Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Get Genrefied: Gothic Fiction

For October's genre guide, we wanted to tackle something horror-related, and we settled on gothic fiction. This is one of those genres that I think everyone recognizes when they read it, but it's difficult to say just what it is that makes it gothic. It's tricky to define.

Goodreads says that gothic fiction "combines elements of both the uncanny and romance" and is a "parent genre" for horror and mystery. While I think the former is true (and it encompasses books that are gothic in feel but aren't necessarily horror), I don't quite agree with the latter. I doubt many readers would say that all horror novels are gothic, but the opposite is mostly true - most gothic novels are horror.

The good ol' dictionary (Random House 2014) gives us a better working definition, I think. Entry seven says that the word gothic means "noting or pertaining to a style of literature characterized by a gloomy setting, grotesque, mysterious, or violent events, and an atmosphere of degeneration and decay." Entry nine is similar but a bit more specific (and kind of amusing): "being of a genre of contemporary fiction typically relating the experiences of an often ingenuous heroine imperiled, as at an old mansion, where she typically becomes involved with a stern or mysterious but attractive man." The first definition is used more frequently with the 19th century classic novels, whereas the second one is reserved for more modern novels, but they certainly evoke the same feel.

And this is where I think the true definition lies - it's the feeling of the novel that makes it gothic. The word brings to mind old castles and churches (built in the Gothic style from which the term for this fiction derives), ghosts, atmospherically foggy nights, monsters (or humans appearing as monsters), tortured heroes and heroines, dangerous secrets, romance, strong emotion. The setting is paramount and is practically a character unto itself. All of these things are hallmarks of modern gothic fiction.

Classic examples of the genre include Frankenstein, Dracula, and of course my favorite, Jane Eyre. The three books are quite different from each other, the former two falling squarely in the horror genre and the latter being spooky at times but not really terrifying like we think horror should be. (Furthermore, Jane Eyre is strictly realistic while Frankenstein and Dracula are science fiction and fantasy, respectively). Gothic fiction of today runs the gamut from terrifying to almost benign, too, though the moody feel of the stories is something they all have in common.

Below are a few worthwhile resources to enhance your knowledge.

  • YA Books Central has a massive list of 102 gothic books, though they use the term "gothic" pretty loosely for some of the selections.
  • Lancaster University in the UK hosted a Young Adult Gothic Fiction Symposium in September of 2013 (Marcus Sedgwick was one of the authors who spoke), and they have a lot of great resources at their website. The blog is of particular interest; check out the entry on what teen readers think of gothic fiction for a good discussion of appeal factors.
  • Southern gothic is a popular subsection of this genre/subgenre (we've included a few Southern gothic titles in our booklist below). This thread at Absolute Write talks more about it and offers some reading suggestions.
Below are several recent (within the last five years or so) books published that could be called gothic fiction. Descriptions are from Worldcat. Did we leave off any of your favorites?

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta
Brought back to life and orphaned at the age of six, Jane Williams grows up in a series of foster homes and wins a scholarship to the exclusive Birch Grove Academy, where dark secrets abound.

The Twin's Daughter by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
In Victorian London, thirteen-year-old Lucy's comfortable world with her loving parents begins slowly to unravel the day that a bedraggled woman who looks exactly like her mother appears at their door. | Kelly's review

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough
When Cora and her younger sister, Mimi, are sent to stay with their great Auntie Ida in an isolated village in 1958, they discover that they are in danger from a centuries-old evil and, along with village boys Roger and Peter, strive to uncover the horrifying truth before it is too late. | Kelly's review

Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson
After her best friend dies in a hurricane, high schooler Dovey discovers something even more devastating--demons in her hometown of Savannah.

Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine
After a Noor humiliates her and a ghost grants an impulsive wish of hers -- brutally -- sixteen-year-old Wen befriends the Noor, including the outspoken leader, a young man named Melik, leading Wen to appease the ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat--real or imagined.

