Author Archives: Amber J. Keyser

#MeToo and Middle Grade

On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted:

If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.

Her message unleashed a hurricane of tweets and Facebook posts that swept the internet. Women (and some men) shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault under the hashtag #MeToo. Many of us asked each other Is there any women alive who hasn’t experienced these things? Many men were shocked at the ubiquity of the problem.

The #MeToo movement, which as of this writing in late December, continues to shake the foundations of power in American media and politics, began ten years ago with Tarana Burke, director of the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity.

She describes the movement she founded this way:

On one side, it’s a bold declarative statement that “I’m not ashamed” and “I’m not alone.” On the other side, it’s a statement from survivor to survivor that says “I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you or I get it.”

#MeToo has focused attention on what feminist theorists call rape culture: the fabric of beliefs, social norms, media depictions, and institutional structures that both normalize and excuse male sexual aggression and sexual violence. The underlying message of rape culture is that the female body exists primarily for male pleasure and male domination.

So why am I writing about rape culture on a blog dedicated to books for middle grade readers?

This post is a call-to-action for those of us who care about young people.

Rape culture exists on a continuum from cat-calling to pats on the butt to solicitations for sexy pictures to assault and rape. And these behaviors begin early.

Consider these examples:

(a) A boy chases a girl and tries to kiss her during elementary school. The girl complains and is told, “He does that because he likes you.”

(b) A boy snaps a girl’s bra. The girl complains and is told, “Boys will be boys.”

(c) A school’s dress code forbids girls from wearing spaghetti straps or short skirts because this attire distracts boys from their school work.

(d) A boy grabs a girl’s bottom, and she slaps him. Her peers accuse her of being too sensitive and over-reacting. Others call her a b*$%#.

In each of these cases, an act of harassment, upsetting in itself, is coupled with the message that girls should be (a) grateful for the attention, that (b) this behavior is “normal,” that (c) girls are the cause of boys’ misbehavior, and that (d) girls should be silent and accept this treatment.

These examples show how we confound desire and aggression and coercion so profoundly that our young people grow up believing that men are supposed to be sexually aggressive and not “take no for an answer,” while women are supposed to both welcome sexual attention and be blamed if their own boundaries are violated.

According to a study of 1,300 middle school students conducted by Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Florida, 25% of girls had experienced verbal and physical sexual harassment. In a similar study of high schoolers, that percentage rose to 68%.

Is it any wonder that the percentage of women responding to #MeToo is 100%?

For young adults, sexual harassment and sexual violence are linked to depression, eating disorders, problems in school, and problems with friends. In adults, sexual harassment and sexual violence are a huge part of why women continue to be at a disadvantage in the workplace.

If we, as writers, educators, and parents who value young people, want to make a real difference in the lives of girls and young women, we need to educate ourselves about rape culture (book list below) and make a commitment to calling out instances of rape culture as it affects young people.

This means having hard conversations about everything from the lack of consent depicted in story of Sleeping Beauty to the current wave of actors, musicians, and politicians being outed as sexual predators thanks to the #MeToo movement. We need to be talking about these things with all our young people—boys and girls alike—if we are going to deconstruct the toxic effects of rape culture and move toward true gender equity.

Resources for learning about rape culture

Asking for It: The Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2015. In-depth research into present day rape culture.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakaue, Doubleday, 2015. An incisive case study of rape culture on a college campus.

Yes Means Yes by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, Seal Press, 2008. An anthology that deconstructs rape culture and proposes new paradigms for respecting women’s sexual autonomy.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, Haymarket Books, 2015. A collection of essays including one that responds to the #YesAllWomen hashtag and sexual aggression toward women.

Hey, Shorty! by Girls for Gender Equity, Joanne Smith, Meghan Huppuch, and Mandy Van Deven, Feminist Press, 2011. A guide to combating sexual harassment and violence in schools and on the streets.

Slut by Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney, Feminist Press, 2015. A play and guidebook for combating sexism and sexual violence.

P.S. I am currently writing a nonfiction book for tween and teen readers about rape culture, which will be traditionally published in Spring of 2019. More details as soon as I am able to share them. You can follow me on Twitter at @amberjkeyser or sign up for my newsletters at www.amberjkeyser.com if you want to be in the loop.

