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I’ve been wanting to share YA book recommendations that deal with rape culture for a long time. And in light of the popular resurgence of #MeToo I feel that now is probably the time. But– and forgive me, this is going to take a while– I think we need to start by talking about rape culture. It’s a term that has been around since the 1970’s. Created by the second wave feminist movement, rape culture refers to the many ways in which our society normalizes a great number of big ideas, and individuals’ behaviors so that rape (& sexual assault, & sexual harassment) are a regular part of living.

This looks like a number of different things. Sometimes it might mean telling a child that their classmates picking on them means that “they really like you.” Sometimes it might mean that mothers talk to their daughters about how to avoid being raped, but nobody talks to their sons about getting consent before they engage in sexual activity. Sometimes it might mean dissecting everything the survivor of sexual assault did to “ask for it,” and talking at great lengths about the bright futures the perpetrators had that were put in jeopardy by such accusations. Sometimes it means suggesting that if women do not want to be sexually harassed they should get out of high power workplaces. Sometimes it means reducing a man bragging about sexually assaulting women and dozens of women coming forward and saying that that man sexually assaulted them to “locker room talk” or “boys will be boys.” Sometimes it means that powerful career makers are openly allowed to assault young women, and their buddies will help cover up the story.

And rape culture is so hard to tackle because there’s so many different facets to address. We need to make a huge cultural shift in how we approach sex, and how vital consent is. We need to talk to young people of all genders about how you shouldn’t engage in intimate relations with anyone without consent. We need to stop talking about how getting consent is a mood killer; without going into details I can tell you that someone asking if they can do X Y or Z in bed is extremely sexy. We need to talk to young people about how they are not owed sex, that no matter what expectations they may have are, or why they have them, it’s not ok to coerce anyone else into sex.

We also need to make a huge cultural shift in how we think about rapists. Rapists can be our children, our siblings, and our parents, rapists can be our good friends, or our partners, or a member of our church community. Because we live in rape culture, there are lots of people who think their actions are totally normal and acceptable, even when they commit sexual assault and rape. And we as their community members need to not only teach them better, but we need to hold them accountable. If someone we love, someone who shows us their best self, someone who we know to be a very good person is accused of rape, we must believe the accuser. Just because we love someone does not make them incapable of rape, and if we spend all our time fighting for them, all our passion worrying about how hard it is for the perpetrator- we make it harder for survivors, we further engrain rape culture, and we do nothing to help the perpetrators we love to be better people.

We are, every one of us, both victims of and perpetrators of rape culture. And we all need to do the work necessary to retrain ourselves in how we think about sex, who we think is capable of assault, and who we support when sexual assault does happen. This culture can be better because we can make it better. And here are some books I think can help.

Now I want to be clear who these books are for. They are not for survivors, many of these books talk about, and give details about sexual assault; some survivors could read such accounts and be ok, but many survivors could be hurt or re-traumatized by such stories. These books are for people who think survivors of sexual assault are asking for it. These books are for people who have never thought about how being assaulted could affect the survivor’s life. These books are for people of all genders, but in particular for young men. Because young men need to believe women, and understand how sexual assault affects women.

 

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

I read this book when I was 16, and it moved me very deeply. I love the way Anderson writes; her characters are always so smart and funny but not too smart and funny to actually be teenagers. It’s a difficult sweet spot to reach with your writing and Anderson somehow manages to do it every time.

Speak tells the story of Melinda, a freshman who’s having a very hard first year at high school. Not only are all of her best friends from middle school part of different cliques now, and none of them are talking to her, but she’s a pariah of the entire school. Everyone knows that she’s the one who broke up the end of the year party by calling the cops. And as her social isolation intensifies, she just stops talking.

This book can at times be brutal, but Melinda’s biting remarks about school and the social groupings of high school give the reader the necessary comedic reprieves to totally enjoy this story.

So, by including this book in a list about rape culture I am already giving you a major spoiler. Melinda called the cops to the party because she got raped at the party, which in the book is a big reveal. The book explores how deeply devastating surviving sexual assault can be, Melinda’s inability to speak is in large part because she cannot admit what happened to her, and further cannot tell anyone what happened to her.

Speak was published in 2001, and has remained a touchstone of YA literature to this day. And for good reason, it was a groundbreaking book for teen audiences about sexual assault, and somehow manages to make such a story both hard-hitting and incredibly enjoyable to read. It deals with the physiological effects of being assaulted, and the internal struggle to self-advocate and to trust you will be believed. I don’t think this is the end-all, be-all narrative about teens surviving sexual assault, but I think it is gripping and cannot help but build the reader’s empathy towards survivors.

 

All The Rage, by Courtney Summers

Can we just start off by acknowledging how the title of this book is pretty incredible? I love playing with the meaning of the saying, and I love expressing female rage, and survivor’s rage.

If Speak is about the internal struggles and mental tolls that sexual assault takes on survivors, then All The Rage walks the reader through the external and societal struggles far too many survivors of assault experience. This is an unflinching narrative of what happens when communities do not believe survivors, and protect perpetrators.

Romy Grey lives in a tiny town, where everyone knows her as the loose girl who tried to ruin Sheriff Turner’s son’s life. Coming forward about being raped by Kellan ruined her reputation in her community, her social standing in high school, and even cost her her best friend. It is excruciating to read about the cruelty of the bullying she faces, mostly from teenagers who used to be her friends. It is painful to watch Romy meticulously apply her red nail polish and match it with lipstick as her armor against the world, because nobody outside of her home will offer her any protection.

I think everyone who ever talks about the terrible social cost of being accused of rape needs to read this book. Anyone who doesn’t understand why more survivors don’t come forward, and why they don’t come forward sooner needs to read this book. It is brutally painful, incredibly believable, and something real young women deal with far too often.

