Let’s Talk: The Challenges of Reviewing Diverse YA Books

When I first considered discussing this topic, I wondered whether it would be possible to do so, as a white, straight, cis, able, and mentally healthy woman, without sounding like an insensitive and privileged ass. Then again, the point of book blogging is to discuss opinions on book related topics and if we’re afraid to do that, then why blog in the first place? So, I’m going to give it my best shot. Diversity in YA books and how to appropriately review diverse reads is something I’ve thought about a great deal over the past year or so. While there is still a very long way to go, I honestly believe that in recent years there have been great strides made with regards to putting different ethnicities, cultures, sexualities, mental health conditions, and disabilities at the forefront of YA stories and representing them well. Yet, this progress also presents certain difficulties with regards to reviewing.

When an author takes the time to properly showcase the stories of people in a minority or stigmatised group or, better yet, writes an ‘own voices’ novel representing elements of their own experiences, it’s a pretty amazing thing. These kinds of stories deserve to be told and should be encouraged.

But.

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What happens when a novel wonderfully incorporates diversity, but fails to appeal in terms of plot, characters, setting or writing style? These books pose a significant challenge to reviewers. Critique the book heavily and you risk damaging public opinion/book sales, meaning a publisher may pull back on releasing these kinds of stories in the future. Downplay your doubts to focus on praising the book simply for being diverse, and suddenly you’re not being honest. I’ve found myself in this position numerous times since I began blogging and bookstagramming. I want to be able to read books about, and written by, people with different experiences, characteristics, and obstacles. Without them, fiction would be extremely boring. At the same time, I don’t want to boost an author’s work purely because it’s diverse.

In the past, my approach towards reviewing diverse reads has generally been, where possible, to treat the diversity elements and the quality of that representation separately from other major areas e.g. enjoyment of plot, development of characters, etc. Where the book succeeds on all fronts, reviewing is easy. Problems arise where the diverse components are good, but the book fails to satisfy on the other big elements. Having organic, realistic, and well-handled representation is considered a major positive in deciding my overall rating of a book, but at the same time, it’s only one part of the overall picture. Consequently, even wonderfully diverse reads can still end up with an average or not so great final rating.

Looking at book reviews on star ratings alone, this approach could be considered extremely damaging to efforts to expand YA diversity. For this reason, I believe it is extremely important that, as reviewers, we consistently make an effort to discuss diversity/representation in our reviews (where relevant), and to praise elements of good representation even if the review itself is largely negative. In doing so though, we do have to trust that readers will take the time to look at our reviews beyond just the hard number score. At least this way we ensure we remain honest yet still show support for a growing and diversified YA genre.

A few examples of books which have created this challenge for me over the last few years include:

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  • Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeymi: How often do we see West-African inspired YA fantasy books? Not very often, and aside from some confusion over the magic system, I loved the setting/world building in this book. My final rating was a solid 3.5 stars – not bad, but not the glowing highs of the hype train. In the end, this was due to my issues with irrational character behaviour, stretches of boring plot, and unnecessary/forced romance.
  • Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan: GoP&F is a YA fantasy set in a Malaysian inspired world. It features Asian leads and involves a lesbian romance. On that basis alone it ticks great diversity boxes, and yet, my final rating was 2.5 stars. I liked the premise of this book and so badly wanted to rejoice in something that put strong, Asian, lesbian women at the centre of a story. However, from an enjoyment perspective, I couldn’t get past my issues with the worldbuilding, pacing, and inability to connect with the characters.
  • Queens of Geek – Jen Wilde: QoG is a sweet and fluffy YA contemporary. It features a bisexual lead, a plus-sized lead with Asperger’s and anxiety, and a bunch of side characters who are racially diverse and suffer from disabilities. This is a book that screams diversity. Yet, there’s also minimal plot and very simplistic writing, which rendered it only a 3-star read for me.
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Being unable to give these kinds of books glowing reviews is extremely difficult because I genuinely want authors and stories like these to succeed. In many cases, this pressure has even discouraged me from wanting to write a review altogether, especially where the diverse elements are inextricably linked to the major components of the story e.g. American Panda by Gloria Chao. Stories like these make me wonder whether, as someone who does not write reviews for every book they read, I should perhaps direct my attention to reviewing only those diverse reads that I genuinely really enjoy. Then again, an approach like this seems to involve its own problems and depending on what I choose to read could result in reviews of little to no diverse books on my blog.

