Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.
Who: Jenn Reese, author of middle grade science fiction and adult fantasy. We’ve heard wonderful things about Jenn’s books and were thrilled when she agreed to participate in Smugglivus this year. (On a side note, Thea was super stoked, given that she’s had Above World on her TBR for a shamefully long period of time.)
Recent Work: Jenn’s fantasy novel, Jade Tiger, came out last year. This year, she made her MG debut with Above World, the first in a planned trilogy.
Please give it up for Jenn, people!
Jenn Reese here, first time poster, long time reader. Thanks for having me, Ana and Thea! Today I’d like to talk about a subject near-and-dear to my heart: girl adventurers.
In the young adult market, there are hordes of young women who can throw a punch, unearth the ancient artifact, or lead an army on to victory over their dystopian overlords. But in middle-grade markets, boy heroes still dominate the most popular action titles (and the best seller lists). This imbalance is perpetuated by the idea that girls will read stories about boys or girls, but boys will only read about boys. So hey, if you’re writing an adventure story — which many people still consider a “boy book” — then it only makes sense to make a boy the hero in order to attract a wider readership. (It’s a theory I would like to crush under the heel of my space boots, then kick into the sun.) But you know who takes this philosophy to the extreme? Hollywood. And where Hollywood goes, so go media tie-ins, and the toy industry, and the pop culture that permeates our schools and TVs and Internet.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (one of my favorite organizations, and not just because Geena Davis exemplifies the “Girl Adventurer Grown Up”) recently released this great PSA:
Middle grade readers and writers are doing so much better than Hollywood, but we have a long fight ahead of us. We need more girls as leads in adventure stories, not just as sidekicks or love interests, and we need a wider variety of those girls. Here are some of my favorite 2012 middle-grade reads that feature girl adventurers.
Renegade Magic (Kat, Incorrigible #2) by Stephanie Burgis
Kat, Incorrigible was one of the best books I read last year, and book 2 is even better. Young Kat Stephenson, the youngest of four siblings, is headstrong, brave, and trying to find her place in the world. But what truly sets these books apart for me (in addition to the rich historical setting, brisk pace, and lively language) is Kat’s relationship to her sisters and brother. Kat may find them infuriating at times, but she’ll do anything in her power to make sure they’re happy. Reading these books, I finally understand what having a sister would be like. Burgis’ series is fast-paced, magical, and fun on every page. If there is any justice in the world, the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy will find a wide audience and take its place among classic middle-grade reads for future generations.
Claws by Mike and Rachel Grinti
This wonderfully imaginative story is set in an alternate present where magical creatures called “crags” co-exist with humans. When Claws begins, Emma and her family have just moved into a crag neighborhood so her parents can continue their search for their missing eldest daughter, Helena. Emma quickly becomes involved with a pack of talking cats. Oh, but these aren’t any talking cats; there’s nothing cute or fuzzy about them. These cats are ambitious, powerful, and downright dangerous. As Emma becomes more embroiled in the world of magic, she gets closer and closer to solving the mystery of her sister’s disappearance. Claws is fast-paced, funny, and nicely layered with a great, diverse cast.
Winterling by Sarah Prineas
I am biased about this book, in no small part because it’s dedicated “To Jenn Reese. For you, and for the girl you once were.” But even if it wasn’t dedicated to me, and even if the hero wasn’t named Fer (short for Jennifer), I’d still love it. Fer is not only wild, passionate, and courageous, she’s also a vegetarian. Yes, that’s right. How often do we see that sort of bravery and self-awareness in our middle-grade characters? Not as often as we see it in real life, I think. And Fer isn’t the only stand-out female character in this book; almost all the other characters are girls and women. In an adventure story! This is no case of a token female trying to prove herself in man’s world. Prineas’ richly developed world is full of female characters occupying almost every role imaginable: villains, guards, loyal subjects, and friends. We see male-dominated worlds all the time in adventure stories, but in Winterling, the girls and women shine.
Legends of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Zita and her friends (introduced in Hatke’s first book in the series, Zita the Spacegirl) return, and this time they’re joined by a mischievous robot who cleverly adopts Zita’s appearance and takes her place. As you might imagine, hijinks ensue. These books are chock full of sense of wonder and an unabashed love of adventure. If they’d been around when I was a little girl, I suspect I would have dressed as Zita for every Halloween until I was 30.
The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet
Horn Books said The Cabinet of Earths is “a-shimmer with magic,” and that’s absolutely true. There’s magic in the streets of Paris, in Maya’s colorful and mysterious family, and in the mesmerizing language of every sentence. What I love most about our hero Maya, though, is that she isn’t particularly good at fighting or solving puzzles or laughing courageously in the face of danger. She has no super powers, no laser death rays, no wand laced with unicorn hair. She’s simply a girl with a huge heart trying to do the right thing for her family, and for the world. Honestly, I can’t think of a message our world needs more than that one right now.
Adventure Time: Marceline and the Scream Queens (6-part comic series)
I love the crazy spectacle that is the Adventure Time animated cartoon, and was thrilled to see two of its standout female characters get their own comic book spin-off. Marceline and the Scream Queens follows our favorite angsty vampire, Marceline, as she goes on tour with her band. Princess Bubblegum — well known for her world-class scientific brain and ability to lead — comes on board as the band’s new manager. I love that Marceline is an accomplished singer, lyricist, and musician, and that she’s occasionally angry and dangerous and out of control. Bubblegum is her perfect foil, and more than anything, this is a story of their complicated, developing friendship. Yes and Please.
Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung
It’s incredibly important for girls to read stories where girls are the driving force of the action… where they’re important, and not just as love interests, mothers, sisters, or sidekicks. But here’s the thing: it’s just as important for boys to read these stories, too.
The amazing cover of Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities features hero Vincent, his two male friends, and a GIANT EVIL ROBOT. Although I’m not a fan of differentiating “girl books” versus “boy books,” it’s pretty clear that this one looks, on the surface, like the latter. And then we get a surprise: there’s an amazing girl character in this book whose story is just as important as the hero’s. In fact, one could easily imagine another version of this book where we follow her journey instead. She isn’t playing second fiddle to Vincent, she’s an equal partner in the adventure — we just don’t happen to be seeing it from her point of view. (Plus she steals some of the best illustrations.) This isn’t just a book for boys, but I’ll be thrilled if a lot of them read it.
Looking forward to 2013
I haven’t done much reading of up-and-coming middle-grade adventures (I still have the 2012 middle-grade debut books The Mapmaker and the Ghost by Sarvenaz Tash, Storybound by Marissa Burt, and Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley, and The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards on my to-be-read pile), but I have been lucky enough to read one amazing 2013 debut…
The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher
I was expecting something light-hearted and funny from this book, a whimsical adventure about two young female sleuths who get in over their heads. What I got was all of that, plus so much more. There are great fight scenes and a ton of unexpected plot twists and reversals. The stakes escalate quickly and ramp up to a thrilling end sequence. Sophie, our hero, begins the book as a bit of a follower, always taking the lead from her best friend Grace. But their friendship becomes more complicated when Sophie meets a new friend, the unflappable Trista, and begins to eventually develop a strength all her own. Perception is a big theme here, and stereotypes are routinely addressed and smashed. The Wig in the Window is an empowering, enlightening book in so many ways — but it’s also just plain fun and laugh-out-loud funny, too. I’ll be putting this on my shelf next to one of my all-time favorites, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game.
It’s been a fantastic year for girl adventurers, but we still need more: more tough girls and introverts, more girls of color, more girls from a variety of socio-economic situations. We need more boys reading about girl heroes, and more girls in leading roles. Some reviews of my own middle-grade debut, Above World, have included a criticism that my main character, Aluna, is a “typical warrior girl.” You know what? I’m totally fine with that. Personally, I can’t wait to live in a world where “warrior girls” have become an everyday occurrence.
Neither can we, Jenn! Thank you! (I’m off top purchase a copy of Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities now…)