Saturday, December 31, 2011

It's New Years Eve Again

I had every intention of steering clear of this holiday, of refraining from the "this is what 2011 was like" nostalgia, of doing any kind of "looking forward to 2012" thing. So hopefully this is not that. But considering last year on this day, I was walking back from Lake Michigan, soaking wet from falling through the ice, I needed to say simply this:

2011 changed everything. Since that day at Foster Beach, I have told both my grandmothers I'm gay, excommunicated myself from the Catholic Church, moved into my own apartment, joined a writing studio, been rejected from all seven graduate schools, reapplied at the last minute (which meant writing 90 pages in less than three weeks), watched my brother come out to my family, quit both my jobs, started writing full-time, learned to play the harmonica, chopped off all my hair into a Mad Men do, started a blog and a website, became a radio essayist with NPR, had an incredible partnership with a beautiful woman, landed an editorial internship with The Stranger, and planned a move to Seattle.

During that time, Steve Jobs passed away, Charlie Sheen went off the deep-end, and Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi were killed. There was an over-publicized royal wedding, under-publicized police brutality, and national protesters. We saw an American Snowpacalypse, a Japanese earthquake, and a Somalian famine. Every previous and current political figure was accused of sexual harassment. The News of the World closed. The 10 year anniversary of 9/11 passed. The remaining Iraqi troops were pulled. The phrase "debt-ceiling" was used more in 2011 than any other year in history combined.

It was all kinds of crazy, but the year really did kick a lot of ass. And everyone knows that the Mayans are right. We've got until December 21st to take risks, take chances, take trips, take opportunities, and give 'em hell. So 2012: bring it on.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: Julie Anne Peters' "Keeping You A Secret"

Seventeen-year-old Holland Jaeger knows what will happen. She will get into one of the great colleges her mother has picked out, marry her boyfriend, Seth (who isn't so bad), and become a lawyer because that makes the most sense. But then Holland meets Cece Goddard, a queer transfer student and LGBT rights activist. Suddenly, Holland isn't sure of anything. Little does Holland know that her mother's suppressed homophobia and Cece's complicated past might transform everything. And does anyone really know what they want anyway? Among coming-of-age tales and the undergrad applications process, Julie Anne Peters' Keeping You A Secret also dives deep into the powerful consequences of bullying and dishonesty.

Structure: 4 out of 5 stars

The story follows Holland's senior year at Southglenn High School, from her introduction to art class and Cece to her relationships with her stepsister, boyfriend, and "friends," many of whom turn on her. The author maintains a constant momentum, with a straightforward plot and short chapters. While the story doesn't abound in too many twists and surprises, the few life-changing moments are potent, palpable, and heartfelt.

One of the strongest parts of Peters' novel was the way she showcased other minorities at Southglenn - the Goths, the punks, the performers. She even drew a nice parallel to Mrs. Jaegar's past. Instead of featuring a simple coming out story, the author presents the difficulties of acceptance through all types of teenage experiences.

Character: 4 out of 5 stars

Holland is fierce, sassy, and incredibly brave. She has spent her life shoved into the "model teenager" mold by her mother, her school counselor, and her boyfriend. Once she realizes the things she does want, Holland experiences an amazing shift. The same goes for Cece. As a character who appears fearless, she certainly has her fair share of skeletons in the closet (pun intended). Some of the outside characters confused me at times, however. Every so often, I felt unsettled by Holland's mom or Ms. Lucas, the school counselor. The two ladies would change personalities quite abruptly at various moments throughout the story, which sometimes felt in character and sometimes didn't. This was balanced out with the multitude of other secondary characters like Faith (Holland's Goth stepsister), Winslow (the orange-haired artist), and Leah (her nostalgic best friend), all of whom offer great support during Holland's journey and cause their own trouble along the way.

Voice: 4 out of 5 stars

The reader gets to see, hear, and feel Holland's story throughout the novel. As a seventeen-year-old, Holland has been given an immense amount of responsibility, and her narrative voice offers a maturity far beyond her years. I would have liked to see just a little more. While the author writes about Holland's gamut of emotions, there are some moments I would have loved to see fleshed out a bit further, like when Holland breaks her news to Seth, when Holland chooses a college, or even when Holland and Cece exchange their first "I love you." Her narrative voice is spot-on for her character - I just want to know more about her reactions. Overall, a great female protagonist.

