Small World?

Recently, Neatorama linked to an online gallery of color (not colorized!) photos taken in the 1930s and 1940s. They’re very rare, obviously, and are part of a Library of Congress collection. I’m intrigued by old photographs and think they have some applicability in my (and Ryan’s) field; I like to use them as illustrations for historical pieces, and for inspiration in creative writing exercises, while Ryan can use them when teaching history to show the everyday life at those times.

I browsed through the gallery, wondering about peoples’ stories, enjoying the cars and clothing, being amused at the pictures taken in Idaho that could have been taken yesterday. (Click on the pics to enlarge, hopefully.)

Road cut into the barren hills which lead into Emmett. Emmett, Idaho, July 1941. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The road to Emmett, ID; 1941. Looks just the same today only with more cars.

One of the pictures caught my eye. I thought it was probably just because the main subject of the photograph was making eye contact with the photographer – that makes for an arresting image. I spent a long time just looking at picture #13, strangely captivated by the two men with visible faces, but thought no more of it.

Couples at square dance. McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940, Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Taken in 1939 or 1940, in McIntosh County, OK

My family recently bought a 1930s-era house, and my mom has been beautifying it with era-appropriate furniture and decorations. Knowing she’d be interested in these pictures, I sent her the link – just the link, no commentary except to say “neat photos.”

Mom replied:

In photo #13, the guy dancing looks enough like my Dad (or maybe its my brother) that its kind of weird. I don’t know if he even still lived in Oklahoma at that time.

The more we look at the picture, the more convinced we are that these two guys may be Mom’s uncles. Not only do they have the coloring, the nose, the ears, the hair… but apparently there’s a family “distinctive forearm” that the main guy also seems to have. I realize now that when I looked at the guy to the left, I was seeing Mom in him.

It’s the right place and the right time. At least one of the brothers ought to have been married, but maybe they couldn’t afford men’s wedding rings at that time (or maybe it wasn’t done… or maybe the work he was doing then didn’t permit it).

I’m thinking about trying to contact the Library of Congress to see if they have any more information about this picture, and to offer a hypothesis. Not that it’s a matter of national importance or anything, but it’s still kind of cool to think that relatives ended up in this small, rare collection of photographs. I’m always flipping through the old photos at antique stores, thinking it would be neat to find someone I knew. Maybe we finally did!

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“Operation: Summer 2010 Classes” Completed.

su10grades

Sometimes you take classes, and they’re just hoops through which you must jump (check out that unnecessarily correct and subsequently awkward grammar!). Other times, you don’t even care what grade you get because you’re actually learning something from the class. These two classes fit into the latter category – I actually found them totally applicable to my teaching and, for the most part, enjoyable!*

* For certain values of “enjoyable,” requiring the loss of 3/4 of your summer to sitting in a controlled-climate room talking about grammar and books.

Of course, I hoped that I would do well, because a silly little part of me is rather proud of my 4.0 graduate GPA, and I didn’t want to lose that. So I’m pretty pleased with the results.

I had this grand plan of finishing up my MA by May 2011, but have since decided to take my foot off the gas. I thought, for one thing, that I was required (for financial aid reasons) to do so, but I’m not – I just can’t take any extra classes. Have to graduate within 30 credits. I also thought that it would be fun if Meredith, Aaron, Ryan, Bryn, and I all graduated at the same time, so we could have one big mega party (and four fewer college graduations to attend). Then I realized that we weren’t all going to hit that mark anyway, for various and very good reasons. I thought I was going to have three preps this year, which I’m not, but even two preps is a lot, and I don’t think I want 6-9 MA credits on top of that. Finally, I’m really hoping to be violently but productively ill for a part of this year, and the type of violently ill I’m aiming for sort of de-prioritizes my continuing education (at least in terms of college courses).

Ryan is still rocking his Masters in Educational Technology, and if things go well will have reason to delay continuing that this fall… PLEASE OH PLEASE. Pray for job offers, everyone.

A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell as Tweet

Sarah Palin says dumb things. (She is certainly not the only one, but she is the one with the best SNL support.) Recently she made the poor decision to say those dumb things on Twitter, defending her right to coin or misuse words by saying that Shakespeare made up all kinds of words.

