author – activist – faculty – mom
There, I said it. Late last night, I confessed, via twitter, to reading young adult and middle grade fiction. A recent Slate Magazine article criticized YA fiction, so the entire Twitter community of YA writers and readers has been shooting back via the hashtag #PromoteaYAinstead. Which has a little bonus for me personally, because it can also be read #PromoteAYAinstead.
But back to the point at hand. I do. I read YA & Middle Grade.
Yes. With my MFA.
Right now, I’ve been reading Ally Carter & Robin Benway. It started with reading Ally Carter’s Heist Society. I was looking for heist books with female criminal masterminds, and came across the book. Which led me to her spy series, and Robin Benway’s spy series. Both have young women in high school who are spies. One is a safecracker who was trained by her spy parents, and the other goes to an exclusive girls school for spies. Although I read them for pleasure, part of the pleasure is the exploration of gender. What both these series reveal is that being a high school girl is really a big undercover operation. Girls are constantly disguising themselves, lying about what they really feel, ingratiating themselves under false pretenses, and struggling to negotiate their budding sense of sexual and romantic exploration with the dangers of being exposed and vulnerable. Also, while some books like Twilight have the boys in the power position (vampire, werewolf, etc.) these books often have the girl in the power position, with the special powers, and the boys like them both in spite of and because of their powers.
I must confess, however, that part of my attraction to YA/MG is the context in which I enjoy it. I’m a working artist mom. When I go to bed, my mind is buzzing with the parenting/teaching/writing ideas of the day. I need a good story to lull me to sleep. But I share a bed with my partner and daughter. Reading a print book isn’t an option. And I don’t want to be looking at a screen as I try to fall asleep. Audiobooks are perfect.
For years, I found that the British were effective in putting me to sleep. I listened to many historical English mysteries. I came across Harry Potter on audio in the library, many years before the massive book craze. And I’ve written about JK Rowling’s brilliant adult book follow up The Casual Vacancy, which I recently listened to on audio, as well. I bought audio versions of Tina Fey’s autobiography, Malcolm Gladwell, Nancy Springer, Allison Pearson (whom I’ve written about), as well as Galadrielle Allman’s memoir, and both of Carolina de Robertis’ novels. The latter two are friends, so it was odd but sweet to have their voices reading to me every night. I would wake up feeling as if we’d spent the previous evening talking on the phone or hanging out.
Since my daughter was born, I haven’t managed to finish a single print book that wasn’t related to my work (either writing or teaching). I have several that I’ve started, and they just stack up. As a working artist mom, there just isn’t the time for single tasking. The audio titles I can “read” while cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping. I can listen to them in the wee hours when my to-do list wakes me up. So while I haven’t made it through a single pleasure read in the last five years, I can’t get enough good quality audiobooks.
The challenge is that only the most mainstream titles are made into audio, because the cost of producing the recording is prohibitive. Rarely does someone recommend a book they love that I can find in audio. Feminist stories, writers of color, LGBT writers, poor and working class stories don’t often make the cut. So I have to pick among the more mainstream material. And not even all the mainstream YA gets made into audio. I was dying to “read” Catching Jordan, about a girl quarterback in high school, but I couldn’t find it in audio.
Also, these are bedtime stories for me. I need something interesting enough to distract me from the spinning thoughts in my head, but not something anxiety-producing. So the heavy, challenging, serious novels and non-fiction are out of the question. I’m not going to be able to fall asleep while contemplating deep injustice, heavy loss, trauma, or violence. Or explicit sex, for that matter. Bad writing will also keep me awake with irritation. Sexist and racist material will make me want to get up and blog my outrage. This rules out most adult books. Much of the YA/MG genre work for girls offers time tested plot structures that are fun, interesting, and satisfying. But they don’t have the sex and violence of the adult titles.
Part of reading for pleasure and escape is about socioeconomic class. When I was in college, and a working young adult, I could spend my leisure time reading challenging texts that triggered heavy feelings about racism, sexism, colonization, and violence. As a working artist mom, I don’t have any more work in me at the end of the day. My adrenal glands need a rest from the rushing, vigilance, obligations, and multitasking. Reading YA is about the pleasure of fun stories where I know the heroines will win, but also about great, vivid writing.
I think about these issues of class in my own writing. Even as a writer with an MFA who’s been groomed for literary fiction, I’ve made the decision to write a sexy feminist heist book that I hope will be called a beach read. Because I want working women of all ages to have a pleasure read that is full of the race/class/gender values I believe in. And if it makes it into audio, all the better. And if it does, it’ll be read by the author. #PromoteaYAinstead ##PromoteAYAinstead