Keeping You A Secret was first published in 2003 by Little, Brown and Company. The novel has received countless awards since its release, including the first ever Alphabet Award and a 2004 nomination for the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults.

The learn more about other Julie Anne Peters books, check out her website.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot"

If the literary world needed to wait nine years after Middlesex to read another Jeffrey Eugenides stroke of genius, The Marriage Plot is certainly worth it. The book follows Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead, who all left for an undergraduate degree at Brown University in the 1980s. Madeleine, a Victorian literary nut, declares a personal "no men" rule, while heavily researching love, relationships, and marriage circa Jane Austen for her senior thesis. Mitchell, of course, falls in love with Madeleine and explores religion while trying to win her over. But Mitchell is no competition for Leonard, an up-and-coming scientist, who attempts to woo Madeleine over the microscopes in the Chem lab. While the initial setting could easily describe a grocery store chicklit paperback, Eugenides transforms the cliche "love triangle" into a modern, biting, and fresh new look at brain vs. heart. From beginning to end, The Marriage Plot delivers new ideas about everything from feminism to parental relationships to the big post-graduation question mark of "What do I do now?"

Structure: 5 out of 5 Stars

As per Eugenides style, the author introduces central events early on, giving the reader a false confidence in predictions for future chapters. The plot, of course, unravels and those predictions are turned upside down, leaving the reader pleasantly surprised and eager for more. The author introduces main characters, then jumps to flashbacks and unfolds each character's history, as well as the stories of each mother, father, sister, and friend. Then the novel continues with Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. By the time the reader closes the book on page 406, she/he will likely feel like they have invested in a satisfying history lesson rather than a fictional tale. Chapters vary from short to long, and the book is broken into five main sections. The plot comes full circle multiple times and touches on the "marriage plot" idea from every angle. Great structure. Great plot. Great book.

Character: 5 out of 5 stars

Not a single complaint. Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard are well-constructed, experience severe transformations, and finish the novel with dignity. No holes are left unfilled or any nagging questions left unanswered. While the story doesn't leave the reader unfulfilled, it certainly provides a desire for more. Both the plot and characters end with endless possibilities for sequels, though, on its own, the book stands well.

Voice: 5 out of 5 stars

The three narrators are easily distinguishable by character traits, mannerisms, and personalities within the first line each one speaks. Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard share a strong intellectual brain and yet differ greatly in their individual journeys. Each character voice and story is incredibly compelling. The reader can be knee-deep in Leonard's mind battle while he runs through the streets of Cape Cod, and then in just a paragraph, quickly get sucked into Mitchell's inner anguish over Mother Teresa from his hotel in India.

The book, overall, is witty, sarcastic, and endearing. Eugenides examines that ultimate idea of "the marriage plot" in many specific and general ways. I would highly recommend this novel to all readers, YA and otherwise. The Marriage Plot was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in October 2011 and shouldn't be missed!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A College Experience: Dorms, Finals, Running A Publishing House

At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, students have been hard at work across campus studying for finals, packing for the holiday and, for some, publishing books through the college's indie publishing house, Cornerstone Press. Since 1984, the UWSP's company has been publishing novels from every genre: cookbooks, poetry, non-fiction, YA lit. Save an overseeing supervisor, Cornerstone Press is entirely run by students enrolled in English 349: Editing and Publishing.

What began in the 70s as a simple course about copy editing quickly turned into a full-blown press initiative. In 1984, professor Dan Dietrich transformed English 349 into an opportunity for students to edit, design, produce, market, and sell new releases. Authors from all over the country can now submit proposals for graphic novels, children's books, and memoirs. Then, twice a year, English 349 students choose one script to publish. After a contract is negotiated with the new author, the publishing process begins.

Cornerstone Press' latest Whipped, Not Beaten (writer Melissa Westemeier's satire on relationships) marks the organization's 31st published book. The novel was released early December 2011. Other CP publications include New York Times bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss' first book, Your Annotated, Illustrated College Survival Guide, Volume I (published by Cornerstone Press in 2005).