Despite what Avenue Q may say [that’s a NSFW link], the internet isn’t for porn – it’s for making fun of people who say and do dumb things. Consequently, it wasn’t long at all before the twitterverse spawned #shakespalin and #bardofwasilla, which in turn gave us such gems as:

A plague on both your houses. You know. Congress and the other one. #shakespalin #bardofwasilla

and

It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. You betcha. #shakespalin #bardofwasilla

But the best of them has to be the Romeo and Juliet/Sarah Palin mashup tweet, which I have lovingly illustrated and shared below. Enjoy!

bardofwasilla 

Okay, I actually think the plague on both houses one is the best. But can’t you just hear her saying this one?

Hello, Ladies.

I’ve always more or less been a fan of Old Spice. My dad used it when I was growing up, and it had that nautical feel to it that has always appealed to this figurative sea-captain. Then along came Isaiah Mustafa and his epic-win one-shot commercials, and I was done for. Sign me up for the fan club. (And no, it’s not Mustafa himself – it really is the corniness of the commercial that I love.)

I also enjoyed watching proof that BYU has a sense of humor, even though they outlawed motorized couches.

It was only a matter of time before my aftershave obsession met up with a discussion about Blue Thunder promotional materials and ran smack dab into my frustrated-due-to-lack-of-time creative streak. I sat down at my computer at about 9:45 last night and made myself a funny. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: I’m on a Bronco.

Blue Thunder Old Spice parody poster

Obviously this is an example of the “If you can’t make art, make comedy” school of graphic design. Meredith is working on some real posters that are gorgeous and look like they were made by someone who knew what they were doing – I just couldn’t resist the temptation to be a smart alec.

Old SpiceI used digital turf samples that Ryan worked up for some desktop backgrounds for the top half of the poster. The bottom half is intended to be reminiscent of the classic Old Spice advertisements, only orange instead of red. I could have spent more time creating that burnt-edges look; it’s actually a little more prominent than it seems, but I plopped the photo in the middle and covered up the gradient.

Despite my very best efforts, I couldn’t track down the actual Old Spice typeface. I ultimately decided that browsing through script faces wasn’t nearly as much fun as actually making the poster, so I went with what I think is a fairly close approximation: typefacesAdine Kimberg-Script by David Rakowski, available for free download on dafont.com. I wasn’t as picky about the other typeface (the “SMELL LIKE A MAN, MAN” bit); I just picked a sans-serif with rounded edges (Arial Rounded MT Bold, in this case) and went with it. If I were revising this poster, I might change the text from white to that Old Spice parchment color and add a little texture– not sure.

I got a screenshot of the “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” commercial via GIS and used Quick Mask in Photoshop to pull Isaiah out, along with the edge of the boat, which I thought looked a bit like the railing on the upper deck of the stadium. At this point in the game, Ryan began doing graphic designer yogic breathing to keep himself from telling me that I was doing this the wrong way. If I were to revise, I’d probably let him do the image extraction – he’s better at it, and could probably eliminate the unintended halo effect that I ended up with (although I don’t mind it; I think it adds to the cheese factor that it’s so obviously ‘shopped).

I couldn’t find the right background picture among our thousands of Blue Thunder photographs, so I went to teh intranetz. It wasn’t long at all before I found the perfect photograph, on Jason Haberman’s Flickr stream. Jason is this awesome dude whose blog I accidentally found a couple of years ago. He’s a big Boise State fan and takes some awesome pictures, some of which have been published in a BSU athletics magazine that they printed up last winter. Anyway, not thinking that I’d actually be doing anything with this poster, I blithely stole his picture and used it for my designing playtime. Now that I’m actually showing the results to people, I’ve belatedly asked his permission to use the source image and may be replacing it in the near future – I’m a bad, bad web citizen for not asking first, and I hope he doesn’t get mad. Jason, I’m sorry!

I positioned Mustafa on top of Jason’s photo, but I really wanted to lose the bottle of body wash in his hand. It was easy enough to get rid of the bottle, but harder to find a replacement. I wanted to have him holding a drum or drumsticks, but nothing really fit his posture correctly. In the end, I GISed a trumpet, cut out all the background, and adjusted it to an almost-but-not-quite realistic size and angle. If you look carefully (or not that carefully; it’s really quite appalling) you can see that there’s no hand behind the trumpet. I am nothing if not a lazy Photoshopper!

