What I have learned in the past five months, part 1: uploading videos to YouTube takes a lot of time.
What I have learned in the past five months, part 2: really good books can give you so much to sink your teeth into that, months after a discussion is over, you’ll be like “Wow, EVERYTHING SUDDENLY FITS.”
What I have learned in the past five months, part 3: You guys, my friends are REALLY REALLY SMART.
As I mentioned in the previous post, in January I went to Boston to visit friends, and we had a two-hour discussion analyzing THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS by E. Lockhart. We used whatever analytical tools we so chose, as long as we could back them up with the text. The discussion was basically a critical free-for-all, and if you have ever wondered why I speak so highly of my grad school experience at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, you really just need to watch any of these clips to see a bunch of people who care passionately about young adult literature discussing a really fascinating book on every layer we can think of.
As previously mentioned (ages and ages ago, which is apparently what happens with non-work projects until nice people start GTalking me daily with “did you upload the videos yet?”), the panel is:
- bestselling YA author Kristin Cashore;
- children’s lit professor Deborah Kaplan;
- children’s lit critic Rebecca Rabinowitz; and
- assistant agent the Sheldon Fogelman Agency Amy Stern (which is me, so linking to my site would be kind of recursive, no?).
I’d like to be either really smart or really funny in describing the conversation for this blog, but the truth is, I feel privileged to have even gotten to participate in it, and I’d really encourage you to watch some if not all of these clips, because for me, they embody what children’s lit crit can be all about.
I’ve edited the video into fifteen parts, between two and ten minutes long, and posted them all on my YouTube page.
A brief description of each follows:
- Girls’ Field Hockey
In this video, we discuss the problem of girls’ field hockey, and Frankie’s opposition to it. We analyze the contrast between what Frankie feels, what the narrator believes, and what the book is presenting, in trying to decide what position is ultimately being advocated for. Are Trish and Zada right or wrong? Is it better to fight now or later? Is Frankie just beating her head against a brick wall? If so, why not? And is Alpha up against the same brick wall Frankie is?
In this video, we all agree we want to punch Matthew in the face, but then expand to figure out why exactly he rubs us so much the wrong way. Part of it is that he acknowledges the lack of consequences for him personally. There’s also the problem of none of the Dogs realizing that the emails weren’t from Alpha; their love is positional, rather than personal. As readers, we wanted Frankie to know how awful Matthew is, and were appalled that not only was he unwilling to take consequences for his own actions, but he wasn’t even willing to use his charisma to advocate for his friend.
- The Great Alpha Debate
In this video, Rebecca and Kristin discuss their conflicting feelings on Alpha as a character. Rebecca’s hate for Alpha is directly connected to her hate of Matthew, starting at the beginning of the book when Alpha plays games with Frankie for no real reason. Kristin finds Alpha disgusting, but she appreciates that he actually listens to Frankie, and thinks he needs to interact with someone who pushes back against him.
- All About Positioning
In this video, Kristin begins the discussion by pointing out how all of the characters are positioned as characters in the narrative, which transitions into analyzing the arcs of the book. Deborah points out how Frankie thinks her arc is about Matthew, but it’s actually Alpha, the only Dog who learns anything through the narrative, and the one who joins Frankie at the very beginning and end of the novel. The discussion shifts to religion- Frankie as half-Jewish; Alpha as closet Catholic- and the social positioning this includes. This leads into a pseudo-linguistic analysis of the Yiddish tinge to how Frankie’s family speaks, and how Frankie doesn’t share that sentence structure.
- Object Lessons
In this video, the discussion moves into analyzing the roles of secondary and tertiary female characters, most notably Trish, Star, and Elizabeth. They all present alternate views of feminism, all of which- like Frankie’s- may inadvertently play into the power structure while trying to subvert it. The strength of this book, Amy argues, is that while the overall topic is femnism, it’s embodied by real people, not just human embodiments of particular principles.
- Part 6: The Female Gaze
In this video, Kristin explains her color-coded note-taking, and reads out loud a potentially problematic scene: Frankie’s first meeting with Matthew. The discussion latches onto two things: Frankie’s behavior as “dumb, girly” (who’s saying that? Frankie? The narrator?) and the visual of Matthew’s hips rolling. Amy brings up Laura Mulvey and the idea of the male gaze. Is this a reversal of it?
- All The Right Places
In this video, Kristin’s presentation of one clause- “four inches and twenty pounds in all the right places”- prompts a long discussion of who the narrator is. Is the narrator a character in his/her/its own right? Is the narrator gendered? Is the narrator an adult? This transitions into a discussion of nostalgia and absence thereof, in the narrator and then in the characters themselves. How is nostalgia part of the power structure? How does it factor into this particular Massachusetts prep school environment?
