Some challenge the reality of our rape culture; that is, a culture that enables and excuses rapists, blames the victims, and prevents or impedes prosecution and prevention. I wonder how they can when we’re constantly getting news stories like this one:
A bricklayer is convicted of raping an unconscious woman. The judge at sentencing seems reluctant to have to put him away for 5 years. Here are some quotes:
"I do not regard you as a classic rapist. I do not think you are a general danger to strangers. You are not the type who goes searching for a woman to rape. This was a case where you just lost control of normal restraint."
Pardon me a moment while I vomit.
Excuse me, your grace, does it matter to the victim if she is raped by a stranger? Could it even be worse, somehow, that she knew him? Trusted him enough that she and her friend stayed over at his house and slept on his couch? Perhaps you’re right and he’s not a danger to strangers. Is that supposed to make the women he knows feel any better? Does that lessen the horror for the woman he raped? “just lost control of normal restraint.” Yeah, just. Coulda happened to anybody, eh, judgey? Poor fella, just lost a little control and, bam, violently assaults an unconscious woman. Easy to do, like slipping on a banana peel or forgetting to turn off your car’s headlights or picking up a baseball bat and bludgeoning someone over the head.
Let’s get some more judgey gems:
"She was a pretty girl who you fancied. You simply could not resist. You had sex with her."
This doesn’t require any commentary, does it? We all recognize from these words, uttered to a convicted rapist by his judge, that rape culture is rampant and things are seriously, seriously screwed up?
"could not resist…" Poor men with no ability to control themselves. It must be so, so hard for them to live in a world where they just can’t resist committing violent crimes, no free will, no control of their own bodies whatsoever. Besides, if girls are pretty, they’re practically asking to be raped, right, judgey?
Also, can we please stop using the phrase “had sex with” when talking about rape? He raped her. It was assault. It was violence. He forced himself on an unconscious woman. He did not care about her. There was no possibility of mutual pleasure. This was not an expression of his “fancy,” a way of saying, “hey, you’re pretty and I like you!” Flowers would work for that. A text message perhaps. An invite out to tea. This was a selfish, violent, hurtful attack.
It’s no wonder so many young girls are confused about what sex is. That so many girls view sex as something that happens to them, not something they participate in, when a man can “have sex with” an unconscious woman. No wonder some men feel entitled to do whatever they want to a woman when even a judge talks about rape as though it were a natural consequence of a bloke fancying a lass.
And the thing is, the judge even recognized some of the terrible consequences that came of this otherwise delightful bloke temporarily unable to resist violently assaulting a pretty girl. He said of the victim, “She was clearly upset at the time. The consequences continued. She was unable to work for a while. She has had to take anti-depressants. She has lost her cheerfulness and outgoing spirit.”
Please, let’s talk about sex. About what it is. About what it isn’t. Let’s talk about women, the safety and respect they have a right to expect. Let’s talk about men, their obligation to educate themselves on what sex is and what it definitely is not. And let’s talk about rape. Let’s keep talking about it till there isn’t a judge, police officer, teacher, parent, friend in the world who doesn’t understand so this. Will. Finally. Stop.
“This is a scifi superhero story. It doesn’t have time to be an issue story. I too appreciate so much books about the disability experience or any experience that isn’t in our default canon. But that’s not what I wanted to write. I wanted to write a fast-paced, kickbooty, twisty adventure story, and I wanted the heroine to be a real girl who I hadn’t met in books before.”—Author Shannon Hale on her book Dangerous in an interview at Disability in Kidlit (via diversityinya)
Amazon is involved in a commercial dispute with the book publisher Hachette, which owns Little Brown, Grand Central Publishing, and other familiar imprints. These sorts of disputes happen all the time between companies and they are usually resolved in a corporate back room.
But in this case, Amazon has done something unusual. It has directly targeted Hachette’s authors in an effort to force their publisher to agree to its terms.
For the past month, Amazon has been:
—Boycotting Hachette authors, refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette’s authors’ books, claiming they are “unavailable.”
—Refusing to discount the prices of many of Hachette’s authors’ books.
—Slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette’s authors’ books to Amazon customers, indicating that delivery will take as long as several weeks on most titles.
As writers—some but not all published by Hachette—we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation. Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company.”
All of us supported Amazon from when it was a struggling start-up. We cheered Amazon on. Our books started Amazon on the road to selling everything and becoming one of the world’s largest corporations. We have made Amazon many millions of dollars and over the years have contributed so much, free of charge, to the company by way of cooperation, joint promotions, reviews and blogs. This is no way to treat a business partner. Nor is it the right way to treat your friends. Without taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon, we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business. None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage. (We’re not alone in our plea: the opinion pages of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which rarely agree on anything, have roundly condemned Amazon’s corporate behavior.)
We call on Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers.
We respectfully ask you, our loyal readers, to email Jeff Bezos, c.e.o and founder of Amazon, at email@example.com, and tell him what you think. He says he genuinely welcomes hearing from his customers and claims to read all emails from this account. We hope that, writers and readers together, we will be able to change his mind.
“Mindy: I opened my review of Dangerous by saying that the first time I read a character like me (with a congenital limb deficiency) in a book and she turns out to be a superhero. Tell me about your decision to write a superhero with a limb difference.