The frame was made by hand by taking a large GISed pic of wood grain and cutting/sizing strips of said image to the appropriate shapes. There just weren’t any wood frames online that were the right size and aesthetic.

So there you have it. We can play a game of “how many copyright/netiquette rules did I violate” but it’s all just for giggles. If anyone’s mad, I’ll fix it.

A Meme for Me

Pilfered from Mrs. Chili, because I haven’t blogged in a while but don’t know what to write about.

1. What is your favorite color?
My automatic answer is green. In all truthfulness, I just love color. Saturated orangey-reds resonate with me. My favorite color to wear is a shade of light greenish blue overcast with gray. I don’t know what it’s called, but I know it when I see it.

2. Have you ever slapped someone?
Like, in the face? I’ve imagined doing it once or twice, but haven’t ever actually done so. I’ve been known to playfully smack a friend (or husband) on the arm or leg, but ever since I did that to my best friend in seventh grade and got slugged for it, I try to refrain.

3. Is your hair curly?
Yes. I often have people ask me what I do to my hair, and the answer is that I wash it, clip up the front, and let it air-dry. Voila, curls! I only need to wash my hair every 2-3 days; on the second day, the curls relax to waves, and on the third day my hair is straight. In humid climates I get very curly.

4. What was the last CD you bought?
Glee, volume 1.

5. Do looks matter?
In reference to being attracted to someone? Yes, to a degree – but it would be more accurate to say that hygiene matters. Particularly dental hygiene.

6. Could you ever forgive a cheater?
In terms of a romantic relationship, I don’t honestly know. I do know that I deal poorly with betrayal and rejection. In terms of academic cheating, I forgive that on a regular basis – after meting out the appropriate consequences, of course.

7. Is your phone bill sky high?
No. Higher than I’d like, but that’s the price you pay as a Blackberry widow.

8. Do you like your life right now?
No. I am at a transition point where things could and should be much better. But I do like my marriage and my job, so that’s definitely worth a lot!

9. Do you sleep with the TV on?
I often fall asleep with the TV on – to Jon Stewart, or stand-up comedy. But I’ll wake back up and turn it off.

10. Can you handle the truth?
Yes.

11. Do you have good vision?
With contacts, I have slightly better than perfect vision. With glasses, I have normal eyesight sans peripheral vision or much in the way of depth perception. Uncorrected, I have slightly better eyesight than your average lump of concrete.

12. Do you hate or dislike more than 3 people?
Thinking… no, I don’t think so. I dislike things that people do and the ways that people act. If someone is so unpleasant to be around that they’re in danger of earning my serious dislike, I stop being around them and subsequently forget to have feelings about them, one way or the other.

13. How often do you talk on the phone?
I probably have a phone conversation every day, but I’m telephonophobic and would MUCH rather communicate in ANY other method than via phone call.

14. The last person you held hands with?
Ryan, unless you count d’Artagnan and I playing handsies while I was trying to type this morning and he was trying to sit on my computer keyboard.

15. What are you wearing?
Khaki-and-white striped seersucker capris, a Boise State t-shirt, and a big ole claw clip.

16. What is your favourite animal?
I like animals. Among those for which I have a particular affection: ocelots, wolves, moosen, horses, waterfowl, stegosaurs, housecats, and poodles.

my favorite photo (I guess; there are a lot of great ones out there)17. Where was your favorite picture taken?
Going to just pick a photo I love, because I love a lot of photos. 🙂 This picture was taken in the south endzone of Bronco stadium, during the Humanitarian Bowl (or was it the MPC Bowl that year?), freezing to death in a sleetzzard, with my sweetie.

18. Can you hula hoop?
Not effectively. Really, if it involves my body and any sort of physical coordination, you’re better off calling in a stunt double.

19. Do you have a job?
I do – I are a English teacher.

20. What have you most recently bought?
I bought a birthday present for my sister, a little present for someone else who shall go unnamed at this time, and some freezer pops. Because it’s hot and gross here.

