I’m the New Austin Children’s Book Examiner

I am now the Austin Children’s Book Examiner! I’ll be writing articles for Examiner about all things related to children’s books and any kid’s book related happenings around Austin, TX. Come check out my articles at my page at Examiner! So far I’ve only got two articles up there and both are news pieces, but hopefully I’ll start putting up reviews and recommendations soon as well. I’m excited about this new venture!

I’ll still be writing here at Pixiepalace, too, but my focus here is probably going to shift a bit. I guess we’ll see what happens as I settle into this and figure out how it’s all going to work for me. I’m excited, though, and I think this is going to be great!

EA, Objectification, and Culture

I thought that there had been enough big incidents of public sexism surrounding this year’s San Diego Comic Con, but apparently it needed more. EA has a contest running to promote their upcoming game Dante’s Inferno that requires “acts of lust” against their own booth babes. Participants are asked to photograph their “acts of lust” and submit the images to EA. The prize is a “chest of booty” and “dinner and a sinful night with two hot girls”.

So, the first thing I noticed about this contest is that even though it doesn’t say women can’t enter, it’s really only designed for men (and I’ll bet all the winners are guys, even if some women do enter). So… women wouldn’t want to win their games? That’s patently untrue. And supposedly there are more women at Comic Con this year than ever before, so by not including them in this contest they are excluding a pretty big potential customer base.

Worse than making it a contest only designed for men, though, is the fact that it’s such a frightening example of misogyny gone awry. We still live in an inherently patriarchal society and women every day are forced to deal with the ramifications of the male gaze. I know that the male gaze is something that gets disputed a lot, but it really is a real thing. If you want to learn more about what it is, I recommend this great post from Gender Across Borders that explains it. To see how prevalent and scary it can be, I recommend the many, many, Holla Back blogs based in various cities around the world.

EA is not only condoning behavior that dehumanizes women, but they are encouraging and rewarding it. This is socially irresponsible and morally repugnant. I don’t bring up morals a whole lot because I think it’s kind of a dicey subject, but this one kind of pushes me over the edge. We live in a rape culture and this kind of a contest reinforces that. I know that these models likely went into this job knowing about this contest, but I also know that some of the women to take booth babe jobs really need the jobs, regardless of how degrading they are (it’s better than stripping or worse, right?) and that women are told that being objectified is good for them (when we know, scientifically, that it’s not). Saying that it’s ok because they went into it with their eyes open doesn’t make it better.

I’m disgusted by this whole thing. It’s horrifying that in 2009 this kind of thing is still happening. And with things like this going on and girls of gaming issues of Playboy and of gaming magazines and ads where the women are almost naked and posed like pin-up girls we still have the gaming industry wondering why women aren’t playing their games more. Gee… I wonder…

Seriously, the industry can do better. We deserve better. It’s hurting men as well as women and it’s things like this that make me want to stop gaming altogether (or maybe stick to just casual games with no human characters at all). If it really seems like women friendly marketing is so damn hard, try consulting with companies like Womenk!nd who specialize in not only helping marketers reach out to women, but also in tailoring their campaigns not to alienate women. The resources are out there and I’d love to see some more gaming companies using them!

Edit: Michelle from A Midwife in Training also wrote about this and she pointed out that the language on the contest includes any booth babe, not just the ones at EA’s booth. This means that even if the EA models went into this Con knowing about this contest, there are other models who did not that are still being directly affected by this. That makes this even more horrible.

EA has also issued a really pathetic response to the outcry about this contest that basically amounts to “it’s all in good fun, so why the big fuss?”

Woman: Queen Elizabeth I

Name: Elizabeth I (Elizabeth Tudor, Elizabeth Regina, Queen of England)

Dates: September 7, 1533 – March 24, 1603

Place of Birth: Greenwich Palace, England

Why is she interesting?

Elizabeth was born the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her mother was beheaded for treason when she was just a small child. Elizabeth was brilliant, something women weren’t supposed to be in the 1500s. Because she was the daughter of Henry VIII and, ostensibly, in line for the throne she had excellent tutors and loved learning new things. She spoke a number of languages and is known to have written prayers and notes for herself in several different tongues.