On the flip side of this is the equally challenging situation of how to a review a book which does well on the enjoyment scale yet fails when it comes to realistic and good quality representation. Are we allowed to like and praise a book even though it handles the treatment of certain groups and experiences badly? While I may have said that good representation is not the ultimate determiner of a review rating, for most reviewers the reverse does not seem to hold true. Fail in your attempts at good representation and half the book reviewing community will roast you alive while the other half grab marshmallows. It’s situations like this in which I’m likely to avoid writing a review and to spend agonising time selecting a star rating on Goodreads. However, in saying this, my biggest worry is not that I’ll like a book that does certain groups a disservice, but that I’ll review it positively without even knowing or picking up on just how bad the representation is.

Despite my ability to sympathise with fictional characters, I do not have detailed knowledge of what life is like for every group out there. I have never experienced depression, I am not from an immigrant family, no one I know has experienced police profiling or brutality, and I have never had to deal with sexuality-based stigma. There are a multitude of things that I have no way of knowing anything about until I (a) meet someone who has first-hand knowledge of these things or (b) I read about them. Being able to pick out the realistic from the skewed is a challenge with diverse reads and makes it difficult as a reviewer to ensure we’re writing an informed review. This then begs the question, am I even qualified to write these kinds of reviews?

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Earlier this week I finished reading All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This is a book that deals with suicide, depression, PTSD, survivor’s guilt, bipolar disorder, and bullying. At several points during the novel I found myself questioning the realism of how some of these issues were represented. And as usual, when in doubt, I went to Goodreads. Scrolling through the book’s page, I found that there are some people who relate heavily to MC Finch and his experiences with mental health while others who have also experienced depression and attempted suicide take great issue with how these are depicted. This leaves me with more questions than ever – if even those with first-hand experience cannot decide if the representation is good or bad, how in the world am I to know? The only solution I can see to this is to do my own research and determine whether what I’ve read represents the experiences and reality for at least a small component of the chosen represented group, even if it may not represent the majority.

At this point, I’m not entirely sure what the correct way forward is. Perhaps it’s more of a case by case type of issue. In the end, I suppose all we can do is review the books in front of us as honestly and constructively as we can with a sense of self-awareness. We also need to continue to demand better representation of minorities in the things we read and hope that writers continue to put these stories out there and that publishers will help them reach us.

Let’s Talk: What are your thoughts on the difficulties associated with reviewing diverse books? Do you have any similar experiences and if so, how do you deal with them?

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Let’s Talk: Bookish Pet-Peeves

For something a little fun, or stressful depending on how you look at it, today I’m looking at things related to books that drive me nuts. Things that make me want to scream in frustration or just sit down and cry. All the normal stuff and…the somewhat er, crazy stuff. This post will be focusing on external things rather internal things like characters, plot, etc. Warning, this post will be full of rage, caps, sound effects and, just because I can, Gilmore Girls Gifs.

Different Book Sizes or Cover Designs in a Series

Now, I know I’m not alone on this one. I’m one of those people that likes to shelve books from the same author and series next to each other. I also happen to like my bookshelves to be visually pleasing and usually that means separating things out based on size too, if I can. But HOW am I supposed to do THAT when publishers decide mid series to randomly change the size or design of the next book from what’s come before? Gosh, I can’t even describe the nightmare that is my copies of The Ember Quartet – one big, one small and then one with a completely new cover design. Please, for all the bookcase neat freaks out there, do us this service and just keep the damn thing consistent. I’m legit afraid by the time I start reading The Dark Artifices that copies of Lord of Shadows in matching height to my Lady Midnight will have disappeared off the face of the Earth. The struggle is real.

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Borrowers Who Don’t Return Books For Ages

Why you gotta do this to a girl? I have lovingly given you the fruit of my bookcase, my baby (let’s face it, they’re all my babies) and this is how you repay me? Also, let me just say, it’s guaranteed that the minute you borrow that book and start reading it, I’ll remember how awesome it is and want to do a reread. But oh wait, I CAN’T. The whole point of this lending thing is that we can talk about it after you read it. So, hurry up!

