Thursday, March 31, 2011

Intersectionality and Toxic Body Culture


Seems to be the theme of my life.

When I was younger - it was in ridiculous questions, even from activists friends - like "are you a woman first? or a person of color first?" (answer - obviously, both. no hierarchy of oppressions or identities for me, please)

Now in my professional life, it is among my interests - science and humanities, politics and poetry, the global and local. As a parent, it is between my public life as an academic and my personal life as a mother. You get the idea.

In the context of feminism, and progressive politics in general, intersectionality refers to the commitment that we cannot understand, say, gender oppression without also understanding racism, homophobia, able-ism, global politics, etc.

In the context of even this blog - which is usually all about children's and YA literature - it means having to make room for some posts that have to do less with fairy tales and zombies, and more with transnational surrogacy and the representation of marginalized bodies. I could start a whole other blog, I guess, but that too smacks of an artificial separation, a dis-integration of my various identities. I am a children's writer because I am an activist. I am an activist because I am a children's writer. Same goes with all my other identities - parent, academic, physician, daughter, lover of both 'high' and 'low' culture, etc.

Today, the awesome feminist folks at (namely my new colleague and friend Courtney E. Martin - check out her fabulostic TED women talk here)  published a guest blog by me reflecting on issues of intersectionality toxic body culture. In it, I ask the question: is body image a white woman's issue? The answer, of course is no. Embodiment politics is an issue for ALL of us - but, if we don't frame the question of women's bodies in advertising within the context of capitalism, if we don't talk about size AND sexuality/race/ability/etc., if we don't make explicit the connnections between labioplasty in LA and transnational surrogacy in India (both having to do with the medicalization and compartmentalization of women's bodies) - then we risk limiting the scope of the movement, and alienating some from the conversation - at worst, enacting some of the same hierarchies we seek to dismantle in our work.

So I wanted to share this other part of me here. And not keep my selves separate. I wanted to practice the intersectionality I preach.

To read the blog at feministing go here.

To read an excerpt from the blog, and learn more about the Endangered Species conference go here. (image above courtesy of, and the feministing blog was in reaction to recently having presented at that conference) 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Boarding Schools in Kids Literature: Fantasy, or a Good Alterative to Killing Off Parents?

For the last two days, I've been gobbling up e. lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks  (after recently hearing her read during the NYC Teen Author's Festival). And while I can't put it down - its smart prose and witty dialogue earned it a Printz Award and National Book Award Finalist mention -- it's making me wonder:

what's with all the boarding schools in young people's literature?

As a daughter of immigrants, and public school attendee, it wasn't until I went to my (yes, rather elite) East Coast college that I even found out that BOARDING SCHOOLS WERE REAL. It's true. Until I kept meeting alarmingly confident classmates from schools with names like Andover and Exeter and Miss Porter's, I actually thought that boarding schools were a thing of historic or foreign climes - only alive and well in England or Europe. As a naiive public school 17 year old, I actually thought that boarding schools were only something that you read about in books.

And now, that I'm delving into this wild and woolly career of kidlit, I'm beginning to wonder: why ARE there so many boarding schools in books?

Although they do, obviously, still exist in the U.S., surely their representation in YA and MG literature is out of proportion to their actual existence in YA and MG readers' real lives? Think about it - boarding schools are EVERYWHERE:

1. There are magical ones: The classic example being Harry Potter's Hogwarts

2. There are paranormal ones: From The Vampire Academy to Hex Hall
3. There are ones that break you of your phobias (like School of Fear

4. There are ones that are less schools than camps training demigods to, er, fight cyclops and demons of the underworld and stuff like that (see Camp Halfblood in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books)

5. There are ones that are less schools than training facilities for teen virgins learning how to, er, slay killer unicorns: (See Diana Peterfreund's Rampant, etc.)

6. Finally, there are ones that are 'contemporary'/'realistic': well, if contemporary/realistic kids were as breathtakingly smart and witty as Frankie Landau Banks or the characters in John Green's Looking for Alaska.

