Monday, November 19, 2012

The Invisible War: Sexual Assault in the Military

A female soldier shows the two items she always carries on her body: a cross and a hunting knife.
“You always have protection with Jesus,” she says, “but sometimes you need just a little bit more.”
Similarly, another female soldier explains, “[My] knife wasn’t for the Iraqis… it was for the guys on my own side.”

For this year’s Veterans Day, I wanted to acknowledge the efforts of women soldiers. More than any time before in history, women are serving in the armed forces. According to 2007 estimates, women made up 15 percent of active duty forces in the Iraq War, four times more than in the 1991 Gulf War.
And while many women have happily served in the U.S. armed forces, forging noteworthy careers in service to their country, it is also estimated that over 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted during their service. And it is quite possible the real figures are much higher.
Sexual assault of fellow soldiers is the U.S. military’s dirty secret. The 2012 Sundance winning film, The Invisible War, documents the rampant epidemic of sexual assault of soldiers by their own comrades, and the military’s systematic policy of covering up most such cases. The film captures the voices and experiences of women soldiers (as well as some men) in all branches of the armed services – women who were not only assaulted by those pledged to be their ‘brothers in arms’, but unable to seek justice due to the military’s internal handling of such cases. Watch the film trailer:

Over and over again, women in the film describe entering the armed services due to family tradition, dreams of honor, professional camaraderie, and public service, only to be treated as second-class citizens (“walking mattresses”) by their fellow soldiers. Women describe being harassed, ridiculed, isolated, and yes, assaulted. They describe being afraid to walk alone through their bases, afraid to go to the latrine at night, afraid to go into the room of a superior when summoned. Women describe being attacked, drugged, beaten, repeatedly raped, and then told by higher ups to “deal with it” or risk demotion, further harassment, or even facing charges themselves for everything from adultery (if their assailant was married) to conduct unbecoming an officer to court-martial. Women describe being unable to remove themselves from unsafe situations, being unable to access mental or other health services, being unable to even receive VA benefits for injuries received from their assaults.
The military’s culture of silencing and retaliating against those who report rape only exacerbates the trauma of the assault. As The Invisible War documents, many assault survivors are so traumatized, they quit the military (‘Go AWOL’), and receive dishonorable discharges – therefore disqualifying themselves from Veterans and other benefits. They may suffer more PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) than soldiers returning from war, becoming homeless, alcoholic, drug dependent, and, with all too much frequency, actively suicidal.

It was journalist and Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict who first broke this story in a 2007 article called “The private war of women soldiers.” The article, based on interviews of 20 female Iraq war veterans, and Benedict’s subsequent book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving In Iraq point to the military’s long history of covering up sexual misconduct, from the Tailhook incident in 1991 to Aberdeen in 1996. According to Benedict:
A 2003 survey of female veterans from Vietnam through the first Gulf War found that 30 percent said they were raped in the military. A 2004 study of veterans from Vietnam and all the wars since, who were seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder, found that 71 percent of the women said they were sexually assaulted or raped while in the military. And in a third study, conducted in 1992-93 with female veterans of the Gulf War and earlier wars, 90 percent said they had been sexually harassed in the military, which means anything from being pressured for sex to being relentlessly teased and stared at.
The burning question, of course, is why? Why is there such a culture of sexual assault in the U.S. military?

As an ex-military colleague recently said to me, “In the military, your body is not your own, it is the property of the U.S. government.”

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Adios, Barbie  

Revisiting the Classics: Mother Goose and the Marks that Stories Leave

This post was part of the blog tour for Two and Twenty Dark Tales: Dark Retellings of Mother Goose Rhymes (Month 9 Books, 2012)

Two and Twenty Dark Tales
Edited By: Georgia McBride & Michelle Zink
Pub. Date: October 16, 2012
Publisher: Month9Books
Pages: 340
In this anthology, 20 authors explore the dark and hidden meanings behind some of the most beloved Mother Goose nursery rhymes through short story retellings. The dark twists on classic tales range from exploring whether Jack truly fell or if Jill pushed him instead to why Humpty Dumpty, fragile and alone, sat atop so high of a wall. The authors include Nina Berry, Sarwat Chadda, Leigh Fallon, Gretchen McNeil, and Suzanne Young.
There seems to be a cultural moment happening right now – when all sorts of children’s and YA books are revisiting the classics.

There are Greek mythology take-offs like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’ Goddess Girls series, and Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman’s Sirenz series. There are Grimm’s brothers take-offs like Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm series.

There are Shakespearean take-offs like Michelle Ray’s Falling for Hamlet, and Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly (which I recently wrote about in an essay called “Shakespeare in Black and White.”). And don’t even get me started on the endless Austen take-offs. From Mandy Hubbard’s Prada and Prejudice to Jennifer Ziegler’s Sass and Serendipity to … well, there are a whole lot of them is my point.

But what purpose do classic revisitations serve in the popular imagination? Clearly, there is a hunger for them, and the popularly accepted idea that being introduced to take-offs will make young readers more interested in the original stories from which they originated.

And I guess I can believe that, if it comes to stories we want young people to be reading in their original, stories whose evergreen relevance we want to celebrate – like those of Shakespeare or Austen. But what about all those mythological and fairy-tale take-offs? Are those being published because we, as a culture, are really interested in our children re-reading Ovid’s myths or the original Brothers Grimm Tales? I’m not so sure. Instead, I think, such re-tellings actually reflect how ingrained those old stories already are into our individual and collective psyches.

