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Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

The Skinny: Cora and her younger sister Mimi have been sent to stay with their Great-Aunt Ida in an isolated little village, yet they soon discover that a centuries-old curse has plagued their family and continues to hold a frightened community in its grasp. Long Lankin is an atmospheric historical horror story and one recommended to fans of Vivian Vande Velde, Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Marcus Sedgwick.

Full(er) Review:

Long Lankin builds in suspense at an even pace, rewarding a patient reader with a deliciously creepy reveal. The historical setting of post-war Britain makes the story suggest a long-standing folk tale, one new to contemporary readers but seemingly rooted in centuries of song and hushed secrecy. This little town in the throws of summer and Auntie Ida’s home, closed off, sweating and steamy, create an oppressive closeness and creeping suspense.

Told in multiple voices – including Cora, a local village boy named Roger, Auntie Ida Eastfield and a handful of letters and journal entries from a former chaplain named Jasper Scaplehorn – a reader follows as Cora and Roger try to piece together the open secret of this town, one that children are warned about but yet still seems ambiguously threatening.

Auntie Ida’s character can at times strain believability. For example, Auntie Ida learned first-hand in the past that keeping secrets from children ultimately led to a broken, frightened family. However, Cora is a feisty and intelligent young woman, unwilling to be treated as just a child and fiercely loyal to her younger sister. Roger, a local young man, and his family are also a delight, bringing moments of humor and fleeting comfort of lazy summer afternoons.

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Bowling Trophy

Bowling Trophy by Calsidyrose

Last Friday <looking at watch>, yup, one week ago today I attended a meeting of public library staff members who work with area teenagers. This group of folks is always fun and interesting; it includes MLS librarians hired specifically to work with teens (like myself), as well as MLS librarians and fabulous paraprofessionals who volunteered to work with the teens at their libraries (or, for a few of them, someone said, “Hey, you don’t seem to hate the teens; would you mind putting on a few programs for them every now and again?”). Before the meeting started, as I munched on bits of cheese, crackers, and hummus, I was talking to another librarian and asking her whether she was excited about Monday’s announcement of the Youth Media Award Winners and if she had any favorites she was hoping would be recognized. For those of you who don’t follow Children’s or YA Literature, the Youth Media Awards are a BIG DEAL (!) in Library Land. This past Monday librarians nationwide were monitoring tweets or watching the announcements live online or, like me, frantically checking multiple twitter accounts and the ALA website for the final press release. Librarians and library lovers were blogging their hearts out about those books that won, those books that didn’t make the final cut, and how their predictions for the year fared. For Librarians, the Youth Media Awards are like the Oscars or the Emmys (only with decidedly less-flashy clothing and way more sensible shoes).

But I digress; back to me eating hummus. This Children’s/YA Librarian told me that, although she had read some books she really enjoyed in the last year, she was not as excited this year as she had been in past years. In a way, I agreed with her. Now more than any time in the past I’ve felt like reading list or book awards committees can seem a little like the jury selection process. Maybe it has been like this for years and I’ve been oblivious. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that within a three-month span coinciding with the beginning and end of the summer reading program I got called for jury duty twice (twice, I tell you!) and I’m just dealing with some left-over frustration. Every reading list or award committee operates in a different way and the voting process also differs from committee to committee, but occasionally books have been selected for whatever list or award that seem a little safe, or seem to have come out of left field, or seem like titles that kids or teens would never read and it makes you wonder. In the legal system juries aren’t really “selected,” but “deselected;” those jurors (in Texas that’s pronounced jer-ahrs) that seem objectionable to one side or the other are told to go home and those middle-of-the-road, unobjectionable folks make up the final jury. Committee members work hard. I know this, first-hand, and absolutely do not mean any disrespect. Not everyone is going to agree on every title, which, in part, makes the Youth Media Awards so much fun! But it also sometimes seems like, in trying to reach an agreement, books might be chosen that offend the least rather than impress the most. The Children’s/YA Librarian I was talking with last Friday concurred.

So what is going on with these awards and these reading lists? I’ve written before, in response to Michael Sullivan’s book about readers’ advisory for boys, that national and state reading lists or awards are selected by adults who look at literary merit in ways that may or may not resonate with teen readers (guys or gals). The Cybils online forum, an award judged by bloggers who regularly write about teen or children’s lit, acknowledges (with humor) the conundrum, stating that this particular award is meant to:

Reward the children’s and young adult authors (and illustrators, let’s not forget them) whose books combine the highest literary merit and “kid appeal.” What’s that mean? If some la-di-dah awards can be compared to brussel sprouts, and other, more populist ones to gummy bears, we’re thinking more like organic chicken nuggets. We’re yummy and nutritious.

Faux Momofuku Brussel Sprouts

Faux Momofuku Brussel Sprouts by joyosity

They don’t come out and state that some of the Youth Media Awards are brussel sprouts or the New York Times Bestsellers or Teens’ Top Ten are gummy bears, but one can draw his or her own conclusions. We might try to dress these brussel sprouts up with some velveeta, but they’re still gonna be brussel sprouts and while some kiddos are going to go gaga for them, we might never convince others that these are really “good” and to put down that P.C. Cast novel or to get off addictinggames.com for five seconds. So who are these awards really for? I do not profess to know much history about the Newbery, Caldecott or Printz (apart from the information available from from the ALA website), but the original stated purpose of the Newbery (from 1921) is instructive. The Newbery is designed:

To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.

This statement does not make it a priority to encourage the lifelong reading of children through book selection. More than anything, it appears, to make a stand for children’s literature and to defend it as every bit as literary as Adult Literature. The award is also a call to authors and publishers to continue creating and releasing awesome children’s literature and acts as a battle cry for librarians so that they may contribute to the literary conversation and point children to quality works. So…it seems like the award is structured mostly for adults (and, by extension, the children they serve).