Why is this? Why so many boarding schools of so many varieties? Options:

a. It's a fantasy: not just the wizards and Olympians, but for authors who didn't attend boarding school, is it some sort of imagined bliss to counteract the years of social humiliation and pep rallies that was our real middle school/high school experiences?

b. It's an Alternative to the Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome: We all know that kid and teen main characters in kidlit must have agency - they must drive the plots of their narratives without pesky things like parents in the way. With that in mind, is boarding school just an easier alternative to killing off old mom and dad before the end of the prologue?

c. School is such an important part of kidlit - boarding school is a way to place that front and center.

While I love so many of of the titles above, I'm a bit curious about the boarding school setting in kidlit, because, while giving kids agency, and focusing on the school experience, what else boarding schools do is effectively erase home life, family, and, yes, parents from the picture. And these seem, to me, such an important part of the growing up experience.

What are your favorite boarding school based books? Why do you think they are such a popular kidlit setting?


Saturday, March 26, 2011

I Think I Love You (But Maybe I Don't): NYC Teen Author Festival

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending one of the all afternoon symposiums at the NYC Teen Author Festival.

It was amazing.

First of all, it was held in the beautiful 42nd Street New York Public Library Building. Next to the Library of Congress in DC, this is one of my all-time favorite buildings. My heart actually starts to beat faster and, depending on my state of sleep deprivation, I actually get a little teary whenever I enter this temple to books. (Oh, and they have a rockin' gift store too - but that's not why I cry - it's a TEMPLE TO BOOKS, PEOPLE!)

Even more amazing than the building (There was a free Jane Austen seminar going on upstairs from the YA festival for goodness sake! A free Jane AUSTEN seminar! *swoon*), were the people present. There were tons of amazing YA authors in the (relatively small) auditorium. Name the author, they were probably there. David Levithan? (who organized and moderated several panels)  - Yep.  Libba Bray post breaking two of her elbows? - Double Yep. (To see a full list of authors and events, you can go to the NYC Teen Author Festival facebook group page here)

My favorite panel by far during the afternoon was called "I Think I Love You (But Maybe I Don’t?) – Writing About Teens in Love." I didn't realize that it would be my favorite because, so far, writing about teens in love is something I don't do that well - although, I do like reading smart love stories (Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson by Levithan and John Green are some of my all time favorites).

Each writer read a piece from a recent novel. Hearing these scenes in their own very smart voices was a real treat, and I became an immediate fan of all four panelists.

Terra Elan McVoy went first, and her steamy love scene in verse from After the Kiss made the whole audience want to take off their collective cardigan and have a long tall drink of something. (or maybe a post-listening smoke). Her love triangle tale told in verse went on the TBR pile immediately.

Emily (or E. as she is known to her readers) Lockhart blew my bedazzled socks off by reading a scene from her latest Ruby Oliver book, Real Live Boyfriends. The scene involved a heartbroken Ruby and a stalwart mailbox who would never leave her side, not like... a boy. (those traitors!) It was fan-USPS-tastic. I couldn't BELIEVE that I was Ruby-uninitiated - a character who likes to talk-talk-talk and live in her head, making quippy remarks about love and snarky observations about life -- the perfect heroine for me. I made quick work of correcting that and am currently loving the first in the series (The Boyfriend List) 

Sarah Mylnowski made vivid the anxiety and awkwardness of 'the first time' - reading a scene from her forthcoming 10 Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have). The protagonist of this book cannot figure out why her boyfriend won't just ask her to the basement already. Does she smell? Does she have garlic breath? Is he nervous about getting on the condom? Can the darned movie REALLY be that interesting? 