Although no one really expected her to, Elizabeth did become the queen of England in 1558 after the death of her sister, Mary. From the outset, the expectation was that her reign would not be hers alone. As queen, it was understood that she should marry and provide royal heirs. As a woman, it was somewhat expected that she would defer to the wisdom of the men around her in important things. None of this happened.

Elizabeth entertained marriage proposals for the majority of her reign, using the possibility of marrying her as a tool for international diplomacy, but she never intended to accept any of them. She appointed brilliant advisers, not least among them Cecil who would be her right-hand man for nearly the whole of her life, but she always made up her own mind. She enjoyed playing at romance with courtiers, but none of them ever had the influence they might wish over her (and a few found that out the hard way). She always remained in control.

As a result of her incredible intelligence and devotion to her kingdom, Elizabeth’s reign was one of incredible peace and prosperity for England. The borders of the empire stretched as England became the prime power to be reckoned with at sea, and even the religious turmoil that had plagued the country largely came to an end. Despite threats from Mary of Scotland, Phillip and his Spanish Armada, and even the Irish rebels, England remained strong and independent. Elizabeth is widely considered to be one of the greatest rulers the world has ever known, and rightly so.

Why do I admire her?

I admire Queen Elizabeth because she was able to hold up to incredible pressures, probably not least of all from herself, and accomplish great things. She suffered from physical and psychological ailments all her life, periodically suffering from all sorts of things caused by stress and who knows what else. She suffered from chronic migraines in a time when they didn’t know how to deal with such a thing. But through it all, she managed to rule an empire.

I’m in awe that she was so able to maintain her power base, not least of all by keeping herself out of marriage. Her councilors all pushed so hard for her to get married, but she stuck to her guns and never did, knowing the mess it made of the royal line of succession that she didn’t have children. But what would marriage have meant for her? A loss of personal power, probably personal freedom, possibly having to just grin and bear it as she was abused either physically or otherwise, and all because she lived when she did. Marriage always represented a loss of power, from her point of view, so why should she, who had all the power in the world, submit to it?

Elizabeth was smart, very smart, and she not only knew it and nurtured her intellect, but she freely let the people around her see it. Women weren’t supposed to be smart (to some extent, they still aren’t), but she didn’t care. She spoke at length and with great intelligence to her court, her councilors and visiting foreign dignitaries. Clearly she wasn’t concerned about intimidating anyone (if they found her intimidating, presumably that was their problem). A prince was supposed to be intelligent in order to rule his land, so why should she not be? But she wasn’t just a bookworm – she danced and played instruments and did embroidery and rode horses like a master and had any number of other hobbies and accomplishments. She about as well-rounded as they come!

I don’t imagine that I will ever make the kind of difference in the world that Elizabeth did. It’s a one in a million person who can, but I do admire the woman and the ruler that she was and I would hope that women everywhere could hear about her and aspire to be as independent, strong and self-assured as she was.

Carter Stands Up for Equality

On July 15th, a position paper by former president Jimmy Carter was published that discussed his reasons for severing all ties to the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s an amazing piece and I highly recommend reading it. Mr. Carter explains that he can no longer be a part of a religion that views half of the population of the world as inferior to the other half. He explains that this institutionalized sexism is used far too often as an excuse for atrocities.

There is a whole section of the paper briefly touching on some of the ways that sexism around the world is affecting lives and he states that “It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society.” He goes on to say:

“It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.”

Carter acknowledges how difficult it is for current leaders to challenge such deeply ingrained social mores, but he calls on them to work to change these truths anyway. He calls the cherry-picking of bible verses to justify sexism selfish and “in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God.”

To be honest, I never thought much about President Carter before. I knew that he was involved in human rights issues and that he won a Nobel Prize, but he was out of office before I was born and so I never paid that much attention. This kind of a call for action is well worthy of attention, though. I hope that it helps to make the difference in the world that it asks for. It certainly made a difference to me.

