Should kids only read “high quality” literature? (Um. No. Obviously not).

This month’s “are middle grade and YA books terrible for readers???” article is currently flying around Twitter. This time, it’s not a thinkpiece about the decline of literature, thank god, but a piece in the UK Times about a British headteacher who has banned books like Artemis Fowl, Eragon, Percy Jackson and Alex Rider from the school library, because they are “so simplistic, brutal or banal” that they’re not worth reading.

I hate, hate, hate the idea the idea that kids should only read “quality literature.” I hate the idea that anyone should only read “quality literature,” but it especially annoys me when it comes to kids and teens.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of forcing younger kids to read “quality literature” at all, and I say that as an English major. I barely enjoyed any of the books I was forced to read for school when I was a teen, no matter what they were. I hated (hatedNorthanger Abbey when I read it for school at 15. I hated Emma even more when I read it aged 17. Now they’re two of my favorite books. Some exposure to classic literature is good, but if classes want to teach skills like literary analysis, it helps to study books that the students actually enjoy and want to analyse. I went to Princeton, potential bastion of academic snobbery, and I have never seen an English class so enthused as when we discussed Harry Potter in one of my classes one week. People who weren’t in the class turned up anyway, just for that one discussion. And those were all academically-minded college students. If you want to teach kids to love and think about literature, you’ve got to give them literature that’s easy for them to love first.

In fact, a lot of the texts we try and force kids to read weren’t ever designed for kids to enjoy. Austen wasn’t writing for kids. Neither was Dickens, or Steinbeck, or Shakespeare. It takes a lot of extra enthusiasm and effort to get younger students to connect with these works, because they weren’t meant for people their age, even when they were originally published. You have to convince readers that reading is worthwhile first, so it seems worth it to make the extra effort with more difficult texts.

It’s also worth pointing out that modern middle grade and YA is far more inclusive than classic literature. Otherwise, students are reading a lot about British white people, or, sometimes, American white people, and almost always men. If you want students to see themselves in what they read, you either have to expand beyond the typical middle school and high school classic texts, or give them something more modern. Percy Jackson may be a fantasy story about Greek gods, but it also has diversity in race, sexual orientation and gender identity. Banning those sorts of books makes reading even more exclusionary to huge parts of the population, who see that they’re not the sort of people that “good” stories are written about.

And you know what I read when I was a teen? Fanfiction. I probably read about 10 books a year, but I devoured fanfic of Harry Potter, LOST, Buffy, Firefly… thousands of words every night, staying up til 4am when a story really gripped me. I could not get enough of it. I never read “quality literature” outside of school assignments at that age. I read Tamora Pierce, Lemony Snicket, Meg Cabot, but otherwise, fanfiction. So, so, so much fanfiction.

I now read about 100 books a year, as well as writing my own (although, of course, my books are not “quality literature” either). I read YA, classics, fantasy, biographies, speculative science fiction, modern journalism. I love Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton with a degree in English Literature, specialising in 19th century novels, and now work as a writer, because I was passionate about stories. And the reason I was that passionate about stories is because I read the books that inspired me when I was younger, and then let myself get lost in those worlds, in all their possibilities, through endless fanfic.

In short: screw you, literary snobs. Let kids read whatever the hell inspires them. It’ll take them much further than forcing them to read things that bore them until they refuse to pick up a book ever again.

Fighting Anxiety, March 2017 Edition

Well, this week has been a bit of a blogging (and writing) bust. My good old friend anxiety has decided to make an appearance, and nothing is getting done.

So, instead of any thoughts on feminism and fiction-writing, here are a few of the things I’ve been using to help soothe my anxiety over the past few days. If you’re feeling anxious right now, maybe one of these will help you too. 🙂

Stardew Valley

I have returned to my lovely farm in Stardew Valley after several months away. This game is the spiritual successor of Harvest Moon, an adorable farming sim with bonus exploring and monster-slaying and artefact collecting, and omg, it is so calming to play. It’s fall of year 3 for me, we just had a new baby goat called Gertrude, and I’m running around forcing my neighbors to accept endless gifts of strawberries so that we can be best friends and I can get an achievement.

A Night in the Woods

I am love love loving watching Jacksepticeye’s Let’s Play of this game. It’s a meandering narrative game about a girl called Mae, who just moved home to small town Possum Springs after dropping out of college, and it’s all about friendship and figuring out who you are and possibly also ghosts. It’s incredibly well-written and beautifully animated, and the voices Jack does while playing it are so good. I’d buy the game to play myself, because I looove it, but I’m so attached to Jack’s voices and commentary that it just wouldn’t be the same.

