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The always brilliant [ profile] diceytillerman has a guest post up at The Rotund: "Fat Reader Singing". It's a great post about two books that I now have to put on my to-be-read list, about young adult books with successful, happy fat characters who don't lose weight. And apparently, if Rebecca is to be believed, fat characters with disabilities. And in one case, a fat character of color with a disability. It's as if it were okay to publish books with each character doesn't stand in for a single item in the Benetton circle of diversity!

She also links to a couple of responses I'd forgotten about to Scott Westerfeld's Missing Black Woman Formation, which I'm glad I reread. Although I still maintain that the Missing Black Woman Formation is endemic in middle grade adventure fiction, especially spy-fi, where there are way too many adventures where the hero is a white boy and his sidekicks are the white girl and the boy who has something that makes it impossible for him to be the hero (he's fat, Asian, poor, redhaired and freckled and comes from a large family and is clearly Irish Catholic even if that's never identified, black, not as smart as the hero, disabled, etc.). But even so, those posts about the MBWF make me want to go back and look again at all of those middle grade adventure books to see if I am fairly categorizing them, or their characters.

Actually, right now, off the top of my head, it occurs to me that I am ignoring Anne Ursu's Cronus Chronicles, which first of all has two protagonists, who are first cousins. And secondly, they're the white girl and the multiracial boy. In a fantasy book that's not about race, that's actually kind of a big deal.
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Karen Healey's guest post over at the book smugglers, "on awesome female characters", calls into question the entire idea of praising people for writing awesome/kick ass female characters. Karen is S-M-R-T smart, and her ideas are smart -- and she then goes on to write an utterly fabulous list of awesome female characters. Because I love every one of the characters in there that I recognized (Tip Tucci! Syrah Cheng! Cass Meyer! Melanie Tamaki!), I'm going to have to add every other book and movie mentioned to my miles-long To Be Read list. *Shakes tiny fist at Karen*

Not to mention that I adore the vid she links to at the bottom of the article, [personal profile] fizzyblogic's "What About", which I just watched to get some inspiration to start the rest of my day.

(OK, I don't agree with everything Karen says. I was not a big fan of Princess Ben; it had some fat hate that made me sad. And before cheerleading becomes an Olympic sport, there are some fairly major issues around sports and sexism that need to be resolved. (Fair warning: that link is specifically about US sports politics and Title IX, and Karen is a New Zealander (ETA MEA MAXIMA CULPA), and the Olympics are international. But it's the link I knew off the top of my head and I'm supposed to be working.))

(But she is still wicked smart, is what I'm saying.)
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My previous post made me think more about representations of fatness of the books on my syllabus. When I counted, I came up with three fat protagonists:

1. Wilbur from Charlotte's Web: Obviously problematic, because he's a pig. On the other hand, Wilbur's love of food is presented positively -- but it's presented positively because he's a pig. Templeton's greediness and ensuing fatness are presented grotesquely, both in text and illustration. On the whole, the text in its own way fairly didactic about eating and exercise habits being species appropriate. Charlotte is supposed to be bloodthirsty, Wilbur is supposed to like eating slops, and Fern is supposed to eat cotton candy occasionally while writing the ferris wheel with Henry Fussy. On the whole, I'd call this book kinda kinda in its representation of fatness, leaning on the negative side because hey, Wilbur, pig.

2. Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit: Once again, not a human character. Now, this book clearly trades in standard stereotypes of fatness, in the character of Bombur, who is amusingly bumbling and fat, and whose weight frequently leads to him getting stuck in funny funny fat conundrums. Oh how funny! Funny fat Bombur! But aside from that, it's also got interesting representations of food and exercise and fatness. Gandalf and the dwarves -- heroes all -- like eating and drinking to excess even more than Bilbo does himself. They sit around all night eating a meal after meal and drinking tankards and flagons of ale, smoking their pipes. A contemporary story this would be a sure sign of their laziness; such characters would be unable to be adventuring heroes. One thing I can't remember, and I'll have to see when I reread this week, is whether Bilbo loses weight as he gains his adventuring chops.

3. Lewis Barnevelt from The House with a Clock in Its Walls: The only fat human hero from the list. Lewis's fatness, on the one hand, is definitely associated with his dorkiness, his lack of athleticism, his fear of the dark, and all kinds of theoretically unboyish behavior. On the other hand, he is unequivocally a hero, and his heroism has absolutely nothing to do with gaining athleticism or losing weight. In fact, the idea that he needs to gain athleticism to become a hero is specifically undercut by the text. In later books in the series, he benefits from having an athletic (female) friend. Additionally, while his level of athleticism is questioned within the text, he never particularly worries about losing weight. I'll have to make sure my next reading this book thinks about issues of fatness, because right now, I'm definitely seeing this kinda kinda text as leaning on the subversive end of that spectrum.
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I have all of these half written posts I haven't made -- one about the Simmons College Summer Institute, one about Bloomsbury mercifully caving on their dreadful cover decision for Justine Larbalestier's Liar. But summer is coming to a close (already!), And I should just go ahead and post my syllabus for Children's Literature 414, Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Let me see. That's 41 fictional works, or 38 if you lump the Prydain books. As far as I know, and with some of these being judgement calls, 3 authors of color; 7 protagonists of color (8 if you count Laura Chant as multi-racial because of her Maori great-grandmother), 28 white or white-coded, and 2 neither; 20 female and 18 male authors; 16 male protagonists, 18 female, and 3 neither or multi; and 0 canonically queer authors or protagonists. Though there's one canonically-if-subtextually queer secondary couple. Also, three fat (if you count Wilbur) and two disabled (if not-neurotypical counts as disabled).

