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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

100 Young Adult Books for the the Feminist Reader

A booklist of “young adult books” for the “feminist reader” was put together on the website of the magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture.

For those of you in Portland, Oregon, the organization actually has a real lending library. Some of the website posts are particularly about that library and books. A typical post up to now is a look at the ALA YA awards/lists from a feminist viewpoint: From the Library: Young Adult Awards Aplenty.

On January 28, Bitch posted a list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader. From the blog post: “The Bitch Media Community Lending Library brings you our very first book list, made up of 100 young adult novels that every feminist should add to the stack of books on their bedside table. Here at the library we’ve been re-reading some of our old standbys and finding new feminist favorites. If you’re looking to buy a book for your favorite teenage girl or just looking to cuddle up with a powerful story featuring teenage characters, look no further.”

I’m not sure whether or not the books are physically at the Lending Library; I have to assume “yes.”

As for what happened next. In a nutshell, some people objected to books on the list, framing the objections in arguments that touched upon issues of particular sensitivity: rape and rape culture. The people who put together the list removed those titles. As they explained on February 1, “A couple of us at the office read and re-read Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl this weekend. We’ve decided to remove these books from the list — Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance, and Living Dead Girl because of its triggering nature. We still feel that these books have merit and would not hesitate to recommend them in certain instances, but we don’t feel comfortable keeping them on this particular list.” Emphasis in the original. (Note: the Sisters Red removal seems to be based entirely on the review and conversation at Book Smugglers. Note the power that one blog post can have.)

The comments exploded. Those of us who have seen book challenges unfold behind closed doors recognized what was happening: Person A objects to book, framing the argument as Z. All reading and analysis is done in reaction to argument Z. Alternate arguments or perspectives are not considered. Unlike other library challenges, this happens in public. Which, actually, I think is extremely helpful to those who have not seen what happens in these types of situations, and just how personal it gets.

Some of the wonderful things about the public discussion are the beautiful defenses of Tender Morsels. Long time readers may remember that I was on the Printz Committee that selected Tender Morsels as a Printz Honor book. So, yes, this is personal. But note the word I had to use: defense. Because of how Bitch handled this, those who didn’t view Tender Morsels as validating rape as vengeance now had to defend themselves. In other words, Bitch has with each of these books established that the arguments offered up are valid and the view that Bitch holds rather than simply an alternate view that can be part of an informed, intelligent discussion.

If you can stomach the comments, I suggest you read them both for the defenses of the books that have been offered up as well as a capsule of Internet culture. Seriously, it’s like a textbook example of all the ways a discussion can explode into other issues and into flaming and trolls and mansplaining.

If you want a timeline of what happened with analysis, Colleen Mondor has done a great job over at Chasing Ray. She goes into all the other issues raised in the comments. If you cannot stomach the comments, read Colleen’s post because she read them so you don’t have to.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books also comments, explaining in detail the problems some had with triggering being the reason to remove a book from a list. I particularly like the tongue-in-cheek Advisory stickers. The comments are also valuable as some people agree that the books didn’t belong on the list based on excerpt they read (excerpts! not the full book!) and SBTB responds with : “Second, that is one interpretation of the books in question, not The Only And Eternally Right interpretation of those books. Just because an internet commenter says so does not make it absolutely true. Dear God, what trouble we’d be in, in that case.”  THIS, in a sentence, is the problem with what is going on with the Bitch list as well as the problem with many book challenges.

Edited to add: I found Kirstyn McDermott’s analysis of Tender Morsels, and really like what she has to say about Tender Morsels, the scene Bitch relied on to remove the book, the context of the removal, and what that removal means.

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About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is lizzy.burns@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Angela says:

    A comment made last night by one of the staffers indicated they do have a physical lending library (though it’s not an official/accredited library with a full-time librarian), and the books are still available through the actual library.

    Love your point that defenders of the books suddenly had to defend themselves against allegations such as rape being used as vengeance or rape culture. It really puts us in a difficult situation. Because on the one hand, an individual’s interpretation of a book can be totally opposite of mine and still be valid. I didn’t happen to like Tender Morsels – not because of the rape and violence, I just thought it was far too slow paced. Clearly, other people disagree, and I totally respect that and think even though the book wasn’t for me it still has value.

    My feeling is that removing these books after publishing the list is pretty much the antithesis of feminist literature. I said in my blog post about the situation last night that feminist literature reaffirms our observations and feelings that the world is an unfair place for women (and other minorities) and these books reflect our experiences or show possible responses to the injustices of the world. Removing these books because they may not be appropriate for every possible feminist audience goes back to the pre-feminist days when women were encouraged NOT to speak about their horrific experiences.