Shannon: I don’t think I ever thought about it like that, in the same sentence. For years I’d wanted to write a superhero story. And for years I’d wanted to write about a person with a congenital limb deficiency. And I’d wanted to write about someone from Paraguay. And someone who loved science. And someone who was homeschooled. And someone who was burdened with the middle name of “Danger.” And everything just came together in this story. People with limb deficiencies exist in life but not so much in books, and I felt that lack. I don’t think I’d be the right person to write an issue book about disability. But I thought I could write a superhero story, and I thought I could write a character who has one hand.” [read more]
In honor of Disability in Kidlit's one-year anniversary, you have a chance to win a hardcover of Shannon Hale's DANGEROUS! Simply leave a comment on the WordPress post or reblog this Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the segregation of ideas. I know several people who choose to live in a certain place because everyone there thinks like they do (I know both conservatives and liberals who have expressed this to me). I do think that can be a more comfortable way to live, but I wonder about the consequences.
A friend of mine pointed out to me that in the past, we all got our news from one of the same three very similar news sources. Now there are enough that people can choose to watch the cable channel or read the magazines or blogs that report the news interpreted according to their own world views. As we live with those who think like us, get news from those who think like us, it becomes easier to vilify those who don’t. Often conversations of disagreement are either avoided or become a contest of shouting opinions.
My husband was just telling me about research he read that the more diversity there is, the more innovation. Historically, places in the world where everyone thinks, looks, tries to act the same, progress stagnates. I think it’s healthy for us to live in a world of diversity of all kinds.
For me this applies to books. I know people who will only read books by authors who share their own world views. Comfort reads are great. I love books where I slide into the author’s way of thinking and writing. But I also learn more by reading books that I don’t always agree with. If the author shares ideas I disagree with, it makes me think and helps me strengthen my own understanding of the world. Even with writing style. I love when the writing is smooth and I can turn off that internal editor. But when the writing is off for me, my internal editor is hot and active, and while the reading isn’t as enjoyable in some ways, the exercise strengthens me as a writer. I learn to better understand what I want as a reader and how to craft a story I’d want to read.
I’m home all this month (hallelujah!) but it’s been a travel-heavy year and will continue to be so. I won’t be at ALA (but ARCs of THE FORGOTTEN SISTERS — the 3rd and final PRINCESS ACADEMY — will be there!). I’ll be at SDCC this summer before I hit the road in October to tour for THE PRINCESS IN BLACK.
Here are some random selfies from my spring trips to TLA, BEA, IRA, & Teen Book Con, in no particular order.
Jessica Day George and I were on the same plane to Texas. In the airport we ran into Matthew Kirby…
…and Jim Di Bartolo.
David Levithan modeling the fried green tomatoes we ate in New Orleans.
On stage at the Teen Book Con in Houston with Emery Lord, Brendan Kiely, Rachel Hawkins, and Jason Reynolds
…also with Tess Sharpe and Bree Despain…
…and Laurie Halse Anderson keynoting, showing the slide of all the authors who were there. What a fun group! We had a blast. Thanks, Blue Willow Books!
For some reason, I did this.
With Laini Taylor and Cecil Castelucci in…where? I think Houston. It all runs together. But I remember we played a very funny card game in a hotel lobby till late at night with Bree Despain and Eliot Schrefer. Well, not too late. We ain’t kids anymore.
Trent Reedy, Elizabeth Eulberg, Sarah Mlynowski, and Sarah Mlynowski’s hand
Dean Hale, I told you to stay away from Tori Spelling!!!
At lunch, Varian Johnson and Alaya Dawn Johnson (no relation!) show us they can salsa.
Laini Taylor and I model Daughter of Smoke and Bone masks.
The fabulous E. Lockhart. Have you read We Were Liars yet?
During our panel on “Kick-Ass Girls” I invited the audience and fellow panelists Elizabeth Eulberg and Maggie Steifvater to do the Wonder Woman pose and feel the power! (we’re on the table, because why not). Also it was Mother’s Day.
In the hotel, Dean wants to see if he can walk on the ceiling.
Chillin’ by the river in San Antonio with Nathan Hale, Tom Angleberger, and Jenni Holm. Man, I love those kids!
With my good pal Michael Buckley. He’s like a big brother to me. When he’s not like a little brother to me.
In NYC, having lunch with Brandon Mull and his wife Mary we found a Diane Von Furstenberg sample sale. Brandon models a dress I thought about buying. (the idea of a sample sale is better than an actual sample sale)
In New Orleans for IRA I did a panel with Sean Williams, Garth Nix, and Maggie Steivater for Spirit Animals. At the signing, my ARCs of book 4 (FIRE AND ICE! Out next week!) didn’t show up, so I mostly just watched them sign. And took photos. And gave them helpful pointers. I’m sure they were thrilled.
Dean models a “This princess wears black!” t-shirt
At our signing for THE PRINCESS IN BLACK in New Orleans. I am at a loss for words about how excited I am to share this book with everyone.
Doing some dangerous moves with PRINCESS IN BLACK editor Sarah Ketchersid.
After years of narrowly missing each other, Dan Santat and I finally meet! I loved BEEKLE.
BEA, New York City, Michael Buckley and I emceed the first annual Slushpile Family Circus, an author and illustrator variety show. Libba Bray opens the show with her incredible set of pipes and pack of sass.
Michael Buckley sings Lionel Richie’s “Hello” while Tom Angleberger, Phil Bildner and Gareth Hinds juggle, as you do.
Comedy sketch with Jason Reynolds, Brandon Mull, Kami Garcia, Margaret Stohl, and Maryrose Wood.
This photo started out with me pretending to karate chop Daniel Handler’s injured knee, when he took my hand and placed it there. I swear! I’m totally innocent! Also important to note that the last time we were together was also in Javits (for NYCC last fall) and I was wearing this same outfit. Surely he believes I’d been there all those months, just waiting for his return.
After this lovely gentleman by the name of John Green waited in line for both of my signings at BEA, I thought I needed photographic proof that John Green is a fan of mine.