- Superheroes, Twilight, and Frankie’s Future
In this video, a discussion of Matthew as superhero quickly dovetails into the inevitable Twilight comparison. Who is the Edward? Who is the Jacob? This transitions to a discussion of a changed envisioning of a love triangle, where the protagonist is not a prize to be “gotten” and therefore ends up making her own choice, which is neither one. Analysis of the choices made quickly turn to Frankie’s expected future versus Matthew’s, and then of what exactly Frankie did in the book that was so wrong. Is it the pranks? Stealing Alpha’s identity? Raising the stakes? Getting out of control? In becoming Alpha, does Frankie lose herself? This segues into the story of the ideal ending for Frankie- not what would have made the book better, but what someone invested in Frankie’s life would want to happen to/for her.
- What Is a Feminist Book?
In this video, the discussion shifts to what exactly the definition of a “feminist book” is. Kristin notes that every book makes SOMEONE more feminist, even if just as a negative response to its content. But anyone reading this book carefully- not critically, but carefully- would likely come away with a slightly different point of view. What types of privileges does FRANKIE introduce the reader to? Male privilege, definitely; class privilege, probably; race privilege, not so much.
The Gordion Garlic Knot
In this video, the topic shifts to Frankie’s “voraciousness” as perceived by Alpha, specifically in terms of garlic knots and custard. Frankie doesn’t like garlic knots, but she eats them, to prove she takes what she wants- even though she DOESN’T want them. To do so, she abandons a video game- traditionally a male pursuit- but the game she abandons is MS PacMan, a feminized version of a game. Amy brings up the idea of Alpha using information as currency. Frankie only uses information as currency while pretending to be Alpha. The depressing part of this book is that the only people with anything at stake, at the end, are the two disempowered by the traditional power structures, and the only people they can battle for their place is each other: the only way in is through the only other vulnerable person in the structure. Frankie couldn’t have done what she did with anyone besides Alpha, because no one else would have let it continue; Alpha knows he HAS to.
- Pink Tabs
In this video, attempts to just discuss good things in the text are halted by the fact that there are SO MANY GOOD THINGS but none of them are as interesting to discuss as potential problems. The book is really good, and Frankie is awesome. There’s not much to analyze in that.
In this video, Porter’s place in the power dynamics take the forefront. What does Frankie think of Porter, what does the text think of him, and what does the reader think? What is the irony of Porter, the rich white kid, being the only one who could shake up the patriarchy? Rebecca talks about how she hates the Bassets, collectively, and their sense of superiority over the rest of the school.
In this video, Frankie’s future takes the forefront. Deborah hates the Bassets and the school, but she isn’t worried about Frankie. She trusts Frankie will get there, but she’s angry the men in privilege never realize what they did wrong and no one will make them. Amy upset because, given what we know Frankie’s debate skills, if SHE can’t convince the boys feminism is important, who can? is there any hope in shaking up the power structure? Kristin points out that we all know what will happen in the future: Frankie will do something enormous. Deborah thinks that as a reader, she’s making the same mistake Frankie did, in valuing Matthew learning what he should over the fact that Frankie’s just awesome. Rebecca sees how the book fights with itself. Kristin points out how exciting it is to have this much to analyze in a text, and how this book is satisfying from a feminist POV.
- Is This a Feminist Book? (again)
In this video, the idea of what makes a feminist book is reevaluated. Is it possible to read this book and not think about feminism and the power structure? What would happen if Matthew read this book? Would he come away feeling like he has to change, even if his analogue in the story doesn’t? would he feel more aware of power structures? Who in this book is conscious of their privilege? Does that make them better or worse? The conversation shifts to what exactly Matthew’s arc in the book is: his arc as a character is flat, but in the reader’s opinion, it goes down, especially when his fight iwth Frankie doesn’t make for a change. Does the fight with Frankie and Porter change anything? Does Porter working with the school undermine what he could have learned? There’s so much going on here that a lesser author could have destroyed this book. This video ends with a discussion of what exactly is uncomfortable about the Bassets: is it their deception? Is it that they’re jerks? What if it were a secret square-dance club instead? Does the problem lie in what Frankie’s dad said, about how there’s no fun having a secret if people don’t know you have it?
- The Basset Locker Room
In this video, the idea of the secret society is further explored. The entire point of the Bassets is that they’re exclusive; they drink beer rather than accomplishing anything as a secret society. Frankie couldn’t join just by being awesome, because she is inherently missing something. The locker room dilemma is key; the Bassets didn’t have to be great at sports if they were fun in the locker room, but as a girl, Frankie couldn’t be in that locker room in the first place.