Take the Mother Goose retellings in Two and Twenty Dark Tales: Dark Retellings of Mother Goose Rhymes, a collection edited by Georgia McBride and Michelle Zink and released in October 2012 from Month 9 Books. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to enter a contest on to be the one “wild card” contributor to this volume. Unlike the other authors in the book, like Sarwat Chadda or Leigh Fallon, who were asked to contribute and therefore could choose the Mother Goose rhyme they wanted to revisit, I, as the contest winner, was given my task: to write a dark retelling of Little Boy Blue.

And so, I had to ask myself: why are childhood rhymes so important to us? How do they invoke so much memory and emotion, rising to the surface of our consciousness the moment they are mentioned? As I asked myself these questions, I kept mulling over the word "Blue" and suddenly thought of the Joni Mitchell Song Blue (which I listened to over and over again my first year of college on an old tape player I had, but I’m dating myself here):
 Blue, songs are like tattoos/.../Ink on a pin/Underneath the skin/An empty space to fill in                                                                                     ----Joni Mitchell, “Blue”
And so I started thinking about tattoos, ink, and if stories are one way we human beings mark ourselves. In my day job, I'm a professor of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, so I think a lot about the power of stories and how stories work for human beings, for communities, and for societies.
To read the rest of this essay please visit Ladybug Storytime.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Multi-ethnic characters in children's and YA novels

courtesy microsoft office

Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful If You Come Softly, the novel we have been reading together here at 3 Sisters Village this October, is a modern day interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous play, a romance between an African American Romeo and a white Jewish Juliet. Simultaneously, it is an exploration of race and racism in modern day U.S. society.  (see previous posts here and here for further discussion of issues of race and representation in the novel)

At first glance, this set up -- of Black and White ‘star crossed lovers’ -- suggests a country whose racial profile is necessarily one of fixed, distinct categories. People who are Black or White, this or that.  Yet, as a country whose very President is multi- and not mono-ethnic, modern day America is increasingly a place of multiple ethnic heritages rather than singular ones.

In Woodson’s novel, it is the character of Carlton, Jeremiah’s Mercutio, who represents multi-ethnic identity. Carlton’s mother is white and father is Black, and he is the one to whom Jeremiah turns when he realizes he is falling in love with Ellie. Carlton is, in a sense, the moral touchstone to Jeremiah and Ellie’s romance, who realizes that interracial relationships “happen” and “ain’t the worst thing in the world.” (89) And although he’s a minor character, without him, the novel would suffer from a sense of racial anachronism. Carlton’s presence reminds the reader that multi-ethnic families and multi-ethnic characters are a reality in our vibrant society. And while couples like Jeremiah and Ellie may still face racist challenges from family, friends, and even strangers, they are no longer a complete anomaly in our ever-shrinking world.

And now that I’ve been looking around, I’m realizing that multi-ethnic characters are popping up everywhere in children’s and YA literature. So I thought that I would suggest a few other titles with multi-ethnic characters and call out to you, the readers, to share with us some of your favorites.

In Veera Hiranandani’s The Whole Story of Half a Girl, the primary character is Sonia Nadhamuni, a half Indian and half Jewish American girl. As the title suggests, this novel deals with multi-ethnic identity in a fairly explicit way.

Yet, in other YA novels, such as The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, characters simply ‘happen to be’ multi-ethnic,

To read the rest of this essay, please visit 3 Sisters Village!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bridge Characters in Multicultural Children's/YA Literature

Last week, I finished Jacqueline Woodson’s breathtaking If You Come Softly – a novel that is, among other brilliant things, a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with a white Juliet and African American Romeo. I wrote about some more general thoughts on race in the story here at 3 Sisters Village last week.

In the meantime, since writing a rather detailed critique of New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky at I’ve been thinking about how race is handled in other settings. Primarily, I’ve been thinking about the notion of the ‘bridge character’ or the responsibility of a multicultural story to build a ‘bridge’ for outsiders.

You see, in answer to a critique of his reporting style, which sometimes features white outsiders going to ‘help’ in Asian or African countries, Kristof answered in this youtube video that this choice was purposeful. Although it might play into stereotypes of “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as their saviors,” Kristof suggested that “One way to get people to read…is to have some sort of American they can identify with as a bridge character.”

Which of course begs the questions – who are the people we want to be doing this reading? And why do they need a ‘bridge’ into a compelling story – simply because it’s about non-Americans or people of color? (And don’t immigrants, and people of color in general, always have to do such ‘bridge-making’ in their day to day lives anyway?)

So I guess what I want to grapple with here is if literature bears a similar burden. Do ‘bridges’ need to be made between readers and stories about characters that aren’t from their countries or cultural backgrounds?

In Woodson’s If You Come Softly, one can imagine the ‘bridge’ between the story and the reader might be the Shakespearean play itself. That perhaps it is ‘easier’ for some readers to enter this (potentially frightening/inspiring of defensiveness) story about racism and police brutality because the overall plot – about star-crossed lovers – is one that is so culturally familiar. In addition, both of her characters aren’t of color, one is white and Jewish and one is African American. Their very romance is an act of bridge-building as it were, between two seemingly disparate experiences and worlds. In this way, Woodson’s novel potentially parallels the experiences of readers into her story.

