Monday, May 8, 2017

13 Reasons Why: Netflix Version

I hadn’t planned to watch the Netflix version of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why.

First: I’d read the book ten years ago, and pretty much hold to my novelist-bias that the book is always better than the “film.” Second: 13 hours is a looong time, and when there’s over-the-top excellence like This is Us to fill one’s screen-time allotment, why waste precious moments over a re-baked story? Third, I knew I’d feel compelled to read the book again, and frankly, there’s too much incredible new YA fiction out there right now (think: The Hate U Give) to spend time revisiting 13 Reasons.

Then, The Daughter, a Millennial, called. She’d read the book as a teen, started watching the Netflix series, and was hungry to discuss. Miniseries are our thing, and we like nothing better than a mother-daughter binge on some good but also some baaaaaaad television. Think: Friday Night Lights (good) North and South, Books 1 and 2 (bad) North and South, Book Three (beyond bad please don’t judge me). She also lives/works in a city away from home, and I’m a sucker for a connection like a common show to discuss. It’s one reason why I became a Game of Thrones fan: my son, who lives (far away) in Los Angeles, got me hooked. Monday Morning Thrones Rehashing became our thing.

Anyway, despite my many reservations I took the 13 Reasons plunge and sometime around 1:00 a.m. this morning came up for air. 

Here’s what I’d say:

This series is graphic, disturbing and depressing, but appropriately so.  It does not glamorize suicide. In fact, Hannah’s suicide scene is so heart wrenchingly lonely and awful, and her parents’ grief when they discover her so brutal, that I’d argue it’s a suicide deterrent.

It deviates in significant ways from the novel, which I’m guessing is partly to add content for thirteen episodes but also to add some great plot twists. And while stretching the story to fill those 13 hours did feel tedious at times (like Tony in the series, we want to shout at the nervous, hesitant Clay, “Just listen to the damn tapes so we can advance the plot!”) I liked the additions.

With the exception of Hannah’s parents, the adult characters are monstrous. Kids are left with no mentors, no good examples, no place to turn. I get that’s the way the teenage mind might process the world, but not only is it an overused YA trope: it’s not realistic. Some parents don’t suck; some adults listen and care. To create such unremittingly awful adults without one brush stroke of complexity is an artistic failure.

In contrast: the teens in the series are also awful, but complex. Even Justin, who is arguably the catalyst for everything that goes wrong in Hannah’s life, is alternately charming/pathetic/cruel/adorable. Granted, the ultimate teen monster in the series, Bryce, is a cardboard-cutout of an entitled villain, but the rest of this hateful bunch is well-developed.

I think the most important achievement here is the realistic depiction of Teen Mob Mentality and resultant cruelty. Certain kids are in control in high school, and they generally are the ones leading the teams or living in the houses where the fun parties are hosted or wearing the stylish clothes or launching the first-strike barbed comments. You live in fear of being their target or, conversely, being made invisible by these people. You’ll abandon compassion and resort to cruelty yourself in order to find your place in this world.  And while most of us survive this experience, albeit scarred, a few, like the very sensitive Hannah Baker, don’t.

Which is ultimately why I think this is a good series for teens and adults to watch and discuss together. Hannah Baker is not mentally ill. There is nothing “organic” driving her despair and plunge into darkness. Her classmates (with the exception maybe of Bryce) are not sociopaths. Everything that leads this character to suicide is circumstantial and preventable. At any turn, a little kindness could have made a difference.

That’s worth talking about. And well worth the 13 hours.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Maine Reading Roundup and the Lupine Awards

Each year the Youth Services Section of the Maine Library Association presents the Lupine Awards. They are given to a living author or illustrator who is a Maine resident, or who has created a work whose focus is on Maine. Miss Rumphius, the character created by beloved Maine author and artist Barbara Cooney, was the inspiration for the Lupine Awards.

The awards are given at the spring Reading Roundup conference, which is hands down one of my favorite "literary" events in Maine. That's because it's a gathering of LIBRARIANS, and let's face it: if you're a writer, especially a kidlit writer, your two best friends are Independent Booksellers and School Librarians. Not only are these people fun, but ... they are so well read! They are also the bridge between your books and your readers, so, yeah. We love them.

