Tag Archives: YA lit

A Cup of Kindness

Why, hello! I haven’t blogged since August!

This semester has truly been the most exhausting and hectic academic term of my life. I started off with back-to-back illnesses (food poisoning followed immediately by an interminable chest cold), then had a perfect storm of time consuming coursework and travel (a really fun Monday night Camden/Tuesday morning New Brunswick/Tuesday night Camden schedule), two conferences (one international), lots of grading, and quite a few brand new (to me) theories that took just my whole entire brain to understand. Plus, you know, the annual energy-sapping effects of the ol’ seasonal affective nonsense. I feel like I’ve been sprinting flat out since Labor Day.

I’m still really glad I’m in this program. So that’s a nice sign.

One oft-repeated truth about grad school is that it’s isolating, and that’s been especially true this term, just because I haven’t had time to do anything. This has been frustrating, because I think I’m actually becoming less of an introvert as I get older? I definitely couldn’t do Hermit Life again. But luckily the combined circumstances of next term look like they won’t be QUITE as intense as this one (please let me not have just jinxed that), so I’m looking forward to communicating with other human beings on a more regular basis. Part of that mission includes reviving this ever-neglected blog, at least throughout winter break. I’m excited to talk about some of the highs of this past term (guest lecturing! Monsters conference in Prague!), as well as more media, writing, children/childhood, and current event thoughts. I sometimes joke (“joke”) that I am 100% Strong Opinions By Volume, and I’ve accumulated a lot of pent-up opinions to share over the past few busy, somewhat lonely months. (Shout out to any of my fellow Childhood Studies colleagues reading this, especially my astonishingly wonderful cohort, for being there and keeping me functional since September. Literally don’t think I could do this if I didn’t enjoy being around you all so much.)

But first, as is traditional, for my last post of the year (and decade!), I wanted to do a little round up of media that I was grateful for over the past year, plus a little bit of my own writing. The first part of this post will be very easy; despite the dearth of posts on this blog over the last year, I did manage to review three of my favorite viewing experiences of 2019 (Schitt’s Creek, Rocketman, Hadestown). Another movie favorite from the beginning of this year was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which I went to see as a 30th birthday present to myself. All of these stories make me fall further in love with our messy human condition, which is all I really want a story to do; as I mentioned in my Rocketman review, I’m always after Big Emotions in fiction.

Two of my guiding principles as a writer and a person are that a) fondness may seem quiet and soft but is actually deeply profound and sustaining and b) despair is the death of creativity. Therefore, while a story can have moments where it is as dark as dark can be (see: Hadestown and also most of what I write), ultimately cynicism will never a good story make, so you always need to give characters and audiences something to care about and keep caring about. To reiterate my Hadestown review, the things and people we care about don’t necessarily fix or save our world, but that’s never what made them matter in the first place. Human connection, art, storytelling, celebration, love — they matter in their own right. To continue that thought, I think we need all those things to sustain us if we’re going to engage in the work of fixing and saving. I know I do. So I guess that’s what I was after in this last year of the decade, and what I’ll be taking into the new one: stories that remind me of the things that matter most, so I can happily continue to care, create, and contribute to the world’s well-being in whatever small ways that I can.

A small extra note about Schitt’s Creek, just because it’s the story that fully dominated my 2019: I’ve been joking (again, “joking”) that that show is responsible for a good 70% of my mental stability as a graduate student, and goddamn am I grateful for it. Anyone who hasn’t watched it yet and is dealing with literally any form of stress in your lives, do yourselves a favor and indulge in this Absolute Delight of a show. I’m so pumped for the sixth season, and yet I’ll be ridiculously distraught when it ends, even though I respect the hell out of Dan Levy for giving his story a proper ending. (I respect the hell out of all of Dan Levy’s storytelling decisions. I can only humbly pay fealty to the undisputed king of slow-burn showing-not-telling character development.) I entitled my review of that show “Disasters Learning To Love,” and I can only hope to find more stories with that most evergreen of meaningful plots in 2020.

Sadly, I don’t have much in the way of book recommendations from this year — which is not to say that I didn’t read novels that I enjoyed, but I didn’t happen on any Big New Favorites. (I did get quite a few books for Christmas, though, so watch this space.) (Also, Anna, if you’re reading this, I am going to read Gideon The Ninth over break, you don’t need to yell at me again.) I did get to write about plenty of books that I care about this year, though. The highlight was definitely talking about monstrous doubling in Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, Patrick Ness’s Release, and Eden Robinson’s Trickster series, all of which I could not recommend highly enough. That paper, which is the one I presented in Prague, was entitled “With Love from Self to Self: Monstrous Doubling and an Ethics of Care in Adolescent Literature.” I talked about this pattern I’ve been noticing in stories with sympathetic monsters in which the trope of the monstrous body splitting, duplicating, fragmenting, or containing multiple disparate aspects is used as a means of exploring a sort of desperate (and sometimes defiant) self-care in the face of a hostile society.

