Yes, We Can! (Write Male Characters)

You know what makes me sad? When I hear women writers saying, “I don't think I can write a male main character. I'm just can't get the voice down.”

Please don't say that. It makes me want to cry.

If you've said something along these lines before, let me offer some reassurance. Of course, you can write a male main character.

Let me repeat that with big capital letters for emphasis. OF COURSE, you can write a male main character! I'm sure of it. Why am I so sure? Easy! There's no such thing as a “male voice.”

Boys.

Boys.

I'm not a man, and I don't have mind-reading powers (yet!), but I do have the next-best thing to telepathy: books. I read a lot of books. Having gone to a schmancy college with a fairly old-fashioned English department, I've read a mountain of books by men, primarily and unfortunately white Western men. I also watch a lot of movies and television, most of which are made by men. This unhealthy amount of media consumption has given me the confidence to say that I have a good handle on what (primarily white, Western, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered) men are like—and I bet you do, too! They are, after all, the dominant culture.

Based on this lifetime of research, we can come to the following, not-so-shocking conclusion: Men are different. I don't mean from women1. I mean from each other.

There was even a scientific study2 proving that this is so. Researchers found that, for the most part, men and women aren't all that dissimilar, personality-wise, but individual men can vary substantially from other men. But I don't need science to tell me this, because I know men, and also I read books, and books tell me men are varied creatures.

Let's do a little experiment. When you hear or read the term “male voice,” what do you think of? Punchy, “muscular” sentences and little description? All male gaze all the time? Little affection or romance and little philosophy? A lot of machismo and little to no complaining?

Whatever your idea of the typical male voice is, keep it in your head for a second.

Now consider this list of characters:

Holden Caulfield

Don Quixote

Okonkwo

Gilgamesh

Tom Sawyer

Bilbo Baggins

Don Juan

Stephen Dedalus

Yossarian

Arthur Dent

Oscar Wao

Tyrion Lannister

Tom Joad

You get where I'm going with this. All of these characters? Male, written by men, all extremely different from one another. I know they're all different because I've been in their heads. I know how they think. So do you, probably. You know some men are macho and some are neurotic. You know some men are taciturn and some are florid. You know some are cold and others affectionate3, some are all about the body and some are all about the mind, and some are loners while some would do anything for their friends and family. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Just look at poetry written by men! Compare Basho to Wordsworth to Rumi to Eliot to Juvenal to Donne to Larkin to Auden to Hughes to Pope to Yeats to Whitman to Homer to Hughes to Ginsburg to Carroll to Neruda4. You cannot look at that list and tell me there is such a thing as a male voice. And if there's no such thing as a male voice, trust me, you can write a male character5. Just write a human. Perhaps that human acts a little differently from a woman, because he has privileges she does not, and perhaps he's been socialized to act a certain way by his elders. Then again, maybe he hasn't. It depends on the character.

Long story short, to write all male characters as if they're all the Marlboro Man or Seth MacFarlane is doing men a disservice, and it's doing boy readers a disservice. Why not show them there are many different ways to be a man? It's not about being politically-correct6. It's about being accurate.

 

FOOTNOTES! 

1Although they sometimes are, a little. Thanks, patriarchy!

2http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/02/06/men_and_women_are_basically_the_same_new_study_says_our_personality_traits.html

3Check out this beautiful collection of old photographs depicting male affection: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/07/29/bosom-buddies-a-photo-history-of-male-affection/ This “men don't touch each other” thing is definitely not universal. It's certainly less true in Latin and Mediterranean cultures, for example.

4And then watch this adorable “Ask a Grown Man” segment from Thom York and Nigel Godrich on Rookie Mag. They point out that there are shy, romantic boys out there, too!

5A short aside: Although I think it's difficult for women to screw up writing male characters, from what I've seen, it's not too hard for male writers to screw up when writing female characters.  To you guys, I give the same advice. Write humans (while bearing in mind that women are often treated as second-class citizens, especially if they are of a certain race, class, or other minority group). Also try to remember that women don't think about how hot their boobs are all the time. I mean, every once in a while, sure, but we don't wake up every morning and think, “Boy, are my knockers firm and plump today! I can't wait to rub soap all over them sensually in the shower in case some male reader happens to be watching!” Hope that helps.