Finally, Patrick Ryan read from his Gemini Bites - a tale of twins, one a boy, and one a girl, each possibly in love with the same guy. Oh, yea, who might or might not possibly be a vampire. The scene he read was tender, smart, and hilarious (oh, yes, and rather cardigan-removal-inspiring as well!) - about the male main characters' first romantic encounter with another boy. Well, it's not his first kiss - that was with his best friend, but it felt like kissing two pieces of uncooked macaroni. This 'first' is nothing like that (no macaroni here) - even though he can't get the recurring thought out of his head that 'something gay is about to happen now.'  

I absolutely can't wait to read all these authors - who write with honesty, yes, but more importantly a whole lotta smarts and humor - about teen love. Luckily, I'll have each of their voices in my head as I read their words.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book List: Desi Kidlit Part 2!

I forgot so many wonderful books on my "South Asian Kidlit" books list on Holi, that I thought I'd do a follow-up post. So here's Desi Kidlit Part 2 - even more wonderful MG and YA books by and about South Asian diasporic folks. Keep adding more please readers - we're making a great list!:

1. Salman Rushdie: Haroun and the Sea of Stories 

Many thanks to Sheela Chari for reminding me how much I love this magical, lyrical book, written by Rushdie for his son. It's hard not to read into the novel in light of the fatwa the author long lived under; the evil chupwallahs (silence sellers) want to silence the land of gup (talk) and dry up the magical stream of stories, from which all tales originate. He wrote another kidlit book, Luka and the Fire of Life for his other son - it looks wonderful, though I'm yet to read it!

2. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: The Conch Bearer

Action, adventure and magic combine in this quest fantasy by the author of The Mistress of Spices, One Amazing Thing and Arranged Marriage.

3. Tanuja Desai Hidier: Born Confused

This bhangra-club scene coming of age story is the winner of numerous awards, including the American Library Association BBYA book of the year and the New York Public Library 2003 Book for the Teen Age. Sections of Desai-Hidier's book were also, famously, plagiarized by Kaavya Viswanathan in her book Opal Mehta.

4. Narindher Dhami: Bend it Like Bekham

The book that inspired the fantastic Gurinder Chadha movie! Dhami is also the author of the Bindi Babes series and Sunita's Secret. Her books just got put on my ever-growing to be read pile!

5. Swati Avasthi: Split

This winner of several recent awards - including the 2011 ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults List, and the Cybils 2010 Best Fiction for Young Adults (winner). On my TBR list as well!

6. Mahtab Narsimhan: The Third Eye

This Indian Canadian author's novel is the winner of the 2009 Silver Birch Fiction award. This Indian mythology infused story about loss was followed up by The Deadly Conch.  

7. Sheela Chari: Vanished

I couldn't resist listing my fellow Mixed Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors' forthcoming August 2011 book. Full of Mystery! Intercontinental Intrigue! and Music! It's sure to be as charming as it's author.

I'm sure I'm leaving off plenty of titles still - please, add away in the comments!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Book List: South Asian KidLIt

In honor of Holi, the festive Hindu holiday during which day to day restraints are suspended - and people throw colors and colored waters on one another, I thought I'd do a book list of great Desi (South Asian Diasporic) Kidlit.

Now I make this list fully recognizing that Holi is not a holiday that all South Asians or South Asian diasporic people celebrate, so I make this list with a secular heart - to celebrate Spring, great literature, and a community of writers I have been so honored to meet and read.

I'm listing here only MG and YA novels - there are many, many wonderful picture books out there of course - and I hope readers will list some in the comments! Even among MG and YA, I'm sure I'll forget someone (or many someone's) so please, please, add to the list!

Happy Holi, and Happy Reading!

 1. Mitali Perkins: Bamboo People

I had the honor of interviewing Mitali Perkins for Stories are Good Medicine last year. Bamboo People, a story of two boy soldiers in Burma,  has received many awards including being chosen as an ALA/YALSA Top 10 2011 Novel for Young Adults. Mitali is the author of several other MG and YA novels including Monsoon Summer, Secret Keeper, and Rikshaw Girl.

