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The Welcome Rise of Incidental Gay Characters in Fantasy and Historical Fiction!

6 Nov

You guys, I’m so excited. Literature reflects our society, whether that literature takes place in modern-day America, on the moon, or in a made-up world.

Which is why I’m so pleased to see gay and queer characters sprinkled throughout the young adult novels I’ve been reading. It’s not that this in itself is now- but it’s how it’s being done.

Just like including people of color or people with disabilities or other people who get less representation in fiction, there’s a right and a wrong way to write a queer character. I’m excited because I happened across two novels in a row with queer characters where:

  1. Being gay or queer wasn’t their only character trait, or even their central character trait.
  2. Like every character should do in a well-crafted story, they supported the central theme of the story and/or added a richer dimension to the novel’s world.

This kind of writing is exciting to see in any genre, but I’m most excited that I’m seeing it more in historical fiction and fantasy. The kinds of historical fiction and fantasy that feel the most rich and realistic include a wide cast of characters. Why would every person in a fantastical world be straight? And were there only straight people living in the past? Certainly not.

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*sigh* Just ignore the fact that the cover has yet another White Girl in a Prom Dress…

I recently finished Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas, a novel that deconstructs the idea of fairy tales and what happens when we go against the fate that “Story” has planned for us. It’s a fascinating allegory for creating your own path in life and going against societal expectations.

The main character, Pin, encounters two women who support this theme, Templeton and Zel. Neither of them followed the expectations that a fairy tale had in mind, and Templeton tells about how they subverted the classic “Rapunzel” story.

Templeton tells Pin:

 

“So the Godmother’s got the prince all picked out. He’ll climb up the tower, rescue her, true love, the end. Doesn’t matter what the prince really wants, or the pretty doll really wants. This is Story at work, you see? … But I got there first. I’d been visiting every night. Zel grew her hair out long as a rope.” She gives her arm muscles a proud flex. “We fell in love, and we wanted to be together,  no matter Story’s intentions. So I became a storybreaker.” (341-42)

Templeton goes on to talk about how she climbed up the tower, cut off Zel’s hair, and had a scuffle with the prince. Subverting a heteronormative love story serves as a perfect example of rebelling against Story’s (and society’s) expectations of what should happen.

I might have cheered and punched the air at this passage when I read it. Honestly, I should just write a blog post devoted to Ash & Bramble, because the novel is thoughtfully constructed and there are lots of fascinating thought puddles to dive into.

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This cover is so pretty…that font! *grabby hands*

Rae Carson’s most recent novel, Walk on Earth a Stranger, isn’t entirely historical fiction, as there’s a magical element, but other than the main character’s ability to sense when gold is near, the world is a very realistic 1849.

Lee escapes a dangerous situation in her hometown in Georgia, disguising herself as a boy to join a wagon trail to California.

Carson certainly did her historical research, which makes the journey come to life. She highlights the expectations of women, which turned into deadly dangers on the trail, as illustrated by one woman who undergoes a dangerous birthing process in Death Valley.

Lee disguises herself as a boy to avoid detection and to make her journey easier. Many of the people on the wagon trail are going to California to seek their fortunes, but Carson writes about other reasons why people braved the trail. Lee’s otherness isn’t missed by two men from Mississippi, who mistake her for one of their own:

“‘What do you mean I’m one of you?’

‘A confirmed bachelor. San Francisco is a new world, with more money than laws. There’s a place for us there. To live the way we want to live, without interference.’

[…] Jasper must trust me completely to be so frank. Or maybe secrets have a way of making people so lonely that they eventually take a risk on someone” (312-313).

 

The “confirmed bachelors'” (a term which, Rae Carson notes at the end, may or may not have been used in America during this time, although it was certainly used by their British contemporaries) desire to create a new life and identify for themselves underlines this central theme in the story, enriching Lee’s personal story and making the world feel more organic and alive.