Is it really so bad, though, for any of these awards to be directed toward adults? In my personal experience I have felt the need to convince those not familiar with YA literature (and who seem to think I spend my days surrounded by the Sweet Valley High series or something of equal merit) that YA lit has grown up and that, yes, while there are some crappy YA novels, there are amazing and sophisticated works too! Being able to direct adults to Printz winners and honor books (which might carry more weight because of their honorary status) can help inform these nay-sayers and convince them that not only do I know my stuff, but that they can allow their children to read something other than school-ordained or “classic” literature. Also, while contemporary young adults have a purchasing power unrivaled by previous generations, adults (librarians or parents or teachers) still make many decisions regarding what titles will be purchased and placed on the shelves at home, at school, or in the library. While I’m not going to argue that anyone should go out and purchase a whole bunch of copies of every award winning title, that these titles frequently get purchased because of their award status is a way in which librarians, in particular, can flex their muscles with publishers and demand excellence. And although I have worked with teens who appreciate being informed of a book’s award or reading list status, I have yet to meet a teen who exhibits the same excitement regarding the announcement of the Youth Media Awards as the many adults I work with every day who were all smiles this past Monday. Nevertheless, the quality/popularity dichotomy does not have to be mutually exclusive and in years where titles that resonate with both teen readers and the adults making the selection are ultimately chosen, these are worth our applause and our invigorated excitement!

While every year is full of surprises, I was particularly impressed and happy with the selections for this year.

Michael A. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature

Ship BreakerWinner – Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

I absolutely loved Ship Breaker and I think this is an excellent choice; not only is this a fantastically written novel (and one that takes place along the Gulf Coast for that matter!), it is also popular with many teens. This book hasn’t stayed on the shelf since I first got it in. This book is a Cybils finalist for the Science Fiction/Fantasy category.

 

NothingrevolverHonor Books –Please Ignore Vera DietzStolen

Stolen by Lucy Christopher

I have not read this title, but it has been on my to-read pile since December. This title is also a Cybils finalist for Young Adult Novels.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Also on my to-read pile 🙂

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

I have never read a Marcus Sedgwick novel I haven’t enjoyed and Revolver is no exception. Although historical fiction can sometimes be a tough sell, whenever I’ve told teens that a man and a teenage guy sit across from each other in a cramped little house in the Arctic, a dead body between them, and only one of the two survives…they’re hooked!

Nothing by Janne Teller

Teller’s novel is completely compelling and truly disturbing. I still haven’t been able to get this book out of my mind (always a good sign!), but I would only recommend it to sophisticated readers. Although the characters are younger, I would hand this book to high schoolers and have recommended it to several adults.

I might revisit this award question again, as it has been on my mind lately, but for now I will bid the world good night and hunker down with my dogs, a blanket and Catherine Fisher’s Sappique.

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New Year by *Sally M*

New Year by *Sally M*

I’ve taken a little hiatus from blogging (and sort of a hiatus from reading, if you can believe it) for the holidays and with the New Year confronting me, I’ve been trying to come up with some New Year’s Resolutions of both a personal and professional bent.

On a personal level, I’d like to try more new recipes this year. I’ve really begun enjoying cooking (thanks, in part, to Mary Rose Shulman of the New York Times) and my goal is to try one new recipe a month for all of 2011. Even if I tackle more than one a month, I’ll be happy to feel confident in 12 new recipes (that’s, like, almost two weeks of meals). This month’s recipe, which I just tried tonight and highly recommend is South Indian Cabbage with Yogurt adapted by Martha Rose Shulman from Madhur Jaffrey. Mine didn’t look quite as beautiful as Martha Rose’s, but it did get positive comments from a confirmed carnivore, so I consider it a tremendous success. So I might be blogging time to time about my adventures in the kitchen (so just watch out!).

In terms of my writing, I hope to post something to my blog at least once a week for the next year. It could be library-related or a book review or something totally random, but I want to both improve my writing and make a confirmed commitment to this blog. I have increased my output in the past couple of months, so I want to keep building the momentum!

If you look around the book blogosphere (and the KidLitosphere in particular) it seems like there are so many reading challenges for 2011. Read x number of books within a genre; read x number of books about a specific subject; read x number of books by authors who identify with a distinct ethnic, national, or racial identity; read x number of books in total. My reading goal is to equal or exceed the number of books I read last year: 167. I suppose I ultimately would like to read at least 200 titles this upcoming year, but if I don’t make it (but read 167 or more), I’ll be proud of this accomplishment.

When I was in graduate school, I distinctly remember having to turn in a 5-year professional plan in one of my classes. I had to articulate what kind of job I wanted to have within five years and what professional goals I set for myself within that time frame. Do I remember what I put in my 5-year plan? No, not really. I do remember very specifially that I didn’t make a terrific grade on it (it was in the lower A range, which at my graduate school counted for as many points on my grade point average as a B+) because my professor said I hadn’t been specific enough on how I would accomplish my goals. I have set a few goals for myself in the just over three years I have been a professional librarian, many of which I have accomplished: presenting at a professional conference and being active in committee work. The one other goal that has continued to slip me by it to be published. I suppose, in a sense, that my blog is a publication of sorts. You know, just one no one really looks at at this point. So this year I hope to write something to submit for publication. Even if it never gets published, I think it would relieve some of the pressure I feel about getting involved in the professional literature world.

What are your resolutions?