I have many "favorite" librarians in Maine, but Jill Hooper, of Freeport Middle School, is one of my absolute faves. She is creative and fun and such a great advocate for kids and books! She also lives one town over from me and we often grocery shop at the same time, which means engaging in fun "Have you read this?" conversations in the cheese section while our kids try to get us out of there. Anyway, Jill was my "guide" at this year's Reading Roundup, which naturally meant: selfie!
Say "Cheese!"
In addition to award presentations and workshops (you can learn a lot at Reading Roundup!) there is always a keynote speaker and this year we had the amazing John Schumacher, aka "Mr. Schu." What can I say about this guy? He's a Reading Ambassador, an Xtreme Librarian, and possibly the most entertaining, indefatigable speaker I've ever heard. Most importantly, he preaches The Good News of Literacy, and is a relentless cheerleader for great books and for kids. I was thrilled to get a picture with the famous Mr. Schu:
Me and "Mr. Schu"
If you don't already follow Mr. Schu's blog, I suggest you check it out. He's also on Twitter.

So after Mr. Schu and workshops and lunch it was: award time! I was thrilled to receive the Lupine Honor for Wrecked, but even more thrilled to share the day and the stage with Ryan Higgins, who received the Lupine Picture Book Honor for Hotel Bruce; Ashley Bryan, who received the Lupine Picture Book Award for Freedom Over Me (which also won a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor this year!); and Melissa Sweet, who not only received the Lupine Award for Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White  (a New York Times Bestseller!) but also the Katahdin Lifetime Achievement Award.
Left to right: me, Ryan Higgins, Melissa Sweet, Ashley Bryan.

I left Reading Roundup this year feeling so incredibly blessed to be part of the children's writing community in Maine. Not only because of the depth of the talent pool (seriously: throw a rock and hit an award-winning kidlit writer around here) but the support. Everyone is so Kind. Helpful. Inspiring. It's a wonderful place to create art and stories and we are so fortunate to call Maine home.

Here are a few more pictures from the day. Thank you, Maine Librarians!
Before everything got rolling, "Mr. Schu" and Ashley Bryan had a chance to chat.
I got a picture with Ashley Bryan!
These beautiful plates are made by Maine artist Toby Rosenberg.
Wrecked has a sticker!

Standing ovation at the Augusta Civic Center when Ashley Bryan received his award.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Feminism for the Way We Are Today

My only regret about Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, edited by Kelly Jensen, is that it’s coming out just shy of my daughter’s road trip to Washington. She and a pack of college friends set off this weekend for the Women’s March, and I wish they had a copy to read aloud to each other on the multi-hour drive. This excellent collection of essays, interviews, and illustrations by a whole host of creative people, would no doubt make them laugh, make them cry, but most importantly: get some awesome conversations started.

It’s not a book my own mother would ever have given to me, and I think it’s important to explore why, especially at this juncture in our nation’s story, when a man who jokes about sexual assault, supports defunding Planned Parenthood, mocks the disabled, and goes after Civil Right’s heroes on Twitter is about to ascend our highest office. When so many women voted for such a man. And when so many young women … who don’t think twice about their myriad opportunities to play sports or their right to vote (even for Donald Trump) or head companies (like Hewlett Packard) or run for President, thanks to the outspoken, fearless women who fought for those rights …   are reluctant to think of themselves as feminists.

I think I can understand why. I grew up in a home where feminism, while not quite a dirty word, was a suspect term.

I won’t elaborate on the reasons … it involves a story which is not mine to tell … but my mother had a whole lot invested in embracing traditional, 50-s era values. Ironing while watching the soaps, cookie baking, child-rearing, preparing mouth-watering dinners for her tired man when he came home from work at the end of the day, scrubbing her house until it gleamed … these were her priorities. Frankly: she did it all well and took great satisfaction in that work and her goals. Both my parents were devoted to each other and to creating a family.