Yet, much of Woodson’s work does not do this. Locomotion, After Tupac and D Foster, or even her stunning picture book Show Way, based on Woodson’s own family history of enslavement, are wonderful pieces of literature simply because they are so unapologetically set in their own cultural spaces. Like other fantastic writers – from Salman Rushdie, who peppers his novels with Indian English-isms and obscure cultural references, to Junot Diaz, who explains, and doesn’t explain, Dominican American political history in his writing – Woodson simply lets the strength of her stories carry the reader into potentially unfamiliar worlds.

To read the rest of this essay please visit 3 Sisters Village!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Children's Literature as Social Justice: Bruce Coville's 13 Rules for Writers

Courtesy One World, Many Stories Summer Reading Program

I don't usually blog about the writers conferences I attend.

Because, to be honest, there's plenty of people I see taking copious notes at these things and I'm 100% positive they are writing far more informative and useful blog posts than I ever could. Usually, I'm too busy doing the yogic thing (being in the moment) or the tired thing (being in the moment while drinking coffee) to really take the sorts of notes that could mean anything to anyone else after a conference.

But today at the Rutgers Council on Children's Literature's One-On-One Mentorship conference, I heard the fabulous Bruce Coville speak for the first time. And I was so moved, I actually took notes. Well, part of the time, anyway. The other part of the time I listened with slack-jawed adulation as he said all the things I think about children's literature.

That it's an act of social justice.

That it's a part of allowing all children to see themselves in their own worlds.

That it's a critical way to imagine a better future.

Actually his words were "Our work has the potential to change the world in ways we can't imagine."

The stuff of tears, people. Tears in my coffee.

He talked about power, and how our cultures hates children. There can be no other explanation of why, despite the rhetoric, funding for schools, teachers, libraries, and communities are slashed. There can be no other explanation why, when in pioneer times, they were family workers and earners, when, in post WWII/industrial revolution times, they were objects of family love and adulation, now, in our modern times, children are being bred to be nothing more than consumers -- who demand to be bought the goods they see advertised on the television and internet.

Literature is tasked with changing this dynamic -- with honoring children, and celebrating them -- or at least that's what his message said to me.

He quoted the wonderful John Berger (whose Fortunate Man I teach from all the time), who, in a short story wrote of a man talking to the ghost of his dead mother, who tells him to make one small change, and therefore, effect the world. (It was an example, Coville said, of what's also been called the butterfly effect.)

The barking dog in the yard is on too short a chain, the dead mother explained. If you increase the dog's chain, then the dog will be able to reach the shade and rest, and stop barking. If the dog stops barking, then the mother ironing in her kitchen will be remember that she always wanted a singing canary in a cage. And if she is soothed by the canary song, she will iron more shirts. With a freshly ironed shirt, the father will be better able to bear the weight of his workday on his shoulders. And if he is able to bear that weight, then maybe he will laugh and joke again with his teenage daughter when he comes home. If he laughs and jokes with his teenage daughter, then maybe she will bring her lover home. And if she brings her lover home, perhaps the father will ask him to go fishing...

And all this from the lengthening of the chain.

Coville asked us, in our writing, to lengthen the chain. To bring change to the world. To effect kids' lives.

These, except the above quote, are paraphrases. But I did actually take notes on the 13 Rules For Writers Mr. Coville shared with us. See if you find them as fantastic as I did:

1. Marry Rich -- some advice the wonderful Natalie Babbitt actually once gave him when he revealed he wanted to write for children.

2. Take acting or storytelling lessons -- public speaking is actually the #1 fear of American adults, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. Yet, part of a writer's job is sharing their work in public, a part of the job from which introverts can't shy away

3. Take voice or singing lessons -- your voice is your instrument

4. Take your art seriously, and yourself seriously as a business person -- read your royalty statements, learn to negotiate, and plan for your retirement

5. Never throw anything away you've written -- you never know when, 30 years later, that novel that never worked or the chapter in your idea folder will give birth to a publishable book

6. Take a vacation -- getting away from work is a good way to get back to it sometimes

7. Scare yourself -- take yourself to the edge of discomfort, take assignments that scare you. He quoted Cole Porter as saying "courage is freedom."

8. Stop scaring yourself -- don't be your worst critic, or let fear paralyze the writing. (Bruce Coville here told the fantastic story of how he and his lifelong friend Paula Danziger would keep each other going by promising to have 3 pages to read to one another every day on pain of outrageous shame. When this threat wore off after a while, they promised that the person who didn't have 3 pages done to share with the other every day would have to write a check to George W. Bush's campaign (at the time), and tell all their friends and family that they were writing the check. That inspired him more than anything, because there was no way he was writing that check.)

9. Make your own rules -- there are no rules to writing except the ones you make up. Here, he quoted Kipling: "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,/ And every single one of them is right!"

10. Take your art seriously, but yourself lightly -- try to be great, but try to be good. keep writing every day and every once in a while something splendid will happen.

11. Learn to take a compliment -- just say "thank you"

12. Don't be afraid to show your heart 

13. Embrace the unfinished chord in your writing -- something dangling for the reader to ponder 

Thank you, RUCCL, and thank you Bruce Coville.