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Bustling Book Shelves by Paull Young

Bustling Book Shelves by Paull Young

In a variety of interactions I’ve had with teens in the library I have heard almost word-for-word the same response that I’m sure many have heard before. When asking teens in a program what they enjoyed about a book they were required to read for school or, in readers’ advisory interviews, when asking what they enjoyed about the last book they picked out on their own, I often hear the exact same answer: “it had a good story.”

There could be any number of underlying meanings behind “it had a good story” and often I have to tease out what exactly this means to the person saying it. The “good story” could be tightly plotted or action oriented; it could be that the story was “good” because themes or characters spoke to the reader; the story could be “good” because it was unpredictable or “good” because the reader could easily follow what was happening; it could be “good” because the book offered the reader something that, at the time of reading it, was exactly what the reader needed or wanted. There could be thousands of reason why any one person would describe their enjoyment of a book as resting in its “good story.” But what it is about a story that seems to capture so many of us?

Vanilla Ice Cream Cone 8-6-09 3 by stevendepolo

Vanilla Ice Cream Cone 8-6-09 3 by stevendepolo

Each month I host a “teens read” club. We don’t read any one particular book together and, although we have a core group of dedicated members, the attendees are constantly changing and represent a diversity of ages and reading abilities. I bring several books that I’ve read recently to booktalk throughout the club, to draw people into joining us, to break the ice a little, and to bring us back whenever we’re getting terribly off track. Although I encourage our members to talk about traditional reading (like books or magazines), I also try to help teens make connections between a variety of texts (including films, television shows, video games, cartoons); ultimately any artistic production that requires “reading” in some sense is fair game. What I have noticed in this program more than any other is that the students talk about and tell stories. One moment they may be describing what they like about a particular book or movie and the basic plot and then they’ll be launching into a story about what happened in math class today, in how they tricked their brother into giving them the last of the ice cream, or about the time they used their older sibling’s passport as ID to get a tattoo. Whether they are sharing someone else’s or their own story or whether they are hearing about a new book or a story from someone’s life, these teens have a really good time and this program is always popular. Again, what is it about a story that captures our imagination and what is it that stories do for us?

Why Don't Students Like School by WillinghamAlthough many might assume that stories are fictional, the example I give above points out that stories are often autobiographical and/or about a true event. That stories can describe events that have happened only in the imagination of the creators as well as detail the factual world is a strength educators can rely upon when introducing new material to students. In his fascinating book Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How The Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom, Daniel T. Willingham argues that because “the human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories… organizing a lesson plan like a story is an effective way to help students comprehend and remember” (pp. 51-52). Willingham reasons that people understand stories because stories typically follow a familiar structure, stories are interesting, and stories are, for many people, easy to remember (p. 53). While some subjects, like history, might seem to lend themselves to storytelling in a way others don’t, the examples Willingham provides come from a variety of disciplines, including statistics! Although every story will certainly not follow the same outline (that story arc diagram has its use, but can be limiting), enough stories have common elements to make many stories structurally familiar, but (hopefully) with an adequate number of gaps and unknowable elements to spark a reader’s interest. People enjoy (and can actually get a little release of pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain) when they solve a problem. If the problem is too difficult to solve (for example, if the story does not follow a structure that one can understand or has too many unknowable elements) or if the problem is too easy (if the story is totally predictable or if every single detail is spelled out), then folks tend to not get that rush of pleasure (Willingham, p. 8). So stories, if they can strike a balance between the familiar and the unknown, can provide a very real pleasure to the reader.

NWhy We Read Fiction by Zunshineot only could the problem-solving skills involved in the reading process produce a sense a pleasure, but Lisa Zunshine describes other cognitive rewards in stories, specifically in the reading of fiction. Zunshine states that:

“The cognitive rewards of reading fiction might thus be aligned with the cognitive rewards of pretend play through a shared capacity to stimulate and develop the imagination. It may mean that our enjoyment of fiction is predicated – at least in part – upon our awareness of our ‘trying on’ mental states potentially available to us but at a given moment differing from our own” (p. 17).

In her book Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel Zunshine develops a very convincing argument (and I am simplifying and any mistakes are my own) that because humans are very social creatures, we have learned to navigate social situations by “mind reading” or imagining what people are thinking based on their actions and words. Reading fiction engages us, in part, because it allows us to play at our “mind reading” abilities in a structured and safe environment (p. 162). And, as quoted above, there is joy to be had in “trying on” the perspective of others, much like Hunger Games by CollinsThe Lightning Thief by Riordanyoung kiddos try on costumes in play. Although Zunshine’s book does not focus specifically on “stories” or the relationship between elements of plot, I would argue that a text that stimulates this type of social “mind reading” allows a reader to connect with characters (as though he or she is “trying on” Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games or Percy Jackson of Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief series) and can make for a very “good story” as our teens might say. The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter series are popular with kids and teens who would never otherwise read speculative fiction and there could be many reasons why these non-fantasy or sci-fi readers enjoyed these books, but both series have amazingly compelling, well-drawn and complex characters. So this stimulation of a common cognitive behavior (“mind reading” or “theory of mind”) may very well be part of what makes for a “good story.”