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
In a small South Carolina town, where it seems little has changed since the Civil War, sixteen-year-old Ethan is powerfully drawn to Lena, a new classmate with whom he shares a psychic connection and whose family hides a dark secret that may be revealed on her sixteenth birthday. | Sequels: Beautiful Darkness, Beautiful Chaos, Beautiful Redemption

Blythewood by Carol Goodman
After a summer locked away in a mental institution, seventeen-year-old orphan Ava Hall is sent to Blythewood, a finishing school for young ladies that is anything but ordinary. | Sequel: Ravencliffe (December 2014)

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
When Triss wakes up after an accident, she knows that something is very wrong. She is insatiably hungry; her sister seems scared of her and her parents whisper behind closed doors. She looks through her diary to try to remember, but the pages have been ripped out. Soon Triss discovers that what happened to her is more strange and terrible than she could ever have imagined, and that she is quite literally not herself. In a quest find the truth she must travel into the terrifying Underbelly of the city to meet a twisted architect who has dark designs on her family - before it's too late.

Darkness Becomes Her by Kelly Keaton
In post-apocalyptic New Orleans, now a sanctuary for supernatural beings, a hardened teenager on the run searches for the truth about her monstrous heritage and discovers a curse that could ignite the ancient war between gods and monsters. | Sequels: A Beautiful Evil, The Wicked Within

The Beautiful and the Cursed by Page Morgan
Residing in a desolate abbey protected by gargoyles, two beautiful teenaged sisters in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Paris discover deadly and otherworldly truths as they search for their missing brother. | Sequels: The Lovely and the Lost, The Wondrous and the Wicked

Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson
After the death of her father in 1855, seventeen-year-old Sophia goes to live with her wealthy and mysterious godfather at his gothic mansion, Wyndriven Abbey, in Mississippi, where many secrets lie hidden. | Kimberly's review

Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales edited by Deborah Noyes
Drawing on dark fantasy and the fairy tale as well as horror and wild humor, ten acclaimed authors pay homage to the gothic tale in wide-ranging stories of the supernatural and surreal.

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel
When his twin brother falls ill in the family's chateau in the independent republic of Geneva in the eighteenth century, sixteen-year-old Victor Frankenstein embarks on a dangerous and uncertain quest to create the forbidden Elixir of Life described in an ancient text in the family's secret Biblioteka Obscura. | Sequel: Such Wicked Intent

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
After a family tragedy, Jacob feels compelled to explore an abandoned orphanage on an island off the coast of Wales, discovering disturbing facts about the children who were kept there. | Sequel: Hollow City

Asylum by Madeleine Roux
Three teens at a summer program for gifted students uncover shocking secets in the sanatorium-turned-dorm where they're staying--secrets that link them all to the asylum's dark past

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick
Sixteen-year-old Rebecca moves with her father from London to a small, seaside village, where she befriends another motherless girl and they spend the summer together exploring the village's sinister history.

The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd
Dr. Moreau's daughter, Juliet, travels to her estranged father's island, only to encounter murder, medical horrors, and a love triangle.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
In San Diego in 1918, as deadly influenza and World War I take their toll, sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort and, despite her scientific leanings, must consider if ghosts are real when her first love, killed in battle, returns. | Kimberly's review

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
In 1888, twelve-year-old Will Henry chronicles his apprenticeship with Dr. Warthrop, a New Escientist who hunts and studies real-life monsters, as they discover and attempt to destroy a pod of Anthropophagi. | Sequels: The Curse of the Wendigo, The Isle of Blood, The Final Descent

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Audio Review: Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

I always think it's more than a little daring for an author to attempt writing historical fiction featuring real people whose lives are heavily documented. Yet that's exactly what Anne Blankman does in her novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog, which is also a debut - and all the more impressive for it. Her efforts are resoundingly successful and make for a gripping, devastating audiobook, narrated excellently by Heather Wilds.

The risks in writing this kind of historical novel are many. Because the characters' lives are so well-known, there could be little room for embellishment or imagination on the part of the author. Yet it's the embellishment - the filling in of the blanks - that makes historical fiction so enticing to many readers. What can an author do when there aren't many blanks to fill in? By sticking strictly to the historical record, she tells a story the reader could find by browsing the nonfiction section of the library - and that's not what historical fiction readers are looking for. But by creating something new, she risks making the story unbelievable for the reader, who would know for a fact that events did not unfold as described.