2. Neesha Meminger: Shine, Coconut Moon
It was an honor to celebrate Neesha Meminger's work on this blogShine, Coconut Moon, a story about growing up Sikh in post 9-11 America, made the Smithsonian's Notable Books for Children List, and was followed by the more recent Jazz in Love.

3. Marina Budhos: Tell Us We're Home 

The story of three teen girls who are the daughters of maids, nannies and housekeepers in a suburban American town, the novel illuminates issues of race, class, immigration, and sexual awakening. Marina is also the author of several other books including the nonfiction Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science ( co-written with her husband, Marc Aronson), which was shortlisted for the LA Times Book Prize in the YA category. (Marina's interview on this blog here)   

4. Sheba Karim: Skunk Girl
High School, dating, hair politics -- Sheba Karim addresses the, well, hairy world of a young Pakistani American teen with wit and a fantastically sassy voice. Two of Sheba's other stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she is currently in New Delhi on a Fullbright Scholarship writing her next book. Her interview on Stories are Good Medicine here.

5. Sarwat Chadda: Dark Goddess 

The follow up to his novel Devil's Kiss (which I talked about on this blog here), Dark Goddess   continues the story of Billi San Greal, half-Pakistani, demon-butt-kicking, modern teen girl Knight Templar. Yowza. Need I say more?

6. Rakesh Satyal: Blue Boy

The first novel for this editor at Harper Collins, who is also on the planning committee for the PEN World Voices Festival, Blue Boy tells the story of Kiran Sharma, a son of immigrants growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio who is having trouble getting the knack of social acceptance either among his classmates or his Indian America friends. That is, until he realizes that perhaps he's a god...  This much lauded book is on my "next to be read" pile beside my bed and I can't wait to start it!

What South Asian diasporic kidlit novel/novelist did I forget? Is your favorite here?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Visitor, and DREAMers Coming Out of the Shadows

In honor of Coming Out of the Shadows Week - a time when young undocumented students have been speaking out about their immigration status - loud, unafraid, and unapologetic - I thought I would write about the film "The Visitor" - which I happened to watch last night. (*spoilers ahead*)

I had been hesitating to watch it since it came out, afraid it would reinvent certain tropes about immigrants being 'exotic' or 'colorful' - 'teaching' white Americans how to get in touch with their 'spiritual' sides with their adorable ethnic ways.

And in some ways, the film did fulfill this expectation. The main character, Walter, is a verkempt white man - a college professor who has taught the same dull class for decades, a man who has lost any joy or spontaneity or music from his life after the death of his wife.

His journey of late in life self discovery is prompted by two young immigrants (eternal optimist Tarek and his cautious girlfriend Zainab) whom he finds living in his never used NYC apartment (because he lives most of the year in Connecticut, land of the beige, of course). And, they teach him to smile, and play the djembe, and essentially suck the marrow out of life.

Despite some spectacular performances by all three aforementioned actors, had the film ended here, I would have been disappointed. It would have fit my expectations - the quirky ethnic person charged with teaching the dull white person to find joy in living. Even the clever parallel between Tarek and Zainab's undocumented immigration status in the US and their status as 'undocumented' squatters in Walter's apartment wouldn't have been enough to rescue me from my cynicism.

But then, the film takes a turn for the real. Tarek, through no fault other than walking around while brown and accented, gets arrested in the NYC subway. And although he's exonerated for his supposed turnstile jumping, he is turned over to the INS and put in an immigration detention center.

I have never seen a fictional representation of the US immigration detention system - although I have had friends who were in fact detained. I have witnessed families struggling to make sense of a system that doesn't make sense. I have taught my narrative, health and social justice class using Breakthrough: Bring Human Rights Home's Restore Fairness video series - a powerful group of interviews highlighting experiences of immigrants in the detention system, including horrible abuses.