Romy’s former best friend tries to reconnect, says a girl a few towns over told her to be careful around Kellan, and then goes missing after a party. And the book turns into a bit of a murder mystery suspense novel. Nobody is looking at the folks who would be the most likely to have hurt her best friend, so Romy has to try and go after the truth herself.

A subplot to All The Rage is that Romy is a waitress in a restaurant outside of town, where nobody knows about her and she can exists anonymously. And she starts to build a romantic relationship with a cute coworker. It’s at times cute, and at times excruciating (as she’s still very much traumatized, and doesn’t want to tell him that she’s been assaulted because this is the one place where that doesn’t define her life) and always utterly believable. (And while I oftentimes don’t care for romances as secondary plot lines for YA) I think in one of the most brutal narratives about sexual assault it’s important to show the protagonist making romantic connections. Life goes on after sexual assault, you can give and receive love after sexual assault. This is a very bleak book, and considering the subject matter rightfully so, but this book also offers the reader and Romy hope for the future.

 

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E. K. Johnston

So Johnston decided that she wanted to write a book about rape, where after the assault had happened everything and everyone acted the way they ideally should. So, it’s a book about rape, without the rape culture.

What does that look like? Well, when the main character, Hermione Winters, wakes up at the hospital near cheer camp not remembering how her night ended and her best friend, Polly, is there and she carefully and thoughtfully explains how they found her. She is taken care of emotionally before legal and medical options are explored. The police officer who takes her statement is a woman, and believes Hermione. Her coach believes her and supports her, her team believes her and supports, her parents believes her and supports her.

Her boyfriend’s a dick, and is personally hurt she got raped. Which sucks. But she breaks up with him and really doesn’t dwell on that for any period of time.

Her parents help her find a therapist, and she goes through the long process of working on being ok, of getting better, of moving forward with her life. And when her biggest fear is realized–she’s become pregnant–everyone supports her decision to get an abortion, even her coach who had her baby when she was a teenager. And when she tells her mom that the person she wants to have take her to get an abortion is Polly, her mom, while a bit hurt, accepts her decision and supports her doing what she needs to do to be ok.

A lot of the reader reviews of Exit, Pursued by a Bear talk about what makes the book different from other YA narratives about rape is that Hermione is tough, that she has the spirit to move beyond the rape. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think the reason Hermione is able to exhibit such grit is because of the great love and support she gets from her community. Unlike Melinda and Romy, Hermione is not an outcast after her assault; her friends and team stand by her. And unlike Melinda and Romy, who experience some of the worst bullying by their former female friends, in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Polly and Hermione’s friendship only gets stronger in the aftermath of the assault. It is a true testament to the power, importance, and beauty that female friendship can have in your life.

 

The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis

The book opens with the line “this is how I kill someone.” And the first chapter of the book takes you through how Alex meticulously plans and then executes the murder of a man who raped and murdered her sister, and who the police couldn’t convict. The first chapter ends with the lines:

“This is how I kill someone.

And I don’t feel bad about it.”

The Female of the Species was my favorite book of 2016, and the book I most needed to read in response to rape culture.

The book isn’t a chronicle of Alex going through her small town and murdering all the rapists in it (although I’d definitely read that book too).  It tells the story of Alex, PeeKay, and Jack. At the beginning of the story they’re all nobody to each other. Alex has chosen to be removed from her peers, and only comes into PeeKay and Jack’s lives when she and PeeKay both start volunteering at the animal shelter, and she and Jack are pulled into the guidance counselor’s office because Alex just overtook Jack’s place to be valedictorian.

Both PeeKay and Jack think Alex is weird, and she is, she talks like she learned English out of a book (she did), she’s unflinchingly honest with everyone, and she doesn’t take any shit. And they are both completely taken by Alex:PeeKay as a friend, Jack as a romantic interest.

It is really fascinating to watch someone actively fight against rape culture, I as a reader, and PeeKay and Jack as people who grow to love Alex, were completely entranced as Alex kneed a classmate in the balls who tried to hug Alex without her consent, and ripped a creeper’s nose ring out when he tried to take an intoxicated PeeKay home from a party.

Now I imagine that a lot of you are reading this, and aren’t stoked on the idea of YA literature advocating for teen vigilantes. And I’m not necessarily advocating that everyone #KillYourRapist, but there’s something incredibly empowering about reading about a teen girl who does. One of the valuable things that literature allows its readers to do is explore things that they wouldn’t want to or be able to do in real life. And for those of us surviving out here in rape culture, being able to read an empowering rape revenge story is what we need.

And whether or not you think violence is an acceptable tactic I think The Female of the Species is a great book for young people to read. Because Alex does not accept rape culture, and her standing up to rape culture inspires others to fight against it, using tactics that work for them. That is a message I want every young person to internalize.

 

Honorable mentions:

Gabi, Girl in Pieces, by Isabel Quintero is about so much more than surviving sexual assault– which is why it isn’t properly on the list and I’m fairly sure I’m going to give it a longer review in the future, so stay tuned– is a truly excellent book about growing up female. A lot of it is about finding your voice, learning to love your imperfect self, learning to find love and have affection for your family (even when you’re 17 and it’s REALLY hard), and how important friendship is. One of the things Gabi and her friends deal with is rape, and how it really doesn’t look like some stranger jumping out of the bushes at you. It’s such a great book about being a Latina teen that I think should be required reading.

Asking For It, by Lousie O’Neill is a book that got a lot of buzz when it came out in 2015. I haven’t read it so cannot vouch for it, but it’s about a girl who cannot remember the night she was assaulted but photos of it have been circulated to everyone in her school. In the age of smartphones and social media this seems an important take on surviving assault.