It’s no accident that this concept appeals to me so much, since I’ve actually written it myself, in MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES. It was exciting to realize that multiple authors whom I really admire are playing with similar ideas and to analyze what these narratives have the potential to communicate about the needs of marginalized young people. I closed that talk out by saying, “Monstrous care from self to self is not sufficient on its own; instead, it is the beginning of the story. It is the first acknowledgement, extended from within, that marginalized, scapegoated, and unstable selves are worth caring for and caring with.” So that’s another guiding thought I’m taking with me into the new year.

Finally, re: my own writing, since this is ostensibly a writing blog: I’ve officially been Writing Seriously (i.e., trying to write novels worthy of publication in a methodical manner) for a little over a decade. If you’d told 20-year-old me that I still wouldn’t actually be published at this time, she’d have been, uhhh … really sad. A lot of things haven’t exactly gone right in my writing career, and I’ve been dealing with the frustration, jealousy, and disappointment of that for a while now. But if things had gone differently, who knows if I’d be getting my PhD right now? I might have just kept on with a day job I liked less, instead of pursuing this additional path. In that case, who knows if I’d be living in a place I really like, so close to my sister and my NEPHEW, who is the most perfect thing to happen in 2019? I can’t take a peek into those alternate universes, but I do know that I’m doing work that I really like, and I’ve learned so much in the last three semesters, and all of it’s going to make my future writing better. Plus, I want the ’20s to be a decade of prioritizing relationships, and so I’m glad to be near my family. So I’ll continue to Write Seriously and embrace all the other opportunities and connections that crop up along the way.

Meanwhile, to everyone who’s read any of my writing (creative, academic, or sporadically blogged) and enjoyed it over the past 10 years, thank you so much. It means the absolute world to me when I find out I’ve written something that’s made another person happy. And you know what? I’m good at it. I’ve worked hard enough in the 2010s to have earned the right to say that. So, beneath the cut, please enjoy a selection of some of my favorite scenes from stories I’ve written this decade. Happy New Year to all!

Continue reading A Cup of Kindness

The Evolutionary Ladder vs. the Adolescent Ecological Niche

So I am not a biologist, but I am twins with one (sort of), so I’m qualified to make the extended metaphor I’m about to make by the transitive property of rhetorical devices. Or something. You know that famous picture of the evolution of man, from monkey to upright caveman? And how that’s 100% not how evolution works? Monkeys are not humans that somehow missed the evolution boat. Every species evolved to fit a particular ecological niche. Evolution is not a movement from objectively worse/primitive thing to better/sophisticated thing. Instead, it’s a series of changes that produce organisms best suited to their environment at that time as that environment changes, too.

I think this is perhaps a good way to think about being an adult engaging in media for children and adolescents. I’m a day late and a dollar short responding to the dreadful Slate article by Ruth Graham entitled “Against YA.” It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and lots of people have already said all sorts of insightful things about, essentially, how utterly wrong Graham’s argument (that adults who read YA should be embarrassed by consuming media that she believes is intellectually inferior because she believes teenagers are intellectually inferior) is, was, and always will be. I mean, when you read the article, it’s just plain old snobbery, and I think even most people who didn’t spend the last three years of their lives getting degrees in children’s lit would agree.

The thing is, I think that though most people would not be quite so maddeningly smug about it, many adults do fall victim to some of the thinking in that article — namely, that teenagers are underdeveloped, unfinished humans, just waiting to add a few more years onto their age, when the oven timer of life will go off and they will emerge from the oven of adolescence as a complete product. In this way of thinking, teenagers are less complicated and less sophisticated than adults, and therefore so are their thoughts, their opinions, their desires, and their media. 

However, just as a monkey is not an unfinished human, a child or adolescent is not an unfinished person. (I am not trying to call children and adolescents monkeys. Just work with me here.) Their thoughts, opinions, and desires are no less complex and real than those of adults, and therefore their media shouldn’t be any less complex, either. And a lot of it isn’t, because luckily a lot of media creators know this. Graham, by her own admission, hasn’t read much YA, and she isn’t going to. In her mind, there is a media ladder: first rung for children’s lit, next for YA, and last for adult. Like the oft-cited evolutionary ladder, however, this is a completely erroneous way of looking at change. Of course people change as they grow up. I am not the same person as I was when I was 15. I’m very glad that the changes that have taken place over the last ten years have happened. But that doesn’t mean 25-year-old Kathleen is more complex than 15-year-old Kathleen was. I’m just in a different place in my life. A different ecological niche, if you will.

Evolution and aging are both subject to linear time, but that doesn’t mean either is a straight line of progress or improvement. Adolescents are not half-baked adults. They are adolescents. They are very good at being adolescents. They are not waiting to come into personhood; they’re already there. Adults who engage in adolescent media, meanwhile, are not walking backwards down their developmental ladders. They’re just reading about fully formed people in a niche of life that the adults themselves no longer fit. Nothing embarrassing about that.

This metaphor is really just my way of saying treat children and adolescents like people, for the love of all things holy. Snobbery is not attractive in any stage of life, and there’s nothing sophisticated about an adult who doesn’t know how to respect other people.