Saturday, April 19, 2014

There's No Such Thing As A Straight Line

Today would be a links of note post Saturday, but because there's been so much going on in my life over the last couple of weeks, that's not going to happen. Most of what I had planned on linking up is stuff that I pulled together in a post on Book Riot this week, "We Need Bigger Megaphones For Diversity in Kid Lit." What I have to say isn't that important. It's what the links in the post say that stands out.

Sunday -- tomorrow -- marks five years since Kimberly and I started STACKED. We plan on a few of celebratory posts next week, including interviews of one another and a giveaway of books that have impacted us in some capacity while we've been blogging.

In no way did I think I'd be doing this and loving this for five years. I thought it would be fun and enjoyable. That I'd read a lot of books and talk about them.

I never thought that blogging would lead me to some of the best and most important friendships and relationships in my life. But it has, and I'm beyond grateful for that every single day.

Over these last five years, I've been working in libraries. First, at a suburban two-library system. Then to a small, individual library where I was the entirety of youth services. Then on to the semi-urban library I'm at now. Each of these library positions has come with accomplishments and with set backs. In each position, I learned as much about who I am and how I function and think and work as I did about the job itself and how other people function and think and work. In some ways, it's been really good and in other ways, it's made me do a lot of thinking about what I want to be doing down the road.

I knew pretty early on that management in libraries was something I had no interest in. The problem is that in public libraries, you can only go so far without choosing a management path. Especially if you're in the kind of position I'm in, being a little location bound and that location isn't an urban area with many opportunities available.

It was with many of the friends I'd made through this blog I was able to get through some of these hard parts of my career. I'd work through what was tripping me up, talk about my wants and needs in a career. I'd talk about the good, too, but I knew through these conversations and just my living and working through my life that I needed to change something.

There have been days, especially recently, getting out of bed has been hard. My mental well-being was taking a severe hit in a way that was a wakeup call to me. It wasn't that I wasn't taking steps to make a change. It was that the impact of not figuring it out and feeling overwhelmed with what was currently on my plate was hitting me hard.

Last week, I had one of those days. It was Tuesday. I got up, I went through my morning routine, then I checked out and went back to bed. I made it through, then I made it through Wednesday, too. Would I make it to the weekend, though?

Thursday, I got a message in my inbox I wasn't expecting. Would I be interested in a job? It wasn't in librarianship, but it was a job that melded a lot of interests and passions I had together and I was the first person they thought of for it.

It took everything not to respond with an enthusiastic yes the minute I got that email. Not because it was a way out of where I was. But because it was a way into something I was exceptionally excited about.

I let it sit in my inbox for a few hours while I went through the rest of my routine, got through my shift at work. Then I responded.

On Friday morning, I talked with Rebecca on the phone, hearing more about the job and what all it would entail. "I know you'd not talked about wanting to change careers so I had no idea if you would really be interested but...".

Of course she didn't know because it wasn't something I talked about. Because I love libraries and librarianship. Because there's so much opportunity within the community.


I am ready for the change.

Starting May 1, I'm going to be an associate editor and community manager for Book Riot, with some responsibilities over at Food Riot, as well.

I put in my notice at the library this week, and over the last few days, everything has been a whirlwind in the best possible way. How do you wrap your head around not just a new job, but a new career all together? It's exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. I've been on and off all week about it, in terms of trying to close down one part of my brain and my routine and prepare myself to open up to a new one.

A few years ago, a friend I met through blogging told me that you can't always predict the way a path goes. That it's not always going to be clear, but that it will unfold in the ways its meant to, when it's meant to do so. And that person was right.

You can't predict the way that the path moves. You can only be open to the possibility it might zig or zag, whether or not you know just how much you need it to do so.

But I am so excited about this opportunity.

At this point, I don't foresee changes to Stacked. Libraries and reaching teens are still passions, and I hope that by continuing to write here and write at Book Riot, I'm of help to those who work with teens, with YA books, or who themselves have respect and interest for YA. Instead, this means there will be more writing at Book Riot in addition to the writing here. There might be hiccups or bumps or the need for adjustments down the road, but until there's a change in the path, this is still my home.

