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Lady Science!

There are a lot of things that I can’t believe are still things in the 21st century. The KKK. Homophobia. Tab cola. Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the gender gap, another inexplicable thing that’s still a thing. You know the one—it’s that thing where 50% of the population are so poorly represented that they qualify as a minority. I’ve been thinking about the gender gap in the sciences in particular.

The fact is, women may have long since won the rights to vote, to have careers, and to wear stylish yet functional bedazzled pants, but men still hold 70% of all careers in science and engineering. White men alone hold the majority of these positions, but men of every demographic outnumber women of the same category. All women of color combined barely add up to a tenth of the total professional scientific population.

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In my novels, I write about a young woman living a century ago with a background in science. While writing, I constantly need to remind myself that it wasn’t the norm. It comes far too naturally to me to envision scientifically-minded women. I’ve learned plenty about Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale and Irene Curie, but more than that, my own grandmother, Mary Campbell, practically wrote the book on Medical Mycology. In fact… she DID write the book, and if you studied medical mycology at university, chances are it was on your required reading list. Incidentally, if you studied Medical Mycology at university, you are probably also doing more important things with your life than writing novels that feature a magical detective. Good for you.

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My family is full of female professors, nurses, veterinarians, computer analysts, and research scientists; when I was growing up, I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a smart woman. I know. I tried. My sisters tattled and I got grounded for it. It continues to shock me, therefore, that the image of a woman as an intelligent professional is a concept that needs normalizing.

The trouble is ingrained in our culture. Women are encouraged to be supporters while men are pushed to be competitive. If that’s not blatant enough, loads of brilliant successful women have been actively cheated out of their notoriety by male colleagues.

3 Women Scientists Whose Discoveries Were Credited to Men

6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism

8 Inventions by Women that Dudes got Credit For

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“Who cares?” one might argue. “Those men probably stole credit from other men, too, that’s just the cutthroat nature of the field.” But when there are so few women in the field to begin with, each overlooked achievement represents a greater loss.

The problem with the erasure of women is that as a result, countless women just don’t get to see a future for themselves in the sciences in the same ways men do, and that matters. With good role models, possibilities blossom, and limitations drop away. Without any, invisible walls grow and self-doubt takes hold.

A few years back, my sister followed in the footsteps of Medical Mycology Mary and co-authored a book called THE ULTIMATE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO SCIENCE.

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Her role models mattered to her, and in turn she has became that role model through books and camps that she helps run for kids. Her latest project is the culmination of years of research that is both practical and awesome and involves fire… and also happens to be literally rocket science. Her Kickstarter for the ROCKET MASS HEATER GUIDE has just a few days left if you want to support an awesome woman in science RIGHT NOW, by the way, although she has already doubled her goal because the concept is just so damn cool!

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Women are a part of the scientific community. They just are. Awesome though their accomplishments might be, the fact that they exist should be the most boring thing in the world. Sadly, it’s STILL an anomaly in the 21st century for a woman to be seen as a scientist. I don’t want writers of historical fiction a hundred years from now to look back at 2016 and find themselves astonished at how unusual it was for women in our time to be recognized for their contributions.

So, let’s share a little recognition right now—who are your favorite female faces in the field of science and engineering?

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For the Book Pushers

(This post is modified slightly from a speech I had the privilege of delivering to my fellow book-pushers in the Pacific Northwest.)

My name is William Ritter. I write books, I teach high school, I raise kids, and I worry.

Mostly I worry.

As a FATHER, I worry that my own kids—kids who love reading and discovery—will be dulled by school instead of inspired by it. I worry that they will start to see reading as work and discovery as a chore. It’s hard for me to watch them go into a place where I can’t hover around them like a helicopter. I can’t remind them to be good or shield them from pain. I want to slip little cheesy inspirational notes into their backpacks. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself!

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As a TEACHER, I worry about my students. I worry every time I ask “What stories did grown-ups read to you when you were little?” because every year one or two students simply cannot answer because their parents never read to them. Their parents never read. The only reading material in their house is the back of a cereal box. These are the kids who struggle most—not only in reading, but in math, science, and social studies.