Kate DiCamillo signs a copy of LEROY NINKER for my kids after hearing we’re all big MERCY WATSON fans…
Then we try to take a photo together but can’t decide of we’re sitting/crouching…
In a recent post about diversity, I wrote: “No one is truly able-bodied: we have missing limbs or chronic illnesses or mental illnesses or even glasses or allergies or freckles or fat or some way our bodies or minds aren’t exactly like some impossible transcendent ideal.”
I understand why some mistook this piece of my post. I dropped that in there without enough explanation, so please allow me.
Growing up, I viewed the world as two separate groups: the Normal people and the Handicapped people (that’s the word used in my childhood). The Handicapped people were blind or deaf or in a wheelchair. And I wasn’t. And I felt bad for them and determined I would never bully any Handicapped children if I ever met any, (though I never did—or at least, I thought I didn’t).
As I grow older, I see such a fallacy in that way of thinking. I understand why our language has terms like “able-bodied” or “whole-bodied” and “disabled,” etc., but I find that dichotomy isn’t really truthful. Disability/Able-bodiedness isn’t an either/or situation. It’s a continuum.
Is it as difficult for a myopic person who must wear glasses to navigate the world as a person who is blind? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Is it as difficult for a person who is fair-skinned and must wear sunscreen and hats whenever in the sun to navigate the world as a person who has xeroderma pigmentosum? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Is it as difficult for a person with a bad knee who must wear a brace and hesitates on stairs as someone who is paralyzed from the waist down? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Our world is designed for the able-bodied and it’s a mark of an empathetic civilization when we try to accommodate all abilities.
I’m not trying to diminish the difficulties and challenges people with disabilities face. But I am trying to normalize the idea of disabilities because they are normal. Some disabilities are undoubtedly more life-changing than others. But I think it might be healthy for everyone, even those who are considered whole-or-able-bodied, to recognize that they’re on the continuum too. We all are. We all have challenges that separate us from an impossible ideal of physical and mental health. Recognizing that can help us to not just sympathize with those who have more physical or mental challenges than us us but actually get closer to true empathy. And an increase of empathy only makes the world better.
Once we get rid of the either/or way of thinking, then possibilities open up wider. A child with a disability won’t feel as Other (because really, aren’t we all disabled some way?) A person without a disability won’t feel uncomfortable around someone who has one because aren’t we all in some way? Readers who are considered “able-bodied” won’t have a hard time relating to a character who is disabled because, again, aren’t we all?
Our bodies and minds are so magnificent. So diverse. So unique.
In the same way, white and non-white is another really weird dichotomy. E.g., in the US so many of us are mixes of many different nationalities, ethnicities, religions, genetics. The idea of pertaining to a single race is getting blurrier and blurrier. In a few decades people will look back and find the whole “white” vs. “not-white” idea really weird.
What do you think? Is this line of thinking disrespectful? Is it even possible to change how we think about disabilities? How can we change our language to get rid of that dichotomy? What have I not considered here? I absolutely don’t want the last word on this nor do I think I have all the answers. This is something I think about and would love to hear your thoughts too, either here or on my blog.
New to the Annual Children’s Book Art Silent Auction and Reception at BEA this year, The Slushpile Family Circus, an entertainment and comedy variety show displaying the non-authorial talents of various children’s writers and illustrators. Masters of Ceremony Shannon Hale and Michael Buckley will emcee with their trademark Verve™ and Panache™ the phantasmagorical cavalcade of “talent” and showmanship.
Come witness such luminaries as David Levithan and Jon Scieszka display never-before-witnessed “talents”! What shocking tricks will Pseudonymous Bosch and Melissa de la Cruz be up to? We would give you a sneak peak of the hidden talents of Brandon Mull, Jason Reynolds, and Paul Zelinsky but we’ve been sworn to secrecy! Jarrett Krosoczka, Maryrose Wood, and Scott Westerfeld will amaze and delight! Libba Bray, Daniel Kirk, and Tom Angleberger will provoke and alarm! And who will be the Mysterious “Talent” Guest? Come one, come all and witness the bizarre, the unusual, but the always entertaining Slushpile Family Circus at this year’s Silent Auction!
Every six months or so, I see an essay devoted to the absence of religion and characters of faith in young adult literature. Google “religion in YA” and you’ll see plenty of posts which rightly address the fact that only a small percentage of the books marketed to teenagers by major publishers include any reference to religion. Most of these are consistently found in historical fiction.
Studies show that a lack of religious content in YA books is not due to a lack of adolescent interest in matters of faith. According to Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005, Oxford University Press), 60% of teens say that religious faith is an important part of their lives, and 40% pray every day. Thirty-five percent attend weekly services of some kind, while another 15% go to church at least once a month. One in four report that they are “born again.”
I know these facts to be true—not only from survey data, but from personal experience.
Right now, children’s literature is seeing an intense flare-up in the ongoing conversation about the diversity crisis in children’s books. While this conversation has been going on for decades, now social media has given the people having it megaphones, and they are using them to brilliant ends….
This past week, a group started a campaign on twitter #WeNeedDiverseBooks that trended for days. Blogs, twitter, tumblr, instagram facebook were lit up with people sharing photos, stories, ideas about how diverse books are both wanted and needed.
Diversity just means “reality,” i.e. books (and movies, etc.) work best when they reflect the richness and variety of the real world rather than only representing one sliver of it. But diversity most often connotes race. And so lots of race questions rise up in this conversation, such as, is it okay for writers of one race to write from the point-of-view of a character from another race? Lisa Yee wrote her thoughts about this, which I appreciated.
