Sarah Sullivan and Brianna Stapleton Welch are the blogger-reviewers behind Slatebreakers: ‘finding feminism in Kid Lit and YA’. Libby O’Loghlin asks them about their feminist lens, and exactly how they manage to get through so many books …
First of all, tell us a bit about Slatebreakers: how long have you been doing the blog, and how did it start?
Brianna: Sarah and I discovered our mutual love of books when we became friends during grad school. We both loved following book blogs and eagerly read posts by great bloggers such as Betsy Bird, the Forever Young Adult team, and the Book Smugglers. We wanted to venture out into the book blogging world, too. I recall a long afternoon at a bar when we brainstormed themes and blog titles. Finally we settled upon Slatebreakers, a feminist, Anne Shirley inspired lens for reviewing that we could both be excited about.
Sarah: I think a big part of it as well was this idea that we were reading all the time, and talking about it, and as feminist readers, had a really specific perspective on what we wanted to read about, both as adults and when we were young readers ourselves. When we coined the term ‘Slatebreaker’ it was as though we had suddenly identified this really important part of our reading lives, as well as just what we want to see in our regular lives. We’ve been blogging for more than two years now, and its definitely shaped how I read in really interesting ways.
You are frequent bloggers (often every few days). How do you find the time to read so much?
Brianna: It is difficult to find the time to read. What makes it easier is that I love it so much. I use reading time as a reward. I motivate myself to complete those onerous household tasks by dangling the promise of reading time afterward. I also have recently added a small commute to my schedule, and I fill that road time with audiobooks.
Sarah: Generally we try to each post one review a week, which is busy, but manageable. And I have always read a lot, so the only change I’ve had to make with the blog is intentionality (being sure that I’m usually reading something that will be reviewable). Reading is a huge emotional re-set for me, so it’s always going to be something that I prioritize, even when life is hectic.
And when things get really crazy, I’m not above reviewing a feminist picture book!
Great books for kids and teens are just great books. Often, I think, they have to be better books because kids are unfailingly honest audiences. (Sarah)
Walk us through the Slatebreakers criteria, and how you apply your ratings.
Brianna: We don’t have a set rating system that we use for reviews. Rather, we approach reviewing through a feminist lens. We are looking for characters (female or male) who challenge traditional gender roles. I’m also interested in books that ‘break the slate’ by depicting girls and women who are confident, sex-positive, and successfully navigating the world in which they live. As you read through our reviews, you will notice that we are flexible with the Slatebreaker designation. I like to review middle grade books, and sometimes the characters are too young or not quite personally developed enough to be full Slatebreakers, but they are still great characters because you just know that some day that fictional girl will grow up to do great things.
We also take the time to review the covers of the books we read. This is important to us because the way the book is marketed has major impact on its readership. Often, the cover is a limiting factor. Maureen Johnson’s “Coverflip” challenge was a vivid reminder of how true this is.
Sarah: Yes—we can love books with terrible covers, but I think it’s important to talk about in our reviews, both for frivolous and non-frivolous reasons. On the frivolous side, aesthetics are important, and we want to read books that feature art that reflects the quality of the story inside. Some of the books we review (and even love!) we are occasionally reluctant to read in public. But that also speaks to a non-frivolous point. Books for and about young women are all too often given covers that diminutize them, that make them seem like they are ‘less’ than books for other (older, male) demographics. And that’s a huge problem. So we try to draw attention to that in the reviews we write.
We also review the book in terms of its audience—there are books that might be absolutely wonderful to a really specific demographic and not others, which is worth noting. But overall, our reviews are really narrative-based. I try to take a critical response approach to the writing, where I’m thinking less about scoring on a rubric and more about what elements of the book struck me as a reader and what made me think deeply, about the characters, the story, the world outside of the book. Then I build what I write around those responses.
What attracted you to review and deconstruct YA and kids’ books rather than adult fiction?
Brianna: Because my profession is working with young people, I read YA and kids’ books. They are the bulk of what I read, and thus that’s what I review. I do still read adult fiction and nonfiction and review those books on Goodreads, but never to the extent that I review a book for Slatebreakers.
Sarah: I’ve always loved YA and middle grade fiction. When I was right out of college I worked part time as a children’s librarian, which really drew me into the world of YA. There are so many great books written with this audience in mind, and its easy to miss them because we think we should be reading Proust all the time or something. Great books for kids and teens are just great books. Often, I think, they have to be better books because kids are unfailingly honest audiences. If something is terrible, they won’t waste their time.
Of course, I also love adult fiction! And nonfiction! I love reading in general. But as someone who has built a career around working with youth, I am particularly interested in the way cultural experiences for young people are constructed. Literature gives us a great lens into that.
Some might say feminism is an ill-defined word these days, and yet your slug-line is ‘finding feminism in YA and Kidlit’. What aspects of feminism inform your analyses?
Brianna: When I’m reading fiction for young readers, I am reading through a sex-positive feminist lens. Although that doesn’t mean that I like books where all of the young characters are having sex. It means that I want to see female characters who are comfortable in their own bodies, confident, and approaching any emotional or sexual intimacy with full consent. I’m also looking at the role that race and social class play in a story, and how that affects a character’s experience.
