Gabrielle Zevin at Porter Square Books

elsewhereJust over a year ago, the children’s librarian at the library where I work pressed a book called Elsewhere into my hands and convinced me to read it simply because she had loved it so much herself; even though she’d read it for the first time years ago, she said she still thought about it regularly. (This is usually a good sign.)

I think I read the book in a day, or maybe a weekend. I found it just as sweet, thoughtful, and unique as promised. However, I neglected to hunt down the author’s other books, and when I began hearing about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry a few months ago, I did not make the connection. I put two and two together just in time to see Gabrielle Zevin speak at Porter Square Books this past Monday.

A bookstore employee introduced Zevin as a graduate of “our local university down the street” (i.e., Harvard). Zevin started her talk by telling the audience how she got into publishing. She sold her first two novels, Elsewhere and Margarettown, in the same year; Elsewhere was an ALA Notable Children’s Book and won a few other awards as well, while Margarettown, despite several good reviews, “was a flop.”

“A flop” can mean two things in publishing: it can mean that the book was terrible and/or got bad reviews, but it can also mean that the book was decent, even good, but didn’t merit significant attention, and was buried beneath the next season’s books. Margarettown is still on the shelves of fourteen of the libraries in the Minuteman Library Network, so while it may be out of print, it’s still available; it may find fans yet.

Zevin spoke about her relationship with books going back to childhood. Ever since her parents used to drop her off at a bookstore while they went grocery shopping, she said, entering a bookstore fills her with “a heady sense of freedom and possibility.” In bookstores, she said, she always felt safe, like nothing bad could ever happen in a bookstore – “and nothing bad ever has happened to me in a bookstore.”

storiedlifeajfikryOn to the matter of inspiration: where do her ideas for books come from? “Most of my books have started with a question.” For A.J. Fikry, there were two questions: What is the importance of bookstores to the world? And what effect do the stories we read have on our lives?

Zevin is obviously a believer in books and stories. She stated, “Children who read grow into adults you want to know.” People who read develop empathy. (I’ve written about the link between fiction and empathy here before, especially in this post inspired by an interview with Lauren Groff.) Bookstores, Zevin believes, are special places; they “represent the good in a community. They are about more than just commerce; they are about the exchange of ideas.” (The same can be said of libraries, which are entirely about ideas and community and not about commerce at all.) Reading and writing may be solitary activities, but they connect us as a community. Though those in the self-publishing business (more about that later) may disdain gatekeepers, Zevin said, “We need people [editors, booksellers, librarians] to tell us what is good and what is bad. The future of literary culture depends on these people. Booksellers are curators.”

The book world is changing. From 2005, when Elsewhere was published, to 2014, there have been huge changes: the ubiquity of the Internet, the expectation that authors will have a social media presence, the rise of e-books. “I think it’s worth being mindful of what we lose as these changes occur,” said Zevin. She doesn’t worry about futures in which children fight to the death or Chicago is divided into factions by personality type (clear allusions to The Hunger Games and Divergent); “I do, however, worry very much about the world without books.”

An Indie Next Pick for April 2014, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was published as The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry in the U.K. The idea behind this title is that “collected works” can refer to everything a person has read in his or her life, rather than everything s/he has written. This idea instantly reminded me of Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel The Night Bookmobile, in which Alexandra discovers a bookmobile filled with every book she’s ever read. (The Night Bookmobile was first serialized in The Guardian, then published in hardcover by Jonathan Cape.) Such a bookmobile would be fascinating; as Zevin said, “Anybody’s reading life is so gloriously random.”

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.” –The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

During the Q&A, Zevin spoke again about debuts. Her first two books were published quite close together, and while Elsewhere was successful, Margarettown was less so; its publisher actually folded, and the book is now out of print. Zevin said, “Everybody has a sad story about a first novel…Most of the time everyone fails. Most of the time everyone gets it wrong. How do you get over failure? You keep working…A lot of debuts are not a writer’s best work.” She added, “The work is separate from people’s response to it,” which struck me as a sensible and wise perspective to maintain.

Because Zevin writes for both YA and adult audiences, someone asked her how she shifted between them, and how she decided which audience to write for. Zevin said that the main character’s age and situation determine the audience; she has the idea first, then decides on the audience accordingly. She shared an anecdote from another author’s response to this question; that author said that the difference is hope – YA books must be hopeful – but Zevin thinks “adults like hope too.”

I haven’t yet read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (though it’s next on my to-read list), but I know the eponymous main character is a bookseller. (Zevin read a funny passage wherein Fikry elucidates to the sales rep, Amelia, all the kinds of books he isn’t interested in.) However, Zevin said, “A.J.’s [literary] tastes aren’t mine.” She’s a keen observer of other people’s reading habits, and noted that spying on people’s reading on the subway is much harder now because of e-readers.