To submit a script to Cornerstone Press, check out the Submissions tab on the website or the publishing house's Facebook page.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sexism. Stereotypes. Ignorance. #NotBuyingIt

This holiday season, apart from buying local and scouring for last-minute bargains, many shoppers are on the prowl for other deal-breakers: degrading messages.

Earlier this year, the documentary Miss Representation played at the Sundance Film Festival. It spoke about the false idea which girls today have come to know - that they must rely on their looks and sexuality to be accepted. But the people behind the film have worked to get their voices heard in other ways. As an organization, focuses largely on erasing labels and empowering women, and have started the Twitter hashtag #NotBuyingIt to raise awareness over brands, products, and advertisements which negatively distort women. The project was inspired by Girls For a Change, an organization that provides resources to help girls create social change.

Recently, major companies have altered products or taglines due to public complaints surrounding gender stereotypes. In September, JcPenny pulled a girl's shirt with the words "I'm too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me." The tee was targeted for 7-16 year olds. Shortly thereafter, Forever 21 discontinued the sale of a shirt which read "Allergic To Algebra." For weeks, has encouraged shoppers to report back on similarly offensive sweaters, coffee mugs, calendars, posters, and store displays. Their #NotBuyingIt project is intended to build on the recent media awareness in advertising.

December 12th tweet: "Why does offer office & travel gifts for only men? No suggestions for prof women #NotBuyingIt"

December 18th tweet: "Just saw a mug with a 50s housewife saying 'medicated and motivated' #NotBuying It"

The cause, however, is not just about a Macy's sweatshirt or a winter boot ad - hopes to move our society in a new direction. "We've already heard from mothers in New York who've had billboards removed and young people everywhere who are creating media literacy clubs at their schools," the company's blog states. "These actions are making a difference and building momentum towards shirting our entire culture."

If you see misrepresentations of women during holiday shopping, please post to #NotBuyingIt. Let's raise awareness!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book Review: Cheryl Rainfield's "Hunted"

If I could picture the mash-up between Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Stephen King's Carrie, it would be Cheryl Rainfield's Hunted, which was released today. Teenage Caitlyn and her mother are on the run from the government because Caitlyn is a Para (as in, paranormal). As a telepath, she is among many other Paras with a list of extraordinary talents, all of whom are shunned as societal menaces. While on the run, Caitlyn tries to lay low in a major city, but instead finds herself deep in an underground plot. She needs to decide whether or not to join the ranks, oppose the cause, or just keep running.

Structure: 4 out of 5 stars

Rainfield fluctuates between short and epic chapters, which creates a great environment for readers. The almost 400 page novel takes place over a matter of several action-filled weeks, with frequent flashbacks to the past. Caitlyn's story is jammed with layers of memories (both her own and the experiences of those around her), which are tackled chapter by chapter. At times, it is slightly difficult to distinguish between characters in memory sequences because Caitlyn hears so many different thoughts, but overall, a great set-up. The action keeps the reader engaged and the chapters create the ideal amount of anticipation.

Character: 4.5 out 5 stars

Caitlyn is fierce, brave, and witty - everything I love in a female protagonist. The reader sees the main character not only fend for the rights of her fellow Paras, but also for other minorities at school, the less represented ethnic groups, the queers, and even the quiet kids. As a leader, Caitlyn's biggest flaw is her desire to help too many people at once. But readers love her from the first moment. The feminist in me was only slightly perturbed by the way the protagonist falls so quickly in love with the captain of the swim team, Alex, and the way Caitlyn, at first, turns to him to make everything better. But the two swiftly become an equal pair and seek the support of each other during difficult struggles.

In the same way, the feminist in me was delighted to see the secondary story of Rachel, an out and proud lesbian who stands up for Para rights. I would have liked to see more of Rachel as a character, but I look forward to her story in a possible sequel(?). As for the cast of characters, Rainfield offers an outstanding set of powerful female roles: Caitlyn, her mother, Rachel, Mrs. Vespa (the badass librarian), and even Irene, the manipulating enemy from the other side.