Book: An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines
John Green
2006 (Speak/Penguin)

Colin only dates girls named Katherine and he just broke up with Katherine XIX. He’s devastated. To help get him out of his Katherine-induced funk, his best friend Hassan proposes a road trip. They somehow end up in a small town in Tennessee. There they get recruited by a businesswoman to gather the life stories of the town’s inhabitants to preserve the history of the community. With the help of Lindsey, the businesswoman’s daughter, Colin sets out to write a mathematical theorem that can explain all of his past relationships and predict the outcome of future ones. Nothing seems to go exactly as planned for any of them, but it’s definitely a summer to remember.

The characterizations in this book are fantastic. Every single character feels fleshed out and distinct. Since it’s Colin’s story, the book itself kind of has a Colin flavor (footnotes, tangents, etc.), but every other character still feels unique. Even the town of Gutshot has a distinct personality which comes through in not only it’s physical characteristics, but also the personalities that inhabit it. The book is pretty quiet, when you get right down to it, and it’s partially the strength of the characters that make it so remarkable.

An Abundance of Katherines revolves around a number of themes, many of which are quite intriguing. I was particularly impressed that the themes carry through all the way to the end and it is these themes, and not anything happening in particular, that make the ending so satisfying. The idea of a search to remember and understand everything is possibly the strongest, and certainly one that carries through to every major character, but the idea of words and formulas representing anything and everything is pretty central as well. Mr. Green plays with these ideas in interesting ways and really asks his readers to think about them.

There are so many strengths to talk about in this book – the themes, the writing, the characters, even the math itself. I have a feeling that every reader is going to find something a little different in it, and that makes it all the more worth reading. An Abundance of Katherines really is one of the best young adult books I’ve read and I would absolutely recommend it. It’s got great ideas, interesting characters, fantastic writing and best of all, it does an amazing job of inviting it’s readers to think.

- Publisher’s Description

- John Green’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Objectification in Vogue’s Ads

For a long time I got Vogue, the fashion magazine. This was primarily because I like to look at pretty pictures, since I tend to find the articles pretty insipid. I’ve tried to cancel Vogue twice. It just kept coming. After a while I decided to stop worrying about this and just keep looking at the pretty pictures since they weren’t actually charging me for the magazines that I asked them not to send me in the first place. Recently I’ve gotten increasingly annoyed with it, however, and have managed to get them to stop coming altogether (much to my relief). What finally put me over the edge with Vogue was actually not an article (although the piece where a writer froze herself in the interests of maintaining youth and beauty came close) – it was actually the ads.

I hold magazines responsible for everything they print, including the ads, particularly a magazine with a name like Vogue. See, they can approve or disapprove of an ad. It’s their magazine. Even if you buy ad space, if the ad you send in isn’t something they approve of for their publication, they can refuse to print it and then offer to print a different ad or refund the money. For a magazine like Vogue, a company may very well make a whole new ad if one is refused. So while the company is primarily at fault for making the ad, Vogue is at fault for giving approval of it by printing it.

The single worst ad that I found in a Vogue was, sadly, in the “Power Issue” (March 2009). It was for Jimmy Choo – a shoe company. It was a set of three images on a two-page spread. The image that made me really angry was on the top half of the right-hand page (here is the image). It showed a woman’s body from about her waist to just above her knee with one leg curled up so that its entirety was in the shot. The woman is wearing a white crocheted swimsuit with ties at the hips and open sides. On her feet are worked leather ankle strap stilettos with very high and very pointy heels. The heel of the visible shoe is pushed into the inside of the opposite thigh, high up near her crotch, and it looks rather painful. Her one visible hand, with its long, shiny, red fingernails, is teasingly pulling on one of the ties on her swimsuit. This is totally a bondage porn shot – the heels pressing into the woman’s flesh, the blood-red nails, the tease that she’s about to reveal more, the ties on the swimsuit and the tight cropping of the shot showing us only her crotch and surrounding areas. She’s not a person, she’s a sex toy.