Last year, I wrote a post called "You Can, You Do, and You Will." Rereading it today, it still hits home everything I think and feel -- and maybe even more this year, this time around.

This is a huge opportunity and I hope that I'm able to really work toward doing more of the things I'm passionate about in a venue that's been so supportive, nurturing, and fun to be a part of.

Continue reading...

Friday, April 18, 2014

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

I've had this book for a while, but it took me a long time to actually get around to reading it. It's not because I didn't think I'd enjoy it. On the contrary, I enjoyed it quite a lot. I just loved the first book so much, and it ended so painfully for its characters, I knew the second installment would do cruel things to my heart. Despite my love for dystopias, I don't have a huge capacity for reading about awful things happening to fictional people. Often I'll have to repeat in my head over and over "These people are not real. This did not really happen."

Needless to say, I had to tell myself that often while reading Days of Blood and Starlight.

It feels like a "middle of the series" book. Often that's a negative thing, but Taylor's writing is so good, I doubt many readers will mind. There's not a whole lot of plot movement initially. Much of the novel focuses on Karou and Akiva coming to terms with what happened in Daughter of Smoke and Bone - namely, the rekindling of the war between the chimaera and the angels. The chimaera have been defeated, for all intents and purposes, but they've mounted a small resistance that is growing, thanks to the efforts of Thiago, the brutal son of the legendary chimaera warlord, and Karou, the chimaera's new resurrectionist. Meanwhile, Akiva tries to (secretly) mitigate the effects of the angels' actions upon chimaera civilians, to mixed results. They act separately and independently with very little knowledge of the other, but when they do meet on rare occasions, it's painful - and I mean that in a good way.

So there's a lot of misery going on here. Taylor does bring a bit of lightness with the arrival of Zuzana and Mik, who get to interact with a whole host of chimaera. Their presence is dangerous but funny at the same time. Their visit doesn't serve much purpose other than bringing some levity to the story, but the levity is much needed and prevents the story from seeming to wallow in misery. Things do really start to move in the second half, where we go beyond the (admittedly well-written) scenes of skirmishes and slaughters. The ending sets up the third book nicely, setting the stage for a potentially much larger conflict, which is exciting to think about.

Days of Blood and Starlight focuses a lot on the awfulness of war, which isn't exactly revelatory. But it goes beyond that rather obvious theme to ruminate on questions like: How do two groups who don't even remember why they started fighting end the violence? What is justice and what is revenge, and does the distinction matter? Is forgiving people who have done awful things possible? How much can a person compromise herself to achieve a good end before the ends are not good anymore?

Where the first book was a story about transformation and discovering one's true self, this book is a full-on war novel. Sometimes it's exhausting, but it's always well-executed.

I actually finally hunkered down and read this book since Laini Taylor was visiting my area. I wanted to have the book done so I could get it signed and attend the event without worrying about someone spilling the beans about its contents. Again, I find myself holding off on reading the third book because I know Taylor will put her characters through even more misery. I need to be in a particular mood to read a book that will devastate me. Don't worry - I'll be sure and review it many months after everyone else has already read it, just like this one.

Personal copy.

Laini Taylor and I are having a Very Important Discussion. Also, bonus top of Margaret Stohl's head.

Continue reading...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Girls Reading: What Are They Seeing (or Not Seeing)?

I'd planned on writing up some reviews for today, but Sarah Andersen posted the results of a survey she ran with her high school students and I couldn't not talk about it. Go check out her post, "Are Teen Girls Seeing Themselves Reflected in What They Read?"

I love the questions she chose to ask, and I loved the variety of responses her girls shared. They want to see a range of girls reflected in what they're reading. They want the romantic girls, they want the girls who are strong, and they want the girls who can be strong and romantic at the same time. They want shy girls and brave girls as much as they want girls who funny and sporty. They want a little of everything because they themselves are a little of everything.