  2. Thanks for this post – I was watching some of this unfold on Twitter last night, and I’m glad that it seems to be getting lots of coverage in the blogosphere as well. Bitch Media just played this so poorly – it seems like there ought to have been a way to encourage thoughtful discussion in the comments, rather than just yanking the books.

  3. KB/KT Grant says:

    People’s reactions are the reason for the removal, not a review from the Booksmgglers. Seems like people want to place blame somewhere and are pointing to the Booksmugglers review, which is only a person’s opinion. We need blogs like Booksmugglers to be honest and open about why the books they read didn’t work for them. If you don’t like their reviews, opinions or any other blogs, don’t visit and read them.

    I think people are overreacting over something as simple as a book list.

  4. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Angela, it’s rather fascinating to see the dual discussion/ timeline of what is going on at the blog post & Twitter about the list. The list could have been very valuable as a discussion point for what is a book for a feminist reader, anyway, instead of the “ok let’s remove it” reaction.

    Emily, agreed with the discussion. And since the comments have now veered into some ugliness, the true discussion points are fast being lost.

    KB/KT Grant, I agree that we need reviews like Book Smugglers. As with many reviews or critiques, I agree/ disagree. I find it useful, funny, informative, many things. My concern is not their post but how Bitch has now used it. Bitch uses that one Book Smugglers post to revise the list, rather than using it for balance or thoughtful discussion of the book at issue. I find that misuse troubling, especially as it appears to be done without having read the book or reading the book only to confirm agreement with the objection: “While I read most of the books on this list, there were a few that I just researched, and it appears that my researching skills failed in this instance (kind of like the book failed over at The Book Smugglers — who sure know how to call out a book on perpetuating rape culture). Thanks for tuning me into this. I’m going to go ahead and remove Sister’s Red from the list and replace it with another book.”

  5. I followed the comments yesterday as the whole mess exploded. What bothers me the most is that now the original list seems to be put together without much consideration going into each title. If you are going to put together a list like this, you need to have some sort of criteria and carefully consider whether each title meets the criteria. Then you need to have a backbone when someone (inevitably) challenges what you’ve created. They have now diminished the validity of the entire list and process that created it. No list is definitive — no list is perfect — but that what makes them fun to discuss and debate.

  6. Nymeth says:

    “Because of how Bitch handled this, those who didn’t view Tender Morsels as validating rape as vengeance now had to defend themselves. In other words, Bitch has with each of these books established that the arguments offered up are valid and the view that Bitch holds rather than simply an alternate view that can be part of an informed, intelligent discussion.”

    This frustrates me beyond belief. As it does the fact that one of the most beautiful and intelligent books I’ve ever read will now be forever associated in the mind of who knows how many people with “promoting rape as revenge”. I strongly disagree with that reading of the book, but I’d be up for a discussion about it if the playing field was level. But this way, it’s not at all. The conversation has been closed down and one (mis)reading has been held up as The Truth.

  7. KB/KT Grant says:

    Liz B: I second that.

    Why did they go ahead and remove some of the books? Because of public outcry or perhaps they don’t want to rock the boat by those YA authors also commenting and adding to the fire?

  8. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Paige, I do wonder what the criteria was for the list. I think that two things could have helped this not get out of control: being clear what the criteria is; having a 1 or 2 sentence explantion for each book as to how that meets the criteria.

    Nymeth, I think this is why so many of us reacted as we did to what is just another list (as KB/KT points out.) It’s not just the list.

    KB/KT, I almost want to do a bit of research at this point, in that I’m sure what I’m about to say has been said better. I’ll call it the Culture of First. I’ve been in professional meetings: “we need to do something” first person responds with “x” and simply by being first, that idea x is the one that is used and embraced, as if that first person speaks for everyone. I’m the person in the meeting that asks the annoying “let’s see what others think” or point out the first person responding is not representative of anything more or less than being the first person to speak. I think they truly believed that the First Objectors were representative of all readers and what would follow was agreement to the list changes. The problem is, first isn’t universal, especially for issues that are subjective. Now, I think they are in a pretty tough place because if they change again, they’ll be labeled as wishy washy.

  9. You’ve said everything I wanted to say, but couldn’t. Thanks, Liz!

  10. Colleen says:

    Liz – thanks so much for this and especially for showing how the whole discussion quickly became about defending against one single analysis of each book. Per the usual, I now have renewed respect for librarians everywhere.

