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!

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?

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

“I’d listen to her read a grocery list”: On Audiobooks

It doesn’t take that much endurance to read a picture book aloud. Reading for longer periods of time, however, can be taxing, which makes the work that audiobook narrators do even more impressive. I started listening to audiobooks when I started driving to and from work; I used to commute via subway, where I found that external noise drowned out anything coming through my headphones.

At first, not sure how much concentration I’d be able to spare, I started by re-reading books I’d already read, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is performed by the author and a full cast. (It’s excellent.) I moved on to the Hunger Games trilogy, which Carolyn McCormick narrates (she is also excellent). Then I listened to Life by Keith Richards, read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley, and “Keef” himself; the switching between narrators seemed random and was somewhat jarring, but each individual reader was very good.

eleanorandpark_audioEventually, I started reading books I hadn’t read before, and I’ve become hooked on audiobooks; as soon as I finish one, I start another. Because my commute is blessedly brief and I’m usually only in the car for half an hour each day, I read a lot of shorter books (7-9 hours), often young adult novels. I’ve started seeking out particular narrators, such as Rebecca Lowman (Eleanor & Park, Rules of Civility) and Morven Christie (Code Name Verity, Burial Rites).

Luckily for me, audiobooks are becoming more popular, and publishers are producing more of them (see “Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part,” Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times, June 29, 2013). As for whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading, there is plenty of debate. I would venture to say that as long as one has mastered the ability to read in print, audiobooks are as legitimate a way to consume books as reading them on paper (or on a screen). “We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a book read out loud,” T.M. Luhrman wrote in a New York Times  piece called “Audiobooks and the return of storytelling” on February 22. She continued, “The ability to read has always been invested with more importance than mere speech….But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud.”

TFIOS_audioOne experiences a story differently, and remembers it differently, when hearing it read aloud as opposed to reading the text visually. Partly, audiobooks are a different reading experience for me because I don’t skip over sentences or skim paragraphs; I hear every single word. And a truly talented narrator can bring a book to life: listen to Jim Dale perform the Harry Potter books or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Rebecca Lowman read Eleanor & Park or Rules of Civility. Kate Rudd reading The Fault in Our Stars brought me to tears, though I didn’t cry when I first read the book in print.

I think we are all hungry for stories, whether we read them to ourselves in print, listen to them as audiobooks, or read them out loud to ourselves or each other. If you aren’t an audiobook devotee already, I’d encourage you to give them a try. Libraries usually carry them on CD and sometimes on Playaways, and they are often downloadable in mp3 format too.

Characters, Gender, and Likability

Yesterday I followed a couple of links from Twitter and read these two pieces: “Why Talking About Girl Reading Matters” from Kelly Jensen at Stacked and “On Liking Characters” by Liz Burns at School Library Journal (SLJ). The Stacked post linked to Laurel Snyder’s post “Boys Will Be Boys, And Girls Will Be Accommodating.” Together, these pieces make the point that in focusing on “books for boys” (boys are generally more reluctant readers than girls) we do everyone an injustice.

If boys only ever read “books for boys,” they may never discover that they like other kinds of books as well. Those of us putting books into the hands of growing readers can’t underestimate them; we ought to encourage them to stretch and try something new. At the same time, “girl books” tend to be pushed to the sides, sending the message that they are less important. “The best solution,” writes Snyder, “would require us to push against the gender bias in the world, and in ourselves.”

If there’s one thing The Hunger GamesDivergent, and The Fault in Our Stars have proved, it’s that boys will read books that have girls as the main character. (As for the author’s gender, it’s not something I remember ever paying attention to much as I was growing up, and I don’t pay much attention now, either; this is borne out in my reading stats. But in the above examples, those incredibly successful trilogies are written by women.)

A character’s gender also affects their likability, as Burns points out in her piece. Some readers are quick to label girl characters unlikable if the character acts in a nontraditional way. But a likable character isn’t the same as a good one (i.e., a well-written, realistic one). Here’s my response to Burns’ piece:

The most important thing about character is believability. Are the character’s actions believable? Is there an internal consistency? Does the reader understand the character’s motivation? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the author has probably created a good character: recognizably human, with some flaws and some talents.

Likability is a different issue entirely. Personally, I would be bored reading about likable characters all the time, or if all characters were binary, either likable or unlikable – protagonist/antagonist, hero/villain. Real people are more complicated than that.