What stood out to me, though, were the answers to questions five and six. The girls overwhelmingly noted that they've not seen themselves reflected in the books they've been assigned to read for school and whether or not female authors or female main characters they've been assigned have been memorable for them.

After reading this, I did some serious thinking about what I'd been assigned to read in high school and what sort of ratio there was between male authors who were assigned and female authors. The truth is, it wasn't very many. The emphasis freshman, sophomore, and senior year was primarily focused on European lit -- primarily from England, save for some non-English titles we were able to read senior year (we read Les Miserables and Crime and Punishment). Junior year was American literature year, though it wasn't uncommon to see an American title other years as an extra.

When I think about the female authors we read, I initially could only come up with a couple. I remember reading Willa Cather both freshman and junior year -- O Pioneers and My Antonia, respectively. I remember reading and doing a huge project on Emily Dickinson junior year as part of poetry month.

I also remember reading Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird and reading Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (which contrary to most people who read the book, I happened to love and pursued reading more Wharton after that). We read quite a few Flannery O'Connor short stories junior year, as well.

But beyond those titles, I can't come up with other female authors I read. There was a Shakespeare play or two every year except when it was American lit year. I read a Dickens every year except when it was American lit year. American lit featured Stephen Crane, a pair of John Steinbeck titles, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible. Looking at those titles in particular, it's interesting how few representations of female characters there are, and those which do exist aren't exactly flattering. Out of curiosity, I pulled up the reading lists for my high school district today and they look remarkably the same as they did over a decade ago.

It wasn't until college when what I read became a lot more diverse and incorporated far more female voices. But that was because I had a lot more choice in courses -- my first class in undergrad was entirely on Franz Kafka, followed by courses on multicultural lit, Harlem Renaissance lit, contemporary poetry, early modern American lit (including Virginia Woolf, H. D., and Rebecca West and allowed a friend and I to create a feminist literary journal to fulfill a project requirement), Victorian lit (including Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and taught by a visiting professor who really got my tastes and recommended titles to me that I loved), and creative writing workshops which led me to Marilynne Robinson, as well as a variety of modern and contemporary poets beyond Emily Dickinson, who is the poet of choice for poetry units in school.

I think it's important to read the classics. They're canonical for a reason, and even debating what that reason is fruitful for diving deeper into the value of literature and why we read. But it's sad to see how few females are brought to the table in standard curriculum, both as authors and as main characters. This isn't about getting rid of the male voices. In many ways, those male representations of female characters is a juicy point of discussion in and of itself.

Why is it though that girls are reporting not recalling female authors or female characters in class reading? Why aren't they seeing themselves in what's being read? And why is it often that females who are represented in curriculum are those on the fringes -- the ones who write short stories or poetry?

I was a huge reader in high school independently. I found myself in a lot of what I read independently, and maybe most notably, Megan McCafferty's Jessica Darling. No, I wasn't a runner. I didn't have a best friend who I wrote letters to. I didn't have the feelings about boys that she did. But I knew her voice and it was so similar to mine. She wasn't the only, but she's one that resonated with me and begged me to stick with her through to the end of the series (which neatly ended at nearly the same point I was in my life when it did).

But what about those girls who are only ever exposed to the books in their classrooms and assignments? Do they know what's out there? I wonder about this because as much as we like to believe girls will find the books for themselves, not all girls are readers. Not all girls are eager readers. They can be reluctant, too, and if they're not seeing themselves in the books they're reading, they can begin to believe reading isn't for them nor that they'll never see themselves in a book.

I'm curious: what did you read in high school? Did you see yourself in anything that you were assigned to read? If so, what, and if not, when and where did you first see yourself? I am eager to hear from anyone on this question, and I'm interested in hearing, too, about the books written by or featuring female main characters you were assigned in school.

If you're a teacher, I'd also be interested in what you're teaching and how you may be supplementing or encouraging further reading. Are you doing anything to diversify what's presented to your readers, even if it's not assigned to them?