Here’s my own experience. When I was drafting The Goose Girl, I originally was going to make Bayern an African-type continent, everyone there having a deep-brown-to-black skin, while Kildenree would be the European-type continent with pale skin. I was inspired by Le Guin’s Earthsea books. But I quickly realized the story required Ani to hide in Bayern, so she couldn’t look too different from the Bayern people. I could have chosen to make Ani dark skinned as well but I decided not to, out of misguided respect and fear. As a white person, I was hesitant to try to speak from the point-of-view of someone of another race, even in a fantasy setting. I felt like I only had access to the heritage of my own bloodlines. So I based Bayern on Germany, both because the tale was recorded by the brothers Grimm and because it is one of the lands of my ancestors. I’m not saying that was the wrong or the right choice (I don’t believe there was necessarily a right or wrong here), but that this was my creative process.
When I began a new series with Princess Academy, again I felt that I only had rights to the lands of my ancestors, so I chose to base the setting on Scandinavia. And the research and writing was a lovely experience for me.
While I was drafting Book of a Thousand Days, I was also studying about Mongolia, because my parents were about to go live there for two years. And the more I learned, the more the research slid naturally into the story I was working on. Perfectly. As if that had been my intention all along. I had a moment of crisis. I wanted to base the setting on medieval Mongolia, but did I have the right to appropriate a land I had no blood or familial ties to for my story?
Eventually I decided, yes. I am a human being. I can take inspiration from the stories of our shared planet. It was a little easier for me to make this jump since I wasn’t writing a true historical setting but a fantasy kingdom inspired by a historical setting.
Dangerous is my first young adult book not set long-ago-far-away but in our own world. I don’t remember my exact thought process in deciding to make my main character biracial with a Paraguayan-American mother and white American father. There was reason to have a bilingual character and the choice seemed interesting for the story. The supporting cast also has a Russian-American, African-French,
Korean-American, German-American, and African-American. These choices make sense in the story, but if this had been my first book, I don’t know if I’d dared to make them. Again, out of misguided respect and fear, I might have been hesitant to try to embody the experience of a character who has a different race than me. I think that would have been a mistake. This story makes more sense, is richer, and is truer with the diverse cast. If I’d tried to write this story with an all-white cast, that would have been forced and untrue, because it wouldn’t have reflected the actual world the story takes place in. Making creative choices from a place of fear (even fear mixed with loving and honest respect) is never a good idea.
I appreciate writers who are respectful of other cultures and experiences. And I don’t think that every book needs to have a diverse racial cast. A book set in a town where everyone is white can exist. Those stories matter too. But I always want to make sure I’m open to what the story needs. And all stories (ironically perhaps, but especially fantasy and science fiction stories) need to have a foundation of truth in order to work. And the truth of our world is colorful, rich, expansive. I think it’s wise, as writers, that we’re always checking ourselves, making sure we’re not just defaulting to all white, straight, able-bodied, non-religious, etc., characters. Not defaulting to Neutral. But keeping our stories open for the possibilities of diversity.
“If a reader doesn’t think diversity is an important issue, that ideal comes from a place of privilege where they have never had to wish for a hero that looked like them. They have never walked into a bookstore, and been overwhelmed and depressed or angry at seeing row upon row of pretty white girls on covers and not one person of color. They have never believed that they couldn’t grow up to be a writer simply because they were the wrong color. So I say to them, please try and put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand that your view of the world is very different from ours.”—Talking With the Voices of #WeNeedDiverseBooks | BOOK RIOT (via imamandanelson)
Author Kate Messner threw down a challenge this weekend. “At the end of the day, publishing is a business that needs to make money to survive. Given that reality, the best way for readers to ask for more diversity in children’s literature is not with words and tweets and blog posts alone but also with dollars.” She picked THE GREAT GREENE HEIST, a wonderful middle grade coming out in May by the incomparable Varian Johnson, and challenged everyone to preorder a copy to show that yes, we want great books that also have diverse characters. (and a cover showing an African American boy front and center!)
Bookstore Eight Cousins got involved, challenging Odyssey Books to a handsell-off. I love this idea and proposed opening it up wide.
So here’s the game: what single bookstore can sell the most copies of THE GREAT GREENE HEIST in its first month? It comes out May 27, so from May 27 to June 27. (If the bookstore has multiple locations, then the numbers are counted by individual stores.) To the winner goes the spoils! How can you help?
1. Are you an author? Care to sweeten the pot? If you’re going to BEA, please bring me something to add to the treasure chest going to the winning bookstore. Signed books, bizarre items, a box of chocolates, anything fun you think the winning booksellers would love.
2. Are you a reader? Contact your local bookstore. Let them know about the Handsell-Off (if they don’t already) and pre-order your copy of THE GREAT GREENE HEIST. Let’s get everyone excited about it! Let’s get this deserving book (and author!) on the NYT bestseller list!
3. Are you a bookseller? Read the book and handsell like crazy!
This is going to be fun. Common wisdom often states that books starring POC can’t be best sellers, especially if the POC is on the cover. I’m eager to blow that out of the water. In ten years, let’s look back on that outdated belief and laugh.
UPDATE 2 (ignore all previous updates!): The party’s on, bookworms! John Green threw down a gauntlet of his own: “Any store in the U.S. that can handsell 100 copies of The Great Greene Heist in its first month will get 10 signed copies of TFIOS. I’m a huge Varian Johnson fan and really want to see this book succeed. Winning stores can email me: sparksflyup -at- gmail.”
"1) One package will go to the bookstore that sells the most copies of The Great Greene Heist.
2) The second package will be a random drawing of all the bookstores that have “signed up” for the challenge (no purchase necessary, just need to know who you are).
3) A separate set of goodies (provided by me) will go to the winners of each “one-on-one” challenge.”
If you’re an indie and want to participate or an author and want to donate, “email me at vcj (at) varianjohnson (dot) com, or send me a tweet at @varianjohnson.”