Cracked Spines

I think a little bit of my soul shrivels up and dies each time I feel a beautiful spine crack down the middle as I’m reading. Or even worse, when it cracks multiple times. *cries*. I don’t know what it is, some spines are built to last being run over by a truck while others fail at the slightest pull back of the cover (I barely touched it, I swear!). It just looks so awful and worse still, that’s the part which faces out of the bookcase for everyone to see. Argggggg.

Cant Look Season 3 GIF by Gilmore Girls

Folded Corners, Not Bookmarks

Need I say more? There’s a special place for people who fold down book pages to mark their spot. If you’re one of these people, STOP. Every time you fold a page, a cuddly animal dies. I swear. You’re also breaking my heart. Bookmarks are gloriously pretty. Buy one. Pleaseeeeeeee.

Stickers That Leave Residue

I feel the rage building. God I hate it when I buy a book and the store has stuck a big price or promotional sticker across the cover which is virtually impossible to get off cleanly. I’m still working on finding the perfect way to get rid of the icky residue that never seems to budge no matter how hard you scratch or rub. My poor copy of Fangirl has suffered many attempts to no end.

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Printed Stickers

What’s worse than stickers that don’t remove cleanly? Stickers that don’t remove at all! There’s nothing like that moment when you go to remove a sticker only to realise, NO, it’s been printed on the cover. Like, why for the love of all that’s good and holy do publishers do this? Did I really need a permanent sticker to tell me that To Kill a Kingdom would be great if I love Leigh Bardugo or Sarah J Maas. Hell No. Did I need a printed sticker to tell me that Slayer is set in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it’s already in text on the cover? OF COURSE NOT. *shrieks unintelligibly*

Delayed Release Dates

Okay, the logical part of my brain knows there’s usually a good reason for this but the crazy fan part of my brain doesn’t listen to that part when this happens. Picture this, you’ve been desperately waiting ages for an author to release the next book in one of your absolute favourite series. There’s only a few more months to go, you’ve almost made it, the end is in sight…until, the announcement. It’s been postponed and not just a couple of weeks. Cue massive tantrum and depressive spiral. The things we booklovers suffer through…

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Interruptions During Great/Long Awaited Book Scenes

Okay, look, I love you and all, but can you not see that I am reading and do not want to have a conversation right now? *person starts talking* Well…clearly not. There are few bookish pains worse than getting to a moment in your novel you’ve been really looking forward to or where things are happening big time only for someone to come along and interrupt you. Way to break the flow, buddy. Back away slowly before I attack you.

Movie Poster Cover Take Overs

Have you ever noticed that right around the time an adaptation comes out, suddenly the only covers you can find for a book in store are the poster versions? What if I don’t want your movie cover cover? HUH?! What if the adaptation is garbage and I’m stuck remembering that every time I pick it up? WHAT THEN? Noooooo, thank you. But then again, I think I’m also just one of those weird purists who really wants the book cover for the book. You have no idea how long it took me to see a copy of The Help without the film cover after the adaptation was released, and that’s actually a movie I really love! Life’s hard being a cover snob, I tell ya.

Annoyed Rory Gilmore GIF by Gilmore Girls

Ugly Book Covers

So, you had the chance to do something beautifully eye catching that (a) people would irresistibly pick up at the bookstore, (b) want to take photos of and (c) would not be embarrassed to be seen reading on public transport. Instead…this is what we’ve ended up with. I hate it when great books are stuck with ridiculously ugly covers. Half the time it looks like pure laziness and the other half, I have to sit there and wonder how the hell multiple people at a publisher ever thought that that looked good. Now I’m stuck carting around this atrocity to the eye.

*Takes calming breathes* Okay, I think that’s enough bookish raging for the moment. Any more and I’ll do a Veruca Salt down the bad egg chute. It won’t be pretty.

Let’s Talk! What bookish related things drive you absolutely crazy?

Book Eye Candy: Covers that have Recently Caught My Eye

As I’ve mentioned many times before, we all judge books by their covers. It’s inevitable. It’s the reason bookstagram is as popular as it is. Sometimes you get some dodgy ones, and other times you get absolutely gorgeous, eye catching ones. If you missed my post from last year about what I look for in a good book cover, you can find it here.

Below are a few new favourites of mine that I’ve come across over the last several months. Of course, this is merely a judgment on covers, not the stories inside them. I hope they brighten up your week.