Blankman's strategy is to create a wholly fictional character in her protagonist, Gretchen Muller, and surround her with real people from history, most prominently Adolf Hitler. Hitler is not merely a person seen from afar, as happens in many historical novels set in this time and place; he is a vital, terrifying secondary character, one who interacts regularly with Gretchen and helps propel the story forward. To Gretchen, Hitler is her "Uncle Dolf," a man revered by her whole family. Several years ago, Gretchen's father died as a martyr to the National Socialists when he jumped in front of a bullet meant for Hitler. Since then, "Uncle Dolf" has looked out for Gretchen and her family, giving them a position of social prominence and a measure of safety in uncertain 1931 Munich.

One day, Gretchen is approached by a young man named Daniel Cohen who tells her that her father's murder is not what it seems. Initially, Gretchen resists the idea, both because she believes in her father's sacrifice and because Daniel is a Jew. She is, after all, a good little National Socialist in training.

But her hesitancy doesn't last long. Gretchen is a sympathetic character, so naturally her aversion to Jewish people erodes until it's gone completely, and she and Daniel begin a sweet romance that provides a nice subplot to the main story. This puts her in conflict with her "Uncle Dolf" as well as her many friends among the Nazis, but most particularly her older brother, Reinhard, a sadist and sociopath. Reinhart is perhaps even more terrifying than Hitler is, partly because his crimes are more readily apparent (at this point) and partly because he is closer to her. Reinhard's actions spur Gretchen to learn more about pyschology while investigating her father's death, and this subplot dovetails nicely with Gretchen's revelations about her Uncle Dolf.

Other real people make appearances in the story. Eva Braun is Gretchen's best friend, and Hitler's real-life niece Geli Raubal is another acquaintance of hers. Hitler's allies also make frequent appearances and interact with Gretchen, including Ernst Rohm and Rudolf Hess.

This is a dark, moody, and mostly humorless story. It's frequently terrifying, both overtly when Reinhard commits acts of violence against Jews and against his sister, and less visibly, during Gretchen's conversations with Hitler, where much is intimated but never spoken plainly. Much of the terror comes from the fact that we as readers know what Gretchen does not: that soon Hitler will conquer much of Europe and act as the catalyst for the massacre of millions of people. Wilds narrates the book's dialogue with a German accent, which lends authenticity to the story and makes for a truly immersive listening experience.

I was so looking forward to the author's note at the end of the book, which I hoped would explain exactly where fact met fiction (so essential in historical fiction featuring real people). Alas, the audiobook version did not include it, though I know the print version does. Sure, I can look the people up on Wikipedia, but that's no match for the research done by the author, which is more in-depth, interesting, and specific to the story being told than an encyclopedia article could ever be. Audiobook producers: We want the author's note. There's no harm in including it; if other readers are bored by it, they'll simply stop the recording and move on with their lives. But I'm certain that would be rare. Readers who seek out historical fiction - teens included - want that extra information, believe me.

Audiobook borrowed from my local library.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

September Debut YA Novels

September is my favorite month. It's also a really busy and full month for YA books, and there are a ton of debut novels that are out or coming out before this month ends. As usual, all of these debuts are first novels written by the author -- I don't include books by authors who have published under other names or who have published in another category. There are a ton of great-sounding contemporary titles this month in particular. 

All descriptions are from WorldCat. If I've missed any titles from traditional publishers, feel free to let me know in the comments. Links go to relevant reviews here at STACKED.

Don't Touch by Rachel M. Wilson16-year-old Caddie struggles with OCD, anxiety, and a powerful fear of touching another person's skin, which threatens her dreams of being an actress--until the boy playing Hamlet opposite her Ophelia gives her a reason to overcome her fears.

Falling Into Place by Amy ZhangOne cold fall day, high school junior Liz Emerson steers her car into a tree. This haunting and heartbreaking story is told by a surprising and unexpected narrator and unfolds in nonlinear flashbacks even as Liz's friends, foes, and family gather at the hospital and Liz clings to life. 

Falls The Shadow by Stefanie Gaither: When her sister Violet dies, Cate's wealthy family brings home Violet's clone who fits in perfectly until Cate uncovers something sinister about the cloning movement.

Feuds by Avery Hastings: In 2135 Ohio, Davis Morrow, a fiercely ambitious ballerina, has been primed to be smarter, stronger, and more graceful than the lowly Imperfects but when a deadly virus, the Narxis, begins killing Davis's friends she turns to Cole, a mysterious boy with his own agenda, and their love may be the only thing that can save her world.