Seriously, this is turning out to be of my favorite Let’s Play series ever, up there with Undertale, so I really recommend it if you’re looking for something long and engaging and soothing to watch.

The La La Land soundtrack

There’s just something really motivating about listening to Another Day of Sun, even if it is dull and grey in England right now.

Meraki Candles

I’ve been using a lot of candles and fairy lights over the past couple of days, and my favorite right now are the book-themed Meraki Candles that a friend gave me for Christmas. The Etsy shop is closed right now, so I can’t link to the exact scents I’m loving, but my favorite is Starfall, a jasmine-y candle inspired by A Court of Mist and Fury. I highly recommend!

Logging Off

I really need to write a longer blog post about my experiments in reducing my tech use, in an attempt to reduce my anxiety. But I’ve been trying very, very hard to stay mostly offline the past few days, beyond the required email checks and work attempts. My laptop lives in my desk drawer when I’m not working, my Smartphone is turned off, and… I think it’s helping. It’s so much easier to remember how to breathe when you step back from the never-ending onslaught of the digital world for a while. So that, I think, is what I’m going to do right now. All the work and stress can wait until Monday. Or until tomorrow, at the very least.

Gilmore Girls Season Seven: Mid-Season Update

I’m now about halfway through season 7 of Gilmore Girls, and… I’m actually kind of enjoying it?

The first couple of episodes were bleak, which, combined with people’s dislike of the season, always put me off before. But actually, Lane’s plotline aside, I think it’s totally worth watching.

Rory’s stuff is pretty great. I wish I’d seen this six years ago, when I was a senior grappling with impending graduation. I’ve always connected with Rory, and the conversations about how even the English majors are becoming investment bankers and maybe they should just apply to law school before it’s too late could genuinely have come from my life. I had so many panics about how the only acceptable jobs were in banking and everyone had their lives sorted out but me, and what would life for me even be after college?? I’d worked for this my whole life, and it was about to vanish. So A++ plotline, Gilmore Girls writers.

Also loooove the way the show is grappling with Rory’s own privilege — challenging her idea that she’s different, when she’s a prep school legacy with rich donor parents too. The past couple of episodes I’ve seen have had Rory seriously screwing up and being mean, and unlike in the ballerina review episode, her meanness is presented as a not-so-great thing. Also also, I love that Rory is friends with Jessica Jones/the B in Apartment 23.

I’m also really, really enjoying Luke’s plotline with April, now there’s not all that stupid drama with Lorelai lurking over it. And even the much-hated Lorelai plotline isn’t actually so bad. Sure, she married Christopher in Paris, and that probably pissed off the fans at the time, but she’s blatantly unsure about it all from the beginning.

What was that stupid Christopher and Luke fight, though? Was that something fans were rooting for? Cos it was so weirdly shot and unnecessary, like it had been taken from a different show.

And it does seem really, really weird to have Gilmore Girls without coffee in Luke’s multiple times a day.

Halfway through, and I’d probably give this a B so far. Maybe a B+. But I’m basically blind and spoiler free about where the story goes from “Lorelai writes Luke a character reference” onwards, so… we’ll see where it goes.

A DIY Guide to Feminist Cybersecurity

The other day, Tumblr introduced me to this really useful website: A DIY Guide to Feminist Cybersecurity.

It’s explicitly designed for people who talk about feminism online, who can be easy targets for online harassment and doxxing, but really, it’s a useful guide for anybody who wants to use the internet more securely with steps beyond “use good passwords.”

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about all the problems with the Internet as we currently use it, from both a harassment/safety perspective and user psychology/mental health perspective, and this kind of security won’t protect from all of those types of problems… but it’s good to be informed on things like data mining and tech vulnerability, and to know at least a few basic steps to protect yourself as you conduct your whole life online. At least, it might stop those creepy ads that follow you from device to device for days after you Google something once.

Tangled!

Today in things Rhiannon is too old for but is excited about anyway…

I’d mostly forgotten about the Tangled TV show until I came across this song from the show, and ahhh <3<3<3. I love it, I love it, I love it.

I know it’s clearly a children’s cartoon, but still. I love it.

Tangled is my absolutely favorite Disney movie. Which means, really, it’s my absolutely favorite movie. It means a lot to me, in part because I didn’t see it until one of my best friends sat me down on a very bad depression day and said, “We should watch this. I promise it’ll make you feel better.” And it was just exactly the story I needed to see at that moment.

