Summer reading: 3 YA heroines who rule the world

While on vacation for a month, I read three absolutely incredible Young Adult books, all starring kick-ass heroines. I’m dying to tell you about them.

Besides Hunger Games, these three stories are the first YA books I’ve read since starting Reel Girl.

Because my three daughters are ages 3 – 9, and because I’m writing a Middle Grade novel, I’ve mostly stayed away from Young Adult books. I don’t have the time to read everything I’d like to (and I really enjoy reading books intended for 43 year olds as well!) But because I have never trusted the rating system of kids’ media– what is deemed “acceptable” or “good” for children and what is not– I decided to venture into YA territory on my own.

Here are my reviews:

Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce

This book is gripping from start to finish. The story follows an intrepid and extremely likeable heroine, Daine, as she discovers her power and uses her magic to save her world. Daine starts out fearing her mysterious skills, her “difference,” but under the guidance of a mentor and a new community of friends and allies, she leans how to wield and tame her wild magic.

The only thing in this whole book that I feel could be inappropriate for young kids is a reference to Daine’s mom being raped. That reference describes bandits who murdered her mother and reads something like, “They would have passed by the house but my mother was pretty.” Otherwise, there is no sex in this book. I gave it to my almost nine year old daughter to read, and she loves it.

Like most girl-centered books for kids, this is a feminist story within the context of the patriarchy: it’s a narrative about the rare women who achieve, for example, who are able to become knights. There is more than one powerful female, which is great, but as usual, while reading, I longed for a magical world gender equality simply exists.

I don’t like this cover much. Daine looks naked and the image does nothing to communicate the magic or power of the book.

Wild Magic is mysterious and beautiful story.

Reel Girl rates Wild Magic ***HHH***

Graceling by Krsitin Cashore

This is my favorite of the three books I read. I could not put it down. The villain is one of the scariest and most compelling bad guys who I’ve ever read about.

This book is violent. Katsa, the heroine, like many in her land, is born with a “grace,” a special talent. Her particular talent is killing. Katsa’s grace is exploited by a power-hungry king who she must serve.

Graceling, like Wild Magic, is the story of how the heroine discovers the true meaning of her magic, how to own it and use it for good.

Though I adored this book, I don’t recommend it for Middle Grade readers. I don’t mind the violence. I’ve blogged about violence in kids’ media quite a bit but to quickly recap: Narratives are metaphors, magnifications of moments that, if successful, allow the reader to experience intense emotions.

Narratives raise the stakes so that experience can happen. We’ve all felt like we were “being attacked” or that “the world was caving in.” Narratives show us that actually happening. The story of David and Goliath is a metaphor, so  much so that it’s become part of our language; it’s much more than a story of murder.

In the same vein, to the individual, cleaning out a closet can be a monumental task. We are all the heroes of our own lives. To communicate how huge and overwhelming something so mundane really feels, you don’t write about someone cleaning her closet, you write about Psyche sorting seeds as a matter of life and death.

So this is why I don’t mind violence at all, our psyches are intense, as are the emotions of little kids (and grown-ups.) A good and successful narrative depicts that.

Sex, on the other hand, I mind a lot. I don’t think kids should read about sex before they are ready to, and Graceling is an intensely sexual tale. It’s really a love story between Katsa and another graceling, Po. I love Po. Love him!  His relationship with Katsa is so great because he is in awe of her power. He helps her to see it and develop it.

On some level, I suppose a little kid could read this story and totally miss the love affair, but I don’t recommend that. It would be leaving out so much. There are also references in the book to incest, more obtuse than the love story, but without getting that aspect of the tale, the reader misses how creepy the villain is.

Reel Girl rates Graceling ***HHH*** (not for MG Readers!)

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Wow, I wish this book was around when I was a kid.

