Tag Archives: YA

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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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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