It really bothered me how dehumanized this image (and numerous others like it) was. This not only didn’t make me want to buy shoes, it made me not want to buy anything from Jimmy Choo ever. I like fashion and try to wear things that look flattering on me, but I choose to wear what I wear for me. Not because it makes me look sexy or might turn a guy on. This ad isn’t trying to sell shoes with women in mind, it’s trying to sell shoes that make women sexy to men. And yeah, sometimes being sexy to men can give a woman self-confidence and make her feel more beautiful than she otherwise would, but that’s not what this is trying to say it does. This is just objectification.

Book: Nightmare on Zombie Island

Nightmare on Zombie IslandNightmare on Zombie Island
Paul D. Storrie
illustrated by David Witt
2008 (Graphic Universe/Lerner)

Previously I wrote about The Time Travel Trap, which is the best book I’ve read so far from the Twisted Journeys series. Today I want to tell you about Nightmare on Zombie Island, which is the worst from the series so far. You are a kid tagging along on an archeological expedition for no very well explained reason to an island said to have a history of zombie infestation. There’s an interesting and elaborate backstory for the island involving pirates and plantation slave curses and treasure. Everyone is warned up front about what will make the zombies rise from their graves. Despite this warning, there is no way to prevent someone from the party raising the zombies (it’s not always the same person). Then it’s all about survival.

There are 28 endings in this book. You survive in less than a quarter of them and there is only one ending where the zombies are actually defeated, every other survival ending involves fleeing the island and leaving it overrun with zombies. There is no ending where everyone survives. This would all be fine, except that the choices you make feel really random and entirely powerless. As I said, you are a kid on an archeological expedition. Most of the adults don’t listen to you most of the time (and when they do, it usually seems weird). Your choices frequently amount to “go for help” or “save yourself” and often you can die either way. You can die falling down a hole or drowning as well as being a victim of the zombies.

I really liked the idea of this book. A book where you are coping with a zombie attack is a great idea, perfect for a choose-your-own-adventure story! But every choice in this book feels so powerless, so far from heroic that it was really disappointing. I wasn’t surprised when I kept finding endings where my character died. Of course he died, he was powerless and stupid! Never, even in the ending where we defeated the zombies, was my character really thinking about doing so. He was always focused on survival. That little mental shift would have made a huge difference! I really hope someone takes the idea behind his book and does it again, but makes the character controlled by the reader capable of heroics. In this type of story, your character should be able to prevail and should be interested in doing so. Yes, there should be failure endings, but there needs to be ways to succeed! “Ways” plural, not “way” singular.

- Publisher’s Description

- Paul D. Storrie’s Website
- David Witt’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Artful Reading

Artful Reading
Bob Raczka
2008 (Millbrook/Lerner)

Artful Reading is a collection of paintings spanning several centuries and many countries with one thing in common: they all depict people reading. The text celebrates all the places you can read, how much fun reading can be, all the different things that can be read and more. The images are large and beautifully represented, so the details can be easily poured over. The text is great for reading aloud to a group or for a child just beginning to read by themselves. This is a very beautiful book that celebrates both reading and art.

The variety of paintings and styles is fantastic ranging from the abstract Picasso of two women perusing a book to the almost photograph-like Vermeer of a man reading maps. There are famous paintings as well as obscure ones, but all are interesting and stick to the theme of people reading. The text is simple, perfect for a child just learning to read alone, in a large, easy-to-read font with important words highlighted. More information is provided in smaller print in the back about each painting and artist, so that curious readers can learn more about any particular image that catches their attention.

Due to the format and theme, this book would be excellent in a classroom and could easily be used in an art or reading lesson. It’s images invite the reader to sit and stare at them, but the text reads well as a read-aloud or a beginning reader. I’d highly recommend this book for a classroom, library or curious child. It’s fun and the art is fantastic!

- Publisher’s Description

- Bob Raczka’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Something Borrowed

Something Borrowed
Emily Giffin
2004 (St. Martin’s)

Rachel accidentally falls in love with her best friend’s fiance only a few months before the wedding, which would be bad enough if he hadn’t fallen in love with her right back. Rachel worries that she’s risking the loss of a great friendship if she pursues the romance, but fears that she might loose the love of her life if she lets it go. So she ignores it and waits for Dex to do something (it’s his wedding, after all, she reasons). Everyone offers advice, but it has to come down to Rachel and Dex, and Darcy (the bride), deciding for themselves.

