On Being Kind, Being Afraid, and Being a Young Writer

I’ve been wanting to write something about this whole situation with Andrew Smith and #KeepYAKind. I’ve wanted to say something.

I haven’t in part because so many other brilliant people, who are more experienced in YA, who are smarter, who are braver, have already said so much. I pretty much obsessively followed what Ellen Oh, Kelly Jensen, Justina Ireland, and Tessa Gratton were saying on Twitter. I read the amazing posts by Sarah McCarry and Jenn Northington and I thought: I don’t have anything to add.

I read YA, sure, and I review some books, but irregularly. I want to write YA but I don’t have an agent or a book. I’m unestablished. I haven’t even graduated college yet. Why should anyone care what I have to say?

I also held back because of fear. Because I am unestablished, because every new connection I make is a treasure and I’m worried they’re fragile. Because I want to be published and read and I kept worrying that if the wrong person saw me tweeting about my hurt and anger over Andrew Smith, I’d be marked as aggressive and mean. I’d be overreacting and hysterical. I’d be a bullyAndrew Smith already decreed me and the many other women reacting to systemic and internalized misogyny as fools and assholes.

So I RTed a lot and I tweeted a little bit, and nothing happened, and I don’t know if that’s because my fears were unfounded or because I’m lucky or because I just didn’t go as hard as I wanted to.

It’s important to note that as a white cis woman I already have a certain amount of shielding from harassment that trans women and women of color aren’t afforded. It’s not as dangerous for me to speak up as it is for them. But I was still worried.

I was too worried to speak up, at least to any extent that I thought was good enough.

I just watched as people I respect, people that I want to one day be my colleagues, said that if I spoke up too loudly, I would be mean, I would be a bully and abuser. I would be saying that I can’t see nuance. I would be one of the horde of overreacting Twitter feminists.

I watched as women who did speak up were torn down, spammed, threatened. I watched as they were told to just sit down and shut up because he just messed up, you can’t criticize him for messing up, we have to protect our own, and our own means this white male writer, but not the women he found too mystifying to write, not the women being targeted.

I hate that I’m scared of being called mean while standing up for what I believe in, but I am. I’m scared of having something negative already attached to me while I try to get into the YA world.

When I was seventeen, I got Twitter and discovered that all of my favorite YA authors knew each other. They talked. They were friends. They supported each other.

Since that moment I’ve dreamed of being one of them. I’m passionate about YA. I’m passionate about the importance of teen voices, of giving teenagers the representation I wish I’d had. These are the books I want to write more than anything, and these are the authors I’ve dreamed of joining.

Over the past couple of weeks, for the first time in seven years of dreaming, I’ve been scared of entering this world.

It’s not that I’ve never seen conflict before, between authors, between authors and reviewers. I’ve known it’s not a perfect community. But that conflict has never made me think that I shouldn’t be there.

I’m scared of being the person I am and being a YA writer.

I’m scared because I’m a woman with strong opinions, an activist, and I don’t like to keep quiet about it. Sometimes that involves being not so nice. Sometimes that involves being aggressive. Don’t get me wrong – I like to be understanding and kind. I know that people make mistakes. But I also know that mistakes can hurt other people, and that we have to talk about those mistakes. We have to have these hard discussions or nothing will change.

I’m scared that being part of the YA world will mean compromising a part of myself. I’m scared that it will make it more difficult to stand up for the things that I believe in, because what I’m seeing is that when a woman in this community says, “Hey, that thing that male writer said? It was kind of shitty,” they get told to be nice. So, what, we can talk about things in abstract, but can’t point out the specific examples when they happen? Criticizing these mistakes means that we deserve entire hashtagged movements against us?

I’m still going to write the books I want to write, because more than the fear, I care about the fat girl in high school wondering why she never reads books about girls that look like her. I care about the kid having panic attacks between classes that doesn’t know what’s wrong with them or why they can’t just be normal.

I care about giving a voice to my seventeen-year-old self, even if her dream has become less rose-colored.

I have hope because I also see the amazing women in this community speaking up despite the backlash, despite being told to stop. I have hope because I see these women supporting each other. I see women more vocal and aggressive than me facing horrible responses, but also receiving love from those they speak up for.