Gemma Doyle is another heroine who fears her magic. This story, like the other two, shows how she comes to understand her power and use it. I loved reading about the secret society of powerful women (the Order) and the power they wield. Also, the setting is a boarding schools for girls in the Victorian Era. How can you resist that?

This book is also the story of an intense and complex mother-daughter relationship, something most teens can relate to.

Even more so than Wild Magic or Graceling, this book is very much about females struggling within the patriarchy. Again, the conflict is very well done, but also again, I long for kids to just be able to see females being strong without claiming the right to be as strong as boys. Can you imagine boys proudly claiming the reverse? It’s patronizing.

There is sex in this book. I don’t recommend it for MG readers.

I hate this cover. At best, we have the tired patriarchy/ corset metaphor; at worst, a “bodice-ripper.” Ugh.

Reel Girl rates A Great and Terrible Beauty ***HHH*** (one more time, not for MG readers!)

Erica Jong on her new paperback, pornography, and princesses

Sugar In My Bowl, an anthology of women writing about sex, edited by Erica Jong, will be released in paperback on June 26.

Critics have called the collection a “fierce and refreshingly frank collection of personal essays, short fiction and cartoons celebrating female desire…A smart, scrumptiously sexy romp of a read.” (Read more reviews here.) My short story, “Light Me Up,” is included in the anthology along with essays and fiction by 28 other writers.

Erica Jong talks to Reel Girl about Sugar In My Bowl:

Why did you create this anthology?

I think women have more diverse responses to sexuality than is usually known. And I wanted the opportunity to show a full range of response.

How did you choose the writers?

Notice that the anthology is almost equally divided between well-known writers and writers who are published for the first time. It was wonderful to find writers, like you, who had not been published before and to pair them with well-known writers like Eve Ensler and Fay Weldon.

When the hardcover came out last summer, in a controversial essay for the New York Times, you wrote that after putting Sugar In My Bowl together, you wondered if younger women wanted to give up sex. You worried that the younger writers in the anthology seemed obsessed with marriage and monogamy. I admit I am obsessed with monogamy! In part because in so much fiction, the woman’s story just stops when she marries.

For women of my generation– I’m 43, Gen X– because of a lot of taboo busting by yours, being single and sleeping around was pretty safe and normal. At least if you lived in New York or San Francisco and carried condoms. It wasn’t radical to be promiscuous, it was expected. But picking just one guy to love and lust for, committing to him, having a baby with him– that is fucking terrifying. And not because it’s a novelty. I think that our generation, and those after us, see marriage more clearly for what it is: high-risk behavior.

We don’t need men to be our breadwinners or to provide social acceptance for us, so why do we still marry? Why do we, literally, put all our eggs in one basket? I think because we’re brave romantics.

Do you think that women can be obsessed with monogamy and sex? Does it have to be an either/ or situation?

I have also been concerned that the women’s story stops with marriage. In our time, the women’s story sometimes stops with divorce. People live much longer today and have many different adventures in their lives. Many of them marry several times. We don’t have women’s books that reflect this yet.

I think we get married to make a statement that this is my person, and we are determined to make things work. That sort of coupling seems essential for both straight and gay people. It’s a way of saying, here I stand. And this is my partner.

Certainly monogamy and sex can go together. For many people, monogamy is far more satisfying than zipless fuck. You have to know another person’s body to really have great sex. That kind of knowing may come with monogamy.

In your NYT Op-Ed you also wrote:

“The Internet obliges by offering simulated sex without intimacy, without identity and without fear of infection. Risky behavior can be devoid of risk — unless of course you use your real name and are an elected official. Not only did we fail to corrupt our daughters, but we gave them a sterile way to have sex, electronically. Clearly the lure of Internet sex is the lack of involvement. We want to keep the chaos of sex trapped in a device we think we can control.”

I totally agree with this, and it is something I wrote my story about, too. Porn and internet sex are actually the “safest” sex around.

What do you think about the future of sex as far as the promulgation of pornography? How do you talk about its negative effects without being labeled and misunderstood as an anti-sex prude?

