Wednesday morning inspiration and comfort

“Into the woods,
It’s always when
You think at last
You’re through, and then
Into the woods you go again
To take another journey.”
―Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

“And for adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are:
Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth.”
―Jane Yolen, Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood

“This is. And thou art. There is no safety. There is no end. The word must be heard in silence. There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore

“Now you’re on your own
Only me beside you
Still, you’re not alone
No one is alone
Truly
No one is alone …
You move just a finger,
Say the slightest word,
Something’s bound to linger
Be heard
No one acts alone.”
―Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

“There’s lots of kinds of chains. You can’t see most of them, the ones that bind folks together. But people build them, link by link. Sometimes the links are weak, snap like this one did. That’s another funny thing, now that I think of it. Sometimes when you mend a chain, the place where you fix it is strongest of all.”
― Bruce Coville, Into the Land of the Unicorns

“This is our world. Aye, there’s more than enough of darkness in it. But over everything there’s all this joy, Kit. There’s all this lovely, lovely light.”
― David Almond, Kit’s Wilderness


Is Star Wars better than Twilight?

An article on how Twilight-hate is part of the larger picture of teen girl hate in our society, something I’ve been aware of for a while now: “For many people, the fact that teenage girls like something — whether that something is Taylor Swift or One Direction or ‘Twilight’ — is a reason to write it off completely.”

When I first shared this article on social media, there was some discussion, as there usually is (because I’ve been part of discussions about this before, the past few years), about how our hatred of Twilight isn’t really or only about dissing teen girls, because the books really are problematic, because they provide such horrible models for teen girls of who they can aspire to be.

I used to share this concern. But after talking to actual Twilight readers, I’m convinced that teen girls read as critically or more critically than the rest of us, and that they’re no less aware of the problems with the books than any of us are aware of the problems with whatever fluffy, escapist stories we happen to enjoy. In fact, I’ve had some of my favorite thoughtful conversations about YA books and reading with Twilight readers.

The Twilight books still don’t hit my story buttons. I’ll never be part of their core audience. But then I began thinking about how Twilight is nowhere near the only fiction out there that provides poor role models for girls. One could argue that, more often than not, most stories out there–in books and in other media–still do that. Girls and women are so often either absent or victims in everything from children’s stories to adult ones. (Being a girl is also not-infrequently tossed off as a one-line joke in movies, because apparently nothing is funnier or more humiliating than a guy being mistaken for a girl, or finding himself in girl’s clothes.) One could argue that Bella, at least, gets what she wants at the end of her story, which even today isn’t true for the women in so many other stories we read and watch.

So after thinking about that, I began thinking about one of my favorite bits of escapism from when I was a teen, something that remains one of the things that still does hit my story buttons: the original Star Wars trilogy.

Star Wars had a huge influence on my writing. It helped ignite my love of fantasy and adventure stories. (I do consider it more fantasy and adventure than science fiction, though that’s a whole other discussion.) It helped turn me into a writer, because I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours writing hundreds of thousands of words of Star Wars fanfic. The Star Wars movies were huge for me. Huge.

The Star Wars movies provide horrible role models for being a woman.

Oh, sure, in the very first movie Leia is full of spunk and fire and no small amount of strategic planning. She’s also, as far as we know as of the original trilogy, one of only two women in the entire Star Wars universe, which is a tremendous problem in itself, especially when the other woman dies horribly in the opening scenes and is never really a character at aLL. But by the end of the trilogy, Leia has been drained of all real agency. In The Empire Strikes Back she’s reduced to primarily a love interest, and by Return of the Jedi her main active actions revolve around trying to rescue the man she loves. By the end of Jedi movie, Luke does all the heavy lifting, while Leia discovers and helps inspire the Ewoks to help out on the ground. And that ground battle doesn’t even really influence the course of events; it’s Luke and Vader’s battle with the Emperor that truly destroys the Empire, though not everyone knows it.