Kiss of Broken Glass by Madeleine Kuderick: A tale told through evocative verse chronicles a mandatory seventy-two-hour psychiatric evaluation of a teen who has been caught cutting herself in an effort to feel alive.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley: In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever. Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily. Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.” Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another. (Description via Goodreads).

Mary: The Summoning by Hillary Monahan: Teens Jess, Shauna, Kitty, and Anna follow all the rules, but when their summoning circle is broken the vengeful spirit of Bloody Mary slips through, and as the girls struggle to escape Mary's wrath, loyalties are questioned, friendships torn apart, and lives changed forever.

Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley: Sixteen-year-old Sam McKenna discovers that becoming one of the first girls to attend the revered Denmark Military Academy means living with a target on her back. 

Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper: Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants to take her rightful place as the sea witch of Prince Island. When she foresees her own murder, a harpoon boy named Tane promises to help her change her fate and keep her island safe and prosperous, but salvation will require an unexpected sacrifice.

Survival Colony 9 by Joshua David Bellin: Querry Gen, a member of one of the last human survivor groups following global war, is targeted by the monstrous Skaldi, although Querry has no memory of why.

Sway by Kat Spears: High school senior Sway could sell hell to a bishop. When Ken, captain of the football team, hires Jesse to help him win the heart of Bridget, Jesse agrees. While learning about Bridget, he falls helplessly in love. A Cyrano De Bergerac story with a modern twist, it's Jesse's point of view, his observations about the world around him unimpeded by empathy or compassion; until Bridget forces him to confront his devastation over a crushing event a year ago and just maybe feel something again. 

Tabula Rasa by Kristen Lippert-Martin: A girl who has been held in an experimental medical facility to remove the memories that gave her post-traumatic stress disorder begins to recover her memory after fleeing mercenaries sent to eliminate her.

The Dolls by Kiki Sullivan: Eveny Cheval returns to Louisiana after growing up in New York and discovers she's a voodoo queen.

The Jewel by Amy Ewing: Violet, a poor girl from the outer city, finds forbidden romance and uncovers brutal secrets when, after three years of training, she is purchased by a royal family as a surrogate mother for royal children.

The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond: It has been nearly seventy years since Hitler's armies won the war, and sixteen-year-old Zara St. James lives in the Shenandoah hills, part of the Eastern American Territories, under the rule of the Nazis--but a resistance movement is growing, and Zara, who dreams of freedom, may be the key to its success.

Winterkill by Kate A. Boorman: When the revered leader of her settlement, a dark, isolated land with merciless winters and puritanical rulers, asks Emmeline for her hand it is a rare opportunity, but not only does she love another man, she cannot ignore dreams that urge her into the dangerous and forbidden woods that took her grandmother's life and her family's reputation.

Words and Their Meanings by Kate Bassett: Seventeen-year-old Anna O'Mally is a gifted writer but for the past year, since her beloved uncle Joe died, she has been wrapped in grief that seems impenetrable until a strange email suggests she did not know Joe as well as she thought--and he was not the saint she believed he was.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Advocating for and writing about girls is a radical act

I’ve been thinking about this tweet a lot the last couple of weeks. 

After AO Scott wrote about the death of the patriarchy and the death of adulthood, peppered with some disdain for YA, it’s hard not to see that the act of writing about and caring about girls is anything less than survival writing. 

It’s a radical act. 

Scott and fellow “adulthood is dead” author Chris Beha believe that our media and culture aren’t encouraging people to behave in certain, pre-defined ways that signify adulthood. That people -- “people” meaning anyone who isn’t a middle age, straight white male -- keep seeking out entertainment and experiences that keep them in some state of arrested development. YA books, of course, are a medium undermining the patriarchy and delaying maturity. 

Last week, news came out that two female librarians were being sued to the tune of over $1 million dollars for character defamation for speaking out about a male colleague who, over the course of many years of his career, caused discomfort among many females in the field. The lawsuit claims the women “have caused him to be regarded with feelings of hatred, contempt, ridicule, fear, dislike, approbrium or disesteem. The defendants’ statements are clearly defamatory and impossible to justify.”

Rabey and de jesus, the two female defendants in the case, spoke up where other women in the field have not. This act of speaking up is radical. They spoke up on behalf of other women who couldn’t find their voices to do that. Murphy’s lawsuit, as much as it claims to be about defamation of character, isn’t that. 

