Women’s Lib, Strong Female Characters, and YA Lit

Does it seem to anyone else that feminism, which was meant to be freeing for women, somehow instead became restrictive, limiting our idea of what makes a strong woman?

I feel as though I lack a complete perspective, since I was born after the movement for women’s rights, but I have read The Feminist Mystique and I have read plenty of contemporary literature. It seems to me that somewhere along the way feminism adopted the attitude that we needed to reverse the old hegemony and actually have women be stronger than men and almost hostile toward them. It seems like feminism expected women to reject femininity, because it’s a “weakness,” and also to reject traditionally female pursuits, because they’re “less worthy.”

Similarly, it seems like feminism suggested that wanting to marry or have children made you less of a woman. To really show the world women are equal, we all have to be top executives or top scholars and the female equivalent of confirmed bachelors.


I haven’t actually met any feminists of this degree in real life, but where I do meet them far too often is in the “strong female characters” of YA lit.

Too often, these strong females don’t seem at all female. They seem like what we once criticized men as being: obtuse. They seem emotionally disconnected, leaving the more “pathetic” role of relying on feelings and intuition to the supporting male characters in the book. They seem driven by a single purpose without regard for those around them, because being caring and nurturing are weak feminine traits. They reject the idea of allowing others to help them because a strong woman, apparently, doesn’t believe in team work. And too often, in the end they reject romance and men altogether in favor of careers and independence.

And when a female character in YA lit isn’t written that way, it seems like the character (and by extension, the author) gets criticized.

It frustrates me. I didn’t participate in the movements for Women’s Rights, but if I had, I would have been fighting for all my rights — including the right to be both strong and feminine, to choose both career and children, to have feminine pursuits considered just as worthwhile as traditionally male pursuits. I would have been fighting for the right to be considered an equal partner with my spouse/love — not better than him or stronger than him or more capable than him.

It’s a battle of ideology, and if our characters in literature didn’t win, I worry for our whole sex.

I’m not saying that all female characters are this way. I do read plenty that find ways to overcome the stereotypes. I just worry when the accolades seem to side with the excesses of feminism.

I don’t want to list negative examples here, and I do admit that I still find merit in “feminist” books. I’ve enjoyed many of them; I simply worry about the message it sends when those are the only female characters worth our praise.

Let me instead give an example of the kind of character traits I wish would receive more attention. Last week I finished Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, so it happens to be fresh in my mind, and I think that at least in this area it’s a useful book to consider, regardless of the fantasy elements.  [UPDATE: A comment alerted me to how unclear I was in this paragraph. I would rewrite it without the critical-sounding words “at least” or “regardless” — I simply meant that I don’t intend for the fantasy elements to matter for this discussion except as details of the story. :)]

I want to discuss it without creating spoilers for those who haven’t read it, but I also want to discuss a key element that will definitely spoil it, so watch for the spoiler alert to follow.

Wicked Lovely hinges on the conflicting desires of the two main characters.

Keenan is the Summer King of the fey, but he cannot come into his full power as king until he finds the mortal girl who is meant to rule next to him as Summer Queen. (Right there, you have to love it already, right? They have to share the responsibility, and it will take both of them — a guy and a girl working together — to have full power.)

Aislinn, as it quickly becomes obvious, is the one who is meant to be the Summer Queen. But she is in love with Seth — her mortal boyfriend — and Seth is in love with her. Aislinn is a strong character: she’s been enduring the awful struggle of dealing with Fairy Sight her entire life, able to see all the cruel things faeries do but having to pretend that she doesn’t see them. The last thing she wants is to be their queen. She wants to stay with Seth and go to college.

Still without spoiling too much, here’s what else I love about the setup. Seth and Aislinn help each other. They rely on each other for strength and support. They treat each other as equal partners. Similarly, Keenan has Donia, who is also strong but still feminine and who also helps and supports him. No one is made lesser by being in love. Love actually makes them stronger.


My favorite aspect, though, and where the women’s lib ideas really won me over in this book, is where Aislinn makes the choice we never expect: she chooses to view her role as Queen as a job and continue to love and be with Seth, continue to pursue college. She doesn’t let herself get boxed in by traditional expectations.

I cheered so hard: Yes! Yes! Yes! She stands up for herself and what she wants. She understands that she is the Summer Queen, that it feels right — that it’s her calling, her career — but she doesn’t let that dictate what else she can and can’t have. She chooses also to keep what is most important to her: Seth. And Seth stands by her, because regardless of what feminism may tell us, loyalty in relationships still counts.


To me, the heroines of literature need to be more like that. They need to help us see that relationships are important, that team work is important, that there are always compromises.