Have you seen any great book covers recently? I’d love to hear about them!

Let’s Talk: What’s so Good about Fanfiction?

fan fiction definition

Image result for fangirl rainbow rowellAs you may or may not have been aware of from either Goodreads or a sneaky glance at my blog home page, I recently (finally) got my butt into gear and read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. For those like me that are still massively behind on the YA contemporary trends, Fangirl’s central character, Cath, is a very popular fanfiction writer. She has thousands of readers and has even won awards for her stories. Basically, Cath lives and breathes fanfic. Her fandom of choice is a Rowell created series about a teen named Simon Snow which has some big similarities to something that rhymes with Gary Trotter. Just as you’d expect, reading this book got me thinking about fanfiction.

These days I feel like fanfiction gets a bit of a bad rap from the reading and broader community. People don’t seem to understand it and have a tendency to brush it off as being simplistic, weird, trashy, obsessive, even creepy. I’m in no way naïve enough to not be aware of the…darker and dodgier areas of the fanfiction webverse (come on, it is the internet), but at the same time, I also believe people discount the value of fanfic and the amount of work that goes into it. I’ll even willingly admit that during NaNoWriMo, I caught myself making a face at the idea that some people were spending their challenge working on fanfiction rather than original work (which is stupid considering I used to write it myself in my teen years – Twilight fics *shivers* dark days, guys, very dark days). Yet, now that I’ve sat down and thought about it (as well as chastised myself for being an idiot), while it may have it’s issues, fanfiction actually holds a lot of really great benefits.

Express Fandom Love & Meet Likeminded People

Pick any book, television show or movie in the world and I guarantee you that somewhere out there is a devoted group of fans who absolutely worship it beyond imagination. And the thing about fans is, once they get a taste of something, they just can’t get enough. Fanfiction is a fantastic way for people to not only constructively express their love of a particular fandom (okay, sometimes constructively), but also help them to connect with like-minded people. For the commonly found introvert (much like Cath in Fangirl), this is a good opportunity for socialisation and the ability to bond over a common interest. For people who have trouble socialising or difficulty finding others in the real world who share their interests, it’s a fantastic solution.

Writing Training Wheels

Writing is hard. Like, seriously hard. Plotting without epic holes, creating layered and interesting characters, world building that makes sense, and then there’s writing style (or in my case, trying to avoid saying ‘he said’, ‘she said’ fifty million times in one conversation. I panic, okay!). Fanfiction can be a great way for newbie writers to develop their skills. By already having a deep understanding of the characters, setting and rules, fanfic writers are able to focus on plot and the actual writing itself. I look back on my fanfiction entries from a decade ago (the horror) and can definitely see a big improvement in the way I write as I go along. It’s like writing with a support system in place until that person decides to try their hand at something original. They have the freedom to experiment and try new things in a safe space. The fact that people are then able to comment on their posts can also be a good way (well, not always) for those writers to get a sense of what they’re doing well and where they could improve.

Enjoyment & Entertainment

I don’t think it’s wrong to say that there are many people out there who enjoy certain fanfictions just as much, or perhaps even more, than some published books. Some fics build up enormous followings of people, thousands and thousands, who sit around excitedly waiting for a new chapter update and drop everything upon publication. In some instances this popularity factor is so big that it even drives fics toward publication as their own works, complete with a full set of name changes. I mean, just look at (I can’t believe I’m actually using this as an example) Fifty Shades of Grey. If you want to understand the power of people’s love for fanfiction, look no further than the money making force that is that trilogy. Sure, there are large percentages of fanfic that fall into the “trashy” category but hey, if it’s not damaging people with toxic ideas, what’s the harm in bringing people a bit of fun and enjoyment?

Continuations, Gap Filling & Spin Offs

One of the really fun parts of fanfiction is its ability to build on and expand canon stories in interesting ways. I can’t even count how many times I’ve come across a loose end I needed explained or a character that I wish I could have gotten to know better. Perhaps a sequence of events was mentioned during the narrative that would be cool to read about more directly or maybe the world has such a rich history ala A Song of Ice and Fire that’s it’s just bursting with stories? Well, fanfiction is the answer. There is a wealth of fics for every whim, interest, history, plot gap, romance, and side character. Fanfics can also be a great way to continue on with a beloved series or story even after it’s finished. While the published books may be over, the characters and their adventures can continue on through the writing of others.