It’s about power and putting fear into not just Rabey and de jesus, but it’s an act of creating enough fear that other women won’t speak out against him or others. It’s about keeping them quiet. 

At the same time this lawsuit unfolds, YouTube personality Sam Pepper released a video featuring him pinching girls’ butts without their permission. After mass uproar within the community, the video came down, but in its wake, more women spoke up. Laci Green detailed Pepper’s creepy behavior, and as this things go, she received a series of messages from Pepper meant to put her right back in her place.

One reason that YA books bear the brunt of cultural criticism and become a popular whipping boy in mainstream media by people who couldn’t be bothered to read beyond the few books on the New York Times List or those books that became box office hits is that it’s a field that’s seen as a women’s field. Like librarianship, writing for teenagers is something that women do, something that the luxury of time and love of fantasy worlds -- whether real fantasy or imagined fantasy is up for debate -- afford them. 

YA stories, at least the ones critics are familiar with, don’t leave room for boys and boyhood. They don’t wrestle with the big questions of life. They aren’t handbooks to adulthood or compasses for morality. They’re frivolous works so many adults gobble up by the armload because adults can no longer grapple with the Big Important Questions Of Life as found in tomes of literary excellence. 

To bear witness to other adults enjoying the act of reading and finding stories that satiate them is to bear witness to the dumbing down of culture. 

An email came through on a small, private listserv I’m a part of a couple of weeks ago from a librarian tasked with running a book club as an elective in her middle school. The students, 8th graders, are all girls, and the first title they picked was Speak. The librarian was told from above she needed to pick something less controversial, and when her students discussed other options, they picked Before I Fall. She knew that wasn’t going to fly with administration, either, so she came to the listserv asking what could be done.

It’s interesting that the books these 8th grade girls want to read in this private (and Catholic) school involve two huge issues: sexual assault and bullying. These are topics these girls are seeking out to talk about and because of administrative push back from the top, they’re not able to do so in a safe space, in the presence of a professional who knows how to handle conversations like this. 

This is no fault of the librarian. It’s the fault of adults who are failing to have these conversations with teens. When our educational system is founded on teaching the classics and heralding the value of those Tomes of Literary Importance, readers who want more -- who deserve more -- have to go elsewhere. 

Meanwhile, some readers are “so sick” of rape books in YA and it’s a topic that’s already been done. 

What can we make of readers who are desperately seeking out these books in a culture that doesn’t want to talk about them or, worse, is “so sick” of talking about them and seeing them? What can we make of readers -- girls -- who are constantly reminded that their interests are either controversial or silly? 

This isn’t the fault of educators; it’s a weakness in the system of belief that the road to successful adulthood is through the voice and experiences of the straight white male. It’s the fault of a society that values and encourages a certain prescribed path and any deviation from it is, in fact, a failure of the individual, rather than a failure of such a singular, privileged perspective. 

Bucking that norm is an act of survival. Choosing to write and to talk out against those in power is an act of radicalism.

The reason we need another rape book, the reason we need to talk about books like Speak or Before I Fall or Pointe any other number of books tackling tough issues through the perspective of teen girls is because that’s where teen girls find their voices. That’s where they’re able to see both the mirrors of who they are, as well as the windows into the worlds of those who look like them and those who don’t look like them. 

Earlier this month, nude photos of many well-known Hollywood women were stolen and put onto the internet for public consumption. This was no leak; this was theft. The purpose of this theft was to prove power -- the power that our world has over women, the reminder that no matter how successful, how admired, how talented you are, there’s always a way the world can bring you down. That if you’re a woman, you’re part of a man’s world, no matter how much of a stake you put into the ground, no matter how much you make your own. 

And this week, just months after a vile, repugnant rant against successful women in the book world, Ed Champion harassed another female author, threatening to release the name of the person who had nude photos of her. And he did, before his Twitter account was suspended

There’s no dead patriarchy in these acts. If anything were true about either Scott or Beha’s essays to be pulled in here, perhaps it’s about what adulthood looks like. Does adulthood mean reminding women that their bodies are always up for consumption? That they’re afforded no privacy? 

Is it that when a man has power and is invited to speak on the library conference circuit, he’s free from being called out for behavior that’s left colleagues uncomfortable? 