I still credit a literature professor of mine for helping me see outside the box as far as career-and-family compromises. He simply mentioned an example of somebody he knew where the husband worked Monday through Thursday and the wife worked on Fridays, so that way they shared the responsibility of being home with the kids. Before then, I had seen the choice as either/or: either I work full time and put my kids in day care, or I stay home full time and sacrifice my own career until they get to school. Because of a literature professor (and I suspect, though I can’t remember for sure, that his comment arose from whatever text we were reading and studying), I looked at my life choices differently, and now I teach two evenings a week while my husband’s home with the kids. We found our compromise.

I don’t believe literature needs to be purposely didactic. I don’t believe it should set out to teach young adults certain lessons about life. But I do appreciate the literature that happens to show out-of-the-box thinking — that reinforces good things, relationships being one of the top good things.

And I certainly don’t think we as a book community should be lauding only the “strong” female characters who shun men and all things feminine.

Just a thought.

What do you think? Is there a perspective I’m missing here? I’d love to hear more thoughts on the subject and more examples of strong heroines that you think get it right. [UPDATE: Here’s a link I just stumbled across to a discussion with Maggie Stiefvater and others about strong characters, if you’re interested. Love what Maggie says about resilience and how real strength is doing what needs to be done, no matter how hard it is.]

Leave a comment!


A Dangerous Post: The Convergence of Religion, Politics, and Literature

What do you think of this post title? I’m only half serious about the “dangerous” part. Yes, there’s the danger of offending somebody when you bring up politics and religion, but I think it all depends on how you do it. So don’t worry! This is just an exploratory post, working off some ideas that have been shuffling around in my head.

See, I can’t get enough of ideas. I’m addicted to complexities. Anything with murky gray areas? Awesome! More to explore!

As a teacher, one of the main things I talk to my students about is embracing complexity. In order to write well, in order to really be persuasive about an issue, you have to cover not only “both” sides but all relevant perspectives. I have to talk my students out of the default binary mode, out of looking at things as either good or bad, white or black, and into exploring the complexities and potential compromises of an issue.

For example, I once had a student who chose propaganda as the topic for her research paper and planned to argue against it, but the more research she did, the more she looked into all the various sides of it, the more she discovered that it wasn’t all bad. In fact, she ended up arguing that propaganda is important for instilling nationalism, which creates unity and solidarity for a country. Yes, there can be some very harmful aspects to propaganda, but by exploring the perspectives she was able to appreciate its complexities and positive aspects, and she wrote a great paper.

This side of good writing — the acknowledgement of multiple perspectives — doesn’t just apply to nonfiction, issue-based writing. In fact, I think it’s at the heart of literature as well, though literature goes about it in more subtle ways.

Literature shows perspectives by showing the complexities of choice, for one thing. Not easy choices, but grueling choices that force us out of binary thinking. So often the heroes of literature are forced to choose not between good and bad but between two complicated alternatives.

Most recently, I thought about this with James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Fairly early in the book, the main character is forced to make a choice between obeying the rules — which he has been made to understand are for the good of the whole, for the preservation of this society they’re in, and aren’t trivial — and saving the lives of two friends. What makes it even more complicated is that he has no idea how to save them, will probably die himself trying, and has to make the decision in twenty seconds.

But despite the complications, as the readers, we say, “Of course he chooses to save their lives. Of course that’s the right decision.” That’s because literature allows us that distance. Literature allows us to be outside of the choice and to see it clearly, in all its complexity. Literature shows us the moral imperative, teaches us when to break a rule in favor of a greater good, and when to obey the rule because the greater good is served by adherence.

Religious texts are the same way, I think. They reinforce the complexity of moral choice in ways that almost seem liberal, when you think about it.

For example, think about Mary. She was an unwed pregnant teenager. I’ve never met a liberal or a conservative who would call that a good thing. And yet Christianity praises Mary for her choice. The New Testament tells us that an angel explained it to Mary, presented her with the information to make the choice, and she agreed to it, probably even realizing that very few people around her would understand.

And then Joseph also chose to go against the conventions of the day. When he found out she was pregnant, he could have stoned her or at least cancelled the engagement. Instead, once an angel explained the complexities of the situation to him, he chose to make the best decision: to stand by Mary, regardless of the ridicule.

Oscar Isaac and Keisha Castle-Hughes in The Nativity Story (2006)

In their particular circumstance, they made the best choice. Will any of us ever be in exactly that circumstance? No. But by reading about theirs, we gain a better understanding of how to grasp complexities and make the best choice possible in our own circumstances.

Over Christmas I heard a beautiful version of the cherry tree carol sung by Anonymous 4 on Performance Today (start at 24:16 to hear it), and it struck me how hard it might have been for Joseph, how many doubts he might have had along the way. It wasn’t the easy choice.

That might be what makes me so passionate about literature: it teaches us to make the right choice, the best choice, over the easy choice. How many heroes in literature have it easy through the story? Not any I can think of.