Niches & Representation

I think it’s an understatement to say that there are some severe representation issues within mainstream books. We’ve made some great steps forward recently but there’s still a long way to go. A great characteristic of fanfiction is it’s diversity and inclusivity. No matter your interest, there’s fanfiction out there somwhere to float your particular boat (even if it happens to be…Drarry). Unlike published stories, online fanfiction isn’t bound by the rules of what publishers believe is “mainstream”/popular or will sell. Fanfiction can be written by absolutely anyone and its writers have the amazing freedom to take existing narratives & characters, and rework them to place a spotlight on the more marginalised and minority based groups. By giving these types of characters starring roles and more prominent stories within an already popular setting, they help those who enjoy, but often have difficulty seeing themselves in, the original works to find common ground and relatability.  Divider 3

Let’s Talk!

Are you someone who enjoys reading fan fiction? If so, from what kinds of fandoms? What’s your favourite website? Do you have a favourite fic?

Are you a fan fiction writer? If so, what about it appeals to you? What are your favourite types of fics to write?

Let’s Talk: Aussie Book Blogger & Bookstagrammer Woes

Let’s be honest, the literary world does have a tendency to revolve around the US and UK. Big name authors are often from there, the large international publishing houses are located there, and things are released first there. I live in a little, island country known as Australia (you may have heard of it? I really hope sarcasm translates in written form) which happens to be positioned in the middle of absolute nowhere and, coincidentally, is located nowhere near either of these countries. For this reason, being a self-proclaimed book worm who likes to spend what little free time they have blogging about and taking photos of books comes with its own challenges and woes.

Let me just say in advance, this list is largely in fun and is me simply whining for the sake of whining about a lot of very trivial things. Enjoy my pettiness.

Later Release Dates

FOMO is the root of all evil and it rears its ugly head with this one. There’s nothing worse than finding out about an amazing book that everyone overseas is already loving only to realise you’ve got to wait another few weeks or even MONTHS (*rages*) to find the damn thing in Australia.

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In the meantime, you simply have to watch as others write about it, photograph it, and just generally dangle it in your internet face like a donkey with a carrot. Worse still, by the time you do get your hands on it, ready to write a review, the hype wave has already come and gone which is a major bummer. Sure, online shipping can be saving grace in some circumstances but there are exceptions, however, even then, sometimes you just really want it NOW.  I cannot even explain how annoying it was waiting months for both Scythe and, its sequel, Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman to finally show up on shelves.

Shipping Fees

As I’ve mentioned before, Australia = Narnia, or at least it might as well be because the damn SHIPPING RATES ARE THE SAME. This creates a number of woes.

Merch and Subscription Boxes

As much as I’d like to imagine so, money does not grow on trees. While I may want to get my hands on an amazeballs looking Victoria Schwab themed box which I can then unbox in all its glory on both my blog and insta, there’s simply no justifying buying a product where the shipping is the same or more than the actual box. Me upon seeing other people’s photos/posts about unboxing:

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I mean, yes, it is due in part to the weight of these boxes but then again, I’ve also wanted to buy $5 book marks from certain websites and almost choked upon seeing the $25 shipping fee. Damn you Australiaaaaaaaaa!!!!!

Competition Exclusions

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If there’s one thing being a university student taught me, it’s that there ain’t nothing better than free stuff. Mostly food but this defs applies to books too. Bloggers and bookstagrammers love a good giveaway (*cough* sneaky ploys to get more followers *cough*). The only problem is, because shipping can be super expensive, sometimes they have to limit their entries to the US or Europe only. I understand but, boy, does it break my little Australian book loving heart. We want free stuff too!

Repping

Because of the high shipping rates, some stores just aren’t open to/can’t afford having international reps for their products. This can be a bit disappointing, especially when it’s a brand you really love but it’s just something you have to accept.

Physical ARCs

Publishing in Australia is usually heavily linked to publishing in the UK. As you know, the two are nowhere near each other and for this reason publishers can often be a little reluctant to send out physical ARC copies of books to Aussie reviewers unless they’re extremely popular and likely to reach a big audience. Don’t get me wrong, even just getting an e-copy ARC is fantastic but having something physical that you can photograph to boost promotion of the book and accompany your review is a nice bonus. Plus, the formatting on these e-copies isn’t always the smoothest.