Children's literature as social justice. Yea, for that, I can put down my coffee cup and pick up my pen. Because the arc of the writerly career may be long, but it should bend towards justice.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shakespeare in Black and White


Two households, both alike in dignity/ In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,/ From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,/ Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean./ From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/ A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life

---Romeo and Juliet, Prologue
Does the world need a Black and white Romeo and Juliet?
If I’d been asked this question a few weeks ago, before I had read three-time Newberry Honor author Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly, my answer might have been no.
Don’t we have enough Romeo and Juliet interpretations, I might have asked. Isn’t a racialized Romeo and Juliet a bit of a cliché, I might have added. I mean, Montagues and Capulets as African Americans and whites, really?
But all it takes is a good story to change anyone’s mind. Including mine.
If You Come Softly is hardly a literal retelling of Shakespeare’s work. But the Bard’s shadow certainly falls across its pages. Ellie, Woodson’s Jewish American Juliet, may look out her window, and not her balcony, on to Central Park West, Miah, Woodson’s African American Romeo, may hold a basketball rather than a sword, and the distance between their worlds may be the subway ride between the Upper West Side and Fort Greene, Brooklyn, but they are certainly world’s apart. 
Instead of familial feuds, high schooler Ellie and Miah’s worlds are torn asunder by forces from casual racism to racial profiling and police brutality. Real forces impacting young people in our real world today. But like Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers, Ellie and Miah choose connection over ignorance, love over hate.
But unlike Romeo and Juliet, Woodson raises no question of her characters ‘denying their fathers or refusing their names’ (well, at one point, Miah, the son of a famous film director, does hide his last name from Ellie). By this I mean, Woodson does not offer any facile, “post-racial” solutions to racism – suggesting that Ellie and Miah can somehow forget their ethnicities and backgrounds and run off into the sunset together because ‘love is colorblind.’ 
To see the rest of this essay, please visit 3 Sisters Village

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Your Women Are Oppressed, but Ours are Awesome." How Nicholas Kristof and 'Half the Sky' use women against each other

Actress America Ferrera in “Half The Sky.” Via

I just saw the most problematic image on Facebook. It was a photo of four blonde, female pilots in combat gear with the caption, Hey Taliban, look up in the sky! Your women can’t drive, but ours CAN!

Despite the issues I have with militarism, or this country’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m all for cheering for female pilots (yea, bad-a&& flying ladies!). What I can’t just can’t stand by and let slide is this “your women are oppressed, but ours are awesome” rhetoric, a rhetoric which only illuminates how – both actually and metaphorically — racism, xenophobia, and imperialism so often play out on women’s bodies around the world.

To me, this photo represents how blithely and blindly women from the Global North allow ourselves to be used as (actual and metaphorical) weapons of war against women from the Global South. In fact, that offensive caption isn’t significantly different from comments I’ve been hearing this week like, “These are countries where women have very little value.”

Sadly, the place where I’ve been hearing such phrases isn’t on some conservative TV program or website (where I think that all-woman pilot photo originated), but rather, on the PBS film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women, a well-publicized neo-liberal “odyssey through Asia and Africa” hosted by everyone’s favorite white savior New York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof.

New York Times reporter Nikolas Kristof in “Half The Sky.”

Inspired by a book co-written by Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and supported by talking head cameos from the likes of Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, George Clooney, and officials from the United Nations, CARE, and other non profit and development organizations, the film, unfortunately, reeks of KONY 2012 style missteps.  In fact, in ‘white man’s burden’ style, Kristof even says at one point, “When you have won the lottery of life that there is some obligation some responsibility we have to discharge.”

Perhaps reflecting this sense of noblesse oblige, the film is based on an amazingly problematic premise: the camera crew follows Kristof as he travels to various countries in the Global South to examine issues of violence against women – from rape in Sierra Leone, to sex trafficking in Cambodia, from maternal mortality and female genital cutting in Somaliland, to inter-generational prostitution in India. Because, hey, all the histories and cultures and situations of these countries are alike, right? (um, no) Oh, and he doesn’t go alone! Kristof travels with famous American actresses like Eva Mendez, Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union and America Ferrera on this bizarre whirlwind global tour of gender violence.

There are plenty of critiques I could make of Kristof’s reporting (in this film and beyond, see this great round-up of critiques for more). Critiques about voyeurism and exotification – the way that global gender violence gets made pornographic, akin to what has been in other contexts called “poverty porn.”

For example, would Kristof, a middle aged male reporter, so blithely ask a 14 year old U.S. rape survivor to describe her experiences in front of cameras, her family, and other onlookers? Would he sit smilingly in a European woman’s house asking her to describe the state of her genitals to him? 

Yet, somehow, the fact that the rape survivor is from Sierra Leone, the woman being asked about her genital cutting is from Somaliland, seems to make this behavior acceptable in Kristof’s book. And more importantly, the goal of such exhibition is unclear. What is the viewer supposed to receive, other than titillation, and a sense of “oh, we’re so lucky, those women’s lives are so bad”?

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Racialicious!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Changing the Narrative: LGBT Young Adult Novels

It’s banned books week again, which is a time of year that always makes me appreciate the power of stories. Stories have such power, words such potential, that people actually fear them. Usually, this fear stems from a desire to limit the narratives that young people can access, and in so doing, attempt to limit the ways that they can think, feel, and live.