I just finished reading Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, which is a gorgeous account of a character making the hardest choice of her life and being so so tempted to choose the easy road but having the people she loves explain to her why she should stay, why she should make the harder, better choice.

Literature like that is so important. It’s so important to open our minds to the complexities of the world and fully understand the issues and decisions of our lives, understand that harder is often better.

If I can take one more example from religion, let me bring up the slightly more controversial figure of Eve.

"Eve" by Anna Lea Merritt

I actually believe that Eve knew what she was doing. I believe Eve understood that the choice was between breaking one law or another. She had to do what she did in order for all of humankind to come into existence, and in order to gain knowledge, otherwise she and Adam would have been alone and ignorant in the garden forever.

Whether that story is literal or allegorical, nonfiction or fiction doesn’t matter, so long as we look at the complexities of it and recognize that Eve’s choice was complicated. I believe she made the right choice, the not-so-easy choice. So did Adam when he chose to follow her decision.

Maybe all of this is why I’m such a huge proponent of reading, why I agree with Mark Edmundson who says,

“Literature is, I believe, our best goad toward new beginnings, our best chance for what we might call secular rebirth. . . . In literature there abide major hopes for human renovation.” (from Why Read? 2004)

Similarly, I think we have to look at politics in the same complicated way. A friend of mine sent my husband and me this link to a presentation about the moral mind in relation to politics, and we loved it (up until the ending, which is slightly too ambiguous, but the bulk of the material is still extremely worthwhile). It talks about how both conservative and liberal ideals are necessary for the balance of society. Conservatives encourage stability while liberals encourage change, and society needs both in order to thrive.

Who knew democrats and republicans were good for each other?

In my opinion, the best plan is to learn as much as we can about every perspective. The more you do that, the more you come to understand that almost every perspective has a valid point, and that considering all those points together will almost always make for a better compromise in the end — a better choice.

Various perspectives usually aren’t as incompatible as we assume. I think it’s actually very possible to synthesize multiple viewpoints when we’re willing to be open-minded.

One theory that really helped me understand that synthesis is James Fowler’s six stages of faith. Too often people get stuck in the third or fourth stage. They are either afraid of new ideas and outside influences or they let new ideas and outside influences lead to disillusionment and tension, where they don’t know how to reconcile conflicting viewpoints. What I love about Fowler’s stages are that each becomes more inclusive. At stage five, you recognize that the world is complicated, but you sort of make peace with the complications. You become more tolerant and accepting, more open to considering the perspectives of other people.

And I like to think literature is a major part of that. Literature allows us to explore the complexities of being human in ways that help us reconcile all of it — even the “dangerous” things like religion and politics.

It really is all about how you look at it.

What do you think? How has reading made you more open-minded? What books have especially changed your worldview for the better?

Leave a comment!

YA as Diversity Course?

How cool would it be to fulfill one of your general ed requirements at your community college by taking a course in young adult lit?

That’s what a fellow teacher and I are trying to make happen. SLCC requires every student to take a diversity course, and we’re thinking, “What better way to explore diversity than through literature–particularly YA lit?”

Of course, there’s tons of work still to be done with researching requirements, gauging feasibility, designing the course, submitting it for review, etc, but naturally the first thing I wanted to do was make a list of potential books for the course!

What do you think of these?

American Born ChineseMake LemonadeThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Beyond the diversities of race in these ones, I also like that American Born Chinese is a graphic novel, Make Lemonade is written in verse, and The Absolutely True Diary is journal-style–complete with doodles. So there’s that diversity of style, too. That makes me most certain about these first three choices.

It also helps that American Born Chinese won the Printz award and was a National Book Award finalist, The Absolutely True Diary won the National Book Award, and the sequel to Make Lemonade–True Believer–also won the Printz and was a National Book Award finalist.

True Believer deals with sensitivity toward homosexuality in a very honest way, which is probably part of the reason for the two awards. Since it’s also told in verse, it’s a quick enough read that it might be possible to do Make Lemonade and True Believer together.

Mississippi Trial, 1955

Mississippi Trial, 1955 gives a historical perspective on African American rights issues, and I think historicity is one of the requirements of the course.

The Chosen OneA Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life

The Chosen One is a frightening look at the extremes religion can be taken to, and that makes me a little wary. But of course, I wouldn’t want students to think any of these are representative of a whole race or religion, so maybe this book would provide an opportunity to discuss fictional portrayals of people.

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life is also about religion, among other things, and stars a main character who was adopted and raised as an atheist but meets her birth mother, who is Jewish, and has to decide what meaning that heritage will have in her life.

Those are just the ones that I’ve read. Some others that I want to look into include The Possibilities of Sainthood by Donna Freitas and The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson.