Is it that men are allowed to grab girls’ bodies without their permission for laughs and video hits, then follow up just criticism for that behavior with threats? 

Girls shouldn’t fear for their lives when they’re just living them. Girls who are impassioned about their worlds, who want nothing more than to engage with their world, learn about that world, build empathy for this place and the people around them, who use their knowledge and their passion to give voice to their beliefs shouldn’t worry about their bodies -- or their lives -- being at stake for doing so. 

And yet, because we’re asking for and raising our voices without waiting for permission to do so, it happens. 

The reason there’s fear that “adulthood is dying” isn’t that the patriarchy is dead. Far from. It’s that voices are being discovered through media like YA fiction, sharpened and raised. Girls are finding good things are out there for them, but getting to those good things requires claws. That being unlikable isn’t a character flaw or a death sentence, but instead, a state of being, a way of pushing through, of building confidence. 

Speaking up, advocating for, listening to, and writing about girls is an act of radicalism. It’s about building an adulthood recognizing that the world is layered and colored with millions of shades of gray and accepting that with better nourishment -- including rape stories, bullying stories, sweet or sultry romances, magical tales -- the better our world reflects us, rather than us trying to reflect a singular, reductive, and fabricated idea of the world. 

Let's encourage those fears expressed by Beha and Scott are things we get to see happen. Writing about girls and believing women is everything that they're afraid of. 


When I speak about girls, I hope it’s clear that I also speak in defense of all along the gender spectrum who are marginalized. 

Further reading: Anne Ursu talks about the power of empathy, about how Beha and Scott fail to understand that that’s the driving purpose behind literature, including -- and especially -- YA fiction. Sarah McCarry digs into whose pleasure is really at stake when it comes to the “death of the patriarchy” and YA fiction. Spend some time, too, with Robin Wasserman talking about “Girl Trouble.” 

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Friday, September 26, 2014

This Week At Book Riot

This week, over at Book Riot..

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Guest Post: Fiona Wood on Female Sexuality in YA Fiction

I've been thinking and writing about female sexuality in YA for a couple of years now. It's a topic that continues to fascinate and frustrate me. I've talked at length about what good examples are out there, and I've talked at length about what's missing.

Today, I'm turning the blog over to a guest who has written one of the best examples of female sexuality I've seen in YA in a long time, Fiona Wood. Her recently-published US debut Wildlife presents an honest and unashamed exploration of female sexuality, offering a range of experiences, emotions, and words to describe a variety of sexual situations. She's here to talk about the choices she made, as well as what she thinks some of the more solid YA novels that tackle female sexuality are.


Teenage years are the years of sexual maturation. The location of early sexual experience in a field that ranges from respect/pleasure/affirmation to abuse/fear/vilification is hugely influential in forming a sense of self, and self-worth.

What role can the representation of sex in YA fiction play here?

Although it’s not the job of fiction to educate, it is nonetheless a job that fiction does well. It’s a private delivery of food for thought, away from the classroom. In the context of a society wallpapered with frequently unchallenged sexism and misogyny, fiction can offer, for example, female characters with self-awareness and agency, characters standing up to sexism, characters recovering from abuse. Fiction gives readers the opportunity to test their ideas and experience against those explored in the narrative. When it comes to sex, and particularly to young women becoming empowered, the more information they have, the better. 

When I’m writing, my job is to be true to character, and story. But I don’t write in a vacuum; I’m responding to a time and a social context; writing is political, and I write as a feminist. I have the readership age group in mind, and ask myself what I wish I’d been able to read at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.

As a teenager I was always searching the bookshelves for intel about sex, and never finding very much. Somehow, Judy Blume’s Forever and Deenie did not make it to the shelves of my school library, though Go Ask Alice, which includes a really disturbing sexual abuse scenario, was freely available. When I read a book that opts for a dissolve when it comes to sex, rather than providing any detail, I can feel my sexually curious teenage-self asking, but what are they doing? What is actually happening? That’s why I like the idea of realistic representation of sex in YA fiction.

During the course of Wildlife’s narrative, protagonist Sibylla’s sexuality is expressed frequently, and is integral to her character. Theory and practice on sex and romance are on a collision course, accelerated by Sib’s manipulative best friend, Holly. The book’s other narrative voice, Lou, recalls a happy sexual relationship from the perspective of grieving the loss of her partner.

I always enjoy reading a treatment of sex that rings true to character. A few favourites include the humour, vulnerability, and honesty in the sex scenes between Tara and Tom in Melina Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son; Evan’s unflinching ownership of his past sexual opportunism in Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian; the tender, awkward beauty of Riley Rose and Dylan’s sex in Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell; and Deanna’s sense of injustice at the gender double-standard that attaches to her sexual history, in Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl.   

In an ideal world, by the time they are thinking of becoming sexually active, girls will be well-educated in all aspects of sex and sexuality, and have the knowledge and confidence to trust their judgement with regard to what they do, when, and with whom. I think young readers benefit from access to a range of narratives that deal frankly with sex before they become sexually active. This seems particularly important at a time when most teenagers have seen multiple iterations of pornographic imagery, offering a limited, unrealistic, and often misogynistic representation of sex.  

I hope readers will lose themselves in the story, and find themselves in the characters of Wildlife. I also hope they’ll wonder: What do I want my first sexual relationship to be like? What sort of conversations about sex will I have with a prospective partner? What might I do differently from this, or that, character? 

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I won't name names, but some adult authors just shouldn't write books for teens. Thankfully, Meg Wolitzer doesn't appear to be one of them. Her first YA novel is strong and (almost) never writes down to its audience.

Belzhar is one of the books the people at the TLA Penguin booth talked about in glowing terms, and since I'm a sucker and fall for pitches like that (especially the ones that seem personal like this one did), I gave this one a shot - though it's not normally up my alley. I'm not a huge fan of magical realism and tend to shy away from the label (usually I think it's a way to call something fantasy without using that word; just call a spade a spade, please). But I liked this one.

Jam Gallahue has been sent to a special boarding school for highly intelligent, damaged teenagers. Her boyfriend, Reeve, died some months ago, and Jam hasn't been able to come to terms with her grief and move on with her life. At the school, she discovers she's been signed up for a class called Special Topics in English. This class only takes a few students each year and it's known to be more than a bit mysterious - for good reason.

When Jam and her classmates go to the first class, they learn they'll be studying Sylvia Plath's writing exclusively. Part of their assignment is to write in a journal each night, but the journals are far from ordinary. Each time Jam writes in hers, she finds herself transported for a short while to a place where Reeve is still alive, giving her the opportunity to experience being with him again in a place where time doesn't seem to exist. Jam quickly learns that her classmates experience something similar, too - they all travel to a place before their respective traumas. They nickname this place "Belzhar" after Plath's semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which they've been studying in class.

This is a book about grief, depression, and mental illness in general. It's about how people - and teenagers specifically - deal with the things life throws at them, and how they heal - or don't. The book follows Jam's journey most closely, but through Jam, we also learn about what her classmates have experienced and how these experiences have affected them. The students form bonds with each other, but thankfully it's never a forced kumbaya moment. Each of the students' stories are full of pain and grief; they're all in the class together because they're battling depression, and sometimes more. Wolitzer's depiction of the illness is individual to each student and there's very little moralizing for most of the book.

It's clear from the beginning that Jam is a slightly unreliable narrator. She's the last to share her story with her classmates and the story she relates to the reader doesn't exactly seem right, either. The savvy (and perhaps not so savvy) reader will be able to predict a twist that happens close to the end. It's not hugely telegraphed, but I did realize most of what was going on. I didn't feel cheated by it, though. The fact that Jam lies to the reader is tied up with her own mental illness. The story is stronger for the deception because Jam has deceived herself as well.

The metaphor with Plath's life and writing is obvious, even for teens who haven't read anything of hers. Wolitzer does take the time to explain a bit about Plath's life and how it parallels The Bell Jar, but this portion doesn't feel overly didactic. It's interesting, actually, particularly for a reader who hasn't read the source (such as myself). I anticipate it will create a lot of interest in teen readers for Plath and her work.

This is a moving novel that should resonate with sensitive teens - perhaps those who keep journals or write poetry, who know that words are a powerful conduit for self-expression and healing. Wolitzer does falter a bit in the final chapters, writing down just a touch to her audience and misjudging their intelligence, I think, but it doesn't ruin what is otherwise a nuanced and satisfying story.

Review copy received from the publisher. Belzhar will be available September 30.

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