Welcome to another entry in the Staying Awesome Interview Series! Today I’m super pumped to feature a woman I’ve admired for quite some time now, Kelly Jensen!
What makes Kelly awesome?
Kelly Jensen is a former teen librarian who worked in several public libraries before pursuing a full-time career in writing and editing. Her current position is with Book Riot, the largest independent book website in North America, where she focuses on talking about young adult literature in all of its manifestations. Before becoming a fully-fledge adult-like person, she worked in the swanky Texas Legislative Library entering data into a computer while surrounded by important politicians, scooped gelato for hungry college students, and spent hours reading, annotating, and scanning small-town Texas newspapers into a giant searchable database.
Kelly lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three needy-but-awesome cats. In her free time, she does yoga, writes for her personal blog STACKED (stackedbooks.org), drinks a lot of tea, and enjoys disappearing for days reading good books. Her writing has been featured on The Huffington Post, at Rookie Magazine, The Horn Book, BlogHer, School Library Journal. She contributed an essay and a guide to teen sexuality in pop culture for Amber J. Keyser’s The V-Word: True Stories of First-Time Sex and is the author of the book It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader from VOYA Press.
Kelly was kind enough to let me pick her (amazing) brain. Check out her brilliance below!
1) Many young girls and women identify as feminists, including myself, but I find that others are hesitant when it comes to proclaiming themselves feminists. Some don’t even believe we need feminism and argue that equality has already been achieved. How do you define feminism for yourself? In what ways do you think a greater understanding and acceptance of feminism can be achieved?
You’ve pretty much nailed why I wanted to create a feminism anthology for teenagers in your question! I’m a big believer in the idea feminism is a movement full of facets and that every individual comes to it in their own way and uses feminism in a way that makes sense to them. Your feminism can and does evolve as you do; the more you learn, the more you accept some elements of feminism and the more you reject other notions of “feminism.”
My own definition of feminism is the same one Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so clearly states in “We Should All Be Feminists” — feminism is the social, political, and economic equality of all people. How we achieve that, though, I believe is entirely personal and individual and it’s through following our own paths through feminism we’re able to help the greater good achieve that equality. I reject the idea that there are right ways to be a feminist; some people perform feminism in quiet ways and others do it loudly. I believe that online social justice is as important and powerful as work done on the streets. Everyone comes where they’re comfortable and it makes a difference.
It’s through accepting other people’s ways of feminism I think we can better achieve acceptance of it. We also need to keep talking about feminism and what it looks like. One of my biggest hindrances to calling myself a feminist when I was younger came because I felt like an impostor; this is what I wrote about in my own piece for Feminism for the Real World. When we only ever see a movement as one thing — in feminism’s case, a loud, on-the-streets, vocal-in-all-spaces, marching-for-peace movement that’s popular in the media and in textbooks (if they mention feminism at all!) — we don’t show the spaces where people work behind the scenes or where they’re learning or listening and working to be better in quieter, but equally important, ways. A person marching in a reproductive rights rally on a college campus is as valid a feminist as an individual who stops using gendered slurs or transphobic language in their day-to-day communication and urges others to do the same. All of these things matter. They’re all facets.
2) Before you became an associate editor at Book Riot, you were already sharing your awesomeness with the world over at Stacked, a blog dedicated to book reviews, guest posts, and epic link roundups. Your book reviews have always fascinated me for their in-depth analysis on character development, particularly when it comes to books featuring girl narrators and stories of girlhood. What’s the most unapologetically feminist Y.A. book you’ve ever read and why?
Thank you! It’s such a nice compliment to hear this.
Funny story: if you go back into the early posts at STACKED, there are a series of pieces about a program I attended about the importance of getting guys to read. It moved me a lot — so much I did guy-focused programming for an entire summer at my library which was wildly successful and which earned me a little recognition from the local Rotary group.
The thing is, after I finished that program and began seeing more and more “guys only” kinds of programs and professional education movements in libraries, the angrier I got. Why were we not talking about girls? How come it was assumed girls were doing alright and didn’t need any special consideration? Not to mention, all of this falls into a gender binary and I don’t know about you, but my life has granted me a lot of wonderful genderqueer, trans, and questioning individuals who ALSO deserve to be considered as part of a community. The angrier I got, the more I wrote and the more I read. And the more I read and wrote, the more I discovered people who thought about this too. It led me to realizing this was incredibly important to me and I needed to keep talking about it. So I have and I will.
It would be impossible to name a single unapologetically feminist YA book. I’ve read so many, and I’ve been impressed and blown away not just by the stories themselves, but the reactions to them. People dislike feminism, or rather, they dislike female characters who step outside the box. Who aren’t willing to bend. Who don’t submit or fit within a neat label. In other words: readers dislike female characters that refuse to be one-dimensional.