6Oh, how I loathe that term!

Of Book Birthdays and Blogging

What a week! In case you missed it, yesterday was the official book birthday for HAMMER OF WITCHES. (Noisemaker sound!) You can now pick up the hardcover and the audiobook version from Audible. I'm incredibly excited about the audiobook, because the narrator, Jeff Woodman, is fantastic. The HAMMER OF WITCHES e-book is coming soon, so keep your eyes peeled.

To celebrate the exciting occasion of my debut book's birth, I've been hopping around various blogs:

And there have already been some great reviews of the book you might want to take a look at:

  • Tanita at Finding Wonderland wrote an amazingly in-depth review focusing on my boy Baltasar's witty personality (and my uber-Polish last name!).
  • At Rich in Color, the super-sweet Crystal wrote about all of the myths and fairytales swirling through HAMMER OF WITCHES.
  • If you want to add to the conversations on Amazon and Goodreads, I encourage you to write your own review of HAMMER OF WITCHES, as well as any other books you've read lately. We writers live on reviews!

Not only was yesterday the book birthday of HAMMER OF WITCHES, but it was also the book birthday of my fab Tu Books buddy Karen Sandler's AWAKENING, the second book in the TANKBORN trilogy. This dystopian sci-fi series is super-duper cool and I hope you check it out! Here's what it's about:

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Once a Chadi sector GEN girl terrified of her first Assignment, Kayla is now a member of the Kinship, a secret organization of GENs, lowborns, and trueborns. Kayla travels on Kinship business, collecting information to further the cause of GEN freedom.

Despite Kayla’s relative freedom, she is still a slave to the trueborn ruling class. She rarely sees trueborn Devak, and any relationship between them is still strictly forbidden.

Kayla longs to be truly free, but other priorities have gotten in the way. A paradoxically deadly new virus has swept through GEN sectors—a disease only GENs catch. And GEN warrens and warehouses are being bombed, with only a scrawled clue: F.H.E. Freedom, Humanity, Equality.

With the virus and the bombings decimating the GEN community, freedom and love are put on the back burner as Kayla and her friends find a way to stop the killing . . . before it’s too late.

You can buy TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and HAMMER OF WITCHES now from Tu Books/Lee & Low!

Your Inspiration Comes From Where?!

Authors are so frequently asked where they get their ideas from that I sometimes think they might flip out like Geoffrey Tennant on Slings & Arrows: Yes, I was inspired by my parents—and my teachers and every play I ever seen and every book I've ever read and everything ever! And it wouldn't be untrue. Inspiration comes from everywhere, and teasing out exactly where you got each idea and character from is an exercise in not-gonna-happen-ery.

That said, sometimes you realize long after you've written something that the ideas you thought were so clever and original were actually unintentional ripoffs of other, usually greater, works of art. Or, in my case, cartoons. I'm an avowed animation fan—I spent this beautiful weekend hidden inside BAM so I could watch Princess Mononoke for the millionth time—so this is not surprising. But it is a little amazing how neatly the characters from Hammer of Witches line up with the 'toons I watched as a kid.

Amazing, and slightly disturbing:

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Baltasar, Uncle Diego, & Aunt Serena = Tony Toponi and Papa and Mama Mousekewitz from An American Tail

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Although Baltasar + Jinni = Van and Merle from Vision of Escaflowne

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And (as mentioned on the Lee & Low blog) Baltasar + Catalina = Taran and Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron

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(Although if we include video games in this analysis, then perhaps Baltasar + Catalina more closely = Locke and Celes from Final Fantasy VI)

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Martin Pinzon = Frollo from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame

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Rodrigo = Wiggins from Pocahontas

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Speaking of Princess Mononoke, High Priestess Anacaona = Lady Eboshi (and I love them both so very much)

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Antonio = Haggis McMutton from The Curse of Monkey Island (but, like, less Scottish)

And I'm sure there are more cartoon connections I haven't thought of yet. If you think of one, let me know!