Continue reading...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cover Double, Triple, and (formerly) Quadruple: Risk Taking and Cover Design

I haven't done a cover double post in quite a while, but here's one. Let me start at the beginning because this cover has had a journey to it. 

Sourcebooks unveiled this as the cover for Juliana Stone's Boys Like You at the end of last year or beginning of this year. It's cute, but it's not necessarily remarkable. It looks like a light romance title. But that cover didn't last long, and instead, Sourcebooks took it in a new direction:

This cover tells an entirely different story. It might still be a romance, but it doesn't look as light as the previous cover. The redesign definitely fits into the trend of text and image driven covers that are becoming the new dominant look in YA (almost to the point those all look the same too). 

The book's description (via WorldCat): When Monroe Blackwell, who is spending the summer at her grandmother's Louisiana bed-and-breakfast, meets Nathan Everets, who has a court-appointed job there, they share, and begin to recover from, their respective feelings of loss and guilt.

I don't think either cover quite nails it via description alone. The tag line, which changed a little bit between cover redesigns, does a pretty good job capturing it, but I'm not sure where the guitar fits in in the new look and for the old one, it might just look too lighthearted. 

Stone's book comes out May 6. 

Let's return to that first cover iteration, though. That stock image is going to get quite a bit of play elsewhere, even though it didn't end up being used for Boys Like You

Kat Spears's debut novel Sway will get the stock image. The title and the author placement are exactly the same as they were in Stone's book, too. Again, there's the feeling of a lighthearted romance here, despite the fact the tagline conveys something different.

Because Sway doesn't come out until September 16, there's not yet a description up in WorldCat, but here's the lengthier one from Goodreads:

High school senior Jesse Alderman, or Sway as he's known, could sell hell to a bishop.  He also specializes in getting things people want—term papers, a date with the prom queen, fake IDs.  It's all business with Jesse.  He has few close friends and he never lets emotions get in the way.

But when Ken, captain of the football team, leading candidate for homecoming king, and all around jerk, hires Jesse to help him win the heart of the angelic Bridget Smalley, Jesse finds himself feeling all sorts of things.  While following Bridget and learning the intimate details of her life, he falls helplessly in love for the very first time. He also finds himself in an accidental friendship with Bridget's younger brother who's belligerent and self-pitying after spending a lifetime dealing with cerebral palsy.  Suddenly Jesse is visiting old folks at a nursing home in order to run into Bridget, and offering his time to help the less fortunate, all the while developing a bond with this young man who idolizes him.  The tinman really does have a heart after all. 

A Cyrano De Bergerac story with a modern twist, Sway is told from Jesse’s point of view with unapologetic truth and biting humor. His observations about the world around him are untempered by empathy or compassion--until Bridget's presence in his life forces him to confront his quiet devastation over a life changing event a year earlier and maybe, just maybe, feel SOMEthing, again.

It's a male point of view, though from the cover, I'd never quite get that. I like that my expectations are bucked like that, but I wonder how much the cover image conveys what the story looks to be about. It's a fairly generic image that suggests light romance, and I'm not sure if that's what the book is about. 

While I do not think that books have gender and wouldn't hesitate to hand a boy a book like this, I think it's the kind of cover that could be difficult for boys to pick up on their own from the shelf. Romance fans, though, would definitely gravitate toward this, regardless of gender. 

When Spears's cover was revealed a couple of weeks ago, another cover was revealed from Entangled Teen that looked pretty familiar.

The same stock image is the base for Shannon Alexander's Love and Other Unknown Variables, which will come out October 7. While it isn't the same exact treatment, it's clearly the same stock picture. What's interesting about this cover is that the side elements are completely different, as they've been done up with flowers (to the point where it looks like the plants are rubbing against the girl's leg in a weird and uncomfortable way) and the color has been completely stripped, save for the pops of red. The placement of the title and the author are completely different than in the Spears cover, which almost makes it not look like the same image. 