INaked Reading by Lesesnen addition to pleasure and stimulation of imagination, reading (and receiving support for recreational reading) from a young age can make for lifetime readers (Lesesne, pp. 16-17) and helps prepare students for social and financial success later in life (Sullivan, p. 9). The “trying on” of different mental states, as described above in reference to Zunshine’s work, could also be thought of in term of teens’ emotional development. In her book Naked Reading: Uncovering What Tweens Need to Become Lifelong Readers (totally great title!), Teri S. Lesesne describes:

“that books can play a role in the emotional development of [adolescents]. As readers dive into a variety of books, they see people solving problems, dealing with obstacles, and negotiating difficult situations. Each of these characters in search of solutions for their problems becomes, in essence, a role model for readers” (p. 12)

Now I am absolutely positive that not every book a teen picks up is going to be a title adults will want as a role model. I have my own personal issues with several popular series for girls for I feel many of them model unhealthy and abusive relationships. I have heard several adults verbally annihilate teen fiction titles because the main character didn’t “learn anything” or the main William Burroughscharacter was totally unsympathetic. On the other hand, by the time I was in high school I was reading William S. Burroughs’ books and Robert Graves’ I, Claudius series, neither of which would make for “good” role models, and I turned into a fairly well-adjusted, contributing member of society (i.e., I’m not a drug addict or trying to kill all my relatives to maintain power). Although some might certainly disagree with me, I do not believe that one can or should divide YA fiction or adult fiction that teens read into two categories of “good” role models and “bad” role models or try to encourage teens away from the so-called “bad” role models. Even when reading about “bad” role models, adolescents have the chance to “try on” these identities and determine for themselves what choices they might have made differently or, given the same circumstances, what obstacles could or could not have been avoided.

In addition to readers being able to try on different identities through stories, some might argue that being a reader of stories is a form of identity that is perpetually replayed and reconstituted through each reading activity. An article by David Beard and Kate Vo Thi-Beard, entitled “Rethinking the Book: New Theories for Readers’ Advisory” argues this precisely, stating:

“that reading is also integral to identity. Identity is defined as our sense of place within relationships, social groups, and institutions as well as larger ideological structures. Viewed in this way, reading a book is no mere act of consumption. It is a constitutive act, bound to other acts like writing, conversation, dress, travel, art, labor and other acts that constitute the self. We need to recognize that readers select texts that cultivate their identities: their places in various social institutions and in various ideological formations” (p. 333).

Love Story by JeremyHall

Love Story by JeremyHall

Stories can not only be about the self (retelling an event that has happened to you) but also define the self, as each retelling of theevent establishes the self (this is an event that occurred in my past that I am recreating through language). Stories we read can act in the same way. Beard and Thi-Beard describe books as just one of many tangible and intangible social elements that become integral to definitions and understandings of self. Their examples include fan culture and those who work with teens can see how the large-scale industries (like Twilight and Harry Potter) that include books, movies, clothing, and even role playing (like real-life quidditch teams) become integral to how fans understand and identify themselves (both to themselves and among others). But, based on what Beard and Thi-Beard have written, this type of identity formation around a story (or book, as they frame it) does not just happen with the large-scale, multi-format works (every book need not be the 39 Clues), but ultimately with any text that speaks to the reader and allows for escape, relaxation, and/or the acquisition of knowledge or literacy skills.

So what does this all mean exactly? There could be innumerable reasons why any one person likes any one book and saying a book has a “good story” could mean any number of things to different readers. But stories, whether they be true (like the way Willingham introduces statistical concepts to his students) or fictional, can not only give us a very real sense of pleasure (hello, dopamine!), but also: engage us at a cognitive level by stretching our ability to figure out what other people are thinking by “trying on” other states of mind; can help us acquire new knowledge and prepare us for social and financial well-being; can help us through our emotional development, by allowing us to experiment with different identities; and can be an integral part of our identity formation and understanding of self. Whew! Stories are awesome!

Works Cited

  • Beard, David, and Kate Vo Thi-Beard. “Rethinking the Book: New Theories for Readers’ Advisory.” Reference & User Services Quarterly. 47. 4(2008): 331-335.
  • Lesesne, Teri S. Naked Reading: Uncovering What Tweens Need to Become Lifelong Readers. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2006.
  • Sullivan, Michael. Serving Boys through Readers’ Advisory. Chicago: American Library Association, 2010.
  • Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.
  • Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006.

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serving boys through readers' advisoryI’ve been working my way through Michael Sullivan’s new book Serving Boys through Readers’ Advisory and recommend the title, although the price is a little steep, so checking it out from your local public library rather than buying a copy for yourself might be the best way to go.

You could roughly divide the book into two major sections: readers’ advisory tips and tricks and booklists. The first half of the book is devoted to explaining why one’s approach to readers’ advisory for boys should differ (regardless of age group), how one might go about defining a “guy literature,” conducting a readers’ advisory interview, and some tips on promoting reading, such as through booktalks or print bibliographies. The second “half” of the book consists of booklists, arranged around a theme, genre, or format and includes titles appropriate for elementary, middle, and high school aged guys.

But my goal in talking about Michael Sullivan’s new book was not to create a review of a new professional resource. Instead, because I’ve been thinking a lot and reading quite a bit about readers’ advisory lately, I wanted to enter into a (admittedly pretty one-sided) dialogue with Michael Sullivan’s treatise. First of all, I definitely see a need for resources geared toward getting guys to read. Sullivan presents a well-documented case for the disparities between the reading achievements of the average guy and the average gal. Whether one talks about the gap in reading proficiency being the result of brain development or the approach taken by teachers in literary education, gals are seriously outpacing their male counterparts.

I don’t take issue with Sullivan’s perspective that giving focus to boys’ reading is important and that approaches to helping connect boys to reading requires a different toolkit, as it were. Much of what Sullivan describes is pretty common sense for those who frequently work with teens or those who have done much reading about YA readers’ advisory; Sullivan implores for those working with teens to keep in mind that there are differences between what girls and boys like to read and a variety of tactics should be employed to better serve the diversity of library patrons. Nonfiction, nonlinear reads, graphic novels or comic books, nonbook formats, and even books that aren’t considered award-worthy but offer great, well-paced stories are all important to keep in mind when recommending titles, doing readers’ advisory, and when trying to get the guys into (or back into) reading. Sullivan’s message serves as an excellent reminder to all who work with boys of any age.