As a WRITER, I worry that what I do doesn’t matter. I worry that my YA novels are frivolous “genre fiction.” When I first signed with Algonquin Young Readers, I realized the list of books they would be publishing alongside mine were meaningful stories about war and persecution, about racism and homophobia, about overcoming loss and confronting mortality. My novel, on the other hand, was a fanciful tale about a magical detective. I worried that I was fluff in a world that needs substance.

But what I do matters. What we do matters. Books matter.

Truth time. By third grade, literacy scores have a direct correlation with high school graduation rates. Readers see more success than non-readers. Raising readers matters. If teachers do nothing more than promote a passion for reading, they achieve infinitely more good than drill-and-kill literacy lessons and high stakes tests. Students who read for pleasure see even greater success—and as it happens, readers like reading books that they LIKE. Who knew? What’s more, studies have repeatedly shown that reading fiction—yes frivolous genre fiction even more than serious non-fiction—increases empathy. In a world so full of greed and fear and hate, we need empathy. We need readers.

So I try my hardest to help books reach kids. I push books.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from a student in my care that our class novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, was the first book he had ever read.

“What?” I said. “No, you read a novel last year with Mrs. Walloch.”

“No,” he said. “The class read a novel. I never read a single chapter.”

“Well,” I said. “Congratulations. How do you feel about reading a novel?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I want to read another one.”

BAM.

There it was. I felt the instant self-satisfied pride that I imagine is usually reserved for really talented drug-dealers.

It was awesome.

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I taught an ESL class the next year. There were some great kids in that group, including a tricky pair of boys who had not only never read a book, but who took real pride in being non-readers. I went on and on about how that was like a toddler taking pride in never learning how to walk—I told them they’re limiting themselves! None of it got through. So instead of lecturing, I pushed a book across the desk at S.S.R. time. Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time-Indian. I pretended not to notice when the student reached the naughty bit in the first chapter and shared it with his friend. I knew I had him when I caught him reading during break. He finished that book and then told his friend that he HAD to read it next, because “it’s actually GOOD.” That book was later stolen from my room. The thief copped to taking it because it was “the first book that got me, ya know?” I let him keep it. He needed that book more than I did.

That’s how you get ‘em. The first one’s free, kid. Come back for more when ya start jonesing. Soon you’ll be forking over money to a stranger in a dark alley for Ray Bradbury, the Bronte sisters, maybe a heavy dose of William Shakespeare. I have become an unabashed pusher.

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I pushed If You Could Be Mine on a self-conscious, self-critical, self-described “loner” from a conservative family. She read it twice in one night. She was changed. That summer she corresponded with the author, Sara Farizan, and gained the confidence to come out for the first time to her parents. She took over as president of the school’s GSA and as a peer mentor. She has become outspoken, bold, and brighter.

I did more good for all of those students by pushing books across their desks than I did in all of my lesson-planning and teaching. Pushing books matters.

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I can’t tuck cheesy little inspirational notes into every single backpack, so I tuck them into the books I write, instead. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself! It helps me worry a little bit less. It helps me remember that what I do matters, too.

When you suggest a good book, post about one on a blog, push one across a desk, or read one to your kids—it matters. Push books. My students need those books. My sons need those books. The world needs those readers.

To all my fellow book-pushers out there, what you do matters. With each push you make a difference, you make a brighter world, you make a reader. Keep pushing.

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WHY AREN’T THEY KISSING YET?

An open letter to a sharp young reader who would like my characters to just kiss, already.

Dear ______,
Thank you very much for writing to me. It makes me very happy that you liked Jackaby and that you care about how he and Miss Rook interact. You are not alone in your desire for a “ship” between them.

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Relationships matter, and not just the squishy ones.

There’s nothing wrong with “shipping” characters if you see chemistry—that’s awesome. It shows emotional investment and speculation—but platonic relationships benefit from strong chemistry, too.

Speaking of chemistry, biochemist Tim Hunt recently insulted one of the most intelligent communities on the planet by suggesting female scientists have no place in a man’s laboratory. To be fair to Mr. Hunt, he didn’t denounce women altogether, he just called them crybabies and told them to go build their own treehouse if they wanted to split atoms and cure cancer. Simply put, “the trouble with girls” according to Tim Hunt, is that men and women fall in love, and that gets in the way of important work (link).

Hunt can’t imagine a world in which men and women might value and respect each other without romantic entanglements. Why should he? Authors and publishers can’t seem to imagine it either. Hollywood certainly can’t imagine it. Storytellers paid to do nothing BUT imagine absurd realities can’t be bothered to imagine such a thing, so why should Hunt be held to a higher standard?