This book had promise. The premise could have gone really interesting places and the writing was actually pretty good. That can all fall apart if the main character can’t carry it, though, and Rachel was pretty weak. She was set up early on as a smart, modern woman who tended to always do the right thing to move forward and make the people around her happy (although not always herself). Her voice and actions in the book, however, did not live up to this description. She showed herself to be not very bright about even obvious things she spent too much time thinking about (like Darcy’s lie about getting into Notre Dame) and frequently relied on everyone around her to move her life forward. Characters who are that passive aren’t that much fun to read about and her unwillingness to take any sort of action frequently made the story drag.

Moral questions are at the core of this book. Is it ok to fall in love with your friend’s fiance? Is there a point of no return in an engagement? Is it ok to keep sleeping with your fiance even if you’re in love with someone else? One character states that there aren’t moral absolutes, that the reality is more complicated than that, and the issues are frequently grappled with by the cast of characters. This is one of the biggest sources of tension in the book, so it’s very frustrating that they are swept under the rug at the end in favor of an ending where none of them need to be dealt with any more. I know that romance novels like happy endings, but this was ridiculous. If you’re going to set up a situation as realistic and make the moral issues so central, it’s kind of unfair to just sweep it all up into a nice ending where none of the messy moral issues actually need to be dealt with. It makes them sort of rhetorical questions and reduces the interest and seriousness of your story’s premise.

I found this book very disappointing. It’s not the type of thing I normally read, but once I started it I honestly hoped that it would live up to the very interesting beginning. The characters just drove me crazy and the plot dragged because of it. The ending was unbelievably disappointing and ruined the whole experience for me. I’d rather pick up something by Meg Cabot the next time I’m in the mood for something romantic in the chick-lit vein – she has more well-drawn characters and usually very satisfying endings! This book was slow and disappointing and I don’t recommend it.

- Publisher’s Description

- Emily Giffin’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Perseus

Perseus: The Hunt for Medusa’s Head
Paul D. Storrie
illustrated by Thomas Yeates
2008 (Graphic Universe/Lerner)

It’s been theorized that the Greek heroes were early prototypes for the comic book superheroes of the modern era, so it’s not terribly surprising that the escapades of these ancient heroes are being translated to comic format. In this graphic novel adaption of the Perseus story we see his heroic tale from his birth to his death. The heroism of Perseus is showcased here as he saves his mother and wife and slays monsters with the help of gods and goddesses.

I found the female characters in this version to be different from their typical portrayals. Danae was shown as more passive. Usually the story states that she refuses King Polydectes on her own, that she is hiding from the king when Perseus returns because he is so furious at her refusal that he wants to kill her. This book had her hiding because the king was going to force her to marry him. The implications in other versions were that he couldn’t force her if she kept refusing, but in this one that doesn’t seem to be the case. Danae appears to be constantly in need of a man to protect and save her.

Andromeda is the other major female character in Perseus’s story. She normally doesn’t have much personality, we get told she’s chained to a rock to be eaten, but she has nothing to say about it. The Andromeda in this book, however, has lots of things to say. She gives a speech about how she must die for the good of her people and seems to wholeheartedly believe that, which makes one wonder why she is so pleased when she’s rescued. Wouldn’t being rescued mean that her people are still not safe from Poseidon? Then she rushes her wedding when she must know that her former fiance will be upset about this, again endangering her people. So we see a princess who says all the right things, but acts completely differently. It was confusing and disappointing.

I have really liked a number of the books from the Graphic Myths and Legends series, but I wasn’t as fond of this one. It was well told, but the women were re-written to be contradictory and weak. The women in Greek myths aren’t always strong, independent women to begin with, but neither Danae or Andromeda is usually this bad and so I fail to see why the changes were made. I’m afraid that I can’t recommend this one. There are better retellings of Greek myths than this out there – even some from this same series!

- Publisher’s Description

- Paul D. Storrie’s Website
- Thomas Yeates’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

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