But they’re just stories, you say, just stories. These book banners are getting to het up over nothing – everybody knows that stories don’t matter.

I disagree. What those book banners know is that stories have enormous power, to change hearts and minds, to change the way that we think and act, to change the ways that we live. And stories aren’t inherently good or bad.  In fact, as a faculty member in the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia, I teach a graduate seminar in Narrative, Health and Social Justice, and run a faculty level seminar of that same name. In those seminars, we often discuss how stories can be used toward ends of injustice. Unjust or oppressive narratives are part of the reason that a set of human beings can cease to see their neighbors as equals, as fellow humans, and that narrative change is part of the way that genocides – from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide — happen.

So that’s why, equally, I teach how stories must be operationalized in ways to counteract such oppressions, how stories must be used toward the goals of justice. Stories DO make a difference. This lesson, that SILENCE = DEATH, that THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL, that giving voice to our private experiences can galvanize social movements and create social change is a vital one, handed down to us by the civil rights, feminist, AIDS activist, and other movements.

So, do stories matter? Can stories destroy lives? Can different stories save lives?

Yes. Yes. and YES.

Take the dark power of homophobic bullying, which sprung to mainstream national attention in 2010, with the bullying-related suicides of Billy Lucas, Tyler Clemente, Seth Walsh, and Asher Brown. Although each story was slightly different, each shared a similar premise. These young people committed suicide after homophobic teasing and bullying, which ranged from anti-gay slurs to the now infamous invasion of Rutgers college student Tyler Clemente’s privacy with a webcam. The narrative there? An old one, an awful one. Some lives are worth living, others aren’t.

Yet, how can stories themselves change this oppressive narrative?

To read the rest of this blog entry, please visit Adios, Barbie!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities Giveaway! – An Interview with Author (and Ukelele Player) Mike Jung

Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities 

Mike Jung is a funny, funny man with a ukelele. ‘A ukelele?’ You ask. Yes, a ukelele, trust me, he’s like the John Mayer of ukelele playing. Or maybe the Jason Mraz. Whatever, he’s really good is my point. (I don’t have a clip of him playing, but check out the fantastic photo below of him serenading editor Arthur A. Levine and author/illustrator Dan Santat)

‘But this is not a blog about ukelele players!’ You argue. ‘This is a blog about middle grade writers’. Which brings me to the point I was trying to make all along — Mike Jung is a funny, funny man with a ukelele who is also a fantastic writer. His debut novel, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic Books, 2012) is hilarious, heartfelt, rip-roaring adventure chock full of middle grade goodness! And not only that, he’s a one-time blogger at Mixed Up Files, who has come back to let us help celebrate his book launch!

So fasten your seatbelts, middle grade readers! Here is one stupendous interview with the man who made superhero Captain Stupendous famous:
Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed on “From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors,” Mike! It’s nice to have you, as a former blogger here, return “home” to celebrate the launch of your fabulous debut novel, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities.

Superheroes, Robots, Aliens, and Dastardly Supervillains your novel has them all. Yet, Geeks get top billing in your title and in your line-up of protagonists. Whats up with that? Are geeks the new superhero?

Geeks and superheroes both have perennial relevance, if you ask me! I knew all along that while the heroes, villains, battle scenes, and sound effects were important for making the book fun to write and read (I hope, anyway), the real heart of the story lay with the emotional arc of the characters. One of the many benchmarks of Arthur Levine’s genius is his ability to cut through all the trappings of a story and see its essence. He helped me see that GEEKS is really the story of how Vincent Wu, who sees himself as dismissed, berated, and unlovable, but eventually realizes that he’s acknowledged, celebrated, and genuinely loved. Vincent is very much the eponymous geek.

So onto the second part of your title, Girls. There are three boy protagonists in your adventure the three stalwart members of the Captain Stupendous Fan Club– and one girl. Did you think about things like gender balance when writing?

Thinking about gender issues is something I always try to do – it’s a big deal, you know? I want my daughter to grow up in a world that doesn’t devalue or dismiss her because of her gender, and I think our personal sensibilities and values do infuse our work to at least some degree.
That said, I wasn’t thinking specifically about maintaining mathematical balance between the boy and girl characters. In early drafts Polly actually was the narrator of the story, and the most important secondary character was her best friend, who was also a girl. And after two years of working on the manuscript I hit a wall, because it just wasn’t working as well as I thought it could – I couldn’t find the story arc, the characters weren’t developing fully, and most importantly in my mind, the voice felt off.

I scrapped the manuscript, strip-mined it for recyclable bits and pieces, and started over. I didn’t make the story autobiographical, but the friendship of the boys in the Captain Stupendous Fan Club was loosely inspired by my own boyhood and teenage friendships, which were NOT gender balanced. And the manuscript suddenly came alive.

Now, does that indicate something about my own level of unconscious gender bias? Probably, although I’m not sure that’s a question anyone can honestly or accurately answer with regard to themselves. In terms of sheer “this many boys” and “this many girls” numbers, the story ended up resembling my own middle-grade life experience with a fair degree of accuracy, so it is, at the very least, grounded in the childhood Mike Jung’s subjective perception of reality.

To read the rest of this interview and qualify to win a copy of Mike's book, please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Stop Fanning the "Mommy Wars": Enough with the "Breastfeeding Bullies" Articles, Jezebel!

