It was noisy. Crowded. Staff hurriedly moved tables, brought out more chairs, arranged a rough semicircle around an open area of scuffed wooden floor. My friend and I nabbed two seats and ordered drinks at the bar. We were above a restaurant downtown, and soon all available seats filled as the actors took to their circular center stage.
It was King John, it was free, and it was our first Back Room Shakespeare show.
I had never read this Shakespeare play before, so I did over the weekend before the show. It gave me a sense of the characters and the narrative, certainly, but little else. Reading Shakespeare outside of a classroom, without the benefit of discussion, means that some things can get lost in translation. And before this show, I never fully appreciated how important it was to see Shakespeare performed. We spend so much time in school reading and analyzing the plays that experiencing them falls by the wayside.
Especially experiencing them in a “lowbrow” setting…the way Shakespeare intended.
The Globe Theatre, in its heyday, was open to all, with the regular folk standing in the pit for an English penny and the upper class obtaining seats in the gallery. Food and drink were carried around much like you’d see in a baseball stadium, and the audience was not quiet—talking, eating, and drinking was expected. Plays at that time used very little scenery or props, and the actors themselves only rehearsed a few times before putting on the show, since they generally performed roughly six plays a week.
Seeing Shakespeare in the backs of bars and in restaurants feels like a return to the basics, and that’s exactly how Chicago’s Back Room Shakespeare Project prefers it.
The actors rehearse once. They have very few stage props. They start each show with bear-baiting, only instead of using an actual bear and dogs, which would be horrifying and totally illegal, BRSP’s bear-baiting involves one person on each side of the room representing a bear or a dog, tasked with winning a game of charades or finding each other blindfolded. The prize is a shot of whiskey. And then they give you the Bard, sliding modern-day slang and references into the lines for a laugh and a way to better understand the context of the scene. With BRSP, the Bard is almost always free, and open to everyone.
I had seen Shakespeare performed before, but never like this. Never in a way that was so accessible. Never with such glorious gender-bending of major roles.
For King John, Philip the Bastard was played by a woman with all the swagger and arrogance befitting to the character. This same actress, Elizabeth Laidlaw, played Titus Andronicus in a later show, transfixing the audience with her performance, her Gwendoline Christie–esque presence, and her dedication to the role.
On a snowy winter’s night, we sat in the back room of a restaurant on the north side to see The Tempest. I like that play, but I never really had patience for the comical scenes with Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. They felt unnecessary and so tonally different that I couldn’t understand their inclusion…until I saw it performed. It clicked for me, why audiences would enjoy these moments of levity. I found myself laughing. It worked on the stage.
When we saw Othello in a German pub on the west side, I fully understood what it means to witness these plays with a large group; to see how invested we all became in the narrative. When Iago’s machinations played out and were revealed, we hissed and murmured angrily; when Othello killed Desdemona, we were shocked into silence, hearts in our throats, tears in our eyes. See for yourself. The below clip is Act 5, Scene 2, where Emilia (Alex Weisman) confronts Othello (James Vincent Meredith) and Iago (Samuel Taylor) after Desdemona’s murder.
It’s a lot more powerful to hear Emilia’s cries of “My husband!” instead of just reading it on the page, isn’t it?
Measure for Measure was performed at the height of the #metoo movement, and it weighed heavily on my mind when Isabella looked at us helplessly and asked, “To whom should I complain?…Who would believe me?” This play was first performed in 1604. The only things that change are the names.
There’s a reason why Shakespeare’s stories are retold in different mediums to this day. It’s not just the language, although the language is beautiful. It’s the stories. And he’s speaking to everyone, from the gallery to the pit. Haven’t seen a Shakespeare play since high school? Worried that you still won’t get what they’re saying?
Don’t. Let the actors tell you the story. Let the rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse (the rhythm of our heartbeat) set the tone. You don’t hear that when you’re just reading it. It must be said out loud before the language can truly work its magic on you. Seeing Shakespeare performed in bars has given me a new appreciation for the language and how it can be modified (yet preserved) for a modern audience, for its ability to give us women playing generals and bastard kings, and for how it brings people together. I don’t know if I can see Shakespeare any other way now.
Has there ever been a moment where something clicked for you after watching Shakespeare instead of just reading it? Share in the comments!
It’s conventional wisdom that some books are life-changing books. Books are windows into other worlds and other ways of being. See the world? Read a book.
But can you pinpoint what books diverted your life into new directions? Or how exactly they changed the course of your life? I’m going to talk about four books that changed the direction of my life in very different ways. Mild spoilers ahead.