Obviously I'm better on some aspects of diversity than others. How much of the fail here is mine as opposed to the genre's? Probably a little of both. On the bright side, we spend a lot of the semester talking about these issues, both in ourselves as readers, and in the genre itself.
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I have 60 words in which to review a lengthy YA book which includes, in passing, hateful language which is totally in character for the protagonist (e.g. "fags," "spazzes in helmets"). The language is condemned neither by the text nor by any of the other characters; in fact, no attention is called to it at all within the text.

What I'm finding most problematic about this is not how to write the review. That's easy: I have 60 words, which means I tack on "bigoted" to one of my mentions of "the protagonist", which is about all I can do. No, what I'm finding most problematic is that this wouldn't have been an issue for me if the protagonist had been equally briefly and casually fatphobic, because I so take that for granted that I would have cringed and moved on. What's surprising in this book is that I don't actually expect over language of this sort to make it to the editing process without some kind of textual self-awareness being added. (I certainly am not surprised to find homophobia or ableism in contemporary YA, but more of the systemic kind, and not this sort.)

I know some people could make the same post and turn it into a judgment on the publishing industry for self-censorship, but I'm not one of them. I do think that language helps shape thought, and I think a raised eyebrow from another character or from the narrative voice could have clued in even the less aware reader that yes, the protagonist said "fags," and maybe that language is worth a second thought. I find it much more problematic that fatphobia is much more often treated with the same casual disregard this text gave to homophobia and ableism.

(Yes, I acknowledge that children's and young adult literature comprise a corpus created by adults for a group of readers who don't have control over their own literature and that we use their literature as a teaching tool. Like Nodelman, I find this both problematic and necessary.)
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Two things lately have been making me think how all choices about character description in writing are political, even if they aren't intended to be. The first was teaching Flora Segunda, and wondering about character race and ethnicity in this created world. (We know that among the Califans, some, such as Flora Primera and Udo, are blonde and considered beautiful for it; we know that the Huitzils seem to be related to the Aztec Empire; we know that the Califans have Spanish words in their vocabularies and Latin American-influenced traditions in their culture.)

And I was also thinking about some concerns I know that Kristin has had regarding character description. For example, does not describing a heroine's weight make her automatically thin? Does not describing her skin color make her automatically white? Does not describing her sexuality make her automatically straight? (I am probably putting some words into Kristin's mouth, so Kristin, please forgive me and/or correct me.)

Anyway, Roger Sutton pointed towards this interesting discussion on a very closely related topic on Mitali Perkins's blog. "Should Authors Describe a Character's Race?" (Mitali Perkins is the author of First Daughter: American Makeover, a book I find fascinating, compelling, and extremely problematic, about a white presidential candidate with an adopted Pakistani daughter.)
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First the blog rec: New YA author Kristin Cashore, author of the forthcoming YA fantasy Graceling, has written a fabulous post on an author's perspective of trying to do right by body image issues while still being true to the characters and stories in her head. How can you go wrong with a blog post which climaxes "AARRGGHHH! AT THIS RATE I WILL NEVER SAVE THE WORLD!!!"? Answer: you can't.

Secondly, a (half-assed) book review: Lisa Fletcher's brand-new Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity (Tasmania: Ashgate. 2008) First I want to give a major caveat, which is that I read this book in a hurry because it is an overdue ILL book, and even though I'm going to read it again I can't renew it right now. In fact, given that set of circumstances I feel so uncomfortable about writing any of my negative impressions I'm just going to hold off on them right now. When you read a book at this pace, I don't think initial discombobulation should count for anything.

The text's project is to show how performativity (through speech acts and the performance of gender) in historical romance novels, crossing the boundaries from "literary" to "popular" (a boundary Fletcher complicates by pointing out the high sales figures of so-called literary romances such as Possession), reinforces heterosexual norms. In a manner which I admit I didn't quite follow given my hyper-quick reading, she discusses the performance of gender through cross-dressed heroes and heroines and relates it to Judith Butler's performance of gender, paying special attention to Butler's insistence that gender performativity is not a choice that can be turned on or off at will.

One thing I found interesting in an initial misreading I gave to a passage in this text is a dichotomy I thought at first was being constructed: the essential statement of the heterosexual romance is the explicit statement of love, and the essential statement of the homosexual romance is coming out of the closet. That isn't actually what she was saying -- she was leaning towards the heterosexual declaration of love as a possible statement from the closet itself (it's complicated, and I'm going to point back to my quick reading as an excuse for not getting into it here) -- but I think I prefer my initial misreading. It's obviously incredibly flawed; for one thing, it rules out any homosexual romance that doesn't begin in the closet. But I feel like I have something there that I want to run with, and see where it goes.

I can't really say more about it it; with such a brief read I'm not sure if the book had a more overarching takeaway than what I've already stated. But there's definitely food for thought in there.

new blogger

Mar. 7th, 2008 04:12 pm
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
I am thrilled that my frequent co-conspirator/co-author Rebecca Rabinowitz has started blogging over at [ profile] diceytillerman ([rss]RSS). I'm sure that blog will be a great place to get more of Rebecca's insights about children's literature, especially focused through the lenses of queer theory and fat politics.
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