Scheduling Posts for Different Time Zones

The bane of my blogging/bookstagramming existence. Australia happens to be positioned in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a magical place that exists in the future from many countries up north. Day is night and night is day. In other words, trying to time your posts so that people in other parts of the world aren’t (a) sleeping (b) working/at school or (c) out socialising (ha, kidding! Book worms don’t actually socialise) can be a mind-boggling equation.

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There’s nothing more facepalm worthy than writing an amazing post or taking a fab photo that you’re super proud of only to post it and find out that, oh dear, it’s the wee hours of the morning overseas. *sigh* You’ve also got to consider the whole weekends vs weekdays thing. It may be Saturday morning in Aus, where everyone is chilling out and free from obligations, but overseas, it’s Friday night and people are out… well, doing whatever it is they do on a Friday night (I don’t know these things, Netflix is my bestie). The struggle is real, friends.

Expensive Hardbacks

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Hardbacks are pretty, okay. They’re have nice shiny jackets, embossed fronts, and they don’t seem to get as damaged in my handbag on the way to work as paperbacks. BUT, can I find things in hardback in Australia that don’t cost a kidney and my first born child? Um, nope. Fun fact: I recently saw the new Jodi Picoult book in hardback at the bookstore for, wait for it…$50. FIFTY. FOR ONE, THIN BOOK! What if you end up hating it? Then what? You’ve spent $50 on a book you don’t even like and it’s not even heavy enough to be considered a fancy paperweight. I get massively jealous of the US here – their hardbacks are the price of paperbacks and their paperbacks are the price of a McDonald’s meal. Now that is goals.

The main drawbacks with this are that hardbacks look super nice in Instagram photos – jackets on, jackets off, stacked in artful little columns, etc. and more importantly, some books aren’t originally released in paperback (e.g. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue) meaning we have to wait until they are to get our little hands on them (see point one above). No fair.

Less Author Events/Signings

It’s not only shipping that’s expensive and time consuming to Australia, but also flights. We’re a looooooong way away and for this reason we do tend to get far less author visits, events and signings. You may only see your favourite author once every few years at best and in some cases, if they’re not a massively popular one, not at all!

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This is nothing new and, again, perfectly understandable but let’s just say, we Aussies are very envious of your huge book conventions and tours, especially when you post photos of your amazing meet and greets (one day I’ll make it to book con, one day!!). This also unfortunately limits the opportunities for author based content on blogs such as a post I did a while back from the Obsidio launch (woo, Aussie authors).

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What are your biggest book blogging/bookstagrammer woes?

Let’s Talk: About Sex, Baby…in YA Fiction (Part 1)

This is a discussion post that I’ve been wanting to write for some time now but my issue has always been the question of how best to approach it. I’ll be up front, on this one I’m in the camp of include sex in YA. Although, the bigger question is how should it be included? In the end, I’ve decided to break it down into three questions: 1) should sex be included/discussed at all, 2) to what degree should sex be included, and 3) how should sex be represented in YA books? As it turns out, I have a lot to say on this topic so I’ll be publishing this post in two parts.

The Audience of YA

Before we get stuck in, I’d just like to touch on the audience and readership of young adult books. From a publishing standpoint, the YA category is aimed at ages 12-18. When you look at the changes and experiences that happen over the course of these six years, it seems like an enormous and diverse group. Then there’s the fact that these days YA is also extremely popular with adults, myself included. So how do we possibly cater to all these people in one category? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Should Sex be Included/Discussed in YA?

Sex as Taboo

Despite what some people try to claim, sex is not some evil, virtue ruining, disgusting thing. It’s a very normal human experience which can be romantic as well as something fun and empowering. A large chunk of the population is going to have sex at some point in their lives. It’s a simple fact. By failing to include it even slightly in YA fiction I feel as though this gives the impression that sex is something to be hidden or embarrassed about.

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The last thing we want is teens feeling like they shouldn’t or can’t voice sex related questions/issues, or, worse, that they’re the only one going through these experiences. The great thing about books is that they allow us to feel less alone by seeing our own characteristics, flaws, and experiences in characters. Without representation that benefit is lost, which is why it’s so important that teens read about fictional young adults tackling familiar issues (of which sex is a big one).