If You’re Afraid of the Dark is the most astonishing little book. It’s filled with delightful, almost surrealistic aphorisms that are accompanied by sweet drawings. There are flying horses, lightbulb necklaces, and clouds for breakfast. It’s a beautiful, life-affirming book with wondrous fantastical elements. I’ve read it countless times ever since I was a child. It still resonates strongly with me. It was even one of the readings at my wedding and it will, hopefully, be read throughout my life’s journeys.
I love it because it presents a positive vision of the world with a surrealistic bent. For those who know me, that’s my jam. I love how the book advises making the best of the situation but in creative ways.
I read this at time when I was really into Holocaust narratives. As a Jewish teenager, I wanted to understand how something so horrible could happen as well as understand the resiliency and resistance of people living through it. I remember initially finding One Hundred Years a real slog. It was critical to use the family tree in the front of the book or one would get horrible lost. But two-thirds of the way through the book, my teacher pointed out that Márquez chose to frame a scene like it was in the Holocaust. And it struck me that there were so many more recent genocidal events that needed to be studied and understood. It was at that moment that my attention turned to studying Latin America and the murderous military dictatorship of the 1960s/’70s/’80s.
I would later get a BA in Latin American history and MA in Latin American Studies. Granted my focus turned to popular culture under socialist/communist governments, but it was the influence of One Hundred Years that set me on that path.
This book helped change my relationship to food. Before I read this book (and met my best friend), I had categories of food I liked and others that I wouldn’t try. But after this book, everything changed. My current policy is that I’ll try almost anything once. I shouldn’t close myself off to food in the expectation that I won’t like it. Try it and then decide. Since then, I’ve eaten such a diversity of tasty food including grubs, blood tofu, and durian! His work also ushered me along the wonderful world of food writing, which now is a central part of my reading. I’ve written about food history here and here.
Also, his chapter about killing a pig changed my view of food and animals. Since then, I’ve been trying to reconcile that the meat I eat belonged to a creature who wanted to live. It hasn’t changed my habits; I’m still a meat eater, but it has given me a respect for my meat in a way I had not in the past.
I am a lifelong Chicagoan but for most of my life, I thought Chicago history was extremely dull. For that matter, I wasn’t a huge fan of American history either. But after reading Sin in the Second City about the incredible Everleigh sisters, madams of the Levee district, that all changed. I realized how gritty and crazy Chicago history could be. There was a lot that happened even in the short lifespan history of this city. Also, the Everleigh sisters were incredible in their own right. However you may feel about prostitution, they were interesting characters worthy of consideration.
Years later, my interest in Chicago history took me into the amazing world of historical reenactments in Chicago. I’ve played Minna Everleigh, one of the sisters, several times, along with other prominent women, like Jane Addams and Nina van Zandt, wife of Haymarket martyr August Spies, married by proxy in jail.
These are four life-changing books that have had a profound influence on my life in very different ways. One Book Rioter talks about a book that scarred her for life here. What books have directly impacted your way of life?
The ides of March are upon us! As the soothsayer famously warned Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “Beware the ides of March.” And then Caesar was murdered. You know the story; the play is one of the most famous books about betrayal of all time.
Shakespeare took this from a real-life Ancient Roman tradition. The Romans celebrated a certain time each month known as the “ides,” usually around the midpoint of a month, depending on the full moon. The ides were dedicated to the god Jupiter and involved several different religious rituals.
Although the calendar we use is different from the Roman calendar, the ides of March correspond roughly to March 15, aka tomorrow. In Shakespeare’s play, the ides are an ill omen, a time for betrayal and murder. Hopefully we all get through March 15 unscathed. In the meantime, here are some books about betrayal and back stabbery (not a word) to get you in the mood.
The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the most famous books about betrayal and revenge. After Dantes is wrongly imprisoned, he learns of a treasure hoard…and decides to escape prison and use the fortune to seek revenge against those responsible for his imprisonment. In order to do that, he recreates himself as the Count of Monte Cristo, a mysterious and wealthy figure unrecognizable to his enemies.
Yes, A Map of Betrayal literally has the word in its title, but it is a complex story about espionage and loyalty. After her parents’ death, Lilian Shang discovers her father’s diary, which contains new details about his secret life as a Chinese spy. Traveling to China to confront his other family, Lilian starts to realize how the damage caused by betrayal can be passed on through generations.
In 19th-century Scotland, young crofter Roderick Macrae betrays members of his own community by killing them…or does he? Cleverly constructed as historical documents related to Macrae’s trial, including a transcript and police statements, His Bloody Project reconstructs a brutal crime with a deceptively straightforward solution.