 

 

What We Saw, by Aaron Hartzler is a book that was recommended to me by a coworker that I haven’t been able to read yet. What We Saw takes a completely different viewpoint, it’s about a girl who was at a party when another girl gets assaulted. Kate can’t remember the night too well, and the book is about her trying to figure out if what the survivor claims is true. It looks at how silence by bystanders is a major form of complacency in rape culture.

 

Ultimately this list is incomplete, because the books published about surviving rape culture leave out so many experiences. We need books that explore how rape culture affects young women of color, queer & trans people, disabled people, immigrants, and how rape culture affects young men- because people of all genders can be sexually assaulted. As a society, and often times as feminist movements, we put far too much import on white, straight, cisgendered, able bodied women. If our feminist movements are really going to dismantle destroy rape culture, they need to do it for everyone. Otherwise our feminist movements are useless.


adapted from South Seattle Emerald

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I recently got a question from an adult who was worried about a teenage family member. The teenager had cheated on her boyfriend by engaging in a sex act with another boy, and the adult family member wanted to know what they could do to help the teenager to not hate herself and feel disgusting.

Whoa, was that a big ask.

So first of all, I want to be clear that cheating is not ok. It is a breach of trust that really hurts, and I am in no way advocating an acceptance or blanket forgiveness of cheating. However, I feel like when women and girls make mistakes involving sex– or just make a choice (or perceived choice) that a community member disapproves of– they are made to feel shameful. They are made to feel gross. They are called sluts and whores. And it can make middle and high school a hellish experience for them.

And as a former teenager who made mistakes involving romance and sexuality, I think it’s important that we do as much as we can to normalize sex. Because while we may not want to think about or talk about sex with the young people in our lives, our silence helps create the stigma around sexuality. And there are too many people giving young people lots of negative information about sex for us to leave a void for others to fill. So I would hope that conversations with someone like the young woman who inspired this list could talk about respecting partners, and honoring trust; I would also hope that we could talk to young women about how sex should be awesome. And wanting and desiring sex is not wrong, and the act of pursuing sex isn’t shameful or gross. It’s pretty normal. I think one of the ways we can do this is by making sex positive resources available to teenagers.*

 

Ending slut shaming

The Unslut project, So a quick blurb from the unslut project’s website: “The Unslut Project is a collection of stories of women and girls who have experienced slut shaming and sexual bullying.” Reading the collective stories the reader is struck by how often rumors and stories of girl’s sexual escapades come from nowhere, and her reputation as a “slut” can haunt her for years to come.

 

Sex Education

There are many, many nonfiction books. Both of my local library systems have some pretty comprehensive lists (KCLS) (SPL). Some highlights:

S.E.X: The All-you-need-to-know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College This is the first book put together by Scarlet Teen, the go-to online resource for teen sexuality (don’t worry I’m going to talk about Scarlet Teen in just a moment!). It’s incredibly comprehensive and talks about everything from bodies, to sexual orientation, to sex and relationships, consent and assault, to pregnancy, STI’s and safer sex.

Sex: A Book for Teens : An Uncensored Guide to your Body, Sex, and Safety This is book made by the folks who made a pretty ground breaking Midwest Teen Sex Show on Youtube. One of the funniest sex resources I’ve ever seen for teens. While The Midwest Teen Sex Show was more interested in going for a laugh then focusing on all the facts, this book is more traditional educational resource, without losing its teen friendly humor.

100 Questions You’d Never Ask your Parents I was blown away by the premise of this book. On one page is has a question, on the next page(s) there is an easy to understand factually accurate answer. It’s brilliant, at my previous job I made an entire book display around my discovery of this book. All of the questions are answered by an OBGYN and a psychologist, so you know, the people you would want teens getting their information from.

[edit, suggested addition: Girls & Sex, By Peggy Orenstein]

 

Websites

Scarlet TeenAs I mentioned before Scarlet Teen is the predominant online resource for teens on sex and sexuality. However, I HATE the format, take a look at it, you’ll see, it’s just not organized well. It has a search box in the upper right hand corner, so you can find answers- and some of the best most comprehensive nonjudgmental answers at that- to your questions despite the weird design. I think the coolest feature about Scarlet Teen are the “ask for help” options! Toward the upper right corner of the page teens can talk to real live people who will give them good advice about sex and sexuality, via message boards, live chat, and SMS/text!

Planned Parenthood for teens, Planned Parenthood’s website for teens is another very comprehensive resource. It has 10 main topics it covers (such as LGBTQ, Puberty, and Relationships) and each subpage on their topic gives a lot of information and nuance to each subject. I particularly liked the “Ask the Experts” page– which is like an online forum, with hundreds of questions, answered by Planned Parenthood employees– and their “Find Birth Control” app–which helps you figure out a good birth control option for you based on preferences.

Sex, Etc, Another very comprehensive resource. They brag great stats, 5 million visits to their website each year, covering sex, relationships, pregnancy, STIs, birth control, sexual orientation, “and more!” What I find exceptional about Sex, Etc is that with the help of adult editors the website is written entirely by teenagers.

Oh Joy Sex ToyOh Joy Sex Toy is a really fun and playful resource, it’s a webcomic that expertly explores many topics around sexuality. It is a bit of a “deep dive” resource, meaning that is is so comprehensive that it has information that would be good for a young person just starting to think about sex and sexuality, and an adult who’s been engaging in sex for decades. Since it is a webcomic everything is graphically displayed for you. Using its search feature is a good way to know what the comic is about before seeing it. It’s a wonderful resource that presents really useful information in a fun, accessible, and funny way.