Wahoo! Let’s do this!
UPDATE: Originally I was thinking of this as a casual, fun contest, but I’ve been advised that if it turns into an official contest the logistics become complicated. I’m not a lawyer and don’t know what I’m doing. It will probably be simplest if the contest sticks with Eight Cousins vs. Odyssey, with the winner getting a care package of author goodies from Varian. If any other individual bookstores want to challenge a friend bookstore to a Handsell-Off I think that would be awesome, but I guess I can’t officially offer prizes without causing problems. But please keep talking about this book and others! I will!
It is easier to write Neutral characters (white, straight, able-bodied, non-religious, mostly male). Less controversial, strangely. If the major characters of all your books resemble the cast of Friends, you’ll get occasional questions as to why but no major protestations. Because we’re all used to it. It’s the norm.
If you write Specific characters (characters of color, with disabilities, who are religious or LGBTQ or have any other non-neutral traits), you will get more questions. Readers and reviewers who are like the character will challenge you. Will tell you that your portrayal disappointed them. Because the experience of the character wasn’t exactly like their own. Or representative enough. Or positive enough.
This will happen whether or not the author is like the character in question, though more often if a white author writes about a POC, or a straight author writes about an LGBTQ character, or an able-bodied author writes about a character with a disability, etc. Those who protest are engaging in important dialog. They need to have a voice. Their concerns are important. They help challenge writers to be respectful, thoughtful, and truthful in their writing.
But I worry that the concerns will discourage some authors from writing Specific characters. We must continue to do so, respectfully and as honestly as we can. Because it’s our job to represent humanity in literature. And humanity is diverse.
People are white and black and Asian and Latino and mixed. No one is truly able-bodied: we have missing limbs or chronic illnesses or mental illnesses or even glasses or allergies or freckles or fat or some way our bodies or minds aren’t exactly like some impossible transcendent ideal. People are different or weird or confused but always, always interesting.
Right now, the vast majority of characters in books and movies are Neutral, so when you write the rare character in a novel who isn’t, they stand out more. And people worry if the portrayal isn’t perfect (whatever “perfect” means). Because what if a young reader reads that book and it’s the only book they ever read about that kind of a person and they assume that’s how all people like that are?
It is impossible to write a character that should somehow accurately represent the truth of all people like that character. But I hope writers aren’t scared back into safer Neutral Land. The answer is more Specific characters. More and more till we more closely match the world we live in. And then those few Specific characters won’t have to carry the load of representing on behalf of all others like them. Then we can allow them to be their own unique, individual selves with flaws and all and love them all the same.
What do writers and mental illness have in common?
When a writer needs help, what do fellow writers do? We write! (Let’s be honest, it’s all we know how to do. We literally have zero other skills.) Due to his debilitating mental illnesses, fellow writer Robison Wells (Variant) and his family have crippling debt. In support of Robison Wells, his brother Dan Wells (I Am Not a Serial Killer) and Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, Steelheart) have put together Altered Perceptions, a stellar anthology with contributions from 30 professional authors. For $10 buy the ebook, for $25 a hardcopy, with every dime going to the Wells’ family debt (Brandon Sanderson is swallowing all the overhead).
Please go to the Indiegogo page and pledge your money! Great stuff for a great cause! My own contribution is a short story. As of this moment, the only people in the world who have read this short story are my husband and Kiersten White. I hesitate to describe it for fear of spoiling it. But it’s safe to say my readers haven’t read anything like it from me before. I anticipate some people might be shocked by it, but I like it.
I wanted to participate in this fundraiser not only because I know and like Robison, but because mental illness is a personal matter for me. Like all of you I’m sure, there are dear people in my life who have to claw their way through every day battling a mental illness. It’s common. It’s biological. It’s not their fault. It’s not laziness or a bad attitude or a result of bad choices. It’s a disease like cancer or any other. I appreciate how open Robison is about his own struggles. He is helping to remove the stigma of mental illness. It’s something we could all acknowledge a little more.
One of Robison’s illnesses is OCD. I think this may be the most misunderstood of all mental illnesses. I hear people say, “I’m so OCD. I have to have my house clean” or such, as if OCD and cleanliness or fastidiousness were the same thing. In fact, OCD is a neurobiological disorder. If you don’t have OCD, you clean your house because you like it that way, and you feel satisfied when it is. If you have OCD, you are crawling with horrible feelings and compulsions, you have intrusive thoughts you wish would leave you alone but they shout inside your head over and over and over again, and you don’t want to wash your hands one more time or check the light switch twenty times before leaving the room or mumble a chant you loathe every time you have a certain thought, but if you don’t you feel sure that something horrible, horrible, horrible will happen and it will be all your fault so you do these things over and over again and worry that you’re crazy and don’t know how to stop and sometimes hate yourself for it all. OCD is a terrible taskmaster. OCD is frightening. OCD is exhausting. OCD is not a joke for those who suffer from it. The good news is there are treatments for OCD. Cognitive behavioral therapy and often medications can help put a patient back in control of their life. The bad news is mental health services aren’t widely available or affordable for many in the country, and the accompanying stigma of mental illness keeps many from seeking help. I hope we can change this, and I hope this conversation and this anthology is one small step forward.
"If there’s a movie you’re gonna lose money on, make it Wonder Woman"
Q: How do you feel about being the first African-American superhero?
AM: It’s funny you should ask that. [LAUGHS] It’s cool. When I was a kid, I really didn’t have a person I could look at, other than my dad, and be like, “Hey, I want to be that guy and fly through the window.” You couldn’t be like 7 years old and say, “Who do you want to be for Halloween?” “Shaft!”