Alice Munro writes about betrayals all the time—the kind of small, achingly normal betrayals that most of us commit without even thinking about it. In the title story from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, two girls betray a family friend—with surprising results. In another, “Family Furnishings,” the narrator betrays her family’s story by using it as the inspiration for her own writing. And infidelity forms the centerpiece of many of the other stories here. Munro is never afraid to turn a spotlight—always devastating, however small and precisely aimed—on the most commonplace betrayals.
After infidelity, a husband and wife agree that they will separate. He asks to keep it a secret, and she complies. But when he goes missing on a trip to Greece, and she agrees to go and search for him, she realizes that she understood almost nothing about the man she thought she loved. A Separation is a story about infidelity, betrayal, marriage, and how impossible it is to know another person.
Go back to where it all began with Shakespeare’s play. Julius Caesar is actually a pretty interesting play—if you were forced to read it in high school, give it another shot now. The plot is full of intrigue and betrayal, and the language is Shakespeare at his very best, with lots of great lines that have lived on. Take Caesar’s insistence that he’s “constant as the Northern Star,” the eternally popular “Et tu, Brute?” and “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” (borrowed by John Green for The Fault in Our Stars), to say nothing of Mark Antony asking us to lend him an ear.
Shakespeare covered the topic of betrayal like no other. Check out King Lear and Othello for more.
2018 looks like it’s going to be an awesome year for mystery and thrillers, with many big authors like Walter Mosley putting out new work, and great series like Sam Wyndham and Detective by Day getting sequels. I’m going to be highlighting inclusive novels (mysteries and thrillers written by authors of color, LGBTQ+ authors, marginalized voices) for many reading tastes that publish in January, February, and March, so get your library card ready, your wallet out, and whisper sweet nothings to your TBR pile. And you can check out previous inclusive mystery and thrillers and follow Book Riot’s Unusual Suspects newsletter where I usually review many of these books.
A fantastic start to a new series that I’ve raved about many times. Perveen Mistry is working as a solicitor in Bombay in 1921 when one of her father’s cases raises a bit of a red flag for her and she decides to go check it out. Soon, that signature that didn’t seem right has her meeting with three widows and caught in what may or may not be really happening in their house. A wonderful historical mystery with a determined, smart, and wonderful lead who has a lesbian best friend and progressive parents.
Another historical mystery, this one for romance—and soap opera—fans, that is set in Victorian England. Sarah Bain is a photographer but has paired up with her gay best friend—who’s been outed and ostracized—to take on a job of finding a kidnapped child. A complicated enough task, especially when the father suspects it was an inside job, but Bain also has the mystery of trying to discover what happened to her father, who disappeared from her life 20 years ago. Oh, and, well, the romance is of course a secret lover…This reads well as a standalone BUT it does reveal quite a bit about the happenings from the first book in case you’re against spoilers.
For lit fic, slow-burn suspense fans. This one starts with the brutal crime and dead children before taking you back to the beginning when a stay-at-home mother decides to go back to work. The couple just can’t find a nanny they like to watch their two young children, until finally it seems they’ve found—sorry, have to do it—the perfect nanny. From the beginning we know this ends badly, but the question is why and how we got there: How does a seemingly wonderful carer of children break and commit such a horrific crime?
A heartbreaking exploration of mental illness in an insulated Alaskan town. Corey is set to visit her home town to see her best friend again when she gets the devastating news that Kyra is dead. But Corey doesn’t understand what happened and the more she seems to ask town members and search for answers, the more confusing it all seems. We get to know Kyra and Corey’s friendship through flashbacks as Corey, in the present, refuses to walk away from what happened to her best friend.
A favorite series of mine that follows two Canadian detectives and usually takes the reader around the world. This time around, Getty and Esa find themselves looking into the disappearance of a friend’s sister who vanished while helping Syrian refugees in Greece. Being that there are two dead bodies, the immediate questions are: Is she a murderer on the run? Hiding from danger? Or also dead?…Once again Khan has written a thoughtful detective mystery that shines a light on important and current social issues. (If you’re an audiobook fan, Peter Ganim does a lovely job narrating.)
The audiobook was a quick, fun YA read that left me craving a CW remake of Toy Soldiers (which you need to have grown up in the ’90s to remember cutie patooties Wil Wheaton and Sean Astin in). A teenage CIA operative finds himself trying to save his fellow classmates, and himself, after a photo taken of him goes viral…
Joe King Oliver was an NYPD cop until he was accused of rape. Years later his life now basically consists of his PI work and his teenage daughter, who helps out in his office. King is trying to solve two cases: his own, after the woman who accused him of rape sends him an apology (this does not go down the route of women are psycho and vindictive so they falsely accuse); trying to find justice for a journalist convicted of killing two police officers. As always, Mosley does a great job navigating between law and justice, and exposing racism—my favorite part of the book, though, was King’s relationship with his daughter and her character, which I hope to see a lot more of if there is a followup book.