Writing While White

I am a white author. When I write about social justice online, I use phrases like “fellow white people” or “we white women.” I do this intentionally. And yes, like @helloalegria says in the tweet above, it was weird and uncomfortable at first. But you know what? The more I used language that was precise, the easier it got. Plus I began to have much more productive conversations online about dismantling racism and white supremacy.

What does this have to do with middle grade books?

As a white author who has grown up with white privilege and who has benefited from the racism inherent in most (all?) American institutions, I am accustomed to being the “norm” or the “default.” If I read a book, where a character is described as having brown, curly hair (like for example Hermione Granger), I will mostly likely assume that the character is also white.

Because I am “used to being the default definition of ‘people’” as @helloalegria says, I also need to be aware of how I might perpetuate the white default definition of ‘people’ in my books.

This happens if I make a point of describing the skin tone or ethnicity of characters of color but don’t describe the skin tone or family background of light-skinned characters. Doing this makes anyone who is not white into “the other.” And that, fellow white authors, no matter your intentions, is white supremacy at work.

Martha Brockenbrough is a white author who was very intentional in her approach to writing about race in the novel The Game of Love and Death. I asked her to share with us what she was thinking during the process. Here’s what she said:

In college I learned about “marked” language. This was language that assumed male as the standard, and it’s why we say things like “female lawyer” and “male nurse.” (Nurses are stereotypically female, so “male nurse” even works as a punchline.)

With The Game of Love and Death, I didn’t want to center whiteness, and particularly not in the chapters told from the viewpoint of Flora, who is a Black pilot. Where race is observed, blackness is the default. So race is only seen when it is not Black. 

This is part of the empathy we need to cultivate when we are writers. To authentically inhabit characters and understand how their lives feel given our power structures, which favor white people, men, and white men in particular. 

Language is powerful. We build the world with it in so many ways, and as writers, we have the opportunity to build worlds that change the way readers think. And this is what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make us feel, and as we process those feelings, we develop a point of view on what it means to be alive.

I love what Martha is saying here. We owe it to our readers—all of our readers—to consider the world from their point-of-view, and to do that, we white writers must be willing to consider that our own point-of-view should not be the “norm” or “default” way to the see the world.

*The title of this post — “Writing While White” — is a shout-out to a blog that I highly recommend called “Reading While White.” Definitely check it out!

** After writing this post, I found another excellent post of the same title by Marianne Modica. Click here to read it.

Diversify Your Summer Reading

Here’s a Summer Reading Challenge from your book-loving friends at The Mixed-Up Files:

Diversify Your Reading!

Something about the way the modern world works has a tendency to create silos or echo chambers in which are our tastes, desires, and beliefs reverberate back to us from like-minded sources. Ultimately, that kind of intellectual isolation isn’t good for any of us. Books are one of the best ways to broaden your perspectives, but only if you diversify your reading.

Several readers have written about how their lives were changed by changing the way they read. Instead of sticking to the tried and true genres or authors that they knew and loved, these women actively sought titles outside of their usual selections. Kelly Jensen decided to only read women authors for a year, Sunili Govinnage chose to focus on writers of color, and K. T. Bradford excluded books by cis, white men from her list. Each one was surprised at the shift in her perspective after a year of focused reading.

Gene Luen Yang, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has launched a program with the Children’s Book Council called Reading Without Walls to encourage similarly adventurous reading among kids and teens. You can download an Activity Guide here. Even better, you can play Reading Without Walls BINGO! The BINGO cards are available through the American Bookseller’s Association and at many independent bookstores. I got mine at Roundabout Books in Bend, Oregon!

Here is a list of The ABC Group 2017 Summer Reading Program suggestions to get you started:

  • A book about a character who doesn’t look like you
  • A book about science
  • A book with a differently-abled character
  • A book in verse
  • A book about personal identity
  • A graphic novel
  • A biography about someone who lived long ago
  • A book about a young girl
  • A book about civil rights
  • A book about a young boy
  • A book by someone with a different religion than yours
  • A book about something you know nothing about
  • A book about a character who doesn’t live like you do
  • A book about technology
  • A book about a character like you
  • A book about history
  • A chapter book
  • A book about sports
  • A book written by a woman
  • A book written by a man
  • An award-winning book
  • A book published before you were born
  • A memoir or autobiography
  • A picture book

If you need suggestions for specific titles, We Need Diverse Books has aggregated a wonderful selection of diverse book lists here.

All of us here at The Mixed-Up Files hope that you’ll share youR new favorite books with us!

Happy Diverse Reading Everyone!