author – activist – faculty – mom
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS: Confession time: I read a lot of young adult books. It started when I was doing research for my my feminist heist novel, which will be published by Kensington Books next year. My book is decidedly not for young people, but when I searched for heist books with female protagonists, Ally Carter’s book ’s Heist Society came up. That book led me to her teen spy girls series and then to Robin Benway’s spy girl series.
What I love about these books is the metaphorical relationship between spying and growing into womanhood. Both sets of books feature young, teenage girls who are high level spies. There is a fascinating parallel between their spycraft (lying, deceiving others, hiding your true feelings, disguising yourself, manipulating others to like and trust you) and regular teenage girlhood. The struggles around priorities, loyalties, disclosure, and identity for spies and ordinary young women really mirror each other.
Both sets of books feature young white women, but I have begun working on a YA spy series with a black teen female protagonist. I am excited to continue to explore this theme with the added intersection of race: how is becoming successful as a young black woman in the United States like a secret agent’s long-term stealth mission?
CHILDREN’S BOOKS: When my daughter was a toddler, I began working on my book puffy: people whose hair defies gravity. Until last year, she would pretty much listen to any picture book we would read her. Now that she’s five, she’s started picking out her own books in the library, and is particularly interested in chapter books for slightly older kids. One day, she picked out a title from the Rainbow Magic series. These are books about fairies, written at a second grade reading level. There are over 200 books in the series, ghostwritten by various authors under the pseudonym “Daisy Meadows.” Recently, at my daughter’s preschool, another parent said he couldn’t stand reading any more of this series, because they’re all the same. Which is exactly what I love about them as a writer. They all follow a formula, but it’s a good formula: two best friends help the fairies recover a magic object and triumph over the mean goblins. I enjoy reading them because I’m trying to understand the formula so I can write some fan fiction versions for my daughter that have lead characters of color. As it is, when I read aloud to her, I change the names of the two protagonists: Rachel Walker and Kristy Tate to Rachel Kleingrove and Kristy Teng, making them Jewish and Chinese/mixed heritage. I like that some of the fairies are of color, but the town environment is heavily white, and all the mythical references are European. The core concept is not new: the forces of good among creatures from another world are at war with the forces of evil or mayhem and need human help. And I like that the protagonists are girls and the magical creatures are girls. In every book, the wit, athleticism, and/or power of girls is what saves the day. If I ever get serious, I might do a series with some of the same ingredients that puts girls of color in the center, and brings in African or Indigenous magic.
Also, I love these books because they are longer and we get to read a new chapter every night. Sometimes I do get bored reading the same picture books over and over. However, here are a bunch of picture books that we love:
Thunder Rose and Raising Dragons by Jerdine Nolen
Eva Uses Her Head by Robert O’Brien (kids of color+plotline about disabled accessibility)
Floating On Mama’s Song by Laura Lacamara
Just A Minute! by Yuyi Morales
Little Night by Yuyi Morales
Quinito’s Neighborhood by Ina Cumpiano
Drum City by Thea Guidone (stunning illustrations by Vanessa Newton)
Every Little Thing and One Love by Cedella Marley (also illustrated by Vanessa Newton)
The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice N. Harrington
Julie Black Belt series by Oliver Chin
Lola in the Library and Lola Loves Stories by Anna McQuinn
Dancing In The Wings by Debbie Allen
Look Back! by Trish Cooke
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
Quack by Arthur Yorinks (written half in Duck language!)