I haven’t been able to get my hands on this one yet (but looking forward to it!) so I’m going to go with the publishers information: Lalli returns in this brilliant page-turner, a collection of seven stories, to solve some of the strangest, most complex cases of her career.
The opening act, in which a face keeps reappearing until a crime committed long ago is revealed, is followed by a murder that could be hypothetical—or a reality (Lalli turns to Schrodinger’s Cat to find out). In the third act in this unfolding drama, Lalli and Sita are invited to a book-burning which turns out to be murder most foul. And Lalli turns her skills to the world of high fashion when Sita sits next to a serial killer on a bus—but was he killer or victim?
The aptly named Sucide Point in Bombay’s suburbs, leads Lalli to a suicide that turns out to be something far more sinister. And an innocuous desk ornament is the clue to a crime most artistically executed. Finally, for connoisseurs of fiction, the curtains come down with a threnody for lost love.
The third in a fun and ghostly series that stars Gethsemane, an American living in Ireland teaching music. Her nice living situation now has a huge damper: her landlord is forcing her to play nice with paranormal investigators who are coming to film a show. Gethsemane not only has to deal with them, but also with a true crime author who wrote a terrible book, keeping the ghost she lives with a secret from the world, and now she has to solve the death of a man. Good read for fans of cozy mysteries looking for less violence towards women in their reads and some ghosts.
Written by a retired Police Captain who used to be Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics, the series follows Veranda Cruz, a Mexican American detective determined to take down a Mexican cartel in Phoenix, Arizona. Dark and violent, with a deep dive into day-to-day operations, Cruz is determined to catch these criminals at all costs. (Only start with this one if you’re okay with information from the first in the series being spoiled—there’s a big secret!)
Maharaja Sikander Singh of Rajpore, a sleuth, is forced to accompany two British officers in 1911, India. It turns out a friend has summoned him to investigate, and solve, the murder of a woman in the King Emperor’s personal chambers. Not an easy task, considering he’s forced to take a British officer and there are plenty of possible motives and suspects…
For the first time in 40+ years, retired gardener Mas returns to Hiroshima, Japan, to take his best friend’s ashes to his friend’s sister. While his plan was to return back to his home in L.A., things get derailed when he starts looking into a case of a teen boy’s drowning, his friend’s ashes disappear, and he’s triggered into remembering the atomic bomb that destroyed the city in the ’40s. This is the final book in this series, which, if you’ve been reading will probably be bittersweet, but if not you’ll probably want to start at the beginning: Summer of the Big Bachi.
Set in 1950s Japan, readers first get quick glimpses at two events: a man dressed as a woman is hit by a car; a baby is buried. We’re then taken to an apartment building for single women that is going to be moved because the roads are being expanded. With the master key—which opens every room—missing, some residents are on edge, others are hiding secrets, others planning…
A San Diego editor/writer flies to Cuba in 2003 to ask his Cuban girlfriend to marry him. But instead of the beginning of a great love story, Matt finds his girlfriend Yarmila dead. Now the Cuban government has taken Matt’s passport while they investigate, leaving him stuck in a communist country without a U.S. embassy. As the police and a PI santero work on solving who murdered Yarmila, we get to know her through her past food blog posts and watch as Matt learns about the Cuban girlfriend he didn’t really know that well, and himself. A good mystery set in Havana, Cuba, that gives a peak into communist life there from the point-of-view of Cubans and American tourists.
At twenty-seven, Lana Lee would probably like to be living any kind of life that isn’t broke and working in her parent’s restaurant with a cheating ex. But she is, and it’s really the least of her problems when the owner of the mall, and restaurant space, is found dead. See, she delivered the food he was deathly allergic to that killed him. Prepared by the restaurants cook. So was it an accident, or did someone want him dead? And why? A cozy mystery with laughs, and a relatable amateur sleuth.
Have I missed mysteries and thrillers written by authors of color, LGBTQ+, and marginalized voices that published so far this year?
Riverdale’s back after a monthlong hiatus. To distract myself during its absence, I returned to the first season on Netflix with books on the brain. How can I not consider them when narrator Jughead Jones is a writer, the episodes are called chapters, and 60 percent of the Coopers are local journalists? Here, I explore some literary references made in the hit show. Beware. Spoilers ahead.