21. Have you ever crawled through a window?
Yep. Last fall I came home and realized that I didn’t have a house key for some reason. I went around to the back door to see if, by some miracle, it had been left unlocked. No such luck. I then had the bright idea to try to reach through the dog door (the one that Paisley can’t figure out how to use) and try to unlock the door from the inside. This had the satisfying result of upsetting Paisley, getting me really dirty, and pulling a muscle in my shoulder. There’s a window that opens out into our screened porch, and I realized that it was cracked open – just a hair. Unfortunately, it was also stuck, and above my head. I pulled lawn furniture over, climbed on, and tugged. Nothing. Fortunately, I’m a teacher and just happened to have in my bag 1) a hardcover children’s picture book and 2) a butter knife. Don’t ask. I used these two items as levers to pry open my window, then climbed in the window and onto my dining table (because it’s pressed up against said window). d’Artagnan was sitting on the table, calmly watching the entire proceedings. I later grounded him for not unlocking the door, and had to pay him off to keep the video off YouTube.

Review: Empress of the World

(Cross-posted from We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Empress of the World
by Sara Ryan
Published by Speak (Penguin Group), 2001
ISBN 0142500593
Pages: 213
Ages: YA
Awards: ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Lambda Book Award Finalist, Booklist Top Ten Teen Romance, Oregon Book Award

As I finish reading Empress of the World, I am wondering wherein lies the correlation. The majority of the books I’ve been reading for the LGBTQ Book Club feature teens who are not only LGBTQ, but also brilliant. Do authors feel uncomfortable writing average (or, heaven forbid, unintelligent) gay characters? Are the sort of authors with the guts to write about such things also the sort of authors who want to write smart characters? Or am I unconsciously selecting books that feature interesting, intelligent characters? I’m thinking all three ideas may be correct; goodness knows I’m often guilty of the last.

Empress takes place at a summer camp for brainy kids at a local college. The teens are taking a wide variety of college-level mini-courses, learning more about topics from music theory to computer programming. Our narrator and protagonist is Nicola, who has come to camp to study archeology and determine whether she wants to be an archeologist when she grows up.

Ultimately, the main thing Nicola seems to learn about archeology (since she’s already more savvy about the subject than most of the other kids in her class) is that it all depends on grants and fundraising. Instead of archeology, Nicola learns about her heart – specifically, that it can fall for, and be broken by, a girl.

This book is the story of the romance that blooms, explodes, collapses, and regenerates between Nicola and a female camp-mate, Battle. It’s a story about young love, and it’s – more directly so than some of the other books I’ve read – a story about lesbian love. Indirectly, it’s a story about (obviously) coming-of-age, exploring possibilities at that crucial pre-college transition point in our lives, and negotiating expectations. It is really well-written, and the language, story, and narrator’s voice kept me engaged to the end.

On the flip side, as a character-driven reader, I felt uneasy about the two central characters’ development. Battle is, in many ways, the more interesting character. Her father is a minister whose past life as an actor suggests a certain artificiality in his life, and her mother has an idealized vision for Battle that is seemingly devoid of interest in what Battle actually feels or wants. Battle’s absent brother is a dark shadow in her life, and all of the affection she would have focused on her brother and her distant parents is poured into her two corgis. Rejecting her mother’s autumn-in-the-Hamptons vision for her, Battle shaves her head bare and begins a passionate romance with Nicola. Frustratingly, the summary I’ve provided in this paragraph is almost as much insight as Ryan gives us about Battle. There is so much provocative material to work with, and yet Battle is still drawn in two dimensions – a caricature of a rebellious preacher’s daughter away at summer camp.

We have so much more insight into Nicola, as the book is written from her perspective – and we have the added benefit of glimpsing into her “field notes” that she keeps throughout the camp. And yet there’s a curious hole in all that remarkable character development. One moment, Nicola is thinking about her (male) crush from high school and being slightly surprised at how riveting she finds a female camp-mate, and the next moment she’s as comfortable in a physically-intimate lesbian relationship as if she had been in one her entire life. There’s never any fear or doubt, and despite being a painfully reflective person, she doesn’t really try to understand whether she is lesbian, straight, or bisexual until the book is nearly over. I kept wondering how realistic her almost thoughtless coming-out could be – does anyone just come out, to themselves and their friends, so seamlessly and quickly? (It’s a sincere question – I don’t know. But it struck me as being a little too tidy.)

I see, on Ryan’s website, that she’s written a sequel that apparently focuses on Battle and her estranged brother. I’m hoping to track it down and see Battle’s character rendered into 3D, even though I’m a little disappointed that the blurb seems to suggest that Nicola won’t be making a reappearance. She was a fun character, and I’d like to see what happens to her as she grows up, too.