I could hardly believe it when I saw the headlines:

The pressure to breastfeed is getting out of hand”! and “Sorry – You can’t guilt trip me about bottle feeding my kids”!

It’s not that I’m surprised by anti-breastfeeding attitudes in the U.S. After all, this is a country where, women are still prohibited from breastfeeding in public in many places, where the broader culture fetishizes women’s breasts, and a lack of family leave and on-site daycare make breastfeeding, even when initiated, very difficult to continue.

What shocked me was that the anti-breastfeeding articles appeared on, a site which I had previously considered feminist or at least woman friendly. I, like this blogger, had to ask myself: Why does a supposedly feminist site keep posting anti-breastfeeding articles, articles which only, like that recent infamous Time Magazine cover about prolonged breastfeeding, fan the flames of the so-called “mommy wars”?

These Jezebel articles are similar to many op-eds, FB posts and personal essays I’ve read recently that equate breastfeeding friendly initiatives like Mayor Bloomberg’s new “Latch On NYC” program with “breast feeding bullying.” Many of these articles are by mothers, who actually tried to breastfeed but found – for a variety of reasons – that they couldn’t.  And, understandably, they don’t want to be made to feel guilty for their parenting choices.

Parenting in general, and breastfeeding particularly, are touchy subjects, I get that. No one wants to think that they did less than “best” for their child – and that’s exactly what “breast is best” type campaigns seem to communicate to some women. Yet, to me, this trend in personal essays/articles is part of a larger phenomenon, a perspective that tends to focus blindly on the issue of free will and “choice” (ie. this essay which urges “Breastfeeding is a choice, let’s treat it as such”) – approaching issues like breastfeeding from an individualistic perspective rather than a systemic one.

These incessant articles about “breastfeeding bullying” are creating a dangerous problem (that might not actually be there), and feeding into the destructive notion of “mommy wars.”  “Bullying” implies power. Yet, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations to breastfeed until 12 months, per the CDC, less than 50% of babies in the U.S. are breastfeed through 6 months and more like 25% are breastfed through 12 months. The long and the short of it is, unlike almost every other Western country, many more babies in the U.S. are formula fed in the first 12 months of life than not. So where does the “bullying” coming in?

So let’s talk Baby Friendly Hospitals, which seem to be the target of a lot of this recent anger. Bloomberg’s policy suggests that all of New York City’s many hospitals (where I had my two children as well!) voluntarily become Baby Friendly institutions. What does that mean? Well, among other points (see my previous post here on Adios for a full list), Baby Friendly Hospitals help mothers initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth, give newborn infants no food or drink other than breastmilk unless medically indicated, practice “rooming in” – allowing mothers and infants to remain together for 24 hours, and encourage breastfeeding on demand.

And this isn’t something that Bloomberg made up, people. It’s a global public health issue. Despite being recommended by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Campaign,” the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others, as of May 2012, the United States has only 143 baby friendly hospitals, or less than 3%. Compare this to approximately 100% of hospitals in countries such as Sweden, Mongolia, Eritrea, and Namibia (and increasing numbers in many other countries) and it’s pretty embarrassing.

But the critical issue here is that Baby Friendly Hospitals are a systemic way that breastfeeding initiation can be enhanced. People complaining about “breastfeeding bullies” keep talking about the issue of choice. Yet, the ways that most maternity wards operate in the U.S. actually reduce all women’s choices across the board – whether you ultimately choose to breastfeed for any amount of time or not.

The truth of the matter is, issues such as insufficient milk production, a failure to latch on properly, and resultant problems such as infant weight loss are often tied to immediate post-birth practices — practices that are determined by the policies of the particular maternity ward. These are systemic failures, NOT the so-called “failure” of individual women.

For instance, critical to latching on in babies and milk let down in mothers is immediate post-delivery skin to skin contact, rather than the minutes and up to hours of post-birth weighing, measuring, examining and washing that occurs in most U.S. maternity wards. Similarly beneficial is babies sleeping in the same room as mothers.  (See this hysterical “skin to skin” breastfeeding rap song for a rundown of these issues.) Yet, this is not the policy of most U.S. maternity wards. Why?

To read the rest of this blog entry, please visit Adios, Barbie!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Size Bashing on "Project Runway": Why Heidi Should Say "Auf Wiedersehen" to Ven Budhu

Terri, Ven Budhu’s client (Season 10, Episode 6)

I’ve been feeling a bit run down lately and part of my self-care regimen has (obviously) been the online watching of a lot of back-episodes of the TV shows I’ve missed this summer. Over the last couple days, I’ve been catching up on that Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum-fueled hour of eyecandy for armchair fashionistas: Project Runway (Season 10). Finally, I was up to last week’s challenge – episode 6: “Makeover My Friend.”

It was one of those “real women” challenges when the Project Runway designers make clothes for non-model folks. Oh, yeah, theoretically the folks they should be making clothes for most of the time anyway.

But I digress.

The episode quickly became a size-bashing fest courtesy of (to my Desi shame) the one South Asian American designer, Ven Budhu. Dear old average-sized Ven apparently has some serious hatred of women he’s working on – because he took every opportunity possible during the episode to baby-moan about how “shocked” he was that his model was perhaps a *titter, titter, laugh* SIZE 14! And how it was “obviously unfair” that he had the “largest” model when others had clients who were the same size as regular models.

But Ven didn’t just keep it to himself, or his mentor, or his fellow contestants. He took it right to his client herself – commenting how “surprised” he was at how pretty she looked after the haircut part of her makeover, and how, even though she didn’t want to wear black, he had decided to go with black because it was (get your pinch-face on) “slimming.”

Check out this terrible-funny recap from tvgasm, or this clip from Hulu entitled, appropriately, “Bad Budhu” to get an up close and personal load of his kvetching to Tim Gunn (“she has no shape,” “she has no style”), deadpan disgust, and “oh none of these belts are big enough for your ginormousity” insulting statements. His antics were so bad both behind his client’s back and right smack in front of her face that he made her and the friend who dragged her in for a makeover in the first place actually CRY. (Oh, yeah, and me too.)

Meanwhile, even previously crabby designers (Elena, Gunnar, I’m looking at you, darlings) were having sob-worthy love-fests with their clients. Things were all fairy-wands and rainbow-scented unicorns, even with some of the normally mean judges (Nina Garcia, Fashion Editor of Marie Claire magazine, I am so looking at you), fashion was meant to uplift a woman, bring out her real personality, make her more herself, but better! (Clap! Clap! Pixie Squeal! Hooray!)

But affect-challenged Ven wasn’t having any of that. No, he was old-school, all the way. Fashion isn’t to make you feel good! Fashion is about unflattering dressing room lights, funhouse mirrors for trying on swimsuits, and a nosy saleswomen who pops open the curtain right when you’re naked only to suggest you need SPANX.

For the rest of this rant, please visit Adios, Barbie! 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Parents as Protagonists: Is Pixar's "Brave" an Antidote to the Dead Parent Syndrome?

"Brave"'s mother and daughter: Courtesy of Disney/Pixar
Over the last several months, I've read innumerable reviews (these from Forbes, Ms. and Slate are examples) suggesting that in their 2012 film "Brave", Pixar had finally created a feminist princess story. Well, I finally gathered the 8 and 10 yo troops and went to see it.

While I agree, the film suggests a terrific, empowering alternative to the "someday my prince will come" just-waiting-for-rescue-and-then-marriage princess narrative, the reason this feminist mother found "Brave" fascinating was its placement of a parent, front and center, in the action. Indeed, just today, I read that Brenda Chapman, the writer and co-director of the film, intended both the mother and daughter to be co-protagonists, but felt it was marketers who placed the princess Merida as the sole protagonist. In her words, "I always considered Merida and Elinor equal characters. Both of their arcs needed to be completed. This movie is a love story between a mother and daughter.

A mother and daughter as equal characters, whose conflict drives the plot? A love story between a mother and a daughter? Oh, happy day, zip-e-dee-doo-dah, could this really be?

Just consider that in most fairy tales, mothers are often dead, or effectively absent. While this  undoubtedly paves the way for the princess of the tale to encounter danger and obstacles, it also sets such tales up for the perfect female antagonist - the evil stepmother/witch. Think about it: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel - they all have them. Power-hungry, wicked, yet inexplicably driven mad by their waning beauty, they are the foils to innocent princesses awaiting sexual awaking, er, I mean, rescue. Forget Silence=Death, these films seem to say, the real equation is that Menopause=Death (and evil-doing!). In 2010, I suggested that the smothering witchy stepmother in Disney's Tangled was the penultimate example of the Freudian/Elektra-ish/Oedipal need for protagonists to "kill their mother figures off" before getting their sexual groove on. 

Modern day children's literature too has a dearth of live parents. Earlier last year, Leila Sales called this the "Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome" in children's literature. While the common thinking is that parents must be removed from the scene in order for young protagonists to face danger, rise to challenges, and drive their own adventures, relationships with parents are a critical part of most real children and teen's lives. In that case, writing parents, and writing nuanced parent-child relationships, is challenging, but essential for writers of children's literature.

Which is why "Brave" is, to me, a feminist tale. Not simply because it rewrites the princess narrative, giving a young woman physical prowess, fighting skills, a brain, and a brave heart. Not simply because it removes romance, princely rescue and marriage (largely) from the plot. Pixar's "Brave" is a feminist tale because it focuses on a quintissential, and critically important, female relationship: the mother-daughter bond. And rather than making it two dimensional, or static ('mothers and daughters can't get along!'), the film shows how both mother and daughter can change, and in so doing, how they can save each other, and themselves.

My favorite scene from "Brave"? The one where Merida takes a stand between her father and his warriors and her magically transformed-into-a-bear mother, announcing, "I'll not let you kill my mother!"  And a few seconds later, when Mama Bear roars to Merida's rescue as she is attacked by the evil bear Mor'du -- communicating without words the sentiment roaring in this mother's heart: "I'll not let you hurt my child. I'll die first."

Evil stepmothers and dead mothers are tropes whose time may be of the past. A fierce mama as a co-protagonist? That's a brave feminist trend I can get behind.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Summer Writing Prompts for Young Writers (and Readers!)

