Here at the end of the challenge, as we reach our Zed, I want to talk a little about this project as a whole. It’s been interesting but difficult. Outside of the challenge, I’ve been finishing up a school semester, planning for and celebrating Little Jedi’s birthday, enrolling him in school for the fall, and dealing with all the other things that come with living a life off-screen. And then there’s been the challenge itself, which required writing essentially one literary essay a day. In the middle of that, I decided to participate in the Great Villain Blogathon and wrote about Hannibal Lecter. I should’ve had some posts stored up, and if I do this next year, I think I’ll make more of an effort to store up some posts.
I’m aware that there’s little racial diversity among the characters, something that has been and is, unfortunately, not terribly uncommon in published children’s literature. Girls and minorities are underrepresented in English language children’s literature; minority girls are extremely underrepresented. In choosing the canonical works (as I’ve often had to for exams’ sake), and doing so while assembling a list of only 30 texts, too many things have been left out; in choosing 26 characters whose names start with different parts of the alphabet, many more things have been left out.
Perhaps those others will get their blog posts eventually. It’s likely that they will. But there’s something else I haven’t really done…I haven’t really talked about picture books during this particular challenge. That has been by design–I’ve wanted to focus on YA literature, as my dissertation will be about female adolescence, and I’ve tried to mostly use characters that are from books on my comprehensive exams lists. These posts do double duty–they’re for the blog, of course, but they’re also for studying.
But today, on the last day of A to Z, I want to leave you with two girls’ picture books.
The first is Zoo Girl, a deceptively simple picture book. Zoo Girl tells the story of an orphaned girl, abandoned at the zoo and taken care of by the animals, and how she finally finds her family. It’s charming and sad and colorful. Even though it only has 14 words, it’s not really a quick read. Reading the pictures is important: the faces of Zoo Girl and of the animals help to tell the story in a way that more words would not.
And here is where I leave you, readers, at least for today. Tomorrow, look for a Once a Month Gamer post from contributor Lyn. Friday, there will likely be a return of the bathroom graffiti series, and in the coming weeks, I’ll return to the neglected Whoseries and some conversations about video gaming.
Note: This post is based on an earlier review that I wrote of Westerfield’s series; I take the first few paragraphs of that post, condense them, and talk more about Tally’s character here. You can find the original review post here.
The Uglies (Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and a later-added Extras) series tells the story of Tally Youngblood, a few months shy of her 16th birthday at the outset of the first novel. Tally lives in an unspecified but distant future, after a series of wars virtually wiped out humanity. In her world, at the age of 16, everyone undergoes a surgery to become pretty: a ratio-based, ideal-standard-of-beauty, compulsory surgery that makes everyone the epitome of beautiful and is credited with stopping wars and want because it stops difference. Newly-operated-on Pretties party and play, and they do little else. In Uglies, Tally makes a choice to run to the Smoke, an off-the-grid settlement of humans, at the request (read: compulsion) of her city’s authorities. There, Tally find a world where work is valued and ugly can be pretty. She realizes that the surgery performed in her city creates lesions in the brains of those who undergo surgery—making them easier to control–and then she has to decide what to do with that information.
Tally is our narrator, and her voice is strong. She opens up talking about the sky being “cat-vomit pink,” a color which I’m only vaguely able to picture but certainly able to appreciate as a figure-of-speech. (It’s worth noting that as Tally changes from Ugly to Pretty to Special, her voice changes, one of the most intriguing elements of the story.) She’s sarcastic and a daredevil; pretty quickly after we meet her, she’s off to a Pretty party, and to get away from security, she jumps off the roof of a building strapped into a bungee jacket–essentially a smart parachute that allows her to escape. And when she and Shae become friends, tricks like this become the norm for the two.