Voice: 5 out of 5 stars

Rainfield has mastered character voices in this novel. Though Caitlyn is the sole narrator, the main character also reads minds and hears thoughts. So, in an incredibly unique way, the author presents an indefinite number of character voices, histories, memories, and experiences, all told through Caitlyn, who can see and feel it all. The reader learns about Caitlyn's brother, Rachel's parents, Alex's mother, the girl in Social Studies, the two boys walking down the hall, and the motel owner, all within the confines of Caitlyn's thoughts. A refreshing take on multiple character voices, and one Rainfield writes very well.

As a whole, Hunted is powerful, surprising, adventurous, and heartfelt. I recommend it to those interested in the supernatural, and anyone who can relate to a really complicated high school experience.

Hunted was published by WestSide Books. It released today in the U.S. and is scheduled for a Canadian release in January.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The "Obvious" Answer To Controversy? Avoid Real Life.

LGBT-themed YA books have certainly seen their share of disputes, and topics like alcohol abuse, sex, and really anything Judy Blume ever wrote about have endured an equal amount of argument among teachers, librarians, and parents. For some, these topics in general are just "too dark" for young adults.

The Wall Street Journal recently posted an article relaying the apparent horrors in today's YA lit. "If books show us the world," reporter Meghan Cox Gurdon says, "teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is." Drugs. Incest. Dysfunctional families. The article insists authors try to reverse this trend, and go back to books where topics weren't as violent. Without change, she believes today's YA audience will be in trouble. "If you think it matters what is inside a young person's mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads," Gurdon continues.

Yes, and by hiding life topics from teens, youth won't possibly encounter controversial issues in film, television, the Internet, and in real life. Let's make sure to get rid of a safe learning environment, and prevent the opportunity for teens to ask questions.

(The article goes on to list two recommended reading lists: 1) Books For Young Men and 2) Books For Young Women. Because apparently recommending books to both genders is too much.)

Of the many dark topics that some adults hope to keep quiet from teens, a prominent controversial theme is suicide. As such, author Michael Thomas Ford's Suicide Notes met doubtful readers in 2008. The book follows a teenager named Jeff through a psych ward after his failed attempt at taking his own life. Jeff, struggling with his identity and sexuality, meets a group of young adults who have all survived intended suicides. Ford successfully navigates both the topics of homosexuality and suicide in a way I hope other authors attempt; he treats each issue as a complex idea, rather than diseases that the protagonist tries to hide. As Teen Ink says, "Suicide Notes is able to make something beautiful from something normally regarded with hesitation or disdain." Instead of avoiding the two complex issues altogether, as Gurdon suggests, Ford shows his readers that life involves challenges, and there are healthy, available solutions.

Gurdon's article exploded throughout the media when it was published in June 2011. Authors, bloggers, teens, and adults alike viciously opposed Gurdon's ideas. Author Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why, also a suicide-themed novel) explains that it's not about censorship or pride. "For writers," Asher says, "it's not that. [A lot of adults] don't understand the power of books dealing with these subjects." Both Ford and Asher try to show hesitant readers that knowing how the world works provides the opportunity to learn and understand. "It doesn't mean that your teen is going to be facing these things just because they're reading about them," Asher says.

If YA is a crucial resource for teens, to suggest censorship or sugarcoating topics is only a disservice. Authors and activists have been working to keep Gurdon's recommendations out of literature for good.

Recent controversial YA books to check out
(just to stick it to the man)...
But I Love Him by Amanda Garcia
Lie by Caroline Bock
Shine by Lauren Myracle

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Time After Time, Lauper Offers Resources for Queer Teens

With a tip of her hat towards Dan Savage's It Gets Better project, songwriter and LGBT activist Cyndi Lauper has created a similar project called the Give a Damn campaign. The artist sought a means to both raise awareness about issues concerning gay teens and educate viewers of all sexualities on how to help.

The Give a Damn Campaign was founded in April 2010. The website contains statistics, articles, and information on the biggest problems LGBT teens face, like homelessness, abandonment, and bullying. "Imagine sending your child off to school everyday, knowing once they're there, they'll be called names, get threatened and shoved, even kicked or punched," the website asks of straight/non-questioning viewers. "Imagine if your brother or sister, or your nephew, niece, grandson or granddaughter told their teachers about the bullying - and their teachers didn't do a damn thing about it." Unlike other teen issue webpages, the Give A Damn site takes the conversation a step farther - it speaks widely to both struggling youth and unknowing citizens and provides a wealth of information for anyone interested in LGBT topics. It provides a means to help, though conversation starters, places to volunteer, and ways to donate.

