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!