Tag Archives: young adult

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?

 

 

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Review: You Look Different In Real Life

27 Dec

Yep, once again the oh-so-teen Pretty White Girl cover had me entering this book with low expectations. In cases like this, I love it when I’m wrong. Jennifer Castle’s You Look Different In Real Life ended up being a story of five very real teenagers who are discovering who they are and how documentaries about them have affected how they think of themselves. This review contains spoilers.

urlJustine and four of her classmates were featured in a documentary when they were kindergartners called Five at Six, then again in Five at Eleven. Now, five years later, the five are sixteen and the two ambitious filmmakers are back to make the third installment. However, a lot has changed in five years. Justine, who had always charmed audiences, feels like a disappointment and a nobody. She and her former friend Rory are no longer talking. Nate has transformed himself into a cool kid who no longer hangs out with Felix, and Kiera seems to be aloof from them all.

This does not bode well for the film. The five students who used to be so transparent and genuine are now hesitant to share their lives with the filmmakers. Interviews and footage reach dead ends, and the filmmakers are coerced by their producers to

The turning point in the book is really where the story and the characters begin to shine. When Kiera takes off to find her missing mom, the other four go off after her by themselves, and Justine takes the camera with them. It’s only here, on their trip to New York City in a borrowed van with an emergency credit card and a video camera, that friendships start to be repaired and secrets are revealed. Justine begins to repair her friendship with Rory. Felix reveals that he’s gay and that’s why he and Nate have become frosty toward each other. The four witness Kiera reunite with her mom. It’s a powerful choice that Castle makes, having things only come together when Justine and the other four take the film and their lives into their own hands.

This book has a lot of fantastic things going for it: A realistic portrayal of autism through Rory, who is also a great character in general and is far more than “That Autistic Character”, believable and compelling character growth and development, and interesting commentary on the added difficulty of defining yourself when you are conscious of what others think of you.

The concept of teens being followed by a documentary crew is especially relevant in this age, in which teens watch reality shows with dubious amounts of actual reality in them, create YouTube videos and blogs in the hopes of internet fame, and can have the minutia of their day available to all on Facebook and Twitter. How much do we allow others’ opinions or expectations of us define who we are, and how can we use the media tools available to us (as Justine takes the video camera) to create real communications that repair and reconcile?

You Look Different In Real Life is a very satisfying read–I would definitely recommend it for teens and lovers of realistic fiction.

Review: His Dark Assassins Series

17 Dec

I love historical fiction, but a common problem that I find is that the author rewrites history to suit our modern sensibilities, giving characters modern thoughts or behaving in ways inappropriate to their historical context. This is especially tricky when trying to write strong female characters; how do you create awesome, strong female characters which still fit in the context of their times? I am in no way saying that there were not strong females throughout history, but understanding their strength often requires some social context of the times, which can be a lot to cram into a novel.

This issue can be resolved by impressive writers, but there is yet another solution! Alternate histories offer the best of both worlds; a rich historical background (to the extent that it serves the story), and the flexibility to create culture as one would in a fantasy world. This means the author can pick and choose what they want to use in their world, which can create a fantastic yarn without the worries of accurately portraying the social context.

The first two books of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassins trilogy uses this genre to its best possible use, using the backdrop of 15th century Brittany (more or less keeping the political history and adding some interesting religion twists) for her story of empowered female assassins. I’ll give a brief rundown of the two books that are out so far, Grave Mercy and Dark TriumphMild Spoilers Ahead.

url Grave Mercy- First off, let me do my obligatory whine about the asinine Pretty White Girl cover art. Ugh. Why. Why. The art turned me off of the book right away, but I am so grateful that I got past the cover and kept reading, because LaFevers’ writing is gripping and lovely. She immediately plunges us into the world and mind of Ismae, who begins as a turnip farmer’s daughter doomed to be married off to a lecherous man. She is soon sent to a convent where daughters of Mortaine (aka Death Himself) train to become assassins. As one of his daughters, Ismae can see marks on people that Mortaine has chosen for death, and she carries out his will. This soon plunges her into a political intrigue involving a 12-year-old duchess inheriting a duchy of Brittany (which is historically-based), and into an unexpected romance. Ismae also begins questioning the motives of the convent where she trained after she sees Mortaine and finds a whole new understanding of her destiny. In the end she chooses to use death and the freeing of the soul as an act of mercy to those suffering, instead of as vengeance, a clear departure from how she was trained. This plants the idea that institutions can veer away from their original intent, and also demonstrates how groups that seem good can still be flawed or make wrong decisions.

url-1Dark Triumph continues this theme, and it follows a completely different character from Grave Mercy‘s Ismae. Sybella was also convent-trained, but her similarities to Ismae end there. When we readers are first introduced to Sybella’s thoughts, she is a dark-minded and very troubled woman, wishing for death. Whereas Ismae did her assassinations as duties, Sybella loves seeking vengeance. Throughout the book we learn why she is so troubled and cynical; she is raised by a monstrous nobleman, sought after by an incestuous brother, and has seen terrible death and gone through loss and pain. She is more blatantly rebellious against the convent than Ismae is in the first novel, and as the political plot of the young duchess continues to unfold, Sybella begins to heal and starts a romance with Beast, the ugly, strong warrior who also appeared in the first book. They’re oddly perfect together, and it’s refreshing to see two books in a series that approach romance so well, and yet so differently from each other. The growth that Sybella goes through from beginning to end is organic and realistic, and the ending will make the reader be scrambling for the third book, which will feature yet another of Mortaine’s daughters.

