Tag Archives: gender

Issues in YA Literature

Hello, and happy Friday.

Even though I didn’t work on my WiP yesterday due to ill-health, I did spend my time doing useful things, including reading other blogs and keeping up to date with current thought in the YA world.  Turns out there are lots of burning topics to think about, but the one I want to write about today just stuck in my head, and thoughts started to congeal around it.  That topic is social issues – race, sexuality, disability, poverty – and how they are dealt with in Young Adult books.

My thought processes on this started yesterday when I read a blog article about race in Young Adult literature, and how the characters, particularly the main characters, tend to be white, or (even worse) are just assumed to be white.  I’m afraid I don’t know yet how to link things properly on my blog, but if you want to copy and paste the following into your browser, you’ll get to the article:

http://www.wordforteens.com/2012/10/the-whiteness-of-ya-books-and-book.html

The blogger was asking the question ‘why does this happen?’ and, unfortunately, came to the conclusion that ‘whiteness sells’; in other words, that putting pictures of pretty white girls on the cover of the book will help to sell it.  I thought the article was excellent, and timely – and very, very sad.

The blogger mentions the Twitter backlash a few years ago when a character in The Hunger Games was portrayed by a black actress when the book came to be turned into a movie.  It seemed that some people couldn’t get their head around one of the most important players in the story (Rue) not having the same white skin as the protagonists.  In fact, the character is described as black when we first meet her in the book, but it is such an unimportant part of her that it soon just becomes incidental; it becomes just another part of her, like her singing voice and her ability to climb, and her gentle compassion.  She’s probably my favourite character, not only in The Hunger Games but in the trilogy overall; it made zero difference to me what colour her skin was. I remember the furore around race when the movie came out, and I remember how disgusted I was by it.

By using the words ‘unimportant’ and ‘incidental’, by the way, I don’t mean to downplay the importance or significance of these characteristics, and I’m certainly not trying to belittle or disparage ideas of racial equality.  I don’t mean to imply that the fact of the character’s blackness is not significant – in fact, ideas of race, sexuality, gender and disability are very important to me as a person, and as a writer.  What I mean is, the fact that the character of Rue has black skin makes no difference to her character in this story.  Her compassion, her kindness, her talents, her loving heart, her bravery, and her beautiful spirit all have nothing to do with the colour of her skin; this is why the author doesn’t mention it again after our first meeting with the character.  She’s not brave because she’s black; she’s just a brave person who also happens to be black.  The protagonist, Katniss, is also a brave person – not because she’s white, she just also happens to be white.  It’s noteworthy that Suzanne Collins doesn’t really dwell on physical characteristics or descriptions in her books – we’re not constantly reminded of Katniss’ race, or the physical appearance of any character, to the best of my recollection.  People in these books are just people, and I think that’s important.

I then started to think about Ursula Le Guin, and the way she has always dealt with race and bodily difference in her novels.  For Le Guin, characters are nearly always described as being brown, or dark – it seems like everyone, more or less, is the same colour, but that colour is not necessarily white.  Again, like Collins, skin colour is not important to characterisation in Le Guin – it’s an incidental, barely-mentioned thing. The reader is given enough detail to fix the character in their mind and then we just get on with the story, with nobody paying any heed to what colour a person is. Even gender and sexuality, in Le Guin’s work, is seen as being fluid – distinctions are made unimportant. I’m thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness here, where it’s impossible to even describe a character as being ‘male’ or ‘female’ – everyone in this book is both, and neither, male or female. They can choose a gender at certain times in their lives (known as ‘kemmer’), and temporarily become one or the other, but for the most part gender is unimportant to who the characters are. I’ve always admired Le Guin’s treatment of people in this novel – even the idea of pronouns, and how to refer to people, was problematic but she overcame it through some very skilful use of language.  Sometimes characters who are usually referred to with male pronouns are described as women, and vice-versa; sometimes, pronouns are just ignored.

I also began to think about disability in Young Adult literature, and found myself stuck for examples of characters who are disabled. More often than not, in these books, protagonists are more specially gifted – stronger, faster, quicker to learn – than their contemporaries, and it’s rare to come across characters, let alone protagonists, who are just unexceptional, or who have a disability. There’s also a risk in literature that the author will decide to ‘cure’ a disabled character, or bestow some extra-special talent on them to ‘make up for’ their disability; though this might be done with a good heart, it’s important to remember that it can be seen as insulting by readers with disabilities.  Why is it so hard, I wonder, to imagine a character who not only lives their life perfectly well, but also excels at whatever it is they choose to do, and all this while disabled?

It would be wonderful, I think, if characters in novels could be just seen as ‘people’, regardless of their colour, gender, sexuality or disabilities.  These things are important, of course, and they will affect how a person sees themselves and how their world works, but they shouldn’t make a difference to whether or not they’re a good person, and certainly not to whether or not they’re a good character, about whom we enjoy reading. It would be wonderful if readers didn’t automatically assume that every character is white, straight and privileged, and if book covers (as the other blogger suggested) didn’t reflect a homogeneous, all-white picture. I certainly hope we never witness another ‘Rue is black?’ debacle, because – surely – at this stage, it should make no difference.