Tally is far less concerned about the operation than Shae, however, and in many ways her ideas match those of our own as we learn more and more about the operation. At first, the city doesn’t seem to have a terribly system. Everyone is taken care of, and at 16, everyone gets an operation to make them incredibly attractive. But then we know what the operation is like–bones are ground down and/or stretched, teeth are pulled and replaced by stronger versions, noses and eyes are widened or narrowed, etc. Even then, Tally is still willing to go through with the operation. But then she becomes completely unable to stomach the operation after learning about the lesions it gives people without their knowledge and learns of the ways her city is using prettiness to control people. And, even once she’s had the operation herself, she maintains a fierce sense of self-awareness and morality that affects how she sees the operations and the society itself.
Metal is a precious resource for the cities in Tally’s day, and she’s always mesmerized as she goes into any sort of ruins at the way “Rusties” (that’s us) wasted metal and built straight up into the sky–in the last book, this is equated to children’s drawings and constructions. I laughed as Tally discovered an old railroad line and tried to decide what it was for. And my mouth fell open a bit at the city ruins’ descriptions: nature taking over, but the skeletons of the dead still in their cars, trying to escape from a city going down.Tally’s confusion over why Rusties would do this or that, of how they lived, provide a mirror for us to see ourselves, just as her realizations and depictions of her own society act as a lens for us to see the dystopian society in which she lives.
By book two, Tally has become a Pretty. Now I won’t give you all the details of how and why she gets there, or of how by book three she becomes special (another group of citizens, these with hyped-up surgery to make themselves scary-pretty, with no lesions to make them controllable and with the power to enforce any laws they choose), but I’ll tell you that it’s worth finding out.
In 2010, Amy Kathleen Ryan published Zen and Xander Undone, a young adult novel about a set of sisters, Zen and Xander, that primarily takes place during the summer before Xander leaves for college, not long after the girls’ mother has died. Because she knew she was dying, their mother made a series of arrangements that included Zen’s prom dress and letters full of bittersweet motherly advice for dates, graduation, and moving away. But the girls, of course, still grieve for their mother. Zen seems to mostly take out her grief aggressively—she has a black belt in shotokan and uses it to beat up her sisters’ dates. Xander, the older of the two, has a photographic memory and a prestigious scholarship that she is just about to lose due to all the drinking and drugs that she loses herself in. When the two girls tried to find out who their mother’s messenger might be, they end up on a journey to find out about the recipient of one of their mothers’ possessions, a man neither of them knows.
The book is told from the perspective of Zen (whose given name is Athena), and she opens with “My sister, Xander, causes a scandal practically everywhere she goes. Even funeral receptions, I now know. I’m the quiet one . . . I tried to go unseen, unnoticed.” The two are at their mother’s funeral, and Xander (given name, Alexandra) is drunk. When the girls hear their mother’s first posthumously delivered note, Xander runs out of the house, a trail of screamed obscenities in her wake. Zen stands quietly at first, then goes after her sister, and the two trade obscenities and hysterical laughter for the remainder of the wake. As Zen admits,”the scandal wasn’t all Xander’s.” It rarely is.
We’re fairly quickly, after that, introduced to the sort of thing that Xander does. She leaves home wearing clothes that are skimpy, clothes that have holes in all the right places, and when she has a guy bring her home who wants a little too much (and is beaten into submission by Zen), her guy-next-door-best-friend, Adam, berates the sisters for taking care of their problem on their own. They’re small, and they’re weak–and they’re girls. Now, I’m all for male chivalry and people–male and female–looking out for one another, but I’m glad that the girls dealt with the problem on their own terms, made Frank go away of their own volition, as there’s far too little of girls fending for themselves in novels.
And so we watch this journey, hear this journey, happen–two sisters finding out about life, about grief, and about their mother. We hear Zena’s internal conversations with her late mother and see Xander’s much more externalized expressions of grief. Neither girl is perfect—sometimes Zen’s sanctimoniousness is a bit too much to handle, and sometimes Xander is too close to a cliche. These are small flaws in the writing, but they don’t negate the value of a book that places so much emphasis on the relationship between sisters as they move from young adulthood to real adulthood.