What I do have a few problems with, however, are what Sullivan describes as guys’ approach to the world (and by extension what they might very much like to read about) and his very generalized definition of guys’ literature. Sullivan says that:

“boys will tend to be external thinkers, looking outside themselves to see a world that must be explored and experienced. They do not feel connected to the world…their view of the world will tend to be more impersonal…They will therefore read to understand, to categorize, and to explore” (p. 3).

michel foucaultMaybe because I’m a woman I don’t really fully comprehend this and only see potential red flags. First, I think the inside/outside defining of self and environment is pretty dangerous. We are a part of the environment; our “interior” selves are deeply connected to and influenced by exterior circumstances. Approaching the external in an impersonal way seems to, at its very center, deny the ways in which we are all embedded in the “outside” and the ways in which the supposed “outside” inform our “internal” motivations. In addition, treating everything external as separate from self leads to an othering that can be dangerous and is an impulse one might see inherent in racism (that other is different from me), in xenophobia (that other needs to stop penetrating my borders), in anti-environmentalism (this ‘nature’ or these ‘animals’ are something very separate from and ultimately below me), just to name a few. So whether or not I simply do not understand this world view because I am female, I strongly and fundamentally disagree with it. Whether or not boys actually think this way, I feel it is our job as educators and adults interested in the well-being and growth of kiddos to help them all understand the implicit connections between their interior selves and the external world and to assist them in seeing the interdependency of all things (not just interpersonal relationships).

Furthermore, even if you do believe in a very real separation between self and everything else, it should not, by default, imply that you do or do not “read to understand, to categorize, and to explore.” I certainly do not agree with this impersonal world view, but I also read to understand, to categorize and to explore. And although Sullivan somewhat acknowledges this, not all forms of reading will fall within these neat distinctions: I might read Serving Boys through Readers’ Advisory to understand a facet of a subject I’m already interested in; I will read across several sources so that I can more easily sort and compartmentalize objects (is this record worth anything? Should I hold on to this book?); I’m reading a very interesting fiction book at the moment that has me exploring myself and my experiences with the subject at hand. These approaches to information are not uniquely boyish; girls might very easily approach reading in this fashion, depending on the circumstances. Conversely, Sullivan suggests that girls “will tend to believe that the world operates on interpersonal cooperation and communication, and they will read to understand these connections and how to use them” (p. 3). First, is this really that unique to girls? I work with boys every day i'd tell you i love youwho are not only interested in objects that can be used and manipulated, but interested in the lives and works of people (like athletes, musicians, actors). Being interested in the lives of others and how they’ve made their way in the world is very much about making and understanding social connections. Secondly, Sullivan clearly states that because girls focus on interpersonal communications that their reading interests will rest on social connection. There are plenty of girls who read action/adventure, science fiction or fantasy titles that are more plot-driven than focused on character development. Sullivan attempts to stay away from generalizing and repeatedly states that one cannot make assumptions about what readers will or will not like; defining girls and boys this way is a disservice and these two errant paragraphs in which he defines the “Different Worldviews” of girls and boys should have been edited out completely in my mind.

One section that particularly upset me can be found in Chapter 3, “The Readers’ Advisory Interview.” Sullivan describes how:

“If it seems that quality is well and universally defined in literature, consider the places where quality literature for children is found: awards lists and school literature curriculums. Now go back and look at the types of literature that tend to appeal to boys [as Sullivan defines in Chapter 2]. You will find very little overlap” (p. 19)

Again, later on in the same chapter, Sullivan argues that

“We have, over long years, anointed certain types of reading as superior. The fact that these types of reading tend to be the ones that, on average, speak more to girls than to boys probably reflects a lack of understanding about differences in outlook between boys and those who choose the best literature, many of whom are women and almost all of whom happen to be adults” (pp. 19-20).

My feeling in reading these passages is that Sullivan seems to make the assumed lack of respect for “guy literature” a black and white issue of gender identity and discrimination. It is not untrue that award lists (and I’m going to use YA awards as an example because I know them better) are put together by adults who mostly happen to be women. Take a look at this past year’s selections for the Printz Award.

going bovinecharles and emmathe monstrumologistpunkzillatales of the madman underground

The winner was Going Bovine by Libba Bray. I have read this book and can categorically state that there is very little introspection or character development going on along the way (one of the main things reviewers tended to harp on); this book is an adventure, albeit a very confusing, incredibly detailed, and psychedelic one. I absolutely loved it and was happy to see it win the Printz. Also included as Printz honor books are: Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman (nonfiction), The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey (historical fiction that is a challenging read both in terms of language and squeamishly horrific content); Punzilla by Adam Rapp (realistic fiction from the perspective of a drug addict; there is quite a bit of internal dialogue going on in this book); and Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes (also realistic fiction with very difficult language and content). If one goes on the basis of Sullivan’s basic tenets of “guy literature,” many of these books you could recommend to boys: a nonfiction title, an action (or plot) oriented title, boys or men are main characters in all of them, there are three male writers on the list, and most of them have very edgy subjects. Are there boys who come into my library that I would recommend these books to?  There are and I have. What might stop you from recommending these to some boys? It is the exact same thing that might prevent you from recommending these titles to some girls: these books would not typically constitute titles you would suggest to most reluctant readers.

