“Planet Middle School” or How Puberty Means Alienation from the Body

10636878The emergency-room doors

crack open

and I feel my heart split.

Thus begins Planet Middle School, a middle grade novel in verse by the wonderful Nikki Grimes. The 12-year-old girl at the center of the book is Joylin, a basketball star who is lost in her own ever-changing body. Aren’t we all? Our relationship with our physicality is probably one of the most important ones we’ll have in our lifetime. Some of us have a pretty easy-going one, some of us have an incredibly dysfunctional one, and for a lot of us it’s a dynamic that changes on a day-to-day basis. It’s safe to say, though, that puberty, across the board, is a period that is usually fraught when it comes to the body. In fact, it sometimes feel like we are in a Twilight episode about body-snatchers, never quite sure what it’s doing, why it’s reacting, and how to control it.

Planet Middle School puts the issue of our inner-outer struggle at the front and center. It’s very telling that the novel opens with a focus on an internal organ in a location that is dedicated to corporal ills–the novel’s plot basically consists of a series of “attacks” either thrust upon the body or coming from within it. In small poems, we see Joylin cringing as she goes bra shopping, wishing her chest would disappear when she plays basketball, dreading the pains of her first period, yearning to be more of a girly-girl, feeling uncomfortable when she tries to be one, and lusting after a boy who won’t even give her the time of day. These are all pretty standard tribulations for her age-group, but what drew me into Grimes’ story was how effectively she describes how our interior world is forever shifted by our physical experiences. And vice-versa.

The story also makes it a point to note that the estrangement one feels with their physical exterior is something we all experience. KeeLee, Joy’s best friend, feels constrained by the expectations of what a preacher’s kid should look like or act like. Jake, her other best friend, has no idea of how to react to Joy being an ACTUAL girl. One of the most heart-breaking moments comes when Caden, Joy’s brother, is chastised by his father for not being as athletic as his sister. Oh boy, you’re almost overwhelmed by the social expectation of masculinity with that simple scene.

Throughout all this, Joy knows that the answer is to be herself. But, of course, that is easier said than done, especially when you feel that your body is turning against you every single day. It’s only when one of her loved ones faces mortal peril, that Joy begins to understand that the point is not to overpower your body or let your body overpower you. The only real solution is to see it as a vessel for your own empowerment.

On Reading and Guilty Pleasures

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I’m convinced I’m the lone wolf who ever bought a single copy.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about guilty pleasures. This may be in part due to this month’s Is This a Thing’s theme, “Musical Guilty Pleasures.” What is Is This a Thing?, you ask. (WARNING! SHAMELESS PLUG AHEAD!) It’s the monthly Live Lit show I co-produce, and I’m beyond excited that I’ll be hosting it for the first time on Monday. Inspired by October’s event, I was originally going to write about my own embarrassing predilections for Euro-trash dance hits. But the whole topic got me thinking about other areas in one’s life where indulging in the low-brow can cause others to raise their eyebrows. (Could not resist the pun.)

Which is why I decided to write about literary guilty pleasures. More specifically, YA guilty pleasures.

The debate as to whether reading YA as an adult is a source of embarrassment bubbles up every now and then like a particularly bad Ebola outbreak, and I have zero interest in rehashing it. Most of us have made up our minds about that one and, um, considering I’m a 32-year-old woman who reads and writes YA, it’s easy to tell what side I’m on.

No, I’m talking about reading books as a wee gal that you knew, just knew, were not the most impressive of choices.

It’s weird how that happens. For most of my elementary school years, I read with wild abandonment and my insatiable appetite for books was met with great admiration and pride from grown-ups. It was a simpler time, when it seemed that the content of what I read was nowhere near as important as the fact that I read (barring crazily inappropriate material for my age group, obviously.) But at some point in 5th grade,which coincidentally is around the time The Puberty starts to hit, I became very much aware that there were “smart” books and “dumb” books, “serious” books and “dumb” books, “instructive” books and “dumb” books. And even though I got the same type of satisfaction from either kind of book, the “dumb” books were also accompanied by a very, distinct feeling: Shame.

