Category Archives: lit

“Where lies the strangling fruit”: Books Read in 2014


I’m currently just cracking the spine on The Last Projector, there’s a day left in 2014, and it’s time for the reckoning. And so, as with the past five years, I offer my annual rundown of books I read this year:

Books read in 2014: 157
Comics and graphic novels included in reading total: 26
Books of poetry included in reading total: 3
Books reread included in reading total: 3
Academic & Education related books included in reading total: 18
YA and Junior Fiction books included in reading total: 10
Roleplaying Game-related books (rules, modules, settings … because research): 25

A few thoughts (As usual, here are my posts on books read in 2013201220112010, and 2009):

I don’t think I had more fun reading this year than the solid 1-2-3 punch of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance). There’s heaps of praise for the trilogy and now packaged as a single volume for the holidays, it’s a great way to get lost for a week or two.

I read a handful of music-related books. Some highlights include the slim volume about Dangerous that I previously blogged about, this look at techno-pranksters the KLF, a Q&A for getting lost in the mythos of Will Oldham and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and a book length work about the greatest album/film/musician of all time.

Though this year was pretty light on poetry for me, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen felt like one of the most timely, necessary reads of the year.

While I only picked it up in the past two weeks, Richard McGuire’s Here is the best graphic novel I read. Following the thousands+ history of a single room, generations of families, prehistoric animals, and futuristic guesses are offered in windowed comic panels, like the pop-up windows of ’90s era online browsing. The premise sounds like (and occasionally literally is) watching paint dry on a wall. It’s unlike anything else you’ll read.

The two best academic books I read are accessible and I heartily recommend them for a general readership. danah boyd’s It’s Complicated takes more than a decade of research on the digital lives of youth and makes it clear how young people are communicating, learning, and sharing today; danah’s work here has been foundational in my own research and It’s Complicated offers necessary perspective on a larger conversation about technology, learning, privacy, and socialization. On The Run is an equally-long-in-the-making ethnography about young men trying to avoid the U.S. legal system. It’s a compelling book with vibrant characters, Wire-like escapades, haunting scenes, and the troubling fact that this is all real and experienced daily by urban youth across the country.

I finished Isaacson’s The Innovators earlier this month. It was fun and exactly what I expected. If you can’t remember why Jim Henson is such an amazing and generous innovator in his own right, the biography that came out a few years ago will remind you. The lessons that Henson’s life illustrate have stayed with me throughout the year.


My year of other media consumption was pretty predictable. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and St. Vincent’s self titled record are constantly on rotation. Serial is eating my brain. Boyhood made me cry while watching it on an airplane. I saw Future Islands in concert twice this year and the singer terrified me both times.

I listened to this cover of “Johnny and Mary” more times than is probably healthy:

There is an expanded version of Yo La Tengo’s amazing album (do they make any other kind?) Painful, so this is a good time to encourage you to ring in the new year listening to “Nowhere Near.”

What are your reading plans for 2015?

Another Book Excerpt: Who Gets to Be Gay in YA?

As instructors are pulling together syllabi for the upcoming school year, I wanted to share another excerpt from my recent book Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres. Like the excerpt shared earlier looking at depictions of female sexuality in Divergent and the Daughter of Smoke and Bone, this excerpt challenges assumptions developed over time in YA literature. I hope to post a few more excerpts in the coming months.

Who Gets to Be Gay in YA?

As the slow trickle of LGBTQI* books continues today, the titles most widely available help categorize what YA queer fiction looks like. That is, with so few books available, the ones that do get published create a patchwork picture of who is privileged as represented in queer YA fiction. With several significant exceptions (Alex Sanchez’s [2003] Rainbow Boys comes to mind), LGBTQI characters are often white and socioeconomically privileged. They may not be wealthy but Tiny in Will Grayson, Will Grayson or Holland Jaeger in Keeping You a Secret are anything but financially burdened in their stories.

And so, while I applaud the slowly diversifying representations of sexuality emerging in YA, I would argue that these books also identify who gets to be gay in YA. Likely based on increasing a wide readership, these books are about white and middle or upper-class individuals (reflecting the book buying audience).