Confession: This book pushes my comfort level a little bit; I would have to have a very good relationship with a student before I’d recommend it, and there’s a part of me that squirms when I imagine leaving it on the shelves for students to browse. There’s no graphic sexual details, but it’s very clear that Nicola and Battle shed clothing and are intimate, and there are some mildly crude (but wickedly funny and realistic) comments between the teens. Maybe it’s just because it’s late at night and I’ve been thinking about some of my more conservative students today, but… yeah. I’m squirmy. That being said, it will be on my shelves. It’s a good story, and it may be exactly what some of my students need to read.

Review: Ash

(Cross-posted from We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Ash book coverAsh
by Malinda Lo
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2009
ISBN 9780316040099
Pages: 264
Ages: YA
Lexile: 1050L
Awards: Andre Norton Award Nominee, William C. Morris YA Award Finalist, Kirkus Best Young Adult Novel, Lambda Literary Award Finalist

Everyone loves a Cinderella story, even (or especially) sports fans who never acquainted themselves with the Brothers Grimm. It’s an ancient tale, with early versions traceable as far back as the 1st century BC, and variations appearing in different cultures including Ancient Egypt, China, the Philippines, the Arab nations, and your usual line-up of European peoples. Today, the Cinderella theme shows up again and again in movies, television, sports legacies, and of course books.

Malinda Lo has unwoven the Cinderella story and re-knit it into the somberly beautiful Ash. Ash, or Aisling, is the requisite girl orphaned and left in the care of her cruel stepmother and thoughtless stepsisters. In this telling, Ash’s parents illustrated the transition between the older pagan beliefs of their land (magic and fairies, in which her mother believed) and the new scientific beliefs moving in (her father’s beliefs). Ash is caught in the rift, wondering why her parents loved each other so much but were unable to see eye to eye about the nature of their world.

Ash succumbs to a natural grief and denial after her mother’s death; the supernatural comes in to play when she tries to slip away with the fairies’ Wild Hunt in order to rejoin her mother beyond the veil. One of the fairies turns her back, though, and becomes a constant haunting presence in her dreams. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that there is some strange bond between the fairy, Sidhean (pronounced sheen), and Ash. Later, he will help Ash in the same way that Cinderella’s fairy godmother helped her. All the while, Ash begs Sidhean to take her away with him, to stay with her and take her away from the painful life she lives.

The plot breaks away from the familiar story with the introduction of the King’s Huntress, an office held by a series of women whose clothing, mannerisms, and relationships stand in stark contrast to the feminine finery of other women in the kingdom. As Ash reaches her late teens, she meets Kaisa (KY-suh), the King’s Huntress, and is fascinated. It’s a gently drawn fascination – is Ash envious of her freedom and confidence? Desirous of a friend and confidante? Admiring of a strong and kind female role model?

Ultimately, as familiar Cinderella plot points drip beautifully through Lo’s filter, the situation crystallizes. Ash is infatuated with Sidhean and with the idea of regaining what she has lost – or at least, of losing the pain. And just as Ash has within her grasp the power to join Sidhean forever, she discovers that she has a reason to live and love in the world of the living. It’s certainly true that this is, as fairy tale retellings go, a lesbian retelling – but it isn’t a (cue exaggerated broadcaster voice) “gay book”. It’s a story about the complexities of love, the process of navigating grief, and that all-important choice between holding on to the past and embracing the future.

This book hit all the right chords for me. I’m nuts for fairy tales, so it really had me at “retelling of Cinderella”. I loved the Irish names. I loved the idea of the King’s Huntress, the humanization of Sidhean, the light hand Lo has as she paints what turns out to be an intricate layer of symbolism. And after reading some considerably more heavy-handed approaches in LGBTQ literature, I loved that Lo didn’t make this a book about lesbianism. This is what I hoped to find: a book with characters that we care about, that we respect and root for, who incidentally happen to not be straight.

This is one of the books I checked out from the library that I’ll be looking to purchase – maybe a copy for home, too – and I’ll be looking for more books by Lo in the future. Apparently there’s a forthcoming book set in the same universe, about new characters, including some who are lesbian; maybe I’ll be able to review it in a 2011 LGBTQ book club! I enjoyed browsing her website, particularly her four-part article about avoiding LGBTQ stereotypes when writing YA fiction (link goes to part 1).