Electronic sex is sterilized sex. It offers no risk. It is sanitized. Real sex with a partner is the opposite. Pornography has a very utilitarian function. It is specifically for getting you off, hence its predictability. Sexual literature, on the contrary, is surprising. It doesn’t just show sexual acts, but the feelings behind them. I’m all for sexual literature and kind of bored by strict pornography. What interests me in writing is the human brain revealed. Pornography does not reveal feelings. It is rather a utilitarian form for masturbation.

Author Peggy Orenstein also addresses this flip, when pro-sex is framed as anti-sex and vice versa, in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Here’s what she wrote about the sexualization of girls:

“Let me be clear here: I object– strenuously– to the sexualization of girls but not necessarily to girls having sex. I expect and want my daughter to have a healthy, joyous erotic life before marriage. Long, long, long before marriage. I do, however, want her to understand why she’s doing it: not for someone else’s enjoyment, not to keep a boyfriend from leaving, not because everyone else is. I want her to explore and understand her body’s responses, her own pleasure, her own desire. I want her to be able to express her needs in a relationship, to say no when she needs to, to value reciprocity, and to experience true intimacy. The virgin/ whore cycle of the pop princesses, like so much of the girlie girl culture, pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to view self-objectification as a feminist rite of passage.”

She goes on label this difference sexualizing versus sexuality. What do you think of that distinction?

I agree with Peggy Orenstein’s wishes for her daughter. I am appalled at the idea that young women give blowjobs without experiencing pleasure themselves. They are servicing men rather than experiencing eroticism themselves. I also agree that women should write their own sexual stories. We are so much more imaginative than men have supposed. We can make our sexuality even more various through our imaginations. My anthology is a first attempt to show how imaginative women can be.

I view the pop princesses as sanitized rather than erotic. Why are we attempting to claim that all women must be princesses? Isn’t that another attempt to sanitize sex?

It seems to me that the best way to combat the dominance of limited expressions of sexuality is for more women to write their own stories.

For thousands of years women have existed in a world dominated by narratives created by men.

I love that you put together an anthology about sex by women writers and mixed fiction with non-fiction. Why did you choose to include both genres?

The line between fiction and non-fiction has blurred in our age. Memoir bleeds into fiction, and fiction bleeds into memoir. What is important about a story is that it moves you. Not what genre you label it.

Do you have plans for more anthologies?

I would love to do another anthology of women’s writing. I was disappointed that I didn’t get more sexual diversity and ethnic diversity. It was not for lack of trying. I would like to do an anthology with more lesbian women’s experiences, and a wider range of ethnicities.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel about Isadora Wing as a grandmother.

Order Sugar In My Bowl here.

I’m a fan of ‘Girls’ on HBO

I finally saw the much hyped ‘Girls,’ and I’ve got to say: believe that hype.

I was riveted. I’m also totally impressed that Lena Dunham in twenty-five years old and she is the writer, producer, and star of the show.

I’ve read criticism about the all white foursome and agree completely. There should be women of color on the show. Not just for some kind of cosmetic diversity. By leaving out women of color, the show is missing out on an important part of depicting being young, struggling, and twentysomething in NYC. That is my only negative so far.

Looking forward to watching more and reporting back.

‘Girls’ is for adults, not girls. Reel Girl rates it ***HH***

Howl’s Moving Castle: the book! ***HHH***

I have seen the excellent Miyazaki movie “Howl’s Moving Castle” starring the intrepid Sophie, but I never realized that the film was based on a book. My daughter came home with it yesterday afternoon; her Granny bought it for her. Here she is this morning. This picture tells me all I need to know.

Believe the hype: ‘The Hunger Games’ is amazing

I just saw it. LOVED it! The acting is so great. It is perfectly cast from Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss to Wes Bentley as the gamemaker to Donald Sutherland as President Snow.