I also grew up watching a lot of the Disney animated series. The main one for me was The Little Mermaid series (she had an orca friend!), but I loved the Aladdin one too. They were probably terrible, but who cares? I loved them.

And now there’s this Tangled show apparently starting this weekend, and I was pretty sure it was going to suck, but the music is written by Alan Menken and I’m a sucker for musical anything, and what can I say? I’m so looking forward to seeing it now. Even if it ends up being terrible, this one song has totally made it worth it.

Gilmore Girls Season Seven

Why. why, why??

I have a confession. I’ve never seen S7 of Gilmore Girls.

I’ve rewatched the early seasons a kajillion times. I’ve sat through the spiral of despair that is S6 at least thrice. But then Luke punches Christopher and Lane is pregnant and I just stop watching, every time. I’ve seen the first three episodes in full, as of today (I’d only seen the first two before), and watched, I think, the final three episodes once, from karaoke onwards, but the middle is a great big ball of nope. Darkness and question marks and possibly dragons.

Everything is just so miserable. I want to keep watching, because yay, Gilmore Girls! But everyone seems to be on the worst possible path, and it’s just not fun to watch. Maybe I’ll end my rewatch marathon here and never see it. Or maybe I’ll just angry!blog about it. That’s my usual go-to these days. 😛

Even rewatching S6 has really changed my feelings on the Netflix revival. It’s ten years later, and Luke and Lorelai still aren’t married, after all that drama and heartbreak about the wedding date in S6? Why isn’t Lane a rockstar?? Why is Logan still doing everything his dad tells him to do? I’ve heard the argument that the Netflix revival is actually what the showrunners planned to follow S6 with before they left the show, which I can totally see, but as it stands, it’s just more depressingness on top of all this existing depressingness. Bah.

Also, was there ever a love interest on Gilmore Girls who wasn’t awful at least some of the time? Max? Dave Rygalski, before the actor ran off to The OC? Logan is frequently a jerk. Luke acts horribly to Lorelai. And don’t even get me started on Zack.

I’m just very conflicted. I love Gilmore Girls, and there are almost 20 episodes that I haven’t seen. So I should want to watch them. Right? At least to find out more about what happens? But… what’s happening is so depressing and OOC. Maybe I’ll just skip back to S1 again. Back to Max Medina and Rory’s car being hit by a deer and Lorelai hounding Luke for coffee and Lane not being married to stupid Zack. Such cuter, simpler times.

Too Much To Read

Do you guys ever get, like, media anxiety? I was sitting and musing about how I was going to spend my evening, and suddenly, it was like an avalanche of wtf.

I’ve been rewatching Gilmore Girls, and I’m almost done with S6, but I’ve seen Gilmore Girls before, and I’m also halfway through a long Chinese drama, but I also only watched three episodes of Series of Unfortunate Events so far, oh, and that documentary on North Korea is only half-watched, and I’m only 40 minutes into the OJ Simpson documentary, and I’ve got a long list of review copies of books to read, but this other book is due back at the library soon, and I’ve been meaning to read THIS for a while, and have you seen how many unplayed games I have in my Steam library, but I kinda want to replay Skyrim, oh and start a new farm on Stardew Valley, except how can I have time when I haven’t finished Pokemon Sun, and and and and…

Isn’t entertainment supposed to be, you know, fun? I feel like I need an organisational chart to meet all my story-consumption goals. And that’s not very relaxing. Even my Youtube To Watch playlist feels like it’s gotten out of hand. There’s just too much!

Meanwhile, right now kitty!Hermione is under my chair, mauling her toy mouse. I bet she never gets anxiety over which toy to murder next.

I’m always like, “Well, maybe if you didn’t waste so much time, you’d get through all this!”, but I reeeally don’t think entertainment is supposed to be this stressful. And the one thing that was good for destressing with this stuff was donating all of the books in my to-read pile (accumulated over years and years) and not letting myself buy any more books or games unless I planned to read or play them immediately. It’s a hard rule to stick to sometimes, but it’s sooo much less stressful.

So. Destressing steps! First, making Netflix not a place of horror. You can’t remove shows from your “continue watching” list, but you can go into your user settings and delete the series from your viewing history, which takes them off that list too. I’m watching Gilmore Girls and my Chinese drama, depending on my mood. Done. A quick sweep-up of library books into a tote bag to return tomorrow, minus the one I’m actually currently reading (there were 7 extra ones, all on three week loan). I can reborrow them later. A purge of my Youtube To Watch list, accepting that things I added more than a couple of days ago will now never be seen. And a couple of deep breaths while accepting that none of this is required. This is not a race to watch and read and play everything so I have nothing left to do except stare into space, knowing I’ve finally achieved 100% desired media consumption.