Review: Totally Joe

(Cross-posted from We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Totally Joe
by James Howe
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005
ISBN 068983957X
Pages: 189
Ages: Middle Level
Awards: ALA Notable Children’s Book, Lambda Literary Award Nominee (Children’s/Young Adult)

I’d like to think that there are precious few people out there who didn’t have the childhood joy of reading James Howe’s Bunnicula books. (I, myself, will never forget my embarrassment after discovering and sharing the titular pun in The Celery Stalks at Midnight with my trying-hard-not-to-laugh parents.) At the time that Howe first wrote about his vege-vampire rabbit, he was married to the first of his two wives. His writing career didn’t really take off until the early 1980s, about the same time that he came out as a gay man. Since then he has written more than seventy books, including the much-acclaimed Misfits and its stand-alone sequel, Totally Joe.

I couldn’t get hold of Misfits, but I found and quickly fell in love with Totally Joe. Finally, here was a laugh-out-loud funny book about a boy who liked other boys – no misery, doom, gloom, profanity, or allusions to sordid sex. It’s probably the gayest book I’ve read so far (if you measure gayness in terms of flamboyance, which is pretty unsuitable, but probably unavoidable) but at the same time, it is the most innocent and sweet.

The protagonist and narrator, Joe Bunch, is a twelve-year-old student who has been assigned to write an “alphabiography” of his life. The book, presented as his completed assignment, is broken into 26 abecedarian chapters, each representing some aspect of his life as it unfolds during his seventh grade year. B is for Boy, and what it means to be a boy, and how he can’t make himself fit within that mold. D is for Dating, and his musings about how his straight friends can publicly date while he and his boyfriend almost have to pretend not to know one another. Q is for Questions. S is for Surprises. X, predictably, is for Xylophone; unpredictably, it may be the funniest chapter (at least for this keyboard percussionist) of the book.

Even at the age of twelve, Joe is pretty comfortable with himself and the fact that he isn’t, as he puts it, a guy-guy. He sometimes wears nail polish, gets his ear pierced, and enthuses about weddings, fashion, Cher, and cooking. He’s precocious in that regard, but his maturity is realistically inconsistent as he expresses disgust at things like “exchanging saliva.” Perhaps the least realistic thing about him is his restraint and patience in interacting with his friend-turned-boyfriend-turned-nonfriend-turned-friend, who can’t yet be as comfortable with his sexual identity. Even so, Joe is vividly drawn, loveable, and so, so funny.

The silent counterpart to Joe is the teacher, Mr. Daly, for whom Joe is writing. Even though we never hear or see Mr. Daly, except for brief moments when Joe describes school events that include the teacher, he serves as a solid sounding board for Joe as he verbally explores his feelings. Structurally, this is like a younger, light-hearted version of Perks of Being a Wallflower; even though the “listeners” are invisible, they play a crucial role in the protagonist’s development. Joe’s trust in Mr. Daly is heartwarming, and I found myself envying him as he was placed in that position of trust.

One line in particular stood out to me. It is spoken about a school administrator who changes his mind about a proposed GSA club, and I think it’s something that all we teachers ought to bear in mind: “It’s nice to know that educators can be educated.” I’m going to try to talk more about that at the end of this whole reading experiment, but in short: I’m learning so much from these books, and it seems to me that other educators could do the same.

Oh, and I totally want my students to write alphabiographies now. :)

Review: Fly on the Wall

(Cross-posted from We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Fly on the Wall cover artFly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything
by E. Lockhart
Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2006
ISBN 0385732813
Pages: 192
Ages: YA

English teacher’s ugly confession time: I’ve never read The Metamorphosis. I’m familiar with it, of course (one of my favorite childhood shows was Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers, after all) and so the reference in Lockhart’s book didn’t miss me – but even if you’re entirely ignorant of Kafka, you’ll still get your money’s worth out of this short novel.

The protagonist, Gretchen, is a sixteen-year-old student at a prestigious art school in New York. Even in a school full of extraordinary students, though, Gretchen struggles to fit in. Her comic book-style art isn’t the kind of art that her teachers want, and she worries excessively about what other people – especially boys – think about her. One day she wishes that she could be a fly on the wall of the boys’ locker room, so that she could find out what everyone says behind her back… and when she wakes up the following morning, the wish has come true.

Gretchen-the-fly spends the next several days trapped in the boys’ locker room, witnessing – sometimes against her will, since flies lack eyelids – what happens in that inner sanctum of adolescent masculinity. She has her first, moderately traumatic look at male anatomy (followed, of course, by many more) and learns quite a little bit more about the boys and their opinions than she’d bargained for. Lockhart’s descriptions of what Gretchen sees are, well, descriptive, and conservative parents may be uncomfortable with some of the language.

Gretchen’s metamorphosis from insecure kid to confident young woman (by way of diptera) is aided by her voyeuristic discovery that other people have bigger problems with fitting in than she does – specifically when she observes boys launching, and being the target of, homophobic attacks. When she is returned to human form, Gretchen not only has a greater understanding of people outside her own head; she also has a cause that helps her find her place in the school community by securing a place for others.

Fly on the Wall isn’t a book about LGBTQ students, but the message and gay secondary characters certainly make it a good fit with a LGBTQ theme. The ideas that everyone has problems, that most young people are unhappy about some aspect of themselves, and that understanding one another is key to accepting and embracing one another, are the thematic bullet points to the story’s principle message: helping others will help you help yourself (or, for the cynical, stop obsessing so much about yourself and go do something productive!)

Review: Luna

(Cross-posted at We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Luna
by Julie Anne Peters
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2004
ISBN 0316011274
Lexile 500L
Pages: 248
Ages: YA (probably suitable for mature middle level)
Awards: National Book Award Finalist, ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Stonewall Honor Book, Lambda Literary Award Finalist

The list of books written about transgender teens is a short one. The top spot on that list may very well be reserved for Luna, the story of a girl named Regan and her older brother, Liam, who wants nothing more than to be her older sister, Luna.

Luna is beautifully written, with an authentic voice and an ease of expression that make it – linguistically – very easy to read. Don’t get me wrong, though; it’s not easy to read once you get past the words and sentences. This is a tough story, because for all of the clarity and simplicity of language she employs, Peters brings a helluva emotional punch.

Obviously, sexual identity is the major issue of this book. (It’s important to differentiate between sexual identity and sexual orientation; the former refers to how male or female we consider ourselves to be, whereas the latter refers to the gender to which we are emotionally, affectionately, and sexually attracted. A person whose sexual identity doesn’t match his or her anatomical gender may or may not have a homosexual orientation. In that handy-dandy acronym, LGBTQ, “T” is used as to stand in for a broad range of differences, including transsexuals, cross-dressers, intersexed/hermaphrodite/androgynous people, and other people who spend much of their lives privately or publicly expressing themselves in other than their anatomical gender.) Liam/Luna’s struggle to make a life for herself in the body she chooses is painful to witness as she encounters incredulity, harassment, mocking, and physical abuse. It leaves the reader wondering how any high school transgendered student successfully navigates this process.

Ultimately, however, the book isn’t so much about Luna as it is about her sister Regan. Regan is the only person who knows Luna, and her love for her sibling makes her Luna’s one ally. The weight of this responsibility is an awful lot for a sophomore to bear, though, and as the story unfolds Regan begins to be crushed beneath it. Regan is under an emotional onslaught from so many different directions: fear for Luna’s safety, fear for her own social life, frustration at her parents and their many issues, concern for the girl who believes she’ll one day marry Liam, guilt at not being a better ally, aggravation at her perceived constant inability to do anything right. Tack that on top of all the usual things a sophomore girl has to deal with emotionally, and it’s a wonder Regan doesn’t implode.

Peters has written a story about what it means to be a transgendered teen, but more importantly she’s crafted a beautifully sympathetic look at the hardships straight allies can withstand as they try to understand, support, and protect the ones they love. It’s not an entirely realistic story; Liam’s financial independence is all-too-convenient, their parents distractingly oblivious, and Regan’s acceptance almost too perfect. It would be a darker, but perhaps more lifelike, tale if Peters had delved more deeply into the depression and suicidal tendencies affecting Liam and, by association, his sister. Doing so, however, almost certainly would have shifted it out of the YA realm.

The story ends better than I’d hoped (I don’t much like sad endings) but felt a little abrupt – which is my critical way of saying that I wonder if Peters has considered writing a sequel. I really would like to find out what happens next for Regan and Luna.