On Saturday, I attending New York City’s Teen Author Festival symposium. I cannot stress how much I learned from these panels.
Fair warning, this is going to be a long post. I have a lot of thoughts and wisdom to convey from these brilliant writers.
Keynote from Libba Bray on gender and books:
Libba Bray, who is completely adorable, discussed the issues of gender and books. We have built a language around “boy” books and “girl” books and it needs to stop. Books are not “girl” or “boy” books. Bray recounted stories of how teens today are well versed in the language: Blue and silver is scifi, pink is romance. More than one story was told of kids being told they might prefer a different book because it was really a “girl/boy” book. Bray even admitted that she writes different inscriptions based on the gender of the reader. When did we move into such binary terms? Highlights from the keynote include:
- Change is hard and slow, and necessary.
- In the prestigious books, it is still a boy’s game. Any gains by females are seen as too much.
- We ask girls to engage with male narratives all the time. Why can’t we ask the same of boys?
- Issues of racism and sexism don’t course correct. It takes work.
- Change CAN happen-avoid lazy classifications, build bridges, not cages.
Exploring Feminist YA:
The keynote transitioned into a panel on writing feminist YA. Highlights include:
- Books are machines for becoming other people (Scott Westerfeld)
- The binary terms leave no room for real people.
- You can still have the conversation be about gender even if your character is gender fluid. (David Leviathan)
- Open discussion to authors is needed.
- Genderization of books starts with the gender of the author.
- Boys usually hide the covers, and librarians will remove covers to encourage boys to read a book.
I took away two powerful things from this panel. When Gayle Forman talked about how she wonders how her publishing experience would be different if she was Gayle Forman the male writer vs Gayle Forman the female writer, I felt that there needed to be more open discussion to authors about some aspects of publishing. I am a strongly believer in trying to keep my authors informed as much as possible about why things need to happen and what we are doing. It helps my author ask the right questions later and understand that we are moving. Medical publishing is not a fast moving enterprise, so keeping the author informed also reminds them that though this book might not be important to them, we are trying to make it important to others. I believe in open discussion to authors whenever possible. That way they are not wondering if this would be different if they were a male.
The second big take away for me was what Scott Westerfeld said: “Books are machines for becoming other people.” This statement had a huge impact on me, especially in relation to the next panel. Studies show that reading fiction increases your ability to feel empathy with others.
Just remember these facts as we move on to the next panel, because my mind started churning a mile a minute here.
Issues of Representation in YA:
Of the three panels, I have to say, this was the panel that was blowing up my Twitter feed. Everyone on the panel has written about diverse characters, and the founders of We Need Diverse Books were on the panel to discuss the topic. Highlights from that panel include:
- Reviews tend to pick on diverse characters for having too many issues.
- It is a challenge to learn of other cultures. If you are writing from outside, you run the risk of misrepresenting.
- “Write what you know” can be the worst thing to say to an author. Better to say, “Know what you write” and “check your work”.
- Have a conversation with people, instead of sounding off.
- There is diversity within diversity. There can be no one story that encompasses it all.
- We (readers, publishers, etc) have code words to skirt getting diverse books, i.e. urban fiction and free and reduce lunch.
- You need insightful books for EVERY kid.
- Authors who have written diverse characters can feel the burden to keep writing diverse characters.
- All kids want drama.
- Do your research! And have people in the know double, triple check your work.
- We need books where diversity is not the story.
Truth bombs were everywhere on this panel. There is no excuse for not writing diverse characters. Like they say, you just have to RESEARCH and CHECK your work. I might revisit this panel at length in another post because it was a gold mine. But to carry on what I was thinking from the previous panel (“Books are machines for becoming other people.”), I was struck by two things here: that librarians would tell writer Coe Booth that they could not take her books because they only had “10% free and reduced lunch”. It was code for we don’t have many minorities. There is so much wrong with that statement it would take another post for me to dissect it, but for my point, this statement coupled with David Levithan’s statement of “You need insightful books for every kid” is where I want to go.
So if books are the machines for becoming other people, and studies show that reading fiction increases empathy, then why not read about diverse characters? You are learning about someone else’s perspective and learning to empathize with something you may never experience. Americans ban books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and yet try to claim that our country is not racist. Diverse books are not just needed for those not represented in literature, but for the majority that needs to empathize and be exposed to what a portion of the country goes through. Much like #HeforShe is not just for women, Diverse Books are needed for all readers so we as human race can be better.
Like I said, this panel sparked my brain.
Who You Are and Who You Love:
- All love stories are a quest for identity.
- Some writers use writing to find their own identity and constant coming of age.
- Knowing you character can really give you the tools to know who they will love.
- Identity is constantly shifting.
- It comes down to timing.
- Love is to be heard, whether by another or yourself.
Nora Raleigh Baskin had a brilliant line in “All love stories are a quest for identity.” She put it amazingly, that as young kids we think a soul mate will complete us. It isn’t until we are older that we realize that is not true, and must discover ourselves first. Which is the perfect segway into the strong characters panel.
Creating Strong Characters:
This panel reminded me so much of being in college. I would love to hang with Terra Elan McVoy and just have really insightful conversations. They were discussing strength in characters, but there are some universal truths here, too. My personal motto: “I am a tree in the wind: I bend, I do not break.” Highlights include:
- Strength is how you handle what is thrown at you. It is someone who changes rather than breaks.
- High stakes act as a cauldron to boil down the person to find the strength.
- Reactive vs. proactive: how do you respond.
- As McVoy said: “Strong characters are like strong cheese: it’s not for everyone.” You don’t have to like strong characters, but they need to be understandable and you need to be invested.
- Something admirable, a sense of humor, etc is how to make readers care.
- You need spectrum for any journey.
- Why men are not classified as “strong male characters”: The idea as men being strong has been embedded in conscious thought. We have only just started emerging out of the time of women as lesser. Prince vs princess.
- Strong girl and sensitive boys are types
- We say strong female because she has male characteristic, and the sensitive boy has female ones. Who decided these personality traits had a gender?
I felt like the end of this panel circled back to the Feminist panel. We admire Katniss for being a strong character, but what exactly do we admire about her? What aspects of her personality are we admiring? I feel like the highlights sum up the discussion nicely. This particularly panel invites more questions than answers for me. The things I like about some of my favorite characters are their intellect (Kestrel in The Winner’s Curse, Hermione in Harry Potter) and their pro-activeness (Katniss in The Hunger Games). For me, these are not male or female attributes, but I did feel invested in their journey even if I didn’t agree with some of their choices.
These panels gave me a lot to toy with and think about. There will probably be posts in days to come where I break down some of the statements and stories told. If you are in New York next year, I suggest attending some of the panels, especially if you are a writer.