And now that I’ve spent my evening overthinking things instead of actually reading, watching or playing any of these things, I think I’m just going to go to sleep. So, all in all, a productive night. 😛

World Book Day

Today is World Book Day!

And by World Book Day, I mean British Book Day. I don’t know why we call it World Book Day, when there’s already a World Book Day, and it takes place in April. I guess “school children dress up as book characters and they all get a free book token” day was a bit too clunky for a name.

But in honor of the day, I’m gonna chat about a few of the books on my shelves right now.

Maid at the King’s Court by Lucy Worsley

I actually just finished this one, and I have loads of thoughts. It’s the fictional story Catherine Howard’s cousin, who comes to Henry VIII’s court to be a maid to Anne of Cleves and gets caught up in all the chaos that follows.

Lucy Worsley is actually a curator at Hampton Court, which was one of Henry VIII’s favorite palaces, and where most of the key events in Catherine Howard’s downfall happened. So although the novel has a lot of invention, in terms of characters and plotpoints, the historical details are A+++.

 

Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves

I just started this! At first glance, it’s a pretty familiar set-up. Magic users are society’s elite. Non-magic users have less powers and rights. A revolution is brewing, and a teenage girl might just end up at the center of it. BUT one really cool element, which I didn’t realize until I started reading, is that it quickly moves away from London to 19th century Hungary. How many books have you read set in 19th century Hungary??? I don’t think I’ve ever read any. So I’m super intrigued. I’m only 25% into it, but I’m enjoying it so far!

 

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

My new non-fiction book, to read first thing in the morning instead of obsessing over the news. After reading Frankenstein for the first time last Halloween (I know, I’m a bad English major), I looked up a bit about Mary Shelley, and I never knew how insane her life was. I’d heard the story of the ghost story competition with Shelley and Byron, but I didn’t know that was just one tiny bit of the epicness. And then her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a major feminist writer and a total rebel as well.

 

Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

A new Sara Zarr novel! I loooove Sara Zarr’s stuff, but it’s been a few years since I picked up anything by her. I actually don’t even know what this book is about. I just know that it’s by Sara Zarr, so I needed it. And I’m pretty sure it’s going to break my heart. It can be my Literary Contemporary Fiction YA of the year, before I jump back into courts and magic and spaceships.

Sidenote:  I miss Sara Zarr’s writing podcast so much. If you’ve never listened to it, you should definitely check it out.

 

Spindle by EK Johnston

The sequel to A Thousand Nights, which is an absolutely gorgeous feminist fantasy novel. I’ve been sitting on this for a couple of months, and I can’t wait to read it, but I’m kind of waiting until I’m in the right mood to properly appreciate it. I’ve learned not to read anything too similar to my own books around a book release, and since A Wicked Thing and Kingdom of Ashes are my take on Sleeping Beauty, I think I need to let my book release anxieties from Long May She Reign settle a bit before I delve into this. But I’m so excited to have this lined up and ready to read.

 

February Highlights

Because I might have gotten stressed and sick, but loads of great things still happened!

1. Long May She Reign was released into the world! It’s been so exciting seeing pictures of people’s copies and hearing people’s thoughts about it. Also…

2. I got my own copies of Long May She Reign in the post, completely unexpectedly, and I was blown away by them. I opened the box expecting paperbacks of Kingdom of Ashes, and when I saw the back of a beautiful glossy hardback, I thought, “Oh, my editor must have sent me another Harper book as a freebie.” Then I turned it over, saw it was my book, and my jaw dropped at how shiny and beautiful it looked. THANK YOU, amazing cover design people! You are amazing!

3. One of my books was translated for the first time! A Wicked Thing is now out in German, and eeee, it’s so exciting!

4. Also in publishing, Bustle featured an article about science in Long May She Reign, and it was the coolest thing ever.

Hermione is the best DM

5. Speaking of Bustle, they also recommended Feminist Fiction in a post on 6 Blogs & Podcasts for Book-Loving Feminists. I feel so honored! Bustle are definitely my new favorite people.

6. I ran my second Dungeons and Dragons session as Dungeon Master and nearly perma-killed my BFF when she decided to insult an ancient white dragon. Life advice: don’t sass dragons when you’re level 5. They’ll do 73 damage with their ice breath and you’ll be super dead.

7. I went outdoor iceskating! Unfortunately, it was a freakishly warm day, and the ice turned to slush in about five minutes… but I didn’t fall over, and that’s the important thing!

8. I finally met my friend’s GORGEOUS old German Shepherd, Taz. LOOK HOW FLUFFY! (I promise he looked more enthusiastic when I met him :P)

9. Pokemon Go GEN 2! Mostly, this has revealed to me that I barely remember anything about the Pokemon beyond the original 151 and Togepi, thanks to the cartoon. Ad breaks of “who’s that Pokemon??” prepped me for recognising the original 151 based on their shadow. Now I’m just like, “oh, there’s a… fish… dog… thing nearby?” Still, Furret is adorable.

10. I’ve been studying Chinese! I’m starting to move beyond “Hi, my name is Rhiannon” to basic grammatical structures. Simple past tense! Using adjectives! Saying something is more X than something else! I’m taking a class at the local university to practice speaking, and I’m doing a lot of my extra study with an app called ChineseSkill, which is kind of Duolingo for Chinese, with a microphone feature that grades your pronunciation. Also, it has a cute panda logo! And for listening practice, I’m watching a Chinese drama on Netflix called Miss in Kiss. It’s a Taiwanese remake of a Japanese drama based on a manga called Itazura na Kiss. It’s not great, but it’s melodramatic in a fun way, and it’s good for getting more familiar with the language.

On Serious Movies

For the first time in years and year (like, probably ‘since Return of the King‘ years), I’d actually seen one of the nominees for Best Picture before the Oscars. It was La La Land, and the only reason I’d seen it was because it didn’t really sound like an Oscar movie.

I don’t watch many movies, but I definitely don’t watch serious movies. Anything set in the real world, with people giving dramatic speeches about how painful life is in the trailers? I’m not going to see it. Generally, I only see movies if they’re Disney, a musical, or, occasionally, some other fantasy or sci-fi type adventure story. Think things like The Mummy, that are fun with good characters but that no one would ever exactly call “art”. And if a movie is a fantasy Disney musical? I am so there on the first day.

But in the run-up to the Oscars, people were debating La La Land versus Moonlight quite a lot, and it really got me thinking. La La Land, with its bright colors and catchy songs, is exactly the sort of movie I would see. Moonlight, with its deep emotional plotline and examination of social issues, isn’t. Moonlight certainly sounded like it was more deserving of a win. But is it weird, maybe, to think, “Oh, no, I won’t see that one. It sounds too good for me to watch”? Not “too good” as in “too entertaining,” but too good as in having too much serious value as art. Is it bad that I look at highly praised movies and think, “No, that looks like it’s going to be too upsetting, lemme watch Anastasia again instead”?

And it’s got me thinking back to one of the best movies I have ever seen, Pan’s Labyrinth, which is a mix of a “me movie” (fantasy, fairy tale) and a gritty and realistic story about the Spanish Civil War. I watched it maybe 10 years ago, and I adored it. I also know that I’ll never see it again. The fairy tale elements were beautiful and enchanting and unsettling, and the ending was absolutely heartbreaking… but it was the stuff in between, the violence, the oppression, the suffering, the torture, that mean I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sit through it again. I’ll remember it as an amazing movie experience, but if I’d known how dark the non-fantasy parts were, I might not have watched it.

I think the problem is that I don’t watch movies, or TV shows for that matter, to grapple directly with realistic, real-world horrors. Put these through the lens of a fantasy world, and they become more manageable, as long as they’re not too graphic, but I watch things in order to relax and be transported elsewhere. I don’t want to be transported to the worst parts of the real world.

And that doesn’t mean I don’t like movies that make me cry. All the best movies make you cry. But I feel as though there are two different kinds of sad moments in movies, although they’re hard to pin down in words. In one type of sad moment, you connect emotionally with the character, and you feel this clear, almost cathartic sadness along with them. In the other type, it’s painful sadness. It’s sadness about uncorrected, realistic injustice, of the movie being real and painful without also offering any note of comfort. La La Land made me sob, during Mia’s audition scene, but I didn’t walk out of the theatre with a lasting sense of unease, a prickling in my stomach that this was cruel and wrong. And when I do get that feeling, it certainly makes the movie memorable to me, but the bad feeling sticks with me, and I already feel bad about enough real things. I don’t need to be getting depressed and in pain about fictional people too.

Serious movies are really important. They explore important social issues and introduce them to people who are otherwise unfamiliar with them and allow viewers to see themselves and their struggles represented on screen. Buuuuut if there’s no magic, no singing, and no spaceships that defy the laws of physics, they’re not for me.

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