 

Sex education YouTubers

Sexplanations, I love Sexplanations! It’s made by Dr. Lindsay Doe who is a sexologist. She has a fun, uncreepy, very excited way of talking about sex, gender, bodies, sexuality, and almost anything else you can imagine that is inviting and almost addictive way. This is another “deep dive” resource, they have made over 200 videos covering a wide range of topics. There’s so much good information on very surface level (just kinda curious about this “sex stuff”), and plenty of information I had never learned as a full grown adult. I would just recommend that folks read the titles of the videos before they watch so they’re getting information they’re ready for.

Hannah Witton, Hannah Witton is a YouTuber who makes videos on all kind of things including sex. She’s just a person giving anecdotal and DIY researched advice, and has lots of conversations with other folks. She young and British and fun to learn from.

Shan BOODY, Shan is a lot more pop culture-y then the previously listed YouTubers. She does more skits and jokes too. She’s a funny woman of color, who’s really trying to make relatable content for contemporary young people.

Stevie, is a lesbian youtuber who does videos on a variety of topics, from youtuber staples like “girlfriend tag,” to identity and sexuality, to life advice, to her most recent series Lesbian sex 101. She’s funny, informative, and straight forward. Since she is literally giving sex instruction in video form–nothing pornographic, dolls, illustrations, sometimes fully clothed humans– I would also call her videos a “deep dive” resource.

 

Sex positive media

Of course a Rad Books For Rad Kids list is going to have some fiction on it. But to be honest some great lists about sex positive YA books have already been made, so why reinvent the wheel? One created by Clear Eyes Full Shelves, and another from Stacked Books.

I would however like to tell you about one of my favorite new books that’s not included on either list: The Nerdy and The Dirty. Pen Lupo knows she is the dirtiest girl in her high school, maybe even the world. She thinks about sex all the time, and has urges near constantly, and masturbates almost everyday. She loves her boyfriend, and doesn’t know who she would even be if she wasn’t one half of the coolest couple in school. It’s just her urges are never satisfied by him, he’s never asked her want she wants to do in bed, and it’d be too dirty to tell him… All of this get blown wide open when the boy she for some reason cannot stop fantasizing about is also spending the first week of winter break at the lodge in the woods. (TBH this book is just as much about the boy, but for the purposes of this list he’s really a secondary character.) Sex is a huge theme in this book, and sex is described not alluded to (I felt very risqué listening to a sex scene via the audio book as I was parking at the Washington State Homeschool Convention…).

Movies for teens about girl’s sexuality:

The To Do List Watch a comedy about close friends and a special summer project. Valedictorian Brandy Clark, in 1993, wants to shed her uptight image before graduation, so she makes an ‘activities’ list of all the things she missed out on in high school. Well, the list turns out to be more than she bargained for. Full transparency, I haven’t seen this movie. It looks like a boisterous and raunchy film, about a girl who wants to do a lot of unrepeatable things. Which really just sounds like flipping the gender script on movies like American Pie- but in terms of dismantling patriarchal views of girl’s sexuality, this movie seems to me to be pretty useful.

Pleasantville A brother and sister are magically transported through their television set and into the black-and-white world of a 1950s sitcom called Pleasantville. Soon they affect this environment with their worldly sensibilities, and people and things slowly begin to acquire color.” One of the only movies I know of where the teen girl lead is a most knowledgeable about sex, and not demonized for it! There’s also a fairly beautiful storyline with the mother character discovering and exploring her own sexuality, there’s a bathtub masturbation scene that’s genuinely beautiful.

Turn Me On, Dammit! “15-year-old Alma is consumed by her hormones and fantasies that range from sweetly romantic images of Artur, the boyfriend she yearns for, to daydreams about practically everybody she lays eyes on.And I also haven’t watched this movie… I know! I’m the worst! But it’s been on my list for a while now. This is the only movie that I know of centered around a teen girl and her sexual desires and urges. I think it’s so cool that this movie exists. I hope more media can be made like this, so more and more people can see that girls wanting to have sex is totally normal.

I really wanted to have some movies  about people of color, I wonder if Love And Basketball might fit the bill. I haven’t seen it in years (the worst!), and it’s about their relationship changing over the years, and pursuing basketball careers. But I remember their first time having sex as sweet and awkward and endearing. What are some other movies I should have listed?

I also wanted to include some queer movies. But I’m a Cheerleader is a classic, and a funny campy argument against conversion therapy. The Way He Looks is a Brazilian movie about two boys, one of whom is blind, who are put together in a class project and their feelings begin to blossom. I guess I could include Blue is the Warmest Color (which is also a graphic novel), it’s an incredibly sexy movie (10 minute sex scene) but it has been argued that it’s sensational hypersexual depiction of lesbian teens is problematic. I’ll let you make up your own mind.

Movies about how slut shaming is BS:

Easy A “After a little white lie about losing her virginity gets out, a clean cut high school girl sees her life paralleling Hester Prynne’s in ‘The Scarlet Letter, ‘ which she is currently studying in school. Hoping to become popular, she decides to use the rumor mill to advance her social and financial standing. I don’t care what the academy says, this is Emma Stone at her best! A funny and smart teen movie about how a teen girl’s reputation really has nothing to do with her own actions, but everything to do with what’s said about her.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower “A high school freshman, always watching from the sidelines, is taken under the wings of two seniors who welcome him to the real world. This movie is predominantly about finding your tribe, and how one can survive some terrible things that happen to you. Also the love interest is slut shamed and it’s portrayed as BS. It is based on a really beautiful and powerful book.

