Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Setting, Butt-Kicking, and Character Development, Oh My! My Best Book Discoveries of 2011

With the holidays quickly approaching, this past week I’ve found myself spending a lot of time reflecting on the past year—and with it, the past year’s books. While as a book marketer I’m already looking at books that are a year or more from publication (we just launched the Winter 2013 list—yeesh!), as a reader I find myself looking back as often as I look forward. If you asked me what my favorite reads this year were, you’d find my list reflects that; it’s pretty evenly split between books I loved from 2011, books I discovered my love for in 2011 (though they came out years ago), and books I was lucky to read in advance and can’t wait to buy in hardcover come 2012.

Books I Read Early—and Can’t Wait Until 2012 to Read Again

---> Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood
Though I enjoy many books each year, it’s a rare book that I truly love. So when my roommate Victoria thrust this book into my hands, I think she and I both saw it as a chance to test whether our tastes aligned and we could trust each other to recommend books. The answer is yes. In Born Wicked, Jessica has built a compelling, convincing world that feels at once familiar and completely foreign, both reserved and darkly dangerous. The climax delivered such a skillful series of blows, twists, and reveals that I found myself breathless and begging for more when I hit the last page.

---> Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen
I picked Scarlet up for the butt-kicking female protagonist—and there’s plenty of that—but I stayed for the love story. This book breathes new life into the Robin Hood story with characters that ring utterly true both as heroes and as conflicted, broken teenagers. The fast action and the book's many surprises kept me breathlessly turning pages. What’s more, amidst this wave of paranormal and contemporary romances, it was refreshing to read a love story that didn’t dominate the plot but nonetheless felt essential to it, and very, very right.

---> Butter by Erin Lange
Butter is the story of an overweight teenager who, friendless, teased, and out of hope, threatens to eat himself to death live on the internet on New Year’s Eve. When his announcement skyrockets through the rumor mill, he’s suddenly noticed—even liked—by his classmates, and he finds himself wondering if he can really go through with the plan—and if he has a choice in the matter. This book had me at its oh-so-heartbreaking premise, and it absolutely delivered. Erin doesn’t shy away from showing teenagers at their most brutal, but she nonetheless tells a story that is ultimately about redemption.

---> Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas
More butt-kicking! Celaena Sardothien is plucked from certain death in the slave mines of Endovier and whisked away to a glass castle to compete for the title of King’s assassin. All that stands between Celaena and the promise of freedom is a deadly competition, a chamber far below the castle that's full of dark secrets, and a host of traitors who make it impossible for Celaena to trust anyone—even the two men closest to her. A jaw-dropping cross between The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, this book refused to let me put it down until I’d raced to the end. (Also, that art is fan art! So cool!)

Favorites of 2011

---> Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
I never fail to be spellbound by Laini’s lyrical writing and her oh-so-literary approach to storytelling. She took a commercial concept—an angel falls in love with a demon, and it does not go well—and surprised me with her execution. On a structural level, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is like almost no other YA I’ve read. And yet, even when the story’s pace was leisurely, I was completely and utterly captivated.

---> The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab
The Near Witch is Victoria’s first novel, a lovely tale of intrigue, magic, and a dash of love. Again, it was Victoria’s literary style that pulled me into this one, and I can’t stop talking about her characters—including her setting, a moor that becomes a character in its own right under Victoria’s skillful hand.

---> Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
From a neurologist’s lens, Cordelia debunks the myths we’ve all heard about the genetic roots of gender, and builds a compelling argument for viewing gender as a social construct. I learned an immense amount from this impeccably-researched book.

---> Season of Secrets by Sally Nicholls
In this literary middle-grade novel, a young girl grieving her mother’s death meets a mysterious man who can make flowers bloom and create roots, seed, and flower out of nothing. But if he can breathe life into a plant even in the dead of winter, can he bring back Molly’s mother? Season of Secrets is one of those rare gems that broke my heart entirely, and then stitched it back up again in the course of 250 pages.

And I Just Had to Mention…

---> Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore
Kristin’s characters! Oh, heavens, her characters. Katsa, Po, Fire, and Briggan are among the most complex characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and the emotional truths at the heart of both of these epic-fantasy-meets-love-stories are so well-observed and maturely handled that I have a hard time believing Graceling was a debut. Had the battles, chases, fights, and escapes of these novels not even existed, I’d still be singing their praises as finely wrought character studies. But married with plot, those characters make Kristin’s books some of the best I’ve ever read. I can't wait for Bitterblue!

How about you? What were your favorite reads of 2011? What are you waiting on in 2012?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

YA Cover (and Cultural) Trends: Turning the Discussion Over to You!