As Claire Messud has pointed out, the likability issue does affect female characters (and female authors) disproportionately; it’s more common for readers to criticize female characters for being unlikable than male characters.

My friend Anna has also written about the “books for boys/books for girls” issue, both at YALSA’s The Hub and on her own blog. On The Hub, she wrote, “…it doesn’t matter if a book is ‘for’ a guy or a girl; the gender of the intended audience tends to get all mixed up when you factor in the power of a good story. Boys like stories; girls like stories. Readers in general like stories” (emphasis added). Anna added to this thought a few days later on her blog, asking, “What About Books for Girls?” She wrote,

“Readers are readers. If we could just take off the gendered lenses entirely, I think we could serve our readers better. Let’s focus on writing, reading, and recommending stories that are true (in the manner of Truth, not necessarily a nonfiction story), that matter, that touch the soul, that are real, that show the varieties of human emotion and experience, that are maybe even an inspiration. Let’s do that instead of focusing on the gender we think might like the book the best. Books for girls are books for boys, and books for boys are books for girls. It’s all just stories.”

A skilled author, male or female, can write excellent, believable, well-rounded characters of any gender. Let’s try to focus on getting great stories into the hands of all readers.

“New Adult” Revisited, Or, Where are all the books about college?

It’s easy to find books about characters in high school. And it’s easy to find books about adult characters anywhere, doing anything. But there is a sparsely populated area between these two: books about characters who are transitioning from childhood/teenagerhood to adulthood. A few years ago, in response to a post on the Young Adult Review Network (YARN), I struggled to come up with a handful of titles that fit this category. YARN responded with additional titles (November 2011), but I don’t think anyone was satisfied that there were enough “new adult” books at the time.

fangirlinfinitemomentofusThe topic came up again at ALA 2013. I didn’t attend in person, but followed the coverage on blogs and Twitter; Hannah Gomez’s piece for YALSA’s The Hub provides a great recap, as well as a link to a resource list, which has been updated – a pleasant surprise! - since the conference. (There’s another good piece on The Hub about adult books with teen appeal, from August 2012. I’d add Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt to this list, and I’m not alone – it’s a 2013 Alex Award winner.) I was glad to see that a few of my recent favorites that fit snugly into the “new adult” category are on the reader’s advisory resource list, including Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando, and Just One Day and Just One Year by Gayle Forman; I’d also add How to Love by Katie Cotugno.

howtolovejustoneyearThe years after high school, whether they include college or not, and the first few years in the working world are a transitional time of great change and (hopefully) growth. It is strange that authors haven’t mined this emotion-rich area more. Perhaps these books fell into that gray area that is neither YA nor adult, and publishers weren’t sure how to market them, but if that’s the case, it’s a weak one: so many adults are openly reading YA lit now that these”crossover” books should appeal to both audiences, rather than being lost between them.

roomiesbunheads

Lourdes at YARN made an important point about some of the books I suggested back in 2011: that they contained an element of nostalgia, and were told from an adult point of view in a present that looked back on the past, as opposed to being told from the point of view of a young adult in the present. The books I mentioned above fit this criteria much better, and I hope to discover and read more of these (suggestions are welcome in the comments).

However, as a reader, I like the adult-looking-back perspective; one example I can think of is Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony, which starts when its three main characters are in college. Maggie Shipstead’s forthcoming Astonish Me (April 2014) also begins when its main character is a young adult, and it follows her until her own son is a teenager. (I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who liked Bunheads.) Much of the action in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves takes place when the narrator is in college, though in the present she is middle-aged. Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters also deals with three young women who have been out in the world for a few years, but who don’t yet feel like (or, sometimes, act like) adults. All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian is also adult fiction, but its main character, Maral, grows from fourteen to twenty during WWII in Paris – perfect for “new adults” who like historical fiction, as Maral makes several difficult and important choices as she comes of age.

The titles in the paragraph above were gleaned from my own reading over the past several months, so clearly “new adults” exist in literature – they can just be hard to find. I’d love to see more books like Fangirl and Roomies, though. Again, if you have suggestions, let me know in the comments!

Note: There are many definitions of the “new adult” category (and many disagreements about whether it’s a genre or a marketing ploy, exciting or a hassle), but no consensus. Therefore, I’m using my preferred definition of “new adult”: books about characters who are in the 18-25-year-old range, told from their perspective (not necessarily first person, present tense, but not from an adult perspective looking back). 