Hmm, it now occurs to me that some of you might be more willing to pick up a copy of Hammer of Witches if I make a comparison to some super-hot bishonen-type character that all the girls swoon over. Like I could say that Baltasar is exactly the same as Avatar: The Last Airbender's Prince Zuko, except he's even hotter and more brooding and...

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...and actually this is the far more realistic Avatar comparison. Sorry, Zuko fans. Maybe next time?

[PS - The Hammer of Witches hardcover is out NOW! Go buy a copy of the book Kirkus calls "an engaging, magical adventure." You can get the audiobook here. E-book coming soon.]

The 2012 Shmebula Awards, Part 2

As I noted yesterday, I recently decided to read all 12 YA/MG books on the Andre Norton Award shortlist so I could vote in this year's Nebula Awards without being a complete ignoramus. After accomplishing this goal, I came up with my own extremely silly awards so more of these fine books could get recognition.

And so, without further ado, let us continue

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The 2012 Shmebula Awards*

*Warning: The following awards are even sillier than yesterday's, which is saying a lot. You won't find any major spoilers below, so don't worry if you haven't yet read all twelve books on the list.

Protagonist With the Most-tagonist

Nominees:

A (Every Day)
Cassel (Black Heart)
Evie (The Diviners)
Liyana (Vessel)
Sunday (Enchanted)

WINNER:

There were so many great protagonists in these 12 books. Just look at this lineup. I loved A's empathy, Sunday's sweetness, Liyana's strength, and Cassel's smart-aleckyness. (Anyone who's read Hammer of Witches knows I can't resist a good smart-aleck.) But I'm giving this one to Evie. She is a delight. A delight I tells ya!

*****

Kickin'est Sidekick (or Secondary Character)

Nominees:

Demetrius (Iron Hearted Violet)
Hoku (Above World)
Rhiannon (Every Day)
Sam (Black Heart)
Theta (The Diviners)

WINNER:

Demetrius. He is too cute. Three cheers for boy characters who upend expectations by being good leaders who are also sweet and kind (and, in this case, nice to animals). Come to think of it, Demetrius and Hoku would make good friends. Sam could be their big brother, Rhiannon could be the cool big sis, and Theta can watch them all while making witty but world-weary comments from the sidelines. Yes. Yes! I smell a fanfic.

*****

Villain Most Likely to Make You Wet Yourself In Fear

Nominees:

Corner (Above)
Fathom (Above World)
John Hobbes (The Diviners)
Nybbas – Especially the part with the lizards. If you read it you know what I mean. Euuugh. (Iron Hearted Violet)
Reverend Poole (Every Day)

WINNER:

John Hobbes, and I can't really say anything more without spoiling things. I will say, though, that I was tempted to pick Reverend Poole, because even though he wasn't nearly as important a character, he might have scared me slightly more, because I can almost imagine him existing in real life.

*****

The Obi Wan Memorial Prize for Best Reasonable Authority Figure

Nominees:

Doctor Marybeth (Above)
Grandad Desi (Black Heart)
Mama (Enchanted)
Orma (Seraphina)
Will (The Diviners)

WINNER:

Grandad Desi. He's a cool guy, and probably the least evil person in that family (although to be fair that's not a really high bar to clear).

*****

Worst Parents

Nominees:

Aluna's Dad, a.k.a. Mr. Yeah-Sure-Let's-Let-Our-Whole-Race-Die-Whaddaya-Gonna-Do? (Above World)
Cassel's Mom, a.k.a. Mrs.-I'm-An-Emotional-Manipulator-Who-Raised-Her-Sons-to-Be-Sociopaths (Black Heart)
Ephraim's Mom, a.k.a. Ms.-Alcoholics-Anonymous-What's-That? (Fair Coin)
Evie's Mom, and I can't say why without spoiling things, but it has to do with World War I (The Diviners)
The Sisters' Papá, a.k.a. Sr.-Adios-Chicas-I-Have-Better-Things-To-Do-Than-Pay-Child-Support (Summer of the Mariposas)

WINNER:

Papá. What's worse than a deadbeat dad? A deadbeat dad who keeps coming back. The crap he pulls in this book... I can't even. I had planned to use some choice words in Spanish to describe this dude, but I was told to keep things clean. So I'll just say he's a butt. A big stinkin' butt.