So [LAUGHS] you know, it’s really exciting. When I first got this role I just cried like a baby because I was like, “Wow, next Halloween, I’m gonna open the door and there’s gonna be a little kid dressed as the Falcon.” That’s the thing that always gets me. I feel like everybody deserves that. I feel like there should be a Latino superhero. Scarlett does great representation for all the other girls, but there should be a Wonder Woman movie. I don’t care if they make 20 bucks, if there’s a movie you’re gonna lose money on, make it Wonder Woman. You know what I mean, ’cause little girls deserve that. There’s so many of these little people out here doing awful things for money in the world of being famous. And little girls see that. They should have the opposite spectrum of that to look up to.
—Anthony Mackie, “Falcon” in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I just read through some accumulated emails that go to my public account, and quite a few said some variant of “I will no longer read your books if you don’t answer my email.” Some said it nicely (thank you, sweeties). Some were, frankly my darlings, quite rude. Like, shockingly rude and demanding.
A few years ago, I had a choice. I could 1. answer all my emails or 2. write more books. I chose books. I know that disappoints you and I’m sorry. I don’t like disappointing people. But it is not appropriate to threaten and bully people into getting what you want. I generally ignore negative emails. I rarely am able to respond to any emails, negative or otherwise. But there were enough of these type of emails I thought the issue warranted an explanation in a blog post.
I am not accessible. I cannot be your penpal. I cannot be your writing mentor. Email and twitter and blogs and Facebook and tumblr do not paint an accurate portrait of life. I am not sitting on my computer all day, available to communicate with you. I am cleaning the house and reading to my kids and physically pulling my twins apart so they don’t scratch out each other’s eyeballs and throwing something together for dinner and shoveling the clutter into the corners and paying bills and putting away the groceries and doing my taxes and helping my kids with their homework and running over to see a neighbor and cleaning up a spill and taking my kids to the doctor and sweeping up broken glass and washing the sheets and putting all the books my kids pulled off the shelves back on and tweezing out slivers and putting on bandaids and generally doing what a mother with four young children does. A few hours each weekday I get to write books. And a few times a day I can briefly check twitter, etc., and my email, though I always have far more than I can read right then let alone answer so they pile up. I am not wealthy. I do not have a personal assistant. I do not have a housekeeper or full time nanny or personal shopper or whatever rich people have. I am a working mother. I don’t expect my younger readers to understand completely what that means, but please believe me when I tell you part of what it means is that there are so so so many things I would like to do that I simply cannot, and answering your email is one of those. You are not the only one writing to me. I either have to answer everyone or no one. If answering the emails and editing the stories and responding personally to the questions of every one of my readers is the price of having readers then I give up. I can’t do it. I can only do two things. I choose: 1. be a mom/wife, and 2. write books. I can’t be everything else that you want me to be. All I can do is be the author of some books that you might like, and if reading those books isn’t enough for you, then I’m not your girl.
If you hear an edge to my voice, please believe it is not anger or offense. It is simply overwelmedness. I am overwhelmed. To be fair, I do state right there on my website above my email address that I won’t be able to respond. A simpler solution would be to shut down my public account permanently. But I keep it because sometimes I get the most delicious emails, like the ones I’ve been getting from parents of kids who read Ever After High and said, “They never read a book before but they read this one straight through!” What joy! I get to forward those on to my editors and others who share in that joy and know that our hard work is finding a home. So I don’t want to shut it down.
Maybe instead what I need to shut down is all this darn caring. I do care if I offend people. If I disappoint people. If they feel a connection to me through my books and feel personally betrayed by me that I can’t complete that connection. I wish I could not care what people think. But if I didn’t, maybe I wouldn’t have the sensitivity to be a writer? To channel characters and care, too, what they think and feel? I don’t know the answer.
Except this. I cannot change my email and fan interaction policy. And I cannot stop writing. So we are at an impasse, my darlings. I hope you have real people in your real lives who can hear your thoughts, be your friends, support and comfort you, read your marvelous words, and love you. Go to them. I’ll be over here, out of sight, pulling out splinters and shoveling legos, silently cheering you on.
Parents of multiple children know that you can’t raise them all the same. What worked with the first invariably doesn’t work with the second. They all need different motivators, respond to different expressions of love, understand the world and their place in it differently. Much of parenting is seeking to understand our children and help them reach their potential in the way that works best for them.
So I am often surprised when it’s parents (often of multiple children) who are requesting a particular book be pulled from a library shelf. Parents need to be able to choose what books they believe will or won’t work for their own children. But censorship demands that a book that doesn’t work for one be forbidden to all. That kind of absolutism would make for bad parenting. I prefer a gentler, more patient approach. A seeking to understand. Giving permission to kids to be different for each other. Allowing the right book to reach the right reader and help them navigate whatever world they find themselves in.
On neutral characters and relating to the specific
When I was in the rewrite stage of Dangerous several years ago, a Smart Person read the first 50 pages and immediately let me know her concerns. She said, “Your main character is unrelatable. You made her a home schooled, science geeky, one-armed, half-Paraguayan.” Until this person said all that I had never thought it. I mean, of course I knew knew those things about her, but I’d never strung together all those adjectives in my mind, maybe because the decisions about her character came about piece-by-piece while writing the story, not all at once.
Science geek - I know science geeks. I was writing science fiction. Allowing her to be into science seemed a good way to include cool science stuff. Because if I was going to write science fiction, I wanted to write SCIENCE fiction, really have fun and celebrate that part of it.
home schooled - the story would be more interesting if she began it sheltered in some way and then released into a wider world. This idea always intrigues me (girl from a mountain village, girl locked in tower, etc) and homeschooling was one way to introduce this idea in a contemporary setting. Besides, I hadn’t read a lot of books with home schooled main characters, and it’s something that’s becoming more and more common. Seemed like an interesting idea.