David Levithan and Rainbow Rowell at Brookline Booksmith

The Monday before Thanksgiving, I trekked across the river to Brookline to see David LevithanRainbow Rowell, Bill Konigsburg, and Paul Rudnick at the Booksmith. Each author read from one of their books: Rudnick read from Gorgeous, Konigsburg from Openly Straight, Rowell and Levithan from Fangirl (hers) and Two Boys Kissing (his). This might be the first time I’ve seen a pair of authors do a joint reading like this – Levithan made a very funny Levi – and they seemed like they were really having fun (though maybe YA authors just have more fun, in general).

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After the readings, they opened up Q&A right away. Here are some snippets:

Levithan, on the 10th anniversary of Boy Meets Boy: “Boy Meets Boy was about creating reality. With Two Boys Kissing I wanted to write something that reflected reality.”

On a reaction to Rowell’s decision to write a novel about college-age characters: “‘College students don’t read.’ I know, be offended, write a letter! ‘Nobody wants to read about college students.’ But I don’t think of writing for one specific audience.” And, she added, readers often want to read about characters a little bit older than themselves (e.g. high school students would be interested in reading about college students).

On the extra pressure Levithan felt for his novel Love is the Higher Law: “You write a bad book, that’s okay. You write a bad book about 9/11, that’s bad.”

Levithan, on writing the character A in Every Day: It was less difficult than he expected; “[When you] take gender out of the equation, sexual orientation doesn’t exist.”

Rowell, on humor in writing: “Funny is subjective.” If a joke she wrote made her laugh, she fought to keep it in the manuscript, even if her agent or editor wasn’t sure about it.

Rowell, on why she chose the physical appearances for Eleanor and Park that she did (chubby and red-headed, and half-Korean, respectively): “You make the decision and you don’t always know where it came from, but it comes from somewhere.” And on attractiveness and attraction: “Attraction happens between two people. That’s it. Two people become attractive to each other.”

Levithan, on making stuff up: “If you’re a writer you make up everything. You’re always being presumptuous.”

On Rowell’s jealousy of the Harry Potter/Internet generation: “Fanfic writers have different rules than published authors.”

Rowell, on writing: “The more you do it, the better you get.”

Levithan, on writing: It’s like the cello. No one expects you to pick up a cello and play a concerto your second time playing. It’s like a muscle you have to develop and strengthen with practice. “Allow yourself to fuck up a lot…Don’t put an expiration date [on your writing], just keep going.”

Someone asked, “What happens when The Lover’s Dictionary Twitter account (@loversdiction) reaches the letter Z?” Levithan said he’s going to wait and see how Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi) handles it, because she’s going to get to the end of the alphabet first. The Twitter account, which he started as a promotion for the book’s release, is now longer than the actual book. He’s currently on the letter G (“Good, adj.: You should choose this so much that it no longer feels like a choice”), and expects to be done in a decade or so. (On losing track of time: “Isn’t 2013 like twelve years from now? No, it’s not.”)

After the Q&A, the authors signed copies of their books. Here’s my new paperback copy of Every Day:

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And here’s my new hardcover of Eleanor & Park. The first time I “read” it was the audiobook - and Rebecca Lowman is superb – but I’m looking forward to reading it again in print.

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Of course, I already do love them.

The dog, however, is less impressed. Here she is in the background of the title page of Every Day:

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She’d be more impressed if she could read, though. (Or if paper tasted more like chicken. But I’m very glad it doesn’t, or none of the books in my house would be safe.)

Anyway…YA books! Read them! Especially these ones.

 

Recaptains to the rescue

allegiantAllegiant, Veronica Roth’s third and final installment of the trilogy that began with Divergent, has finally hit the shelves (and promptly been snatched up by eager readers). I’m still waiting for a library copy, but in the meantime I needed to refresh my memory of the first two books. I’m in the habit of writing reviews of nearly everything I read, and indeed I wrote about Divergent and Insurgent, but with series there are always details that fade, and I try not to give away the ending in my reviews. However, I also don’t want to re-read all the preceding books in a series every time a new one comes out, so what to do? (Hannah Gomez at The Hub has one solution, but I don’t have the willpower for that.)

