Young adult sports novel 'Dangerous Play' takes aim at misogyny

Young adult sports novel 'Dangerous Play' takes aim at misogyny

The day Emma Kress’ first book “Dangerous Play” (Roaring Brook Press, $18.99) was released in national bookstores  was also the day Attorney General Letitia James’ report on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment allegations made headlines.

Kress didn't plan it that way.

The young adult novel tells the story of a fierce high school field hockey team that comes to the aid of a fellow player, who has been sexually harassed. “I began writing this book in 2014, before the #MeToo movement hit,” Kress said, “but as a friend said, ‘Misogyny is never not going to be timely.’”

One of the things Kress wanted to capture in the book was the feeling, from a woman’s perspective, of being raped and sexually harassed. “There are millions of ways to react if this happens, and how you move through the trauma is OK. There is no right or wrong way. I was trying to capture an authentic reaction and show how these girls moved through all their emotions to deal with their suffering," she said. They get angry. They want revenge. Unfortunately, society is not comfortable allowing girls to move through all their emotions.” 

Kress, who lives in Saratoga Springs, is a former high school English teacher. Prior to her time in the classroom, she worked as a sexual violence peer counselor and conducted numerous workshops on sexual assault and consent with teens. “It’s tough growing up in our society as a teenager,” she said. “Boys and girls often feel like they need to act a certain way. One of the best things for a teenage girl is to have some solidarity with other girls, and that happens in this book. The girls on the team all had each other’s back.”

Most books about girls on sports teams have to do with romance, Kress said, but she wanted to explore a different connection — the one that comes from being on the team. “When I was a teenager, romantic relationships were not the defining event in my teen years,” she said. “My friendships were the most important thing, and I wanted to capture how a good friendship can get you through tough times.”

As Kress sees it, both genders share the responsibility of ending misogyny. “I wanted to show in this book how some boys will not just be a bystander,” she said. “There aren’t many men in the book, but most of them are good people. I have a son. I’m married. I’m the daughter of a man. It’s all of our responsibility to dismantle rape culture. It is insidious and pervasive. It often creates such shame in the victim, who often wonders if what happened to them had something to do with the way they acted or what they wore.”

Many male readers have been supportive of the book, telling Kress that it opened their eyes and allowed them to better understand the topic.

Although she had wanted to be a writer since she was a young girl, Kress spent decades afraid to fully devote herself to the pursuit. “As an undergraduate at Vassar, I was afraid to sign up for the class (in) creative writing. I look back now and wonder why I was so scared. As I’ve gotten older, I realize the world will say no to you many times, but why should I ever say no to the world?”

Getting serious about writing happened for Kress 10 years ago. “At that time, I was a teacher surrounded by teenagers, and I was reading a lot of young adult books,” she said. “I began to notice how adults had disempowered teenagers ... taken away their power just as they were figuring out how to use it.

“There were very few books about fierce girl athletes,” she said. “I wanted to give them power and have them be fiercely competitive and aggressive. That type of teenage girl will threaten many people, but I wanted to show the importance of being strong and determined and show how a group of girls with a singular focus could accomplish something marvelous.”

Kress’ perspective on the ability to control only what’s “in her boat” has been a factor in her own accomplishments, as well. “Dangerous Play” is the third novel she has written, but the first that was picked up by an agent and sold to a major publisher.

“A real shift for me was when I came to the realization that writing was not about just getting published,” she said. “The love of writing was more important. ... What’s inside my boat is that I love to write, and I love to learn how to write better. There’s a lot outside my boat — finding an agent, a publisher, readers, winning awards. I try not to worry about all that. I want to stay in my boat and focus on my writing.”

Kress is at work on another young adult book with strong women characters.

“I’m leaning harder into humor for this book,” she said. “Humor is essential to my well-being, and it’s one of the best ways to get through trauma.”

Get the book

"Dangerous Play" by Emma Kress

352 pages, $18.99, Roaring Book Press

Available in bookstores nationwide, and locally at Northshire Bookstore.