Here's the description from Goodreads:

Charlie Hanson has a clear vision of his future. A senior at Brighton School of Mathematics and Science, he knows he'll graduate, go to MIT, and inevitably discover the solutions to the universe's greatest unanswerable problems. He'sthat smart.

The future has never seemed very kind to Charlotte Finch, so she's counting on the present. She would rather sketch with charcoal pencils, sing in her pitch-perfect voice, or read her favorite book than fill out a college application.

Charlie's future blurs the moment he meets Charlotte. She's not impressed by the strange boy until she learns he's a student at Brighton where her sister has just taken a job. At Charlotte's request, Charlie orchestrates the biggest prank campaign in Brighton history. But by the time Charlie learns Charlotte is ill and that the pranks were a way to distract her sister from Charlotte's illness, Charlotte's gravitational pull on him is too great to overcome. Soon he must choose between the familiar formulas he's always relied on or the girl he's falling for (at far more than 32 feet per second). 

I can't get a clear read, but it seems to me that this book is told from more than one point of view, both Charlie's and Charlotte's. Like with Spears's cover, though, I think this has more appeal to female readers from the shelf perspective, particularly those who like romance. 

I'm not sure I love the way this cover looks, changed from the original stock image. I feel more pulled toward Spears's, and perhaps it's because of the color and the way that the title and author's name are less obscuring of the image. 

But wait! There's another cover out featuring this image. 

Elizabeth Langston's A Whisper in Time is available now, having been published April 6 by Spencer Hill Press. It features the same stock image, but it's been dressed up a bit. Rather than the girl not having anything covering her legs, there's been a skirt added. Rather than just the sun in the background, there's been a water scene added. Rather than sticking with the side images in the original, there's been some fall foliage to give the cover an even warmer feel. While I don't love how it looks -- I think it looks far too tinkered with -- I do like the feel of it, especially compared to the Alexander cover treatment. 

Here's the description from WorldCat: Rescued from a life of servitude by the boy she loves, Susanna Marsh escapes across two centuries, only to be plunged into a world she's ill-prepared to face. Unable to work or go to school, Susanna finds herself dependent on others to survive. Immersed in the fun and demands of his senior year of high school, Mark Lewis longs to share his world with the girl who's captured his heart. But first he must tackle government bureaucracy to prove Susanna's identity.Overwhelmed by her new home, Susanna seeks refuge in history and in news of the people she left behind. But when she learns that danger stalks her sister, Susanna must weigh whether to risk her own future in order to save Phoebe's happiness.

What makes this cover work for this title is that it does feel historical. The girl having a skirt, rather than a bare leg, gives that suggestion, as does the color treatment. It doesn't feel entirely modern. 

It's interesting to me that when there are so many potential cover options, that four books in the same year could use the same stock image. One got changed, but the other three remain the same (as of now, at least). It's not a bad image, and all of the designs have worked to make them distinct enough. But it makes me wonder why they can't be distinct without having to use the same picture. I'd like to see far more cover diversity on my shelves in terms of design. While text and image driven covers have really taken off in the last couple of years -- we can definitely thank The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park for that -- even when that keeps emerging again and again, it gets boring and waters down what covers can look like. 

When you think of covers that stand out and are memorable, they're not ones that look like every other cover. They're ones that do something different -- think Winger for example or this year, Rebel Belle

This matters because it does impact who these books reach on the most basic level. Covers are the book's biggest marketing tool. It sells the story to the reader. It is what compels a reader to look at the flap copy and see if it's something that interests them. If we rely on the same looks over and over, we can only ever reach the same exact readers over and over. A lot of this has to do with fear, of course. If a cover is different, will it sell? Will Barnes and Noble stock it? The publishing world is exceptionally conservative when it comes to risk taking. 

Which leads me to ask a few things: what are some of your favorite and most memorable YA covers in the last couple of years and why? What made those covers stand out? What haven't you seen on covers that you would like to see? 