Recaptains to the rescue! I forget where I originally heard about the Recaptains. (If it was you who told me about them, please let me know. I have a feeling it may have been via Maggie Stiefvater, who wrote the recap for her own book, The Raven Boys.) The Recaptains, as the name suggests, write recaps – not reviews – of series books, including spoilers to help those who read the first book(s) but want a refresher before starting the next in the series.

If you, too, are waiting for a copy of Allegiant, here are the recaps of Divergent and InsurgentThey aren’t perfect, but they serve their purpose. And if you’ve read them both but still aren’t sure about continuing on with the final book, the FYA review of Allegiant is pretty safe (no major spoilers).

What to read and how to read it: RSS feeds and library blogs

When Google Reader announced it was shutting down, I considered several options and chose to migrate to The Old Reader. The migration took a few days because of heavy traffic, but once that was done and I started using it, I liked it a lot; it was the most similar and therefore least disruptive change.

However, right around the time I went to NELLS, The Old Reader was having some issues and it looked like it was going to be down for quite a while. To their credit, they’re doing everything they can to make The Old Reader sustainable in the long term, but I didn’t want to be without my RSS feed for that long.

feedly-logo1-640x297Instead of looking back at my first post on the topic (see link in first paragraph), I went ahead and chose Feedly. If I had looked back at my own research, I probably would have gone with Newsblur, but I’ve been fairly happy with Feedly. It’s easy to organize your subscriptions into folders and move the folders around; there are a number of view options; the app for the tablet is good. The left-hand sidebar menu tends to disappear (to give more room to what you’re reading), but reappears when you float over it.

But the RSS tool is only the how, not the what. The what, of course, is the content itself, and since NELLS I have added a few more blogs to my “Library Blogs” folder, including friends and fellow NELLS participants Anna at LCARSLIBRARIAN and Sarah at librarysarie. (Those links go directly to their posts about NELLS.)

A few of my other favorite library blogs:

  • Brian at SwissArmyLibrarian: SwissArmyLibIn addition to the always-interesting Reference Question of the Week, Brian also writes clear, concise, thoughtful posts relevant to the public library world. He has a lot of experience as a librarian, but I think his blog would be interesting for library patrons as well as other librarians. Plus, he works in Massachusetts, so if you’re in New England there’s a good chance you’ll see him in person at a conference. Say hi!
  • Sarah at LibrarianInBlack: Opinionated, honest, and unafraid to stand up for herself and her library, Sarah is the director of a public library in California. As she says on her “About” page, “I am a big technology nerd and I believe in the power of libraries to change lives.  Combined, they make a fearsome cocktail.”
  • Jessamyn at Librarian.net: Jessamyn writes from Vermont about libraries, technology, politics and government (she covered the Kirtsaeng v. Wiley case, for example). A great writer, relevant and interesting content. LibraryLoon
  • Gavia Libraria, the Library Loon: the pseudonymous Loon writes about issues within library school and academic libraries. I enjoy her opinionated style as well as the substance of each post. She recently linked to Meredith Farkas’ piece, “Managing the ‘whole person,’” which I highly recommend, especially to NELLS folks. Meredith’s blog is another good one for those interested in academic libraries and instruction in general.
  • Julie at Perfect Whole: Julie is a librarian, reader, and writer who until recently wrote twice-monthly essays, published on the first and 15th of the month. This schedule has been suspended recently but there are plenty of thoughtful, well-crafted essays as well as the occasional current post.  Her “I can’t believe you’re throwing out books!” essay sparked a lot of conversations about weeding.
  • Linda at ThreeGoodRats: Linda is one of my co-workers (we both write for the Robbins Library blog) and ThreeGoodRats is where she reviews the many, many books she reads. Her reviews are neat, to-the-point, honest, helpful (if you’re trying to decide whether or not to read that particular book), and insightful. She also has a Sunday knitting feature that will knock your (handmade) socks off. YALSATheHub
  • Young Adult blogs: I enjoy the unique review style at Forever Young Adult, though I don’t read 100% of the content. Some of their reviews are now featured on Kirkus. They also write TV show recaps. YALSA’s The Hub is another YA blog I browse (Anna of LCARSLIBRARIAN writes for them sometimes). There is a high volume of content so I don’t read everything, but a recent favorite post is “Too Many Trilogies.”

So those are a few blogs I make a point of reading. What are your favorites? And what have you found to replace Google Reader (assuming you were using it in the first place), and are you happy with it? Comment below!