One-armed - Whenever I have babies, I spend a lot of time trying to do things with one hand (while holding a baby with the other) and that always gets me thinking about what it’d be like to have one hand permanently. I had a teacher once with one hand and my sister’s father-in-law has a lame arm. It’s something I think about and I thought it was worth exploring, especially in a superhero action genre. Again, I’d never read a book where the main character had one hand, and it seemed interesting.
half-Paraguayan - I lived in Paraguay for a year and a half. I love Paraguay and Paraguayans. In the outline stage, there was reason to go to a foreign country and spend time there, and I’d always wanted to include Paraguay in some way in a book (I did, but ended up cutting those chapters). There were also story reasons for the character to be bilingual, and the story takes place in present day US (or just a few years into the future), so a US parent + Paraguayan parent made sense. And again, I thought this choice would make the story more interesting.
Always with any book, writers ask themselves, what choices will make this story more interesting? What will help raise the stakes? What kind of book would I want to read? What will help make this book unlike any book I’ve ever read before? These character choices just made sense to me.
But the Smart Person told me, “Teens will not relate to someone so unlike them. Maybe with middle grade you could get away with this, but not in YA.”
I was shocked. I’d been writing this book off-and-on for years already and never considered this. And then I got a little mad. People exist who are half-Paraguayan or half-anything, or one-handed, or home schooled, or science geeky, or girls, or all of the above. Why can’t someone like Maisie be worthy of a story too?
I’ve encountered similar opinions over the years and began to come to an uncomfortable understanding, one that others before me have also discovered.
In stories (all stories, be they novels, movies, television commercials…) we (in the US) easily accept a certain kind of character as Neutral. Neutral is white, male, able-bodied, straight, not too young (in children’s) and not too old (in adult), and not especially extraordinary in any way. For example, Maisie is called “half-Latina” (rather than “half-white,” which is also true) because the “white” part is Neutral, assumed, and the “Latina” part is Specific. Traditionally all readers/viewers who are not Neutral have learned to relate to Neutral. E.g.:
Adults have learned to relate to younger characters (after all they were young one once) but not much older than themselves
Teens have learned to read up in age—but not too far
Girls have learned to relate to boys.
People who have disabilities have learned to relate to people who don’t
People of color have learned to relate to white characters
But often, apparently, the reverse is not true. Not boys to girls, not whole-bodied to disabled, not young to old, not straight to gay, etc. One result of this is that parts of our population are developing empathy for people different from them but others aren’t.
In stories, you can fairly smoothly take one step away from Neutral, maybe two, but more than this is risking turning off a wide audience. This theory was confirmed for me with one of my novels for adults, The Actor & the Housewife. I learned that there’s a reason most female main characters in fiction for adults are in their 20s. Many people don’t want to read about a woman much older than 30 or (heaven forbid!) in her 40s or 50s. In addition to being older, I made her a mother and a Mormon. I was 3 steps away from Neutral and it was too far for many readers to travel.
Now, with Dangerous, I went even further, taking at least 4 steps away from Neutral. She’s not “normal” enough. Too much defines her. Maisie is way too Specific.
Or this is the fear. I really, really hope they’re wrong. I really hope that despite not being Neutral, readers find other ways to relate to Maisie. I do think that this is partly what literature is for. If the main character is a lot like us, we learn more about ourselves, which is awesome, but when the main character is different than us, we gain more empathy for the Other, which is also awesome.
I wasn’t going to talk about this. I wanted the focus to be on the story and not on a list of adjectives about the main character. Talking about it might make it an Issue and I really don’t think this is an issue book. Besides, despite the Smart Person and others, I just didn’t think Maisie’s 4-steps-from-Neutral would be a big issue for most people. But then the reviews started to come in and I realized that those adjectives would be an issue, no matter what I do.
Here’s the beginning of one review: “Maisie Danger Brown (really), smart, home-schooled, one-handed half-Paraguayan daughter of scientists, has always dreamed of being an astronaut.” This reads to me like a list of what makes Maisie different from Neutral. My hope is that after reading the entire book a reader will find plenty of ways to relate to Maisie, regardless of her being such a Specific character: she’s interesting IMHO, loves her parents, gets excited and scared and overwhelmed, falls in love, is curious, is funny, makes big choices, makes mistakes, has a best friend. I don’t mind that reviews mention her one-handedness and girlness and geekiness and Latina-ness. They’re not secrets, after all, as we learn those things about her in the very first chapter. But in listing them like that all together at the top of a review, I feel like they put focus on her differences, spelling her out as unrelatable, freaky, perhaps not worth your time.
Maisie was worth my time. I really hope she ends up being worth your time too.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about Neutral and Specific characters. You could add to my blog comments if easier. Who do you relate to? Are there characters or kinds of characters so different from you that you can’t immerse yourself in the book? Has that changed at all with your age? Does reading about Specific characters make reading more challenging? A different experience? Or a non-issue for you? Teens, was the Smart Person right about you? Feel free to share anonymously, I really want to know your thoughts. Now that I’ve listed all those adjectives about Maisie, how does that affect your feelings about this book and your inclination to read it?
Sarah Rees Brennan has a new post up about her experiences (some of them heart-breaking) as a now-published author who used to write fanfiction. It’s well worth a read, especially for the way it highlights the role that gender may play in these issues.
I grew up watching Wonder Woman, my sister and I spinning around in the family room in our Underoos and pretending to fight bad guys. I watched Super Friends, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, He-Man, Jem and the Holograms, and later Batman and Superman. The Spider-Man segments on Electric Company were my favorite part. Our family loved the Superman movies (all but 4, of course) and yes, even the Supergirl movie. I didn’t know it was terrible. It was Supergirl!