The portrayals in both of these novels are well-done, although there is always the danger of using underrepresented groups in stories to back up the main, straight, cis-gendered, white person’s journey or perspective. I think, though, that these characters mentioned above are a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, I hope to go into a bookshelf and see a diverse mix of novels, to see stories with queer people or people of color as the main characters in stories that don’t center on that part of their identity.

The call for more diverse stories, and by extension more diverse writers, publishers, and editors, is becoming more and more vocal, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that YA literature is paving the way for more diverse stories. YA literature continues to dominate the book market, and I think – I hope – that it will lead in progress as well as sales.

What do you think? Is YA succeeding in diverse portrayals, or is there more work to be done?

 

 

The Smell of Paper, the Weightlessness of Digital

28 Dec

Last night my bud and I were watching a very campy episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s early days, “I Robot, You Jane.” As dated as the episode’s plot is, Giles, the antiquated British librarian, gets into an argument about paper vs. digital that is still surprisingly relevant. Giles argues,

Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no texture, no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.

Oh, Rupert, I get your point, I really do. I collect (aka hoard) books. I love the feel of the pages and the covers, I love flipping back and forth between passages, bookmarking with old ticket stubs or grocery lists, and yes, the smell. I don’t think tangible books are going anywhere anytime soon. 

But books are also heavy and space-consuming, and as much as I heap out the saying “You can never have too many books” in generous quantities, I feel like the saying should come with an asterisk:

You can never have too many books.*

*So long as you’re settled down and have ample space.

Neither of these criteria apply to me. As a 20-something, I’m far from settled down, and I have a hankering to travel abroad again, possibly to teach abroad for a year or more. A few years ago I got to travel in one-month blocks around Europe, and I did so with a 10-kg backpack. It was freeing to have so little, and since backpack space was precious, I would pass on a book to another traveler or leave it somewhere for a stranger to find once I finished it. Sharing a book I had just read and loved was even more fulfilling than running my hands over a well-read and well-loved book from my personal library.

But it’s hard to let go, especially when I’ve accumulated such a wonderful collection. Still, if I’m going abroad, I would rather share my favorite books than to hoard them up and store them in a box in my parents’ house until my return. The question then becomes, which physical books do I hold on to? Books that demand underlining and dog-earring of pages? Books signed by authors? Books given as gifts? Rare copies? And what is the maximum amount of books that can still be qualified as the “bare minimum”? 

I’m curious as to what others think. Physical copies of books will always be my preference when I’m at home, but when I’m traveling or my living circumstances are far from concrete, digital is an amazing convenience. I can carry thousands of pages, hundreds of authors and ideas and storylines, in my pocket and across the world. The words are, after all, the most important part of the story. But the smell is always a nice perk.

Bad Book Blues

19 Dec

Don’t you love that feeling when you finish a book that was just great? Maybe it caught you by surprise, like Jennifer Castle’s You Look Different In Real Life did when I finished it yesterday, or maybe it fit the ticket for exactly what you needed. Either way, it leads to a warm feeling when you read the last page and reverently close the book, sitting there and just being for a few minutes before snapping out of that world that the book had you caught in.

Then you dive into another book, hoping for the same wonderful experience, and the book is mediocre, or subpar, or just plain bad. That’s what’s happening with me right now. The good news is, life is too short to read books that you hate (unless they’re assigned for school, in which case, suck it up and make the best of it), and there are far more great books out there that you have time to read.

So. On to skimming Lauren Conrad’s Infamous so I can read and review better things– and hopefully I’ll get a review up of You Look Different In Real Life soon!

7 Podcasts for Story-Loving Teens

2 Dec

If you haven’t made much use of podcasts yet, you need to get on it. As a multi-tasker and a sponge for information, I’m a huge fan. They allow me to catch up on news or hear good selections of music or funny stories while I’m busy cleaning my room, cooking dinner, or just procrastinating. There are thousands of these free, downloadable programs available on just about every subject imaginable, and there are hundreds of podcasts that are geared specifically for story-lovers and book geeks.