What slightly disturbs me about these passages is that Sullivan is not recognizing that the popular titles appealing to many girls, especially reluctant reading girls or girls just looking for an entertaining, quick read, are also not given honor or included on school curriculum lists. I believe the lack of broad appeal of many books included on award lists or within school curriculum has less to do with the gendered identities of the selectors (although this never goes away and must be acknowledged) and more to do with the fact that these are adults selecting for a very specific purpose: to educate students in how to read and analyze “fine literature” or to honor books of “literary merit.” We could argue ad nauseam about what constitutes excellence in literature or what materials should or should not be used in instruction, but just like you are probably not going to find many quick-paced, mystery, action or sports fiction books on these lists, you are similarly not going to find many girl-centered adventure stories, chick lit or romances. I’ll be the first to admit that publishers definitely seem to have a blind spot when it comes to boy readers (especially older guys, like late middle school and high school-aged guys). But the complaint about the lack of appealing materials being included on required reading lists for schools or on awards lists is much broader than simply saying: reading where the red fern growslists are selected by women who don’t understand or acknowledge the interests of boys. It seems pretty well acknowledged that award books or school required reading lists aren’t serving many readers very well (in terms of capturing their imagination and helping make reading a pleasure), whether they are boys or girls. I work with teens who almost categorically tell me that they house of the scorpionhated their required summer reading. The only few I can remember any of them enjoying are books that are classics of YA literature, like The House of the Scorpion or Where the Red Fern Grows, which were enjoyed equally by boys and girls. Bottom line: I don’t think award books or required reading titles are speaking to girls any more than they are speaking to boys. The real division is not between girls and boys, but between the already avid readers and those who struggle with reading, are reluctant readers or those who identify as nonreaders. And, I hate to say this, but even if books popular with a large variety of kids (I’m thinking here of something like The Hunger Games or The Lightning Thief) were taught in school, many kiddos might be turned off of them completely. The very idea that it is required – or – that someone over the age of 30 recommended it will lose some kids, even if those same kids might have picked it up and enjoyed it on their own.

Finally, I take issue with some of the ways in which Sullivan defines “boys’ literature.” To briefly paraphrase (and Sullivan describes these commonalities “as instructive, not normative” (p.5)), great guys’ literature will often include the following (although no one text could include everything): books featuring a boy as the main character or narrator (p. 7); books written by male authors (p. 7); books that are shorter in length or are easily read in short spurts (p. 2 & 8); reading materials outside the traditional book format, including magazines, newspapers, web-based content, comic books, etc. (p. 6 & 9); books that are plot, rather than character, driven (p. 7); books that demonstrate simpler syntax (pp. 7-8); books that “focus less on description, imagery, metaphor, and other devices that make a book a mystery” (p. 8); books that are edgy in language, tone or subject (p. 9); and books written for an adult audience that fit within the guidelines above (p. 7). Hmm…if you were to remove the first two qualities (books featuring boys, books by male authors) you might assume that these were suggested tips for working with reluctant readers in general.

This tendency in Sullivan’s book is what bothers me the most. This book should not rightfully be called Serving Boys through Readers’ Advisory, but instead Readers’ Advisory for Reluctant Reading Boys…or, with a few adjustments, Readers’ Advisory for Reluctant Readers. What strikes me as incredibly odd, then, is that while trying to champion the cause of boys, Sullivan seems to imply throughout this book that because the average boy is typically reading below his grade level boys should pretty much be treated as though they are reluctant readers. Yes, boys and girls can be very different individually, developmentally, and socially. Yes, boys and girls can have very different interests. Yes, just because someone usually enjoys reading nonfiction or nonbook formats, we should not just assume that they are not strong readers or treat their reading as though it is not “really” reading. Yes, good. Ultimately, though, one cannot assume, before discussing with a kiddo right in front of them, what that child will enjoy, what that child is looking for, or what that child is capable of reading and appreciating.

marcelo in the real worldgym candystaying fat for sarah byrnessunrise over fallujahpaper townsWill every boy want to read John Green or Walter Dean Myers or Chris Crutcher or Carl Deuker or Fancisco X. Stork or any of the other fabulous writers of YA lit whose works could appeal to guys? No. But without keeping a check on some of what Sullivan says, we might almost assume that no boy wants to read books that have introspection or character development at their core. We might start ushering every boy we see in our sections to the nonfiction shelves or to the comic books, when what they really want is a book by Kevin Brooks. I suppose, in closing, that Sullivan’s book did exactly what I’d hoped it would: made me think about how I could better connect teen boys with reading. Was his book what I expected or what I had hoped for? No. But maybe that book is still in the works.

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Bright Young ThingsThe Skinny:

A fun, easy, quick historical fiction read, Bright Young Things is an opening to a new series by Luxe author Anna Godbersen. I would recommend this title to gals who loved Godbersen’s previous series, to readers of fashion-centric or totally catty chick lit, to readers who dabble in the occasional romance, or to a reluctant reader. While totally enjoyable as a surface read, Bright Young Things is by no means the strongest of Anna Godbersen’s works. Outrageously dramatic, sometimes totally unbelievable, and almost incidentally historical, Bright Young Things isn’t high art, but seriously enjoyable for what it offers.

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

Setting: Union, Ohio and New York City, 1929

Godbersen excels in her descriptions of place and time with a lush attention to detail. The physical geography and man-made constructions of early twentieth-century New York act as a backdrop to the action and provide a glimpse for all readers (both those familiar and those unfamiliar with NYC) of the bustling city in its past. Without overwhelming the reader with detail, Godbersen portrays the various locales in which the characters find themselves – from bawdy speakeasies and low-rent basement apartments, to sprawling estates and luxurious hotels. While the focus of Bright Young Things rests firmly on the three main characters, Godbersen includes a few brief glimpses of economic disparities, changing social mores, representations and performances of sexual identity, and contemporary cultural phenomena, which all help situate the story in a very specific time and place.

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Cordelia Gray, Letty “Larkspur” Haubstadt, and Astrid Donal are the main characters and provide the multiple point-of-view narrative. Cordelia Gray, recently married and having run off without her husband, has always dreamed of locating her father and of being part of a true and supportive family. Letty Haubstadt has lived in a severe and strict home after the death of her mother and has fantasized of transforming herself into Letty Larkspur, star of the New York stage. Astrid Donal is a spoiled, rich girl who is easily bored, having been raised by an equally demanding woman who hops from one man to another collecting surnames and wealth. While each of the three characters take prominence and all three demonstrate strength and are women of action, ultimately where each ends up feels rather anti-climactic.

Cordelia appears fundamentally selfish throughout: she leaves her husband to pursue her own dreams; she strikes out on her own, leaving Letty to fend for herself; she continues seeing a boy that her new-found father and half-brother warn her against (which has disastrous consequences); and she reconnects with Letty only after Letty makes the first move and Cordelia has experienced a significant loss and reversal.

Letty perhaps changes the most throughout the story, both physically and emotionally. Letty follows Cordelia from Union, Ohio to New York City with the naïve hope of making it big. When Letty and Cordelia are kicked out of the Washborne Residence for Unmarried Women their first night in NYC, an argument leads them to take separate ways (although, really, Cordelia has a plan and just leaves Letty on the street). Letty, luckily, falls in with some very generous and more experienced girls and ends up living with them and working as a cigarette girl at a speakeasy. Letty has plenty of adventures, meeting aspiring novelists, singing onstage at the speakeasy where she works, and, ultimately, learning a hard lesson that many of the women who “make it” in entertainment are giving away (or forced to give up) a piece of themselves.

Astrid is fabulously annoying. Growing up with her mother constantly remarrying, Astrid has become familiar with change, which perhaps might explain her inability to sit still and her constant need for attention and excitement. Astrid wants her own way and even her extension of kindness to others seems calculated for her own benefit. Her relationship with her boyfriend Charles (the half-brother of Cordelia) is fraught with manipulation and petty arguments. By the end of the novel, it seems like Astrid is doomed to repeat her mother’s mistakes.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice

Perhaps it is unfair to compare Bright Young Things to Godbersen’s Luxe series, but the voice of the narrative is a striking difference between the two. The Luxe series is also primarily focused on three separate young women and voiced by multiple characters, however each chapter is dedicated to the perspective of one character. In a Luxe book the narrator would follow Penelope or Diana or Henry for one chapter and switch to another character for the next. The narrator of Bright Young Things voices multiple characters in a single chapter. In the first few chapters, Cordelia and Letty might switch back and forth within one chapter and Astrid might have her own. As the story progresses, you find Astrid and Cordelia more side-by-side within a chapter and Letty on her own. When Astrid and Letty both end up at the St. Regis hotel, their perspectives are juxtaposed. At first I was somewhat annoyed by this difference, but quickly came to realize that the technique Godbersen deploys in Bright Young Things seems vastly more sophisticated. With a main focus of the novel on the relationships and interactions between the characters, Godbersen rather skillfully weaves their perspectives together as they become emotionally or physically close or distant.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style

Godbersen’s stories are easily and quickly read and engaging. While historical fiction can be a tough sell with many teen readers, the language of Bright Young Things is so accessible and the characters appear almost contemporary; those who do not typically read historical fiction or reluctant readers could find great appeal in Godbersen’s newest novel. Descriptions of 1920s fashions add a touch of glamor and details about period entertainments, like jazz music, phonograph records, stunt pilots, and movie stars, all definitely situate the narrative as historical. Nevertheless, while the language of the novel is immensely accessible it is also thoroughly modern. Very rarely does the dialogue seem dated in any sense and the narrative voice appears as contemporary as its intended readers. The language of Bright Young Things could just as easily be attached to a realistic novel set in the present day, which often makes the period details seem mostly like a surface veneer.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story

There are so many events and sub-plots contained within Bright Young Things that it only seems adequate to describe the story as high melodrama. With a sequel in the works, very little is ultimately resolved by the end of the novel and many of the events leading up to the last few chapters appear rushed. A new character is introduced in the most improbable fashion within the last few pages; Cordelia seems to almost have come full circle without learning much of anything; Letty has three misfortunes in quick succession and goes crawling to the only person she has left in NYC, Cordelia; and Astrid, after seeing her mother come undone, ends up with a man with whom a “happily ever after” ending seems seriously doubtful. In addition, events throughout often feel totally contrived and thoroughly unbelievable. Cordelia is immediately embraced by her long-lost father; Letty has no trouble finding a place to stay and a job, despite knowing absolutely no one in the city; on her very first night in New York City Cordelia not only has an altercation with a man who turns out to be her half-brother, but also has a very special moment with the son of her father’s sworn enemy. With so many cheap tricks, you would think that the story would at least give the reader a similar ending – neatly wrapped in a bow, with a few loose ends for follow-up in later books. While great fun, the story has so many disparate threads that the entire novel feels like exposition.

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes

There are several themes present in Bright Young Things. A central theme is friendship – the relationship between Letty and Cordelia; the relationship between Cordelia and Astrid; the bonds Letty forges with the other cigarette girls and struggling artists on the fringe; the boy who brings back memories to Astrid of a simpler past. Appearance, perception and trust also feature prominently, with the girls figuring out along the way that appearances can be deceiving, that different circumstances require performing different roles or identities, and that extending trust is always a risk that can have both positive and negative consequences. In addition, characters throughout the novel are redefining, searching for and making for themselves a home and family. Cordelia discovers a family and home she has never known; Letty makes for herself a family and home, however precarious, out of the new friends she makes along the way; and Astrid, already with a unique familial and home life situation (what with her mother having been married three times), by the end carves out a family and home of her own choice.

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Books!I’m a teen librarian so I very rarely read books for adults. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy some adult books; when I have a chance I enjoy reading Jewish mysteries and I try to read at least a few books off the Alex Award list each year. But as I was grabbing a copy of Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin off the shelf a few days ago and was becoming all giddy about reading another chapter in the Tales of the City series, I started to wonder if (intentionally or not) confining myself to the books labeled YA is really such a good thing, whether for myself or for the customers I serve.

The way collections are divided in my library, the Young Adult materials are pretty much exclusively confined to recreational reading. There are nonfiction books available (on topics like teen sexuality, drug use, pregnancy, depression, etc.) that are not strictly for fun, but the overwhelming thrust of the YA collections are for fun and enjoyment (which, quite honestly, is totally awesome in its own way). But, unfortunately, the fiction, graphic novel, and manga collections are quite sizeable and the biography and other nonfiction sections are a little small by comparison. Well-reviewed nonfiction titles (even those that some people might consider school-related and I might just want to read for fun) tend to be divided between the children’s and adult nonfiction collections. Because of this practice, when it comes time to do more intensive collection development, I tend to look over new nonfiction titles (for fun or for school or both!) very closely and try to keep in mind common school assignments and frequent recreational nonfiction requests as I select new items for purchase. But I very rarely pay much attention to the adult fiction lists; apart from required reading titles that are most often the classics I do not usually acquaint myself with what is happening in adult fiction. Why?

I can’t really say for certain. I think in part it might be because our young adult collections are so recreationally focused that I have, probably wrongly, devoted most of my time and energy to knowing the YA collections as best I can to help with readers’ advisory, programming and YA collection development. Because of this I have unintentionally done a disservice to our teen patrons by only paying attention to the adult collections (like nonfiction) that supplement what we do not already have in our YA area. Adult fiction not for an assignment is recreational…and we already have the recreational reading sphere covered with YA fiction! But, of course, this is wishful thinking.

We have several high school students who come in to study, to use library computers, and/or who are members of our teen advisory committee. Many of these teens are avid readers (when they have the time), but very few of them look for new titles in the teen section. They are selecting books from the adult fiction or the adult science fiction/fantasy collections. When I have asked some of these older teens what we can purchase to make our teen collection better or what they might like to read, they tend to not have any specific suggestions while making it clear that they do not believe anything they would want to read is going to be in the teen section. I always take this as a personal challenge and try to find something they would enjoy in the teen section almost as if to prove to them, and quite possibly to myself, that there are young adult fiction titles for older teens on our shelves. To be fair some of these older teens seem to be under the impression that the teen section is just an extension of the children’s department with longer books or ones with a few bad words; the young adult collection, in their minds, is a world of Meg Cabot and Ally Carter, Harry Potter and Eragon (because they read these titles when they were younger and the YA collection is where they found them). Anyone with any familiarity of the current state of young adult publishing could wholeheartedly disagree that young adult fiction is only children’s fiction with a veneer of adolescence (as some of these older teens have frequently implied). There are so many wonderful authors who have written very smart, very sophisticated titles that I routinely recommend to older teens. Authors like John Green, Cory Doctorow, Sara Zarr, Aidan Chambers, Matt de la Peña, Patricia McCormick (and the list could go on and on) all have engagingly-written titles under their belts that are as enjoyable for adults as they are for older teenagers.

Will Grayson, Will GraysonFor the WinOnce Was LostPostcards from No Man's LandI Will Save YouPurple HeartBut whether or not there are absolutely amazing young adult fiction titles being released that would appeal to older teens (‘cause there are…no question about it), the last couple of years of high school is a time when our older teens are inhabiting an in-between stage. Whether they’re preparing for college or employment (or both) after high school, these last couple of years is where I tend to lose my regular library group to the ever-increasing demands of school and to destinations that take full advantage of recently acquired drivers’ licenses. And much like the upper-elementary grades being a transition from childhood to adolescence (and all the wondrous changes that accompany this age), older teens are inching more and more towards adulthood and away from adolescence. It makes sense that folks in this age group might want to distance themselves from the teen label and embrace more adult pursuits.

Much as other librarians will rely upon me to help patrons find great books to read in the teen section, I routinely rely on the expertise of my coworkers to help library patrons find adult books. We all have areas we call home and within which we feel comfortable making suggestions. Because of my background, I’m usually the go-to person for not only YA stuff, but also philosophy, art history, and women’s studies. I have one coworker who knows the best mysteries, travel guides and travel narratives, as well as biographies; I have a coworker who almost exclusively reads romance novels and always knows the best new movies; I have a coworker who reads across genres, but knows the best of the best in science fiction; another coworker is a reference maven and has both print and electronic reference sources always at the tips of her fingers. Everyone has a different set of skills, different interests and different backgrounds. We work together and rely on one another in helping provide excellent service.

But I began realizing that when a teen asks for suggestions or is looking for the next great read, I rely on what I know and that, overwhelmingly, tends to be labeled YA. No one person can stay current with every new book in every genre in every age group. But I came to realize that even though I am not a children’s librarian, I will glimpse at reviews for middle grade fiction and nonfiction; I have elementary and middle school kids who read both children’s and YA lit and having knowledge of both is useful. The same should go for adult fiction. If I could help older teens transition to great adult fiction or help pair an excellent YA title with an adult selection, I would be improving myself professionally and providing better service to teen patrons. And it might help with out with some of those adult customers, too. All the better!

Flickr CC: Books! Photo by: pax et agape

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