On Sunday the 21st, the NYC Teen Author Festival (which I blogged a bit about last week here) hosted a symposium at the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street branch. The gorgeous, sprawling building with the majestic stone lions (Patience and Fortitude) out front served as the perfect location for an afternoon of discussion between young adult authors.
The symposium, which focused on feminism, diversity, and identity in young adult literature featured an incredible lineup of authors: David Levithan, Libba Bray, Gayle Forman, Nova Ren Suma, Scott Westerfeld, Maria E. Andreu, Coe Booth, Sona Charaipotra, Dhonielle Clayton, IW Gregorio, Adam Silvera, Andrew Smith, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Carolyn Mackler, Chase Night, Cindy Rodriguez, Jennifer E. Smith, Jenn Marie Thorne, Will Walton, Terra Elan McVoy, Michelle Knudsen, Jennifer A. Nielsen, Andrew Smith, Lindsay Smith, Jessica Spotswood, and Tommy Wallach.
Alyson and I eagerly took our seats in the Bartos Forum in time to hear the keynote speech about books and gender by Libba Bray, the author of best-sellers like A Great and Terrible Beauty and The Diviners.
Bray’s keynote started off on a humorous note. She talked about one of her first book tours being sponsored by Midol, an over-the-counter medication that’s used to treat menstrual cramps and bloating. She described the bookmarks that were handed out on the tour: an ad for her book in small font, followed by big, bold letters that asked: Are cramps, bloating, and fatigue getting you down?
“This,” Bray said, “is what authors call living the dream.”
The audience laughed, but Bray brought up a good point: what would it be like if male authors were getting the same kind of sponsorship deals?
“Does sexism exist in YA?” Bray asked. “Abso-fucking-lutely.”
She went on to say that it’s tough as a woman writer to be continually dismissed and told that “our experiences don’t matter.”
A quick look around the internet showed me that there are many people out there who believe feminism means hating men, and because of this perspectives and intentions get skewed. There was no man-hating at the symposium, which sought to shed light on the issue of sexism against authors and readers.
A few years ago, concerns were raised that boys were no longer reading because it was too female-focused. Bray noted that libraries and schools started making “boy zones,” where boys were given special sections of books to read. What if a boy wanted to read a novel outside of that section? What if a girl was curious about a novel in the “boy zone?”
“When we say a boy can’t read a book with a girl protagonist,” Bray said, “What we’re really saying is: girls are not important. The thoughts and experiences of fifty-percent of the population don’t matter.”
Bray went on to talk about a conversation she had with some teens over pizza at her house, when she asked them about their reading habits. Many of them said they have felt confined to genres or ashamed about the books they want to read. They could all pin-point books “for girls” versus books “for boys” based on the covers, which was interesting to me as someone who now works in publishing.
(Birds and flowers are on girls books. Snakes are on boys books, according to Bray.)
The most astounding thing to me? Many of the teens had also been pushed into their reading choices by teachers, librarians, and publishing representatives. Instead of giving children free-reign, authority figures are trying their hardest to pigeonhole readers. I won’t deny that part of this has to do with selling a good amount of books and targeting an audience. But when we limit children’s exposure to varied writing, diverse characters, and characters of the opposite sex, when we tell them “this is what you’re supposed to read,” we are keeping them from seeing how beautiful the rest of the world really is.
Bray concluded her keynote by sharing a touching story about a LGBTQ panel in Texas. The turnout for the panel was so huge that people were being turned away at the door. Authors gave up their seats in order to bring more teens into the room.
“Change can happen,” Bray said. “We make it happen. I believe this and I am banking on the future… Foster empathy, not suspicion. Build bridges instead of cages.”
I think Scott Westerfeld, author of the incredibly popular Uglies and Afterworlds, said it best when it came to describing the power books have on readers:
“Books are machines for becoming other people.”
The symposium opened up my eyes to the incredible strides authors, publishers, and even readers are taking to make young adult literature a well-represented category. It’s imperative that children and young adults are exposed to books about all kinds of people, going through all kinds of experiences. Close-mindedness helps no one. The world is a rich, beautiful place. Don’t you want to experience that?