What are your thoughts on these issues? I’m particularly interested to know if anyone has any recommendations for books I could read with disabled characters, or books which deal with race or gender in interesting ways.  Let me know what you think!

Protagonists and Readers

Greetings from a cold Ireland.  My brain is jumbled up with thoughts today, and I’m not sure how coherent this blog post will be.  I’ll strive to do my best, however!

I read an excellent blog post on the gender of protagonists in fiction yesterday, and whether child readers respond better to stories where the protagonist is the same gender as themselves.  I’m not quite sure how links work, but I’ll try this and hope it’s not illegal or immoral, or anything: http://steelthistles.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-master-maid-role-of-women-and-girls.html This issue interests me because my WiP features a female ‘lead character’, who is not a typical heroine; I have often wondered if she will appeal to boy readers, and I think it’s a vital question to ask.  The author of the blog questions whether boy readers are less likely to engage with a female protagonist than girl readers are to a male protagonist, and I think there might be something in that viewpoint.  I started thinking about female characters in fiction, generally, and why there are so few heroines as opposed to heroes, and whether this is something that needs to be addressed.

This blog post interested me so much that I actually rooted out one of the Middle English romances that I did some research on, years ago, because I remembered there being a wonderful female character in it.  After some rather dusty poking about under the stairs, I eventually found it.  The text is called ‘Ywain and Gawain’, and the character I remembered so well was named Lunet.  A potted summary of the text runs something like: knight goes on a quest, meets a variety of fabulous beasts and wonderful characters; a mysterious girl (possibly a fairy – it’s never fully explained) helps him to win the heart of the woman of his dreams, which he goes on to betray and, hence, lose; knight goes into the wilderness and goes a bit mad for a while, picking up a faithful lion companion on the way; enigmatic girl helps him restore his sanity and win back his wife.  Cue joyful and triumphant conclusion, of course.  It’s one of my favourite texts for many reasons, not least of which is the marvellous lion, but I really love it because of Lunet, the possibly fae-girl, who – while not being the protagonist, exactly – is absolutely vital to the plot.  Without her, the knight would never have won back his lady, they would never have lived together in harmony, and the kingdom wouldn’t have been restored.  Normally, in romances, the standard reward for a female character is marriage – the princess gets her prince (and, by extension, the prince gets her kingdom, but we won’t go there), and the faithful serving lady usually gets married off to a lesser nobleman, and everyone goes home happy.  But Lunet is different.  Lunet is asked what she wants for a reward at the end of the text, and she clearly says something unexpected, because it is described like this:

‘And trew Lunet, the maiden hende./

Was honord ever with ald and ying/

And lifed at hir owin liking;/

Of alkins thing sho has maystri,/

Next the lord and the lady… (lines 4014-4018)

Loosely modernised, this means: ‘And true Lunet, the fair maiden, was honoured for ever among old and young.  She lived just as she pleased, and she had mastery/control over everything, after the lord and the lady.’  She gets (and asks for) no husband, and she is left to live as she wants to.  I can’t stress enough how much this stuck in my mind when I first read it.  It’s so unusual as to be unique, at least in my experience of the medieval romance.  I wondered what happened to this type of female character, and why she crops up so infrequently.

Even in the modern world, with our Katniss Everdeens and our Katsas and Queen Bitterblues, we still struggle to shake off the idea that for a story to end completely, the female characters need to get a man, or get married, or settle down in some way.  For instance, I love ‘The Hunger Games’ books, but one thing that enraged me about the ending was the way Katniss was forced, in a way, to betray her own desires for her future.  I don’t want to give away too much in case you haven’t read it, but when you do, I hope you’ll know what I mean.  It wasn’t enough that she suffered as much as she had, and achieved the great things she’d achieved – she also had to sacrifice something vital, and something she had sworn to herself, because a male character wanted her to.  I can’t help but wish it had been written differently.  I’d love to see more Lunets in literature – heck, I’d even love to see more Wives of Bath!  I know her character is defined by her husbands, too, but she’s the one doing the pursuing.  I don’t think anyone ever told Alysoun of Bath what she could and couldn’t do.

It’s funny that there are characters in medieval literature that seem somewhat more ‘modern’ in their viewpoints than some contemporary heroines.  Of course, though, it’s not as simple as this.  The majority of female characters in medieval texts are either not important at all, or do end up married or otherwise under the control of a male character.  Even in ‘Ywain and Gawain’, you could argue that Lunet is such a singular woman because she has an element of the supernatural about her – it’s like the author couldn’t conceive of a fully human woman who didn’t strive at all times to find a husband.  The ‘romance’ novels we have nowadays didn’t develop in a vacuum; they owe a lot to the medieval romances of the past.  I just can’t help thinking that more boys would read and enjoy books where girls are the main characters if those characters didn’t always have to end up giving away their power at the end of their story.  Maybe those same boy-readers would then go on to become men who would expect women to own their own choices and responsibilities, and who’d accept nothing less.  And wouldn’t that be a good thing?