The Visitor takes these broader understandings about a broken immigration system and gives it a face. In the way that fiction in fact makes things 'more' real - the film makes particular ideas which otherwise seem overwhelming. Someone who is in this country simply living their lives - even if they are documented, btw - can be suddenly detained, without due process, imprisoned, and perhaps deported forever? It seems like science fiction, or something that happens in other places, not the U.S.

The film also breaks any trope about passive people of color getting rescued by white main characters when it introduces the powerful figure of Tarek's mother - a woman who is undocumented herself, knows no one in NYC, and yet refuses to leave. She knows she cannot enter the detention center and see her son - lest she be detained herself - but she waits outside the building, echoing the resilience of all those other mothers around the world who have stood witness to their children being abused, arrested and killed by governments. The mothers of the disappeared in South America, The mothers who protest against community violence, the list goes on. (The film even passed The Bechdel test when Tarek's mother and Zainab have tea together - appearing in a frame alone where they talk about missing, and not missing, their home countries)

The Visitor resonates with the following sentiment, voiced by a young undocumented woman on the Colorlines site:

"I’m undocumented. I’m unafraid. And I’m unapologetic. On March 10, 2011, we are going to have undocumented youth proclaim their undocumented status. They will tell everyone that they should not be sorry for being in the United States. That they should not apologize for getting an education, that they should not be sorry for their parents trying to make a living in the U.S.

By coming out we share our stories. We put our face to this issue. We are human."

The DREAM Act, which might have made undocumented youth eligible for citizenship (had they passed certain hurdles and committed to two years of military or college) passed the House last year, but couldn't get by a filibuster in the Senate. At the same time 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was getting repealed, this DREAM of so many young people around this country was literally dying.

By telling stories about immigration and the horrifying detention system - real stories, fictional stories - we keep the dream alive in some way. We keep the struggle on the forefront of the cultural vocabulary, we convince people that immigration is not about 'us' and 'them' but it is about what 'we' citizens of this smaller globe can learn from each other.

I know that I usually write about YA writing on this blog - vampires, zombies, myths and folktales. But the story of this country's immigrant families is a story that needs hearing. So today, in my own words, I bear witness. I stand in solidarity.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tribe Tributes: What Nurtures Your Creative Spirit?

What nurtures your creative spirit?

For me, it is my family, my roots, my upbringing...

In returning to Indian folkloric and mythic traditions in my creative writing, I hope to honor that link between myself and the long line of foremothers and forefathers who came before me. In doing this writing for and about young people, I hope to extend that legacy to my own children, and all those who come after me.

So I guess it's fitting that my friend Monica Broderick's blog "3 Sisters Village Moving Memoirs" has a recurring creative interview segment called "Tribe Tributes."

I am so very honored to have been included in the 3 sisters tribe, and to have been given the chance to honor my own 'tribe' in doing so. (The '3 sisters' and I all went to college together - so it's a chance to celebrate another fantastic 'tribe' as well)

To read the entire interview - and learn about my creative roots, my process, as well as fundamental questions like why I don't eat either ice cream or froyo, please go here:

3 Sisters Village Tribe Tribute

The site is a fantastic resource for creative inspiration and community - so dig around and enjoy!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

He said/She said: Writing YA Across Gender Lines

My newest, favorite twitter feed is Transgender Hulk (avatar pictured here). Just as her inspiration, Feminist Hulk, promises to "Smash patriarchy" in 140 characters or less, transgender hulk tweets me to "Smash the sex and gender binary."

And in some ways, I have been recently.

No, I'm not talking about my work in feminist science studies, or my teaching of gender and sexuality in the context of health and social justice. I'm talking (as I usually am on this blog) about my fores into the world of YA novel writing.

Yup, in my latest WIP, I've decided to cross the gender line, and write from the first person male point of view.

Which of course, feminist hulk in mind, I'd like to do without falling into stereotypical gender binarisms. Which, sometimes, I, uh, have been. For instance, on re-reading a scene in which my main character is upset, I had originally written tears welling up in his eyes (stereotypical girl reaction). On second thought, I went back and scratched the tears and made my character furious and frustrated, yelling and eventually, itching for a fight (stereotypical boy reaction).