Another audience question concerned research. Zevin said that while she doesn’t write two books at one time, she can research one while writing another, and she did quite a lot of research for her novel The Hole We’re In, about “female soldiers in Iraq.” (She also mentioned, offhandedly, that she dislikes National Novel Writing Month - or at least thinks it “needs to be preceded by National Thinking About Your Novel Month.”)

After about ten years of working with traditional publishers, Zevin has learned a lot about how they work, and she has “respect and appreciation” for all jobs in publishing. Although “the books are still more important than how they get sold,” a tremendous amount of work goes into all aspects of a book: not just the writing of it, but the editing, the design, the jacket copy and cover art, the distribution and marketing and sales. She started off knowing very little of this – she admitted she didn’t even know that sales reps, who bring publishers’ books and catalogs to bookstores, existed – but concluded, “I do think it’s always better to be armed with information.” Many articles about self-publishing (she mentioned the Wall Street Journal particularly) display a “deep misunderstanding about the publishing process.” There is more to making a book that writing it and clicking a button. (See also: “In defense of editors,” “We built this together.”)

I’m really excited to start reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and maybe some of Zevin’s other books too. You can see all of her books on her website, and if you live in the Cambridge area, check out the upcoming events at Porter Square Books.

World Book Night 2014

WBN2014_logo_672x652My fabulous YA librarian friend Anna wrote about World Book Night last December and inspired me to apply. I had heard of World Book Night before (basically, I knew that it was a night where people gave out free books), but Anna explains all the important stuff in her post.

This year is my first year as a giver, and I’m giving out Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Why did I choose Code Name Verity? Because it is one of the most compelling WWII stories I’ve ever read, which is saying something, given the glut of WWII fiction and the amount of it I’ve consumed. It features a young British pilot, Maddie, and a young Scottish (“I am not English!“) spy, and their friendship is central to the story: “We make a sensational team,” says the Scot.

The Scot tells the first half of the story as a written confession to her Nazi captors in occupied France. She has made a Faustian bargain with a Gestapo officer in order to be able to write her account, which she tells, mostly, in the third person, referring to herself as “Queenie.” It is a powerful narrative, heartbreaking and gruesome in turns, and also, improbably, with moments of humor.

I can’t well tell about the second half without giving much of the story away; suffice to say I think teens and adults can and will enjoy the story equally, and the conversational, journalistic style makes for easy reading. The audiobook, read by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell, is also incredibly good (though I won’t be handing those out on World Book Night, just the good old paper copies).

World Book Night is April 23 this year. If you missed signing up to be a giver this year, don’t fret – there’s always next year!

Graduates in Wonderland

graduatesinwonderlandSometimes a book comes along, and as you read the description, you realize it ticks every one of your boxes. Here’s the tagline for Graduates in Wonderland from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program: “Two best friends document their post-college lives through emails in this hilarious, relatable, and powerfully honest memoir.”

Best friends. Check. More books should have friendship at their core.

Post-college. Check. This book occupies that nebulous “new adult” space, and proves NA isn’t just YA with sex scenes.

E-mails. Check. I love a good epistolary novel, and these e-mails are really in-depth letters.

Hilarious, relatable, honest, etc. Check. I take any adjectives in a publisher’s description with a grain of salt, but as it turns out, these ones apply.

I don’t know if Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale wrote these letters with an eye toward publication the whole time, or whether they were edited after the fact (for clarity and grammar if nothing else), but either way, this is a fantastic read that I wanted to recommend to many of my friends before I’d even finished it. Because of the format (e-mail), both authors use a casual, honest, straightforward style. They reveal their fears and insecurities about their nascent careers and love lives, and they encourage each other, offer advice, and build each other up.

Graduates of Brown, the authors are privileged but conscientious. Jessica moves from New York to Beijing to Australia, while Rachel spends more time in New York before going to Paris; both of them end up in London, though the book ends before they settle there. They are both creative, and explore various career paths; they aren’t completely sure what they want to do at first. They’re also struggling with living in unfamiliar places and speaking second languages, and of course they’re both looking for The One. The e-mails strike a perfect balance in subject matter between work and romance.

They are honest: I don’t think the people I see on a daily basis realize how down I really am.”

They are funny: Get a French person to try to read the word hodgepodge out loud. They will say, ‘hogey-pogey,’ and it will be the best moment of your life.”

They are practical: Note to future selves: Never buy anything. You will just have to pack it in a suitcase one day.”

They are observant: Yesterday, I was in a park and I saw a Chinese man out walking his birds. In each hand he held a birdcage as he strolled, showing the birds the park scenery before hanging the cages from a tree while he went to go socialize with his fellow bird-walkers. I’m really going to miss this place.”