Writer and Publisher Friends, do you know you are the BEST at commenting? I hope the ongoing discussion of the sad, sorry state of women in our cultural consciousness isn’t driving anyone else to drink. (Are you feeling down? Do you need a hug? Here, here is an adorable malamute puppy for your sanity-restoring pleasure—but my flatmates and I call first puppy-hugging dibs.)

The discussions on my last two posts have been so well-informed and genuinely insightful that today I want to turn the spotlight over to you. The following are some of the comments and responses that made me stop and reconsider my position, that followed me away from my computer and onto the train or into the office or to my feminist lunch hour with Regina (hopefully a new tradition?), or that added something to the conversation that I couldn’t have added on my own.

Seanan McGuire wrote an interesting post on her own blog that, in part, provides a response to the common “But the cover reflects something that happens in the book” argument:
I've read several of these books. Putting a wilted waif in a beautiful bower on the cover is the equivalent of putting a wilted waif in a beautiful bower on the cover of Sparrow Hill Road. Yeah, Rose is long dead when the series starts, but why is that the image we need to focus on? Why is that the moment that sells the book?
I feel Seanan put her finger on the exact reason that I’m complaining about dead girls on book covers, and not about girls dying in books (though who knows, tomorrow is another day). The books I posted are far more varied in their themes and subject matter than their covers reflect, and the common visual ground chosen to represent and sell these books tells me something about the culture that created them—about the images we find worthy of our attention and gaze. What do you think? Are the cover images really the right moments of the book to be illustrated?

In both the comments on my original post and in her own forum post here, Ami Angelwings brought up another heartbreaking conclusion that can be drawn from the interest of girls in images that suggest their own deaths:
A dead girl's corpse is perfect. It's not going to get old, or get fat, or eat too much, or sleep with too many people, or the wrong people, or cheat, or be gossipy, or sinful, or talk back, or the million other things society demonizes about women and our passions, desires and appetites. We're just beautiful and nothing more, just like a woman should be. To be the perfect woman, you have to be dead.
She shares her experience as someone who has recovered from anorexia, but who used to struggle not only to reach a certain beauty ideal, but who rarely forgot that, once reached, that sense of perfection would only have to be maintained. Certainly that exact experience isn’t universal to all girls, but do you think it’s something that teenage girls in particular might be able to relate to?

Along a similar line of thought, an anonymous commenter chalked these covers up to our cultural fear of aging:
Could it be that the dead girl on the cover of the books appeal to teens because it represents a state of physical arrest? These dead girls in pretty dresses aren't growing, they aren't changing. The image is of a perfect, pale and pretty girl, one who doesn't have to worry about armpit hair, cramps, zits, college, jobs, PMS or becoming her mother. Being dead is great not because they hate their teenage girlish bodies --it's because our culture is youth obsessed. Being dead is great because it means you get to stay young. That's why vampire books are romances, and zombie books tend to be horror stories. Because getting old and rotting is something to fear.
Put in those terms, I can certainly see how this source of fascination could be more universal to girls, and particularly relevant to girls during their teen years. What are your thoughts? Does this change how you feel about the trend, or convince you that the fascination with death is more a part of growing up than a product of our culture? Or does it seem like even more of a product of our culture when you look at the trend this way?

Interestingly, the vast majority of the authors whose book covers appeared in my post said that they had never thought of their cover model as dead. Building on that, Aimee Carter tweeted, “I see life (or the fight for it, which fascinates me) in most of those covers,” and Holly Black weighed in with the opinion that the internal tension created by the questions these covers ask—either “is the girl dead?” or “will she survive?”—holds the viewer’s attention and makes the covers successful. What do you think? Do the girls on those book covers look dead? Does it matter, if the initial impression the viewer gets is one of death, or at least passivity?

CuddleBug looks at what would seem to be the antithesis of the dead girl cover—the butt-kicking heroine cover—and finds a surprisingly similar trend of passivity. She calls it "waif-fu": the cover image that suggests an active heroine but, through skimpy clothing and a supermodel pose clearly designed to show off more than her biceps (in fact, what biceps? That might make her look less slender!). Looking at the slew of covers CuddleBug features, it's hard to convince oneself that the audience they cater to is free of male gaze. And though I prefer a living, albeit sexualized, girl to a dead one, it's hard to see these as better role models for teens. As CuddleBug says:
Our options for female role models would appear to be either beautiful and passive young women posing around doing nothing in a pretty dress, or a beautiful ass-kicker who looks like she should be a supermodel. Who also, may I add, is not doing anything.

In this case, I don't think what causes young women to be attracted to these images is as much internalized misogyny as internalized ideals of beauty. Of course, one could argue that it's six of one and a half dozen of the other, but an excellent commenter on my last post did point out that there's a difference between misogyny and antifeminism. In any case, though, it does allow me to talk not just about these images, but also about a character trope that crops up frequently, especially in speculative fiction: the BAMF. Most sci-fi especially seems to feature at least one character that writers or directors can point to and say "Don't look at me, I put a strong woman in my work!" These characters are powerful, yes, and pretty evidently in possession of lady-parts, which is clear from their skimpy dress. But these characters are powerful solely in a way that's considered masculine. And while there are many women in the real world who kick butt and take names like its their job, the existence of those character types as the only strong female in a particular story world implies that there is no other way to be a strong woman—which simply isn't true. What do you think? And, is this a trend that extends to YA, or do you think it exists mostly in the world of adult books right now?

For Zoƫ Marriott, the fairy tale trope implied by a number of these images carries with it an even darker implication than what we explored in last week's post. To explain, she goes back to the origins of the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty stories, which existed long before the Brothers Grimm prettied them up:
What really happens is that a travelling prince, in the course of his adventures, comes across an apparently sleeping young woman who is unable to defend herself, and rapes her. Then he goes on his merry way. About nine months later, the girl gives birth to a child, and this experience (not surprisingly) finally wakes her from her slumber. And then (the part which always makes me feel the most squinky) the girl is so grateful for having finally escaped the curse that she goes after the travelling prince, thanks him very much for his random sexual assault, and ends up getting married to him.

This represents a fairly strong and very dark male fantasy - that of the unresisting victim. A girl who can't fight or struggle because she is incapacitated. A girl who, although unable to offer any kind of consent to sexual activity, of course actually wants it. A girl who will even thank you for it later on.
And that's an even more powerful and heartbreaking concept than what I originally tackled in my post about dead girls on covers and internalized misogyny. If these covers both imply and idealize not just death, but also rape... what does that say about our culture?

Glitter and Gore looks at horror, a genre in which you might expect to see a lot of dead girl covers, and finds traces of the dead-girl trend in re-releases of some of her favorites. What’s more, she sees an overwhelming trend towards passivity in the girls pictured:
What confuses me most is that, judging by the few of these books I have read, the heroines inside their pages are NOT submissive. They're tough, resourceful, and intelligent. Sometimes selfish or a little naive, but for the most part, they aren't at all like the images in these covers would make them out to be. But the covers are what entice people to read books, or should be. They are taking strong young women and turning them into prettified zombies.
Rae Carson tweeted something similar: “I wonder if it's a subset of a larger trend of passive female protags on covers? So many look simply vacant & beautiful.” Is that the more applicable trend here? Certainly that does open it up to include even more images we typically see in the media. It even ties in with the fairy tale tropes we talked about last week.

And finally, in response to my discussion of the fairy tale trope in last week’s post, Katherine Langrish came to the defense of fairy tales:
I'd just like to add that the fairytales most often cited in these comments - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, with their obviously passive heroines, are not necessarily at all typical of fairytales in general, many of which have extremely vigorous and adventurous heroines: Molly Whuppie, the Master-Maid, Lady Mary and the heroine of 'Fitcher's Bird', both of whom see off the Bluebeard figures in their respective tales, and the intrepid heroine of 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' who rescues the Prince. The fact that our best known fairytales are those with passive heroines is not a reflection upon fairytale as a genre, but upon anthology choices and rewritings made - often - in the early 20th century and perpetuated ever since.
I’m so glad she brought this up, first because I’d be insane to totally write off fairy tales as a genre, and as an absolutely vital part of the history of storytelling, and secondly because it brings up a ridiculously important point that I’ve only be tangentially addressing in my posts. That point is that the stories we choose to share, versus those we choose to silence or at least omit from our discussions, go a long way in reflecting or shaping the culture that we get to live in. The choice of which stories to anthologize—made again and again favoring stories with passive female protagonists—tells us a lot about the subconscious agenda of those making the choices. The choice to anthologize or retell the story of Snow White rather than the story of Molly Whuppie (much like the choice to illustrate the deal-girl scene of a book rather than any other) both reflects and shapes the culture to which it is told. And it’s a culture in which the stories of adventurous heroines aren’t told that allows passivity in women to be idealized in the first place.

Share your thoughts!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

YA Cover Trends and the Fairy Tale Archetype

There were so many fascinating comments on my post about the dead-girl trend in YA book cover design that I hardly know where to begin addressing them. But as I ambled over to the coffee shop where I write these posts, something about the sight of winter branches and the feel of warm air that lies of springtime turned my thoughts to fairy tales, and from fairy tales back to this discussion.

In the comments on my cover trends post, Suelder called my attention to her own fascinating reading of these images:
I think you may be missing a possible archetypal answer… In fairy tales, the heroine often undergoes death (Snow White) sleep (sleeping beauty) or some other transformation (Swan Lake). In order for the heroine to leave her childhood behind, there often needs to be a symbolic death. It can be innocuous, such as Rapunzel cutting off her hair, or something more literal (Snow White again).

That’s an excellent point, but, regardless, I don’t believe that that interpretation negates my point about the internalized misogyny that these cover images suggest. If anything, I’d argue that an archetypal reading only adds complexity to the problem.

The fairy tale death archetype, in and of itself, is steeped in some troubling implications. Another commenter, Penni Russon, said it wonderfully:
I was interested in the comment above about death as a transitional state in the fairytale narrative. I still think there is a troubling trend there - Snow White and Sleeping Beauty 'die' and are reborn through being loved as beauty objects - they awake to marriage. Even Rapunzel's 'death' in removing her hair is a transition towards marriage. If anything in fairytale narrative when a woman dies it is the autonomous self who dies, the rebirth is marriage and a dissolving of self into (an arguably more powerful) other, not a reinstatement of that self. I guess I am someone who doesn't think that being a princess is particularly empowering.
In truth, the “transformation” undergone by Snow White and Sleeping Beauty can as easily be viewed as a transfer of ownership from the domination of a wicked stepmother to the (albeit more benign, but still ruling) leadership of a prince and husband. That message is no more empowering for young women than the call to action to leave a beautiful corpse. And the obsessive “Disney-Princessing” of American culture is all the proof we need that the fairy tale archetype is idealized and internalized by many a young girl.

What’s more, I don’t actually think the myths implied by the fairy-tale-death archetype are all that different from those implied by the concept of the beautiful dead girl.

Another super-smart commenter on Kristin Nelson’s post in response to mine over at Pub Rants, Lucy V Morgan noted that fairy tales actually provide some of our earliest and most culturally ingrained examples of the beautiful or poetical deaths we see in art and on book covers:
If anything, both within the text and on the covers, many of these girls entered a Sleeping Beauty/Snow White-style near-death (ie they don't actually die in the book). SB and SW are probably some of the earliest examples of this beautiful "death" Rachel Stark talks about--Snow White was even put on "exhibition" in a glass case. Both girls were woken by their Princes.

So we meet these YA cover girls in the near-death before their Princes arrive (which is usually the case for the story), the implication being that the girl is not truly alive until she meets her "Prince". She is just on exhibition...

In fairy tales like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the Prince is usually moved to kiss the heroine by the beauty of her corpse—or rather, by the desirable qualities he projects onto her lifeless form. Sound familiar? If you recall Marina DelVecchio’s description of the dead women depicted in media as “merely a body, a vacant, empty, vessel intended to contain the needs of others—preferably men—and her body, which is the most desired aspect of her existence, perfect, lithe, smooth and hair-free, is open for interpretation and domination,” it might. Like the poetically dead girls of the book covers I called out, the fairy-tale heroine is the perfect blank canvas for a prince’s desire.

And just as the few men and boys who do appear dying on book covers tend to be depicted in an active, heroic pose, the men who undergo this death-as-rebirth archetype in literature tend to be much more active participants in their own transformations. To use the example that Suelder cited, Gandalf falls to his death in order to defeat the Balrog in the Mines of Moria, but he returns to a future that is drastically different from the futures of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. He returns as an independent agent, devoid of any of his prior doubts, possessed with a purpose, and not only powerful but also in complete control of his abilities. This, I’d argue, is an appropriate metaphor for the transformation from child to adult—so why is it that so few of the women who experience the fairy-tale-death archetype do so in this way?

The concept of death as a means of growth and rebirth is a powerful one in Western culture, and it seems particularly appropriate in literature for young adults, who are constantly shedding one version of themselves in favor of another, more experienced and mature self. Indeed, I agree with the many commenters who argued that death has an important place in YA. As writers, as readers, and as viewers, we shouldn’t shy away from images and stories of death. But, even as we recognize the transformative power of death—its nature as a doorway, as my roommate Victoria Schwab elegantly describes it—it’s important to examine how the nature of that transformation reflects and shapes our expectations surrounding gender.

Thanks again for all the great comments and the incredible discussion. More thoughts soon! In the meantime, tell me what you think of fairy tales. Is there a way to make the fairy-tale-death archetype a good thing? And on another note, how do you view death in stories? In YA in particular?