But every second I’ve been writing this, I keep thinking: This is silly, these fears are silly, you’re just paranoid, you can’t post this.

Maybe they are, maybe I am, but the emotions and fear are real, and I know I’m not the only one feeling them. I know I’m not the only young female writer hesitating, thinking,

“Is this really the world I want to be part of?”

And I think that fear matters. I think it should matter that young women are seeing this situation go down and having those thoughts. I think this is worth posting.

Tuesday Reads: Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano

9780803739260_NearlyGone_CAT.inddThere are a lot of books that I end up buying because multiple people on my Twitter feed start talking about how much they loved it. I’ll usually do a quick summary check to see if it’s something I’d even be into, but if it’s the right people being passionate enough, I almost always buy the book. I’ve yet to regret doing this.

Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano was one of those books and holy crap I’m glad I bought it.

This is a book about a girl living in near-poverty, working towards a brighter future. This is a book about a girl who is brilliant in science and math, and who uses her intelligence to try and save her friends and herself from a mysterious killer.

Back in middle school, we’d had a writing lesson about eliminating unnecessary adverbs, and the class had latched onto my name: Nearly Boswell. I became an adverb. Expendable.

Nearly has been largely invisible at school, noticed and connected to only a couple close friends. Her grades were her life. She was always working towards college, and towards scholarships to pay for that college. Her one big indulgence was buying the paper every day to look at the Missed Connections, trying to find a hint of the father that left years before.

But maybe she’s not as invisible and expendable as she thought. Someone starts sending her messages through the personals. And the people start dying, and it becomes more and more obvious that not only is Nearly connected – she’s being framed. Nearly’s attempts to solve the crimes and save her classmates only take her deeper into the plot and put her in more danger.

There is a romance plot here, too, but it doesn’t take over – something I seriously appreciate (I’m going to be blogging about romance overpowering plot in YA sometime soon). There’s a scene I’m still unsure about – where our love interest kisses Nearly without her permission or consent – but she defends herself pretty awesomely. Just haven’t decided how that scene colors the rest of their romance for me.

The murder mystery plot is fast-paced and smart. It will keep you guessing and you probably won’t be able to put the book down until you find out who’s behind it all.

Medium: Kindle
Stars: 5/5

On Beauty and Body Diversity in YA

Yesterday, writer Taylor Breslin made a great post on Tumblr about some of her big frustrations in young adult fiction. The big topic? Stupid beauty standards and female confidence. It’s a great post, and you should go read it. It got me thinking and I want to expand on this a little and also connect it to my continued desire to see more body diversity in YA.

…what I don’t see in a lot of young adult fiction is characters being physically attracted to each other in a normal way. It’s all “he/she was the most insanely gorgeous and perfect person I have ever laid eyes on.” So many female protagonists gain their love interests and even their male friends because the guys meet them and are instantly paralyzed by their beauty. Not by any aspects of their personality. It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t give normal teenage girl readers much to identify with (nor is it a good example of how to build relationships with people).

Of course, it’s not only the girls who are insanely beautiful – the boys are, too. The boys are always superhuman gorgeous (even when they’re not superhuman). I get that there’s some wish fulfillment there, but it’s everywhere, and there’s a key difference between the beautiful female protagonists and their beautiful male counterparts. The boys are allowed confidence. That usually makes them sexier. Most of the super hot guys in YA novels are entirely aware of how gorgeous they are, of the affect they have on women, and often aren’t afraid to use it to to their advantage.

Our girls don’t get that. As Breslin points out, the girls talk about all of their physical traits in a negative light – they’re too tall, too skinny, with eyes that are too big. The attempt to make these teenage girls somehow relatable always ends up with them being skinny and awkward. Or they’re a clumsy heroine, which often seems to be used to bring too-strong-willed female protagonists down a peg. The girls who are confident in their appearance are often villains, whether it be that popular girl in school or the sexy lady vampire trying to kill the protagonist.

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I understand that everyone has insecurities about his or her appearance, but it would be good every once in while to have a character have some self-confidence in that department. Better that it be a NORMAL LOOKING character who can be confident in herself instead of some kind of preternatural model goddess.

It’s incredibly difficult to be a teenage girl without insecurities, especially considering all of the shit that’s thrown at women every day. Be skinny, but not too skinny, because men don’t want a sack of bones. But don’t be too fat, either, god, they don’t want whales. Look like you’re not wearing makeup, but don’t look too natural. Who can get bombarded by that for most of their lives without breaking a little?