I blogged my heart out about the first episode, specifically when Betty Cooper gushes to Archie Andrews about her love of Toni Morrison. In this same scene, Betty attempts to broach the hard subject of whether potential for a relationship beyond friendship exists between them. Veronica Lodge appears, forming the infamous love triangle of Archie Comics.
When asked about the “dread” surrounding her first day, new-girl Veronica says, “Are you familiar with the works of Truman Capote? I’m Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but this place is strictly In Cold Blood.” The difference being a historical novel about the gruesome murder of the Clutter family and a novella featuring Holly Golightly who fled rural life for New York. Little does Veronica (whose family leaves the big city for a small town after her father’s arrest for embezzlement and fraud) know, Riverdale will soon reel from the murder of the varsity football team’s captain, Jason Blossom.
Another thing of literary note, Miss Grundy’s Lolita glasses. Worn by Lolita Haze in the publicity image for Stanley Kubrick’s film, I can’t look at a pair of heart-shaped glasses without thinking of taboo—and very illegal—relationships. Over summer break, Miss Grundy pursues Archie. After Alice Cooper confronts them about the affair, the music teacher volunteers to leave town.
This episode, to much acclaim, births Bughead, but please understand why some fans prefer Jughead’s asexuality. Initially, Cole Sprouse pushed for remaining true to the comics. In the television series, Jughead’s sexuality squanders a valuable opportunity for asexual representation and conversation on a broad platform.
In Romeo and Juliet–fashion, Jughead climbs through Betty’s window and says, “Hey there, Juliet. Nurse off duty?” A long time ago, my mother visited THE balcony in Verona, Italy, and I thought I might die of jealousy. Ever since, people climbing through windows in the controlled setting of my television screen (think Sam in Clarissa Explains It All) quickens my heartbeat. Maybe because it seems automatically rebellious—hello and nope, door. Referencing this love story infers the tension between the Capulets and Montagues, which can be likened to the tension between the North and Southside.
When Betty invites Jughead in, he asks, “You haven’t gone full Yellow Wallpaper on me yet, have you?” In the widely taught story, the unnamed narrator suffers from an unnamed condition, which worsens with treatment. Throughout the series, Betty interrogates her mental health issues, which she struggles to understand and articulate. In this episode, Betty and Jughead team up to search for Polly Cooper, who has been put in a home for being “sick.” Really, she’s pregnant, and Mrs. and Mr. Cooper are obsessed with appearances. These two literary references could also be lines, Jughead drawing on their shared passion for reading and writing before making his move.
In the student lounge, Betty worries about Polly’s safety, and Jughead comforts her. Afterward, Veronica asks, “Did I just notice Riverdale High’s very own Holden Caulfield put his arm around you?” Invoking The Catcher in the Rye, Jughead is from quite the opposite of a rich family (FP Jones begins drinking after he’s fired, causing Jughead’s mother and sister to leave for Ohio), but like Holden, he’s a loner, isolated from his peers and family. Despite distance, he loves Jelly Bean like Holden adores Phoebe: weaknesses in their hardened characters.
After Polly, pregnant with twins, moves in with the Blossoms, Betty says, “Polly is locked up in that house like a character out of Jane Eyre, and what are they doing?” That imprisoned character has a name, and it’s Bertha Mason. Aptly, the Blossom’s property is called Thornhill—pretty close to Thornfield (Edward Rochester’s property), don’t cha think?—and it’s plenty creepy: especially the off-limits areas (like the third floor where Bertha is held captive). In the classic novel, Bertha and Mr. Rochester have been married for fifteen years, making his and Jane’s almost-union null.
For every page of Jane Eyre, there should be a book to counter the monstrous way Bertha’s portrayed: as a prop, the crisis point in Rochester and Jane’s relationship. Jane should’ve fled Thornfield for good because of the way Rochester treated Bertha—not for her hurt feelings about not being an equal in marriage when there’s…Bertha. That looks a lot like white feminism, Jane and Charlotte Brontë, and is feminism truly feminist if it’s not intersectional? No. Yes, Bertha deserves better, Wide Sargasso Sea and more.
With that said, her character also represents secrets, which the Blossoms and Coopers have storehouses of. It’s later revealed that Polly and Jason’s grandfathers were brothers, making the engaged and expecting couple cousins. Even later, after Clifford Blossom’s revealed as the murderer, he commits suicide, and Cheryl Blossom, Jason’s twin, sets fire to Thornhill, insisting, “It’s the only way we can truly start over. Be purified.” Her action hearkens back to Bertha’s acts of arson at Thornfield in Jane Eyre.