Sexual Education

Spend a couple of minutes on the internet and you’ll find pretty quickly that there’s a huge problem with regards to sex education. There are a lot of countries, even ones as developed as the US, that do not properly teach their teens about sex and reproduction.

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This makes me ridiculously mad because it’s so, SO important that teens learn early on the importance of having sex at the right time for them, ensuring both parties are consenting, and taking steps to protect against unwanted pregnancy and STDs. Just saying “abstinence” won’t cut it, kids. No, it isn’t fiction’s job to be the only educator on these things but by failing to include topics like this in YA fiction, you’re not only depriving teens of a great source of information during a time when they’re desperately searching for it, but also failing to take advantage of the opportunity to illustrate/discuss positive and negative sexual behaviour.

To Quote Lily Allen, ‘Everyone’s At It’

Let’s be realistic. If you honestly believe that all teens are waiting until age 18 to engage in sexual behaviour or discussion, gather round because I have a bridge to sell you. Sure, studies show that the average age young people lose their virginity in most countries is 17+ but unless I’m remembering school wrong, you can bet that the ones who aren’t having sex are likely already (a) doing some form of hot and heavy activity OR (b) talking about it with their friends, even at really young ages. The truth of the matter is, a lot of teens are far more mature than adults like to give them credit for and by cutting sex and sexual discussion out of the fiction they read, you’re failing to include a very large part of the teen experience and conversation. It’s difficult for readers to relate to the books they’re reading if they’re so sanitised they resemble an early 2000s Disney sitcom more than real life.

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I should preface the next part of this discussion by mentioning that in this post I am not advocating for throwing sex in for the sake of just having sex in YA novels. I am saying that, where it suits the narrative, setting and characters, sex should not be shied away from and be included organically. If the story the author is telling has nothing to do with sexual themes, then don’t add them in for the sake of it. 

To What Degree?

Putting sexual discussion aside for the moment to focus purely on actual sexual scenes, from what I can tell there seems to be three ways to approach this:

  • Fade to black
  • Sex with an internal character focus
  • Heavily descriptive sex

Fade to Black

It’s safe to say we’ve all come across this approach. I have no problem with the good, old fade to black provided the author does two things (a) treats the build up to the fade out properly and (b) addresses the impact of what we missed.

The Oc Couple In Bed GIF

I recently found a great example of this in Adam Silvera’s History is All You Left Me. There’s one scene a fair way through which continues long enough to establish consent, protection, and intimacy before fading out and then picking up again to deal with the emotional fallout and narrative purpose of that interaction. Fade outs can be a great way of instigating sexual discussions and dealing with associated issues without being too graphic for younger readers who aren’t at the maturity level for fully descriptive content.

Sex with Internal Character Focus

This is an approach I’m also very on board with. When sex scenes are written like this, as a reader, I very clearly understand what the author is trying to achieve because there’s nowhere to hide. It may be a crucial plot point, a character defining moment, or even an evolution of two characters’ relationship e.g. Rose and Dimitri in Richelle Mead’s Shadow Kiss. While we do get some details on the physical side, they tend to be limited as the focus is on what the character/s are feeling and thinking. For example, in Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun we get to experience Jude’s first time from her perspective. It’s not a comfortable experience in the slightest and she regrets the encounter almost as soon as it begins but feels as though she can’t bring herself to stop it. It’s a very well written scene – emotionally mature but more focused on Jude’s mental state than the physicality of what’s happening. More importantly, it successfully discusses important sexual themes such as consent whilst giving us character development.

Heavily Descriptive Sex

Now this is where it gets complicated. To demonstrate, both Looking for Alaska by John Green and A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J Maas feature sexually explicit scenes at some point during their narratives. Each is marketed as YA, but are they in any way similar? That’d be a no.

Generally, when it comes to this approach, I’d say it’s not something I consider appropriate in YA books and should be left to adult or new adult fiction. In fact, I’m a little shocked when I come across scenes like this in something marketed as YA as they just seem extremely out of place. However, I think my main problem here stems from the fact that so many of these scenes are written unrealistically as being all fantasy (something I’ll discuss in part two).

While I’m sure a lot of the people who read YA nowadays are more than able to handle explicit scenes, and may even enjoy it, there does have to be limits in place for this category of fiction, otherwise why separate it from adult fiction at all? This is to ensure that those who aren’t comfortable with such explicit content, or their parents, don’t have to constantly worry about whether such a scene may potentially come up at any given moment.