I was concerned that Hollywood would mess up the book somehow, but I was so impressed with this adaptation. Here are some aspects of the movie that I was especially grateful for:

Hollywood does not sexualize Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in any way: When I was reading the book and came across certain scenes, I was sure this would happen.  When Katniss strips down before she meets her stylist, Cinna (another perfect casting, played by Lenny Kravitz) I thought to myself: Here’s where they’re going to show her naked. But they didn’t. Not even a bare shouldered camera shot to hint at nudity. In that particular scene, she’s shown wearing a hospital gown. In the book, where a female tribute traces Katniss’s lips with her knife, I thought: In the movie, there’s going to be some kind of S & M lesbian vibe going on. Negative thoughts, I know, but so many great books have been ruined on the screen. Turns out, in the movie this knife scene is only frightening.

They are an equal number of male and female tributes: A male and female are chosen from each district.  I thought about this because when I get upset about the lack of females in Hollywood roles, I get comments all the time like: Do you want equal rights in drafting? Do you want equal rights for characters who play dumb people? Yes and yes. I’m against drafting, but also against men being drafted and not women. As far as men playing more dumb people (I just got this comment again in response to my criticism about the lack of female characters in the upcoming, animated “Pirates!”) I don’t want females to be only portrayed as smart, brave heroines. Women are no better than men. I want women portrayed as the complex characters that they are. In movies, often different character traits get assigned to different characters. I want women to get to play all the parts. I want women to exist. In “The Hunger Games” females span the spectrum: they are lethal, kind, cruel, weak, brave, shy, serious, superficial and complicated.

There is no mention in the movie that Katniss is the exception of her gender: So often when you see a female protagonist who you could call a feminist, she is portrayed as the exception of her gender. You’ll see her surrounded by males or even see her dressed up as a male, Mulan style. I don’t mind this once in a while, but it happens too often. Never in “The Hunger Games” does any character say that Katniss can fight as well as a boy, is as smart as a boy, acts like a boy, or can do anything a boy can. No character reacts to her skill or bravery with: “Wow, a girl can shoot!” In this way, “The Hunger Games” breaks free of Hollywood’s gender matrix to create a truly feminist movie.

Females work together to save each other: It is so rare in Hollywood to get to see two females in an action adventure movie act bravely in order to save each other. The scenes with Katniss and Rue were my favorite in the book and my favorite in the movie. (Part of what is so great about these scenes is also the lethal Tracker Jackers, genetically engineered wasps whose poison stings make the victim go mad with hallucinations before she dies.)

Besides my own personal feminist take on everything, this is such a great movie. All of the acting was impressive. I’d read the book so I knew what was going to happen, and I was still on the edge of my seat. The filming was engrossing, it was done with lots of close camera shots; everything seemed so close and real, it was terrifying. I loved the scenery, watching how the Capital was depicted as well as the Districts and the arena. The whole commentary on reality TV and selling out to please the crowd is well communicated. Hollywood added just a little more perspective from the Gamemakers than is in the book, and I thought those scenes were also really well done. If you’re concerned about violence, the movie is not gory. Also, please remember that violence in the imaginary world is metaphorical. Don’t take that metaphor away from females. Katniss shows us how to be a survivor without losing your soul, how to play to win but keep your morals. That’s a universal, human lesson. Katniss is a great heroine,  a modern day Artemis. I can’t wait for the next two movies.

Reel Girls rates “The Hunger Games” ***HHH*** (I’m replacing Gs for Girlpower with H for Heroine in Reel Girls’ rating system. Girlpower seems over used and to have lost its meaning to me; I’ll change it throughout Reel Girl when I get a chance)

Girl gone missing: Where is Katniss on ‘The Hunger Games’ movie poster?

Here’s the movie poster:

Here’s the book cover:

At least the book isn’t by S. Collins, right? I suppose we should be grateful for that.

