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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.
The 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.
The 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.
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.**
I 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 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.
I 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.
And 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
I 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.
- 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.
Today an essay I wrote about this really great article by Tunette Powell and the causally racist responses it got when I posted it to the Storytime Underground facebook group got published on Storytime Underground‘s website. It’s a challenge to all of us White educators to think about how, even though none of us want to, we all have internalized racism; and if we really want that to change we need to acknowledge it, and actively work on it. I’m pretty proud of it and really greatful I had a few amazing friends to help me edit it. Please check it out here.
I also want to give a shout-out to Storytime Underground, which is an AMAZING resource for early childhood librarians; and also who sought me and other writers this week to engage in this topic when they saw the disparaging comments on facebook. MAJOR thanks to Amy Koester the Storytime Underground founder, please check out her blog as it’s another incredible resource for librarians and other child care providers!
So, I dunno about your local library, but ours gets SWAPMED over the summer. Our usual well utilized building and collection goes into hyper-drive and you can often see 6-8 fully stocked book carts stocked and ready to be shelfed out in our stacks. Add to that one shelfer recently quit, and this little librarian is out shelfing daily.
Nothing too exciting to report, but I just wanted to show you a daily loosing battle I find myself fighting: the YA graphic novel area
And, yes, right now the battle is won, but I would betcha nearly anything that an hour after we open this order will be destroyed. Le sigh.