So many period costumes! So many exotic locations! So many blondes! Who could resist?

So many period costumes! So many exotic locations! So many blondes! Who could resist?

Which is how I ended up reading Sweet Valley Saga: The Wakefields of Sweet Valley hiding. Since I couldn’t bring myself to put the book down, lest I never find out what happened to Jessica and Elizabeth’s great-great-great grandmother during Prohibition, I must have disappeared for a total of five days, four hours, and 32 seconds. My love for The Babysitters-Club was a bit more palatable to those around me, though I always made sure to buy a classic next to the latest edition of their Super Specials. I read those damn travelogues so many times that several lost their covers and a few had holes from underlining the passages that I particularly liked. But the series that probably made me scorn my truncated taste-levels more than any other was the Girl Talk books. Don’t ring a bell? I’m not surprised. I’ve literally never met anyone else who has ever heard of them. I couldn’t even get them at bookstores. The only place that seemed to carry them was Toys “R” Us, that shoved them somewhere between coloring books and despair.

Look, I’m not about to defend the artistic merits of any of these publications. They were formulaic in every sense of the word, each one following a predictable pattern (the descriptive 2nd chapter in all Babysitters Club books, the phone call chapters in Girl Talk, Elizabeth and Todd’s ancestors never getting to live happily ever-after) and ending in a nice, tight, wrapped little bow. Character development was non-existent and, I would say, an anathema to their very spirit since each girl had to fit their given parameters. Kristy can’t NOT be a tomboy who knows when to keep her mouth shut!

I still want to go on a cruise.

I still want to go on a cruise.

But that’s not what was embarrassing about them. What really, truly, made me cringe was that they were “girly.”

And therein lies the problem.

Because while the entire fifth-grade class was devouring Goosebumps, The Hardy Boys, and Michael Crichton novels as if they were laced with crack, the only books that were seen as “dumb” were the ones that talked about, like, boys and stuff. I was supposed to be ABOVE it. My heart wasn’t supposed to sing when Mary Anne and Logan finally got together, I wasn’t supposed to gasp when one of the Wakefield twins cheated on their paramour du jour, or obsess over the many-tensioned layers in those damn Girl Talk phone conversations. We are conditioned at such a young age to believe that anything feminine is considered less-than, that even the act of reading is filled with strife.

But I did. And adult-me really wants to tell 11-year-old me, “OF COURSE, YOU DID. And that’s ok.”

So though the writing quality might be lacking*, I would argue that “dumb” books are an important part of any person’s personal literary history. At its most basic, it keeps kids reading. Knee-deep into my Babysitters-Club obsession, I started reading Dickens and Singer and Garcia Marquez and other literary greats. Dawn’s annoying environmentalism was a welcome respite from, um, 19th Century French politics. Even further, I find it one of the safest spaces to explore burgeoning sexualities, as cheesy and slightly-gross as that sounds. We were all thinking about s-e-x, but no one wanted to admit we were actually terrified/worried/curious/weirded-out/attracted/insert-hormone-induced-feeling about it. Finally, at a time when your insides, your outsides, your universe, is shifting, it’s nice to go to a world that is easily accessible, familiar, and static. Sometimes 8th grade needs to last for 342 books, dammit!

“Shame” and “reading” should rarely be paired in the same sentence. It leads us to limit our scope. We become suspicious to ourselves, making us doubt our very own sources of joy and interest. Banned Books Week happened not too long ago, and it was a sobering reminder that there are still folks out there who while use institutions to silence others. But sometimes, the worst kind of censorship is the kind we inflict on ourselves.

*That’s pretty debatable, if only because both Ann M. Martin and K.A. Applegate are Newberry honorees.

“Sing Down The Moon” Or How If You Want Dystopias, You Need Only Look at the Past

186384“On the high Mesas above our canyon spring came early that year.” 

Imagine this: Your once idyllic home is now under constant threat. South of it, bands of marauders are on the hunt for young women to enslave. Enemy soldiers with highly-evolved technology keep encroaching on your territory. Your traditional enemies have partnered up with new menaces to ensure your destruction. Your leaders are paralyzed, as their traditional tactics are no match for what is unfolding before their eyes. Your on the brink of becoming an adult, but have no guarantee that you’ll even survive your childhood. 

All of this would make a fantastic set-up for the new Hunger Games/Divergent/Uglies/City-of-Bones/Dystopian-Teen-Novel-Here sensation ready to take their world by storm. But Sing Down The Moon doesn’t take place in the future, and it doesn’t take place in an alternate universe. Instead, the Scott O’Dell novel is based of the very real displacement of the Navaho nation from their Arizona homeland and into New Mexico. 

The story centers around Bright Morning, a fourteen-year-old Native American living in the Canyon de Chelly circa de 1860s. While tending to her sheep, her and her friend Running Bird are capture by Spanish slavers and forced to make their way to the European settlements. You think this will be the focal point of the rest of the book. You’ll be wrong. Because even though Bright Morning’s indentured servitude is a terrible enough fate, it’s not even the worse thing that happens in the book. The real tragedy begins after she escapes and find herself back home, and the Long Knives (a.k.a the American army) expel the Navahos from their ancestral land. 

When the dystopian Boom exploded, I began to wonder why a similar historical-fiction one didn’t occur along with it. After all, if the oppression and destruction of a people really gets your creative juices flowing, there are countless moments in history where this all played out. The fate of Native American communities is one of the most harrowing. As Bright Morning’s father notices a bit too late, the Long Knives didn’t just want to burn their houses, raze their fields, and cut down their orchards. Their end goal was the total annihilation of the Navaho people. 

Of course, one could argue that what teens really respond too is the quest for freedom in these books. And Sing Down The Moon is, at the end, a young woman’s search for independence. As the Navahos are thrust further and further away, Bright Morning conjures up a plan to return to her land, come what may. That this comes at great personal risk and with immense sacrifice is a given. Anyone who’s read a dystopian novel can predict that. However, where these two genres diverge (see what I did there?), other than on its factual basis, is the fact that history doesn’t always lend itself to a happy ending. Sing Down the Moon can’t indulge in an all-is-swell finale, because all was not-swell for the Native American community after the arrival of the white man. You could argue that all-is-not-swell even now. This book is a great portrayal of what was lost and the impossibility of its recovery. 

Let’s Read More Books By and About African-Americans, Shall We?

Last summer, it was Trayvon Martin. This year, it’s Mike Brown. Depressing thought of the day: I won’t be surprised if there’s another racially charged killing in 2015 to keep me up at night.

I am not black. My husband isn’t black. My family members aren’t black. I have a handful of black friends and colleagues, but I can honestly say they’re few and far between. My outrage has little to do with a “personal” connection to the community, unless you count being human a good enough reason to be devastated by recent events. I happen to think being human is an excellent reason.

A few weeks ago, my Facebook feed was ablaze with news about a study that argued Harry Potter could teach kids empathy. Like most studies, it comes with certain caveats, but I’m of the opinion that good children’s books teach us kindness, humility and, yes, empathy. Reading fiction necessarily asks you to step outside your own psyche and inhabit somebody else’s. If a well-crafted narrative can inspire readers to mourn the passing of a magical house elf (long-live Dobby!), imagine how it can change our perspective about real world groups.

Do I think the solution to Ferguson is a YA reading list? No. I think the solution to Ferguson lies in overhauling the broken justice system that allows for little police accountability, brazen civil rights violation, and extreme use of force over marginalized groups of people. Do I think a reading list can help in the long haul? Yes, I do.

So this is the tiny, smallest of contributions to society at large. Here are five books from African-American authors, about African-American characters, that YA fans can go gaga over. My criteria for selecting these was simple. Besides the two already mentioned, I wanted to focus on contemporary fiction. Too often we keep minority voices in historically appropriate settings, as if there was nothing more to say about these communities in the present. I also wanted to stick to stories about young, black men, who tend to be demonized in the media, in pop culture, in movies, on that corner, in your grandmother’s head, pretty much EVERYWHERE. It needs to stop.

Without further ado:

For the Conspiracy-Theorist in You: Fake ID by Lamar Giles

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I kept running into Lamar Giles at this year’s SCBWI conference, to the point that it must have seemed like I was stalking him. It’s a testament to how awesome he is that he was courteous, friendly, and not at all creeped out by my constant presence. Thanks, Lamar! His debut novel is about Nick Pearson, though that’s not his real name. You see, Nick is part of the Witness Protection Program and he’s trying to lay low. But when his new best friend shows up dead, Nick might have to risk it all to solve his murder.

For the Classic Connoisseur in You: Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers

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Honestly, feel free to pick up any book from the award-winning, prolific Walter Dean Myers. The man could do no no wrong and he will surely be missed. The Newberry Award-winning book was my first exposure to this wonderful author, and it had a profound impact on me as a kid. The narrative centers around Jamal, and how his life is turned upside-down when a gang member gives him a gun. It’s a nuanced look at the culture of violence that seeps into even the best-meaning of us all.

For the Class-Conscious Analyst in You:  We Could Be Brothers  by Derrick Barnes

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Robeson Battlefield and Pacino Clapton don’t seem to have anything in common. But when they’re both stuck in after school suspension after altercations with the school bully, the become fast friends despite their social, economic, and cultural differences. The book explores the tensions and variation within the Black community, refusing to treat it as a monolithic block.

For the Romantic in You: Jason and Kyra by Dana Davidson

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The classic tale of the not-so-dumb jock falling in love for the brainy-and-pretty shy girl is set in an affluent black suburb of Detroit. It’s refreshing to read a book that not only has a teen girl interested in science, but a minority girl at that.

For the Boarding School Enthusiast in You: Black Boy White School by Brian F. Walker

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Based on the author’s personal experiences, the novel follows Anthony, who grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Cleveland, as he goes to fancy Belton Academy in Maine. As he adjusts to life in an unfamiliar world of privilege, Anthony fears that he’ll lose his roots. Black or white, everyone can identify with struggle of fitting in.

Know any black teens who might enjoy these? Excellent! Minority kids need to see themselves and their stories reflected on the page, and lord knows it can be hard to find. (For more on this subject, please check out the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.) Don’t know any black teens? It doesn’t matter. Kids of all races need to be exposed to voices unlike their own. It’s what fosters empathy and understanding. And lord knows that also can be hard to find.

Friday Fiesta: “Small Window” by Luluc

TREND ALERT: My musical tastes this summer have tended towards the moody, the gloomy, and the Australian. Case in point: Luluc, whose haunting melody “Small Window” stopped my incessant typing/proofing/translating/social-media-posting in its tracks, and forced me to sit back and listen. Just the fact that it starts off with the lyric “Flying over Chicago”–an experience that has shaped my very identity–already makes me want to curl up in a fetus position and feel feelings. Yes, it is quite slow and melodic for a seasonal jam. I know you’re all bopping to “Turn Down the What” or some other atrocious club hit, but I have had the great pleasure of spending these past few months working my butt off. That might not sound remotely appealing, unless you’re also one of the millions who have been crushed by the economic downturn. I’ll take working every day until 9pm to the horrific tediousness of underemployment. So, since my summer seems to have morphed into an early fall, Luluc-type music is highly appropriate. My chances of catching any rays this summer is slim; I might as well pretend snow is drifting outside my window.