This is especially great considering what a solitary past-time reading typically is. Podcasts create community through stories and books, as well as creation and interpretation of stories new and old.

The following is a list of some recommended podcasts for teenagers. Keep in mind that this is only a starting point. There are TONS more. Go onto the iTunes store and let the exploring begin!

ep424-biographical-fragments-life-julian-princeFor the Sci-Fi Junkie: Escape Pod

Deemed the “Science Fiction Podcast Magazine,” Escape Pod regularly puts out readings of contemporary short science fiction stories, some mind-bending, some spooky, some thought-provoking. It’s a production of Escape Artists, Inc., who also put out Pseudopod, which showcases horror stories, and PodCastle, a fantasy fiction podcast.

Time Length: Anywhere from 20 min-80 min

Also Recommended: Relic Radio Sci-Fi

9781570613814For the Aspiring Author: Book Lust with Nancy Pearl

Some may be familiar with Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, a book with hundreds of book recommendations for everyone. Nancy Pearl is one well-read lady, and in her podcast, she interviews authors from all over, including some notable writers of YA and children’s literature like M.T. Anderson, Sherman Alexie, Tamora Pierce, and Chris van Allsburg. Aspiring writers will find it fascinating to hear these notable authors talk about their process, inspirations, and viewpoints.

Time Length: Roughly 30 min

Also Recommended: Books on the Nightstand

imgresFor the Craver of True Tales: The Moth

The Moth is a showcase of true stories told in front of a live audience. It’s been going on since 1997, and many of the performances–some by writers and professional performers, but others by regular people who went through an experience and have a story to tell about it. The stories can be profound, funny, painful, or heartbreaking, but all of them showcase what good oral storytelling is all about.

Time Length: 15-20 min for regular episodes, roughly 55 min for “Moth Radio Hour” episodes

Also Recommended: This American Life

nightvalelogo-webFor the Lovecraft Enthusiast: Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale has gained a lot of popularity over the past few months, and it’s easy to see why. Set up like community radio broadcasts of the strange town Night Vale, this podcast was described to me as “Prairie Home Companion meets Lovecraft.” The town’s mysteries, including a dog park that must never be entered and a gigantic glow cloud, are absurdly funny, and the show announcer Cecil’s gravitas makes everything all the more delightful. Fans of the weird and strange will eat this up.

Time Length: Roughly 30 min

Also Recommended: Darker Projects: Night Terrors

Poetry Off the ShelfFor the Poetry Fan: Poetry Off the Shelf

This Poetry Foundation podcast leads listeners through readings by poets, interviews with critics, and short poetry documentaries. This podcast focuses on contemporary American poetry, but there’s a wide range to be found here. And, with the commentary and interviews, the episodes can be surprisingly fun–no intimidation required.

Time Length: Roughly 15 min

Also Recommended: Poem of the Day (Also from the Poetry Foundation)

imgres-1For the Literary Connoisseur: Selected Shorts

Selected Shorts is the creme de la creme of short story readings. Great performers read aloud stories by classic and contemporary authors in front of a live audience. This podcast demonstrates the magic that can happen when written words are transformed into a great performance. If the thought of Leonard Nimoy reading Ray Bradbury or Neil Gaiman hosting an episode around the concept of illusions makes you perk up, give this one a listen.

Time Length: Roughly 60 min

Also Recommended: The Classic Tales Podcast

imgres-2For the Comic Buff: 11 O’Clock Comics

Vince, Chris, David and Jason know comics. Like, really, really well. Prepare to be astounded by their in-depth discussions about everything new and happening in the comics world. They focus mainly on Marvel comics, but there is a treasure trove of material out there to discuss and to cover. Anyone curious about comics is bound to learn a lot from listening to these guys, and they’ll probably convince you to start making a list of comics that you want to check out on your own. The episodes are long, but you can always chunk them up into sections. Some episodes contain explicit language.

Time Length: 2-3 hours

Also Recommended: The Comicology Podcast

Phew! I hope one or two of these piqued your interest. Now go download a couple episodes and start listening!