Perhaps the most helpful link for visiting teens, however, is the "Personal Stories" section of each page. Young adults from every background have submitted their battles with parents, teachers, peers, and society. On the "Youth Homelessness" tab, a boy named Ryan describes the ongoing fight with his family. Ryan's parents verbally and emotionally abused him, related his existence to that of a child with Down Syndrome, and forced him into a conversion therapy organization called the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality to be "cured." On the campaign's site, Ryan pleads with viewers: "The lives of your friends, that kid down the street, your brother, sister, mom, dad, aunt, uncle or 6th cousin twice removed, count on you, so please, join all of us, and Give a Damn."

In a similar fashion to It Gets Better, Lauper extends the project into a Youtube channel where celebrities and fellow activists can upload clips about supporting youth who are enduring hate crimes, unfriendly faces, and a sense of loss. "It is time that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is afforded to everyone equally," the channel states. "Get Informed. Get Involved. Give a Damn!"

To donate to Give a Damn, please click here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Review: Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief"

The rise of Nazi Germany has been told through many different voices - documentaries, films, a young girl in a secret attic. The narrator recounting the reign of Adolf Hitler in The Book Thief, however, is Death. Markus Zusak's 2006 novel follows the (un)life and times of Death as it works double-time throughout World War II, and becomes infatuated with an eleven-year-old German girl, named Liesel Meminger. A.K.A. The book thief. Meminger learns to read and write from her foster father, steals books only when necessary, and befriends Max Vandenberg, the Jew her foster family has been hiding in their small basement. The books Meminger comes to steal become incredible coping tools for the small town dealing with the war.

Structure: 5 out 5 stars

Zusak breaks his novel into ten parts. Each new part lists six mini-chapter titles, which are both telling and intriguing. The reader easily follows the multiple story lines, and enjoys the short, powerful sections of this 550 page adventure. The action never lulls, from Meminger's fruit-stealing escapades with her best friend, Rudy Steiner, to the jam-packed action of WWII. Zusak sets up an incredible novel.

Character: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the first time I've read a book by one narrator, realized I was hearing the story of a different character, and didn't feel I was getting the short end of either stick. Death's account, both historically and emotionally accurate, fills in the details for Liesel Meminger's life. We encounter the souls Death must retrieve and feel his own weary tale. At the same time, the reader learns about Meminger's habits, fears, dreams. Through both characters, we see inside the mind of Hans Hubermann, the girl's accordion-playing heart-of-gold foster father, Max Vandenberg, the 24-year-old Jewish writer hiding behind a stack of paint cans in the basement, and many other unique and passionate characters on Himmel Street in Munich. With so many people around - the mayor's wife, the crazy next-door neighbor, the shop owner down the street - the reader feels every minute of Nazi Germany's heartaches and victories.

Voice: 5 out of 5 stars

Perfect, if ever a narrator's voice could be. Death is witty, sassy, and sorrowful. He feels the burden of his profession. One of Zusak's finer ideas in this book was to be real. Death, as it would seem, does not sugar coat anything. He prepares the reader for a pending character's death, a horrible accident, or a bombing far in advance. Death's periodic announcements are well-received by the reader, who appreciates the heavy and specific foreshadowing, but is still surprised by the event itself. The author provides a powerful voice to lead his story, a voice which readers respect.

Overall, this is one of the best books I've read this year. I highly recommend it to both adult and young adult readers, and anyone who wants a good kick out of death, for once.

The Book Thief was published in 2006 by Knopf, and has won multiple honors since then, including the 2007 American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults award.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Judy Blume: FOREVER Banned, Forever Censored

Beloved young adult, middle grade, and adult author, Judy Blume, is no stranger to censorship. Throughout her career, Blume's books such as Forever, Blubber, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret have been banned from schools and libraries all over the country due to controversial material.

Blume spoke to NPR in recent weeks regarding banned reading, and books with real life topics like sexuality, smoking, and abuse. "[Censorship] is contagious, the desire to control everything in your children's lives, including what they read," Blume says. "But I think it's more than that. It's what we don't want our children to know, what we don't want to talk to our children about, and if they read it, they'll know it, or they'll question it."