Last year, a fantastic blog post called How to Be a Writer was making the rounds among my writerly friends. Those of us who are also parents seemed particularly interested, since the essay was as much about being a writer as it was about raising a writer. Under the question “What should you do to help your child pursue her dreams of becoming a writer?”, it included fantastic advice like:
  • First of all, let her be bored. Let her have long afternoons with absolutely nothing to do. Limit her TV-watching time and her internet-playing time and take away her cell phone.
  • Let her be lonely. Let her believe that no one in the world truly understands her.
  • Let her sit outside at night under the stars. Give her a flashlight to write by.
and then of course there was my favorite:
  • Let her fail. Let her write pages and pages of painful poetry and terrible prose. Let her write painfully bad fan fiction. Don’t freak out when she shows you stories about Bella Swan making out with Draco Malfoy. Never take her writing personally or assume it has anything to do with you, even if she only writes stories about dead mothers and orphans.
Fantastic advice, yes?

But I guess the question still remains, how do we teachers, parents, writers and readers concretely encourage our young people to love words and stories? (I mean, beyond the making sure our children feel lonely, misunderstood, in the dark, and are writing extraordinarily improbable romantic fanfic mashups!)

I’ve always believed that encouraging our children to read – read widely, and read a lot — is a sure fire way to raise writers and readers. That, and lots of fun family read-alouds (ideally with lots of fantastic voices!) But, this summer, along with spending long and delicious hours in our local library (before, after, and some days, both before and after going to the local pool) I’m going to try something new. Inspired by writer Anjali Enjeti, and her fantastic pinterest board of summer writing prompts for young people, I’m going to give my children daily summer writing prompts. (Full disclosure, Anjali recently invited me to write an essay as part of another great project in which she’s asking all sorts of writers the question, “When do you write?” She kindly agreed to publish my rant on Virginia Wolf, Star Trek, mothering, writing, intergalactic wormholes, and the time-space continuum. Brave woman, clearly.)

To read the rest of this post (and get a few more ideas for summer writing prompts!) please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things: Body Acceptance in YA Literature


Despite movements toward Health at Every Size (HAES), the truth of the matter is, size shaming is alive and well in this country. From the “Strong4Life” Georgia childhood obesity campaign to New York City’s “Cut your Portions, Cut your Risk” campaign scare tactics and body shame are part and parcel of the way we talk about health. And when actual bodies can’t be portrayed in ways that are framed as frightening enough, we create bodies to scare people. Case in point, the New York City “cut your portions” campaign apparently Photoshopped a man’s leg out of one ad – suggesting it was amputated from diabetes.

Although purportedly tackling size discrimination, the multi-part HBO series “The Weight of the Nation” is one of many voices still framing conversations about food and health as the “obesity epidemic.” In her essay, “Fat panic and the new morality,” which appears in a 2010 collection entitled Against Health, Kathleen LeBesco analyzes the “obesity epidemic” as a “moral panic.” In her words: “our insistence on turning efforts to achieve good health into a greater moral enterprise means that health also becomes a sharp political stick in which much harm is ultimately done.” Bodies of size – representing risk, ill-health, weak will, and loss of control — become an affront to the ‘American dream’ that anyone can achieve anything they put their minds to. Even the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently released a report suggesting that rather than focusing on individual willpower and control, the American medical establishment should concentrate efforts on making the environment less “obesogenic “ – for instance, through policies changing farm subsidies that preferentially support corn and soy growing over other fruits and vegetables. Yet, we continue individual level shaming and blaming – to disastrous ends, particularly among young women.

So how do novels aimed at teen audiences address issues of size? I have written before on the issue of YA novels and body image, and in that post I focused partially on Laurie Halsie Anderson’s novel Wintergirls (2009), which is written from the point of view of a young woman with severely disordered eating, and has caused great uproar among parents and educators. Such novels, which depict the self-loathing and torment of disordered eating, are potentially controversial in their handling of body acceptance. As I wrote then,
“Even the New York Times took up the issue, asking if such a novel—which explicitly discusses extreme exercise, binging, purging and caloric intake control, is potentially triggering young women already vulnerable to eating disorders? Can such novels be (mis)used as instruction manuals, yet another source of “thinspiration” for a community of young women already prowling pro-ana and other similar websites?”
Yet, is there a way to portray both the anguish of size shaming in our culture and healthy body acceptance by a teenager without resorting to “preachy” lessons? Enter Carolyn Mackler’s Printz award-winning The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things (2003), which does just that (and gives a shout-out to the Adios, Barbie team besides!).

Fifteen-year old Virginia Shreves is the youngest child with a “larger-than-average” body in a thin, brilliant, seemingly perfect family. She’s started to fool around with Froggy Welsh the Fourth, and has gotten to second base, but knows better than to acknowledge their relationship in school, or push Froggy for a relationship due to the “Fat Girl Code of Conduct.” Mackler portrays Virginia’s size loathing with painful accuracy – her parents are far more concerned with her diet than her grades, she can’t face herself in a mirror, and shopping for clothes is a torture-fest.
But when Froggy seems to himself be pushing for a more public relationship, and then, her seemingly perfect older brother Byron is accused of a horrible crime against a female college classmate, Virginia is stumped. All the rules of her world seem to be turning themselves upside down. Virginia has to find her own power, making space for herself in her family, in her school, and in her own body.

The strength of Mackler’s novel is Virginia’s spot-on teenage voice. She deals with self-doubt, self-loathing, and even, yes, self-harm, but ultimately, she’s no victim.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit adios, barbie!