They are contemplative: Everywhere people and friendships are changing. I’m starting to wonder how many friends I’ve made here will still be friends for the long haul. How many places can you leave people behind and still expect to keep in touch with all of them?”

They are, sometimes, wise: “I feel like I haven’t lived enough to really focus on my writing. I don’t think I’m ready.” / He sounds great, but we need to listen to the warnings that guys give about themselves.” 

They have a sense of themselves in the world: These beautiful moments are a nice distraction from the stagnation of my career. (Is it stagnation if it hasn’t begun?)”

While I’m not sold on the title or the cover, I really, really liked this book, and would recommend it to anyone who is in college now or who has graduated in the past ten years or so. It fits perfectly between Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr’s novel Roomies, which takes place in the summer between high school and college, and Rachel Bertsche’s MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Frienda memoir of the author’s experience moving from New York to Chicago after getting married.

roomies MWFseeking BFF

404 Day: Action Against Censorship

Join EFF!

Today is 4/04, “a nation-wide day of action to call attention to the long-standing problem of Internet censorship in public libraries and public schools.” Read the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) piece about Internet filtering in libraries and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Though CIPA requires some Internet filtering in libraries that accept federal funding, libraries often go further than is required. (Also, no filter is perfect: some “bad” content will always get through, and plenty of legitimate content will be blocked.)

Barbara Fister at Inside Higher Ed is also eloquent, as always, in her piece “404 Day: Protecting Kids From…What?” She mentions Gretchen Casserotti, a public library director in Meridian, Idaho, who live-tweeted a school board meeting in which Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was, ultimately, removed from the school curriculum. (Book Riot collected these tweets in order.)

Kids don’t need to be protected from literature. They need to engage with it, think about it, and discuss it; if adults can help with that, all the better. But as Fister points out, it would be better to protect kids from, say, hunger, than from “dangerous” books.

Problem Novels or Resilience Literature?

speakLast month there was a snippet in EarlyWord that caught my eye; librarian Nancy Pearl interviewed YA author Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson’s books, which tackle difficult but real topics such as rape (Speak) and eating disorders (Wintergirls), are occasionally targeted by those who wish to censor them. Pearl asked her about the “problem novel” label that is “often applied to books about teens dealing with real-life situations.” Anderson reframed the issue by calling these books “resilience literature” instead, “because the goal of the books is to help strengthen kids facing difficult situations.” I think that’s a beautiful and apt way to put it.

As my co-worker Rebecca wrote during Banned Books Week last year, “Books are safe spaces to experience new things. New thoughts. New ideas. Different points of view….Books teach us how to empathize with each other, how to stand up for the little guy, and how to recognize the bad guys in our lives….We experience strong emotion alongside our favorite characters – joy, catharsis, loss, excitement. Books are a safe way to learn about life, without all the painful bumps and bruises.”

There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Words are important, and labels are especially so. Anderson’s renaming “problem novels” to “resilience literature” is not only a more accurate term, it also casts these books, and the discussion surrounding them, into a more positive and constructive light.

Speak: Have you read books that fall into this category? What did you think of them?

“A letter always feels to me like immortality”: on letters and epistolary novels

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog, with minor modifications.

“A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.” -Emily Dickinson, quoted in To The Letter by Simon Garfield

An epistle, from the Latin epistulais a letter: a composition in prose sent from one person to another, or from one person to a group of people. An epistolary novel is a novel in letters, a unique style of narration. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first novel written in this way was Pamela by Samuel Richardson in 1740; Richardson employed the form again with Clarissa in 1748. Other authors began to write epistolary novels as well, including Goethe, who published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. And one of the most well-known epistolary novels is Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Acquaintances), which has been adapted into film more than once (Dangerous Liaisons in 1988Cruel Intentions in 1999).

Why are epistolary novels so compelling? One reason may be that they feel intimate. There’s the illegal thrill of reading someone else’s mail, but there’s also a first person voice, usually one character writing to another that they know well, or come to know well. The pace of the correspondence may heighten the suspense as characters – and readers – wait for a reply.

griffinandsabineMost epistolary novels are printed in the same way as regular books, but some go as far as to include actual envelopes and letters. Nick Bantock’s beautiful, mysterious Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence is one of these: Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem correspond in handmade postcards at first, then move on to longer letters, which the reader pulls out from an envelope and unfolds to read. (A word to the wise: there are six of these books. You may want to get them all at once and set aside a day or two to read them. You will want to know what happens next.)

guernseyOne deservedly popular novel in letters is The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, published in 2008. This book has had lasting appeal, and at least some of that appeal must come from the style in which it is written. The characters’ letters are direct, honest, funny, sorrowful, angry, heartbreaking, and romantic in turn. The reader feels as though she has direct access to the characters, without the authors as intermediaries.