The author published her first book, The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo, in 1969. Since then, Blume has been named one of the most banned children's authors in the United States by the American Library Association, and the author has faced controversy over content related to body image, religion, divorce, rape, and many other topics.

Her 1973 novel Deenie describes a seventh grader's scary scoliosis diagnosis and the way Deenie copes with her medical issue, including whether or not her crush will find her new back brace repulsive. Among other things, the novel contains conversations regarding intimacy, masturbation, and menstruation. In 2004, Spring Hill Elementary in Brooksville, FL removed Deenie from public use. Many parents were outraged by the novel. A mother complained that "such content is not appropriate, in any form" at a middle school. Students were only able to check out Blume's book from the library with a written note of parental consent.

Are You There God? It's Me, Maragaret (1970) is one of Blume's most banned novels. The book follows sixth grader, Margaret, while she journeys to find a suitable a religion (with a Christian mother and Jewish father). Along the way, the narrator purchases her first bra, experiences her first period, and debates whether or not she should speak up to her friends with her different, independent opinion. Shortly after the book was published, an irate woman phone Blume and asked if she was a Communist, then hung up the phone. "I never did figure out if she equated Communism with menstruation or religion," Blume says on her website.

After surviving several literary confrontations, Blume joined the National Coalition Against Censorship, which was founded in 1974. The organization combines the efforts of over 50 non-profit arts, literary, and educational groups, as well as many individuals, in the fight to "promote freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression and oppose censorship it all its forms." NCAC has tackled controversy regarding hate speech, music, science, visual art, youth, the LGBT community and many other issues. Much of the time, the NCAC deals with book censorship among middle grades and elementary schools, and often Blume is a part of it.

As an author, Judy Blume continues to write about characters going through puberty, getting married, or simply trying to survive. Many of her books have been banned, but she remains an advocate for free speech, and even offers tips to kids, teachers, librarians, and writers about what to do if they face censorship. When it comes down to it, Blume is hopeful for change - the author notes on her website that censors might feel differently about her books if they read letters young adults had sent her. One of Blume's favorites:

Dear Judy,
I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am.
That's why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13

Sunday, December 4, 2011

LGBT Figures and Celebrities: Where are the Queer Biographies for Kids?

Steve Jobs - Walter Issacson's biography of the late, great inventor - has been at the top of book-selling charts for weeks. Other great biographies documenting the lives of Michelle Obama, Laura Hillenbrand, Keith Richards, Harvey Milk, and Mickey Mantle can be found at any local library or book store. Of the leaders listed above, however, only Harvey Milk's story is available in the form of a children's biography. Not only that, Milk's story is one of the rare LGBT biographies available for children.

Teacher Dana Rudolph wanted her third graders to read about Frank Kameny, one of the founding fathers of the gay rights movement, before the class went to a memorial service near the U.S. Capitol this year. But there is no kid's biography available for Kameny, or any other leader in the movement. Rudolph writes in Bay Windows that she is disappointed for two important reasons - historical and practical.

One: "Because children deserve to know about all of the major civil rights movements of our time," Rudulph says. "They deserve to learn, when relevant, if and how people's significant relationships and struggles against inequality impacted their lives, no matter what the reason for their fame." Teachers have the desire to educate their students about major historical events, and need the resources to do so.

Two: "For young people who are LGBT or questioning, or who have LGBT parents, it is important to see LGBT people achieving in many areas of life." How can teachers tell kids to believe in their dreams when information about LGBT role models and their accomplishments are not readily available? More than that, teaching students of every sexual orientation provides awareness, knowledge, and, ultimately, acceptance.

In 2009, the National School Climate Survey found that students in schools with queer-friendly curricula were "less likely to report hearing homophobic remarks or negative comments about gender expression, and less likely to feel unsafe or experience victimization because of their sexual orientation and gender expression." Knowledge is power, and students who learn about the diversity of religions, ethnicities, backgrounds, and sexualities are more likely to accept others as different.