That’s even more of a reason to have some confident, normal-looking girls in YA. Give teenage girls someone who really looks like them and who is completely fine with – hell, who even LOVES – her appearance. And let those character discover their beauty on their own, or to already have it when the book begins. Don’t give them half a dozen guys to fawn over them and then have them still wringing their hands saying, “But I just don’t understand why!”

For me, even better would be a fat character with confidence. Not someone who’s euphemistically curvy or ‘a little plump’, but fat. An actual fat girl with casual confidence in herself and her own beauty, who doesn’t need a romantic interest to make her see it, and who doesn’t lose half her body weight and suddenly ‘match her inner beauty’. (Anything that involves fat people losing weight to match their inner beauty makes me want to put that bullshit gif on loop forever.)

We need some normal-looking characters. Check out Breslin’s post for a good list of authors who do that, but also as she points out, most of those are in contemporary YA. In fantasy or scifi YA, it’s almost impossible to find. We need diversity in YA bodies, and we need them to love themselves. Maybe then our teenagers could learn to love themselves a little sooner.

Writing Fat Characters

This is a lot funnier if you know YA cover trends.

This is what your headless YA heroine could look like.

I’ve been reading and writing for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been significantly overweight for just as long. I have always been the fat kid, and you can bet that caused some baggage. I had trouble fitting in desks. The idea of going on an airplane terrified me simply because of the seat size. I could never find cute clothes in my style that also fit. I got teased. For most of my life, I’ve heard over and over again that most of America is overweight – so where were they? Why was I the only one in almost all of my classes?

What’s a ten or thirteen or seventeen-year-old bookworm to do but escape into books? Books, after all, are a refuge. They take you into other worlds where anything is possible. You could captain a pirate ship, defeat dark wizards, fly, and, of course, get the fairy tale romance.

Unless, of course, you were fat. If you’re fat, you’re the ugly friend. You’re the villain. You try too hard, and people pity you. You’re jealous of all the “pretty” girls. You’re the sassy best friend with a brain full of quips and no character depth. You don’t get the guy unless he’s also been presented as equally undesirable, and then you’re a loser couple to laugh at.

And let’s not forget the guys. Fat guys are the lazy, sloppy stoner friends and the nerdy virgins that the protagonist has to put up with and will maybe teach them something or other about acceptance. Also, again, the villain (though recently, conventionally attractive villains have been more popular so of course they’re all toned muscle).

I love young adult fiction more than anything else. For the most part, the body type of a character doesn’t bother me. I don’t really pay attention. But when you’re a fat girl and every protagonist is slim, it gets to you. You start to get the message that you don’t count and don’t deserve to have adventures and happy endings. You start to think that your life won’t really begin unless you get skinny.

If an author does try to give other body types a try, they’re tall, skinny, and awkward. The default is for all the guys all have defined abs and arm muscle and their bodies are all hard and the girls are all soft and it’s totally not euphemistic at all. When a fat girl does show up, they usually mean that they’re a few pounds overweight, or they fall into the aforementioned categories.

But wait, you might say. There are YA books with fat protagonists! Why are you complaining?

Look at those books. They’re all about how horrible it is to be fat, and how the protagonist has to diet and get thin. Eventually there’s some theme of acceptance, but they usually still end up skinny in the end. Don’t get me wrong, bullying due to weight and eating disorders are very real problems and should be addressed. But there are other sides to being fat. It’s entirely possible to be fat and happy with yourself. With the society we live in, it can be really hard, but it’s a thing that does happen. I’m really fat and I spent most of my life dealing with self-esteem issues. I still do. But I’ve also learned that I’m fucking beautiful and not just “on the inside”. I’m not a skinny girl trying to get out of a fat body. I’m me, and I’m just as worthy of respect and being treated with decency as anyone else.

I want to see a fat girl in YA fall in love, and not have it be hopeless. I want to see her get kissed, but not out of pity or a cruel prank. I want to see her have amazing sex (and trust me, I’ll be talking about sex in YA later). I want the same for fat guys, too! I want to see a fat couple that isn’t the subject of pity. “Awww, at least they have each other!” They’re people, and I want to know the trials and tribulations of their relationship and fuck yeah I want them to have amazing sex. I want a fat girl to end up with the hot guy or the average guy or the fat guy. I want her to end up with someone that truly loves her and not despite her fat.