Continue reading...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In the Shadows by Kiersten White and Jim Di Bartolo

I’m a sucker for beautiful books, and In the Shadows is nothing if not beautiful. The cover tells you that the text story is by Kiersten White and the art story by Jim Di Bartolo, letting you know right away that the art is not just a series of pretty illustrations – they tell a story that intertwines with the text in important ways, if inscrutable at first.

The story is set (mostly) in Maine, in 1900, in a boardinghouse run by a widowed woman, Mrs. Johnson. She has two teenage daughters, Cora and Minnie. Arthur, a rather brooding teenager, has been sent to stay at the boardinghouse for mysterious reasons; ditto for teen brothers Charles and Thomas. Charles, the elder brother, is dying from an unspecified disease. Together, the five teens become caught up in a dark conspiracy that goes back many years. I won’t share much more (that would ruin some of the fun of discovery), but I will say that the conspiracy is supernatural in origin.

Reading this book was a bit like playing the computer game Myst. Those of you who have played it, or any of its sequels, will know that there’s a storyline, often featuring strange secrets and faraway places, that the player must discover along the way. There are the stunning graphics that tell part of the story, but then there’s also journals, letters, and voiceover – text, really – that tells the rest. Figuring out how everything goes together is the main puzzle of Myst, and I felt like this book was a similar sort of puzzle. The book alternates between art chapters and text chapters. The art chapters have no captions and no dialogue. There are a few letters to characters, but they’re partly obscured so you can’t make out them entirely. They’re clues. The fun, the discovery, is learning how the art story and text story coalesce. It’s not readily apparent at first; stick with it. The rewards are worth it.

I loved Jim Di Bartolo’s work on Lips Touch: Three Times, so it’s unsurprising that I loved it here as well. Here, his art is equal in significance to the text, inviting multiple re-reads and long moments spent poring over the panels. His work is very moody, fitting the tone of the story. His colors are bold, and he uses a liberal amount of black, often casting his characters in shadow. I encourage you to check out a few samples at his website. His art is entirely my style.

White’s no slouch here either. She chooses to tell her part of the story by varying the points of view, though everything remains third person. I think she does a fine job of developing the characters in this way. She doesn’t get a whole lot of space to do it, considering the book is 384 pages and many of those pages belong to the art. At first I had a hard time remembering who was whom (which one is the sick one? Which ones are related?), but this didn’t last long. She gets across quite nicely Charles’ cheerfulness as well as his desperation, Thom’s feelings of helplessness, Cora’s fear, Minnie’s desire to help Cora past that fear – often in unwise ways. The only other book of hers I’ve read is Mind Games, and I think the writing of In the Shadows is much stronger.

Even these text pages are works of art – everything is on glossy paper with lovely, subdued splashes of color around the borders. The whole book has the weight of a graphic novel. In many ways, the stories told by the text and art are not completely original, but the way they’re told is, and that’s what makes this book stand out.

This is a book that needs to be read twice. The first time, read it straight through as presented; the second, go back and re-read just the art. You’ll pick up on more details, and most of your lingering questions will be answered. In the Shadows is unique among current YA offerings (though I’m not wild about its generic title) and will satisfy fantasy readers looking for something different.

Review copy provided by the publisher at TLA. In the Shadows will be published April 29.

Continue reading...

Monday, April 14, 2014

On Expectations for Girls in YA Fiction, Misleading Reviews, and Sexuality

A few weeks ago, I picked up and devoured Julie Halpern's The F-It List. It's a story about two girls who are best friends and how their relationship weathers everything. It starts with Becca sleeping with Alex's boyfriend the day of Alex's father's funeral. The summer immediately following, the girls aren't hanging out as much as they used to. Sure, Alex is angry and upset about what Becca did, but their reason for not hanging out has much more to do with Alex's need to grieve losing her father than it does what Becca did or losing that boyfriend.