After all, that's why California now requires gay history lessons in schools. As of July 2011, all California schools will begin incorporating lessons about LGBT historical figures and events, and will continue to do so from here on out. New textbooks are being printed across the state to include information about crucial queer milestones. Besides the obvious need for inclusive knowledge, the New York Times also notes the law was promoted in big part "to combat bullying of gay and lesbian students."

"There is an increasing awareness in the public and among elected officials that we have to do something to address the problems of bullying, and the negative consequences" for queer students," says director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, Carolyn Laub. While some politicians like Republican assemblyman, Tim Donelly, oppose the idea, the widespread response has been positive and hopeful.

"This is definitely a step forward," says Mark Leno, California's first openly gay male state senator. "We are failing our students when we don't teach them about the broad diversity of human experience."

But as Rudolph points out, this new curricula would be much simpler in the younger grades if LGBT biographies for children were made available. She urges publishers - both independent houses and big time distributors like Scholastic (who have printed queer fiction in the past) - to embrace the demand. "We may not have won full LGBT equality yet," Rudolph says, "but we have had many wins along the way. It is time that we start to write LGBT history -- for all ages -- and pass on some of those victories to the next generation."

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Mic. A Stage. A Pen. A Page.

For me, there's nothing as powerful as kids finding hope in the arts. Slam poetry embodies performance, literature, creativity, and teamwork, and no one does it better than Chicago: a low-income high school junior puts down a gun to join a family of poets who speak the truth about everyday life. A 17-year-old girl works through her difficult childhood through words in a notebook. An inner city African-American teen teaches his peers about respecting women in spoken word. This is Louder Than A Bomb.

Now in its 10th year, the annual Chicago event is the largest youth poetry slam in the world. Louder Than a Bomb - founded by Youth Chicago Authors artists, Kevin Coval and Anna West - has a simple, but powerful goal: "bring teens together across racial, gang, and social economic line" where young adults embrace "self-expression and community via poetry, oral story-telling, and hip-hop spoken word." Every year, teenagers from Forest Park to Evanston to the West Loop to 116th street come together to share their words and their stories. Each team presents four individual poems and a four-person group piece.

In 2010, directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel released their documentary Louder Than A Bomb, which followed four high school teams as they prepared for the 2008 Chicago competition: poets Nate, Adam, Nova, and a group called "the Steinmenauts." Four unique story lines from four different points of view.

For everyone in Louder Than A Bomb, Nate Marshall is a legend. He's been in the competition the longest, and leaves his audience overwhelmed by his passion and speech. In 2007, he performed a poem called "Look." Onlookers jumped to their feet, cheering the poet's lines like, "my ego is Langston huge"..."but a mic, a stage, a pen, a page helped end my rage" (see a slightly older Marshall perform the piece on the New York Times website). Marshall is a son, uncle, brother, friend, but mainly, a teacher. He offers his words to his peers, but in turn, wants them to learn how to fully express themselves. 2008 was the last year he could compete. Instead of concentrating on winning his final competition, he dedicated his time to the younger members of his team. Marshall wanted the students to learn the raw sense of slam poetry so they could continue to work, write, and teach each other long after he left the school. Slamming is about a group effort.

Even so, his most famous line speaks for itself: "like FDR's New Deal, I'm gonna be the first spoken word brotha with a"

On the other side of the city, the Steinmetz "Steinmenauts" team enjoyed its first place win in the first year they entered, 2007. Many of the team's poets have nothing else but poetry - not a good family life, money situation, or grade point average. But they have words and each other.

In the 2008 competition, the Steinmenauts group piece called "Counting Graves" brought a whole new meaning to spoken word. When the students took the stage (in person and through the documentary), they "wrest[ed] us into the mind of a teen grieving his mother and brother murdered in a drive-by intended for him," said Kamaria Porter of Filmspotting. "This piece, more than any other, embodies the purpose and possibilities of slam poetry." Watch the original footage of "Counting Graves" here.

Louder Than A Bomb brings students of different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and families together to share mutual words and experiences. Judges rate their poems, but most teens are there for the friendship, the passion, and the stories. As the competitors tell each other every year, "The point is not the point. The point is the poetry."

The 2012 Louder Than a Bomb finals are March 10, 2012 at The Vic.

Check out the film's website for information about upcoming screenings.