In the Media

The NYT Best Seller Lists and Gender Dominance: A Brief Survey

By Casey Wilson

First off, an apology: it’s been too long since this site has been updated. But we are back, and plan to have a return to a steady posting schedule once more. I hope that this post will be meaty enough to make up for our time off.

Now, onto the show! If you’ve been following any of the online conversation about YA lit recently, then you’ve almost certainly encountered the debates about “boy books” versus “girl books” and the “crisis” surrounding the lack of male YA readers. I’ve no interest in rehashing that particular conversation — it’s easy to find, if you go looking. But I do want to throw a bit more data into the world, by looking at the gender breakdown of YA novelists on the New York Times (NYT) Best Seller Lists.

I fully admit to having been inspired for this project (which became my final paper for Kenneth Kidd’s fall 2012 Childhood Studies seminar) by the post titled “Gender Balance in YA Award Winners Since 2000” over at Lady Business, which I have mentioned here on the blog before. If you haven’t read that yet, go now. It’s much prettier and more interesting than mine will be, I can assure you. An excerpt:

I would be very interested in comparing the overall results with data on all the YA published in a given year. If the trend there is as skewed towards women as anecdotal evidence suggests, it’s particularly interesting that looking at the award winners alone shows an opposite trend. If stories by and about boys and men are so rare in the world of YA and yet show up in the proportion we’ve seen above in lists of award winners, then we’re disproportionately privileging these stories when we select the best YA has to offer.

I, unfortunately, do not have access to the information on all the YA books published in the past year. But as much of the conversation about YA lit centers on best seller lists, deservedly or otherwise, I thought that they might be a useful place to turn when considering this same question.

Now for some caveats. What follows is, as the title would suggest, a condensed version of the work I have done with the data from the lists, and as such I will focus solely on author gender. Although there are many more questions that can and should be asked about the books on the lists, and far more detailed discussion to be had with the results, I am hoping to save that for a time and place that will allow me to do them justice. In addition, the data for this project was pulled before the NYT divided the list into middle grades and YA fiction. (In fact, that change came the very day that I submitted my project. The timing, it was perfect.) Although I have many, many thoughts on how that change might effect the numbers that we see below, I don’t address them here.

The final and biggest caveat is that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a statistician. I double- and triple-checked my numbers and tried to present the results as clearly and effectively as possible, but I apologize in advance for any points that may be confusing. Here goes nothing!

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Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

Parallel worlds in Once Upon a Time

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

I have been watching my Twitter feed with interest over the summer, as I follow the immeasurably talented Once Upon a Time writer Jane Espenson (of Buffy, Battlestar Galactica and Warehouse 13 fame) as well as show runner Adam Horowitz. I was especially intrigued about the building buzz surrounding the writing, casting and filming of an episode purported to introduce Captain Hook, who seems to be yet another regular villain in the making.

From a television viewer’s perspective, I trust Jane and believe that any story line that has her Tweet-erpaited* will be entertaining.  However, from a children’s literature perspective, I am intrigued by the increasing conflation of fairy tale characters with children’s literature characters.  The idea that Peter Pan might show up in a future episode made me slightly uncomfortable, as if Once was going too far in rewriting some of these texts, assuming that they all come from the same place.

The beginning of the show focused strongly on the fairy tale folks, centering the show on the adventures of Snow White, Prince Charming, the evil Step-mother queen and a curse placed on their land.  These characters include Red Riding Hood and her Granny, Rumpelstiltskin, the Huntsman, the magic mirror and even Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty.  The curse expelled all of these fairy tale characters from their homeland and into our world, where we are told, there is no such thing as happy endings.

While the central characters are drawn from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, not all of the characters are Grimm’s:  Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, appears as a love interest for Rumpelstiltskin and King Midas makes an appearance, offering his daughter and a handsome gold dowry to King George and Prince Charming.  Beauty and the Beast is technically classified as a fairy tale, while Midas is more myth, from Greek traditions.  However, one could argue that both of these tales are not so far apart in content from Grimm’s as to be out of place.  Midas is depicted as the king of a neighboring land, making Grimm Fairyland a neighboring nation to Greek Mythland.