(For more on the sort of things fat girls deal with in the dating world especially if you’re wanting to write a fat girl but don’t have first-hand experience, you should really check out this post.)

I want to see a fat girl go on an adventure. I want her to go to Faerie and be just as tempted by fairy food as anyone else and not think about the calories. I want her to ride dragons and steal magical artifacts and seduce a pirate captain (I really like pirates, can you tell?). I want a fat guy to get into a sword fight over a lady’s honor and win. I want him to defend a castle, or be the best mage in the land.

More than anything, I want to have fat protagonists in YA and have them be treated as more than their fat. I want it to be a fact of their character – they are fat – and then that’s it. Their entire lives don’t revolve around them being fat. It doesn’t run their life and it certainly doesn’t ruin their life. Can we just have that? Please?

Of course, being a writer, I can’t expect to just put this plea out into the universe and not do anything about it. I try to have a lot of body diversity in my stories, because I think it’s important, and my preference is to not make a big deal out of it, because I think normalization is also important.

I’ve struggled, though. I’ve been afraid that people will see me writing fat characters, see that I’m fat, and go, “Ohh, that’s why the girl’s fat. Self-insertion/wish fulfillment/etc.” Being fat does lend me towards being really passionate about having more positive fat characters, especially in YA since it’s what I want to write, but it’s not about wish fulfillment. Still, I always feel the need to defend myself and I hate that.

I want to get to a point where I don’t feel awkward or ashamed at all of the fact that I’m writing a fat protagonist. I want to celebrate the character just like I would any other, and give him/her just as much attention and love and care. I want to think more about her personality and her emotions than about the fact that she takes up a little more room in the world.

I spent a long time going out of my way to never say the word “fat” or to never talk about eating a lot of food because it was like, “Oh no, they’ll all notice I’m fat!” I hated being that way. Now it doesn’t bother me at all. I can suggest that I shouldn’t be one of the people in the crowded backseat because I’m bigger and not feel ashamed. I can talk about how pizza is a godsend and not feel like everyone thinks I’m a pig. I want to write characters that can do the same, that don’t feel like they have to somehow hide their bulk. This includes not necessarily using euphemisms like “curvy”. What’s wrong with the word “fat”? What about chubby or plump? (Plump is my favorite because it has all sorts of beautiful connotations to do with really good fruit and fertility and things.)

Being fat does have an every day impact. A lot of fat girls I know deal with chafing thighs. It can be hard to fit through narrow spaces when you have a large belly. There are plenty of small, practical details that could go into the story of a fat character just like they do for anyone else. And yeah, being fat, especially in a society like ours, can absolutely have an impact on your worldview. There are loads of things that impact your worldview but don’t take over your life, though.

What about the issue of health and fitness? I know you’re thinking it. How can a fat character go on an adventure if they’re out of shape and can’t run from the bad guys?

Here’s the thing. Being fat doesn’t mean being unhealthy, and being skinny doesn’t mean being healthy. That’s the same for whether or not you’re in shape. There are fat people who can easily run a mile, and skinny people who struggle to run a block. The default for most YA protagonists seems to be “in shape”, even if they never work out or do anything to keep their bodies fit. You can certainly write a fat character who struggles with the running aspect. You can write a skinny character who does, too. Just know that you can also write a fat character who’s in shape. That is something that exists. For more on fat health, totally check out this blog, which also links to even more resources on the topic.

I want to give fat teenage girls someone to look up to. I want them to see that, oh, this girl is fat like me and she’s still having an amazing adventure. She has confidence, but also struggles with the sort of things that I do. She has depth. She is fat, but she is more than that. There’s no point in ignoring the fat of a character, it just shouldn’t be the only thing that they are. They’re also people.

Here’s the part where I ask for your opinions. What do you think about this? I’d love to get a dialogue going on this. And if you have any book suggestions that involve fat characters presented in a positive or human way, please share them! I’ve been pretty critical here and it would be great to have some positivity. I’d also like to do a post in the future for Tuesday Reads about good YA with fat protagonists.