When the school year begins, Alex learns via another girl that something awful happened to Becca over the summer: she was diagnosed with cancer. Alex immediately runs to Becca's side, and their friendship, while not perfectly patched up, is allowed to continue, and it's through this agreement of continuing their relationship that Becca asks Alex for a favor. She needs to complete her f-word-rhymes-with-bucket list. Since Becca's sick and worried a bit about what her future may hold, she wants Alex to do and experience a number of things that she's always wanted to do but wonders if she'll ever have the chance to do.

A number of items on the list have to do with sex. Becca wants Alex to masturbate, and she wants Alex to have sex with someone she can say I love you to and mean it. Other items on the list range from doing some silly prank-like stuff to more relationship-driven items. But it is those sexually-related items that Alex homes in on most and those are the items that come to signify not just a lot of what the relationship between the two girls is -- blunt, honest, and unashamed -- but also points where readers may either bristle or dig in for something deeper. In many ways, I thought the ways that both the sexually-related items and the friendship more broadly played out in the story were what made The F-It List knock out. It's rare to see such positive portrayals of sex for girls. Both Becca and Alex enjoyed sex and both were very open and honest about liking it and sharing those positive experiences with one another.

But not everyone felt this to be the case. Here's the review Halpern's novel got in School Library Journal (you can click to make it larger):

I've read and reread this review many times, and every time, something new feels off in it. Keep in mind many trade reviewers review from advanced reader copies of books, meaning that not all of the kinks have been entirely worked out.

I note, too, that I also read The F-It List from an advanced reader copy.

Although I could dive into the notion that Alex performs the items on the f-it list out of guilt -- an idea I disagree with entirely, as Alex begins to really embrace this as a commitment to her relationship with Becca -- what I find fascinating is this line: "Both girls have casual, unprotected sex with all of their boyfriends without any thoughts of taking precautions."

This line presumes a few things in it. The first is that it's the responsibility of the girls to think about and carry out the actions necessary for protection during sex. While print space is limited and words have to be carefully selected in a trade review, the way this particular line is phrased, in conjunction with the line before it, casts a judgment upon the female characters in the story. They're crass, with limited vocabulary, and they're not taking responsibility for their own actions. These are the kinds of girls you don't want to be role models for readers, since they're not being "good girls." They don't arouse sympathy because what happens to them is all a matter of consequences and choices they make. They weren't smart enough or thinking through things enough to protect themselves.

But what is worse in this line is that it's factually incorrect.

Early in the book, Alex talks about the first time she's had sex, as a means of thinking through Becca's request that she have sex with someone she loves and cares about. The first person -- and only person at that point -- she'd slept with was a boy named Aleks, who was a foreign exchange student. Starting at page 76 in the advanced reader copy, Alex lays out the story as follows:

Becca was disappointed I hadn't seen his penis yet and handed me a condom the next time I saw her. Two days later, armed with the Trojan, I followed Aleks back to his house again. [...] Me in my underwear, him in blue boxers, we moved over to the bed. "Wait--" I told him, the first work spoken that afternoon. I found Becca's condom in my backpack and brought it up to the bed. [...] He slapped on the condom.

It's pretty evident immediately that condoms play a role in not just Alex's sex life, but in the discussions she and Becca have had as best friends about being sexually active. Alex got the condom from Becca, and Alex insisted that Aleks wear it when they slept together. Seems straightforward enough.

But there's more.

Later on in the story, when Alex begins a relationship with Leo, the issue of the condom isn't the only one that comes up before they take the plunge and have sex (they had a few intimate moments, but in each case, Leo stopped when Alex asked him to). She talks about why she wants to make sure there is protection. Starting on page 141 of the advanced reader copy:

His hands were gentler than I wanted, and I grabbed one and wrapped it around my breast. I let out a sigh, and Leo reciprocated with a sound of his own. "So you have a condom?" I asked. Life had been too cruel in the last year not to get me pregnant or diseased if I wasn't careful. I couldn't trust my body to do the right thing, and I didn't want to have a conversation with Leo in the middle of this to talk past sexual partners. I didn't want to know. I just needed it to happen. 