In looking at the problematic representation of LGBTQI characters, I am intrigued by the trajectory of David Levithan’s novels. Over the many books that Levithan has authored through 2013, every single text includes LGBTQI characters, often they are at the center of the stories. For instance, Levithan’s (2003) first book, Boy Meets Boy is a warming love story about Paul, an openly gay 11th grader. Boy Meets Boy details Paul’s adventures as he falls in love and reconciles past relationships and friendships in a welcoming high school. It is playful, silly, touching, and campy. More than any other aspect of the book, the biggest pushback my college students that read this book in an adolescents’ literature class have is that the book is too unrealistic in its positive depictions of acceptance. The book plays with expectations of what takes place in high schools (the star quarterback at the school is also a popular cross-dressing homecoming queen named Infinite Darlene). The book plays out as fantasy or idealized and over-the-top visions of inclusion in school spaces.

In the decade that he has been publishing books, Levithan’s stories have become more fluid in their depictions of gender and identity. At the same time, the books’ forms tend to challenge how we read and understand novels. Though these can be seen as two separate stylistic decisions on Levithan’s part, I believe the uprooting of gender and sexuality can be tied to an uprooting of YA book structures as well. In the ten years since Boy Meets Boy was first published, a striking shift in Levithan’s novels becomes apparent. One of his next books, The Realm of Possibility (2006), also focused on gay characters. However, the form was strikingly abstract: a series of poems constructs a collage of narratives of love and growth. The book reads like a chorus of echoing voices speaking across and at each other.

In 2011, Levithan published The Lover’s Dictionary. As its name implies, the book’s short entries are organized alphabetically. They detail a cycle of a relationship: from attraction to love to dispute to separation. The narrative is one that the reader must cobble together. When did certain actions happen? Is this relationship concluded? Flourishing? Stewing in some sort of stasis? Arguments could be made in any direction. For some, this may make this an unfulfilling narrative. There lacks the kind of definitive plot and resolution that readers expect. However, on the other hand, this is also a book that offers powerful, liberating possibilities for readers. There is no set way to read the book. Want to read an entry from the letter R first? Go for it. The story is fluid in ways that makes relationships seem like extendedpossibilities and hiccups. There’s also something else significantly apparent the longer you spend time with The Lover’s Dictionary: there is no set gender in the book’s descriptions and entries.

A heteronormative view of the book could easily assume this is a detailed account of a romance between a male and a female. Readers more familiar with Levithan’s repertoire could likely infer that this is a book detailing a homosexual relationship. However, I do not see the structure of the book as one that was developed in an effort to please various readers. Instead, the book looks like an effort to blur our understanding of gender. The way conceptions of being male and female are created and defined by contemporary society can feel out of step for questioning young and not-so-young people alike. If the ways I enact my gender as a thirty-something male do not fall in-line with how society casts male gender and masculinity, my behaviors and actions are in discord with general social rules. The Lover’s Dictionary, then, is a challenge to these expectations. The universality of the feelings, experiences and emotions within the book establish that it doesn’t matter if a protagonist is male or female. Levithan’s book succeeds because of the structural conceit of veiling the text in a swath of second person pronouns: “you” and “your” replace the gendered labels “he” or “she” and “his” or “hers.” Levithan is able to create an engaging and critically lauded novel with few clues about gender.

The conceit of writing a book where gender is largely absent would seem like a singular experiment. However, Levithan followed up The Lovers Dictionary with a similar attempt: Every Day (2012). The fantastical premise of this novel is something like this: each morning the protagonist of the novel wakes up as someone new. This isn’t just anyone; the age of the person is consistent with the age of the protagonist. However, name, location, gender, and sense of identity are all that of a new person. In essence everyday the main character becomes someone new (while still preserving past memories). The protagonist refers to itself as “A.” Throughout the book, A embodies men, women, straight and queer identities. However, after a central turning point the protagonist finds an innate connection with a female character. And so begins a central question that is at work across Levithan’s books: how do we communicate and fall in love with those around us, regardless of gender and sexuality? These are not simply defining categories in which we are placed in Levithan’s texts, but fluid states we move between. Every Day follows A’s elusive search for this female character. Is this a romantic relationship? A spiritual one? As a female being sought, does this implicate that A’s true nature is a heterosexual one? That is, deep down inside, is A gendered as male? Conversely, is this an LGBTQI text that engenders A with female qualities? Levithan reaches beyond traditional expectations of gender and looks for human-to-human, individual connections.