*****

The “If You Were Ten Years Older and Not Fictional” Award for ZOMG!! Cute Boyz!!1!

Nominees:

Cassel (Black Heart)
Korbyn (Vessel)
Memphis (The Diviners)
Rumbold (Enchanted)
Sam (The Diviners)

WINNER:

This one required a chart.

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Okay, it didn't really require a chart, but my time writing for OverthinkingIt.com has made me chart-happy. So who's my pick?

I'm going to have to go with Korbyn by default, because being a god he's the only one who's technically an adult. I ain't no cradle robber! By the way, young people who may be reading this blog post, if you happen to meet a person like Cassel, Korbyn, or Sam in real life, RUN.

*****

And there you have it! If you'd like to read the above 12 books (and you should), go buy 'em now:

Above – Leah Bobet
Above World – Jenn Reese
Black Heart – Holly Black
Enchanted – Alethea Kontis
Every Day – David Levithan
Fair Coin – E.C. Myers
Iron Hearted Violet – Kelly Barnhill
Railsea – China Miéville
Seraphina – Rachel Hartman
Summer of the Mariposas – Guadalupe Garcia McCall
The Diviners – Libba Bray
Vessel – Sarah Beth Durst

The 2012 Shmebula Awards, Part 1

Earlier this month I made a vow that seemed unwise. 2013 is my first year as a member of SFWA and therefore the first year I can cast a ballot for the Nebula Awards. The Nebula Awards! Frank Herbert's Dune won the Nebula. My favorite writer, Ursula K. LeGuin, won six. Isaac Asimov won. Arthur C. Clarke. Samuel Delany. Connie Willis. The Nebulas are the real deal, the Holy Grail of science-fiction and fantasy*. I simply couldn't wait to vote.

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There was one problem: I'm a stickler when it comes to voting. I've long believed that if you're going to vote in an election, you must research all the candidates. It's only fair. In my mind, voting for a book without having read all the other nominees would be an ethical breach. Not a “trip an old lady crossing the street” breach, but a breach nonetheless.

I knew I wouldn't have time to read every novel, novella, novelette, and short story on the Nebula shortlist by March 30th, but as a writer of young adult fiction I felt it was my duty to at least cast a ballot for the Andre Norton Award. This year 12 books were nominated for the Norton, and I've been so remiss in keeping up with my YA/MG reading over the past year that, as of March 1st, I had read exactly zero of them.

Thus, the vow. I would read all 12 books in four weeks—or, more accurately, 14 books in four weeks. Holly Black's Black Heart is the third in a trilogy I had not read. Of course I would have to read the first two in the series.

I was told such a goal was unreasonable. In fact, I accomplished it in 16 days. You might ask, “Shana, how did you manage to read 14 books in 16 days when you have a job, book promotion and writing duties, and a small but non-negligible social life?” The secret, my friends? Insomnia. It's great! Here's how you do it: You lie in bed and simply don't fall asleep until 5 or 6 in the morning (if at all). If you can get a panic attack going at around 4 or 4:30, all the better. It'll give you more energy for reading**.

Sixteen days later, I've read all the books and feel confident about my pick for the Norton. It makes me sad, though. Fourteen fine books, yet only one can take home the prize. I thought, “Why must there be only one? There should be more winners! More awards!”

So I made some up***.


*I guess the Hugos are okay, too.

**Warning: Side effects may include headaches, walking into doors, and generalized jerkitude.

***Second warning: The following awards are very, very silly. Read at your own discretion. There are no major spoilers below, so don't worry if you haven't read all twelve books yet.