Immediately after, Leo puts on a condom.

In both instances, Alex takes precaution. In both instances, it is Alex -- the girl -- who insists on using a condom before engaging in intercourse and in the second section, Alex lays out why it is she finds taking this precaution important. With everything going on in her life right now, she recognizes that not being careful would only lead to further problems. She didn't want to saddler herself with that, nor did she want to get into it with Leo, either. It's clear and evident that Alex thought about precautions prior to intercourse, and she's not shy in laying that out there for readers, just as she's not shy in laying out there what and how she comes to enjoy her budding sexuality.

I'm struck by that review line again because it seems to me the reviewer missed these things (reading too quickly? Not paying close enough attention to the details yet still bringing them up in the review?). But I'm further struck in thinking about whether or not we as readers need to be hit over the head with how careful our protagonists -- females especially -- need to express how they're protecting themselves when they choose to engage in sex.

Did the reviewer find fault in the fact that Alex doesn't tell us about condom use in subsequent sexual situations, despite the fact she's made it clear she wouldn't be crazy enough to have sex without a condom? Is it necessary for every instance of sex, whether on the page or fade to black, be explicit in its depiction of protection use? And if that's the case, where is there a line drawn between telling the story and being faithful to how the characters are and positing an over-the-head message about safe sex? Do readers believe that if Alex doesn't explain in every sexual moment that she's making sure there's a condom in place that she's chosen instead to not protect herself? Because as a reader, I assume when it's laid out there for me as openly as it is, that there will be a condom. That I don't need to be reminded again and again.

Because when real people have sex and are resolute in their wanting to be protected against pregnancy and disease, it becomes a routine, rather than a point of conscious decision making. You always have that box of condoms or you're faithful in taking birth control (or both or neither). The story isn't in the routine; it's in the break from the routine. In Alex's case, the routine is protecting herself, and I think any more insertion of the condom lines through the story would have turned this from a book where Alex (and Becca) really come to embrace their ability to be sexual beings to a story where they become pawns for the Message of "make sure you use protection."

Part of me wonders, too, whether the fact this is such a positive portrayal of girls embracing sex and doing so without apology and without holding back on being crude and, at times, obscene, is what will hold some readers back from seeing these smaller moments when Alex is very keen on keeping herself and Leo safe. Halpern hasn't written an easy story here in any capacity. But I think it's this complexity which makes The F-It List such a great, memorable read. Because it's not about Becca's diagnosis. It's not about death or the fear of that. It's about embracing life and relationships -- friendly and romantic -- to their fullest in whatever way you need to. It's unfortunate, though, that a trade review in one of the largest, most well-respected library journals could be factually incorrect about the story. In doing so, this book might not end up in the hands of those readers -- girls particularly -- who would get so much out of it. Who would see themselves in Alex or in Becca. Who would see it's perfectly okay to enjoy sex alone or with a partner.

And that yes, it's important to take precautions for yourself and have solid reasons behind why.

I can't help wonder, too, whether books that do similar things as Halpern's but feature a male main character undergo the same scrutiny and character judgment.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

An Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson at Book Riot

I'm so excited about a post I had at Book Riot earlier this week that I wanted to direct readers over there for the day. I got the opportunity to interview Laurie Halse Anderson. We talked about the 15th anniversary of Speak, the way that the YA world has changed over the last 15 years, how she feels about challenges to her work, and we dug into gender and the book world. Check it out.

It's neat to get the chance to interview someone that you've "known" since you were a teenager. I read Speak when I was in high school, and it's a title that has stayed with me since. As you may or may not know, Laurie and her publisher are working on the #Speak4RAINN15 campaign to raise money to help survivors of sexual violence this month. Details are on the Riot post. When I posted the piece, I made a donation (which will be matched) and I encourage anyone who can make a donation to do so, too. If you can't, the next best thing you can do is spread the word, which also makes a difference.

I'm really proud of this interview, and I love the conversation Laurie and I were able to have. I hope you enjoy it, too!

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