Video Messages

I’m not a big video watcher. If given the choice, such as with news stories online, I prefer to read the article.

Maybe it’s so that I can skim, maybe so I can interpret the story for myself instead of having the newscaster do that, and maybe just because reading feels more private whereas turning on a video immediately attracts the attention of my children.

But I use video a lot when I teach. It’s such a powerful medium, hitting us with both sight and sound, able to add color and images and music to words.

With some scenes in my novel, I’ve been thinking how much easier they would be to show in a movie. If you want tension in a movie, you have lighting you can dim, sets you can creepify, music you can make ominous, glimpses you can give of movement in the shadows. In the novel, I have to do all that with nothing but words.

Last week my sister-in-law shared a video message from our church on her blog, which got me thinking about videos as rhetoric rather than just storytelling. And yesterday I stumbled across this one below that appeals so well to my personality.

I love her message of individuality within religion, of how she says she thought God wanted her to be a certain way and then she realized she “totally made that up.” And I love the way it’s paired with a green bird on her finger, a painting of a female matador, and all these other visual glimpses of the unique individual she is.

If I were to create a video expressing my perspective on being a Latter-day Saint (LDS), or Mormon, I’d want it to be a lot like this. (Except different, obviously, since the point here is uniqueness.) And I’d want to share it not just with those who aren’t Mormon but with other Mormon women too.

Sometimes we do get wrong ideas, interpreting words the wrong way. Sometimes we get stuck by those wrong ideas, like the LDS women I sometimes meet who feel like they “can’t” or “shouldn’t” have their own pursuits, etc. Sometimes the simple yet powerful medium of video is perfect for providing new perception.

But it’s also great for someone like me who teaches two evenings a week and writes novels at home during the day, trying to balance my own ambitions with raising young kids. The message I take from the video is reassurance that I’m okay.

What video messages have you seen that used the medium well? When do you think the audio and visual components of video are necessary to help words mean more?

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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.]

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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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Identity Stories

Another incredible session that I attended at the TYCA-West conference Friday and Saturday was Sherry Rankins-Robertson and Duane Roen’s “Writing about Family History in the Basic Writing Classroom.”

What a cool idea!

Especially when Sherry described to us that “family” could mean so many things. If your high school football team felt like a family to you, you could write about that. If your family is losing health insurance right now, you could write arguments about health reform.Chris and Silva Wedding

I have a student this semester writing about his brother-in-law’s battle with Friedreich’s Ataxia, and it’s been incredible to read the comments from his other family members and friends responding to the conversation that’s been opened for them through this writing project.

I think Sherry and Duane have hit on something vital, which is that the more our writing means to us, the more invested we will be in the presentation of it. I love it when students choose topics they are passionate about, and I think using the idea of “family” as a way of centering them is valuable.

For me, family history stories have shaped me so much as a person that they’ve taught me the value of all of our stories and voices.

The couple pictured here are my great-great grandparents, Silva and Chris. Silva was orphaned as a teenager, and taken in by Chris’s parents, and then Chris had to leave her for three years right after their honeymoon, and came home to find he had a three-year-old daughter. Incredible! And sometimes I think, if my great-great grandmother could endure that—the loss of her parents, then raising a baby and toddler alone—I have zero things to complain about.

Willard Huish

The soldier is my great grandfather Willard. He fought in France in World War I. A bullet went all the way through his chest, and he was left for dead on the battlefield. My great grandmother Martha, his sweetheart back home in Arizona, didn’t hear from him for over a month. It turned out the bullet had pierced a hole in his lungs. Air was coming out his back. But Willard soon came home and married Martha. He attributed his survival to God watching out for him, and I often think of that too, realizing that if God could pull Willard through that, He can cause much simpler miracles in my life.

There are so many other stories like these in my family, and they have all shaped my identity. I always had their genes in my DNA, but now I have their stories in my head, and I think, “We are the kind of people who persevere, who do what needs to be done, who find ways to survive and be happy and triumph over adversity. We are not the kind of people who give up.”

Stories mean those kinds of things, and I think that allowing students to pursue issues that matter to their family—whatever definition of family they choose to use—would allow writing to be not only meaningful but identity-building as well.

What stories have shaped you? Funny ones? Serious ones? Embarrassing ones? Your own stories or stories of the people who are important to you? Share a story in the comments if you have a minute!

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