Sarah: For me the fact that we call our blog feminist has always been a really important part of what we’re doing. Because there is sometimes a weird fear around using that word and I like being able to talk about feminism in a wide variety of settings, especially as it relates to young people. For me, reading books with a feminist lens means that I’m looking for books that both feature dynamic, multifaceted female protagonists, and books that look at gender issues or bigger social issues from a perspective that challenges our traditional expectations.
I also try very hard to practice an intersectional feminism, through which race, class, sexuality, ability and other lenses of privilege are part of how we experience feminism. As a white, heterosexual female, it’s important for me to be able to look at feminism in ways that are not directly related to my experiences. So when I read, I look for diversity, both in terms of characters and content.
There are some hot debates going on at the moment around why adults read YA. Some say it’s because our culture encourages an unnatural and prolonged adolescence. What would you say to this?
Brianna: I read YA books because some (many) of them are compelling, interesting, and well-written. Not all of them are great, but the ratio of good YA books to boring YA books that I read is similar to the ratio of good to boring ‘adult’ books I read. But perhaps that’s just me speaking from the midst of my prolonged adolescence …
As a teen, I refused to read books that were written for readers my age. I decided to forgo the ‘Juvenile’ section of the library (back then there wasn’t much in the YA department yet) and read primarily from the New York Times Bestseller List. That meant that at the age of 12 I was reading books like A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing and Memoirs of a Geisha. The content of these novels was far beyond my understanding. I comprehended the words and the basic scenarios, but the adult relationships and sexual content were mere fog. There were other factors in my life that made me grow up too fast, but I do believe that this reading material contributed to that. I wish that some librarian or teacher had seen the books I was reading and gently nudged me toward more age appropriate material. Now the situation is reversed and I am reading mostly YA as an adult. Even though the characters are experiencing developmental stages that I have (thankfully) grown out of, there is still so much in the way of human relationship and cultural reflection that is relevant to my everyday adult life.
Sarah: If I’m being totally honest, I think that the ‘unnatural and prolonged adolescence’ argument is completely stupid. As I mentioned before, good books for young people are good books in general—they have to be. I think that the awareness of young adults as a market has really expanded, and that has resulted in a huge increase in the amount of books being published with teens as a target audience. There are books being published as YA today that would have been published for an adult market 20 years ago. As an adult reader I am definitely bringing something different to my read of these books, but that is also true when I read a book with a male protagonist, or a book set in Nigeria, or any number of things. I don’t think we should ever be discouraged from reading a book or experiencing a narrative written with another demographic as its target audience.
And as for why YA lit has interest for adults—frankly, being a teenager or a pre-teen is an absolutely incredible time in our lives. There’s so much potential for change at that time in our lives, and so many things that are experienced for the first time. Young people deserve to see their experiences reflected in literature but that doesn’t mean that adults don’t want to read about those experiences too.
Adolescence is very much a time of change and growth, of crossing from childhood to adulthood: perhaps you could tell us what elements of a good story, in your experience, teens and young people seem especially drawn to.
Sarah: My youth theatre company presents original work that is based on stories from the young people we work with. So I am lucky enough to get to engage in a lot of conversations with youth about what it means to be a young person today. I think that young people want, and deserve to see stories onstage or in books that reflect their experiences, emotions and desires in an honest way. This doesn’t mean they are only interested in realism—fantasy, dystopia, science fiction, historical fiction can all include elements of those truths of being a teenager. I also think identity has a lot to do with it. When we are growing up, we are in the midst of defining who we are and who we are going to be as we continue on into our lives. Stories that reflect that journey, in all kinds of ways, are incredibly relatable.
The publishing world has changed enormously over the time that your blog has been up—and it’s still changing—but, in your observation, does the independent/traditional publishing divide really affect readers?
Brianna: I am not well-versed in the independent/traditional publishing divide. What I can share is my perspective as a reader. I read books that come into existence via the traditional publishing process because those are the books that make it to the shelves of my public library (the place where I get most of my reading material). That means that independently published books are not making their way into my hands unless I am specifically seeking them out. Do I feel that it is negatively affecting me as a reader? No, not really. I am repeatedly astonished by the breadth and variety of books published by traditional publishers. I have not felt that my options were lacking.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do in your ‘other life’?
Brianna: I work with young people ages 5-19 and their families in a community-based, out-of-school time positive youth development program in southeast Wisconsin. I have a background in theatre education—that’s how I met Sarah! We both attended the same graduate program for an MFA in Theatre for Youth.
Sarah: Like Brianna, I have an MFA in Theatre for Youth. In my ‘other life’ I live in Phoenix and am the co-founder of Rising Youth Theatre, which is a theatre company that produces original work with young people in collaboration with professional artists. I also work full time for another theatre company, writing grants. Writing is a huge part of my day to day life, but I’ve found that the writing I do for Slatebreakers is some of the most enjoyable—it’s when I can really relax into writing in my own voice.