.
Sure, things happen, if you count gossipy kind of stuff, and I should, knowing the name of the series. But I can’t. There’s some friendship stuff but everything seems so…insignificant, even as the teens think it is totally significant. Maybe this series calls to teenagers simply because no one is trying to give them different ideas. I know teenagers who think this is what their lives should look like, minus Barney’s plus suburban malls. And I can see how that might be appealing.

Though I will continue to dislike this series, I can’t argue that it brings teens into the library and bookstore. Here’s hoping it truly is a “gateway” book!