Monthly Archives: November 2016

It’s Time to Have a Serious Talk about Compliance

This is going to be a difficult post, friends. It’s time to have a serious talk about girls and compliance.

Let’s be clear right up front. On one level, this is about a dear friend’s book and how a review of that book got it wrong.

Conflict of interest, I know. But I’m determined to speak up because:

  • the review isn’t simply wrong about this particular book – it espouses a wrong-headed view of how girls in kidlit “should” behave;
  • the review misses a subtle, but significant message in the story’s resolution – that people have the right to appear on the outside the way they feel on the inside.

princess_frogsThe book in question in Veronica Bartles’ THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS, which I blogged about earlier this week [that post is here].

Veronica is in one of my critique groups, so I had the chance to see this book develop from initial draft to its final form as a picture book.

I am going to focus on this book and one review in particular. I’d like to look at how language used in the review shows that there are still harmful cultural expectations about the way girls are portrayed in children’s books. I am not, in this post, going to take on the fact that pushing girls to be compliant has huge implications about female sexuality, women in the workplace and in government, and gender equality. Ready?

Several weeks ago, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS was reviewed by a major publishing industry magazine.

Let’s take my first point: The review isn’t simply wrong about this particular book – it espouses a wrong-headed view of how girls in kidlit “should” behave.

After describing the plot and praising the author’s Frog Prince retelling as a “fun idea,” the anonymous reviewer goes on to say, “the heroine’s imperiousness comes off as spoiled and snooty, as opposed to empowered.”

I sat with these words for a few hours. “Imperious” and “spoiled” jumped out at me. When I was growing up, “spoiled” was one of my family’s code words for “you are not being compliant.” My parents used both this word and “selfish.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized, I’m not an abnormally selfish person. This was coding for “you’re not doing what we want you to do, the way we want you to do it.”

Authors, we’ve got a lot of reprogramming to do around the issue of girls and compliance. Books like THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS are a great step forward.

In this story, Cassandra is young princess who says what she wants [a frog], stays clear about it [the book’s refrain, “princes aren’t pets”], deals with a resulting problem [every frog she kisses turns into a prince], and solves it herself, achieving her goal.

This was my reaction, which I shared on Facebook.

I’m sitting with a review of a friend’s PB. The main character is a girl who is clear and steadfast about what she wants (in the book). She is called a spoiled brat (in the review). Any women out there ever get told you should be flexible or adaptable instead of sticking to what you want? Mmm hmm. Me too.

Women responded with the many ways they were chided for not being compliant. These included:

  • I’ve been told “stop being so petty,” re: insisting on fair treatment.
  • I’ve been told, “Your standards are too high.”
  • “DON’T COME ON SO STRONG.” “UGH WOMEN NEVER SAY WHAT THEY MEAN.”
  • “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar.” Thanks Mom… not really looking for flies…
  • “Brat” and “whiny” are code words for female. Sadly. I once saw a review of “Speak”–a novel about a teenage girl who goes mute after being raped–that called the protagonist whiny. Think about that–she was raped and she’s MUTE, but she’s still called whiny.
  • “You have too many ideas about the world… You’ll never get a husband if you always talk about them” (my ideas, thoughts, vision, opinions).

To the last comment, I responded, “The character in this book is also more focused on her own ideas (in this case, it’s a kid, so having fun) than on being partnered with a male.”

[BTW: Thanks to the male kidlit authors who posted support on that Facebook thread.]

In THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS, frog after frog turns into a prince. Each one proposes a quick wedding, but Princess Cassandra isn’t ready to give into those societal expectations. Without throwing a tantrum or threatening anyone, she sticks to what she wants: a pet to play with and be her friend.

Yet the reviewer goes on to say that the story, “may leave readers wondering why a prince can’t be the best friend she wants to badly.”

This leads me to my second point: The review misses a subtle, but significant message in the story’s resolution – that people have the right to appear on the outside the way they feel on the inside.

SPOILER AHEAD – please skip if you don’t want to know how THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS ends.

Cassandra comes upon “a bedraggled little prince sniffling in the garden.” The little prince tells Cassandra he doesn’t want to be a prince. He liked being a frog. When Cassandra kisses the top of his head, he turns back into a frog and the two live happily ever after.

For me, this is one of the most powerful moments in the book. We have a character who feels one way on the inside (frog) and is miserable in his body (boy). Cassandra accepts him as who he says he is. Only then can their true friendship begin.

It is irresponsible for reviewers to perpetuate outdated cultural norms, including the implicit expectation that girls and women, boys and frogs, are only valuable when they are compliant. By implying that the main character should settle for a prince instead of the frog she wants, the reviewer missed how powerful the book’s resolution is. The final frog prince doesn’t want to change his identity in order to be part of Cassandra’s life. He wants to choose who he is and (like the princess) have a say about what makes him happy.

I’d like to thank Veronica Bartles for giving a shout out to all those kids who feel like frogs, and LIKE feeling like frogs. Cassandra may be a princess, but she prefers the company of people who are authentically themselves, instead of complying (there’s that word again) with society’s expectations.

Let’s celebrate non-compliant girls (boys, princes, and frogs) from children’s literature. Let us know your favorite characters in the comments.

 

Laura’s Bookshelf: THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS

I’m celebrating the launch of a friend’s book this week: THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS by Veronica Bartles. It’s a Frog Prince retelling about being clear about what you want and who you want to be.

Because Veronica is in one of my critique groups, I was lucky enough to watch this adorable picture book develop from initial idea, through several drafts, and eventually sell to Harper Collins.

From the outset, our group loved spunky Princess Cassandra, who longs for a pet frog to keep her company. Lucky for her, there are plenty of frogs in the kingdom. Unlucky for her, the frogs have a habit of turning into princes when she shows them affection. Soon, the castle is swarming with princes (hilarious!) determined to “be married at once” to the young princess. No, thanks!

img_20161115_062905Sara Palacios’ character design is just right for Cassandra, who happily sticks to what she wants. This princess rocks glasses, a tiara, and an adorable pair of high-tops.

Will Princess Cassandra get her frog? You’ll love the delightful resolution to the story. I appreciated the subtle message that we are who we know ourselves to be inside, no matter what we look like on the surface.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS debuts tomorrow, November 15. Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

A hilarious fractured fairy tale inspired by The Frog Prince, about a princess who only wants a pet frog—but keeps getting pesky princes instead. From debut picture book author Veronica Bartles and illustrator Sara Palacios.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS is appropriate for all ages and would make a great family read aloud.

Who will like it?

• Kids who like funny twists on fairy tales.
• Readers who like friendship stories.
• Fans of characters who “know their own mind” – Junie B. Jones, Ramona, etc. This princess finds her own solution instead of giving in and being compliant.

What will readers learn about?

• There are always new ways to tell an old story.
• The value of gentle determination.
• The importance of being true to yourself.


Another lucky thing – there is a great Stevie Smith poem about this fairy tale. It’s focus: How does the frog prince like being a frog?

THE FROG PRINCE
By Stevie Smith

I am a frog
I live under a spell
I live at the bottom
Of a green well

And here I must wait
Until a maiden places me
On her royal pillow
And kisses me
In her father’s palace

The story is familiar
Everybody knows it well
But do other enchanted people feel as nervous
As I do? The stories do not tell,

As if they will be happier
When the changes come
As already they are fairly happy
In a frog’s doom?

I have been a frog now
For a hundred years
And in all this time
I have not shed many tears,

I am happy, I like the life,
Can swim for many a mile
(When I have hopped to the river)
And am for ever agile.

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Brenda Harsham is hosting Poetry Friday for the *first time* this week! Stop by her blog to say “Thanks.”

Read the rest and listen to Stevie Smith reading this poem at The Poetry Archive.

Check out Veronica’s website for upcoming signings and events.

I’m going to spend another day on this book tomorrow, when I’ll address the importance of non-compliant female characters in kidlit. [UPDATE: The post is up!]

NCTE

Heading to NCTE this weekend? So am I.

ncteMy first job after graduate school was teaching high school English. I was a member of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, but I never got to a national conference. Educator friends have told me how good it feels to be surrounded by people who love all things reading, writing, and learning.

This year’s conference theme is both timely and necessary, “Faces of Advocacy.” As educators, we must advocate for ourselves and our students in so many ways. Classrooms need to be a safe space for all of us, no matter our ethnicity, race, religious beliefs, or background.

Below is my annotated conference schedule. Stop by and say hello!


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NCTE 2016

Saturday, November 19

9:30-10:45 am
Writing for a Better World: Poetry as an Agent of Change
Georgia World Congress Convention Center B210

Program Description: When headlines shout tragic news, we often feel powerless. Yet poetry can help. In this session, a panel of teachers and poets share ways to respond to world events and work to make positive change through poetry, beginning at the most personal level and later echoing out into the world.

Margaret Simon is the program chair. Katherine Bomer is a respondent. Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Irene Latham, Margarita Engle, and Tara Smith are the other authors on this panel.

Notes: Many of our students are struggling with how to respond to the recent presidential election. This is going to be a powerful discussion about how we can use poetry as an agent of change and a source of comfort. I’m looking forward to the conversation, and to meeting several longtime Poetry Friday blogging friends.

4:00-7:30 pm
SCBWI Member Book Signing and Reception
Georgia World Congress Convention Center A411

Sponsored by the SCBWI Southern Breeze. The signing runs from 4-5:30 with a reception following. At the reception, 14 authors — including me — will have a chance to pitch their books to attendees. Should be fun!

Sunday, November 20

9:00-9:45 am
Laura Shovan Autograph Session, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY
Georgia World Congress Convention Center, Random House Booth #412

12:00 PM – 1:15 PM
Writing Strategies for Teaching Empathy Through POV
Georgia World Congress Convention Center A310

Program Description: Seeing the world from another’s point of view is a key element of empathy—a necessary component of advocacy. In this interactive session, three authors and writing teachers will engage participants in a series of fun, hands-on, easily replicable POV writing activities designed to create an appreciation for others and their communities.

Victoria J. Coe and Cheryl Lawton Malone are the other authors leading this workshop.

Notes: I’m looking forward to co-leading this workshop with Vicki, author of the middle grade novel FENWAY AND HATTIE, and Cheryl, whose debut picture book is DARIO AND THE WHALE. We’ve been hard at work on this session. Each of us is presenting one writing exercise for teaching students point of view.

I’m rounding out the conference by meeting up with a 100 Thousand Poets for Change friend, poet and educator Waqas Khwaja, who is a professor at Agnes Scott College. You can read an interview with Waqas here. I also encourage you to read his poem, “I Bide My Time.”

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, everyone!

 

 

Poetry Friday: Lucille Clifton

This week, I turned to Lucille Clifton’s words for comfort. Her poem “my dream about time” captures the frustration, fear, and anger so many women are feeling right now.

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my dream about time
By Lucille Clifton

a woman unlike myself is running
down the long hall of a lifeless house
with too many windows which open on
a world she has no language for,
running and running until she reaches
at last the one and only door
which she pulls open to find each wall
is faced with clocks and as she watches
all of the clocks strike
                                             NO
Listen to Clifton reading this poem at The Poetry Foundation.

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There’s a poetry feast at Jama’s house today. You’ll find all of the Poetry Friday links at Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup.

The contest to win my home-made Poetry Prompt Jar will run through the NCTE Conference. I’ll draw a winner on Monday, 11/21. Find out more and enter here.
Are you going to NCTE? It will be my first time attending. I’ll post my schedule soon!

Poetry Prompt Jar Giveaway

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Laura Purdie Salas is hosting Poetry Friday this week. Visit WRITING THE WORLD FOR KIDS to check out all of this week’s poetry posts.

Hello from Klamath Falls, Oregon! In real life, I’m on the West Coast to do some school and library visits with my good friend Janet Sumner Johnson, author of THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY.

But online, I’m guest-blogging this week at poet and children’s author Jacqueline Jules’s blog, Pencil Tips: Writing Workshop Strategies.

 

prompt-jar-1

Empty protein powder jar.

When Jackie asked me to put together a workshop or activity, I decided to get crafty. I dusted off my long-neglected glue gun, grabbed some wrapping paper scraps, and got busy… making a poetry prompt jar that Ms. Hill’s class would be proud of.

There is one and only one of these beauties. I am giving this prompt jar, full of poetry prompts from my book, away to one class! Leave a comment on this post to be entered in the giveaway.

UPDATE: The drawing will be on Monday, November 21, after NCTE. See you there!

prompt-jar-2

Glue gun!

You can read full instructions for creating a Poetry Prompt Jar (just like the one in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY) at Jackie’s blog. Meanwhile, enjoy the photo gallery of my prompt jar in progress.

There’s a photo of the finished product at the Pencil Tips blog.

Good luck with the giveaway!

prompt-jar-3

My kids don’t need those “Magnetic Poetry for Kids” tiles anymore. Time for a poem!

prompt-jar-4

Almost finished.