 

Music

Most of my music options are from the 90’s, besides Queen Bey, please please please give me more suggestions! These would all have “parental advisory” stickers on them. Be advised, these wouldn’t necessarily be fun family listening, unless your family can listen to sexy music together. In which case awesome more power to you!

Oh also here’s a list of songs about ladies who masterbate!

Of course making these resources readily available to teens will not magically take shame and shaming out of teenage sexuality. But starting conversations and treating sex like a totally chill thing we all just need to learn more information about, is a big step in the right direction. Go forth dear readers and be a part of that change!

*So this list started as resources for a specific teenager who was already engaging in sex. This list isn’t really made with children or even tweens in mind. BUT conversations about sexuality and consent can start with kids. This is a subject that is really interesting to me, so please let me know if you’d like resources for a younger group of people. I’d be very interested in pursuing such a list.


adapted from South Seattle Emerald

When I was a kid I loved comics, but I didn’t really buy them or collect them myself – they didn’t really feel like they were for me. And they kinda weren’t – it’s still a male-dominated medium – but during my childhood, it was nearly impossible to find a comic series fronted by women that I could relate to. If there were women they were always too sexy, too femme, too stylish, too one dimensional, too focused on their love interest, too actually-a-man-reincarnated-into-a-woman’s-body (no, for real) for me to find my child self in them.* It’s important to point out that authentic representations of people of color, in particular women of color, were even harder for young readers to find. (After I sent this piece to editing I read about how a variant cover for Marvel’s new Iron Man series, featuring Riri Williams a 15 year old Black Girl as Iron Man, was released. The picture was hyper sexualized, and in no way looked like a 15 year old girl. Which is to say the the comic industry’s over sexualization of women and girls, in particular Black women and girls, is not a thing of the past.)

And it’s been a bit of a bummer as I’ve grown up to see that so many white boys and men have really taken nerdom’s marketing to straight white men to mean that they are the cultural gatekeepers. From video games and comic books to participation in nerd culture women and girls have to fight for their ability to critique and often times even just participate in the fandoms they love (not that white fanboys have taken comic franchises attempting to diversify their flagship characters any better).

So I bet you can imagine how excited I was to learn about Seattle’s GeekGirlCon! A Con that exists to “…create community to foster continued growth of women in geek culture through events”. I kinda feel like GeekGirlCon is what the world needs. I am heartbroken to tell you that I was unable to go this year (it’s not even for a good reason, I had too many errands… adulting is hard, ok?!), but I just had to do something in tribute to GeekGirlCon, and hope this blog post will suffice for this year.

So as this title says I’m going to recommend comics written for young audiences with girl heroes, and as the title further says these books would be great reads for girls, boys, and kids beyond the binary. #BooksHaveNoGender, yes girls need to see female heroes, SO DO BOYS, so do nonbinary kids! Plus these comics are just plain GOOD, all kids should like them, seriously #BooksHaveNoGender.

lunch_lady_and_the_video_game_villain_-_high_res_coverThe Lunch Lady series has a perfect combination of classic comic corniness and absurd concepts to permanently wedge its way into your heart! By day Lunch Lady is, in fact, a lunch lady, serving nutritious meals to Hector, Terrace, Dee (the Brunch Bunch) and their schoolmates; but by night Lunch Lady is a baddass mystery-solving crime-fighting wielder-of-justice! Lunch Lady’s tools? Fish-stick nunchucks! Whisk Whackers! Sloppy Joes on the road, and honey mustard on the windshield! And of course, her sterile yellow rubber gloves! With her sidekick Betty (a fellow lunch lady) and the Brunch Bunch always close on their heels Lunch Lady foils even the most sinister capers, all while using a flawless amount of food puns. You may find yourself gasping “great spaghetti!” for days to come. And if that isn’t enough to sway you, the author Jarrett J. Krosoczka gave a heartwarming TED Talk about how he created the Lunch Lady books to sing the praises of unsung heroes in our school lunchrooms! A working-class superhero your kids will LOVE! I would say this book is well suited for mid-elementary to late-elementary school-aged kids.

51qpuvt9mwlThe first awesome kid’s comic I found focused on around a great heroine was Zita The Spacegirl. I was visiting a friend in Western Massachusetts, I stopped into their radical bookstore and devoured the book in one sitting! Zita blew my mind! It’s the tale of a girl (Zita) and her how her life gets thrown into an adorably whimsical sci-fi adventure when she and her best friend (Joseph) press a red button they find at the bottom of a crater and are sucked into a world many galaxies away! Once in the new world Joseph is abducted by the Screed – a kid-appropriate alien doomsday cult – and Zita must try and find a way to save him. As Zita goes along on her journey she acquires a crew of misfits (probs a bit of a nod to The Wizard of Oz) who are loyal and endearing, and by working together they hope to get Joseph back! This book has just the right amount of complication, Zita is not perfect and in fact, may need to save Joseph for her own redemption as much as anything else to give the book weight and importance – but don’t worry it doesn’t get too heavy. AND if you, or a young person in your life, loves Zita she has a whole series you can read! I would say this book is geared for kids around late-elementary to early-Middle school.