According to Google images, there are other movie posters that show the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, but I haven’t seen one anywhere around the Bay Area. Have you? Please let me know if you do see one and even better, send me a photo.

According to the Wall Street Journal: The publisher, Scholastic, considered dozens of cover designs, including portraits of Katniss, before settling on a more ‘iconic’ image of a bird pendant that plays a role in the story.

Lion’s Gate is hopeful that in spite of the female protagonist, males will go see “The Hunger Games:”

“Set in a dystopian future, “The Hunger Games” centers on Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who is called upon to fight 23 other teens to the death in a twisted annual survival competition that is televised to the nation of Panem. The quick pace, strong characters and blood sport of author Suzanne Collins’s trilogy helped attract a robust male readership.”

In some ways, I think that the marketing strategy is great news, because they are not playing up the romance to attract females to the movie.

“They’ve taken away the love story and focused on the hero, who, by virtue of her altruism and fire, is going to stand up against this situation,” says Vincent Bruzzese, president of Ipsos MediaCT’s Motion Picture Group, which does market research for movie studios and filmmakers. “What they are doing is marketing the archetypal themes that are gender-neutral.”

If “gender neutral” means not playing up the love story to attract females, I’m all for that.

Jezebel posts: “Maybe, though, it’d be encouraging to see a movie with a dominant female lead transcend the demographic corrals studio analysts have split us all into.”

Absolutely! Moving past those limited “demographic corrals” would be great. If I have to give up Katniss on the movie poster, I suppose that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I have high expectations for this movie.

I’m half way through the book and I love it. Katniss is smart, cool, complex, beautiful and a total bad ass. She is not a Token Feisty. In the narrative, she is never referred to as unusual or an exception of her gender because of she’s brave and skillful. I’ve continually asked on this blog if there are imaginary worlds where sexism doesn’t exist. Though Panem is a dystopia, this may be it.

I do look forward to the day when a female protagonist can show up on her own poster or book cover without scaring boys away.

Also, while I understand the marketing strategy for “The Hunger Games” it’s unacceptable for the exact same kind of invisible female sexism have such a powerful influence on movies for little kids. Parents should not let five year old boys have the power to make five year old girls invisible. And this isn’t really about five year old boys anyway, but their parents. It’s parents who buy books, buy movie tickets, and buy toys. It’s absurd for movie posters for kids to continuously picture no girls at all or girls on the sidelines as do almost all of the children’s movies in 2011. Just because adults live is a sexist world doesn’t mean our kids have to. At the very least, adults should be trying much harder to present the next generation with imaginary worlds where females are not a tiny minority. Girls are, after all, half of the kid population. It’s time for Hollywood to recognize that.

Long live Lyra Silvertongue and Serafina Pekkala

I finally finished The Golden Compass. This books features a couple of the most excellent female characters that I have ever read about. Lyra kicks ass. So does the witch queen, Serafina Pekkala.

About half way through the book, I posted on how all of the male characters were annoying me somewhat. Lyra was appearing to be too much of a Token Feisty for me, the lone female allowed to interact with several sexist groups: the Oxford scholars, the gyptians, and the bear community where the males are polygamists. Frustrated, I posted: Are there imaginary worlds where sexism doesn’t exist? Mrs. Coulter, the evil mother character, is powerful but she was also used to show how she was the exception to the other females in the story. It just irritates me that so often, when kids finally get to see a girl being brave, it’s woven into the narrative how she’s the exception of her gender.

But two things changed for me as a I read along to make me a die hard fan of The Golden Compass. The first is I absolutely fell in love Iorek Byrinson, the armored bear character. He’s male of course, but once he came on the scene, the book really came alive for me, and it kept getting better after that. Then came the witches. The witch clans are all female, magical, mysterious, and powerful.

