Mean What You Say: Bitch Magazine’s 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader

Two important insights this week:

1) There are a lot of great YA books out there (I know, I know, stop me if you’ve heard this one before) and I love a good reading list (ok, that’s 2 already but who’s counting?). In the spirit of those blessed laundry lists of suggested reading that kept me occupied and away from the embarrassment of the public swimming pool during my early years, the editors of Bitch magazine released their list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader. What a great way to raise awareness about lots of books and provide a valuable resource for kids, educators, and voracious readers like me.

There are a ton of books on this list that I’ve never heard of (Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You by Dorian Cirrone, HarperCollins, 2005), have been meaning to read (What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci, Harcourt 2002), and have loved (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, RH, 2006, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, RH, 2001, and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, Harcourt, 50th anniversary edition 2010) to name a few.

How do the lesbians stack up on the list? These are the ones I noticed:

37. Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden (FSG, reprint 2007, first published 1982)

38. The Year They Burned the Books by Nancy Garden (FSG, 1999)

55. Ash by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown, 2009)

72. Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters (Little, Brown, reprint 2005)

There may be more. Like I said, I haven’t read a lot of these books but with the club I have read Annie on My Mind and Ash. Very different books but both excellent. There are a few books I would classify as trans or about gender identity which I didn’t include here, like Luna by Julie Anne Peters or The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds but 4 lesbian books out of 100 on a feminist list seems…small to me. In any event, books about strong girls—yeah.

My favorite that’s missing from the list: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Harcourt, 1958). Puritans, injustice, secret friendships: this is The Scarlet Letter lite.

Now for the real second insight:

2) Never attach your name to something you don’t understand or can’t defend (cell phone contracts notwithstanding as those are indefensible). Simple, right? Too bad the editors at Bitch magazine didn’t follow that advice when they compiled the aforementioned list.

You can follow the whole sordid mess here but the basics are: Bitch released the list; a few people expressed outrage over three books calling them inappropriate; Bitch reflected on those comments (points to them for not reacting quickly but considering their response); Bitch decided to retract those books because of “victim-blaming,” validation of “characters who use rape as an act of vengeance,” and a “triggering nature;” others are outraged at their lack of conviction and integrity and some authors on the list have demanded they be removed. It gets pretty heated in the way only feminist arguments can get.

I have to say, I’m also disappointed: at their slipshod review and compiling process that put them in this situation in the first place. The good thing, though, is that the list, and now this brouhaha, has created an excellent dialogue about YA literature…and, for better or worse, raised awareness about those three axed books, none of which sound like anything I’d want to read (too much violence, says the Mockingjay fan in all seriousness) but you decide:

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce (Little, Brown, 2010). From the jacket:

Scarlett March lives to hunt the Fenris–the werewolves that took her eye when she was defending her sister Rosie from a brutal attack. Armed with a razor-sharp hatchet and blood-red cloak, Scarlett is an expert at luring and slaying the wolves. She’s determined to protect other young girls from a grisly death, and her raging heart will not rest until every single wolf is dead.

Rosie March once felt her bond with her sister was unbreakable. Owing Scarlett her life, Rosie hunts ferociously alongside her. But even as more girls’ bodies pile up in the city and the Fenris seem to be gaining power, Rosie dreams of a life beyond the wolves. She finds herself drawn to Silas, a young woodsman who is deadly with an ax and Scarlett’s only friend–but does loving him mean betraying her sister and all that they’ve worked for?

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (Knopf, 2008). From the Library Journal starred review:

A traumatized teen mother magically escapes to her own personal heaven in this daring and deeply moving fantasy. The characters, setting, much of the action, and even the very words of the title are taken from the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” a sweet story of contrasting sisters who live deep in the forest and whose innocent hearts are filled with compassion for a lonely bear and an endangered dwarf. In the novel, Liga’s daughters—one born of incest, the other of gang rape—first flourish in Liga’s safe world. But encounters with magical bears and the crusty dwarf challenge them to see a world beyond their mother’s secure dreamscape. Eventually the younger one, Urdda, and subsequently her sister and Liga are drawn back into the real world in which cruelty, hurt, and prejudice abound. But it is also only there that they can experience the range of human emotion, develop deep relationships, and discover who they truly are. The opening chapters vividly portray the emotional experience of a boy’s first sexual encounter, mind-numbing abuse by Liga’s father, and a violent gang rape. It’s heavy fare even for sophisticated readers, but the author hits all the right notes, giving voice to both the joys and terrors that sexual experience can bestow without saying more than readers need to know to be fully with the characters. While the story explores what it means to be human, it is at its heart an incisive exploration of the uses and limitations of dissociation as a coping mechanism. Beautifully written and surprising, this is a novel not to be missed.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott (Simon Pulse, 2009). From PW:

Fans of Scott’s YA romances Perfect You or Bloom may be unprepared for the unrelieved terror within this chilling novel, about a 15-year-old girl who has spent the last five years being abused by a kidnapper named Ray and is kept powerless by Ray’s promise to harm her family if she makes one false move. The narrator knows she is the second of the girls Ray has abducted and renamed Alice; Ray killed the first when she outgrew her childlike body at 15, and now Alice half-hopes her own demise is approaching (“I think of the knife in the kitchen, of the bridges I’ve seen from the bus… but the thing about hearts is that they always want to keep beating”). Ray, however, has an even more sinister plan: he orders Alice to find a new girl, then train her to Ray’s tastes. Scott’s prose is spare and damning, relying on suggestive details and their impact on Alice to convey the unimaginable violence she repeatedly experiences. Disturbing but fascinating, the book exerts an inescapable grip on readers-like Alice, they have virtually no choice but to continue until the conclusion sets them free.

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4 Responses to Mean What You Say: Bitch Magazine’s 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader

  1. Nora Olsen says:

    Very interesting post! I had seen the Bitch list, but I hadn’t heard about the controversy. I did try to read Tender Morsels but I wasn’t able to get past chapter one because it was so gruesome.

    There are a few other lesbian books on the list:
    The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson
    Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole
    The House You Pass On The Way by Jacqueline Woodson (lesbian/questioning)

    One of my all-time favorites is on the list–Celine by Brock Cole. The main character Celine has a crush on a man, but also describes how much she loves her female friends in a very “I don’t know I’m gay yet” kind of way that really rings true. You mentioned there are some books about gender identity/trans characters. I’ve been meaning to read Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger.

  2. Angela Kelly says:

    Hi there lesbianmeetsbooknyc!

    I thought you might be interested in reading the book that I just released, and I’m pretty damn excited about. If so inclined, please visit my page at angelakelly.wordpress.com

    Thanks! I enjoyed reading your blog.

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