But while she was juggling babies and cloth diapers and all that cleaning, the 60’s and 70’s raged. I remember watching John F. Kennedy’s funeral cortege on the black and white television, the coffin draped with an American flag. (I was very young and reportedly asked, “Why did they bury him in a watermelon?”) I remember the evening news death counts of U.S. troops in Vietnam. I remember thinking the “big kids” who went to our local high school and had long hair and beards drove too fast. Cities were burning, both in protest and by landlords eager to collect the insurance on dilapidated buildings, college students were getting shot at Kent State, black kids were linking arms and getting their heads bashed in by cops bearing batons.

To my (very young) parents, it must have felt like a fraught time to raise a child, and my mom circled her little family wagon with an insistent vision more akin to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet than what was happening on the evening news. It was a vision that required constant vigilance, and did not allow for radically different ways of being or seeing. Anything that shook things up was threatening, and the so-called “feminists?” The Gloria Steinems and Betty Friedans of the world? They were man-hating, loud-mouthed bra burners. They threatened a status quo to which my parents aspired.

But there’s more to it. I think my mom’s aversion to feminism had much to do with a sense that their club didn’t need … or want … members like her. She was a Spanish girl from the city who didn’t go to college. She never left the house without her makeup. She prided herself on her cooking. She’s Catholic. And if she had a sneaking suspicion that the leaders of the feminist movement were white girls who attended elite Seven Sisters colleges and went on to marry Ivy League lawyers while making cracks about women who stayed home to bake cookies and “stand by” their men … well. She would have been right.  So to this day, my assertive, smart mother who never hesitated to speak her mind, who sent her daughters to college, who balanced the family checkbook and managed the finances, and who, after she raised her kids, worked in an office and became the assistant to the President of a Fortune 500 Company, would never, ever, call herself a feminist.

If only she’d had this book. The opening pages of Here We Are breaks open the whole notion of what a feminist is:

Feminists come in every shape, size, form, and background. What unites feminists is the belief that every person – regardless of gender, class, education, race, sexuality, or ability – deserves equality. This is a movement about embracing differences and encouraging change that benefits all facets of society. This is a movement about listening as much as it is about speaking up.

Who could argue with that?

What I love about Here We Are is that is shows that feminism’s tent is HUGE. (Yes: let’s take back that word.) It has room for mothers and room for women who choose to not raise children. It has room for couples who marry and couples who don’t and people who prefer to remain un-coupled. It has room for girls who speak their truth and don’t aspire to be “sweet” (Courtney Summers, author of All the Rage, has a terrific essay here about writing so-called unlikeable characters.) It has room for a curriculum which includes artists and writers and musicians of all genders and ethnicities (Nova Ren Suma has a heart-breaking essay in this collection about Reading Worthy Women.) Here We Are shows us a feminism which is expansive and inclusive and as a result, liberating. For everyone.

It also demonstrates how feminism has evolved. The beginning of Here We Are defines the various “waves” of feminism, all of which were necessary for their time. And while I’m reluctant to call the depiction of the movement here a kinder, gentler version of 60s-era feminism, it does reflect a natural growth which was always about basic values of fairness and equality. It’s a movement that has made great strides but doesn’t rest. It’s a movement which is finally mature enough to legitimize all women’s work and all women’s choices, paid or unpaid, professional or home-based. And it includes men. As it turns out, the most important feminist in my life has been my husband, who bought me my first copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and who, when I met him at age 23, was the caregiver for his disabled mother.

Near the end of the book, the editor poses the question: Why do people dislike feminism? The answer:

For people who have power in society, being questioned about that power or being forced to examine their biases or prejudices incites fear. … Feminism begs all people to think about the social, political, cultural, and economic power we have based on our sex, education, gender and a whole host of other statuses we may or may not choose to have.

My daughter graduates from college in two weeks. Right after that she moves to the city and begins her first job along a career path she is incredibly excited about. In addition to linens and furniture and all the “stuff” she’ll need to set up an apartment, she’s bringing the new mixer she got for Christmas because, like her grandmother, she loves to bake.  She’ll also be bringing this book.

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World is published by Algonquin Young Readers. It was originally planned for release on 2/28 but you can preorder it on Amazon and receive it by late January.