41a92bgtwrdl-_sx342_bo1204203200_Next, I want to recommend a graphic novel author, Raina Telgemeier. She does really fun earnest graphic novels with a bright classic-cartoon style about tween girls. She got her start doing The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels, a book series she brings to life perfectly as she was a fan of them as a child. She grew to great children’s-graphic-novel-writer’s fame when she wrote Smile. Smile is is a fantastic little book, it’s her memoir of her childhood, dealing with a long-term process of fixing a dental accident, earthquakes, boy interest, and other sixth-grade adventures. She followed up Smile with Sisters, which is another memoir about her relationship with – you guessed it – her sister! It’s told over the course of a multi-day road trip, staggered with flashbacks of their younger childhood, it’s about the difficulty, resentment, competition, and ultimately the love and real tangible need sisters have for each other. Finally I’d like to recommend Drama. The main character, Callie, develops crushes on twin brothers who both are also involved in the school play she is set designing for. It’s lovely and has a very diverse group of characters, and while it focuses on her crushes, Callie ending up with a boy at the end isn’t the point (or even what happens). I recommend Telgemeier’s books for later elementary school through middle school.**

moon-girl-and-devil-dinosaurI want to sing the praises of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. Lunella Lafayette is a nine-year-old genius (so smart in fact that Marvel has announced Lunella is the smartest person in the Marvel Universe – step aside Mr. Fantastic), she’s so smart that she has a really hard time fitting in. She’s too smart for her classes, her classmates DO NOT get her, and her parents pressure her to act more like everyone else so that she can blend in, make friends, be happy. But Lunella is not about that. Lunella has a secret lair underneath her school, more baddass inventions then you can shake a stick at, and a mission! You see Lunella has the inhuman gene, and she is terrified that the gene will transform her (as it is apt to do) into something else, so she is on a mission to save herself from the possibility of an inhuman transformation. So she hunts down a Kree Omni-Wave Generator convinced she can harness its power to prevent any inhuman changes, and when the Kree Omni-Wave Generator brings a bright red T-rex and a crew of evil cavemen who proceed to wreak havoc on New York City her mission gets a little sidestepped. Lunella initially is scared of Devil Dinosaur, but when they team up it is delightful, and they’re just a perfectly matched odd couple. Can I also just throw in there that Lunella’s fashion sense makes me LIVE? Her uniform in life is a tee shirt (often with a science graphic on it), khaki shorts, knee high socks, and her natural hair always up in in a pony or pigtails – it is TOO CUTE! I would recommend this book for late-elementary on through high-school-aged readers.

lumberjanes_coverLumberjanes is the comic book series I wish I had when I was a kid. It’s about a cabin of girls at Lumberjanes’ Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. It’s so lighthearted and fun, it’s a fantasy adventure that doesn’t take itself seriously, and packs on awesome punch of girl empowerment (they are constantly exclaiming “holy Joan Jett” or “holy Ida B. Wells” or “holy [insert awesome woman from history here]!”) and the importance of friendship (“FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX” is a Lumberjanes saying). It shows a number of different girls, who express their girl-ness in different ways and shows great diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, sexual identity, and gender identity. Another thing I love about Lumberjanes is that each girl contributes to the team in different but equally important ways. It’s also a series I have no doubt they will just keep on printing, so if you and/or the kids in your life like it y’all can keep on reading it forever. I’d say middle-school on through high-school students (on through adults!) would enjoy Lumberjanes.

princelssI also am a huge fan of the Princeless series. It’s about a princess (Adrienne) whose father puts her in a high tower guarded by a dragon to wait for a prince to save her, but Adrienne comes up with a better plan! She and her dragon go across the countryside freeing her sisters from the monsters that are guarding them! Making a half-dwarf-blacksmith friend, and running into all kinds of silly adventures on the side, the Princeless books are perfect for any kid who read a fairytale and found themselves wanting more. Princeless is a wonderfully diverse comic series, Adrienne and the entire royal family are Black, and in the second volume they meet up with an equally cool pirate princess (Raven) who is Asian. Raven actually gets her own spin off series, Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess, which is also deeply wonderful. While Princeless is a goofy parody of fairy tales, Raven is a full an attack of anti-feminists and male cultural gatekeepers. As Raven tries to assemble a crew for her ship – to fight and destroy her brother’s who manipulated their father the pirate king into disinheriting her – the men of the pirate-laden port town she’s in throw every anti-woman insult we’ve heard over and over again at her during their interviews, the most memorable being one screaming “not all men!” Raven ends up putting together an all-women crew, which has great diversity in gender expression, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation, and I cannot wait to see where this adventure goes! I would say that the Princeless series is good for readers in middle school, and Raven is good for high-school-aged readers.

ms-marvelAnd finally, I would just like to say for the record that Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan) is EXCELLENT! Ms. Marvel is just a darn good superhero comic. Period. Kamala also is the first Pakistani-American and Muslim-American superhero in the Marvel Universe, and in times like these when Islamophobia doesn’t feel like it could be any worse, Ms. Marvel is the hero we so desperately need. We see her as part of a loving, caring and accepting family that puts no more rules or restrictions on Kamala then one would expect from involved parents of any religion. We see her participating in her mosque, and in one scene she goes to talk with her Imam when her parents are worried about her being out all the time (you know, because of the evil she’s thwarting!), and he doesn’t tell her to change her behavior or that she needs to act a certain way as a young woman, instead he tells her that if what she’s doing is so important to her then she needs to find a mentor to help her be the best at whatever it is she’s doing (then she teams up with Wolverine, it’s great)! And you don’t have to be a superhero fan to get these comics either, Ms. Marvel is also a lovely coming-of-age story about a teen girl trying to navigate high school, complicated friendships, family expectations, and superhero responsibilities. I think middle-school- through high-school students could read and love these comics.

And this isn’t even a comprehensive list. As I am wrapping this article up I am thinking of comics I could have included (I haven’t read Cleopatra in Space yet, but I know it would be a good fit! I ADORE the book Giants Beware, it’s a great fantasy adventure for tweens! Valiant Comics recently started a series about Faith a wonderfully nerdy fat/plus sized super hero! Also, Skim and This One Summer should be required reading for all tween and teen girls!). I remember the first time I rattled off the bulk of this list I came to a big realization. At the end of the year meeting of 2015 for all the Teen Services Librarians in the King County Library System, we were asked to list off any of our favorite books that year. When it was my turn I named many of the titles included in this article, and I realized as I was listing them that all of these comic books were about girls, many of which were girls of color, and how different the world of comics is today. It was then that I realized that if you grew up thinking that comics weren’t for you, you could never find yourself in your favorite superhero stories, but that isn’t the case anymore. You are in comics. And today’s kids can grow up seeing themselves and their friends as the heroes spread across glossy comic pages. And I cannot tell you how much that warms this former-girl’s / current-comic-lover’s heart!