A point is even made, in Jedi, of the fact that Leia has the same powers as Luke–but she never gets to use them, not even a little bit. At the end of Jedi Luke has saved the galaxy, Leia falls into Han’s arms, and viewers cheer.

I cheered. Which is actually the point I’m trying to make. These movies, which also don’t provide strong role models for girls, were movies teen me loved beyond all reason. They’re movies adult me loves beyond all reason, too. Loves them even as I critique their flaws, which I’m fully aware of, and which include front and foremost their treatment of female characters. Teen me was just as aware, though she articulated it differently, by constantly adding female characters to the fic she wrote, and giving them agency.

Teen Twilight fans (and, yes, adult ones too) are capable of the same self-awareness. They’re as capable of enjoying problematic things as I am.

The difference is that, when I say I love Star Wars, very few people sneer and go “oh, lightsabers, seriously?” in that way that they so often sneer and go “oh, sparkly vampires, seriously?” Two problematic stories–two very different societal reactions.

Likewise, while there are certainly thinky gender critiques of both Star Wars out there, when I say I love Star Wars, few people immediately respond by saying, “Oh, but what kind of an example is it setting for our girls?” — even though the example Star Wars sets is not ultimately better than the example Twilight sets. Leia has more spunk than Bella, sure (though even that spunk is tempered by the end), but she doesn’t have more agency.

Of course we should talk to our daughters about the problematic messages and role models in Twilight. I’m not suggesting otherwise. But we should also talk to them about the problematic messages and role models in other stories–and be on the lookout for them ourselves–because Twilight is nowhere near unique in this regard.

But before then, first and foremost, when a teen girl says she loves a thing?

We owe her the same respect we owe anyone else, when they talk about the things they love.

Diversity and the stories we tell

Recently, in my search for diverse picture books and especially for books where my child could see other children who look like her in the illustrations, I came upon Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. This beautifully written and illustrated book, for those who haven’t read it, introduces babies from around the world and of many races with the refrain:

And both of these babies—as everyone knows—had ten little fingers and ten little toes.

The strength of the writing and illustrations meant that it took two or three or maybe five readings (because no one reads any picture book only once to their child) for it to hit me that that well-crafted refrain … wasn’t actually true. That the very book I’d bought to help my child celebrate her diversity and the diversity of all children was not about all children.

Because somewhere out there–many somewheres out there–there’s a parent who saw this book that was trying to be about all babies and set it aside because it wasn’t about their baby. Maybe this parent’s perfect, beloved, amazing child was born with polydatyly, or with a limb difference–yet here’s this book about how perfect, beloved, amazing children all have one thing in common–that they aren’t anything like this parent’s child.

At first I thought I was overthinking things. And then I thought I wasn’t. Intersectionality is tricky. It’s easy to say that no one book can be about every child and move on, but really it’s so much more complicated than that.

And this post isn’t about this one (otherwise lovely) book, or about any other one book, though I fear it will be taken that way. It’s about how I then thought a little more deeply about what the stories I tell mean for my child, who I want to embrace diversity not only when it’s about who she is, but also when it’s about the wide world she lives in.

I tell my child hundreds of stories every day, and not all of them come out of books.

Shortly after we finished the second or third or fifth reading of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, my child handed me her stuffed bat, which had recently lost an eye. She pointed to the spot where the eye had once been, asking without words for an explanation.

I almost went for the obvious story–that yes, the toy was broken, and yes, I could fix it. Then I realized there was another, truer story I could choose instead.

“You’re right,” I told her matter-of-factly. “That bat has one eye. And you have two eyes.

“That’s because everybody’s different.”

Millions of Cats, Billions of Cats, More Stars Than in the Entire Milky Way of Cats

When it comes to picture books, not understanding the natural world inevitably leads to tragedy.


Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág

A cautionary tale about the dangers of relocating wildlife.

An old man removes an entire population of cats from their native ecosystem, only to discover he lacks the knowledge and resources to care for them on his own. When the cats grow hungry he offers them each a mouthful of grass, unaware that these obligate carnivores cannot subsist on such a diet. “What are you doing?” the old woman he lives with cries when she sees the cats, aware, as he is not, of how unsuited the creatures are for their new environment. Her fear proves well founded, as in their desperation for meat the poor felines ultimately resort to eating one another.

Only a single small kitten survives, young enough to live on the milk the man and woman are able to provide, but it faces an uncertain future as it grows “nice and plump” and nears adulthood.


Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton

The tragic tale of a good-hearted squirrel who lacks the skills to survive in the wild. Unable to tell the difference between a bear, a rabbit, a frog, and an owl, our hero’s lack of discernment proves fatal when he cheerfully accepts an owl’s invitation into her nest for “cookies.” The final details of the squirrel’s inevitable demise are, in a bold yet necessary move, left to the imagination of the reader.

“Uh oh,” indeed.

Goodnight Moon and the End of All Things

My review of Goodnight Moon, as posted to Goodreads:

A heartbreakingly spare story about the heat death of the universe. One by one the things of the world are bid adieu. Beginning with small losses–clocks, socks, a young mouse who will never reach adulthood, the stakes rise relentlessly until the loss of the atmosphere, stars, and sound itself. In the end the illustrated moon shines on, a reminder of things lost, but the protagonist–and the reader–are left sleeping in the dark.

I’ll confess it took me a few (hundred) readings to fully understand this book, but aren’t the best works of literature like that?

For further commentary on Goodnight Moon, I recommend God-Night Rune, a translation from the original Old English; and Goodnight Room, a look at the inner workings of the Great Green Room.

Looking for a certain sort of book

So, there’s a certain kind of book I’m always on the lookout for. It’s not the only kind of book I’m on the lookout for, but it is the kind of book I adore when I find it.

I think of the genre as lyrical mythic fantasy. Books that can be spare, but not so spare as to lose that lyricism–this isn’t the genre of transparent prose. Books that can be dense, but not so dense that they lose a certain lightness and flow. Books that are deeply, richly immersive. Liminal perhaps. Transporting, but not only transporting. Books that make you believe the mythic is just through that veil over there, and that make you believe this as much or more through sheer language as through cleverness of worldbuilding.

You can see how this might be hard to describe. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully succeeded. When I mention what I’m looking for, I often get recs for straight up fantasy-adventure with a dash of interesting world-building. That’s not what I’m looking for (or not what I’m looking for when I talk about this kind of book–of course I like other kinds of books, too, and many books I adore don’t fit into this at all). I know what I do want when I see it, which of course is not very useful if one is looking for recommendations.

Examples include The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Changeling Sea, The Underneath, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The Last Unicorn, maybe Moonheart and Mythago Wood (it’s been years since I read those last two, so they could have changed in memory). It almost, but not quite, includes The Blue Sword, but if I mention the Blue Sword, I get all the wrong sort of recommendations again. I just started Sorrow’s Knot, which looks like it might fit though I’m not far enough in to that yet to be sure. If Miyazaki wrote novels, it would include some but not all of his work.

Of course, all of this is highly subjective, and a book that fits this description in one reader’s mind won’t in another’s. That’s how reading works, after all.

But I thought I’d go ahead and ask, and see what I might discover. If any of the above resonates for you, and you think you might know the sort of book I’m talking about … any recommendations?

ETA: For some interesting further discussion of this sort of book, check out the comments on the livejournal version of this post.

Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest

(I’m behind on actually sharing my reading thoughts here, but do post more regularly on Goodreads as I read.)

I first read Pen Pal on the author’s blog, where it was primarily a series of letters between the main characters. When I started reading the final version, I initially was uncertain about the addition of other epistolary elements: journals, newspaper clippings, government files, letters from other characters, worried they would change the story I’d loved.

And they did … into something richer and deeper.

penpal.jpgEm is a child of water, living in a floating community on the Gulf coast. Kaya is a child of fire, imprisoned half a world away above a volcano.

They need each other, though they don’t at first know it.

Em believes in the Seafather who watches over her people. Kaya isn’t sure whether she believes in the Ruby Lady, but she was arrested for holding a ceremony for her, just the same.

When Em’s wistful message in a bottle reaches Kaya, their two stories become entwined, and the result is a numinous story about stories and how they wind their way through lives and through communities.

This book isn’t a fantasy, not really. But it hits a particular immersive mythic-y button for me that I don’t know how to describe–I only know it when I see it, and know as well that it’s hard to find.

And it gave me exactly the right sort of happy sigh when I turned the last page, as well.

Happy new year!

Books Read in 2013:

1. The Planet Savers, Marion Zimmer Bradley (start of a Darkover reread that I never quite finished)
2. Arrow, R.J. Anderson
3. Sword of Aldones, Marion Zimmer Bradley
4. White Fur Flying, Patricia MacLaughlan
5. Doll Bones, Holly Black (adored this book about the changing–and not so changing–role of pretend games as we grow up)
6. The Bloody Sun (1964 edition), Marion Zimmer Bradley
7. Eye of the Storm, Kate Messner (quite liked this dystopic story of a superstorm-plagued future)
8. Star of Danger, Marion Zimmer Bradley
9. Winds of Darkover, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Spell Bound, Rachel Hawkins
11. The Desert Cries: A Season of Flash Floods in a Dry Land, Craig Childs
12. Mirage, Jenn Reese (really digging this series, too)
13. The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate (well written, but why do we tell so many kids’ stories about mothers who die and the heroic fathers who take their place and so few stories about mothers who live and are heroic?)
14. Wolves, Boys, and Other Things that Might Kill Me, Kristin Chandler
15. Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel, Nikki Grimes
16. Planet Middle School, Nikki Grimes
17. Life After Theft, Aprilynne Pike (my favorite of hers so far)
18. Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite, Barry Deutsch
19. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin (lovely; why did it take me so long to read this?)
20. Dark Sons, Nikki Grimes
21. Hapax, A.E. Stallings
22. The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander (speaking of things it took me awfully long to read for the first time)
23. The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander
24. Owly Volume 1: The Way Home and The Bitytersweet Summer, Andy Runton
25.The Castle of Llyr, Lloyd Alexander
26. Serafina’s Promise, Ann E. Burg
27. Olives, A.E. Stallings
28. Jumping Off Swings, Jo Knowles
29. Heritage of Hastur, Marion Zimmer Bradley
30. The Rose Throne, Mette Ivie Harrison (interesting look at transgender issues through the metaphoric lens of men’s and women’s magic)
31. Nowhere Girl, A.J. Paquette
32. The Death of Yorik Mortwell, Stephen Messer (Stephen Messer’s books have this nicely Diana Wynne Jones-ish edge to them)
33. The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr (a look at art and doing what you love and keeping loving/remembering why you love it)
34. Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander
35. The Shape of Desire, Sharon Shinn (in which unconditional love for dangerous supernatural creatures gets a bit more of critical a look than usual)
36. The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Kathi Appelt (delightful–but you already knew that, right?)
37. Written in Stone, Rosanne Parry (a well-handled look at whaling in native cultures, among other things)
38. Wesley the Owl, Stacey O’Brien (enjoyed this book, but later heard–and began realizing–that as a guide to what owls are like, it may be … less than reliable)
39. The Alton Gift, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah Ross (Lew Alton’s search for redemption was the most interesting part of this book for me)
40. The High King, Lloyd Alexander
41. Still Life With Shapeshifter, Sharon Shinn
42. Tiger Lily, Jody Lynn Anderson
43. Tim Star Cecil Castellucci (read this one early; look for it in February!)
44. Killer of Enemies, Joseph Bruchac (Apache heroine in a post-apocalyptic future that holds echoes of her people’s stories–loved this one, too)
45. Alex and Me, Irene Pepperberg (the story of Alex the parrot–I don’t know whether I’m more intrigued by his learning the concept of “none” or sort of learning the concept of “sorry,” both on his own–but a fascinating read all around)
46. How to Say Goodbye in Robot, Natalie Sandiford
47. Cat Girl’s Day Off, Kimberly Pauley (hugely fun read about a girl who, in a family of magical genuises, thinks she’s failure because she can “only” talk to cats)
48. Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell (found the protag frustrating the first half of this book and adored her the second half enough to be glad I’d read it anyway)
49. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, Ian Doescher (best read aloud)
In Progress: How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolf, Molly Harper

May your 2014 be filled with stories, joy, and light!

The “ten books that have stayed with me” meme

Because over on facebook friends have been doing this (some tagging me, some just leaving it for anyone who wants to join in), and because apparently once I start talking about books that have touched my life, I go on at more length than facebook is comfortable with. (Facebook’s definition of TMI having nothing to do with content and everything to do with number of characters.)

In your status line (hah!) list 10 novels that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be “right” or “great” books, just the ones that have touched you.”

1. A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Madeleine L’Engle (Can see the book’s flaws now, but still love its sense of hope that the awful things that haven’t happened don’t have to happen)

2. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle (Because I was Meg, and also because I needed to know there were Calvins in the world)

3. Arm of the Starfish, Madeleine L’Engle (“It’s the fall of the sparrow I care about. But who’s the sparrow? We run into problems there, too.”)

4. The Blue Sword, Robin McKinley (Because Harimad-sol)

5. The Empire Strikes Back novelization (This was my entry into the Star Wars universe, a lifetime love of SFF, and a whole lot of fanfiction that helped me become the writer I am)

6. Feed, M. T. Anderson (Most depressing book I ever … not sure loved is the right word here. But.)

7. Eye of the Heron, Ursula K. Le Guin (Shifted my understanding of non-violence and what it really is)

8. Tam Lin, Pamela Dean (Because I argued and argued with this book, and the results of those arguments have informed my own work)

9. Moonheart, Charles de Lint (Part of my introduction to urban fantasy)

10. War for the Oaks, Emma Bull (The other part of my introduction to urban fantasy)

Peeta as movie girlfriend (and story relationships in general)

I still need to make it out to see Catching Fire (I have, of course, long since read it), but I sound this article on Peeta playing the functional role of movie girlfriend kind of interesting.

What makes me sad is that Hollywood has such generally rigidly defined gender roles that this makes sense, as it doesn’t in the real world, where we can all play all the parts. But if we have to have rigidly defined Hollywood gender roles, it’s nice to see them at least being subverted sometimes.

This also got me to thinking about how I’d always been Team Gale. This is a little odd, for me, because I tend to like the good boys, and Peeta is solidly my usual type.

Except that Katniss is a lot like Gale, so they meet as true partners instead of having Katniss being weak in the presence of Gale’s strength. (In the books, at least. I don’t yet know what their relationship is like in the second movie.) If Katniss were a different sort of female character, Gale as a male character would irritate me no end. But she isn’t, so instead of a strong guy looking out for a less-strong woman we get a true partnership among two strong-in-the-same-ways people who are very much alike. This is what I love about their relationship, that partnership.

And even when (spoiler) Katniss and Gale ultimately fall apart as a couple in the books, it isn’t because of their differences. It’s because they remain alike, only Gale ultimately takes their shared strength-that-is-also-weakness in a different direction than Katniss does.

It may be that more than having a soft spot for good boys, I have a soft spot for relationships that are I’ve-got-your-back partnerships (in whatever way, physical or emotional or a mix of the two, that the particular characters involved do this), and that good boy relationships are the ones that most often go there.

Or maybe, of course, it’s both/either of those things, with a large amount of “depends on the individual story” mixed in.