A few of the most feminist YA titles I’ve read and would heartily recommend include: Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann, All The Rage by Courtney Summers, Bumped and Thumped by Megan McCafferty (criminally underrated science fiction dystopian satire), Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian, all of Sarah McCarry’s Metamorphosis trilogy (especially About A Girl, my favorite of the series), Pointe by Brandy Colbert. This is such a white list and part of that is purposeful — we have a real hole in intersectional feminism in YA. A big reason isn’t that the books aren’t being written but that the books about girls of color that sell so rarely look beyond their race as key to the story. That’s a weakness in publishing, not the books. Have you tried to find YA light reads featuring girls of color? Sit on that for a bit. The answer is that it’ll take you a long time to think of some. I keep meaning to read Love is the Drug and The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, which I keep being told are radically and amazingly feminist.
3) I can’t begin to tell you how desperate I am to read Feminism for the Real World, the anthology you edited that’s coming out in 2017! Tell me about your decision to make this anthology happen. Was there a specific aha! moment that led you to the anthology’s creation? Or have you always wanted to work on a project like this?
I don’t remember learning anything about feminism growing up. There weren’t any lessons in class, there weren’t any real books out there for teenagers, and the internet age wasn’t then what it is now.
When I got to college and met these incredibly outspoken feminists, I found myself turned off to the movement, in part because I didn’t understand it. But as I went through college and found myself writing and exploring very feminist issues in all of my work, I realized that feminism is wide, dynamic, and accommodating.
With the growth of feminist talk in the mainstream — from TIME Magazine’s attempt to “ban” the word in 2014 to the popular question “are you a feminist?” journalists ask of famous women — it felt like the right time to bring together a variety of voices, perspectives, and insights into what feminism means, what it looks like, and why it’s a movement that teenagers want to know and be involved in because it truly impacts their lives now and will impact it throughout their futures.
This is very much the book I would have wanted as a teenager to help me make sense of the idea and make me feel like my own feminism was not wrong.
I remember growing up and grappling with a lot of really big issues and finding my place in books. There was a nice guide to figuring out your religious beliefs or how you could mix and match them. There was a guide for how to handle your changing body. There were all kinds of useful books for teens on topics that mattered; this, I like to think, will fit into that realm — and hopefully it’ll reach teens in ways that I can’t even anticipate.
4) You mention in your Twitter bio that you’re a “reformed librarian.” What was the best part about working as a librarian? What was the worst?
I worked with teenagers, who are the BEST. I love teenagers, their energy, their enthusiasm, their attitudes. Deep down inside, even the most annoying teen who walks into the library wants to be accepted for who they are, right where they are. I always felt like it was a privilege to be a trusted adult in their lives and accept them right where they are. I had teens who’d come to book club so they could play with LEGOs and teens who’d come to those same book clubs to talk books. I let them do both, and both were so happy to be able to do that. I loved being an advocate and voice for those who are so rarely seen as worthy of that. Especially in a public space. We limit teens everywhere; my goal was — and still is through so many other ways — to give them space to grow and learn and have fun. They have the whole rest of their lives to be adults.
The worst part of librarianship was bureaucracy. Getting things done takes a long time in libraries, if it happens at all. Actually, the thing I disliked most was being a young woman in a public space where many felt they were able to comment on me to me. I had a man make a really inappropriate sex joke at me, had men inappropriately touch me without my permission, and men who would literally comment on my appearance to tell me if I looked better or worse one way or the other. It was always awkward and uncomfortable and I learned a lot about myself. I know some people would respond and react quickly, but as someone who feels like I always have to be a good kid, I never said what I wanted to, and I rarely reported their behavior. I wish, of course, I had. But I didn’t know. I just wanted to do well at my job, and part of that was dealing with that.
5) Do you see yourself writing fiction for teen girls down the line? (I personally think this needs to happen, Kelly. It just does).
Yep — I’m actually in the midst of working on a novel right now that I’m revising for my agent. I’ve been working on various novels for many years, but nothing quite stuck because I didn’t invest seriously in myself as a person with a career in writing and publishing for teens. But now I’m seeing it and wanting it. I’m lucky to have both critique partners, friends, and an agent who are encouraging it in ways that make me want to bring an A game.
If you’re curious, my work in progress is a novel about small towns, two girls who love one another madly, ghosts, and how we judge ourselves and others.
A huge thank you to Kelly for participating in this series!! Make sure to pick up Feminism for the Real World when it hits bookshelves in Spring 2017, and while you wait, go get It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader. You can find Kelly online over at the following links: