Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Republic of Gilead vs. Ben Franklin, Part I: Basic Arithmetic

(jedmunds has a post up ripping on Markos, so I thought I'd join in the fun and throw something up that I wrote a few months ago after reading The Handmaid's Tale for the first time)

In "The Handmaid's Tale" it is explained to our narrator that women cannot do math, that to "them one and one and one and one don't make four." Our storyteller asks the man who tells her this what they do make, to women, "expecting five or three."

"Just one and one and one and one" is the answer she is given.

In essence, this is Markos' (and others) argument against special interest groups. Not with regard to feminist groups alone (although they do seem to warrant particular attention) but with any group that fits the nebulous description of a special interest. They seem to see such groups as not being able to add to four because they emphasize the "one and one and one and one."

Markos' arguments regarding special interests groups start to approach of Ben Franklin's astute advice that "we must all hang together, or separately we shall all hang." Markos and company are asking, as Franklin once did, that we all hang together, and that individuals put the needs of the whole before their own. There are times when this is a good strategy for meeting ones own needs, and times when it is not.

The problem with Markos' arguments is that he tends to ignore that if 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 4, then 4 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1. He, and others, forget that it is important to be able to see both sides of the equation. Much of advanced math is about unmaking rather than making. Understanding the relationship between the whole and it's parts is also essential in political strategy. Franklin's famous words acknowledge, simply by their structure, that the whole is made up of distinct parts. One is not asked to give up one's identity to save oneself, but to simply acknowledge the strength we are capable of giving each other, and the dangers we face if we pretend to be islands.

Franklin asks both that Americans work together and that the colonies act as one county. Markos, on the other hand seems to view "special interest groups" only as petitioners; not only is it up the the party to decide if a particular group's cause will be adopted, but any group who tries to "petition" more than one party is seen as betraying the cause, as if 1 cannot exist separately from 4. He is not concerned, as Franklin was, with the dangers of blurring the distinctions between the parts and placing them eternally subservient to the whole. Anarchy has it's dangers, but so do aristocracies.

Markos seems exceedingly incapable of seeing the parts as something existing separate from the party itself, as if "1" can only exist in one equation at a time - shades of "you are either with us or against us." Perhaps this is why Markos has not used Ben Franklin's quote as his rallying cry, despite it seeming appropriate on the surface. It's possible that it did not even occur to him to view each "special interest" as a distinct and equal ally. Once examined, it's obvious that while Franklin's advice is the sentiment he is aiming for, his arguments do not match the structure such relationships should have in a democracy. Instead, he seems not merely resigned, but accepting, of the most tyrannical qualities of the modern American party system - not an especially progressive sentiment for someone whose goal is to reform the Democratic Party and not a particularly reassuring argument from someone who claims to have our best interests at heart.

Empathy is for Girls

Jon Scieszka has put together a great anthology and website in order to help encourage boys to read. The book is a collection of short stories about being a boy, all written by writers that boys love. The website has some great info and links. They're both called Guys Read.

Which, quite frankly, is part of the problem.

Ok, so, not really. But still, I find it interesting that "guys" was chosen over "boys" even though some of the book recommendations are for toddlers. It may have just sounded better that way, but I suspect that it was also done for the same reason I think boys are in trouble to begin with: we don't ever let them be kids. Kid stuff is feminine - boys must try to be men as early as possible; everything is serious from the start.

I'm not going to rag on Jon, 'cause I kinda think the guy who's responsible for Time Warp Trio and Science Verse is quite well aware that we don't let little boys be little boys long enough. I'm sure he's as frustrated as I am with parents who push their sons to read something "serious" rather than Captain Underpants when it really doesn't matter as long as it's challenging enough (or something else they are reading is). He probably agrees with me that parents and teachers need to stop dissing comic books and not be so worried if their sons want to read just non-fiction. I just think the fact that feminism can be referred to as "girl power!" but, on the other hand, it's guys that read, is indicative of the arbitrary gender divides that are the root of the problem in the first place. Until women are referred to as adults, and boys are considered proper children, the attitudes that discourage boys from reading will still be around.

It also bothers me that every author that the site links to is a guy. This isn't because I think that Scieszka was wrong for doing so. I understand that it's important to provide boys with material they can relate to, especially since most of their school reading is picked for them by women. God knows I wished for more adventure stories featuring girls when I was younger, and I love the fact that there are lot more out there now. Like lists that celebrate female scientists, this list is simply meant to be a small step in the right direction. Nevertheless, I'd like to point out that I was able to find plenty of reading material I liked that didn't feature girls and wasn't written by women. (The two books that inspired both the name of this blog and my current pseudonym being perfect examples of the latter.) Girls have more options, in part, because they are willing to read stories about boys that were written by men. If, few decades from now, we still need to make sure that books are written by men in order for them to be interesting for boys, then we are still going to be dealing with the same problems. We need to keep in mind that lists like this are only a small step, they aren't the ultimate goal.

We've learned to relax gender roles for girls and let them cross over into what was once considered "boy" territory (most of the time). Sometimes, though, it feels like we've actually become more rigid in our gendered expectations for boys. We certainly haven't relaxed them much. I expected, and got, no arguments when I gave my niece and nephew both trains for Christmas. But what kind of reaction would I have gotten if I gave my nephew a doll, or a bunny? The kid just learned to sit up; as long as he can put it in his mouth, I really don't think he cares much what I give him. I'm not so certain about his parents, however.

As long as boys refuse to read books about girls and by women, as long as there are places they can't go, toys they can't have, ways they can't act, we are going to have problems when it comes to boys reading and women being full citizens. Not only because either girls or boys are going to be shortchanged as we try to keep kids that have different options on equal footing, but because it is both a symptom and a cause of the lack of empathy we teach boys and expect of men. It's this attitude that makes everything childish girlish as well, and everything adult the purview of men. It's this attitute that keep adult men from having an active role in children's lives and education, which is, in turn, a big part of the reason why reading is not considered somthing guys do.

It's possible that boys and men are, on average, "naturally" less empathetic than girls and women. However, this doesn't need to be something we accept, and it shouldn't be something we accept. We should never accept the idea that anyone is so unable to relate to people that are different from them that they cannot empathize with fictional characters that are not exactly like them. A group of such people would be frighteningly dangerous in their inability to care for or listen to anyone who is not like them or disagrees with them.

Blogging for Choice, Part 2

My ninth grade year I opted out of earth science; my parents insisted I do so because the teacher was incompetent and a sexist asshole (turns out he was also a child molester). I took one of the first communications classes my school district ever offered instead. In it we, the students, picked several topics to explore as a class (our teacher retained veto power), watched how they were portrayed in a few movies, were presented with some facts about the topics from our teacher, and then worked on projects together about the topics.

One of the topics we picked was abortion. This was back in 1992, so instead of Cider House Rules the movie we were shown was Listen to Me, a really, really bad movie starring Kirk Cameron about a college debate team that argues abortion in a national competition. I vaguely remember the climax of the movie involving Kirk Cameron's debate partner tearfully admitting that she had an abortion after being raped a handful of years ago.

Our project afterwards was to decide for ourselves, as a class, what types of abortion should be allowed - armed with very little knowledge about medical facts or statistics about abortion. I don't know why my teacher chose this as our project, rather than exploring all the reasons women get abortions or the different laws that states already have. He was generally a very competent and liberal teacher otherwise; when the topic was homosexuality, we watched Longtime Companion and we didn't write sodomy laws or gay marriage amendments. When we discussed race, we watched Colors, Mississippi Burning, and Do the Right Thing and talked about how the FBI were portrayed as the blacks' saviors in Mississippi Burning, rather than their partners, and why. We debated Mookie's actions in Do the Right Thing and if Spike Lee meant for them to be seen as "the right thing."

Not surprisingly, considering the conservative leanings of my town, and the incomplete information we were given, we choose to outlaw all abortions except in cases of rape or where the mother's life was at risk. The legal complexities of determining who was actually raped and who decides if the mother's life is at risk, and how much risk her life needs to be in, never entered into our minds, and were never brought up by our teacher.

I was fourteen at the time and spent a decent amount of my time helping my mom out in her elementary school classroom and baby-sitting my cousins and their friends. I loved kids, and, as a socially awkward teenager who didn't really want to grow up, I identified with younger kids more than young adults or high school students. When my class discussed abortion I saw the fetuses as babies, like my younger cousins had recently been. When we discussed the women who have abortions, I never saw my mother, or my sister, or myself. I had come in with no real views on abortion, and was very easily persuaded that laws were needed to protect the little kids I cared so much about.

I was quite proud of our decision, and shared it with my mother that afternoon. I don't think I've ever seen quite the same look on my mother's face before or since. I don't remember much of what she actually said. I caught enough to hear that she would never have an abortion herself, but she would never try make that decision for someone else. Really, the look was enough. I didn't completely understand her opinion, I was too embarrassed by her disappointment to really ask very many questions. Which was a shame, because for several years I was only pro-choice because I trusted my mother more than my fellow ninth-graders. This is generally a wise choice, but not the most adult reasoning.

Blogging for Choice, Part 1

I 'm not an expert on abortion facts and statistics, and I don't have a whole lot of personal experience with abortion, but I think that's it's important that we discuss abortion and advocate for choice openly and honestly. So, my posts for Blogging for Choice are going to focus on how I became pro-choice. What arguments worked and what didn't. What finally turned me from a die hard feminist who was only lukewarm about reproductive rights into a feminist who believes that reproductive choice is central to women's rights. Hopefully this will be informative - or at least an interesting read.

I Got Asked The Question Again Today

"Where are your non-fiction books?"

"What kind of books are you looking for?"

"My daughter just likes to read non-fiction. She wanted to browse."

the daughter in question is unfortunately too old for kid's non-fiction to be appropriate

"Well, non-fiction is pretty much everywhere fiction isn't, so...."

"Where is it?"

"Well, that's our fiction section right over there, everything else is pretty much non-fiction."

looks are exchanged

"Are you interested in any particular kind of non-fiction?"



"There's no place that's just plain non-fiction."

"Um...not one particular place, no."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

You've Got to Have Standards

I sub for a group of kindergarten and first grade teachers sometimes, and one of the things they often complain about is how early we try to teach kids to read. The school they all teach at happens to be the in same district as the elementary school I went to well over a decade ago. All kindergarteners are now expected to do as well as I did back then, and I was always several steps ahead of the average.

Most kids aren't ready for it. (I'm not saying they can't be - genetics helps, but so do a lot of other things - I'm just saying they aren't.) It's not so much that they aren't ready for the mental gymnastics, because that they can handle it most of the time; it's that they rarely have the basics of verbal communication down. Jumping straight from "abc...z" to "cat" means that there's less (or no) time for dictation, show and tell, and all sorts of other activities that kindergarteners need in order to practice organizing their verbal thoughts and learn sentence structure. What looks like simply play to most observers is actually very serious learning.

How do you try to explain to a first grader what a written sentence looks like if you didn't make sure he learned what one sounds like in kindergarten? You have to either spend a lot of time backtracking - which is frustrating and confusing for everyone - or you have to start letting kids slide though the cracks because there's just no time to cover it.

Gender Gap

So people are saying that schools need to be more masculine because the feminization of the school system is choking the life out of their husky, rough and tumble boys.

You know what? I agree. I think that elementary schools need to be more masculine.

Problem is, they seem to think more masculine means more sports or movement or something. Oddly enough, I think it just means more men.

Now, I’m not against more activity in classrooms and I think more physical education would do everyone some good. I’m just amused that people who think that gender characteristics are so genetic that boys can’t possibly learn to adapt also think that a bunch of female teachers would ever be able to implement these changes properly, consistently, and without the type of invasive oversight that will finally force them all to just quit (as most of the ones I know are constantly threatening to do). I also can’t get over the idea that the most obvious solution to all this – to actually put more men in the elementary classrooms – completely escapes them. And on the rare occasions when it doesn’t, they* never stop to consider what this actually means about what is masculine and what is feminine.

There are also people who argue that kids shouldn’t have to read just fiction in school, and that, since boys tend to like non-fiction more than girls, making kids read non-fiction will help to bridge the gap.**

Again, this sounds like a splendid idea to me. In fact, why don’t we design whole units and subjects around this for older kids. We can call them “social studies” and “science.” Those sound like good names to start out with. We should also make sure that we start teaching these subjects as early as possible, even if it means cutting into the time allotted for the ‘three R’s”, since boys are already falling behind by fourth grade. You know what else we can do? We can incorporate this into when kids are learning to read. Maybe if we focus as much on the purpose and joy of reading as we do the mechanics of it we’ll get fewer boys falling behind in the primary grades as well.

There are also people who complain that boys just don’t have enough choices when it comes to books for them to read.

Again, I can see that. In fact, I do see it every day at work. I suggest books to girls all the time and they’re plenty eager to read them. I’m not so good at suggesting books for boys, though. Boy’s tell me they like adventure and mystery and I stupidly suggest The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Being a girl, I missed all the flowers and hearts and rainbows when I read it, ‘cause I’m not allergic to that stuff the way boys are. Apparently, I keep forgetting that girl cooties are real. (That’s easy to forget, being a girl, because most girls learn that boy cooties aren’t real – or at least not life threatening, anyway - by the time they’re old enough to read Harry Potter.)

People complain that the books that boys do like that are written for them are just plain trash and they’re forced to venture out into the adult sections to find their poor neglected boys books.

I respectfully decline to comment on that. As a former kid who read The Babysitter’s Club series and The Hobbit nearly simultaneously, and as an adult who thinks that Dogzilla and The Lady Lies demonstrate more literary talent than The DaVinci Code does, I’m not sure my opinion on this particular subject would be much appreciated.

Friday, January 20, 2006


I usually don't remember my dreams, but when I do they are either very mundane or very, very odd.

This morning I was dreaming that I was at a party where we were playing a spin the bottle type game that invoved smelling peoples socks and underwear in order to guess their owners - and get a kiss.

(oh, trust me, it gets better)

There was a car playing the game as well. Not a regular sized car, but a person sized car, sitting in the circle with everyone else.

No, I have no idea what the car put in the pile of smelly undergarments. It (he? she?) must have put something in though, becuase someone gave the person sized white SUV a kiss on it's shiny, spotless grill.

Then I woke up.

The True Love of Pure Desire

Amy Garvey has a post up at Romancing the Blog about her love for teen books. In it she asks:

There’s something incredibly pure about the romance in YA, and I don’t just mean sexually...In a YA book, it boils down to a smile, a phone call, a kiss – that one sparkly, head rush of a moment when The Guy proves that he likes the heroine.

Is that anti-feminist? Is a guy’s approval the thing to wish for, rather than your own?
I wrote a hasty comment in response to her question, but since this is something I've been meaning to talk about anyway, I'm going to expand on it more here.

It is anti-feminist (and self-destructive) to wish for a guy's approval rather than your own, but I don't think that's the dynamic that's really going on in most teen novels. Our most popular books for teen girls at moment are Valiant, Rebel Angels, Twilight, Red is for Remembrance, Avalon High, and, unfortunately, The It Girl and other Gossip Girl type books. I haven't read the last group, but from what I hear boys are treated like everything else: as a commodity. I have read all but the Magic series and the Meg Cabot's new book from the first group though, and I can tell you that the characters in them couldn't be less concerned with male approval, even though they may sometimes use it as a means to an end, or care about a the approval of certain boys.

In these books, boys are not just a source of validation. In fact, this often isn't even their main function. It isn't the male gaze that these girls long for; they're the ones looking at boys in sexual ways. Acceptance is seen as the golden ticket the girls need to gain entry to the next adventure, it's not a goal in and of itself. What the characters really care about is sex - and friendship. The purity that Amy talks about isn't just the absence of "grown-up problems" it's the focus on the girls' own sexual and emotional desires. Especially when it comes to sex, teen books are almost unique in that girls' desire is their own, - they discovered it, they found it. It wasn't shown or given to them by someone else - as often happens in Romance novels. Our main character may not understand her new treasure, and may even be frightened of and overwhelmed by it, but she is eager to explore it, share it, and enjoy it.

Teen novels are one of the few places where girls are not always forced to suppress their own desire or subvert their own sexuality at the demands of parents and the male gaze. Almost everywhere else girls are told both that they have no sexual desire of their own (unlike those horn-dog teenage boys) and that their sexuality is the source of a plethora of modern problems in todays society (sex on TV usually means women looking sexy, not men).

Amy hints at this when she includes "career conflicts" as one of those "grown-up problems." The girls in these books are rarely asked to put others wants above their own. When they are asked to do so (as they are in Twilight and Rebel Angels) it becomes not only a major source of conflict, but a major plot point. Unlike in real life, where their very desires are often treated with derision if not outright skepticism, the girls in these books pretty much always win the argument in the end. The few times they don't, it either means the problem went away or that more books are forthcoming.

As I've mentioned before, I get asked quite often about what's in all these books with sexy covers and I'm never quite sure what to say. The obvious answer is "not much" since even the steamiest rarely do more than hint at anything besides kissing. The real answer is "a lot more than most music videos, TV shows or movies" because girls sexuality - so often treated with scorn - is celebrated, and girl's sexual desires - which is normally discussed with silence - is often the focus of the story. In that sense, teen novels seem to be to some of the most feminist bits of mass media aimed at teen girls being produced today.

Paternal Patronage

I often get complaints that there aren't enough books for boys in the teen section. To a certain extent, this is a consequence of girls reading more than boys (and ends up being a contributing factor to that as well), but that isn't the only reason, or even the main one. If it was, the young readers section would look remarkably similar - but it doesn't. The teen section has more books for girls because parents are more protective of their daughters, not just because their daughters read more.

Parents care about what's inside the books their kids read, as they should. They'll sometimes ask "Is it too violent?" when they are helping their sons pick out books, but rarely once they are past elementary school. They'll often ask "Does it know..." or some variation thereof when overseeing their daughter's choices, and they ask this more and more often as their daughter grows older. When I suggest an adult novel for a boy, they'll ask "what's it about?" When I suggest one for a girl they'll ask "is it appropriate?" Parents ask these questions, then complain about the lack of choices for boys in the teen section, and can't ever manage to connect the dots.

I can't keep track of the number of times I've had to reassure parents that no, the book their daughter picked up does not have any actual sex scenes in it - that would bump it up into adult fiction. It's rarely clear if it's the actual act they are worried about, or sexual desire in general, or something else. They almost always dance around the question, and I'm never quite sure what to say. "Do Libba Bray's novels have seduction in them? " Well, of a sort, but there's no actual sex. There's barely even a kiss. "Does Tithe, you know, have that kind of stuff in it?" One of the best parts about Holly Black's books are that they are honest about girl's sexual desire, but not much actually happens.

What gets me isn't that parents are worried about this, it's how worried they are about it, and what they seem to be really worried about. The daughters in question aren't always dressed as modestly as their parents seem to think their minds should be. We don't get complaints about the copies of Bop or Teen People or Cosmo Girl that are in their daughter's hands (or that we don't have any magazines just for teenage boys). They don't even seem particularly worried if the books their daughter is reading are always about romantic relationships.

Parents say that it's sex itself they are worried about. It seems to me they are simply afraid to admit that their daughters have sexual desires. Even worse, they have an easier time accepting their daughter's decision to pander to the sexual desires of others than they do acknowledging the fact that their daughters have desires of their own.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The 7th Carnival of the Feminists is up!

(yes, I'm late. I'm always late.)

The best thing isn't that I made it, it's all the great new blogs I found! (must. update. blogroll.) Including lots about comics - yum!

Thanks Lauren!

(I think I just used up my allotment of exclamation points for the week.)

Glossy Green

That's what I remember most.

Green tiles. Green paint. Green metal.

Not shiny, like something bright and new, but glossy, like something old that's kept spotlessly clean.

They made me stand up on a machine. It was cold at the bottom, on the soles of my feet, and even colder at the top where they made me rest my chin so they could stretch me up uncomfortably tall. Take a deep breathe, they said, and hold it while they take a picture of my insides. It was cold in the middle, too, where they needed to take the pictures. Another deep breathe, another picture. They made me wear a paper shirt instead of my real one. Just one more. And then that had to come off too.

They sat me up on the bed and took the paper shirt off. They put gunk in big spots all over my chest and put little suction cups with wires attached on the same spots - like ET and Elliot when the bad guys came to get them. I sat and waited for them to finish. I wanted to go back out into the waiting room and read Highlights. I wanted to go home.

The doctor put the pictures up on the wall and turned on the light. She's fine, he told my mom. I'm always fine.

Does she still play soccer? Yes, she still pays soccer. Good, good. Any problems? None.

Except that I'm only ok, I'm only good at stopping goals, I'm not very good at scoring them. But that's not what he means.

On the way in there is a camera and a TV. I remember looking up and seeing myself on the grainy screen. But I'm too little. I don't remember being that little. I don't know if the memory is real. Or if I mixed them up. Mixed up what it looked like today and the pictures of me when I was little.

I'm wearing a dress, like in the pictures. I like wearing dresses, but I don't wear them very often. Why would I wear one to the hospital? So I think it's made up.

My memories don't make sense anyway. I don't remember coming here last year or the year before that. At least not until I'm already here. I don't remember what it looks like, or what's going to happen. But then we are here, and they're telling me to do stuff, and I remember having been here before, having done this before.

There is paper on the bed. Why would anyone want a paper blanket? I'm cold. I want a real blanket.

We have McDonald's on the way home. I get a Happy Meal as a treat, to make up for having to go. I'd rather just not go.

I'm supposed to go so they can make sure I'm ok. But I'm always ok. I can't remember when I wasn't. It was too long ago, I was too little. Like in the pictures. I've been ok for forever. Why do I still have to go?

I know I'm lucky. But it doesn't feel that way.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I Only Wish

I could write a post this awesome:

What I the assertion that the Left needs new “ideas,” but doesn’t need to concern itself with diversifying its inner sanctum. Not a shred of recognition that perhaps the ideological stagnation from which the Left suffers may be a result of its major power players still being predominantly white, straight, and male."

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

And to all those who say:

"I don't give a darn what our democracy looks like, its what it IS that matters."

I have this to say:

The basic premise of democracy is not just that every individual has certain rights, or even that those rights are best protected when individuals have a say in government, it's that the latter is true because only they can really know what their wants and needs are* and because no one is perfect, so differences in power are always a temptation for abuse. The fact that such abuse is often done in an attempt to do good is irrelevant; we don't believe in benevolent dictators for a reason.

After all, if lack of diversity in government doesn't have a larger significance, why would it matter if all the people in government are rich elites whose parents were the same? So long as everyone's elected, what's the big deal?

To truly protect the rights of all individuals, government must consist of individuals with a variety of experiences and viewpoints. If gender, race, and class are not treated as meaningless by society at large, then large disparities in gender, race, and class representation in government cannot be considered meaningless by any logical standard of healthy democratic representation.

The men who wrote our consititution based their decisions on that premise. That's why the senate and house are proportioned the way they are, to make sure that heavily populated, more urbanized states don't overwhelm the smaller, more rural states. Different groups - but same idea. In fact, if we were to really follow through with that argument, then we should be worried if minority groups aren't overrepresented.

*This in no way invalidates Shakes assertion that one can indeed speak to issues that affect groups that one is not a part of. The point is not that people are incapable of empathy, but that empathy does no good if it must rely on mind reading as it's main source of information. Paul the Spud can speak well about "women's issues" because he listens to women, and not just those that agree with him. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, hears more men's opinions on "women's issues" than women's opinions on them, simply as a consequence of having fewer women than men in positions of power within the party.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


I have no idea why my sidebars are missing.

Obviously I'll be spending my day off fixing that as well as the whole "read more" link that pops up whether there's more to read or not.


And they're back up!...and I still have no idea - probably my stupid computer's fault, not blogger's.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Every Bookseller's Favorite Question

"Where are your non-fiction books?"

"What kind of books are you looking for?"

"Your non-fiction ones."

"I'm sorry. I meant what kind of non-fiction books?"

"Oh, any kind. I just like to browse."

"Oh. Well, um, the only part of the store that isn't non-fiction is, um, the fiction section - which is that corner right over there. Everything else is pretty much non-fiction."

"Oh. So it's not all in one place?"

(quick glance around the store that's easily twice as big as my parents house) "Um, no."

(ok, bargain and kids have both fiction and non-fiction, and cafe and music don't really sell books at all, but, seriously people)

Pint Sized Customers

(why oh why oh why do all of my thoughts come to me in the middle of the night when I should be asleep)

It can be frustrating sometimes when kids come up and ask me for books themselves, rather than their parents. Not because they mean to be, but just because they're kids. Not only are they still learning everything, including how to speak and ask questions properly, but their different perspective makes their thoughts hard to follow sometimes. Adults may come in asking for the Magic School House books - rather than the Magic Tree House or Magic School Bus books. Second graders, however, will often ask simply for the "Jack and Annie" books, because it's the characters that stick in their mind, not the plot device the series is named after. It can take ages to track down the right series if you aren't familiar with it.

Kids are also often nervous about asking questions of adults they don't know, which not only means each question takes ten times longer than usual, it also makes their enunciation even worse than usual. Matt Crilley's Billy Clikk: Creatch Battler* (when they finally spit it out) becomes "BillikClikkCritchBatter" only worse, really. Kids can also have a harder time than adults explaining exactly what they want. They have an idea or picture in their mind and often one particular word or name for it, and if I'm not familiar with that phrase they are often at a loss as to how to describe it further.

The great thing about kids though, is that they know that they don't know everything and so they do try to come up with better words and you can tell they are listening and absorbing when you finally say "Oh! You mean the Captain Underpants activity books, right?"

Adults, otoh, can be downright rude.

Last spring, a woman came in asking me for "The Chronicles."

"Which chronicles?" I asked.

"The Chronicles," she said, giving me a "duh" look.

"Um, which chronicles?" I ask again, this time putting on my "puzzled" face.

"The Narnia Chronicles." she says condescendingly. (keep in mind this was before the trailers were even out and back when I got one person a month asking for them rather than several a day.)

I smiled**, like a good little capitalist, and showed her where they were, all the while thinking "Silly, me, of course it's the Chronicles of Narnia you wanted. It's not like there are dozens of series that have chronicles in the title in the kids section alone, several of which I get asked about more often than the Narnia books. No, no, I'm the ignorant one - even though you're the one who can't even get the name in the right order."

Yeah, it takes a lot of patience to deal with kids, but it takes a lot more tact to deal with adults. I'm much better at patience than I am with tact.

*sometimes I think half the books for kids under 12 are deliberately given tongue twisters for names. it would make sense really, since the kids usually love 'em

**actually, I must admit, I think this one came out more like a grimace

Saturday, January 14, 2006

It Never Goes There

Degrassi is one of my guilty pleasures. For those of you that haven't heard of it, it's a Canadian high school drama (shown on The N, aka Noggin, in the US) whose latest ad campaign features the tagline It Goes There in reference to it's emotional and scandalous storylines: teacher/student affair, plastic surgery, school shootings, rape, and much more.

But there are some places even Degrassi doesn't go - at least not on Noggin. In season three, one of the main characters got pregnant - and had an abortion. But not on American television. The "problem" just magically disappeared in the US version - Noggin refused to air the episode, despite fan protest. The series that was able to show kids drinking, mutilating themselves, cheating on each other, stealing cars, and having sex could not show something as commonplace as abortion.

It's exceptionally rare for abortion to be shown on US television, especially as anything other than a traumatic event. This insistence on keeping abortion out of our cultural dialogue has an impact on our political dialogue as well. It not only reinforces the idea that abortion is shameful, it reinforces the idea that only certain types of women have abortions, even though the statistics say otherwise. It means that even when people do hear stories that contradict conventional wisdom (women who get abortions are sluts, irresponsible, and hate children) they can compartmentalize it and tell themselves it's an exception to the rule - rather than the standard. It means that when we finally do talk about abortion, we are often forced to talk about it with the underlying presumption that the kind of woman who would seek an abortion is the not the type of woman we should trust to make such a decision in the first place.

My cousin watches Degrassi now as well. She's one of the teenagers that parental notification laws supposedly protect. I find it utterly irresponsible that the shows she watches can manage to address school violence - something she will likely never have to deal with - with obsessive frequency, but cannot discuss abortion at all, even though is much more likely to affect her.

How am I Supposed to Answer That?

Aunt comes in with her second grade niece looking for cat books. I grab Lloyd Alexander's The Cat Who Wished to be a Man and another fantasy book.

Aunt asks, "Are they scary, like the Harry Potter books?"

Um, huh? Does she mean the first Harry Potter books, the only ones of remotely comparable size? Or does she somehow think a barely 200 page kid's novel is going to scare her precious little niece the way the graveyard scene in Goblet of Fire would?

Dragons, Dungeons, and Destinies, Oh My!

I have a tendency to put off reading some of our bestsellers, and for good reason. First of all, as I told a manager recently, I don't need to read the popular books in order to sell them, they sell themselves. More importantly, they rarely live up to their hype, especially the ones where everyone seems to be talking about the fact that "it was written by a fifteen year old!" instead of how good it was. I do start to feel like a dork, however, when parents continually ask me for my opinion, and I have none. Plus, the kids often come in raving about them, and I tend to trust them more, as they rarely ask me stupid questions. So I was quite pleased when Eragon was the January pick for the teen book club I facilitate, because now I would have to read it - no excuses accepted.

Unfortunately, Eragon didn't live up to the hype. I can see why so many kids love it - it's very much like all the fantasy books I read when I was in elementary school and junior high. However, it's so very much like them simply because it rips off of nearly every one of them - and Paolini doesn't add anything new to the story.

Warning! Spoilers may follow!

Title: Eragon - The Inheritance, Book I
Author(s): Christopher Paolini
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 0375826696
List Price: $9.95

good for: grades 5 -8, or anyone who doesn't mind a re-hashing of just about every other fantasy book out there
best for: boys too old for Narnia, but not ready for Tolkein
staff rec: paperback read

Eragon is simply a mish mash of a bunch of other books condensed down into one plot. That, by itself, is not bad. In fact, it makes it a fairly decent first "epic" fantasy for young readers who want something more complex than Narnia, but aren't quite ready for any of the truly epic fantasies. I'm sure it's quite entertaining for it's intended audience; for everyone else it's absurdly predictable, without any true genius of prose to save it from becoming boring. It is well written, but in a textbook sort of way that manages to convey setting, character, and plot clearly, but still lacks any sort of personal style or memorable scenes. It's very much a plot driven book, which tends to keep people turning the pages, as well as a textbook hero's journey, which explains how I knew half of what was going to happen before it did. Both of these characteristics explain Eragon's popularity despite essentially being a Mary Sue story written by talented teenager with a lot of time of his hands.

The story did get more complex towards the end, and therefore slightly less predictable. The characters, although they are simply stock characters, are not so two dimensional that they cannot grow in later books. Keep in mind, also, that I didn't like the first Harry Potter book, and still don't. Paolini may manage to surprise me just as Rowling did. With only two more books to go, I rather doubt it will happen in this series, though. Without the complexity of a future Goblet of Fire or The Order of the Phoenix to retroactively give the story more meaning, and the absence of "running bits" or reference to mythology to act as clues, Eragon will likely remain exactly what it is: a decent, but simple, fantasy book about a kid who finds a talisman, loses everything, and sets off on a quest with a wise old man to fight evil and save the princess.

It's also very much a "boy" book, and by that I don't just mean that the protagonist is a boy. All but one of the main characters is male and most of the female characters are tertiary, rather than secondary. By itself, that would be just fine - it's not as if the American Girl series is teeming with boys. My problem with the book is that the female characters existence is defined, with the exception of Angela and Ayra, by their relationship to male characters, often secondary male characters. Men and boys in "girl" books have relationships to each other outside of their connection to the girls in the story. Women and girls rarely have the same in boy books, and Eragon is no exception.

It doesn't help that it's made very clear that one of the two female characters who is a person in her own right, isn't really after all. Right after beating Eragon at swords, Ayra confesses that, while being held captive by our evil nemesis, "When torture failed, he ordered his soldiers to use me as they would. Fortunately, I still had the strength to nudge their minds and make them incapable." Why in the world is this here - except to ensure our readers that Ayra may have been nearly tortured to death, but she still managed to save herself for our protagonist?

I don't worry about this so much when it comes to girls reading this book because there are plenty of more positive options out there that appeal to girls. I worry about the boys because I know there are so few options available for them, and many of those are substantially worse than Eragon is when it comes to portraying women and girls as people rather than something that exists for men and boys.

Overall, Eragon is a perfect example of what works for adolescent boys and what doesn't - it just never manages to become more than that or break out of the mold of not being able to be boy-centered without "othering" girls and women.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Journey to Adulthood

Shakes has a post up talking about Action Heros and Unlikely Heros (inspired by Mannions series on Hollywood's Right Wing Agenda: part 1, part 2, part 3). She ends with: "Maybe we're getting tired of watching perfect heroes with presaged destinies who come out of battles unscathed." (empahsis mine)

I was arguing this recently with someone with regard to the Harry Potter books. He thinks that the fact that all this stuff starts happening to Harry only because of choices others have made is a fatal flaw in the series. I find it to be an interesting way of anointing Harry the hero of the story without falling strictly into noble blood/preordained path that hero's journeys usually have. I'm a fourth of the way through Eragon and, I must say - after reading hundreds of fantasy stories - the whole orphan of questionable parentage discovering his noble blood is getting more than a bit old*. I understand why it's so popular, but that just makes me appreciate the Potter books so much more. Rowling found a way to play with the stereotype just enough so that kids can still see the typical hero on the surface - but they can also dig deeper and find so much more if they want to.

There are really several hero's journeys occurring at once throughout the series. Structurally, Harry's adventure began at the end of the first book when he defeated Voldemort and thus accepted his role as Good Guy to Voldemort's Evil Nemesis. Thematically, though, Harry is still in the process of starting his adventure. The big question on every adult's mind isn't "is Snape bad/good?" or "who is going to die?" (we all think we've got those figured out) but rather, "will Harry finally become the hero of his own adventure?" I think that the series will end with Harry finally "answering the call" of adulthood.

It's essential to the story that Harry's hero status is thus far mostly defined by what others have done. We can tell by Harry's reactions to Rita Skeeter's attempts to make him out to be a hero that he doesn't consider himself to be one, and neither should we, outside of literary terms. To adults, Harry's lack of leadership can feel like a fundamental flaw in his character; the amount of depth that can be found in Harry's character falls well short of the complexity of the story being told. To adolescents, on the other hand, his inaction is simply an acknowledgement of their stage in life and his reluctance to fully accept the role of hero is symbolic of their ambivalence about growing up.

Most hero's journeys are about becoming an adult, but the Potter series, like our favorite Spiderman and Batman movies, focuses on the choice to become a hero rather than just the physical process. In Rowling's books (presuming she ends it as I suspect she will), true maturity is something that must be chosen, it is not simply the default of having made the "right" choices along the way or having enough experience to attain wisdom. The purpose of Dumbledore's speech at the end of Goblet of Fire is to turn the standard dichotomy of good vs. evil into one of responsibility vs. selfishness. This is why, so far, Harry remains an incomplete hero, despite having made (mostly) good choices and having suffered more than many of his classmates. He is still very much a child and fear and lack of empathy for his enemies often clouds his judgment.

If Harry becomes a hero it will be because he, and those around him, chose that path, not because of his abilities or birth. Even the "accident" that made him "The Boy Who Lived" was a direct result of his parents choice to be self sacrificing adults. Harry will be a hero simply because he, and the people in his life, took it upon themselves to do what was right, and not what was easy.

**I may be assuming to much here, but it seems quite obvious where it's going. I keep hoping Paolini will surprise me, but no luck so far.


This is going to be the topic of conversation at work tomorrow.

How much trouble do you think I will get into if I tell customers that James Frey was just making shit up, instead of waiting for them to hear it elsewhere?

(hat tip to feministe)

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Green Books are Right Over Here

One of our former managers used to joke that he wanted to re-organize all the books by color. One bookcase full of just red books, another with only yellow books, etc.

Why? Because of exchanges like this:

"Hi, how can I help you?"

"Well, I'm looking for a book"

(That's good - since that's what we sell)

"What book are you looking for?"

"Well, I can't remember the author...or the title...."

(Oh goody) - "What about it do you remember?"

"It had a red cover, I think, with gold letters."

(And that helps just so much)

"Do you remember anything else about it, like what it was about?"

"I think it was about hope, or starting over*, or.....maybe, you know, relationships or something."

(Oh, well, that clears everything right up)

"Um, anything else?"

" haven't heard of it?"

What is really frightening is that sometimes something will click and we'll ask "Do you mean (random bestselling title that was on Oprah a few weeks ago and/or was written by a someone famous)?" and we'll be right.

*'Course, in the kid's section, this would most likely be "it has a dog in it" because, you know, there's so few of those in my department.


I stop and ask, like a good little bookseller: "Are you finding everything alright?"

"Oh, yes," they say.

I smile and continue on, but just as my mind has switched to thinking about my next task I hear:

"Do you have...?"

Mickle's Adventures in Gaming

So, I really should either be doing all the chores that need to be done, finishing the book I'm reading so I can move on to the one I need to read by Friday for our teen book club, or, you know, sleeping, but tekanji's final installment of her three part series on Girls and Game Ads got me thinking.

I can't remember a time when we did not have computer and video games laying around the house, and yet there were very few that were mine and there were even fewer that I played as much as my brothers did. They used to tease me that I would rather read books than play video games - which wasn't completely untrue - but it had as much to do with the games that were available, as it had to do with how much I read.

Game makers have being trying to figure out "what women girls want" since I was a kid. The first game I had that was mine was a Strawberry Shortcake game for our Atari. It was some stupid match-up game that wasn't anywhere near as much fun as simply playing with the dolls themselves - or reading B is for Betsy. My short interest in it was part of what prompted the teasing from my brothers.

The second game that belonged to me was Jenny of the Prairie. I absolutely hated that game. It was impossible in the way that only the early computer games can be. I loathed it so much in part because I wanted to like it and I wanted to be good at it, but neither was possible. It was far too difficult to even get past the first level and consequently one of the most boring games I ever played.

The games I liked were usually the games everyone liked. Frogger could keep me entertained for hours - not that I ever got a chance to play that long, having three siblings and all. My younger brother and I both loved Mickey's Space Adventure and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and I spent several periods in junior high math passing notes to my friends telling them how much fun Sonic the Hedgehog was. (boing! boing! bouncy! bouncy!) There were plenty of games that I liked playing, but while my brothers each had games they liked more than anyone else did, and games they were better at than anyone else, none of my favorites could be called mine in either of these ways.

My parents scored gold, though, when they brought home King's Quest's IV. The main character was female, the game play was interesting and challenging without being too difficult, and my love of fantasy and fairy tales was actually helpful in figuring out the game. As with Mickey's Space Adventure, my little brother and I actually switched off playing separately and together, but this was the first game where we realized that we each had strengths and weaknesses, and that teaming up was the surest way to make sure we finished the game. It was also the first game that I was proud to call mine. My little brother and I may have both played it, but it was given to me, the character we were playing was female, and I liked it just a tiny bit more than he did. Finally, a game of my own.

Unfortunately, my extreme attachment to the game resulted in a tearful temper tantrum when I got King's Quest VI for my birthday. It was the first game I remember asking for by name. All of my other requests (and there had been several) had simply been "video games that I would like" (oh, my poor parents). My brother, not having gotten anything - since it was my birthday - was eager to play. I was as well, but I was a little more interested in some of the other stuff I got. I told him he couldn't start it without me since it was my game. My parents disagreed and told him he could play, and I, well, I went ballistic. Even though I understood at the time that they were right, I felt so completely betrayed. Here, finally, was a game that was mine and not his and they were taking it from me and giving it to him - not because he liked it more than me, but because I didn't like it enough to drop everything else. At the time, it sounded just like the excuse people gave for making so few of the games I liked or for never having characters I could identify with. Which, of course, was why I was so ambivalent about games and yet adamant that this game be mine. Even as a teenager it was maddening how unending the cycle was.

I never actually played King's Quest VI and pretty much gave up on finding games I liked after that. Fortunately for me, my parents had not and soon brought home Myst. There are all sorts of evo phsyc excuses people give for why women play puzzle games and men play RPG's, but I can tell you that part of the real reason I will always love Myst is because it's one of the few games that I don't have any bad memories about. I wasn't ever second best at it. No one ever tried to take it from me. And most of all, there weren't any annoying female characters to make me gag (something even King's Quest couldn't escape). My little brother and I had so much fun playing Myst. Like always, we switched around playing solo and as a team, but it was always a group effort, and together we finished the game in just a few days. Whenever anyone would say it was too hard or they gave up after a few weeks, we felt obnoxiously smug. Best of all, I was hungry for more.

Not surprisingly, I’ve never become I die hard gamer (or, really a "gamer" even), but especially over the last few years I’ve become more interested in the games that are out there - due in no small part to my brother introducing me to Kingdom Hearts - and I have begun to shift my “entertainment” budget around accordingly. I read stories like Astarte's and I know that we still have a long way to go and that I will still have a hard time finding (non-arcade style) games that I like, but I read Sour Duck’s review of Beyond Good and Evil and know that, unlike 15 years ago, it won’t be completely impossible. I listen to my teenage cousins – both girls - talk casually about playing the games they got for Christmas and I know we’ve made progress. I just wish it would all progress a bit faster.

Which is why I appreciate what Sour Duck, tekanji, Astarte and others do so much. And why idiots like this annoy me so much. Progress is slow because of guys like him, but the reason we've progressed at all is because of women like the ones above - and the men who are smart enough to listen to women instead of deciding that they know better than us what types of games we like - and why we like them.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Babymouse! - Comics for Little Girls

Queen of the World and Our Hero

I was intrigued when the Babymouse books first came in simply because they looked so out of place between A-Z Mysteries and Captain Underpants – they were just too unapologetically little girl pink. There are certainly parts of the store that look like someone dumped several gallons of Pepto Bismol on the shelves instead of placing proper books on them, but the beginning Chapter Books section isn’t one of those places.

When I picked the first one up and realized that it was a graphic novel as well, I knew I had to read them - soon. Lucky me: since they are meant for second graders, they each took me about ten minutes to read – including taking notes. Lucky for you, as well, since that means my first review is up tonight – er....this morning - rather than next week.

Warning! Spoilers may follow!

Title: Queen of the World
Author(s): Jennifer and Matt Holm
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 0375832297
List Price: $5.95

good for: girls and adults of all ages
best for: 2nd and 3rd grade girls, girls new to graphic novels
staff rec: read now!

Title: Our Hero
Author(s): Jennifer and Matt Holm
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 375832300
List Price: $5.95

good for: boys, girls and adults of all ages
best for: 2nd and 3rd grade girls, girls new to graphic novels
staff rec: read now!

Babymouse is cute. Almost too cute, but thankfully not quite. She loves books, cupcakes, and pink hearts. She has curly whiskers that she wishes were straight and a best friend named Wilson the Weasel.

She is also very funny. Or rather, authors Jennifer and Matt Holm are quite good at being silly: Babymouse not only has an active imagination but also a very......interesting locker. Eating Babymouse's homework is the least of the damage it's capable of. Babymouse’s imagination, combined with excellent humor, is what makes the books great. Both pop up repeatedly, and with excellent timing. A trip to school becomes a long trek across a desolate countryside – complete with a covered wagon with no room for poor Babymouse – simply because she missed bus and has to walk two whole blocks.

Like any other graphic novel, the pictures tell the story as much as the words do. The pictures – just like the text - are simple enough for beginners to “read” but still interesting enough to make it worthwhile. We learn that Babymouse likes books not because she outright says so, but because there are verbal and visual hints throughout the books – one of the best being Babymouse “slaving” away at her homework while novels with exciting titles sit literally gathering cobwebs in her room. The basic format of clear but adorable drawings in black and white - with pink for emphasis - works perfectly for telling the stories at just the right level. Jennifer and Matt Holm skillfully avoid both underestimating their audience and making the basic story incomprehensible to less experienced readers.

The one problem I had with the books was Babymouse's idol turned nemesis, Felicia Furrypaws: in Queen of the World, she is the epitome of a Queen Bee - complete with a Mean Girls type plot. The moral of the story was obviously about being yourself, true friendship, and not growing up too fast – all good stuff - but the fact that it hinged on Babymouse rejecting pretty much all of the other girls in her class as well as stereotypical “girl” things seemed out of place in what was otherwise a very feminist book.

This is Babymouse we are talking about, with her signature pink cupcakes and pink hearts – so, no danger of hating all things “girl” here. My problem was that none of the other girls were at all likable. That’s probably inevitable, since it is a chapter book - not much room for nuance – but I still wish it had been done in way that didn’t suggest that Felicia and her crew were mean because they were girls – and that Babymouse isn’t mean because she’s just that special.

Despite that, Jennifer and Matt Holm did an excellent job of writing an easy to read story that still has meaning - something many authors of books for beginning readers never even try to do. I can see how the story would speak to many girls that age (hell, I would have identified with Babymouse) and, fortunately, Felicia acts more like your typical grade school bully in in the second book than a Queen Bee.

The second book does a much better job of challenging gender steretypes in general - and does it so by showing not telling, so it doesn't come across like a lecture as such books often do. Not only does Babymouse take all sorts of roles in her own imagination throughout both books, but she casts Wilson as Wendy to her Peter Pan at one point in Our Hero. In fact, the whole premise of Our Hero - that Babymouse must find a way to avoid getting pummled by her personal bully in gym class - is usually told with a geeky boy as the protaganist.

Overall, they are great books, and I have high hopes for the rest of the series.


(In Which the Blogger Introduces Herself and Imparts to Her Readers Some of What They May Expect in the Future)

I currently work in the children's section of a major big box bookstore (which I will not name here, but which you will likely figure out eventually - if anyone ever reads this, that is).

I enjoy what I do - most of the time.

My co-workers are (for the most part) great. Plus, I love books. I love listening to kids go on and one about the same stories that I adored when I was their age. Helping parents find books for their children makes me feel useful - it turns my ordinary retail job into something with a purpose. Nothing, and mean nothing, beats a parent coming back and letting me know that their reluctant reader devoured the book I suggested.

Of, course, kids being kids, they can be loud, obnoxious, annoying, and destructive - and their parents can be even worse. In fact, customers in general can be quite annoying. And every once in a while I want to growl at my co-workers too. And, needless to say, it doesn't pay enough and the company doesn't really value its workers nearly as much as it likes to think it does.

This blog will be all about that. All about the books I love (and even the ones I hate). All about the customers - good and bad. All about the silly rules that every retail chain has, and how my friends at work and I conspire to work around them every day.