The Possibilities of SainthoodThe Day of the Pelican

What YA books have you read that have enhanced your perspective on the diversity in America? Which would you recommend?

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Graphic Novel Adaptations

Never mind about the Tuesday/Friday schedule for now. I’m having trouble boxing myself in. For example, I wanted to show this cover to everyone without having to wait until Tuesday:


Doesn’t that make you want to pick up this book and read the whole thing? I love the illustration of Lizzy, and it makes me excited to open it and see all the rest of the characters I love! Plus the teen-mag spin with the teasers? Awesome.

This was just one of the many cool and unexpected things I discovered at the TYCA-West (Two Year College Association) conference this weekend. Levia Hayes and Elizabeth Henkel from the College of Southern Nevada gave a presentation entitled, “Comic Books and Visual Literature: Superpower or Kryptonite?” This cover was on their handout, along with a comic-book version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a comic book TEXTBOOK–that is, a textbook about comic books written as a comic book! How would you like that in college?

I’ve read only a few graphic novels, including American Born Chinese (super cool twist at the end!), Shannon’s and Dean’s and Nathan’s Rapunzel’s Revenge, and Holly Black’s The Good Neighbors (book 1), and so my experience with the genre is very limited, but I like the idea of graphic novels, the idea of having to read pictures closely to understand a story, all of that. pride_and_prejudice_3_by_sonny123

Anyhow, all three of those are original stories, not adaptations. This cover for P&P won me over instantly, and I’m excited to encounter a familiar, well-loved novel in a new way. I surfed over to my library website and put it on hold while sitting in the presentation. 

In high school we watched the BBC film rather than reading the book, but how cool would it be for teachers to use several versions–the original novel, the graphic novel, the BBC film, and the Focus Features film–and have students compare and contrast? You wouldn’t even have to show both films in their entirety.

There are, of course, a million other adaptations of P&P, with zombies and everything, but I like the idea of having high school students or college students analyze how the visual format of a comic book impacts the story, maybe falling in between the genres of novel and film.

Has anyone read any graphic novel adaptations of classics or contemporary novels? I’ve heard that Twilight is currently being adapted. Are there others? What are your opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of the genre? (Do I sound like I just got out of a conference? Sorry!)

Literary Merit

TwistedThis blog of mine isn’t about reviewing books, but about questioning the way we read, write, and teach. And not questioning in the sense of finding fault, necessarily, but in the sense of exploration.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I read for Banned Books Week: Laurie Halse Anderson’s 2007 novel Twisted.

On her blog, she gave an update on the challenge in Kentucky, saying that now instead of the book being objected to by parents on the basis of content, it’s being objected to by the superintendent on the basis of literary merit. The class trying to use the book is an AP literature course and so, according to the superintendent, should only be reading books that would be taught in college.


Does anyone else have a hard time wrapping their head around that? I mean, I took an adolescent literature class in college where our “assigned” reading was 30 young adult lit books of our choice. That was the semester I finally got around to reading the Harry Potter series, thanks to that teacher. I think I also read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. So, if they teach young adult lit in college, wouldn’t that mean any YA book would qualify to be taught in an AP class?

And here’s my other thought: Does a book have to be hard to understand in order to be college-level and have literary merit?

Literary merit, to me, is that it shows a side of humanity I might not have considered before and does it in a way that opens my mind to new ideas and new tolerance of people.

This book does that.

I was blown away by how real this protagonist and his family felt. His father is referred to as a grade-A jerk, and yet the reader can tell that there’s more to him than that. He’s never the stereotypical jerk. He’s a father who doesn’t know how to be a father any more than his son knows how to be a “man.” Their relationship is complex, dipping low to points where the son imagines killing his father and then reversing completely, like when Tyler is up on the roof pulling down Christmas lights and his dad comes up the ladder to hand him pliers and experiences vertigo, and Tyler helps him down one shaky step at a time. Without giving away the ending, all I can say is that I teared up twice.

On a different note, I learned new sympathy for all the teenage guys in the world as I experienced through a book what it’s like to have to hide an erection so often. Yeah, this book is real in that sort of raw, uncensored way, too, which might be part of the reason for the challenges, but it’s also part of what gives it merit. It validates the story and experience of adolescence.

Life isn’t neat and tidy, life is raw and uncensored. And a book that will make teenagers think about life in new complex, complicated ways and reconsider people and themselves through new perspectives is a book that deserves to be read and taught.

[UPDATE: I just read Chris Crowe’s September 2001 article in English Journal called “Young Adult Literature: AP and YA?” which defends thought-provoking YA books as potential references for the open-ended question on the AP test and also points out that AP students dissect complex young adult novels with as much fervor as they do classics, pulling ample meaning from both. I’ve excerpted a bit and provided a link in the Quote of the Moment on the right.]