With regards to sexual discussion, I feel I’m on the same page.  Do I need a conversaton between two characters involving a play by play of one character’s sexual exploits?

tv land omg GIF by YoungerTV

Ah, nope.

However, characters discussing things such as their worries about their first time or whether they’re ready to take things further with their partner, that’s 100% a-okay.

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Just a reminder, everything in this post is my personal opinion and I am very much aware that a lot of other people feel very differently with regards to this topic. And that is completly fine!

Let me know your thoughts, do you believe sex should be depicted and/or discussed in YA novels? And if so, how detailed do you think it should be?

For more discussion on how sex should be represented in YA novels and the representation issues commonly found in today’s novels, be sure to check out part 2.

Let’s Talk: Picking Books to Review

As book bloggers, one of the biggest components of what we do is writing reviews. However, also being book lovers, we tend to read a substantial number of books every year. Writing lengthy reviews for each and every one just isn’t possible (especially when you’re as slow as I am) – we’d go grey before we even made a dent. So how is it that we pick which books we want to spend several hours discussing with our computer screen?

It’s Absolutely Fantastic (Five Star that Baby)

There’s nothing like finishing a ridiculously amazing book to send you running for your keyboard. When a book has completely rocked your world, the first thing you want to do is tell the world about it (well, after jumping up and down, and searching the internet for fan art, of course). You want everybody else to see just how much of a gem this book is so that they can enjoy it, too.

You’d think these reviews would be easy to write but sometimes they end up being even harder than those for books you don’t like. I find that this is usually because, while I know I enjoyed the hell out of a book, the struggle is breaking down the exact reasons why. Why did I fall so completely in love with the MC, what was it about the plot that shocked me so much, why is this couple my new OTP? Still, these are definitely the most heavily featured types of reviews on my blog because they’re just so much fun to write.

You Hated It (1 Star that Sucker)

In much the same way as an overly positive reaction can push you to write a review, so too can a particularly strong negative reaction. Anger, disgust, frustration, disappointment – these are motivators behind many reviews, especially where the book is something you were led by others to believe was great. I find that I rarely run out of things to say with these types of reviews but the problem is ensuring you don’t cross the line from constructive to cruel. Critiques are a natural part of any art form but we need to be mindful that we’re criticising the work, not the person.

It’s an ARC

Yes, yes, I know this is an obvious one and pretty self-explanatory. The majority of the time when you have an ARC, you’ve been given it by the publisher for the express purpose of writing a review. Therefore, these books are almost guaranteed review picks. If it’s a book people are looking forward to, you’d be silly not to use the opportunity to get extra traffic to your blog. People want to know about this book and you get to read it before everyone else! Use it!

It’s Hyped/Popular

I can’t be the only one who sometimes chooses books to review on this basis (can I?). This reason only really applies, for me, to books that have just come out. If I’m reviewing a popular book that’s a little older, it’s probably for reasons 1 or 2 above. However, if the book is a new release and people have been waiting around for it, much like with an ARC, I’ll review it because I know it’s what people are interested in. Not everyone reads hyped books right on release, some people wait a few months. At least this way people know whether to bump it further up their TBR or perhaps let it linger on the bottom for longer.

Good but Flying Under the Radar

I have to say, I don’t read a lot of not so well known books and that’s a weakness of mine. There’s just so many popular ones that I constantly feel like I’m catching up! However, when I do read something that’s not as well-known and actually a pretty solid read, I’ll usually write a review.

There are so many big name books out there which have ended up being mediocre that I feel it’s important to get the word out when you find something good (or even great) flying under the radar. Give a less known author/book the credit they’re due, you may just help someone find a new favourite read.

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I’m sure there are book bloggers and reviewers out there with very different motivations behind their review picks. I mean, for all I know, there are some crazy superheroes out there that manage to write legible and amazing reviews for most of the things they read (HOW?? I spend like five hours on just one damn review). Still, this is at least an accurate summary of mine and I feel like they’re pretty reasonable. Recently I’ve been trying to increase my reviewing frequency so perhaps new motivations will arise as time goes on.

Why do you review the specific books you review? And what motivates you to read some else’s review?