*I feel that my list of things that women in comic books were implies that femme or sexy or stylish, even is a negative. Being femme and sexy is awesome! Any way that someone wants to express themselves is rad. My issue is/was more that the ONLY way women were portrayed in comics was as sexualized and femme.

**I am not recommending Telgemeier’s most recent book Ghosts, in part because I haven’t read it yet. But also because it has received criticism for exploring two Chicana girl’s relationship with the Day of the Dead in a very inauthentic way. I hope to explore this topic further in a future post, it’s a bit off topic for this post, but I wanted to acknowledge this issue and not ignore it.


adapted from South Seattle Emerald

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So Mask Magazine is a “Reader Supported, Ad-free, Style + Culture for the Disappointed Generation” online publication. I know the editors, started subscribing and have really enjoyed it. I suggest you check it out as well. I was asked to write a buying guide of youth lit for it, and promptly and excitedly threw this thing together. Check it out, get some books to some kids or something!

Graceling-RealmI want everyone to read these books, so I can talk to everybody about them!  They’re fantastic feminist fantasy (#fff could we get that started?) stories. They have enough story building to keep you immersed, but not so much that you get bogged down; they have amazing character development and totally enthralling relationships; and all while leaving me feel stoked and even empowered by how the interactions play out: They’re a dream come true to feminist fantasy readers. Since I’m so in love with this series it’s a fairly long blog post so feel free to jump to: my thoughts on Graceling, my thoughts on Fire, my thoughts on Bitterblue, or tl;dr

So, it starts with Graceling which tells the story of Katsa (Graceling came out before Hunger Games so it is NOT a Katniss rip off). In Katsa’s world gracelings are people who special abilities, these graces can be anything from good tree climbing to extra strength to physic abilities. You can tell gracelings apart because they all have two different colored eyes. Katsa is and graceling with an innate ability to kill, and because of her grace her king forces her to be a thug who enforces his rule, and she hates its. To rebel she created The Council, an underground network of people committed to thwarting the evil kings who rule the Seven Kingdoms. It’s pretty awesome.

Katsa being a rebel leader is totally effing cool, but for me, it’s only the beginning of the awesomeness. The rest of the Graceling review is going to be a bunch of spoilers, so read on at your own risk. Katsa discovers what her grace is when a creepy noble man makes crude remarks and then tries to touch Katsa, so she thrusts her hand at his faceand accidentally splinters his nose bone into his brain. Because that happens other people decide her grace must be killing, and that’s how she sees herself: a murderous monster. But throughout the narrative as she tells that story to different people, and more and more of her grace is shown (she can carry a man her own size up a long flight of stairs, she can make her body sleep or wake on command, she can start fires with wet kindling) it becomes clear that her grace isn’t killing at all: it’s survival. When she defended herself as a child from a man’s unwanted attention she was seen as a monster or a killer, when in reality she is a survivor. This revelation is thrill to read, and an important message I wish more people learned.

Another thing I love about this book is the romantic relationship she develops with a prince nick named Po. Katsa isn’t looking for love and is annoyed when it finds her in Po, mainly because she doesn’t want to get married and marriage is the only option she thinks is available. Katsa doesn’t want to marry Po because no matter how much freedom he allowed her he would always be giving her the freedom, it wouldn’t just be her own. But Katsa isn’t forced to chose between love and independence, Po suggests that they can still be together without getting married. This blows Katsa mind and allows her to create a partnership with Po on her own terms. And when they start having sex her takes herbs to prevent pregnancy, so you know, it promotes birth control. It’s incredibly refreshing and exciting, and allows feminist readers to just fall in love with the characters and enjoy the love story (which feminists want too sometimes!).

Another thing I adore about these books is that Katsa notices as she travels throughout the Seven Kingdoms that women and girls do not know how to defend themselves. It’s generally assumed that men and boys will look after females they’re related to, so when women and girls are harassed or attacked on their own they have no tools to fight back with. Katsa sees this obvious problem and starts teach women and girl’s how to fight, across the Seven Kingdoms,  both hand to hand and with different weapons!

The second book in the Graceling Realm series is Fire. Fire takes place in the same fantasy universe but on the other side of a very large mountain range, so they kingdoms don’t know about each other and it’s almost a different world. In this world there are not gracelings but there are monsters. Monsters exist in all species, they are exactly like their average animal counterpart except they are radiant bright colors, and they have seductive abilities. the main character of this book is named Fire, she is the last human monster, and she is named for her brilliantly bright red/orange/yellow/pink hair. Fire’s abilities allow her to sense other’s minds and with weak minded people suggest ideas and even control their actions.

(spoilers ahead, be warned) Monster abilities also make them disturbingly attractive, which in the animal kingdom makes the normal creature easy prey, but in Fire’s life puts her in danger. Fire’s monster attractiveness is a fairly spot on metaphor for gendered violence in contemporary society. Fire does everything she can to conceal her monster features, but no matter how she dresses weak minded people still flock to her. These people exhibit all types of behavior from gaping, fist fights against each other for her hand in marriage, and violence towards her. At one point of the book she’s traveling with an army across the country, and plays her violin during the nights; one day she comes back to camp to discover that a soldier smashed her violin to smithereens. She cries and blames herself her tempting him by playing it, but her friend and guard Musa assures her that is wasn’t her fault, is was his choice and his action. Fire drawing attention to herself and her instrument was not cause her someone to attack her or her belongings. Which is a theme the book returns to frequently, Fire is a supernaturally irresistible babe, and men can control control themselves around her, because that’s their responsibility.

