YA author Amber J. Keyser writes about feminist books for teens and her “Feminism and the Female Body” book tour with Elana K. Arnold, author of National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Longlist title What Girls Are Made Of.
A shorter version of this post appeared in this week’s Book Riot’s “What’s Up in YA” September 18 newsletter.
As soon as I heard about Elana K. Arnold’s most recent novel, What Girls Are Made Of, I knew we had to tour together. Her book is a visceral dissection of the enormous pressures on teenage girls. It demands to know why girls are considered consumable objects—sugar and spice—to be devoured by the nearest hungry mouth. She felt similarly about my novel, Pointe, Claw, also a ferocious exploration of the territory of the female body and what sacrifices must be made to claim it as one’s own.
We connected through our shared editor, Alix Reid at Carolrhoda Lab, who describes working on these books simultaneously in this blog post.
The “Feminism and the Female Body” Book Tour
Elana and I hired publicist Heather Brown at Mind the Bird Media, who helped us set up a series of West Coast events that we called Feminism and the Female Body.
And because women aren’t a monolith, we asked some of the smartest women working in YA today to join the conversation. In every city from LA to the Bay Area to Portland and Seattle, we had incredible, wide-ranging conversations.
Stephanie Kuehn, author of When I Am Through With You, joined us at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, and she said this about our event:
One thing that I loved that came up at our discussion was this idea of how, as an adult, having had a childhood defined by feeling alienated or on the fringes of society can leave you without a sense of responsibility for activism and change. But the political atmosphere we are currently living in has made it abundantly clear that it is our responsibility to try and bring about positive change.
Our conversation with Martha Brockenbrough, author of The Game of Love and Death, also turned to the relevance of these books in today’s political climate. She said:
This tour felt like a relief after the bizarre and punishing post-inaugural season. Intelligence, ferocity, and provocative art are what women and girls especially need. Likewise the bourbon and pie we snarfed after a heartfelt Q&A and reading in Seattle’s Secret Garden Bookshop.
It was deeply meaningful to engage with audience members on the importance of feminist literature for young adults. We discussed the way books can be a form of resistance at time when women of all ages are facing threats to healthcare, reproductive rights, sexuality, and gender expression.
The female characters in What Girls Are Made Of and Pointe, Claw are constantly bashing into obstacles—walls of expectation about what girls should be and what girls should do. It’s a struggle reflected in the real lives of women everywhere.
Even on a self-proclaimed feminist book tour.
Why Everyone Should Read Feminist YA
During one of our stops in the Bay Area, a man in the audience interrupted with a question. Elana had just finished reading a scene from What Girls Are Made Of in which the main character, sixteen-year-old Nina, is getting a pap smear. It’s explicit—Elana says vagina seven times—but detailed and clinical. Familiar territory for women, but deeply uncomfortable for one of the men in the audience.
“Why,” he asked, leaning back in his chair, “would a fifty-year-old man want to read a book like that? Why would I read about a fifteen-year-old girl?”
I stiffened. There was an audible gasp from several people in the audience. After all, who asks a question like that?
Before I could respond, Elana’s arm swept toward me the way a mother driving a car will slam on the brakes and try to hold her daughter back from impact.
“I’ve got this,” Elana said to me.
To the man in the audience, she said, “Let me ask you, why do we expect fifteen-year-old girls to read books about fifty-year-old men?”
This was the crux of our feminist book tour. No one questions the high school reading lists dominated by titles by white men. No one asks why a girl should care about Holden Caulfield, Captain Ahab, or Hamlet.
The man replied, “If someone knew I was reading about a girl getting an exam, they’d call me a pedophile.”
Elana and I looked at each other. This guy was every obstacle that we were writing about. He took an experience of a teenage girl in a doctor’s office and made it sexual. He made her consumable.
After we had finished signing, he was one of the last to go. He came up to the table and held a twenty-dollar bill above our books. “I’ll buy the one if falls on,” he said, before releasing the bill, the way he might have dropped it on a stage before a couple of erotic dancers.
The money drifted down to rest on What Girls Are Made Of.
He slid the twenty to Elana and picked up the book.
“I won’t read it,” he said. “I’ll give it to a woman I know.”
And this is why Elana and I write the books we do.
Why We Write Feminist Books for Teens
We believe that stories about teenage girls matter deeply. They should matter to all of readers, regardless of gender. The experiences of young women are rich and compelling in their own right—not simply as ingredients added to stories about men and boys.
And in this time of political upheaval, Elana and I believe that young women, especially young women of color, are the ones we need leading us into the future. We’ll keep writing feminist books for teens about the female experience and going on feminist book tours for as long as it takes to get there.
About Amber J. Keyser & Elana K. Arnold
Amber J. Keyser (Pointe, Claw) is the author of The Way Back from Broken, a heart-wrenching novel of loss and survival, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Find her on Twitter @amberjkeyser.
Elana K. Arnold (What Girls Are Made Of) writes for and about children and teens. Her last YA novel, Infandous, was selected for inclusion in the Amelia Bloomer Project (feminist books for young readers). What Girls Are Made Of is a 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Longlist selection. Find her on Twitter @ElanaKArnold.