Things get a little more complicated when we consider the heavy contingent of characters from Carlo Collodi’s Pinnochio: Jiminy Cricket, Geppeto, the Blue Fairy and Pinocchio himself all serve as vital characters.  In fact, Geppeto builds the portal that transports Snow White’s daughter into our world.  These characters live and work in Fairyland, despite the fact that Collodi’s work is a novel, not a fairy tale.  Pinocchio, published in 1883, is considered a work of the first “Golden Age” of children’s literature.  Is it accurate to place these works in the same “land?”

Disney, of course, made a classic animated films out of Pinocchio, the same as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Disney also has films featuring some of the charters new to Season 2: Mulan, Peter Pan, King Arthur’s court.   ABC is owned by Disney and so using characters from the “Disney vault” might be a legitimate canon from which to work.  However, no full-length feature animated films from Disney represent the stories of Hansel and Gretel or Rumpelstiltskin , so this is not a perfect explanation.  Furthermore, certain of Disney’s classic animated films take place outside of Fairyland: films like Bambi, Dumbo and The Lion King are supposed to take place in versions of our world and are touted as “realistic” when it comes their artistic depiction of animals.

In episode 17 of Season 1, Once Upon a Time did something even more interesting than just lumping Pinocchio in with fairy tales.  It introduced the idea of other “worlds” besides Fairlyland and our world.  These are not neighboring nations, like King Midas’s realm, but parallel worlds that must be reached by magic portals.  In this episode, the Evil Queen Regina uses the Mad Hatter’s hat to access one of those parallel worlds: Wonderland. Like Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll is also considered a classic of children’s literature’s Golden Age., as is Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.  And, as the most recent episode of Once Upon a Time (S2E4) shows us, Captain Hook reaches Neverland from Fairyland by means of a portal opened in the sea by a magic bean (presumably Jack’s)

This opens up some really interesting geographical ideas for Once’s source material.  First, various kingdoms and provinces exist in Fairlyland, allowing for the existence of multiple royal families and even a variety of fairy tale sources. It is unclear how national mythology plays into this geography, as both Mulan and Lancelot are described as being from a different “land,” which could be located within the Fairlyland map, though they live by different customs than those of Fairyland.   Snow White’s familiarity with the Knights of the Roundtable speaks to the interpretation of the inclusion of the more distant China-myth land and Camelot as nations within the overarching Fairyland world.

Then, come the parallel worlds, accessed by portal.  Opening portals into Wonderland and Neverland cleverly allows the writers of Once to access other favorite childhood characters and tales to retell without invoking the criticism of “these aren’t fairy tales.” Once could make legitimate forays into other magical worlds, like Narnia, Middle Earth, the Hundred Acre Woods, or more mythical locations like Mount Olympus or Hades.  By depicting these imagined places as parallel dimensions only accessible by portal, Once removes the strictures of time, national origin, or form (allowing crosses between fairy tales, novels, plays, or films).  By allowing all of these childhood imaginary places to exist simultaneously, but in different planes, Once can enable interactions between fairy tale characters, mythological figures and Golden Age characters in a new and interesting way.  And yet, how many children’s classics will be pulled into the plot?  Can we expect to see Harry Potter or the Wizard of Oz in guest appearances?

As a TV watcher, I am intrigued and curious to find out what other worlds the show will venture into, as it continually introduces new characters and new conflicts.  As a children’s lit scholar, I wonder if the writers will know when they have gone too far.

*Did I make this up?  Or do I owe someone credit for this awesome technology/Bambi mashup?

Rebekah is a PhD student, currently teaching a class on YA dystopia and prepping for her exams.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

The Question of “Gender Balance”

By Casey Wilson

Yesterday morning, the YA segment of my Twitter feed started buzzing over a post by Ana over on Lady Business called “Gender Balance in YA Award Winners since 2000.” Responding to the so-called “crisis” in boys reading (or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof), the piece looks at the gender breakdown of authors and protagonists of the winners of a number of YA book awards. The full methodology is explained on the site, which I encourage you to read because it’s quite fascinating — as are the charts showing the award-by-award breakdown of male vs. female authors and male vs. female protags.

What I found the most interesting about the analysis is the way that the writer chose to frame the question and the results. There is a belief currently that YA lit is “female-dominated”, she explains, and that it suffers from a shortage of male protagonists. Because of this perception, boys are discouraged from reading YA fiction. The author goes on to argue that the results prove quite the opposite, and that at least where award-winners are concerned, male characters remain highly visible. Ultimately she wonders if perhaps the problem is not that there are no boy characters in place, but that society has a tendency to panic when women gain even a slight statistical advantage in traditionally male-dominated fields. (Her argument is more complex than this, and I do apologize for condensing it. Again: read the whole piece! It’s great!)

The writer freely admits that award winners may not be entirely representative of the genre as a whole and that there are some potential gaps in the data and methodology. I think that’s true, to an extent, and I would like to see this kind of study be spread beyond just award winners. Bestsellers would make for an interesting test case, as would a broader swath of the market as a whole. But I do agree with the author that the argument that there aren’t enough male protagonists doesn’t hold water, especially given the data provided here, and that even if it did, it might not be time to panic. Here is, for me, the most important piece of her argument:

Occasionally people react to these discussions by pointing out that it’s hypocritical of feminist commentators to maintain that girls (and people of colour, and lgbtq teens, and disabled teens) need as many and as varied media role models as possible without accepting that the same is true of boys. My response to this is that yes, I accept that boys too have the right to want to see themselves represented in the literature they consume…Even if (award winners aside, as we have just seen) the world of YA were to prove an exception, we can’t pretend the impact this has on boys is the same the impact that lack of representation in every single sphere of our culture has on marginalised groups.

A lot of YA authors have been talking about this issue for a long time now, and the notion of an “empathy problem” rather than a “boys reading problem” often comes up. That is, that girls are often expected to engage with male protagonists, while boys are generally less likely to do so with female protagonists — and that by telling boys that they wouldn’t or shouldn’t be interested in a book about a girl, they are being actively encouraged to disengage with the interests and concerns of half the population. Whether or not that’s true (I personally tend to think it’s a fairly reasonable argument), it is fascinating that YA lit has become the testing ground for this battle over the role of gender in encouraging or discouraging reading, and I look forward to seeing more people tackle the subject, in all its complexity.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

Written by a Kid: Some Musings

By Casey Wilson

If you aren’t as involved in the geeky web series side of the internet as I am, you may have missed the debut of Written by a Kid over on internet maven and all-around geek queen Felicia Day’s YouTube channel Geek and Sundry. The premise is simple, according to the playlist tagline: “Original Stories By Kids Directed By Adults!” And, indeed, that is how it goes down. A child tells a story, with some prodding by an enthusiastic adult audience, and various animators and actors bring it to life on screen. The premiere episode starred none other than Joss Whedon:

The videos are cute, and they take on a wide variety of styles as different creative teams come on board. What I find interesting about the series, though, is that it still wraps itself up in that age-old children’s literature question of exactly what role the child has to play in its development. Because I can’t help but think, the more of these videos that I watch, that the stories aren’t entirely written by the kids themselves. (Leaving aside the fact that they aren’t written in the first place.)

As the kids tell their story, they are asked questions. Sometimes it’s for clarification, sometimes it’s to expand upon a particular point, and sometimes it’s to make the story fit a more accepted narrative shape. And throughout the video, the story is being mediated through adult representations, whether it’s actors or animation or some combination therein. So the stories the kids tell, from beginning to end, do not belong to them even as they are originating from them.

It’s a complex situation, and one where I in no way begrudge the creators of the series for their choices and presentation. The videos are cute, amusing, and creative — but they aren’t written (entirely, or even mostly) by the kids.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

Innocence and Sexuality in Copper

By Casey Wilson

Spoilers for the first few episodes of Copper abound below. Read at your own risk!

A few weeks ago, BBC America debuted its first-ever original series: Copper. Set in New York City in the 1860s, main character Kevin Corcoran is an Irishman working as – you guessed it – a cop. There’s a lot to be said about the show: debates about its quality, its self-conscious placement in the world of anti-hero cable dramas, its depiction of race relations and women.

But for the purposes of this site, I am, of course, interested in the show’s treatment of children – one child in particular, in fact. We meet Annie in the first minutes of the first episode, when Corcoran offers the hungry, ragged girl an egg to eat and she offers to “pleasure” him in return. It’s meant to be shocking, to set the tone of the show as gritty and real and unafraid to sully the innocence of children. In those moments, we are not to see in Annie the Romantic child – sweet, pure, and innocent – but a darker, more complex figure.

I admit to being intrigued by the scene, because it is rare for shows – even those that have no illusions about childhood innocence – to address children’s sexuality. Mad Men has done it with Sally Draper, in that much discussed scene where she masturbates in front of the television, but even that had an aura of innocence to it. Unlike Sally, Annie knows exactly what she is feeling and experiencing, and she offers it to this man because that is how her world operates. If a man is kind to her, she must repay him with the only currency she has.

Corcoran – as our hero – turns down Annie’s offer with an appropriate level of disgust. He thinks that will be the end of it, until shortly thereafter Annie turns up dead. But the case is more complicated than it seems, and it soon comes to light that the dead girl was not Annie but Annie’s twin sister. It certainly explains the disparity between the dirty, grime-covered girl who Corcoran met and the pretty, clean girl whose corpse they found – and it tells the viewing audience that even the Romantic child isn’t safe in this world.

Annie is, naturally, wise beyond her years. Or, perhaps more accurately, she is weary beyond her years. She speaks with a resigned acceptance of her lot in life, even as she mourns for her sister. And because the show is so determined to be shocking, it adds complication upon complication to her life. Corcoran enlists her help in taking down her sister’s killer – and it is Annie’s hand that drives the knife into the killer’s chest. When a man purporting to be her father arrives, he is viewed with suspicion until it is revealed that he is, in reality, Annie’s husband. Annie continues to present herself to Corcoran as an alternative to the adult female love interest even after she is freed from her life as a child prostitute, and he continues to turn her down.

Corcoran tells her again and again that she doesn’t need to live her life like that, his sympathies drawn, in part, from his own grief over the loss of his child. Corcoran sees something innocent in the child, even if Annie herself does not. In the most recent episode, he tells her to go play with the “other little girls” and she responds by saying, “There’s nobody else for me to talk to. Only grown men.” It is hard for her to revert to purity and innocence after all she has known and seen. (It is worth noting that she and the main female character – who has taken her in – are the two women in the scene wearing white.) Annie even states that explicitly, after a dance with one of Corcoran’s friends when she accuses her dance partner of having come to visit her in the brothel. “[Corcoran] thinks I deserve a childhood,” she says, “but I got no need for one.”

Here again, I think that the show wants us to see this as scandalous. No child should think such things, or live a life that could take that childhood away. And it is that very act of being so scandalized that undermines the scandal itself. If none of the adults got that panicked look in their eye upon being presented with Annie’s frank sexuality, then Copper might stand a chance of actually undermining the Romantic child. But by showing that, even in the 1860s, the good guys knew better, Copper reassures us that we’ve been right all along. The child isn’t sexual – or at least, the child shouldn’t be. If she is, something in her has been broken. In Copper’s world, Annie deserves a childhood, no matter her protestations. Her innocence was taken from her, and it is up to our hero to restore it, if he can.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

Four Links!

By Casey Wilson

  • Amazon has declared that The Hunger Games is the highest-selling series on its site, surpassing even Harry Potter. It’s an interesting read, in part because it places the cause squarely at the feet of increased interest in electronic books.
  • Patrick Ness, author of the Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls, has a piece in The Guardian about censorship and the internet.
  • There’s a great article up on about John Dough and the Cherub, L. Frank Baum’s attempt to write about a character with “no discernible gender at all”.
  • If you, like me, grew up with The Baby-Sitters Club, you’ll probably enjoy this discussion of the series’s legacy.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

NPR’s Top 100 List Revealed

By Casey Wilson

A quick post today, to follow up on the recent entry about NPR’s call for votes to create a list of the 100 Best-Ever YA books. The list has arrived, and is an interesting mix of the expected (Harry Potter and The Hunger Games), the classics (Catcher), and the currently popular (The Fault in Our Stars). In fact, all five of John Green’s novels make appearances on the list, four of them in the top 25.

Just goes to show what can happen when you rule the internet.

In any case, the list can be found here. Let the arguments begin!

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

And Now, For a Vote

By Casey Wilson

Today’s post is a short one, but one that will hopefully provide a bit of amusement. Over at NPR, they have put together a long-list of 235 young adult novels, that they will soon narrow down to the 100 best-ever YA books. They combined their open nominations last month with the guidance of a panel of experts to name the finalists, and will announce the official list soon.

But of course, the best part is the fact that voting is open to the public. So go check out the list, and pick your top ten, and then come back here and share your picks (Go The Book Thief! Yay, Song of the Lioness!) and complaints (I love hobbits, but The Lord of the Rings is not YA, goshdarnit!).

This is the kind of thing summer is made for, people. Go to it!

Casey is a PhD student who totally voted for Anna and the French Kiss, among other books.

Categories: In the Media

Another Day, Another Loss

By Casey Wilson

It’s become something of a refrain the past few months, my having to pop into the blog with the news that another beloved and respected writer of children’s literature has passed away. Today, it’s Margaret Mahy, a New Zealand writer known for books like the Carnegie medal winning The Changeover. She died yesterday, at the age of 76.

I confess that I have not read any of Mahy’s books over the years, despite the many, many people I have encountered who have professed their love for her work. It seems almost impossible, really, given the 100+ books she has to her name. But the outpouring of admiration and gratitude I have seen from all corners today, particularly from those who shared a country with Mahy, hopefully pegs me as the exception rather than the rule.

The Guardian has a brief obituary for Mahy, which tells of her prolific career and the influence she wielded. So read it, and if you’re already a fan, reread her books. Or if, like me, you have yet to spend time in the world of her books, add The Changeover to your reading list.

Because if there’s anything to be gained from this kind of loss, it’s that the books she left behind might reach new audiences in the wake of her death.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: In the Media

Finding Alaska, Seven Years Later

By Casey Wilson

An interesting thing happened yesterday: 385 weeks – not days, weeks – after John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska was released, it hit The New York Times Bestseller List for the first time. Such a resurgence for a stand-alone novel after seven years feels unusual to me, though I confess I’m not quite enough of an expert to say with certainty that it is. (Perhaps Rebekah could shed more light on the topic. If you haven’t read her article in Children’s Literature titled “Testing the Tastemakers: Children’s Literature, Bestseller Lists, and the ‘Harry Potter Effect’” you should – it’s quite excellent.) Alaska has, Green indicates, always sold well but not always impressively so, even with the weight of a Printz award behind it. And even though Green has had bestsellers in the intervening time, most notably with Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars, this still marks a significant milestone for him.

Over on his Tumblr, Green offers something of a timeline of Looking for Alaska’s life and floats a few theories as to what brought about the news. “Was it the videos? The peopleraindrizzlehurricane quotes on tumblr? Or just word-of-mouth finally kicking in? I don’t know.” If I had to take a guess, I’d say it’s a little bit of everything. Green’s YouTube videos – primarily at Vlogbrothers with his brother Hank, but more recently also at Crash Course, among other channels – have brought him an increasingly high profile both in and out of the literature world. And sites like Tumblr – and in particular the site he references that collects references to the book’s most famous quote, “If people were rain, I was a drizzle and she was a hurricane,” – have allowed the novel’s reach to spread naturally. Throw in people checking out his back catalog in the wake of the incredibly well reviewed The Fault in Our Stars, and it does seem that the timing was ripe for Alaska’s success.

It’s worth noting, too, that this resurgence is happening with Alaska instead of with, say, An Abundance of Katherines, Green’s second novel. Alaska is a novel that tends to inspire especially devoted fans – if you’re looking for proof, take a tour of the book’s tag on Tumblr as a start – as well as thoughtful criticism. Depending upon the day, I’m likely to say Katherines is my favorite of the two, but Alaska is by far the more fertile ground for discussion.

That discussion is, I believe, key. I’m sure it would be inaccurate to assume that the only people responsible for the uptick in Alaska’s sales are his most ardent fans – called Nerdfighters, for the uninitiated – but I think it would be equally inaccurate to say that they haven’t played a significant part. And what Green and his brother have done especially well over the past few years is foster an environment that rewards thoughtful discussion. If Nerdfighters can begin that discussion within one of Green’s books, then all the better.

But, for all I know, that might only be a drop in the bucket when it comes to sales. Like Green, I think that there are a lot of factors at work here, and like Green, I’m not entirely sure what they all are. Which means is I’ll be even more curious to see how long this peak in Alaska’s sales lasts, especially with a new edition soon to be released, and what it does for the book’s reputation as time passes. Printz winner, and now bestseller. Not half bad, for a debut novel.

Casey is a PhD student who will teach The Fault in Our Stars in her class “Writing About the YA Bestseller” in the fall.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

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