Before Joaquin DeSantos flees town, he tells Kevin Keller where FP stashed crucial evidence. There, they discover Jason’s letterman jacket. In Archie’s garage, Betty brainstorms aloud: directing Archie to wear the coat, put his hands in the pockets. She discovers a hole in the lining, and remembering lost lip gloss, unearths a flash drive. Kevin marvels, “Nancy Drew strikes again.” They watch video footage of Clifford taking back his mother’s engagement ring then shooting his son.
In the opening of the Season 1 finale, Jughead muses, “Life’s not an Agatha Christie novel. It’s a lot messier.” With Bughead happy, Veronica informs Betty of her and Archie’s recent romance. Afterward, Veronica makes Betty swear she’s OK on the latest issue of The Blue & Gold. To ensure she’s more than OK, Betty swears on her “copy of Forever… by Judy Blume” too. Teen sexuality is obvious here, but let’s not forget about the characters. When Katherine’s parents send her away to summer camp for a job, she’s heartbroken about being separated from Michael. And yet, she thinks, “It’s strange, but when it comes right down to it I never do fall apart—even when I’m sure I will.” This personal strength exudes from Betty time and time again.
I enjoy Riverdale, but two things: please bring back Valerie Brown and Melody Valentine and give them larger roles, and—for the love of inclusivity—spotlight more writers of color. Can you imagine the power of Cheryl reading James Baldwin, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Audre Lorde, or Chinelo Okparanta? How about Veronica reading The House on Mango Street, In the Time of the Butterflies, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Pillow Book? Leave a new-to-Jughead Toni Morrison title mixed in his novel pile sporadically or all the time.
“3 On A YA Theme” is sponsored by A Girl Like That, the debut novel from Tanaz Bhathena.
Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip. As her story is pieced together, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.
This beautifully written debut novel from Tanaz Bhathena reveals a rich and wonderful new world; tackles complicated issues of race, identity, class, and religion; and paints a portrait of ambition, angst, and alienation that feels both inventive and universal.
In honor of Women’s History Month, the next few editions of “3 On A YA Theme” will be dedicated to some aspect of feminism or women’s history as seen through young adult literature. These posts complement the series last year, which highlighted girls who are into art, true stories of female athletes, girls involved in the US labor movement, international stories about girls, and girls who are invested in STEM.
This week, let’s take a look at four YA novels about real life women. These are people who lived but whose stories and lives have taken on fictional roles in YA.
A gorgeously told novel in verse written with intimacy and power, Audacity is inspired by the real-life story of Clara Lemlich, a spirited young woman who emigrated from Russia to New York at the turn of the twentieth century and fought tenaciously for equal rights. Bucking the norms of both her traditional Jewish family and societal conventions, Clara refuses to accept substandard working conditions in the factories on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For years, Clara devotes herself to the labor fight, speaking up for those who suffer in silence. In time, Clara convinces the women in the factories to strike, organize, and unionize, culminating in the famous Uprising of the 20,000.
The real-life Clara Lemlich inspired the Clara in this story.
A mysterious outbreak of typhoid fever is sweeping New York.
Could the city’s future rest with its most unlikely scientist?
If Prudence Galewski is ever going to get out of Mrs. Browning’s esteemed School for Girls, she must demonstrate her refinement and charm by securing a job appropriate for a young lady. But Prudence isn’t like the other girls. She is fascinated by how the human body works and why it fails.
With a stroke of luck, she lands a position in a laboratory, where she is swept into an investigation of the fever bound to change medical history. Prudence quickly learns that an inquiry of this proportion is not confined to the lab. From ritzy mansions to shady bars and rundown tenements, she explores every potential cause of the disease. But there’s no answer in sight—until the volatile Mary Mallon emerges. Dubbed “Typhoid Mary” by the press, Mary is an Irish immigrant who has worked as a cook in every home the fever has ravaged. Strangely, though, she hasn’t been sick a day in her life. Is the accusation against her an act of discrimination? Or is she the first clue in a new scientific discovery?
Prudence is determined to find out. In a time when science is for men, she’ll have to prove to the city, and to herself, that she can help solve one of the greatest medical mysteries of the twentieth century.
Based on real-life Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary.”
“I find it so easy to forget / that I’m just a girl who is expected / to live / without thoughts.”
Opposing slavery in Cuba in the nineteenth century was dangerous. The most daring abolitionists were poets who veiled their work in metaphor. Of these, the boldest was Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, nicknamed Tula. In passionate, accessible verses of her own, Engle evokes the voice of this book-loving feminist and abolitionist who bravely resisted an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen, and was ultimately courageous enough to fight against injustice. Historical notes, excerpts, and source notes round out this exceptional tribute.