Oh Great, Another Pretty White Girl: The YA Cover Art Conundrum

17 Nov

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Go into your local library or bookstore and briefly browse the young adult section. Do you see a trend in the cover art? Are you finding yourself wondering if you’re in the magazine section as you stare at each different white, airbrushed face?

I can’t blame you. The trend of putting photographs and illustrations of impossibly beautiful white girls on the covers of YA books started quite a while ago and is still going strong. And perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. Predominately Caucasian beauties decorate advertisements, TV shows, movies, CD covers and magazines–why stop at books?

Here’s why. Books give readers the singular chance to create their own personal image of the character in their head, filling in gaps left by the author. If the story is written well, these characters will feel realistic and relatable, at least in some capacity. When designers slap a pretty white girl on the cover, they set a standard of what these female characters–often strong, flawed, and admirable characters–should look like. Portraying these characters as unattainably beautiful women creates a barrier between the reader and the characters before the readers even open the pages!

It’s not just that these faces are flawless and that the bodies are perfect, though. Whitewashing, which has long been a trend in the magazine world, also seeps into YA cover art. This fantastic article on the ALA website discusses how racially diverse characters are often portrayed as whitewashed on YA covers, or in silhouette, masking their race. You needn’t look far to find examples of these–the article has a thorough rundown of examples. I myself have reviewed several books with art guilty of this (see the cover art in my review of The Lost Girl, which has an Indian protagonist).

YA writer Ellen Oh also wrote about this issue on her blog. She makes an interesting point that fiction aimed toward children and middle school kids doesn’t suffer this problem as often.

The thing about this trend is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are some beautiful examples of cover art, both minimalist and intricate, that don’t fall into this trap:

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Above, for example, are two uses of silhouettes that aren’t masking race but are rather used to make a visually striking cover. I personally love the way silhouettes look from an aesthetic perspective, but the trend of using them to hide an ethnic protagonist is less than wonderful.

 

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Here are two opposite but engaging covers, one very minimalist and one more elaborate and atmospheric. I’m not here to say that every great book cover should revolve around inanimate objects, but a book doesn’t need an airbrushed model on the cover to pique readers’ interests. 

And let’s talk about the readers for a second. Not only does the “pretty white girl” cover perpetuate distorted ideals for female readers, but it also alienates any potential male readers from becoming interested. Some boys might assume that a female main character means it’s just a “girl’s book,” although this notion is swiftly changing. Take, for example, these two popular and well-marketed books featuring strong female characters:

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These books are marketed to look like the action-packed stories that they are, yet I see far too many books (fantasy in particular) that boys would enjoy if not for the cover art that screams “THIS IS A GIRLS’ BOOK FOR GIRLS ONLY” (I’m looking at you, The Girl of Fire and Thorns.)

Young adult as a genre continues to grow both its market and the age of its readership. As someone who’s not involved in the cover art and marketing scheme of YA, I can only hope that this detrimental “pretty white girl” fad will give way to some beautiful, innovative and appealing book art that celebrates the diversity of the characters and stories found in YA literature.

Review: The Lost Girl

29 Sep

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Sangu Mandanna tells a compelling science fiction tale in The Lost Girl. Amarra is an echo, a being created to replace a real human if that human ever dies. Because of this, she has no life of her own and is regarded as an abomination by many. Amarra the echo has to read the same subjects, eat the same things, and have the same experiences as the real Amarra, a girl living in India.

The echo takes some self-agency, however, rebelling against her constricted life and choosing a name of her own, Eva. When she is sent from London to replace Amarra, however, things become much more complicated.

The Lost Girl has some clever references to Frankenstein, and grapples with some of the same questions Mary Shelley’s classic asks: What does it mean to be human? If man creates a living being, is it an abomination or a miracle? How do humans react to something or someone who is different or other?

This book is far from ponderous, however. The plot moves quickly and Eva proves to be a likeable and resourceful heroine who struggles for her future. And, yes, there is the obligatory love story. Eva is supposed to love Amarra’s boyfriend Ray, but she’s already started to develop forbidden feelings for her tutor in London. The story handles this romance believably and touchingly, however, and it never overrides the main plot. Original, emotional, and tightly-written, The Lost Girl has appeal for science fiction fans and for those less familiar with the genre. Recommended, particularly for grades 8-11.