I actually think the physical, confrontational reaction WAS more true to the character - he's a warrior, someone who's been born with certain gifts and seeks to develop his physical skills further. And yet, I also felt absurd for falling into such an obvious trope - girl main character gets upset, she cries; boy main character gets upset, he punches a wall. Yikes. If I stick to such obvious binaries, I'm going to be at serious risk of either feminist hulk or transgender hulk coming by and smashing me.

So what do I do?

There's a secondary character in the same novel who is a teenage girl but, for various complicated reasons, must dress like a boy. Now, this gender bending is in line with a long tradition of such switcheroos in many mythic traditions - including Hindu epics (my WIP is inspired by one particular Indian epic - see post here for most on gender bending in Hindu myth). I feel like I can challenge simplistic girl/boy dualities more thoroughly with this character, who actually does skate the edge between traditional masculinity and femininity, making room for a spectrum of gender performance, embodiment and behavior.

But I'm still struggling with my main character. Not his voice, not even his personality or world view. Those I think I've got down. I know where this guy is coming from - in a sense he's closer to me than my female main character of my previous novel. Perhaps it was easier to infuse him inner life with my own because he's of a different gender, and because he has a very different external life than my own.

I was looking to other kidlit writers who write across gender. Sarwat Chadda's Billi San Greal in his Devil's Kiss books is a girl, Libba Bray's Don Quixote-esque main character in Going Bovine is a boy. I'm sure there are other fabulous examples that I'm not thinking of.

Anyone else struggling with writing across gender lines? Any other authors you admire who do so?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Do you Pre-Read Your Kids' Books? Censorship vs. Sensibility

I started voraciously reading middle grade and YA literature when my big reader 8 1/2 yo was about six.

I'd always loved children's literature, and been a huge reader myself as a young person, but when my son started exhausting chapter books and delving into MG novels, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time in our local library. Helping him choose books that were both appropriate to his reading level and his level of maturity became another full time job. I started reading book reviews, book blogs, author websites, and of course, all the books I could get my hands on. In fact, I was spending so much time with kids literature, that I switched from writing (grown up) creative nonfiction to children's fiction. 

I was familiar with the classics, and it's those to which I directed my son first. Roald Dahl was an early favorite, as was Laura Ingalls Wilder. Beverly Clearly, C.S. Lewis, and even J.K. Rowling I'd read all before I became a mother. But I'd never heard of many of the newer authors. And so I familiarized myself with names like Judy Moody and Frannie K. Stein, and later, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, Septimus Heap. I wasn't really reading to censor, rather to get a sense of what was written at what level, and direct him to books that I thought he'd enjoy. And ultimately, I was having an incredible amount of fun with what I was reading, and I absolutely loved being able to talk about the finer points of 39 Clues or other series with my son. 

There was rarely something I didn't let him read, rather, I might honestly alert my son to a book's topic. For instance, when he was first reading the Harry Potter series, I urged him to stop at book 3. When, after having read the first three volumes at least twice, he insisted on reading on, I eventually gave in, urging him to come find me if there was anything he wanted to talk about. Scary things happen in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book #4), I told him, and it would be ok if he wanted to put it down. (*spoiler alert next para*)

But that didn't stop me from feeling like a horrible mother when he came home from second grade ashen faced and distraut. "Cedric Diggory died," he wailed, and, having been an avid adult Harry Potter fan myself, I could utterly empathize. I too had been heartbroken with that particular fictional turn of events. And hey, I'd been an adult when I'd read it.

I learned an important lesson thereafter, however. My son has now stopped himself at Harry Potter #5. He's heard that a rather important, erm, character dies in the latter books, and although he knows the fact of that death, he'd rather not experience it just yet as a reader. And I respect his feelings, and appreciate his judgment about his own ability to handle certain fictional content.