With the above excerpt following a more sweeping account of LGBTQI representation in YA lit, the emphasis on Levithan looks at the stylistic moves and trajectory of one of the sub-genres most visible authors. Thanks for taking a look. Again, if you’re interested in class visits, guest lectures, or only-somewhat-rambling conversation (digitally or otherwise), please get in touch!


* I note and critique earlier in the chapter that I use the label of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Intersex, as this was the same terminology I would use in my high school classroom.

LRA Research to Practice: Gaming

Today I joined the Literacy Research Association’s Research to Practice webinar focused on gaming. Though it was fun talking to a bunch of other researchers, the highlight was definitely learning from bonafide students/YouTube star “Wild Card Garth.” Check out the webinar below (my comments deliberately focused on the role of critical theory in using games in classroom contexts):


The show notes can be found here.

Presenting at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference

Just a quick note to let you know I will be presenting at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference this Saturday. (Yes, I am missing AERA this year.)

I believe the conference registration is already full. However, if you’re going, here’s a sneak peek of my presentation:

Teen Literature as Empowerment: Learning from Participatory Culture and Critical Literacy

This workshop explores the opportunities and challenges that libraries face in an era of participatory culture. Teen literature is a powerful space for critical learning and this session will look at how to adapt to what new teen literature can teach. Through collaboration, participants will build a framework of participatory learning and culture to help libraries and librarians conceptualize multiple, diverse points of access to meaningful literacy experiences.

I hope to see you there!

Revisiting Divergent and Female Sexuality in YA

Did you watch Divergent this weekend? I’ll admit I think it was a stronger film adaptation than many other YA-related films lately.

In any case, I’d like to point you back to an excerpt from my book that focuses on Divergent and female sexuality originally posted here. The film adaptation readjusts this scene to be more about sexual violence than about the sexuality of a scared, uncertain girl. Being afraid of sexual assault is an entirely warranted fear for young people (particularly women) to feel. The ways this fear was different within the book, however, are more problematic. I am curious how the film version will cast aside past readings as this book becomes more entrenched in its film vision (when you think of Harry Potter do you conjure an image of a young Daniel Radcliffe or a non-Hollywood image of the-boy-who-lived?). Again, check out the excerpt from my book – I plan to share another one soon!

Related, I think the Maze Runner film adaptation looks strong, too. A shame that the two other books (and prequel) absolutely fall apart… (you should probably read my book’s chapter focused on the perils of serialization while you’re at it!).

Oh: YA and the Male Gaze

Earlier in the year my first book, Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature was released. As I mentioned earlier, I will be occasionally posting excerpts from the book on this blog and elsewhere. Below is a two-page section from my chapter focused on gender and sexuality in YA. Take a look and consider requesting the book from your local library or bookstore (I should probably mention that this book is a perfect stocking stuffer for the future educator in your family…)

In Divergent the female protagonist, Tris faces her fears in a simulation as part of the final test to join the Dauntless faction. After facing fears of crows, drowning, and being burned alive, one of Tris’s final fears is best described as a fear of intimacy. More bluntly, Tris is shown as fearful of having sex with her character’s love interest, Tobias. In the drug-induced simulation, Tris must face her fear in order to find acceptance within the sect she is a part of:

He presses his mouth to mine, and my lips part. I thought it would be impossible to forget I was in a simulation. I was wrong; he makes everything else disintegrate.
His fingers find my jacket zipper and pull it down in one slow swipe until the zipper detaches. He tugs the jacket from my shoulders.
Oh, is all I can think as he kisses me again. Oh.
My fear is being with him. I have been wary of affection all my life, but I didn’t
know how deep that wariness went.
But this obstacle doesn’t feel the same as the others. It is a different kind of fear–nervous panic rather than blind terror.
He slides his hands down my arms and then squeezes my hips, his fingers sliding over the skin just above my belt, and I shiver.
I gently push him back and press my hands to my forehead. I have been attacked by crows and men with grotesque faces; I have been set on fire by the boy who almost threw me off a ledge; I have almost drowned–twice–and this is what I can’t cope with? This is the fear I have no solutions for–a boy I like, who wants to … have sex with me? (Roth, 2011, p. 393)

The passage challenges notions of what it means to be in control of one’s feelings and actions. The author tells readers that Tris “wants” to have sex with Tobias but the description is anything but enticing. The male character “presses his mouth,” and “tugs” clothing off, and “slides his hands” across the narrator’s body. For someone who is fearful she must give in to the invasive actions of her love interest. Where is the narrator’s agency here? More importantly, what does this passage suggest about femininity for readers? Is it to not be fearful when a boy one likes engages in similar activity? If this is her fear that she must overcome, should readers too find the willpower to endure such actions?

In similarly problematic depictions of female behavior, Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone takes an otherwise independent and strong-willed protagonist and renders her all but helpless when encountering an attractive, male foe. Early in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Karou encounters an angel named, Akiva. For Karou, his beauty is exuded to the point of distraction. While Karou is fighting Akiva, her internal monologue depicts a woman flawed by her own sexuality; the fact that she finds this angel beautiful drives her actions in ways that are potentially life- threatening:

He stood a mere body’s length away, the point of his sword resting on the ground.
Oh, thought Karou, staring at him. Oh.
Angel indeed.
He stood revealed. The blade of his long sword gleamed white from the incandescence of his wings–vast shimmering wings, their reach so great they swept the walls on either side of the alley, each feather like the wind-tugged lick of a candle flame.
Those eyes.
His gaze was like a lit fuse, scorching the air between them. He was the most beautiful thing Karou had ever seen. Her first thought, incongruous but overpowering, was to memorize him so she could draw him later. (Taylor, 2011, p. 95)

Notice, across both Taylor and Roth’s depictions of sexual attraction as a weakness and fear in female protagonists the use of the italicized “Oh.” As if these women are stupefied and subsequently educated about sexuality through their encounters with men, both texts rely on this word as a means of suggesting the mental circuitry that wires women’s sexual awakenings. To her credit, Taylor crafts her description such that it does not focus on specific physical attributes. Instead, such depictions of beauty are largely left to the imagination of readers. What is problematic here is the constant loop of physical attraction that runs through Karou’s mind.

In addition to Karou’s overwhelming sexuality, Taylor’s text interweaves beauty and emotion for other characters in the text. For example, describing one of the ancillary characters, Taylor makes it clear that part of Liraz’s beauty is specifically related to her being female and “sharklike”. Taylor writes: “Though Hazael was more powerful, Liraz was more frightening, she always had been; perhaps she’d had to be, being female” (Taylor, 2011, p. 253). The construction of this sentence is striking: Taylor appears to deliberately draw connections that are powerful and problematic for young adult readers. It’s not simply that Liraz is frightening and female–this in itself would be worth considering in how it implicates beauty for readers. Instead, Liraz is frightening because “she’d had to be, being female.” Her frightening nature is due to how she is gendered by society. I want to make this use of “gender” as a verb clear: in the society of Daughter of Smoke and Bone Liraz is frightening and society casts her looks and frightfulness as particularly female attributes; they are cast, discursively, as what helps comprise her as a woman. For readers of this text the subtle construction of sentences like this one interweave feminine beauty – something that can be aspired to–as frightening. However, perhaps more importantly, this beauty and fearfulness can be seen as powerful: beautiful women have power and can enact changes in the world around them.