And I was a voracious reader. But I never came across a superhero book.
My husband grew up reading superhero comic books. I didn’t have access to comic books growing up. They were a “boy thing.” But I’m certain I would have loved them. I began to read them as an adult—Wonder Woman, X-Men, Justice League, Invincible, Runaways. Dean and I saw all the superhero movies in the theater and walked away feeling as though we could vanquish all the bad guys ourselves!
I was still a voracious reader, but still never came across a superhero book. Why are superhero stories so fundamental to movies, cartoons, and comics but mostly skip novels altogether?
I wanted to write that book. The one that I would have loved when I was younger. The one I would gobble up now.
The superhero genre is a subset of science fiction. Growing up, our library coded books by genre with a sticker on the spine. The fantasy books had a unicorn, the scifi had a Saturn. I went straight for the unicorns. The Saturns, I understood, were for the boys, not for me. Not until adulthood did I question this. Why is science fiction only for boys? And science too, for that matter?
So, yeah, I definitely wanted to write science fiction. As a girl. Starring a girl. Superhero YA scifi, something I hadn’t seen before but to my mind so logically needed to exist.
As a writer, what excites me is crossing genres. A western-fairytale-graphic-novel. A literary-princess-story. An Austen-romantic-comedy-murder-mystery. With this book, I wanted to take the realism and depth allowed in novels + superhero adventure story + young adult. Could I pull it off? And would people accept a popcorn movie/Saturday morning cartoon type story in a realistic medium?
Smart People told me that it wouldn’t work, and for many reasons. 1. The only kinds of science fiction you can do in young adult books are dystopian and steam punk. You can’t do YA scifi in a contemporary setting (which is what the superhero genre typically is). 2. Girls don’t read science fiction, and boys won’t read about girls, so there’s no audience for this book. 3. Superhero stories are the domain of Saturday morning cartoons (targeted at boys) and Hollywood action movies (targeted at men). You can’t do it for a teen audience, and certainly not a female teen audience. 4. The superhero story has passed over into the overdone realm. In novel form, you can only parody it, not take it seriously.
But I have this problem. When people tell me I can’t do something, I want to do it all the more. It took me time to get it right, no question. The book creation spanned a decade.
2003 I knew I wanted to write a YA scifi superhero story and began to invent it.
2004 I first named a character Daisy Danger Brown (changed her name to Maisie several years later).
2005 I sold a synopsis and outline of the book to my publisher, Bloomsbury.
2009 I finished a first draft.
2013 I finished a final draft.
Maybe in 2003 we weren’t reading for a superhero-female-MC-contemporary-scifi-YA-novel. Hopefully by 2014 we are. At least, I am ready for Maisie Danger Brown. If I had Maisie Brown Underoos, I’d put them on right now and spin around in the living room.
Conversation between our 3-year-old and her father
Wren: I have a new friend at school. Papa: Oh yeah? What’s your friend’s name? Wren: Jewel-bat. Papa: Jewel-bat? Wren looks at Papa, puts a finger to her lips, and says, “Shh.” She starts to walk away, turns back and whispers, “There is no Jewel-bat.”
All writers and aspiring writers out there, put March 22, 2014 on your calendar! I have tried hard to really up the quality this year at WFC and I hope that our audience will respond. We have special guests Maryrose Wood of The Incorrigibles. Also Joe Monti, executive editor of Simon and…
Tomorrow (Feb 11) Austenland releases on DVD & Blu-Ray! And it’s already available for digital download from iTunes and Amazon. To celebrate, on Friday authors and bloggers and book fiends across the country held Jane’s Night In parties. Here are a few photos from my party and others, and check my twitter feed for posts.
My friend put framed #Austenland photos out. She found one with me in the background!
Ally Carter and Jennifery Lynn Barnes served high tea for their party. Check out the spread!
Tea service ready! My friend did this. I swear I don’t decorate with my own books.
Becca Fitzpatrick’s party was comfy cozy pajama style. These ladies are ready to watch the flick.
We had a special guest at our party. (not me)
Decor musts: Jane Austen, JJ Feild, and taxidermy birds.
Keeping our pinkies up.
Thats-normal.com is ready for their movie party.
libba bray 2nd time watching #AUSTENLAND & I laughed just as much as the 1st time. DVD comes out 2/11, people. Tallyho!
Thank you so much to everyone who hosted and attended the parties and everyone who is helping get the word out about the video release. Check my twitter feed for chanced to win a DVD this week, and enjoy the movie. Tallyho!
Austenland releases on DVD/Blu-Ray/VOD on February 11!
To help get the word out, several people active in social media, including myself, have been asked to host a pre-viewing party of the video on Friday, February 7 and live tweet the event. Follow me on twitter or check back here next Monday for a post about the event.
Here are some YA authors who are hosting their own Jane’s Night In parties all over the US:
Jerusha Hess - Austenland director, tweeting from the official movie account
Friday evening, check twitter for #JanesNightIn or #Austenland and join us for some laughs, photos, and vicarious festivity!
And a special plea: please don’t pirate this movie. If you can’t afford to buy or rent it, please request it from your library, thereby supporting the filmmakers and your local library. Hollywood measures success by $ made, and if movies like this don’t make money, it makes it harder for other movies like this or other movies by women to get made.
Get ready for a side of Shannon Hale you’ve never seen before…
Shannon Hale is…
Since this book was “a whole new side of Shannon Hale” my publisher asked me if I’d take a new dangerous-looking author photo. But naturally there was no way for me to attempt such a thing without embracing total silliness. My family and I cracked ourselves up doing it, even if these photos are totally unusable for official publicity.
Behind the scenes! Here’s what you see when we zoomed out a little: