Beyond Forever: Female Desire and Empowerment in YA Lit

girl sexualityIf you’re of a certain age, you will remember reading Judy Blume’s Forever… as a teen- perhaps furtively behind closed doors or brazenly in the school cafeteria. It was the kind of book people passed around, giggled about, and devoured in one sitting. No wonder, as it was one of the first books to talk frankly about sex and, even more revolutionary, acknowledge that sex was something a teenage girl could want and have responsibly without it being wrong or feeling guilty about it.

It’s been almost forty years since Forever‘s publication in 1975, and surprisingly little progress has been made in the realm of female sexual agency and sex-positive portrayals of young women. In the last decade alone, Forever was number 16 of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000-2009, Rush Limbaugh gleefully called law student Sandra Fluke a slut for speaking in favor of contraception coverage, and Miley Cyrus won out over chemical warfare in Syria as the top headline in August of last year. What all these examples speak to is our society’s intense preoccupation with young women’s sexuality- a preoccupation that tends towards censure.  Indeed, society continues to judge women on the basis of their sexual choices and considers having sexual agency as a young woman a shameful thing.

Which makes the recent increase in YA books that speak openly and positively about teenage girls and their sexual desire all the more heartening.  Particularly, as they do so in a way that neither diminishes the need to be responsible when it comes to making sexual choices nor avoids discussing the emotional consequences—both good and bad—that come with having sex.

The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle (2014 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers) is the natural successor toInfinite moment of us cover Blume’s Forever.  It is the story of two very different high school graduates who find themselves improbably falling in love. Wren is a well-adjusted A-student bent on pleasing her parents. Charlie has difficulty fighting the demons in his past or accepting the love of his foster parents. Myracle expertly captures the uncertainty, ardor, and innocence that accompany that first headlong rush into full-blown, soul-consuming love.  But it is her handling of sexual intimacy that makes this novel stand out. Wren is a virgin at the start of the novel and the ways in which Myracle traces her discovery of desire, her anxiety around having sex, the accompanying vulnerability it elicits, and her subsequent enjoyment of the act itself is both beautiful and remarkably realistic.  The emphasis on communication, trust, and mutual satisfaction makes this novel all the more appealing and important for young teens (male and female alike) to read.  Continue reading Beyond Forever: Female Desire and Empowerment in YA Lit

Ruta Sepetys: Up Close and Personal

Let me start by saying that Ruta Sepetys is a spectacular speaker. As in mind blowing, jaw Ruta Sepetysdropping, side splitting, hands down one-of-the-best-visiting-authors-in-the-world good.  If you get the chance to book her at your library, do so! We had the great fortune to have her as our visiting author last week and she enchanted teachers, students, and parents alike with her remarkable stories.

Ruta started her adult life as a failed opera singer (her words, not mine!), a fact that led her to work behind the scenes in the music industry for 22 years. She came to writing later in life, although her interest in stories manifested itself in all of her many previous endeavors. Indeed, what makes her such an engaging speaker is her own personal narrative. From working on the Halo games to helping singers craft their stories for American Idol to managing well known bands, Ruta has consistently forged her own path and collected countless stories along the way.

out of the easyFans of her two books, Between Shades of Gray (2012 Morris Award Finalist) and Out of the Easy (2014 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults), will be particularly interested in how she came to write both novels. An avid researcher, Ruta immerses herself in the historical world she is writing about in order to truly experience the atmosphere she describes so evocatively in both her books. This devotion (dare I say obsession?) with authenticity has led her to be locked up in a WWII-era train car, as well as an overnight stay in a simulated Soviet prison ending in rather disastrous results (a story best heard in person).  Undaunted, Ruta has since schmoozed with the Mafia, visited once glamorous brothels in New Orleans, and even explored a sunken cruise ship replete with possible treasures.

What struck me most about my time spent with Ruta is her extraordinary graciousness. Every single minute of the day, she was focused on being open and available to her admittedly avid fans. She signed books every single day, took numerous selfies with the students, and responded to the many subsequent emails that kids wrote sharing their stories, their secrets, and their aspirations. And within it all, she also took the time to answer a few of my questions for the Hub.  Thank you, Ruta, for your inspiring visit, your commitment to teen readers, and for your lovely books.

Why are you drawn to writing historical fiction?

I’m drawn to secrets and history is full of them. Through characters and narrative, statistics and reported facts suddenly become human and we absorb history in a lasting way. Continue reading Ruta Sepetys: Up Close and Personal

Where is the Love?: A Sci-Fi Valentine’s Day Special

Photo by Flickr user puuikibeach

Science fiction doesn’t normally conjure images of passionate embraces or longing looks.  It’s more often associated with deep space adventures or hypothetical quandaries.  Of course, there’s the famous sci-fi couples of TV and moviedom–Han Solo and Leia, Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, Adama and Roslin, Captain Kirk and half the universe–but epic love stories in sci-fi novels are fewer and farther between.  Perhaps this is because we can project how societies, relationships, families, and sexuality might evolve, but it’s hard to imagine a different way to love.  As a hardcore sci-fi nerd with a secret penchant for rom-coms, I thought I’d compile a list of some of the best and most recent sci-fi books that explore the enduring power of love.  More specifically, books where romance is at the beating heart of the story and not a sidelined note on the periphery.

I’ll start with one of my personal favorites from last year, Will McIntosh’s Love Minus Eighty (RUSA’s Best Science Fiction Pick of 2013).  Set in the 22nd century, the book explores in vivid and believable detail, the vagaries of fate, the long dark days of heartbreak, and the compromises and conditions of love. Love Minus Eighty follows multiple relationships but the heart of the novel is the improbable yet utterly delightful love affair between an impoverished musician, Rob, and the woman he accidentally killed.  Her death is not final as she’s placed into a cryogenic dating facility and becomes a “bridesicle” waiting for a wealthy man to rescue her. Rob’s decision to stop at nothing to be with her provides not only a multitude of entertaining plot twists but also a passionate love affair to rival any romance book. Continue reading Where is the Love?: A Sci-Fi Valentine’s Day Special

Celebrating the Lunar New Year: Books About the Vietnamese Diaspora

lunar_new_year_credit_kennymatic
photo by flickr user kennymatic

Chúc Mừng Năm Má»›i!  Or Happy Lunar New Year!  Today marks the beginning of Tết â€”the most important Vietnamese holiday of the year.  As the child of a Vietnamese mother and an American father, I have fond memories of this time of year.  The red envelopes full of money, the bustle of families coming together, the sticky sweet smell of incense, heaps of steaming food, all accompanied by the sound of fireworks.  Growing up mixed race, it was one of the few times a year where I got a glimpse of my mother’s culture and the lives she and my extended family once lived before the Vietnam War made refugees and immigrants of them all.  As such, Tet sometimes seemed to be both a celebration of things past as well as the hope of things better to come.  Both buoyant and bittersweet, the holiday is symbolic of the ways in which immigrant communities across America weave the old in with the new creating patterns inspired by tales of survival, loss, and the constant dreams of a better life.

As I thought about which books to include in this post, I realized I wanted to highlight books that spoke to this balance of past and present, of love and loss, of hope and despair.  All the books below explore the Vietnamese immigrant experience and will hopefully help readers get a glimpse into the lives of the people in this community.

inside_out_back_againFor younger teens and tweens, two novels in verse that complement each other beautifully are Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg.   Inside Out and Back Again, a National Book Award Winner, follows ten-year-old Hà  as she and her family flee from Vietnam after Saigon falls and find themselves in Alabama.  The novel unfolds in a series of vignettes that capture the beauty of Vietnam, the utter foreignness of America, and the moments of beauty in between.

Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces  (2010 Best Book for Young Adults) recounts the life of a refugee child, in this case a 12-year-old mixed race boy named Matt who after being airlifted out of Vietnam is adopted by an loving American family.  His memories of war haunt him as they do Hà  in Inside Out and Back Again, although Matt is more alone in his grief as his Vietnamese mother and brother were left behind.  He must grapple with both the loss of his family , as well as the challenges of fitting into a world that is at times hostile to his presence.  The combination of minimalist prose, strong imagery, and a compelling main character makes this a wonderful read. Continue reading Celebrating the Lunar New Year: Books About the Vietnamese Diaspora

Morris Award Finalist: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Belle EpoqueAs a fan of both Emile Zola and Paris at the turn-of-the-century, I was very excited to read Elizabeth Ross’ debut novel Belle Epoque based on Zola’s short story “Les Repoussoirs.”  Zola’s story briefly outlines how one particularly unsavory businessman opens an agency that rents out unattractive lower-class women to attractive upper-class ones in order to highlight the latter’s beauty.  Near the end of Emile Zola’s story, the narrator states: “I don’t know if you can realize what it is like to be a foil; they have their joys and public triumphs but they also have their very private sorrows.”  In many ways, this one sentence is at the heart of Ross’s novel as she explores with nuance and depth the complex internal lives of these women acting as foils to more beautiful women.

Belle Epoque primarily focuses on the story of Maude Pichon, a poor young girl who has run away from an arranged marriage to find her fortune in the City of Lights.  She soon discovers that life is not as easy as imagined in Paris for a plain woman with few prospects.  Hungry and desperate, she answers an ad looking for young women for “undemanding work”, as she soon finds out the work may be undemanding physically but it is emotionally taxing.  Although not ugly, Maude is deemed plain enough to serve the purposes of the Countess Dubern who needs a suitable companion for her willful and beautiful daughter Isabelle.  Maude’s interactions with the Dubern family form the basis of the story set against the sumptuous backdrop of Paris in the 1890s.

Continue reading Morris Award Finalist: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Paradigm-shifting Sci-fi for National Science Fiction Day

Universe in My Hand
Image courtesy of flickr user Lauro Roger McAllister

It’s National Science Fiction Day!  A day to pause and give thanks for the genre that offers us an infinity of futures to inhabit, if only for the space of a novel.  It’s also the time of year when I like to ponder why I find science fiction so captivating.  Like many fans, it’s partly because I love immersing myself in a sense of possibility: these are civilizations that could happen, interstellar events that may well unfold, alien life yet to be encountered, worlds upon worlds waiting to be discovered (or explored or exploited or misunderstood).  However, I think my great love for this genre largely lies in its ability to reframe how I perceive the world.   Reading the great sci-fi classics in high school introduced me to an astonishing array of philosophical concepts and conundrums that shook up my belief systems.  Modern sci-fi continues to do the same for me some twenty years later.  So, in honor of National Science Fiction Day, here are five titles that will change the way you see the world.

Let me begin with Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation Trilogy, a particularly apt pick given that National Science Fiction Day falls on his chosen birthday.  The series won the Hugo Award for best all-time series (deservedly so) and is inspired by Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  What sets the trilogy apart from so many other series is the scope of its ambition.  Asimov writes of the decline of the Galactic Empire and the forces at play to preserve its knowledge and help bring about the rise of another empire.  Sound dry?  It’s not!  You’ll be swept up by the fascinating ebb and flow of power and politics and by the series end, be asking yourself profound questions about history, the human condition, and the cyclical nature of civilizations.

Continue reading Paradigm-shifting Sci-fi for National Science Fiction Day