A fictionalized take, in verse form, of the real-life Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda.
Sydney’s deadly Razorhurst neighborhood, 1932. Gloriana Nelson and Mr. Davidson, two ruthless mob bosses, have reached a fragile peace—one maintained by “razor men.” Kelpie, orphaned and homeless, is blessed (and cursed) with the ability to see Razorhurst’s many ghosts. They tell her secrets the living can’t know about the cracks already forming in the mobs’ truce.
Then Kelpie meets Dymphna Campbell, a legendary beauty and prized moll of Gloriana Nelson. She’s earned the nickname “Angel of Death” because none of her beaus has ever survived knowing her. Unbeknownst to Kelpie, Dymphna can see ghosts, too, and she knows that Gloriana’s hold is crumbling one henchman at a time. As loyalties shift and betrayal threatens the two girls at every turn, Dymphna is determined not only to survive, but to rise to the top with Kelpie at her side.
Though not based on specific women of the era, this book is set in Razorhurst, Sydney, during the era of gangs, violence, fear, and more, and was inspired by women like Kate Leigh.
Vanessa Williams became Miss America in 1984. She was the first black woman to wear the title. For dozens of girls growing up, she represented a dream they could reach. Tami Charles was one of those girls, now a published author.
Charles’s new book, Like Vanessa, details how a young girl decides to pursue her pageant dreams. She’s also named Vanessa, and she can sing beautifully. Young Vanessa Martin doesn’t know if she has what it takes, however, or if her dream is possible. Most of her family believes in her, and most of her school doesn’t.
A good numbers of girls have seen themselves in the fictional Vanessa, while the real Vanessa Williams has given her stamp of approval:
Congrats @TamiWritesStuff on your debut novel LIKE VANESSA! What an honor to be the focal point of a book that hopes to inspire a new generation of young, talented girls. Hits shelves March 13!
— Vanessa Williams (@VWOfficial) March 9, 2018
Tami Charles sat down with Book Riot to talk about her book, and about the importance of representation.
My novel tells the story of a thirteen-year-old girl who witnesses the historic moment of Vanessa Williams’s Miss America win. That sets her on a path to follow her own unlikely dream of winning her school’s very first pageant. I think the biggest difference is that my character was thirteen in 1983, whereas I was a bit younger. That doesn’t matter though. I still fangirled right along with Vanessa Martin and every other girl who lost their minds when they saw a woman of color finally win the crown. It was such a defining moment that yes, black and brown girls are beautiful, talented, and important, too.
As a former teacher, I’d say that adults play an important role in preparing students for heavy reading material. I read both of these books around Vanessa Martin’s age, but the key was that my mother, a former school principal, had already read them and prepared me for the gravity of the issues presented in the novels. This allowed for questions and discussion as I read along. So, I’d definitely say that adults are key, though I think there are many students who possess enough maturity to handle these types of books as well.
TJ is pulled straight from a cousin of mine. He spent years hiding his true self and when he finally revealed his identity, it was such a weight off for both of us… because I had a feeling all along. I left the door open for him to tell me, but it took time. My cousin is much happier living his truth and loving freely. He is as creative, talented, and endearing as the real TJ in LIKE VANESSA.
This is a toughie. I actually shared Like Vanessa with a few people simultaneously. Mainly my mom, best friend Stephanie, and husband Nasser. I also had the good fortune of receiving feedback from my critique group and certain family & friends. I’ve thanked all of them in my acknowledgements section of the novel. It really did take a whole village for this book to come together!
The lack of diversity and inclusion in publishing is still a sore spot. Some progress has been made, but we still have a loooong way to go. While there are more books being published featuring black, Latinx, Asian & Native characters, only about 6% of “us” are actually writing these stories. So I’d say #ownvoices is a pretty important movement. We need more stories written about us, for us, but by us.
Representation matters. By consistently exposing girls to other women who have paved paths for them to follow, this is how we set the foundation and give girls permission to follow their dreams.
As for safety, this generation of girls should be made aware of people, places, and organizations that they can turn to when pressures become too great. The teacher in me says to start there, with a teacher, in the classroom. Teaching is so much more than textbooks. Teachers act as counselors, parents, nurses, and much more.
Beautiful and painful all wrapped in one! Ha! Some days I would love where Like Vanessa was going, but then there were times during the revisions where I would wipe out whole chapters because it all felt like a garbage fire. That’s where the pain came in. Because Like Vanessa takes place in 1983–’84, I had to do quite a bit of research (even though I’m an ’80s girl!). The slang, the clothes, the music all had to be done right. I had fun reliving some of my favorite childhood memories.