attachmentsOther authors use a more traditional style of narration, but employ letters, journal entries, or – more recently – e-mails, text messages, and chats. A significant chunk of Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, is told through two characters’ e-mail exchange – an exchange read by a third person, their company’s IT manager. Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia includes text messages and facebook status updates. The young adult favorite The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is written as a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown recipient; Roomies by popular YA authors Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando also includes lengthy e-mails between the two main characters, high school graduates who are to be roommates in the fall.

lettersfromskyeOther recent epistolary or semi-epistolary novels are Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole, set in Scotland and America, and The Confidant by Helene Gremillon, set in France. These two novels don’t just use the contents of the letters to tell the reader a story; the letters’ discovery by other people becomes part of the plot. Letters are physical: they can be lost, delayed, delivered to the wrong address, or received, read, and tucked away in a drawer and forgotten until someone else comes along and finds them.

Letters often become a part of history, like journals, newspapers, books, and other documents. Simon Garfield’s book To The Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing provides dozens of examples of historical letters, from Cicero to Kerouac. Many biographies include a subject’s letters and journals (e.g. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in LettersThe Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, and Jane Austen’s Letters). There is even a website, Letters of Note, that gathers fascinating letters from a variety of letter-writers, such as this one from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to his wife.

There are far more epistolary novels and excellent collections of letters than I have mentioned above. What’s your favorite? What are your thoughts on this manner of telling a story? And when was the last time you wrote (or received) a pen-and-paper letter?

“Men and women have been collecting letters since letters began. Unlike other collecting hobbies, philately say, or beautiful antique cars, the collecting of letters has always been a wholly natural endeavor. If you treasured what was said in a letter you kept it, and once you have three, you had a correspondence, and no one would accuse you of being a nerd or obsessive.” -Simon Garfield, To The Letter

Swash_ornament_zeimusu

Letter to the School Board of Strasburg (CO) High School

Two of John Green’s books, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, are being challenged at a high school in Colorado. They are two of the nineteen books (see list below) proposed for the elective course in young adult literature. Parents are petitioning the school board to change the book list. John Green is asking for letters in support of the teacher, who is standing by her curriculum. Here’s my letter:

To the School Board of Strasburg (CO) High School,

I am writing in support of the books in the new YA literature course, and in support of their authors, the teachers and librarians who wish to teach them, and the students who want to read them.

Parents have a right to decide what their own children read, watch, and listen to, but they do not have a right to dictate what other parents’ children read, watch, and listen to. Parents who object to the content of the books included on the YA course syllabus may choose not to allow their students to participate in the course, but they ought not be able to dictate to other parents, students, and teachers.

An earlier letter/petition to this Board asked, “How can students develop into strong and productive citizens when their minds are fed with that which is criminal and vile, crass and crude?” I would respectfully disagree with this characterization of the books included in this course. (I have read thirteen of the nineteen books on the list, including the two by John Green.) I would also argue that this question does a disservice to teens, as does the statement that “Teens have very impressionable minds.” Children and teens are able to tell right from wrong in life and in literature, and literature is one of the safest places to explore the gray area between the two. In her book Reading Magic, Australian author Mem Fox wrote, “The whole point of books is to allow us to experience troubled realities that are different from our own, to feel the appropriate emotions, to empathize, to make judgments, and to have our interest held. If we sanitize everything children read, how much more shocking and confusing will the real world be when they finally have to face it?”

Presumably, these same teens who may be denied access to and, crucially, guided discussion about, these YA novels are learning about “criminal and vile, crass and crude” events in their history classes. They have grown up with graphic images not just in music videos and magazines but on the nightly news. They are aware of the real horrors in the real world. Please don’t underestimate their ability to process literature – especially literature in which the characters are dealing with very real situations.

Fiction has a proven link with empathy*; if you truly want your students to develop into compassionate individuals with good judgment and strong character, you should be encouraging them to read and discuss the novels on this list, and many more besides.

Sincerely,

Jenny Arch
Librarian
Hampshire College, 2003-2007
Columbia Publishing Course, 2007
Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 2010-2012

*See “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul for The New York Times, March 17, 2012

Young Adult Fiction Elective Course (grades 10-12) Book List:

  1. Feed by M.T. Anderson
  2. Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed
  3. Delirium by Lauren Oliver
  4. Uglies by Scott Westerfield
  5. Taken by Erin Bowman
  6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
  7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  8. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  9. Will Grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan
  10. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
  11. 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
  12. Paper Towns by John Green
  13. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  14. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
  15. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  16. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  17. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  18. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
  19. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis