Tag Archives: feminism

UKYA Review: The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury

The Scarecrow Queen, Melinda Salisbury, (Scholastic, March 2017)

Genres in the mix: Fantasy (high)

Age target: YA

Be warned: this reviews the conclusion to a trilogy, so there may be spoilers for the first two books. If you haven’t read the first two, my advice is simple – do that. It’s a cracking fantasy series and I am even more convinced of that now I’ve read the whole thing. I would especially recommend it if you tend to notice shades of anti-feminism or poor female representation creeping into books and media that claim to have ‘strong female characters’ or to be ‘for girls’. These books will not let you down. Mel’s ethics shine through in her realistically-portrayed-and-therefore-flawed characters (sidenote: strong female character does not equal robotically tough) and her commitment to offering her female characters in particular genuine choices, great relationships (and by that I mean friendships with each other as well as romance possibilities) and real growth. If you’re new to the series, now’s the time to leave…

Story basics (from Goodreads): The final battle is coming . . .

As the Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. The final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever . . .

Explosive, rich and darkly addictive, this is the stunning conclusion to Mel Salisbury’s internationally best-selling trilogy that began with The Sin Eater’s Daughter.

The emotional ride: Tricky and intense. There were moments in both Twylla’s and Errin’s sections when I thought I might cry (this is not a common thing for me), as well as moments of genuine joy. Brilliantly handled pace.

Narrative style: I loved the switching between Twylla’s and Errin’s points of view and felt it really increased the tension as well as clearly showing different parts of the story. It gave it a very filmic feel, like we were switching scenes: ‘meanwhile, at the castle…’

Plotting and pacing: A real strength of the book, heightened by the narrative style, I feel. Shifting the focus between the two viewpoint characters from the first two books really helped to keep the pace shifting. I also really liked that this was in large chunks, rather than chapter by chapter as it’s often done – this worked great for this particular story.

Main character: Obviously, there were two main characters here, and I loved them both. Twylla has grown so much from the naive young woman we first met in Sin Eater’s Daughter – poor thing, she’s had to! I do like that both she and Errin defy a lot of the ‘strong heroine’ stereotypes and yet really grow into their roles as leader-types in this book. It feels very organic and realistic here.

Supporting cast: These are also really well drawn. I think Merek comes into his own here and I enjoyed his development. I appreciated the arc of Lief’s character, difficult though it is and the Sleeping Prince is a marvellous full-on moustache-twirling baddie. However, it’s the supporting cast of women that I loved and who I feel make the series. The Sisters really are the heart of it all.

One final note: I loved the ending. I commented at the beginning that I see this as a strong series in terms of representation of women and I think that the ending is a crucial part of that. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I feel the ending is perfect in that it is true to the novel’s own spirit. It gives the characters the ending they deserve, on their own terms, and that is the most satisfying ending possible.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

The Scarecrow Queen is out now in the UK from Scholastic.

I am counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017.

Words on Wednesday: Gender Representation and Children’s Picture Books

I’m lazily rerunning a post from just over a year ago, as gender representation is still something that concerns me (I’m certain it’s getting worse, and more and more convinced that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has somehow shaped its own future, but that’s a whole other topic…)

As a feminist who learned about feminism from literature, I tend to notice how books contribute to and stretch gender stereotypes. I notice it in other fields too, of course. Have you seen Shannon Hale’s brilliant post about gender balance in animation? Horrifying (to me), if only for the comments claiming it’s not significant. Media imagery and representation in the stories we hear are clearly part of our socialisation and it absolutely matters if girls only ever see girls acting as supporting roles to boys, or only ever see nurturing carried out by female characters. 

Anyway, I’m in danger of ranting here when what I really want to do is share some of the excellent titles that we’ve enjoyed with our girls. I’m focusing on the early years here, looking at picture books in particular.

For young picture book readers, Kes Gray’s Daisy is a fabulous character. She could just as easily have been a boy, and that is the point here. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find female characters acting in gender-neutral ways (possibly because we sort of mean ‘male’ when we say ‘gender-netural’, but that’s probably an argument for another day…). Imagine my delight when Kes Gray began publishing Daisy chapter books just as my youngest was about ready to start reading chapter books? We’ll be talking more about those on Sunday, in the context of funny series. [edited to add link]
Picture books that play with sterotypical and fairy tale representations are also very welcome when encouraging children to think about and beyond gender. Here are four of our favourites:

Prince Cinders by Babette Cole reverses the genders for Cinderella beautifully. Both my girls found it hilarious that this Cinders wished to be big and hairy like his brothers, rather than beautifully dressed like the more traditional version. It retains the marriage plot, so has Princess Lovelypenny as the Prince Charming character seeking a husband, although there are still some more typical representations (Princess Lovelypenny thinks Prince Cinders saved her and therefore wants to marry him). It’s a suitable story for both genders, with its anarchic humour.

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole is a far freer reversal than Prince Cinders, being based on various fairytale tropes rather than one specific tale. Princess Smartypants does not want to get married and creates impossible tasks for her suitors so that she can retain her freedom. Children recognise this as being different from standard tales and enjoy the anarchy of this, without having any sense that it is tied up with gender as a concept.

Julia Donaldson’s The Princess and the Wizard (illustrated by Lydia Monks) stays considerably closer to traditional tales, but shows a sparkly princess outwitting the evil wizard by herself and not relying on outside (male) help to save her. This one will appeal to girly girls with its gorgeous glittery pages, whilst offering a capable and competent girl as main character.

Beware of Girls by Tony Blundell is a hilarious subversion of the Red Riding Hood story, featuring a very stupid wolf (whose mixed up and muddled lines never fail to make my youngest giggle) and a very bright little girl. This is a joyful triumph over an easily-confused wolf that will be enjoyed by both genders and clearly represents this little girl as more than capable of looking out for herself.

Clearly, there are others that I could have mentioned, and many picture books in particular get around steretypical gendered assumptions by using animal characters. Which picture books do you think offer particularly positive gender messages?

Round up for October

It’s that time again already! Here’s a round-up of what’s been going on over the last month, both here and at my website.

October Reviews

4 YA (2 fantasy, 2 realism), 2 kids’ (1 fantasy fiction, 1 non-fiction) and 2 adults’ (1 lit fid, 1 crime fic).

Other posts for October

Material on my website this month:

My website is focused on the teaching of English A Levels, especially Language, and is built around a collection of revision notes for students. I recently began a big revamp project, including new material which is updated weekly – a series of features for students, along with tips/activities/ideas/resources for teachers. The notes are fairly extensive at this point; this round-up will focus on the regularly updated content.

For teachers: a record of the students’ features (with occasional linked resources) and teaching tips:

  • a no-prep end-of-topic starter activity
  • a tip about getting Language students writing about meaning as well as showing off their new-found terminology
  • a discussion of How Much Grammar students need for Language A Level
  • a tip on using exemplar essays

On the students’ page:

  • Features on: child phonology; NaNoWriMo; semantic weakening (is it really ‘epic’?); new words as a sign of the times.
  • Vocabulary pieces on: guiding the reader; being tentative about meaning; avoiding the vague adjectives ‘positive’ and ‘negative’; using connectives logically.
  • Books for wider reading: Dante’s Inferno; Jenefer Shute’s Life-Size.
  • Reads to relax with: The Hunting Ground by Cliff McNish; Dark Parties by Sara Grant; The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis; Poltergeeks by Sean Cummings.
My other big website announcement of the month is that I have collated all my ‘Frameworks’ notes (the key terms for English Language or English Language and Literature A Level) into an ebook and self-published it in Kindle format. Should you know anyone this would be helpful for, please do send them to my Frameworks pages for more info. The notes will continue to be freely available online, but the ebook version may be more convenient on the go.

A Sad Time for Feminism

I was going to open this post by commenting that it’s been a sad week for feminism. I started compiling a list of recent events to refer to and quickly realised that it’s pretty much impossible to slap a nice neat timeframe on all the stuff that makes me want to shout/cry/stab someone. So I’ll just sum up a few choice recent moments: the whys and wherefores of ‘legitimate’ versus ‘illegitimate’ rape; a culture of sleaze at the BBC (no wait, everywhere in the 70s and 80s); freshers’ week as instruction in knowing one’s place and, perhaps arguably less seriously, the final nail in the coffin of ‘YA lit is written for girls by girls‘.

This last question is the one I’m going to focus on for now, as I have some chance of at least appearing relatively calm and rational in my arguments (and gods forbid I should seem irrational and emotional). The idea that there are fewer books ‘for’ boys than girls is often floated, along with the related ideas that boys ‘won’t’ read a female protagonist and that ‘boys’ books may be harder to publish (as the market slice is smaller). The fabulous lady business site conducted some research into female dominance in YA, but, being unable to explore the entire market, focused on awardwinners since 2012, as these are particularly visible books which have also been recognised as high quality in some way. Their overall conclusion was that 49% of these awardwinning books had a male protagonist, and 42% were written by male authors.

It is possible (and acknowledged by the fabulous lady business team) that male-focused books (those with a male protagonist) may be more likely to be selected for awards as they are perceived as being less common. This is, of course, not the same thing as being actually less common, which is a very difficult thing to prove with the number of books that we would be talking about here. It also reminds me of teaching gender differences in language usage with sixth formers. Students are very willing to accept rather outdated stereotypes about gendered speech unquestioningly. I’m talking about ideas such as ‘women share feelings while men share facts’ and ‘women discuss problems simply to compare experience, while men assume they’re looking for solutions’. These ideas feel right to many people before looking at the evidence, perhaps in the same way that gender-based beliefs about reading and publishing appeal (boys don’t read girly genres/topics; boys need a male lead character; most kids & YA fiction is written by women). But of course, we also perpetuate these beliefs by accepting them as inherently right, and that’s pretty much the problem with most of these gender issues. The way people treat one another, the choices we make, all stem from our basic beliefs, which include beliefs about gender.

I sometimes feel that it was easier to be a young feminist in the late 80s and early 90s than it is for girls now. We seem no longer to have a culture in which the likes of the Savile case can easily exist, yet it is harder to argue for women’s rights now, and I’m sure it’s harder for girls to consider themselves feminist. They can recognise past injustices, but rarely realise for themselves how imbalanced our society and culture still is. I don’t know how many times I’ve presented evidence to classes relating to the representation of women in the media, or cultural norms and expectations revealing themselves through texts, only to be greeted with “well, yeah, but no-one means it like that, do they?” or “okay, but I don’t really read into things that much”. It’s particularly heartbreaking coming from bright young women. A great antidote to this is the everyday sexism project, which publishes women’s experiences with misogyny and gender-based abuse and harrassment. It seems we’re back in the early days of feminism’s second wave, with good old-fashioned consciousness-raising. *sigh*