The fact is we’re more comfortable imagining superheroes fighting aliens above the streets of New York or genetically mutated reptiles practicing eastern martial arts beneath them than we are prepared to imagine their sole female companion might NOT become a love interest.

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Assemble a funny group of men or women and you’ve got a “buddy comedy,” but mix the genders and it invariably becomes a “romantic comedy.” Rom-Coms are great, but there’s something wrong with the pernicious theme that romance is the ONLY way men and women can interact.

To be clear, I’m not against love. Romance is exciting and sweet and—well—romantic, but there are already plenty of lovers in YA. What I’m against is raising another generation incapable of imagining male/female relationships that are NOT romantic. When we read about flirtation, passion, and heartbreak, we are learning valuable lessons about how to love, but there are other relationships—relationships with mentors, allies, colleagues, friends—which can teach us to respect the other people in our lives, too.

Stories matter. How many great women never rise to their full potential because they are perpetually taught that their role is to marry a hero, not to become one? How many great men subconsciously believe that the only women who matter are the ones destined to love them? Is it any wonder so many men grow up to act either dismissive or aggressive toward women?

I realize that these are gargantuan sociocultural issues, and I also realize that you are 11 years old and trying to enjoy your Summer vacation, so I’ll tone it down a bit as I wrap this up.

Basically, _______, what I’m trying to say is you’re sharp and you’re capable. You can handle big words like “sociocultural,” and you can handle it if my characters don’t kiss. Someday you’ll be able to handle flying jets or running for president or working in a lab. When that time comes, don’t let some sexist old fart tell you that girls are too much trouble.

Kiss. Don’t kiss. Find relationships of value and cherish them—all of them—for what they are.

Sincerely,
—Will Ritter

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LeVar

LeVar Burton is pretty much the coolest person ever. In addition to maintaining the heart of the USS Enterprise and keeping kids like me boldly going where no one had gone before for years, LeVar Burton is STILL changing the world one children’s book at a time.

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My wife and I supported the Reading Rainbow kickstarter and I was excited to play the app with my 4-year-old. He took to it instantly. We listened to the first few books, narrated by various voice talents, and then the third book started and a familiar voice came on. I was instantly four years old, sitting right beside my son, and LeVar Burton was reading me a story for the first time in twenty years. I might have teared up a little.

Much as I adore him, LeVar Burton’s awesomeness is also the source of one of my most embarrassing childhood stories.

In 3rd grade I petitioned my mother for my very own Starfleet uniform—specifically I needed a gold engineering uniform with 2 1/2 pips. The one indicating a Lieutenant Commander. Yes, that one. The one that would make me Geordie LaForge.

Celebrity City

She spent hours on it. It was perfect. I was so proud I smuggled it to school beneath my coat for picture day. My friends all looked ready for awkward 7-year old job interviews in their very traditional class pictures. I looked like I was ready to charge some freaking warp nacelles with dilithium crystals. Bam.

To be clear, this is not the embarrassing part of my story.

The real purpose for my mother’s hard work came a few weeks later—October 31st. Halloween. I donned the uniform and my best black slacks. I borrowed my sister’s headband and a couple of rubber bands and strapped on my visor, which was undeniably and obviously cool. But I still didn’t quite look the part. Something about my porcelain Irish complexion was lacking. Luckily, the Halloween grease-paint multi-pack had the solution.

I know. Lord, I know. In retrospect, I see the painful irony of a white kid wearing blackface to honor the lead from the film Roots. I see it now. I also understand in hindsight all the pursed lips and knowing looks my neighbors shared when they opened their doors.

“Hey kids—oh. Oh, hi little William. Is that, um, is that you with yer face all…?”

“I’m Geordie!”

“Of course you are.”

Because nothing says entitlement like demanding treats for appropriating a culture.

Misguided though it was, even as a child I respected the hell out of LeVar Burton. I write YA books now, and I teach Literature to high schoolers. I encourage gleeful, unbridled nerdiness at every opportunity. I’m 30 years old, and I’m still a Reading Rainbow kid. I can think of no higher heights to which I might aspire than to help my childhood hero change the world, one children’s book at a time.