Immediately following the above sentence connecting femininity to frightfulness, Taylor writes, “Her [Liraz’s] pale hair was scraped back in severe plaits, and there was something coolly sharklike about her beauty: a flat, killer apathy” (Taylor, 2011, p. 253). This beauty is expanded to a less beautiful understanding of her appearance: her hair does not flow softly, it is “scraped” and “severe” and her appearance is “sharklike.” The harsh alliteration within this sentence cuts into the reading of the text and makes the description of this female angel something wholly inhuman, frightful and dangerous. Whereas Pudge’s view of Alaska [in Green’s Looking for Alaska] as an unknowable and vastly sexual woman placed control of female identity in the hands and gaze of the male character, Liraz here is a strong and beautiful woman. However, the description here makes her cold, calculating, and dangerous.

These are small microaggressions that female readers endure from one book to another. Instead of claiming that these readings of passages from Roth and Taylor critique too heavily minor, well-intentioned passages, I believe these are damning attributes of the literature we encourage young people to read non-critically. The messages of how females must look and behave that are read again and again in these texts typify identities that sexualize and pacify a female readership.


Thanks for reading! Consider checking out the rest of the book over your winter break!

Teaching Reading and Civic Responsibility

This week I listened to the audiobook of Allegiant, the third in Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. I also read a bunch of Twisty Little Passages a book about interactive fiction. I caught up on the last two issues of Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga. I finished reading the business book The Year Without Pants (despite the goofy title, I think there’s some awesome “stuff” here for educators to consider and it makes me want to consider how to use P2s in classrooms). I am planning on starting A True Novel and The New Jim Crow as I travel to the NCTE Annual Conference next week.

The above paragraph may come as a mean-spirited humblebrag about my use of time and my incredibly-amazing reading habits. However, I offer it to begin a reflection on a discussion we had in my “Teaching Reading” class on Thursday.

Preluding the prompt with a quote from Linda Christensen, I asked my class to respond to the following questions:

How will you decide what texts you should teach in your class? What books are you excited about teaching? What are you dreading? How will you know what your students need?

The discussion that followed turned primarily toward an up-and-coming writer you may have heard about: William Shakespeare. We English educators regularly get into a tizzy around the question: To teach or not to teach? As I told my class, Shakespeare’s words are personally meaningful for me and I know many of my students reinforced a passion for literature as a result of how we interacted with his texts in my classroom. However, the key word in that previous sentence is passion. We can just as easily quelch enthusiasm when we are not very excited about the books we teach in our classrooms.

And so, on my brain today is the question that extends beyond our conversation on Thursday. As was mentioned in the class, most schools are going to require students to read Shakespeare’s works in their English classes. For better or worse, English teachers have to be able to teach texts they may not be passionate about. Whether it be Shakespeare or Cisneros or Hemingway or whatever canonical-ish author you are expected to utilize in classrooms, how do you teach effectively, enthusiastically, passionately to texts you may not personally identify with? On the other hand, you could also refuse to teach that text. Even better, do it… in the name of “social justice, man.” (My friend Other Chris and I joke that every everything can sound sarcastic by adding “man” to the end of it.) By either teaching without passion or by refusing to teach a text you feel negatively toward, do our students miss out? What kinds of lessons about the value of students’ time laboring in classes do we demonstrate when we fumble?

These are the questions I’m left with on this sunny Saturday morning.

Book Announcement: Critical Foundations In Young Adult Literature

I am thrilled to announce the release of my first book, Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres, from Sense Publishers.

Here is the book description:

Young Adult literature, from The Outsiders to Harry Potter, has helped shape the cultural landscape for adolescents perhaps more than any other form of consumable media in the twentieth and twenty-first century. With the rise of mega blockbuster films based on these books in recent years, the young adult genre is being co-opted by curious adult readers and by Hollywood producers. However, while the genre may be getting more readers than ever before, Young Adult literature remains exclusionary and problematic: few titles feature historically marginalized individuals, the books present heteronormative perspectives, and gender stereotypes continue to persist.

Taking a critical approach, Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres offers educators, youth librarians, and students a set of strategies for unpacking, challenging, and transforming the assumptions of some of the genre’s most popular titles. Pushing the genre forward, Antero Garcia builds on his experiences as a former high school teacher to offer strategies for integrating Young Adult literature in a contemporary critical pedagogy through the use of participatory media.