I would say to myself: You are powerful and beautiful and significant even if people say otherwise.
Can you tell us about upcoming future projects?
Yes, I’d love to! I’m currently revising a YA novel, which will be a companion to Like Vanessa. The story will focus on the bully, Beatriz Mendez, from book #1. Beatriz wasn’t born mean. Once upon a time, she had a dream. We’ll see it reignited in book #2.
I also have a middle grade novel, DEFINITELY DAPHNE, publishing in October with Capstone. In front of her followers, Daphne is a hilarious, on-the-rise YouTube star. But at school, “Daphne” is really Annabelle Louis, seventh-grade super geek and perennial new kid. When her vlog goes viral, Daphne has to figure out if living a double life is worth it.
This giveaway is sponsored by The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg. Published by Henry Holt.
From Mallory Ortberg comes a collection of darkly mischievous stories based on classic fairy tales. Adapted from Mallory’s popular “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series, The Merry Spinster takes up the trademark wit that endeared Ortberg to readers of both The Toast and Mallory’s best-selling debut Texts From Jane Eyre. Sinister and inviting, familiar and alien all at the same time, The Merry Spinster updates traditional children’s stories and fairytales with elements of psychological horror, emotional clarity, and a keen sense of feminist mischief.
We have 10 copies of The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg to give away to 10 Riot readers! Just complete the form below to enter. Entries are open to residents of the United States (excluding Puerto Rico and all other US territories) and will be accepted until 11:44:59 pm, March 20, 2018. Winner will be randomly selected. Complete rules and eligibility requirements available here.
It was Selection Sunday this past weekend, which, for any die-hard college basketball fan, is the start of the most wonderful time of the year: March Madness! For those who don’t know, this is when the teams in the NCAA tournament are named, along with their rankings. The first round of games is established, and you can fill out your bracket with your predictions. Carolina is one of my alma maters, so of course, I am a proud Tar Heel fan all the way. (This came in handy last year, when I won my bracket pool because of my loyalty.)
Once the tournament gets started, there’s plenty of basketball to watch almost every day—but there are lags at times. If you can’t get enough basketball, here are some books to help get you excited for the tournament and to get you through the month.
We’ve all heard the Michael Jordan (UNC) stories and the Steph Curry (Davidson) stories. Ottaway’s story is the more commonly experienced story. Although, like Curry, she played basketball for Davidson, once her college basketball career was over, it was over—and life went on. Her thoughtful memoir recounts her journey from recruitment through graduation and beyond—as an athlete and, perhaps more importantly, as a woman and a female athlete and all that goes along with that.
This will always be on any list of mine of sports books. Yes, I’m biased, being a Tar Heel, but the UNC/Duke rivalry is probably the best rivalry in college hoops—maybe in all of college sports. Two schools, 10 miles apart—and the loathing we have for each other is unmatched. This book is a good primer on why that is. (If you want more reading on this topic, let me know. I am always happy to talk NC hoops).
Okay, it’s a bit dated (1999), but this inside look at the ACC is still one of the best. Looking at some of the best coaches, the most talented players, and really feeling like you’re “in the game” is why this book is so good. Following one season, this fast-paced sports memoir takes you through the highs and lows of a competitive sport. If you’re a college hoops fan, this needs to be on your shelf.
I’m a sucker for anthologies, and this doesn’t disappoint. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote the Foreword, and it just gets better from there. From player and coach profiles to writing about basketball across the country, from the inner-city to a reservation, this is a book for those who love the game.
Happy March! Go Heels!
This giveaway is sponsored by Your Story Is Your Power by Elle Luna and Susie Herrick. Published by Workman Publishing.
On the heels of International Women’s Day, the celebration of strong women is at an all-time high and women everywhere are sharing their stories. Your Story Is Your Power is the tool you need to understand and express your own personal story. Elle Luna, bestselling author of The Crossroads of Should and Must, teams up with psychotherapist Susie Herrick to present an inspiring and practical hands-on guide that will show you how to uncover your own story in order to live a more confident, unapologetic life. Beautifully illustrated throughout, Your Story Is Your Power is a personal, thoughtful, motivating book to help you take control of your future.
Tell us your favorite books about women finding their voices!
Your recommendation is good for one giveaway entry!
We’ll compile your answers and share them with your fellow Riot readers!
We have 10 copies of Your Story Is Your Power by Elle Luna and Susie Herrick to give away to 10 Riot readers! Just complete the form below to enter. Entries are open to residents of the United States (excluding Puerto Rico and all other US territories) and will be accepted until 11:44:59 pm, March 20, 2018. Winner will be randomly selected. Complete rules and eligibility requirements available here.