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SHIP

In the world of fandoms and Internet forums there exists a term called “SHIPPING.” Chances are good you already know this means supporting a relationSHIP between two characters in a book or TV series. Character SHIPs are a thing. Everybody knows this, apparently. I did not. Not until well after my first book was published.

It was then that I stumbled upon* a forum conversation about my novel that went something like this:

Reader: This book was really good! Just a little disappointed in the lack of SHIPs.
Friend: Aw, I was thinking about reading that one. No SHIPs at all?
Reader: Well, there’s a little bit of a SHIP, but it’s really not about that. Still good! I guess I was just hoping for more. I always look for a good SHIP in my books.
Friend: Me too!

This seemed like an oddly specific need. I mean, I did have a ship in my novel, as the reader had observed. It was a passenger carrier which docked in New Fiddleham in the first chapter—but as the reader had also noted, the book was not about that. Aside for bringing my narrator to town, the ship served no significant role in the plot.

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Surprised though I was to learn that anyone based their reading preferences on the presence or absence of seaworthy vessels—and more surprised that her friend seemed equally invested in the matter—I chalked it up to the Internet being a strange world. Who am I to judge? To each her own.

A few days later, a blog review popped up**, completely separate from the initial post, confessing a deeply felt hope that the next book would spend more time exploring SHIPS.

How profoundly disappointing my next storyline was going to be, I thought, to the apparently burgeoning community of naval aficionados. The next one had more mystery, more supernatural elements, and even a little more romance, but no ships at all.

I began to realize how devoid of boats my prose had become in the latest manuscript. I was reminded of the 1-star review for “To the Lighthouse” which accused Woolf of being “Not lighthouse-y enough.” I might be able to work in a rowboat or a dinghy somewhere—but no! Artistic integrity forbade pandering… besides, the plot took place completely inland.

It was not until the third mention, weeks later, that I realized something was up.

“I could totally SHIP Jackaby and Rook.”

“Ship them where?” I thought. “That’s a weird way to… OH! Oh. I’m an idiot. Okay. Right. I figured it out, Internet. I get it.”

Sometimes, late at night, I still wonder if book 2 wouldn’t be a better manuscript if I had found somewhere to add a boat.

* “Stumbled upon” is a term authors use to refer to something they discovered while obsessively googling anything and everything being written about their book. This, too, is a thing.

** Things have a habit of “popping up” when you are “stumbling upon” them (see above).

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The Perils of Positive Reviews

I don’t know precisely what the One Ring whispered to Gollum when he held it close, crouching in the darkness of a cave… but based on its effect, I assume it was giving him a series of positive literary reviews. Reviews, I am coming to find, are diabolical and all too precious things.
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There have been piles of articles advising authors on how to deal with negative reviews, but a scarcity about processing praise. In a strange way, praise can be just as maddening. As reviews come in from the Advanced Reader Copies of Jackaby, I find my fragile, increasingly schizophrenic arguments going something like this:

– They’re not for you. Walk away before you stumble on a harsh one.

– Read them, but read them for a purpose with a rational, cool head.

– Don’t! Fool of a Took! You’ll allow them to gain power over you!

– Too late! Lalala! I’m a princess in a tower made of pretty words!

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It’s a terrible habit, I know—but like Frodo atop Mount Doom, I can’t seem to chuck the dang ring into the fires. The reviews for Jackaby have been unbelievably G R E A T, and I’m so proud and happy… but they make me all the more paranoid about when the other shoe will drop. Someone is bound to give me a thumbs down or a one star out of five. Who will it be? Who is after the precious?

I have, at least, discovered something better to distract me from the lure of obsessing over positive reviews: terrible reviews for acclaimed authors. My new AYR book buddy, Kelly Barnhill, recently turned me on to me a tumblr of one-star reviews… and they are a marvelous. They’re loaded with gems like:

Romeo & Juliet (Shakespeare): “First of all, the whole thing is almost all dialogue.”

Metamorphosis (Kafka): “I’m probably going to burn it.”

To the Lighthouse (Woolfe): “… wasn’t lighthouse-y enough.”

They’re like a smelling salt. It’s impossible to take a review too seriously after a handful of those babies. If you receive public feedback on anything that you do, I highly encourage you check them out. Let the ridiculousness of totally subjective criticism shake you from your trance and help you to destroy the ring.

(Speaking of Lord of the Rings, Tolkein’s modern classic received initial reviews ranging from “Masterpiece… destined to outlast our time,” to “high minded… the death of literature itself,” to simply “Oh God, no more elves.” True fact!)

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Girls and Boys

I was told recently that being concerned about how we write men in literature when women have it much worse meant that I have misplaced priorities. Here is my elegant dissertation on why that’s a steamy load of poo. First and foremost, the two are the same priority. The issue is not boys versus girls, it is gender roles and societal expectations, which is a single coin. Insisting that it’s about tails landing down and not about heads landing up is as logical as it is helpful. Secondly, it reinforces the divide rather than repairing it.

I recently encountered an article bemoaning the poor treatment of men in YA fantasy. The thesis, sadly buried amidst a great deal of rubbish, was that impossible masculine ideals can be harmful to the self-esteem of young men. While this is reasonable, the author provided only two examples, neither of which were used well, and then went on to suggest that young women were NOT faced with such pressures, soundly blowing her own point to smithereens.

The argument reminded me of a graphic that flittered around the internet some time ago protesting a feminist double-standard. It depicted He-Man and Barbie, and claimed that feminists protested the unrealistic body type of a Barbie for girls, but that they were okay with the impossibly muscular He-Man for boys. (below)

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The first fault of both the article and the graphic is that they fail to recognize why the female archetype gets more attention, and why it is more insidious. To put it simply, if a boy tries to be like He-Man, he will try to be strong, athletic, and confident. If a girl tries to be like Barbie, she will avoid exertion, starve herself thin, and try to act demure and submissive at all times. Both archetypes reinforce a gender dichotomy in which men must be strong and overpowering, and women must be weak and overpowered.

The second fault of both the article and the graphic is that they create an us versus them standoff. Those darn feminists, the graphic implies, don’t care about the troubles we men face. In truth, the creator of the image is actually making a feminist point. True feminists DO have a problem with the gendered pressures facing boys, both because it sets up a society that subjugates women, and because young boys can suffer greatly as a result of these pressures. Teen suicide rates, as we have seen, are over four times higher in boys than girls in the US.

The article tries to claim that young men have it worse when it comes to unrealistic characters in YA. She makes it a competition, boys vs. girls. This is a fight she can’t win, and one not worth fighting to begin with. Even in the examples she provided, both kinds of gender stereotypes are present, and the male characters still have the power roles. In Twilight, for example, Edward Cullen is the brooding Beast, Bella his submissive Belle. Strong & weak gendered ideals are a tale as old as time. Contrary to the article’s claim, men simply do not face aesthetic pressures to the same degree that women do, and the physical ideals men are pushed toward are less oppressive. The ignorance of the claim does not, however, mean that men do not face unrealistic ideals, or that a lack of variety in literature is not a problem.

Before completely discarding her article as ridiculous, which is easy to do, it’s worth pushing past the poorly justified rant to look at the kernel of truth. There are an abundance of supernaturally attractive male figures in YA romance (and in the media in general), which can lead young men to feel insecure and unattractive. This is true. To dismiss this in favor of the argument, yeah, but women have it worse, is not a healthy form of discourse. To use an extreme analogy, one should never dismiss the holocaust of the Jewish people because the genocide of Native Americans resulted in more deaths. Both were unfathomable atrocities. Its not a competition. To claim that one group does not have a right to their grievance is callously dismissive and does nothing to improve the issue on either side. All it does, in this case, is create the incorrect impression that feminists care only about girls, leading to ignorant internet memes (see above).

In the end, I left the article with at least one worthwhile scrap of wisdom (although it took multiple readings and one incredibly frustrating attempt at a respectful discussion on twitter). What I took away, aside from “avoid weighty topics in 140 characters or less,” was this: Conscientious fantasy authors would do well to include a wider variety of body types, both to improve the messages bombarding teens today, and to improve their writing. It’s not about boys versus girls, it’s about being good, moral contributors to the world of YA literature. 

Your leading character is the eyes through which your audience sees the world, so what perspective are you asking readers to assume? I write a female narrator in a YA fantasy novel, so the article spoke directly to me. I think a lot about what kind of person she is and who she might become, but now I plan on keeping an even closer eye on the men in her life, too. This is a priority to me as as a feminist, as a father, and as a writer, and I don’t believe it is misplaced at all.

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