I still read a ton of MG and YA literature, but I've stopped reading ahead of my son. In fact, he's read plenty of things that I haven't (although most of them are on my to be read pile) - The Children of the Lamp books, and Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist are some recent examples. 

But recently, I picked up Lisa Yee's fabulous Millicent Min, Girl Genius. My son had already read her Bobby the Brave books and was itching to read more of Yee's writing. But I'd heard, via a post on this very blog on menstruation in YA and MG books, that the book's 11yo main character dealt with the very understandably 11yo girl-appropriate topic of periods, and I'd decided to go back to my old habits of pre-reading.

Now, the problem is, that which is an appropriate 11yo girl topic isn't always an appropriate 8yo boy topic. Menstruation occupies about 2 pages of Millicent Min - it's very appropriate to the story and very sweetly and believeably handled. If this were my 8yo daughter , I'd have absolutely no problem handing her the book. If (that 8yo daughter) had questions, I'd also have absolutely no problem answering them - ie. this is something that will happen to you too, maybe not for a few years.

But what about my 8yo son? He knows grossly about the birds and the bees, ova and sperm. But do I really want to go into the mechanics of periods and tampons with him right now?

I sound like a ridiculous prude, I know. I'm a pediatrician, and feminist, and teach issues in gender studies for goodness sake! Yet, my mommy-self is somehow living in an alternate universe to my scholarly and professional self.

I know, I know, the period pages will probably go right over his head. And it would be a crime to deprive him of Millicent as a character, and Yee's fabulous writing voice. (In fact ANYONE wanting to know how to write an authentic and believable MG voice must RUN not WALK and get Yee's books)

Yet, when it comes to my son, I hesitate.

He's read books about death, about (I'm pretty sure) decapitation, about spies and wizards and ghouls and goblins. And now, I squeamish about letting him read - for about 2 seconds - about tampons and maxipads? What's my problem?

Have you ever pre-read books for your kids?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fracturing Fairy Tales, Re-Imaginging History

I just finished Sarwat Chadda's Devil's Kiss, the first in his (so far) two book series about Billi San Greal (short for Bilquis), a 15 year old half-Pakistani modern day Knight Templar.

And while I enjoyed the teenage heroine and her demon-fighting ways, what I really enjoyed was Chadda's re-imagining of a historic Christian order that was so closely affiliated with the Crusades. Since the Crusades were a 'holy war' of Christian against Muslim, I found it intriguing that Chadda chose to make his heroine's mother Muslim - an 'infidel' by historic Crusader standards.

Interestingly, Islam plays a relatively small role in Kiss (perhaps conveniently, Billi's mother has died long ago.) But Chaddha does challenge the Christian-centricity of the Knights Templar stories by introducing a Jewish Oracle (or at least, Oracle's helper), some Hindu astrological charts, and explicit discussions about the importance of learning from all sorts of religious traditions - Islam included.

And while some may challenge that this is re-writing, or at least, re-imagining history, I view it in the same way I view Suniti Namjoshi's Feminist Fables or even the mythology and folklore-based writing of Rick Riordan (his Percy Jackson series or more recent Kane Chronicles) or Michael Buckley (his Sister's Grimm series). These books play fast and loose with old stories, yes, but in doing so, bring them modern day relevance and immediacy.

But there's a difference between simply re-imagining stories and re-inventing them to insert characters, voices and experiences more traditionally silenced. Like - to variable extents - Chadda and Namjoshi's books, Malinda Lo's lesbian retelling of the Cinderella story, Ash, creates narrative space in the princess canon for lesbian characters. Similarly, Diana Peterfreund's stories Rampant and Ascendant turn Western virgin-and-unicorn lore almost utterly on their heads, re-inventing virgins as kick-butt warriors and unicorns as killer beasts.

What other children's or YA books re-invent mythological or folkloric traditions with an eye to inclusion?