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THE 2012 SHMEBULA AWARDS

Book That Would Make The Best Video Game

Nominees:

Above World (J-RPG)
Every Day (Dating Sim)
Railsea (Train Sim)
Seraphina (Rhythm Game)(Harpsichord Hero? Flute Flute Revolution?)
Summer of the Mariposas (Adventure Game)

WINNER:

Above World. It is so much an RPG. You've got a cast of characters, each of whom has a specific role and fighting style, and their races give them stat bonuses. Throughout the story the characters upgrade their weapons and learn new skills. It's got HydroTek, like Final Fantasy VI's Magitek, there are Domes like in Chrono Trigger, and there's a cute animal mascot. If Above World were an RPG, I would play it SO HARD. You hear that, Ubisoft? Get on this.

*****

The Abed Nazir Award for Best Metaliterary Conceit

Nominees:

Jena the Speculative Fiction Fan (Fair Coin)
Matthew the Teller (Above)
Raven Myths (Vessel)
Storytelling (Enchanted)
The Narrator (Railsea)

WINNER:

Above. I always love the “sewer people invent their own weirdo mythology about the above-worlders” trope, and I think it was handled particularly well here. Sometimes writers use metaliterary devices to get across a simple theme like, “Stories are good!” or “Stories are bad!” but Above did a fine job of navigating between them to give us a more nuanced view.

*****

The GOB Bluth “It's an Allusion, Michael” Award

Nominees:

La Llorona (Summer of the Mariposas)
Moby Dick (Railsea)
Running Up That Hill (Every Day)
The Odyssey (Summer of the Mariposas)
The Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty, and every other fairytale ever (Enchanted)

WINNER:

We have a tie! First up, Railsea, a cleverly constructed world where people are so busy chasing after symbols they fail to realize there's a whole world out there waiting to be explored. (Not that I identify with such silly characters. Oh no no no.) We also have La Llorona, who in Summer of the Mariposas acts as two-two-two allusions in one! The book both references the folktale and the tale-behind-the-tale of Malinche and Hernán Cortés, which fits in well with the book's theme of syncretism.

*****

Coolest Magic/Pseudoscience/Phlebotinum/Whatever

Nominees:

A's Body Switching (Every Day)
Curse Working (Black Heart)
Seraphina's Garden/Cognitive Architecture (Seraphina)
Sunday's Magic (Enchanted)
The Coin (Fair Coin)

WINNER:

Every Day. Body switching can be (and usually is) the stuff of farce. Here, though, it's used in a quieter, more poetic way. Levithan thought of pretty much every dramatic situation body switching could result in (A's blind! A's a depressive! A's a drug addict!) and how such a lifestyle would realistically affect a person's psychological development.

*****

TOMORROW: More Shmebula Award silliness. We'll look at the best protagonists, villains, sidekicks, and (omg!) boys from the Norton shortlist.

What Your Pop Culture Likes Say About You

Researchers at the University of Cambridge found that your Facebook Likes are pretty good predictors of your intelligence, gender, race, religion, personality type, and a whole host of other things. You can read the study here, but if you don't have time take a look at the chart I made based on their findings about pop culture:

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I wrote a lot more about this study on OverthinkingIt.com, so be sure to check out my post.

Giveaways and What Have You

People have been asking, "Hey, Shana, can I get a signed copy of HAMMER OF WITCHES?" Why, yes! You can, indeed. Simply sign in on Goodreads and enter this giveaway. You can win one of two signed ARCs (advance reader copies) of the book. Pretty neat, no? Enter now, and tell your friends!

Overthinking Books

I've recently done some writing for OverthinkingIt.com, the website that subjects the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn't deserve.

The one you book-loving folks might like is this one, which uses graphs and such to analyze why it seems like every other book is named The Something's Wife or The Something's Daughter. The results may surprise you.

Here's one of the charts from the article, showing how many books from the past five years had the words "daughter," "son," "wife," "husband," "father," or "mother" in the title. As you can see, it's broken down by genre.

To learn more, read the rest of the post.

And if you're an Adventure Time fanatic like I am, you may want to check out my article, Overthinking Adventure Time, which incidentally is rated PG-13 for sexual content. I'm not a well person.