Fire starts the book in a romantic/sexual relationship with a friend named Archer (in which she uses herbal birth controll), which she has to carefully negotiate because he has grown to be possessive of her. Throughout the story she asserts her independence in the relationship, she decides to travel multiple times despite Archer’s insistence that such things are unsafe. She aides an army in battle without telling him because she knows he would stop her. She continues to create and maintain relationships with people outside of Archer despite his jealousy. And all of these things she does that she decides are safe or worth while for her to do turn out ok, sometimes they are dangerous, sometimes she needs help, but she’s never shown as someone who should have listened to her man. She knows what she can handle and we trust her to make her own judgments. Ultimately after living a way from Archer for a few months when he comes to visit she breaks the romantic relationship with him off.

Another thing I love that Fire adds to the Graceling Realm is a femme and physically vulnerable heroine. Katsa , who is wonderful and I LOVE her, has strengths that aren’t necessarily relatable to many women: she can defend herself against anything that would do her harm. Fire doesn’t have that advantage, Fire can be hurt by people bigger and stronger then her, much like me and all other women I know. But Fire isn’t a wuss or a weakling (again, like most women I know) she has limitations, but she’s smart resourceful and knows how to use weapons. She defends herself from undesired romantic advances by stating boundaries, using her monster powers (when they can aide her), closing doors on men, and asking for help when she needs it. I am eternally enchanted by fiction stories the show different female presentations, and different ways women can be strong.

The last book in the series is Bitterblue. Bitterblue is the name of a young queen on the Garceling/Katsa side of the giant mountain range, who has no fantastic powers, and is trying to help her kingdom as they recover from a shared trauma. Her father, the ruler of the kingdom before her, had a grace that made people believe whatever he said; he would do horrible things and then make people forget them/think that they wanted them/or think that someone else had done them. So Bitterblue has a nearly impossible task of moving her kingdom forward with different groups of people having opposite ideas of how to do that, on top of  shorting though her own mangled memories, and like dating and having friends and stuff.

(spoilers ahead beware) So these books subscribe to the notion that what kingdoms need are good leaders, it’s shown throughout the first two books but we’re far more deeply immersed in that idea as Bitterblue struggles to be a good leader. This won’t be problematic to everyone, but it’s one of my least favorite parts as an Anarchist. I also know many leftist don’t like children’s stories casting royalty as heroes. To quote The Coup “Tell your teacher princesses are evil / that got their money cuz they killed people.” What I enjoy about her queenly struggles is how she comes to consciousness with how privileged she is, and how many people make her castle work and thus her lifestyle work. While reading about a queen coming to understand her privilege may not be super rad to all readers, I think it’s awesome that Cashore takes the time to explain how the castle works, who the castle employees, and all the many workers it takes for these fairy tales to happen. I also think for a privileged reader coming to consciousness with Bitterblue about how fricking lucky she is to want for nothing would be a pretty important read.

Despite this story being about #RoyaltyProblems it might actually be my favorite. Just because the scope of the book is so big. Dealing with entire country healing from such travesty, every character you meet is trying to deal with their own painful past. And it’s only through the telling of the narrative everyone’s stories are peeled back and revealed. The horrible things Bitterblue’s father did hurt everyone from distant farmers, to his advisors, to his family. And the effects this harm did still have hold on the kingdom today. What I think is brilliant about this book is the journey Bitterblue must go through to cut thought the layers of deception that are drawn around her, to keep her ignorant about how bad things still are in her kingdom.

What Bitterblue ultimately learns is that people close to her in the palace were working actively not only to keep her in dark, but to kill others that would try and bring the truth of her father’s reign to light, because they are culpable. These men who were terrorized and are now broken by the former king’s rule also helped him hurt others. These men who love Bitterblue and who Bitterblue loves, were forced into doing terrible things, and now would go to any lengths to stop those truths from coming to light. It’s heart breaking and it’s complicated and it’s incredibly realistic.

But it’s not just a downer book. It’s a story about resilience and varied resistance. It’s a story about friendship, truth, and healing. It’s a story where you see the benefits of Katsa’s fight lessons as Bitterblue defends herself. It’s a story where Bitterblue is given birth control herbs by multiple women in her life before she needs them. It’s a story where Bitterblue sleeps with a boy she doesn’t love because she wants to. It’s a story where punitive responses to crimes are shown as cruel and stopped. It’s a story with rich complicated characters who you cannot judge by their first appearance. It’s also a story where I think Cashore realized that she hadn’t written any gay characters into the previous books so every single possible side character is gay. But more then anything I think it is a story about love, how it comes in a myriad of forms and can sustain us even when it hurts us.

tl;dr these books have amazing messages:

  • Women can have varied gender presentation
  • Women can be strong in a myriad of ways
  • Women form underground rebel groups
  • Women have sex when they want, with birth control
  • Women can form romantic relationships on their own terms
  • Women who defend themselves aren’t monsters but survivors
  • Women teach each other how to fight and defend themselves
  • Men are responsible for their actions towards women
  • Women can make their own decisions about what risks they are willing to take
  • Men who try and control their partners should be dumped
  • Privilege is real and needs to be examined and recognized
  • Survivor’s stories must be told for healing to happen
  • Evil is complicated and can come from people you are close to and love

Please. Dear God. Read them.

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