    It is so exhausting to stand up for books, isn’t it?

  11. Liz, thank you for the summing up here. I would guess this is probably the last time Bitch edits in public, but actually the transparency has let us readers in on what goes on when books are challenged. In this case, it was a complete caving–which is really disheartening.

  12. Liz, thanks for posting about this. I was on Twitter yesterday and read all the comments. I had not been aware of the publication before they put out this list…what a shame this has turned into such a train wreck.

  13. TerryD says:

    Thanks for directing me to the list and comments. I’d like to point out that this ‘text book case’ also illustrates how one issue can obscure others. And don’t misunderstand me: censorship is a majorly important issue. Having read the 200-plus comments, I was taken aback at how completely the censorship (redaction? editing?) of the list sucked all the oxygen away from every other topic. It very quickly becomes all about is it/isn’t it censorship.

    I’m left wondering how the three replacement books were selected? Why were those titles never named explicitly? Why was “Living Dead Girl” included initially? Does ‘Sex Education’ by Jenny Davis really hold up? There was never meaningful discussion of the books beyond some back-n-forth about “Sisters Red” and “Tender Morsels.”

  14. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Jackson, thanks!

    Colleen, the comments quickly went all over the place, with cross-talking, including some confusion all around about what was and wasn’t read, and why these 3 books were removed. Threaded comments help keep some things together, but it also got confusing in terms of not being able to follow the conversation chronologically.

    Susan, it is pretty amazing to watch at least some of the process in real-time.

    Allison, it really is a train wreck at this point. I don’t think there is anything constructive that can happen at this point; no matter what is or isn’t said, someone is going to be pissed.

    Terry, I don’t see this as much as censorship — but having seen how book challenges go, this is really similar in terms of reactions and how things are handled. I would love an explanation of what the criteria is/was, and annotations reflecting that for books. Living Dead Girl is not an easy book to read — what was it that initially appealled to them for this list?

  15. TerryD says:

    I’m glad of the brouhaha, insomuch as I wouldn’t have been aware of the list without the controversy, and it is fascinating and instructive to watch it unfold. The list reminded me of a couple of titles I’d pushed too far back on the back burner.

    Still, when I took a closer look at the 100, I’m underwhelmed. “Young Adult” books including ‘Harriet the Spy’ ‘One Crazy Summer’ and ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’? Guess that covers ‘young.’ Can Block’s ‘Dangerous Angels’ really be counted as one book?

  16. Laura Ruby says:

    Thanks for this, Liz. It seems to me that the people at Bitch had no real selection process for inclusion on this list — and apparently hadn’t read all the titles (?!) — so couldn’t defend their choices, and didn’t bother. I can’t figure out why you’d put together a list of “young adult novels that every feminist should add to the stack of books on their bedside table” WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT’S IN THOSE BOOKS. Seriously?

    And though I can understand feeling “triggered” or outraged by a particular book — I’ve been in that position myself — I can’t understand the leap from “this book upsets me so I won’t read it,” to “this books upsets me so no one should read it.”

    Anyway, Margo Lanagan responded to the whole controversy here . I particularly liked this bit:

    “There is a lot of pressure from anxious adult carers of children and young adults to fill children’s and YA literature with explicit moral messages that can only be read one way, the ‘right’ way. This is not, I believe, the purpose of books and reading. Fiction is a means to make parts of the world visible in all its complexity and ambiguity, not cover up its nasty bits and hope they’ll go away. Fiction (particularly fantasy fiction) provides a safe place where uncertainties can be considered and explored.”

    – Laura

  17. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Terry, things like noting grade levels are exactly something to think about when doing a list like this, especially when some of the titles are really young and some are really old. It makes me think, what to do in a similar situation? What not to do?

    Laura, I like Margo’s post. I think if the people who put this together had been clearer about what they were doing, they would have been less quick to remove titles. At least, that’s the impression I get.

  18. Karen Healey says:

    Terrific summation, Liz

  19. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Karen, thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Liz B (School Library Journal) Meta Filter (in which some very nice things are said about the feminist bent to my work) Foz Meadows Chasing Ray (some incorrect stuff here, but overall very good timeline) Smart Bitches Margo Lanagan (my fellow Zombies vs. Unicorns Anthologist and the author of the removed Tender Morsels) Karen Healey Tansy Rayner Roberts Gwenda Bonds [...]

  2. [...] released its list of 100 young adult books for the feminist reader. Then all hell broke loose. (See this excellent post by Liz B from Tea Cozy for the full explanation.) I remember when this happened and hearing and reading [...]

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