In Which Writers Say Things

The idea that anyone would read my writing still boggles my mind, so the idea that writers I love and respect would read it completely overwhelms me. And the idea that they enjoyed Hammer of Witches enough to write beautiful, epically-kind reviews of it? Makes my brain blue-screen. I am so thankful and honored, truly.

So what did everyone say? Well:

Diana Peterfreund, author of For Darkness Shows the Stars:  “Mlawski's magical take on the exploration of the New World is a dazzling, richly imagined tale about history, legend, and the fantastic power of story.”

Lesley Livingston, author of Wondrous Strange:  “Hammer of Witches is everything I crave in a story -- magic, adventure, danger, depth, a rich historical setting, and an irresistibly charming hero. What a fantastic voyage!”

Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Pura Belpre Award winner and Morris Award nominee:  “Hammer of Witches is a historical revelation -- an eye-opening magical carpet ride that takes the reader over the ocean and through the woods to an ancient time, full of beauty and grace, and the ever-present conflict between man's spirituality and his natural brutality.”

Victoria Strauss, author of Passion Blue and co-founder of Writer Beware “This rollicking historical fantasy has it all -- nail-biting adventure, exciting mystery, fabulous magics, and characters you can really root for. I enjoyed every word.”

And the full review from Joseph Bruchac, author of Wolf Mark and Skeleton Man:

“This is a truly enjoyable energetic tale, a hero's journey that is filled with as much magic -- and wry humor -- as I've ever seen crammed into one story. The narrator is intelligent, engaging, and grows throughout his New World voyage of personal discovery in as way that should make him truly sympathetic to any young adult reader.

“A more or less historical fantasy, it's an altogether original take on one of the most important events in human history -- the first voyage of Columbus. In fact, with its emphasis on a totally different point of view -- that of a converted Jewish Christian in late 15th century Spain who [REDACTED: SPOILERS] -- it turns history and storytelling upside down.

“Interesting, though this is an action-packed fantasy filled with everything from genies and giant monsters to magical caves, it is grounded in real history. In fact, anyone who reads this may end up learning more about this period than is taught in most classrooms -- including about the complex Taino cultures of Ayiti.”

***

Is that nice or is that nice? Gratitude: I am full of it.

Real YA Heroes

In fiction, young adult heroes slay dragons (or are dragons), love vampires (or kill them), and free their people (or rule them). At the same time, real YA heroes in this non-fictional world we live in are doing things that are so frickin' amazing that I have to go

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like an adorable kitty cat. Thus I propose a new feature to the Mlawski Blog: "Real YA Heroes," a series of short pieces about real young people between the ages of 0 and 25 who are today, or were in the past, BAMFs. (For parents in the audience, those initials stand for Big Awesome Magnificent Folks.) Hopefully these brief posts will inspire each of us to be BAMFs in our own little way, whether it's by persisting in the face of overwhelming odds, helping people in need, spreading the love, or simply saying, "Nuh-uh, jerks of the world. In the name of the Moon, I will punish you."

To kick us off, 17-year-old Latifa Azizi, who is helping overthrow the tyranny of rumpholes by singing.

"Lalala I WILL DESTROY YOU" (is what I assume she's singing)

"Lalala I WILL DESTROY YOU" (is what I assume she's singing)

Yes, singing, for Latifa is one of the two female contestants currently on Afghan Idol, and let me tell you, the rumpholes aren't happy about this. Don't get me wrong, I got no beef with religious people in general, but the minute you start issuing death threats to a 17-year-old girl for singing my level of tolerance goes to sub-zero.

And it's not only strangers who are giving her crap for singing. It's members of her family, too. Which makes me say

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because seriously.

Whatever. Latifa don't care. She's going to keep singing, thank you very much. Because she is a Real YA Hero, and that's how they do.

***

Standard disclaimer: If it turns out the above YA hero is actually a YA villain who kicks puppies and pukes on old people, I apologize. It was an accident. I am not trying to whitewash current events or history, so if you know something about the above young adult that I don't, feel free to use the contact page above to let me know.

And if you know of a YA hero who you think should be featured, send me a note using the contact form and the subject heading "Real YA Heroes." Maybe your YA hero will be featured here soon!