Table of Contents

Preface. Young Adult Literature Comes of Age: The Blurring of Genre
in Popular Entertainment [Written by Paul Thomas]

Introduction. Reading Unease: Just Who, Exactly, Is Young Adult
Literature Made For?

1. Capitalism, Hollywood, and Adult Appropriation of Young
Adult Literature: The Harry Potter Effect

2. More than Mango Street: Race, Multiculturalism and YA

3. Outsiders?: Exclusion and Post-Colonial Theory

4. Gender and Sexuality and YA: Constructions of Identity and Gender

5. Pedagogy of the Demonically Possessed: Critical Pedagogy
and Popular Literature

6. Grassroots YA: Don’t Forget to Be Awesome

Conclusion. YA and the “Emerging Self”: Looking Ahead at the Genre
and Our Classrooms

When I started writing this book a year and a half ago, my goal was to help educators and librarians make sense of the shifting nature of young adult literature. I attempted to take a theoretical approach to this task while also making theory as accessible for readers as possible. My intention was for readers to be able to utilize feminism or critical race theory or post-colonialism as a means of inciting dialogue in classrooms with youth.

I will be sharing excerpts from the book in the future and would love to engage in constructive dialogue with any readers, YA classes, or preservice teacher educators. The book is part of Sense’s Critical Literacy Teaching Series edited by by Paul Thomas and builds on critical theory to illuminate for teachers, librarians, and preservice teacher educators the ways young adult literature is a genre in flux.

Note: The book details and critiques the capitalist history that created the YA genre. Fittingly, I would highly encourage you to buy as many copies of this book as you possibly can (or at least kindly ask your library to order a copy).

Adolescents’ Literature, Fall 2013

This year’s Adolescents’ Literature course is structured differently than in the past. In order to make the class feel a bit smaller and to help highlight a larger breadth of texts, I’ve divided the class into three cohorts of students that will read thematically linked books each week. For instance, next week is “John Green Week” and we’ll read Looking For Alaska, Paper Towns, and The Fault in Our Stars (so that a third of the class gets in a good cry before the semester is too far along). As there is a mix of English education students, creative writing students, and this-class-sounded-fun-so-I-signed-up-and-now-I’m-in-a-class-with-thousands-of-pages-of-required-reading-oh-well students, this approach will help meet the more specific needs of the class. I may regret this as the instructor as I effectively tripled the reading I’ll be doing for the class (any teachers that run book circles probably knows what I’m going through).

As always, I’m encouraging anyone to follow along and join us. If you’re interested in participating in our online conversations, please join this Figment group (things are quiet for now, but we’ll be using the site starting next week). The full reading list is here. And for those that are feeling a little lazy, you can see the entire list of authors below.

  • Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
  • Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Feed, MT Anderson
  • Go Ask Alice, Anonymous(-ish)
  • Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher
  • Year of the Beasts, Cecil Castellucci and Nate Powell
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
  • City of Bones, Cassandra Clare
  • The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier
  • Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
  • For The Win, Cory Doctorow
  • Pirate Cinema, Cory Doctorow
  • Romiette and Julio, Sharon Draper
  • Fat Kid Rules the World, K.L. Going
  • Looking For Alaska, John Green
  • Paper Towns, John Green
  • The Fault In Our Stars, John Green
  • The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton
  • Crank, Ellen Hopkins
  • The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson
  • Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan
  • I Am Number Four, Pittacus Lore
  • Sloppy Firsts, Megan McCafferty
  • Monster, Walter Dean Myer
  • TTYL, Lauren Myracle
  • Wonder, R.J. Palacio
  • Luna, Julie Anne Peters
  • Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell
  • Rainbow Boys, Alex Sanchez
  • Buried Onions, Gary Soto
  • Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor
  • Runaways, Brian K. Vaughan
  • Saga, Brian K. Vaughan
  • Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughan
  • Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
  • Gossip Girl, Cecily von Ziegesar
  • The Pigman, Paul Zindel
  • The Book Thief, Markus, Zusak