While flying to the armored bear’s palace in a balloon through a starry, cold winter night guided by the witch queen, Lyra ask her: “Are there men witches, or only women?” Here is Serafina’s response:

There are men who serve us, like the consul at Trollesund. And there are men we take for lovers or husbands. You are so young, Lyra, too young to understand this, but I shall tell you anyway and you’ll understand later: men pass in front of our eyes like butterflies. creatures of a brief season. We love them; they are brave, powerful, beautiful, clever; and they die almost at once. They die so soon that our hearts are continually racked with pain. We bear their children who are witches if they are female, human if not; and then in a blink of an eye they are gone, felled, slain, lost. Our sons too. When a little boy is growing, he thinks he is immortal. His mother knows he isn’t. each time become more painful until finally your heart is broken. Perhaps that is when Yambe-Akka coems for you. She is older than the tundra.  Perhaps for her, witches lives are as brief as men’s are to us.

Wow, how’s that for an alternate narrative? Clearly, Serafina Pekkala needs her own series. And I no longer mind polygamous bears when kids get to see females in power too.

As you read this book, the writing gets better and better until the end (not the movie ending, the book ending; they are different) which is so dazzling and stunning, it gave me chills.

Reel Girl rates The Golden Compass ***GGG***

The New Networked Feminism: Limbaugh’s Spectacular Social Media Defeat

Am I dreaming or is that an actual headline from a Tom Watson column on Forbes.com?

Here’s how it begins:

So much for post-feminism. The world of networked hurt that descended on the spiteful media enterprise that is Rush Limbaugh revealed a tenacious, super-wired coalition of active feminists prepared at a moment’s notice to blow the lid off sexist attacks or regressive health policy.

When I went to a Peggy Orenstein reading couple weeks ago, she said that never in her career has she seen an online community of feminist activists like there is now. She listed several victories: Komen backtracking on its policy to exclude Planned Parenthood from fundng, LEGO agreeing to meet with activist groups, and JC Penney taking its sexist T-shirts of the shelves.

I also think that the strong, negative internet/ media response also played a role in Penn State finally reacting to the sexual abuse that it had ignored for so long.

Feminist Kate Harding is quoted on Forbes:

When your brand’s Facebook wall is overtaken by feminist outrage, you can’t just write it off as a few man-hating cranks and continue on as usual.

This is just what happened when Reel Girl, Pigtail Pals, and others complained about a sexist ad from ChapStick. We complained on the company’s Facebook page and ChapStick deleted our comments when its own ad copy invited us to “be heard.” Several women took screen shots of their comments before their deletion, and I blogged about ChapStick’s removal of them on Reel Girl and SFGate. Jezebel picked up the story, then so did others including Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. When ChapStick’s unethical behavior became known to so many, ChapStick apologized and removed the ad.

“Post-feminism” has always been a bullshit term. One of the most effective ways to keep women in their place is to claim that sexism doesn’t exist. Social media is making it harder to pull off that lie.

Scandinavian girls have more fun

My kids were playing at the park up the street and made friends with a boy and girl who spoke fluent Norwegian. An hour later, my three daughters were in their backyard, splashing around in a hot tub. At some point, I was telling the mom, who is Norwegian and a doctor, about my blog. She said that her daughter is not, and never was, into princesses. She told me she’d noticed how sexist American movies and TV are, and that the media in Norway isn’t like that at all. (“What is going on with this American talk show host and contraception?” she asked. “That would never happen in Norway.”) She started pulling out books and DVDs from her shelves. Not only did most of them include female characters but they were pictured front and center. I bet the reason that her five year old daughter isn’t a “girlie-girl” is because she’s hasn’t been brought up on American media. You’ve probably heard of the Scandinavian Pippi Longstocking, but what about this Norwegian grandmother?

Or this elephant firefighter?

All of her DVDs look like that– the submarines, soldiers, police, and helicopters are female characters. I wish I spoke Norwegian.

“I’m not a feminist,” she told me. “I never had to be before I came to America. It’s so sexist here, maybe I am one now.”